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

Organising information with ‘commonplaces’

Not only the availability of Mathematical Elements, but also George Adams’s particular ways of exploiting it, made George III’s philosophical instruments what they are. For example, Adams used the widespread and long-established method of commonplacing to accumulate and manage large amounts of textual and visual information. Commonplacing was the practice of copying out passages from books, often over many years of a person’s reading life, under assorted headings or ‘places’ in a notebook. In the Renaissance, an established range of ‘moral’ and ‘general’ ‘places’ facilitated the accumulation of material for use in rhetorical composition and argumentation (Moss, 1996, p vii). While this set repertoire of headings gradually fell out of use in the second half of the 17th century, commonplacing continued to be used as a vital method for organising information and compiling ‘useful material for projected works’ (Moss, 1996, p 280)[3].

In the mechanics manuscript, Adams used the method in this way, adopting the section headings in ’s Gravesande’s Mathematical Elements as ‘places’. This allowed his sequence of experiments predominantly to follow the structure of ’s Gravesande’s book which, as an elementary system of philosophy, progressed from simple definitions of concepts such as body and space, through the simple and compound machines, collisions and central forces, ultimately to the principle of universal gravitation and the motions of the planets around the Sun[4]. This was an expedient way of compiling a comprehensive group of instruments for the royal commission. But the strategies that Adams pursued could also undermine the unity – and at some points the coherence – of ’s Gravesande’s elementary system of knowledge.

First, Adams used the various principles and phenomena covered in Mathematical Elements as ‘places’ under which to gather more instruments and experiments from other sources. For example, ’s Gravesande provided only one experiment in his explanations of Newton’s three laws of motion (’s Gravesande, 1747, Vol. 1, pp 78–81). Adams clearly regarded this as an oversight, and set about gathering experiments for this purpose from other publications, including his own pamphlet on an instrument called a ‘whirling Speculum’ (Adams, 1748); Desaguliers’s A Course of Experimental Philosophy (1745); and Leçons de physique expérimentale (1754) by the French lecturer Jean Antoine Nollet (1700–70), described by historians variously as ‘Cartesian’ and ‘anti-Newtonian’ (Adams, 1762a, ff 88–100; Heilbron, 1993, p 7; Gascoigne, 2003, p 302)[5]. Adams thus used Newton’s three laws of motion as conceptual ‘places’, bringing together the instruments themselves, their drawings and descriptions, and citations to ’s Gravesande, Nollet, Desaguliers and his own work. While this method enabled him to provide an exhaustive repertoire of experiments, and a maximum number of instruments for George III’s collection, it also interrupted the rigorous conceptual structure set out in Mathematical Elements – especially through the introduction of competing interpretations via references to Nollet’s Leçons.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140103/023