Tuesday, September 06, 2005

<>The successes of Jacques Besson’s other works

Jacques Besson had some other talents in addition to being an engineer. It seems that each of his works mark some sort of technical innovation.

Besson’s first printed work was De absoluta ratione extrahendi olea et aquas e medicamentis simplicibus, published in 1559. Butler notes that Besson was the first person to link essential oils with medicine and healing in print (Butler & Poucher, 2000 pg. 84). Di Giacomo provides more insight into this work by noting that Besson was only the second person to describe processes of distillation from oranges and lemons (Di Giacomo, 2002 pg. 63). Notably, the first was Conrad Gesner, who also penned the introduction for Besson. The wood cuts and descriptions of the work represent one of the first descriptions anywhere of particular distillation apparatus. Forbes notes that Besson describes “the proper form and size of the furnaces, the different types of stills and still-heads... He mentions a cooler of the tube-type made of copper and soldered to the spout of the alembic.” (Forbes, [1948] 1971 pg. 148)

His second published work, Le Cosmolabe (1567), introduces two unique contributions. The first is the documented existence of the screw. According to Mercer, Le Cosmolabe “shows screws with gimlet points and thumb grips and a button headed set screw.” (Mercer, [1929] 2000 pg. 310). Melchior-Bonnet attributes a more significant sense of perspective and representation to the work. Besson “demonstrates, following numerous treatises on optics published earlier in the sixteenth century, how relationships between objects could be made deceptive by the diversity of points of view and positions that mirrors made possible. Without a fixed, unique, and objective reference point, that embraces the totality of perspectives, the spectator could never verify the preciseness or accuracy of his point of view.” (Melchior-Bonnet, 2001 pg. 129).

Perhaps the oddest first (for an engineer and mathematician) comes from Besson’s third published work: L'art et science de trouver les eaux et fontaines cachées soubs terre, autrement que par les moyens vulgaires des agriculteurs & architectes (1569). In it, Besson describes little eels or “petites anguilles.” Dâiaz and Lomax maintain that Besson made the first recorded description of hypogean fish (Romero, 2001; Romero & Lomax, 2000). Perhaps this description is what led Robert Hooke to browse the work on October 8 of 1689 in Moorfields.


Butler, H., & Poucher, W. A. (2000). Poucher's perfumes, cosmetics, and soaps (10th ed.). Dordrecht ; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Di Giacomo, A. (2002). Development of the citrus industry: historical note. In G. Dugo & A. Di Giacomo (Eds.), Citrus: The Genus Citrus (pp. 63-70). New York: Taylor & Francis.

Forbes, R. J. ([1948] 1971). A short history of the art of distillation; from the beginnings up to the death of Cellier Blumenthal ([2d rev. ed.). Leiden,: Brill.

Melchior-Bonnet, S. (2001). The mirror : a history. New York: Routledge.

Mercer, H. C. ([1929] 2000). Ancient carpenters' tools : illustrated and explained, together with the implements of the lumberman, joiner, and cabinet-maker in use in the eighteenth century (Dover ed.). Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications.

Romero, A. (2001). The biology of hypogean fishes. Dordrecht ; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Romero, A., & Lomax, Z. (2000). Jacques Besson, cave eels and other alleged Eurpean fishes. Journal of Spelean History, 34(2), 72-77.


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