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The 17th Century English Scientific Revolution

What follows is an online version of an exhibition that was on display in the Upper Library from September 2016 to June 2017. The exhibition was curated by Amanda Saville.
All images are copyright The Queen’s College and may not be reproduced without permission.

Introduction to the exhibition

After the seismic conflict and turmoil of the English Civil War and the Cromwellian Protectorate, the last forty years of the seventeenth century were revolutionary in another way, witnessing significant advances in all fields of science from physics and chemistry to medical and life sciences. The relative political calm and optimism of post- restoration England allowed scientific endeavour to flourish.

The Royal Society was founded in 1660 and scientific publishing grew.  As in the rest of Europe, long held scientific precepts were challenged by natural philosophers working experimentally in London and the university cities. Many English publications from the second half of the seventeenth century are still to this day regarded as some of the most seminal scientific texts of all time.

The Queen’s College Library is extremely fortunate to own some of the most important of these publications. The current exhibition showcases selected highlights from our collection and also includes earlier texts which indicate research endeavour at the beginning of the century.  Importantly, these provide evidence that students in Oxford were continuing their scientific studies despite the Civil War raging around them.

The cases are roughly divided into mathematics and physical sciences on the left and medicine and biological sciences on the right, although many of the distinctions are blurred.

A number of the books on display have strong Oxford connections. Many of our holdings have interesting provenances, which, when they are known, are described at the bottom of each caption.

Artis analyticae praxis

Thomas Hariot, 1560-1621
Artis analyticae praxis, 1631

The use of mathematical symbols started to become commonplace in the late sixteenth century. Once the idea of writing mathematics symbolically began to be established the practice rapidly gathered pace. New symbols were invented by a number of English writers in the early seventeenth century. One of the most prolific and imaginative was Thomas Hariot. Two of his inventions were two new signs for inequality, ‘greater than’ and ‘less than’ written with two short cross strokes written originally in different sizes and orientations. The constraints of printing, however, enforced linearity and uniformity. In Hariot’s posthumous Artis analyticae praxis (1631) displayed here we see the more or less modern forms of the inequality signs as they appeared in print for the first time. The same page shows other notation used and popularized by Harriot, in particular the use of lower case letters, and the convention of writing ab for a times b.

(Quoted from article by J.Stedall, The Queen’s College Insight, 2011)

We believe this copy of Praxis was purchased for the Library in the seventeenth century. Like NN.a.1/1 displayed nearby it bears the marks of a chain staple on the front board and was probably stored in the Upper Library soon after its construction in the 1690s.


Atlas coelestis

John Seller, 1630-1697
Atlas coelestis: containing the systems and theoryes of the planets the constellations of the starrs. And other phenomina's of the heavens with nessesary tables relateing thereto, 1677

John Seller is one of the most important figures in the early history of cartography trade in England.

He published a celestial atlas, two terrestrial atlases, a sea-atlas, several coasting pilots, as well as a large number of separately-issued charts. In addition, he also published number of navigation handbooks, almanacs, pocket books, miniature sea-atlases, and made a variety of mathematical and navigational instruments and tools. 

This miniature celestial atlas is open at the page showing “a Mapp of the two Hemispheres of ye Heavens”. It is interesting to compare Seller’s celestial map with the celestial globe by John Senex which is on display at the southern end of the Upper Library.

The book has three earlier shelf marks and appears to have been purchased for the Library.


Pythagoras’ Metempsychosis

Pythagoras’ Metempsychosis or Lent Theses in the Oxford Public Schools for the year 1649-50

This tiny duodecimo size volume contains the texts of a number of “Lent Theses” defended in the Oxford Public Schools (now the Old Schools Quadrangle of the Bodleian) in March 1650. All of the theses expound various Pythagorean astronomical assertions such as “the heavens are fluid, the moon is habitable and the sun is a flame.”

It is interesting that Pythagorean science was still being taught in Oxford in the 1650s while, at a similar time in another part of the University, natural philosophers such as Boyle and Hooke were meeting to establish the Royal Society, which moved our understanding of the natural world on from its Greek roots to the beginnings of modern experimental science.

It is not clear how this book came to the Library but it bears the names of two previous eighteenth century owners, William Whitton and Thomas Jones.


Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica

Isaac Newton, 1642-1727
Philosophiæ naturalis principia  mathematica, 1687

Sir Isaac Newton’s work, Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (mathematical principles of natural philosophy), is a cornerstone of scientific thought. This is one of the world’s most influential books and the crowning achievement of seventeenth century natural philosophy.

The Principia states Newton’s laws of motion which form the foundation of classical mechanics, his law of universal gravitation and a derivation of Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. The Principia is justly regarded as a world changing book. During the scientific revolution it was one of the most important works in both physics and applied mathematics, a book that transformed society and its views of nature.

This first edition of Newton’s Principia was given to the Taberdars’ Library (the students’ library in Queen’s) by Provost Timothy Halton soon after its publication. It is interesting that this is the only copy in Queen’s. No surviving copy exists from the Fellows’ collection in the Upper Library.


The sceptical chymist

Robert Boyle, 1627-1691
The sceptical chymist: or chymico-physical doubts & paradoxes, 1680

Boyle’s Sceptical Chymist was first published in London in 1661. This edition was published in Oxford in 1680.

Boyle, one of the founders of the Royal Society, is largely regarded today as the first modern chemist, and one of the pioneers of the modern experimental scientific method.

In the form of a dialogue, The Sceptical Chymist presents Boyle’s hypothesis that matter consists of atoms and clusters of atoms in motion and that every phenomenon is the result of collisions of particles in motion. For him chemistry was the science of the composition of substances, not merely an adjunct to the arts of the alchemist or the physician.

The book was given to the Library by Theophilus Metcalfe (1690-1757) in the mid-1740s. The Metcalfe collection comprises over one thousand volumes and consists mainly of medical works but also includes chemical and alchemical books such as the one on display.


Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society

Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society
Volume 1, 1665-66

The beginnings of the Royal Society can be traced to around 1645 when a group of scientists, among them Robert Boyle, John Wallis and Christopher Wren began to hold regular meetings in both London and Oxford. The common theme among these scientists was the acquisition of knowledge through experimental investigation. The period of political and economic uncertainty at the end of the Civil War and during the Protectorate delayed the formal foundation of the Society, the official inaugural meeting of which took place on Wednesday 28 November 1660, after the restoration of Charles II.

Philosophical Transactions is the first professional scientific journal in the world. Queen’s subscribed to Philosophical Transactions from this first published volume in 1665 until the subscription was stopped in 1999.

Like the Hariot displayed above there is evidence of a chain staple on the front board and the book was therefore kept in the Upper Library, which was a chained library for the first hundred years of its life.  

NN a 1/1

The anatomical exercises of Dr. William Harvey

William Harvey, 1578-1657
The anatomical exercises of Dr. William Harvey, professor of physick, and physician to King Charles the First: concerning the motion of the heart and blood, 1673

William Harvey, physician to Charles I, was the first to accurately describe how the blood circulates through the human body.

His completed treatise on the circulation of the blood, De Motu Cordis was originally published in in Latin in the German city of Frankfurt in 1628. Harvey, with a keen commercial eye, wanted the book to be published in Frankfurt to allow access to annual book fair (still in existence to this day) and from there straight into the Continental market. It is a landmark in the history of physiology. Just as important as its substance was its method. Harvey combined observations, experiments, measurements and hypotheses in extraordinary fashion to arrive at his doctrine.

This is an English translation published posthumously in 1673. It has three earlier Queen’s shelf marks and once belonged to Arthur Fleetwood, who may have given it to the Library in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century.


Musaeum Tradescantianum

John Tradescant the elder, 1570s- 1638 and John Tradescant the younger, 1608 - 1662
Musaeum Tradescantianum: or A collection of rarities : Preserved at South-Lambeth neer London, 1656

John Tradescant the elder, father of John Tradescant the younger, was an English naturalist, gardener, collector and traveler. He assembled a collection of curiosities of natural history and ethnography which he housed in a large house, The Ark, in Lambeth. The Ark was the prototypical Cabinet of Curiosity and became the first museum open to the public in England, the Musaeum Tradescantianum.

John Tradescant the younger followed in his father’s footsteps as a traveler and collector and published a catalogue of the contents of his father's celebrated collection as this book, Musaeum Tradescantianum in 1656.

On the death of the younger Tradescant in 1662 the collection was moved to Oxford by Elias Ashmole to form the core of his new museum. To this day confusion surrounds the transfer of the collection to Ashmole. He claimed that Tradescant bequeathed him the objects but two later wills were found and eventually Ashmole had to go to the Court of Chancery to claim his inheritance. Despite these difficulties the Tradescant collection did come to Oxford and remains largely intact in the Ashmolean Museum.

Displayed alongside the title page of the 1656 catalogue is a duplicate (not shown here) which includes some extra prefatory material including this copy of the engraving of John Tradescant the elder by Wenceslas Holler.



A further discovery of bees

Moses Rusden
A further discovery of bees. Treating of the nature, government, generation & preservation of the bee: With the experiments and improvements arising from the keeping them in transparent boxes, instead of straw-hives, 1679

Moses Rusden dates unknown, but publishing between 1679 and 1685, uses the seventeenth century interest in experimental science and the long established practical subject of bee keeping to make comparisons between a hive of bees and the restored monarchy in England. A staunch royalist, Rusden dedicated his work to the King, and throughout, he cites the natural monarchy of bees as proof that nature approves of human monarchies.

Unlike most of the other books displayed in this exhibition Rusden is not expounding scientific discoveries for the sake of learning and scholarship alone but also to prove a political point. Contradicting previous works on the subject, Rusden insists that the head bee, like the English monarch is male. These assertions are given credence by the explicit reference to the approval of The Royal Society on the title page.


Willis concerning the Plague

Thomas Willis, 1621-1675
A plain and easie method for preserving by God's blessing those that are well from the infection of the plague, or any contagious distemper in city, camp, fleet, &c. and for curing such as are infected with it, 1691

Thomas Willis, Anglican divine, practicing physician and experimental scientist played an important part in the history of anatomy, neurology and psychiatry. He pioneered research into the anatomy of the brain, nervous system and muscles.

From 1660 until his death, he was Sedleian Professor of Natural Philosophy at Oxford, a post now associated with Queen’s. Like Boyle and Hooke, examples of whose works are also on display in this exhibition; Wallis was a founder member of the Royal Society, of which he became a Fellow in 1661. This book was written in 1666 a year after the outbreak of the Great Plague of London but was published posthumously in 1691 by J. Hemming.

The book was left to the Library in 1734 as part of a collection of 150 medical volumes belonging to Lichfield physician and Queensman, Sir John Floyer, (1649-1734). In keeping with most of the Floyer collection this book includes copious comments, notes and prescriptions in Floyer’s hand, as well as marginal annotations. A photograph of some of these notes is displayed below.



Robert Hooke, 1635-1703
Micrographia: or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses: With observations and inquiries thereupon, 1665

Robert Hooke was an English natural philosopher, experimenter and polymath. Much of Hooke's scientific work was conducted in his capacity as curator of experiments of the Royal Society, a post he held from 1662, or as part of the household of Robert Boyle (see adjacent case) and latterly as lecturer in geometry at Gresham College, where he became in effect the first professional research scientist in England. Hooke is most famous as a pioneer in microscopy. He coined the term “cell” for describing biological organisms.

Hooke’s Micrographia, together with Newton’s Principia also displayed in the adjacent case, is one of the most famous books of the seventeenth century English scientific revolution. It was published in 1665 and went on to inspire the use of microscopes for scientific exploration. Hooke drew in great detail what he saw under the microscope, from which engravings such as this were produced. 

The book is open at Hooke’s iconic image of the flea.

Like the copy of Boyle’s Sceptical Chymist the book was given to the Library by Theophilus Metcalfe (1690-1757) in the mid 1740s.