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

Instruments for The King, 1761–62

The Science Museum’s 1993 catalogue of the George III collection (see Figure 2), Public & Private Science, details the group of instruments made by George Adams for a young King George III (1738–1820) in the early years of his reign – which, along with the demonstration apparatus of the lecturer Stephen Demainbray (1710–82), now form the core of the larger collection (Morton and Wess, 1993, pp 123–242).

Figure 2

The George 3rd collection of scientific instruments on display at the Science Museum, London

The George III Collection on display in the Science Museum’s Science in the Eighteenth Century gallery

Almost 200 individual catalogue entries are devoted to the philosophical instruments of George III, which comprise an air pump with a comprehensive array of attachments for experiments on the weight, pressure, spring and composition of the air; and a large-scale modular group of devices for demonstrating the principles of mechanics (Morton and Wess, 1993, pp 243–372) (see Figures 3 and 4). It has already been observed (Morton and Wess, 1993, pp 22, 245–6) that Adams drew many of the designs for these instruments from printed books, and by far the most important of these was Mathematical Elements of Natural Philosophy, Confirmed by Experiments: Or, an Introduction to Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy (6th English edition, 1747), by the Dutch mathematician and natural philosopher Willem ’s Gravesande (1688–1742). The range of Adams’s reading in relation to this collection, however, and the specific ways in which he drew from and transformed these printed sources, has not yet been fully explored.

Figure 3

An air pump and condenser from 1761, made from mahogany, brass, glass, leather and iron

George Adams, Air-pump. Mahogany, brass, glass, leather and iron

Figure 4

A philosophical table with collision apparatus from 1761 made from mahogany, brass and ivory

George Adams. Great Table and pillar with mechanics apparatus. Mahogany, brass and ivory.

In the preface to his 1747 ‘A catalogue of mathematical, philosophical and optical instruments’, Adams publicised his use of books in compiling and designing a wide variety of instrument types. He wrote, ‘In the construction of all the Machines I have ever made, my first and greatest Care hath been to procure good Models and Drawings, several of them I have imitated from the best Authors, as well Foreigners, as those of our own Country; I have alter’d and improv’d others, and have added many new ones of my own Invention’ (Adams, 1747a, p 244). This statement can be applied directly to the group of machines Adams designed and made for George III in 1761–62. As a guide to the construction and use of these instruments, Adams also provided two lengthy manuscripts (1762a), one on pneumatics and one on mechanics[1].

These manuscripts give descriptions and illustrations of the apparatus in the collection, and outline the experiments for which the instruments were designed. In each, minimal instructions are given for the use of the machines, along with citations to the printed texts from which the experiments were taken: predominantly Mathematical Elements, but including 18 other publications. In each manuscript, the order of the experiments mainly follows that given by ’s Gravesande. Experiments from other books were added subsequently in the pneumatics manuscript, and in the mechanics manuscript they were inserted at relevant points within ’s Gravesande’s sequence. Adams kept his explanations of the physical principles being demonstrated to a minimum, but provided references to printed works where further information was available (see Figure 5). Thus the collection, properly considered as an extended system of knowledge, incorporates the instruments, the manuscripts and the printed books to which they refer.

Figure 5

Page of a book displaying calligraphic writing describing an apparatus for explaining the principles of mechanics

George Adams, ‘A description of an apparatus for explaining the principles of mechanics made for His Majesty George III ...’, 1762, f 1. Ink on paper, 420 x 260 mm

The Science Museum’s copy of Adams’s ‘A description of an apparatus for explaining the principles of mechanics made for His Majesty King George III ...’ is fair but incomplete, accompanied not by finished plates of drawings, but instead by sketches known as Adams’s ‘Instructions to the illustrator’ of the mechanics manuscript (1762b) (see Figure 6). The composition of these sketches is telling in itself. They comprise 232 numbered figures, including 185 pen-and-ink drawings and 47 fragments cut from the engraved plates of the 1747 edition of ’s Gravesande’s Mathematical Elements. Of the drawings, some are directly based on further engravings in the same text; others are profiles and perspective drawings of Adams’s own machines. ’s Gravesande’s Mathematical Elements is also by far the most frequently cited work in both manuscripts, accounting for 44 of 57 references to printed works in the pneumatics manuscript, and 138 of 188 in the mechanics manuscript.

Figure 6

Ink sketch of a wooden pillar and various attachments for mechanical experiments

George Adams, drawing of the mahogany pillar and attachments for making various experiments in mechanics, ‘Instructions to the illustrator’ of the mechanics manuscript, Plate 7. Ink on paper, 304 x 221 mm, 1761

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140103/021