Saturday, June 11, 2005

Hooke and Besson: Redux

I was wrong. It seems that Besson’s work could not possibly have had any influence on Hooke whatsoever. The similarity in appearance between Boyle/Hooke’s depiction of the air-pump and the plates in Besson’s Theatrum des Instruments is undeniable. However, Hooke’s own copy of Besson entered his collection considerably after the appearance of the air pump.

Hooke was born on July 18 1635 and entered Oxford in 1653. Within five years he was working with Boyle. According to a letter written by Hooke and referenced by Waller in his introduction to the Posthumous works of Robert Hooke (originally published 1705. Reprinted in Gunther, 1921), he helped Boyle realize the air-pump:

“For in 1658, or 9, I contriv’d and perfected the air-pump for Mr. Boyle, having first seen a contrivance for that purpose made for the same honourable person by Mr. Gratorix, which was too gross to perform any great matter.” (Pg. 8-9)

In 1658 Hooke would have been fresh from Oxford and would have had little means to acquire a work such as Besson’s. That said, Oxford currently owns two editions of Besson: the 1582 Italian edition and the 1602 Spanish edition. It is unclear (to me at least) when these editions entered the Oxford collection and whether or not Besson’s work would have been available to Hooke at Oxford or from a private collection.

Hooke’s mechanical prowess likely came from his innate natural ability. Waller, for example, discusses Hooke’s early childhood. With little schooling, Hooke apparently entertained himself with various mechanical devices of his own creation.

As Hooke’s stature and wealth grew he became a devoted collector of books. According to Steven Shapin, Hooke’s library “was probably one of the most important centres of scientific and technical information in England and certainly among the most significant noncorporate collections.” (Shapin, 1991 pg. 564)

Rostenberg makes several observations about Hooke and mechanics in the context of his personal collection:

“Hooke referred to Mechanics as his ‘first and last Mistress.’ [nb. His housekeepers and his niece also fulfilled the role of mistress! (Espinasse, 1962)] His early propensity for anything mechanical led, according to Waller, to his ‘Excellency in such Contrivances, and admirable in the most difficult Phaenomena of Nature.’ The Hooke library contained 53 books in mechanics and technology: texts by Hero of Alexandria, Galileo, La Hire; De Meachnica of his fellow academician John Wallis; the Technometrica of William Ames; An Account of New Inventions and Improvements by Thomas Hall; a Spanish edition of Besson, Teatro de los Intrumentos bought in Moorfields [sic]; Boeckler, Theatrum Machinarum for which he paid 35sh. Other texts included Neri, Art of Glass, and Schott, Technica Curiosa, which he eventually purchased from Martyn: ‘18sh. Not paid.’” (Pg. 129)

The catalogue of Hooke’s library published on the occasion of its liquidation after Hooke’s death places these books side by side. Agricola’s de re metallica is listed as number 285 in the “Libri Latini &c. in Folio.” Besson is listed as 286 (despite its Spanish origin). Two editions of Palladio are listed as 288 and 289 while Bockler’s Theatrum machinarum is listed as 299. Other nearby works include Lionardo di Vinci dell Pittura, con Fig. at 297 and Vitruvius’s ten books of architecture at 294.

It’s unclear whether or not Hooke actually shelved these works together or if they were grouped for the auction. Hooke appears to have been quite concerned with the arrangement of his library. As noted by Rostenberg, his diaries frequently mention the purchase of additional “cases” for his books and reorganization attempts. The Bibliotheca Hookeana also indicates that he owned Naudé’s Instructions for the Erecting of a Library, John Durie’s The Reformed Library Keeper, Labbé’s Bibliotheca Bibliothecarum, Lomeier’s De Bibliothecis, and Gallois’s Traité des plus belles bibliotheques de l’Europe.

Rostenburg maintains that Hooke obtained his copy of Besson in the warren of stalls in Moorfields. I disagree. It seems that Hooke relied on Pitts for his technical books. On Wednesday August 20 1673, Hooke made a diary entry: “Bought of Pitts, Besson for 7s., Saverus for 3s., paid for these the 25th following.” (Hooke, Robinson, & Adams, 1935 pg. 56) A year later (August 13) Hooke also acquired his copy of Bockler from Pitts: “paid Pitts his man for Machina Boclerus. 35s, Billio Diophantus 5s., 3 pieces of Snellius 6s., Hugenius de Magnitudine Circuli 1s., in all 47 sh.” (Pg. 117) Hooke also acquired his copy of de re metallica from Pitts on January 2 1673: “Bought of Pitt, George Agricola de re metallica.” The edition may not have been complete for on March 29 of 1673 Hooke notes: “At John Baptists and Remus bought 2nd part of Agricola in Bedlam for 2s. 6d.” (Pg. 36)

Hooke did, however, investigate a different Besson from Moorfields. On Tuesday October 8 of 1689 after meeting with a friend he notes: “in MF O. saw Petit and Besson.” (Gunther, 1921, vol. x pg. 152) On a trip to Moorfields several days later, Hooke “saw Petit de Vacua, Besson of Waterfinding, French Gardener.” (Pg. 154) The Besson in question is De absoluta ratione extrahendi olea et aquas e medicamentis simplicibus, first published by Andreas Gesner at Zurich in 1559 and featuring an introduction by the polymath Conrad Gesner. Hooke may have seen the book but he makes no mention of having made a purchase and the work doesn’t appear in the Bibliotheca Hookeana.

This brief foray into the book habits of Robert Hooke may seem like a bit of a diversion. Information on Hooke’s collection, and the existence of his diaries give us some insight into one particular reader of the theatrum machinarum, even if he lived in a country different from that of their initial publication. The importance of the reader or user of technical documents should not be underestimated. Indeed, readers are an important element of Darnton’s cycle of book production (1983).

The relationship of Hooke and Besson is important for another reason related to the overall importance of book historiography. As noted by Shapin:

“The history of books and libraries can exert a constructive discipline on the history of ideas. It reminds us that ideas come embedded in material forms whose accumulation and circulation crucially depend upon the economics and movability of those forms.” (Shapin, 1991 pg. 564)

As I conclude this entry my thoughts now turn to that other character mentioned by Hooke. Who exactly was Moses Pitt, publisher and bookseller, and what was his role in the creation and propagation of technical literature?


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.

Espinasse, M. (1962). Robert Hooke. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Gunther, R. T. (1921). Early science in Oxford. Oxford: Printed for the subscribers at the University Press.

Hooke, R., Robinson, H. W., & Adams, W. (1935). The diary of Robert Hooke, M.A., M.D., F.R.S., 1672-1680, transcribed from the original in the possession of the Corporation of the city of London (Guildhall library). London: Taylor & Francis.

Shapin, S. (1991). [Book Review] The library of Robert Hooke. Isis, 82(3), 564-565.


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