Go back to article: Reading, writing, drawing and making in the 18th-century instrument trade

Imitation, improvement and invention

Adams himself identified three related processes of design: imitation, improvement and invention (Adams, 1747a, p 244). For 18th-century thinkers about the arts, such as Joshua Reynolds, imitation was not just the simple, direct reproduction of an object, text or image. Rather, it was what we would think of as a creative process, through which an artist absorbed, considered, responded to and improved upon the works of others (Reynolds, 1992, p 160). By adopting the language of ‘imitation’, Adams asserted his participation in the cognitive processes of the liberal arts. Elsewhere in his writing, he also indicated some of the qualities on which such improvements were based. His changes to ’s Gravesande’s free-standing machines, which remade them as components of a modular apparatus, represent an example of what Adams considered ‘concise’ design in instruments. Concision was a concept that preoccupied Adams throughout his working life, and it was one of several criteria that led him to alter the patterns he gathered through print. The differences between ’s Gravesande’s machines in Leiden and those of George III in London, as well as scattered remarks by Adams in the mechanics manuscript and his published writing, make it possible to build up a vocabulary of such criteria, and to observe them in action. For example, in his universal microscope (see Figure 16), advertised in the London Evening Post in 1743, as well as in George III’s philosophical machines, striving for concision meant giving basic, structural parts multiple functions, and making them support the substitution of smaller parts for different uses (Millburn, 2000, p 32). Adams’s improvements to the ‘Machine whereby the Experiments on central forces are demonstrated’ integrated a free-standing device from Mathematical Elements into the modular system of the ‘great Table’, and simplified the configuration of the cord that drove the mechanism (see Figures 17 and 18). As he wrote in the mechanics manuscript, this new machine ‘was adapted to the great Table by which means we have a very concise apparatus, and have entirely thrown away that cumbersome frame used by ’s Gravesande’ (Adams, 1762a, f 102).

Figure 16

Photograph of an early brass, steel, glass and stained ivory universal double microscope from 1740s

George Adams, universal double microscope. Brass, steel, glass and stained ivory, 245 x 64 mm, c. 1750, Oxford Museum of the History of Science Inv. No. 54497.

Figure 17

Detailed ink drawing of a machine for central forces

J Mynde, illustration of the machine for central forces in ’s Gravesande, Mathematical Elements, Vol. 1, Plate 20. Engraving, 186 x 207 mm, 1747 (de Clercq, 1997a, p 37).

Figure 18

Ink sketch of a machine for central forces

George Adams, sketch of the machine for central forces in his ‘Instructions to the illustrator’ of the mechanics manuscript. Ink on paper, 248 x 192 mm, 1761, Science Museum archives MS 203/2, Plate 52 (Morton and Wess, 1993, pp 350–1).

Adams’s 1746 catalogue contained an extended discussion of the principles on which he designed his instruments, and from this and other sources it is possible to build up a list of positive and negative values of design in machines. Within this vocabulary, ‘simple’, ‘elegant’, ‘concise’, ‘conspicuous’, ‘neat’, ‘substantial’, ‘exact’ and ‘applicable to several Operations’ stand in opposition to ‘cumbersome’, ‘superfluously Ornamented’ and ‘multiplied without Necessity’ (Adams, 1747a, f 244). Some of these words, such as ‘elegant’ and ‘simple’, were used in a variety of evaluative contexts in the 18th century, and referred to pleasing qualities in natural objects, dress, deportment, prose and painting. This particular pair of qualities also emerged in discussions of design in nature, as evincing ‘the Almighty’s wisdom in [its] contrivance’ (Adams, 1747b, f 73). In the works that Adams used as he composed his manuscripts and Micrographia illustrata (1746), a book on microscopes and microscopic objects, he aligned himself with aesthetic qualities considered to demonstrate wisdom in contrivance and to contribute to the intelligibility of nature. In adopting these aesthetic criteria, Adams followed the precedent of 17th-century natural philosophers and inventors such as Robert Hooke (1635–1703), for whom the concept of mechanical ‘ingenuity’ spoke of similar, positive design qualities in instruments, as well as the intellectual and moral virtues of their designers (Bennett, 2006)[7].

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140103/025