Saturday, September 10, 2005

Finding Besson in English

The traces of Besson or Ramelli within early English literature are faint.

John Evelyn (1620-1706) briefly mentions Ramelli in his "Numismata, a discourse of medals, ancient and modern" (1697). Is his list of "Renowned Architects and Sculptors" he notes the greats: "M.Angelo, Primaticius, Pantormo, Iohn de Bollogne, Francis Flemingo", Bernini, "Vignole, Scammozzi, Alberti, Del'Orme, Serli, not forgetting Iohn de Vdine, Inventor, or Restorer of the Art of Stucco." To this list he adds "Other skillful Achitects and Mechanicks, Bellou, Ramelli, Caus, Zonca, &c. whose Books are commonly adorned with their Effigies" (pg. 147)

While Evelyn certainly had a passing knowledge of Besson and Ramelli, John Wilkins (1614-1672) seems to have had a deeper familiarity with their work. In "Mathematicall Magick" (1648) he gives both Ramelli and Besson high praise by favourably comparing them to Aristotle:

"And whereas the Mathematicians of those former ages, did possesse all their learning, as covetous men doe their wealth, only in thought and notion; the judicious Aristotle, like a wise Steward, did lay it out to particular use and improvement, rightly preferring the reality and substance of publike benefit, before the shadows of some retired speculation, or vulgar opinion.

Since him there have been divers other Authors, who have been eminent for their writings of this nature. Such were Hero Alexandrinus, Hero Mechanicus, Pappus Alexandrinus, Proclus Mathematicus, Vitruvius, Guidus Vbaldus, Henricus Monantholius, Galileus, Guevara, Mersennus, Bettinus, &c. Besides many others, that have treated largely of severall engines, as Augustine Ramelli, Vittorio Zoncha, Iacobus Bessonius, Vegetius, Lipsius.

Most of which Authours I have perused, and shall willingly acknowledge my self a debtor to them for many things in this following Discourse." (pg. 7)

Wilkins mentions Ramelli again in a footnote, referring to the device on "Fig. 160" (pg. 91). The inclusion of this figure is fitting given the title of the chapter "Of the Wheel, by multiplcation of which it is easie to move any imaginable weight." Four pages later, he also cites Besson with the rather uninformative: "Stevin. de Static. prax. See Besson." (pg. 95)

Earlier I had speculated about the possibility of Besson's influence on Hooke in his creation -- with Boyle -- of the air pump. I had dismissed the possibility based on the date on which he acquired his own Spanish copy of the work. It is possible, however, that he may have had access to it through Wilkins. As a youth, Hooke attended Westminister School under the tutelage of headmaster Dr. Richard Busby. As described by Cooper (2004), Busby -- a friend of Wilkins -- allowed Hooke to skip class to spend time among London's artisans to develop his mechanical talents. His talents attracted Wilkins's attention:

"When Wilkins heard of Hooke’s precocious talent he presented him with a copy of Mathematicall Magick. Hooke could then see that the abstractions of Euclidean geometry, at which he excelled, were useful when designing and making machines, for which he had a passion. Mathematicall Magick and its author had a great influence on Hooke’s intellectual development. A copy of the book, probably the one presented to him by Wilkins, was in Hooke’s library at the time of his death." (pg. 50-51)

Hooke certainly would have been acquainted with the names of Besson and Ramelli through Wilkins and it's possibly that he may have had access to the actual works before starting work with Boyle.

Cooper recounts another interesting detail from the diary of Samuel Pepys. On May 1 1665 a carriage containing Royal Society members Hooke, Wilkins, Lord Brouckner, and Sir Robert Moray pulled up along side Pepys. As a newly appointed member, he joined them for a trip to the country to see Colonel Thomas Blount's new chariot. They left Blount's house and carried on to Deptford via Greenwhich to visit Sayes Court, home of John Evelyn. We can only imagine if Hooke, Evelyn, and Wilkins spent the afternoon wandering the grounds and discussing the work of Besson or Ramelli.


Cooper, Michael (2004 May/June). Robert Hooke (1635-1703): Professional scientist, engineer and surveyor. Ingenia. 19: 48-54.
NueQuiz on Lunarpages

I've been working on setting up an online data collection/survey tool. NueQuiz looks great... but it doesn't do likert scales or free text. On to phpESP. At least I learned about configuration and setup... perhaps more that I wanted to.

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.