Thursday, March 09, 2006

Revisiting Besson I

The hagiography I had produced on the life of Jacques Besson is a tad bit dated. It's time to refresh it with some new source material.

I find it interesting to reflect on the whole time period in which Besson worked. Based on the extand to the technical books, one could think that France was the heart of mechanical innovation but Keller indicats otherwise:

"By comparison with the great days of her medieval schoolmen or with the immense contributions made by Frenchmen in later generations, the science of physics seems to have languished in sixteenth-century France, otherwise so lively and vigorous. Among her neighbours, the study of mechanics was turning in new direction. But France had no Tartaglia, no Benedetti, no Stevin. Trataglia was translated into German and English, but only the fortification section of his Quesiti et Inventioni Diverse was rendered into French. The study of medieval comentaries and treatises on the theory of motion did continue at Paris, yet all th emost original work in this relatively conservative facet of the science was carried on by foreigners, by Scots, Flemings, Spaniards." (p. 75)

It seems that even Ramus lamented the loss of mathematics from France in 1567. He apparently attributed the Italian and German advances in fortification, gunnery, and metallurgy to their relatively advanced mathematics. Still, the books of machines are a uniquely French innovation.

Keller's study focusses primarily on the British Museum's Additional MS 17921 which is a manuscript copy of Besson's printed work. It is, according to Keller, the original manuscript on which the printed book is based and it includes both preliminary machine designs and an expanded introduction. The intended title appears to be Livre de la plus part des Instruments et Machines Inventees par Jacques Besson Dauphinois: Les quelles Servent a plusier beaux effets pour l'usage de Mathematiques et Utilite Commune.

The work contains an extensive dedication of King Charles IX. It discusses both the pains that Besson required to acquire his mechanical knowledge, and his desire to serve "the preservation, utility and upkeep of the common good" by disseminating his "machines and new inventions for geometers, for mariners, for merchants, for artisans, for gentlemen, in short for poor and for rich." (p. 76)

Besson's introduction demonstrates an unsophisticated understanding of basic Aristotelianism: four elements and their natural motions. He insists that machines can be studied in isolation of the physics of natural motion, a study more applicable to astronomy or medicine. Besson states that only mathematics are required. Keller notes that the results of this argument are dissapointing:

"There is little of axomatic geometry in the book of machines, still less of precise measurement or calculation, at most a three-dimensional feel for machinery based on a static lever law. His thought develops that of the opening paragraph of the Mechanical Problems; in practice Besson uses less mathematical demonstration than his ggreek predecessor." (p. 77)

He classifies machines as being of three types: those that pull (pulleys, endless screws, etc.), those that push (sails, oars, and wheels that impart motion without any alteration of movement), and those which repel (springs, presses, and lathes). He notes that a machines effectiveness can be estimated from its promptness in action and the duration of that action, and from the cost of construction, maintenance, and operation. These principles seem quite far from Taylor's Scientific Management.

Besson also articulates a number of general principles that are primarily Aristotelian in nature, although he also makes some reference to Archimedes, Euclid, and Jordanus.

These preliminary drawings often differ considerably from their printed brethren. In some cases, the printed drawings are far more practical and sound (despite Andouet de Cerceau's baroque ornamentation). In other cases, sound innovations have been dropped. He royal carriage, for example, originally featured a suspension system based on springs. Keller explores one of the reasons why Besson's machines are so remarkable:

"In many ways Besson's inventions are stranger and further removed from the best contemporary practice than are those of the next generation, men like Errard, Ramelli or Zonca. That may be in part because he was an outsider, less dependent on the manuscript tradition of the Italian mechanicians than they were. If his very originality also makes some of his inventions now seem more eccentric, his own time certainly did not regard him as a crazy inventor full of impractical notions. On the contrary, his publication broke the ice for later, more knowledgeable but perhaps less imaginative men. And this manuscript demonstrates that he had also worked out his own theoretical ideas, equally imaginative and original. He was ready to learn, perhaps to be guided by the comments of those with more experience, certainly willing to cast aside a notion that would be unworkable and replace it by a better." (p. 85)


Keller, Alexander G. (1976). A manuscript version of Jacques Besson's book of machines, with his unpublished principles of mechanics. In Bert S. Hall and Delno C. West (eds.) On Pre-Modern Technology and Science: A Volume of Studies in Honor of Lynn White Jr. (pp. 75-104) Undena Publications, Malibu.


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