Sunday, March 13, 2005

Hagiography: Jacques Besson

We start our journey through the theatrum machinarum with Jacques Besson. He is credited with a number of different inventions—although his claim on the horizontal water wheel has fallen to the great Sienese engineer and architect Francesco di Georgio di Martini (Reti, 1963). Besson held a number of different roles throughout his career: engineer, chemist, teacher, and pastor:

“Presumably Besson always wanted to be a mechanical inventor, as indeed he makes clear in the envoi of his first book in 1559, and as is shown by the form of his appearance at Lausanne and then at Geneva, with his models. His background was really that of a mathematics teacher, the profession, one might say, of his second choice; pharmaceutical distillations were a third string to his bow—something to fall back on perhaps.” (Keller, 1973 pg. 38)

Timeline of Jacques Besson (drawn from Keller, 1973)

  • Jacques Besson leaves his home Briançon in the Dauphiné probably for religious reasons (Davis, 1966)
  • Early 1550s. Besson, a student of Pierre de Montdoré, is teaching mathematics in Paris.

  • 1557 (April 13). Minutes from the meeting of the town council at Lausanne indicate a payment to Besson for the delivery of models of pumps and fountains.

  • 1559. Printing of his first book, De absoluta ratione extrahendi olea et aquas e medicamentis simplicibus (“On the complete doctrine of extracting oils and waters from simple drugs”) by Andreas Gesner at Zurich. Gesner’s father, the polymath Conrad Gesner wrote the introduction. It’s ironic that Besson—the first author of a mechanical engineering manual—would have come into contact with Conrad Gesner, the man often credited with publishing the first reference to the modern pencil, an instrument of vital importance for the production of mechanical engineering (Petroski, 1990).

  • 1559 (May 15). Besson appears in Geneva and is registered in the Livre de Habitants.

  • 1561 (March 7). Besson makes a successful request to be received as a citizen of Geneva. His entry in the Livre de Bourgeois notes that citizenship was provided due to his services “in teaching the art and science of mathematics.” He describes himself as “of Colombières, near Briançon”. Keller describes the town as “high up in the Alps on the south-eastern border of France.” (1965 pg. 7)

  • 1561 (Summer). He falls ill and requests a monetary grant from the city council.

  • 1562 (January 4). The Protestant community of Villeneuve-de-Berg decides they need a preacher. Olivier de Serres—who was to become the author of the agricultural treatise Théatre d’agriculture—files a request with the Company of Pastors for a minister. The Company suggests one “Jaques Beton” who quickly accepts the destinction. As noted by Keller, it was a time of great growth and exuberance for the Protestant faith and similar requests were made from all parts of France: “In view of Besson’s previous—and later—career, it is hard to believe that his new vocation was adopted after much cool thinking.” (pg. 32)

  • 1562 (March 5). After receiving permission to leave to spread the word of God, Besson leaves Geneva for the last time, arriving in Villeneuve on March 15. Within two years, Besson’s ministry has failed and a rival pushes him out.

  • 1563. Besson is at Rouen (Keller, 1965).

  • 1564 (Autumn). Besson writes to the secretary of the Company of Pastors from Lyon where he is “distilling oil and waters to help the sick.” The letter is part apology and part justification for abandoning his post in Villeneuve (de Serres had been jailed for similar conduct). Keller notes: “the Calvinist Reformation in these, the intensest years of its campaign for the soul of France, required much more committed motivation, much more passionate and skilful oratory, than Besson was able to muster in the cause.” (pg. 36)

  • 1565. Besson is back in Paris.

  • 1567. His second published work, Le Cosmolabe, is published in Paris. Besson is described as a professor of mathematics in the town of Orléans. Keller (1965) notes that this work—dedicated to Queen Catherine de Midici—was rushed to print after it had been pirated. The importance of instruments to the early engineers cannot be underestimated. At the time, engineering represented a profession without a guild, scholarship without the trappings of academia, and an art without artistry. Instruments represented an important area of convergence for engineers, architects, and mathematicians by affording “measured design”. Henninger-Voss (2004) notes: “Measured design was the bond between the experience of the engineer and his pretensions to science. It was also the chain of good faith that bound the lieutenants, commanders, junior and senior engineers, and the counsels of government. It was the means by which decisions that could affect the lives of hundreds of men, or thousands of people, could be made at a distance of hundreds of miles. It is not coincidence that military engineers tried to impress on their patrons the epistemological foundation of their practice—not merely for rhetorical effect, but often in conscientious earnestness.” (pg. 155) This argument seems ripe for a Latourian analysis.

  • 1569. In Orléans, Besson wins the favour of the lieutenant of the duchy of François de Balsac and eventually Charles IX and the queen mother, Catherine de Medici. “And it was at Orléans, during a royal visit there in the summer of 1569 that Besson at last presented to his monarch a draft of his magnum opus, the first book to tell the world of the wonderful new possibilities of mechanical invention, so long confined to the privacy of sketchbooks and personal manuscripts.” (pg. 39) That work was Besson’s Théâtre des instrumens. It should be noted that Orléans at that time was the center of a furious conflict between Catholic and Protestant factions. His life's work, although dedicated to a Catholic king, was largely the result of interactions with protestants such as his former teacher, his printer Eloy Gibert, and the engraver Androuet du Cerceau (Keller, 1965). The book itself was produced quite quickly for “there is not proper description of the machines, only a Latin caption above each one and a French list of contents at the beginning; even the name of the printer is omitted.” (Keller, 1965 pg. 7)

  • 1573. Besson dies as an unknown in England (Battison, 1966). Although he held the French king’s favour—styled the “master of King Charles IX engines”—he may have fled to England for fear of anti-Protestant sentiment in the wake of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. A more logical haven would have been Geneva but he may have suspected reprisals in that city. He had already forsaken Genevan citizenship and had been a member of the French court, certainly not the action of a devout Protestant.

  • 1578. An enlarged and all-French version of the Theatre edited by Baroald appears. The work went through seven editions—the surviving copies of which (according to Battison) are well worn with use—and subsequent translations into Italian, German, and Spanish. Battison notes that the Italian edition appeared in 1659, the same year that Galileo discovered the isochronism of a pendulum. While Baroald’s discussion of Besson’s work mentions the pendulum, the Italian translation was based on the original Latin edition so lacked Baroald’s comments. It remains unclear whether or not Besson's work had an influence on Galileo.

  • 1683. The model collection of the French Academy of Science opens featuring models of many of the designs of Besson (and a number of other authors such as Ramelli, Böckler, etc.). Many of the designs were authored by the mysterious “MLCDO”, likely the organizer of the collection Jean-Baptiste Picot (Endrei, 1968)

  • 1896. Henry T. Brown publishes his collection of Five hundred and seven mechanical movements, representing a variety of mechanical devices sequestered into their own little boxes. Ferguson (1983) notes that many of the devices can be found in the work of Besson although the format of Brown’s work required the stylistic interventions of Leupold—who broke out individual components—and particularly the Ecole polytechnique who placed components in boxes starting around 1800; I sense the hand of Lavoisier and Gaspard Monge even here. [ed. It seems that the Ecole Polytechnique seems to come up a lot…]

Besson made a strong contribution to the world of engineering and technical representation. His work stands as a testament to not only the state of knowledge that existed in the world at the time—indeed his work is frequently referenced by the likes of Lynn White Jr. (1962) and Vitold Rybczynski (2000)—but also what was possible. While representations of thought experiments had existed at least since the work of Taccola (McGee, 2004), Besson’s work carries with it the potential for realization. Unlike Taccola’s sometimes-fantastical creations, Besson’s work seems both feasible and is rendered with sufficient detail to facilitate the actual realization of the works (unlike the earlier technical representation of Villard de Honnecourt or Keyser that depended upon the tacit skills of workmen). While Keller notes that the machines depicted by Besson and the other authors of the theatrum machinarum may have been feasible in theory, they were ignorant of a number of factors:

“Labor-saving devices were conceived of by them [the authors] in purely geometrical terms; the dynamics of their machines hardly seem to enter into their calculations. Nor do they really study how men work.” (pg. 38 n.23)

It amazes me how much this statement seems to resonate with Pai’s (2002) on architectural representation. According to Pai, the Beaux Arts tradition left little room for the individual. Instead, architecture was based on the grand designs of traditional art and antiquity. It was only with modernity and the work of Taylor and the Gilbreth’s that the human became an important general input into design theory.

The story of Besson is an interesting one. We have an ambitious man driven by both religious zeal and a desire for recognition by the court, perhaps out of a need or desire to stabilize his creations. We can only imagine that Besson, like a father to his many unrealized creations, wanted what was best for them. This vision of the engineer as the shepherd of a flock of inventions certainly resonates with Basalla’s view of the theatrum machinarum:

“Economic necessity certainly was not the motivating force behind the plethora of technological novelties. They were the products of a fertile imagination that took delight in itself and it its ability to operate within the constraints of the possible, if not the useful. Some of the novel mechanisms pictured in the machine books were later incorporated into practical devices; others stand unused as proof of the fertility of the contriving mind.” (Basalla, 1988 pg. 69)

We’re still not getting toward the “interpretive communities” of SCOT or the conditions within the stages of the publishing cycle prescribed by Darnton (1983) (“All stages were affected by the social, economic, political, and intellectual conditions of the time...” pg. 13), but I think we’re getting closer. Perhaps as we move on to the story of Ramelli, a militant French Catholic quite keen on besieging errant Protestants, some of these issues may become apparent.


Basalla, G. (1988). The evolution of technology. Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Battison, E. A. (1966). Stone-cutting and polishing lathe, by Jacques Besson. Technology and Culture, 7(2), 202-205.

Darnton, R. (1983). What is the history of the book? In Books and society in history, Papers of the Association of College and Research Libraries Rare Book and Manuscripts Preconference, 24-28 June, 1980, Boston, Mass.

Davis, N. Z. (1966). The Protestantism of Jacques Besson. Technology and Culture, 7(4), 513.

Endrei, W. G. (1968). The first technical exhibition. Technology and Culture, 9(2), 181-183.

Ferguson, E. S. (1983). Five hundred and seven mechanical movements. Technology and Culture, 24(4), 719-720.

Henninger-Voss, M. (2004). Measures of success: Military engineering and the architectonic understanding of design. In W. Lefèvre (Ed.), Picturing machines 1400-1700 (pp. 143-172). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Keller, A. (1965). A theatre of machines. New York,: Macmillan.

Keller, A. (1973). The missing years of Jacques Besson, inventor of machines, teacher of mathematics, distiller of oils, and Huguenot pastor. Technology and Culture, 14(1), 29-39.

McGee, D. (2004). The origins of early modern machine design. In W. Lefèvre (Ed.), Picturing machines 1400-1700 (pp. 53-84). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Pai, H. (2002). The portfolio and the diagram : architecture, discourse, and modernity in America. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Petroski, H. (1990). The pencil : a history of design and circumstance (1st ed.). New York: Knopf : Distributed by Random House.

Reti, L. (1963). Franceso di Giorgio Martini's treatise on engineering and its plagiarists. Technology and Culture, 4(3), 287-298.

Rybczynski, W. (2000). One good turn : a natural history of the screwdriver and the screw. New York: Scribner.

White, L. T. (1962). Medieval technology and social change. Oxford,: Clarendon Press.


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