Friday, May 27, 2005

Hooke, Boyle, and Besson: The history of the airpump

I just stumbled across an interesting little diversion. As an engineer, I've always taken umbrage with the disciplinary title of "applied science." Personally, I believe that engineering is a very different epistemic animal from science and certainly more than just the application of scientific principles to the problems of the material world. Unlike scientists, engineers don't care about the question: "Is it true?"; A far more practical question is "does it work?"

This argument is hardly a new one. Authors such as Petroski and Ferguson have stood on the barricades for a number of years. Other engineers such as Vincenti have made notable efforts but have stumbled due to the all-consuming discourse of science.

My discovery is a small one but it's rooted in a fairly important historical event. In 1659 Robert Boyle introduced the world (or at least the Royal Society) to his "machina Boyleana" aka "The Air-Pump." As noted by Shapin and Schaffer, the air pump was the "big science" of its day. Boyle's demonstrations of the phenomena revealed by the air pump resulted in much of the literary and documentary practice evident in modern science.

Boyle was an Irish aristocrat. The importance of nobility for making validity claims in the early days of science cannot be overstated. While Boyle made have had the inspiration for creating the air pump, the assistant who actually created the mechanical marvel was Robert Hooke. The stories of the air pump depict Boyle as the visionary alchemical genius ably assisted by the Igor-like--but mechanically brilliant--Hooke. Sui generis, they created the air pump.

The truth is something different. I'm particularly interested in Hooke's contribution. Of particular interest to me is how Hooke managed to create such an advanced mechanical contraption. From a scientific perspective, the air pump may have been one of a kind but the mechanical components of the device were certainly part of the documentary record. Indeed, reviewing the catalog compiled for the liquidation of Hooke's library following his death (Bibliotheca Hookiana), it's apparent that Hooke owned a number of the theatrum machinarum such as the works of Besson, Zonca, and Agricola. Oddly, these works are listed together in the catalog indicating that Hooke may have shelved them together.

Given the presence of these works in Hooke's collection, is seems that he would certainly have consulted them before creating the air-pump. If this is the case, science may owe more to technology than technology to science. Indeed, perhaps science should bear the title of "applied technology." The concept seems odd to modern ears, but so it goes after 300-years of scientific discourse.

Luckily for us, Hooke was obsessive about maintaining his diary. As a biliophile he noted when and where he purchased his works. His diaries have since been published in a number of sources, all held by my local university library. Now comes the hard work of digging out Hooke's own words!

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