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

Mobile knowledge, local skill

The prominent London instrument-makers of the mid-eighteenth century, such as George Adams (1709–72) of Fleet Street, were bridging figures, poised between disparate social worlds. As skilled tradesmen, they orchestrated, but also partially hid from view, the efforts of the workmen they employed, and the networks of manufacturing trades, such as foundries and glass-makers, that crisscrossed the city (Millburn, 2000; McConnell, 2007; Baker, 2010; Bennett, 2007). As authors of books and designers of instruments, they participated in the production and consumption of print, and in a community of readers that tended to be elite, learned and international (Bennett, 2002). The materials they worked with, such as brass and mahogany, flowed into and through London with different tempos and geographical ranges; the books that for Adams proved most commercially useful had their own, distinctive trajectories as well (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Black and white engraving of a hand holding a string attached to pulley and small weight

George Adams, ‘Instructions to the Illustrator’ of the mechanics manuscript, fol. 6, fig. 24, showing a fragment of engraving cut from the plates of ’s Gravesande’s Mathematical Elements

The mobility of print and the situated nature of skilled, material production have both played pivotal roles in accounts of the development of experimental science (Eisenstein, 1979; Smith, 2004). Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer (1985) have provided one influential model for thinking about how natural philosophers of the 17th century sought to extend the epistemic range of local, material processes of making instruments and experiments, through techniques of rhetoric and composition, and the circulation of printed books and periodicals. In a gentlemanly culture in which determining the truth about experience was profoundly linked to the testimony of reliable witnesses, Robert Boyle (1627–91) and other fellows of the early Royal Society developed ways of writing experimental accounts that recruited their readers as ‘virtual witnesses’ to new experimental phenomena (Shapin and Schaffer, 1985, p 60). The question of how reading and other ways of consuming print fed into practices of making – whether of experiments or of instruments – is of equal interest, though perhaps less well explored (Johns, 2003).

Collections held by the Science Museum shed important light on how, in the more commercial and socially diverse culture of 18th-century experimental philosophy, an instrument-maker such as Adams might use books in the conduct of his trade. Adams’s ways of exploiting print in the production of instruments were informed by widespread practices such as commonplacing (see section 'Instruments for The King, 1761-62', below) and physical cutting and pasting (see section 'Instruments for The King, 1761-62', below), through which tradesmen often adapted pattern books; and by contemporary attitudes to creativity and innovation, which were framed in terms of ‘imitation’, ‘improvement’ and ‘invention’ (Adams, 1747a, p 244) (see section 'Instruments for The King, 1761-62', below). Over his lifetime, Adams turned to his own use many works by natural philosophers of the late 17th and early 18th century. As Adrian Johns has shown, these men had sought to exercise maximum control over all aspects of the production of their books, thereby jealously guarding their reputations as truthful and reliable authors (Johns, 1998). Adams’s practices of commonplacing, excerpting, rearranging and unauthorised translating were activities which these earlier authors saw as threats to the stability of knowledge itself (Johns, 1998, p 33). Adams’s repeated use of such techniques drew accusations of plagiarism from his business rivals, such as Henry Baker (1698–1774), author of The Microscope Made Easy (1742); and the instrument-maker and lecturer Benjamin Martin (bapt. 1705, d. 1782) (Browning, 1746; Martin, 1766, p 28; Millburn, 2000, pp 121–3). Nonetheless, these were also the productive, prolific and aggressive means by which natural philosophy, in its commercial forms, such as lectures, textbooks and instruction manuals, reached an expanding public in the 18th century.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140103/020