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

Translating Mathematical Elements: Leiden and London

’s Gravesande’s Mathematical Elements, written by him in Latin, was first published in Leiden in 1720–21. Two competing English editions appeared in London in the same years, both undertaken without the author’s knowledge or approval. It was the aggressive tactics of the booksellers John Senex (bapt. 1678, d. 1740) and William Taylor (d. 1724) on the one hand, and William Mears (bapt. 1686, d. 1739) on the other – rather than gentlemanly networks of correspondence – that first brought the book to London (Allamand, 1774, pp xxix–xxxi). It is not clear how the Latin text reached London so quickly, but competition between the two English editions was so fierce that at one point John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683–1744), the translator engaged by Senex and Taylor, was forced to dictate to four scribes in turn, and he thrashed out the entire second volume in the space of 15 days (Allamand, 1774, p xxix). This arrangement was eventually regularised, establishing the channels through which subsequent English editions were produced, and thereby making the book available in English for Adams’s commercial use in later decades.

The production and movement of this text represents part of a reciprocal exchange between centres of knowledge and material production in London and Leiden. In 1715, ’s Gravesande had come to London as secretary to a Dutch diplomatic mission, and it was there that he learned what he called the ‘English’ method of teaching natural philosophy with experiments performed on specially designed machines (van Helden, 1999, p 450; ’s Gravesande, 1747, Vol. 1, p ix). In 1717 he became professor of mathematics and astronomy at the University of Leiden; he also began building up a collection of machines for a course of experimental philosophy, which he delivered to paying audiences at his home (de Clercq, 1997a, p 11). He conceived the first edition of Mathematical Elements as an aide-mémoire for those who had attended his course. In later editions, which became increasingly copious and detailed, he acknowledged that its readership had expanded, and the final edition included information on the scale on which each instrument was depicted in the plates, so that readers could have the devices remade if they wished to do so (Allamand, 1774, p xxxii).

Over the years that he delivered lectures on natural philosophy at his home, ’s Gravesande and the instrument-maker Jan van Musschenbroek (1687–1748) worked closely together to design, produce and improve the machines depicted in successive editions of Mathematical Elements (de Clercq, 1997b, p 85; Allamand, 1774, p xxviii). Thus the three Latin editions of the book function as snapshots of a constantly evolving collection, which now resides at the Museum Boerhaave in Leiden (Figure 7).

Figure 7

Photograph of a museum Boerhaave gallery showing various mechanical instruments

Instruments by ’sGravesande and van Musschenbroek, on display in the Museum Boerhaave

Seventeen years passed between the second Latin edition (1725) and the third (1742), during which time ’s Gravesande and van Musschenbroek made so many changes and additions that their mutual friend Jean Nicolas Sebastien Allamand considered the 1742 edition an entirely new work (Allamand, 1774, p xxix). Its expanded format and prolific, detailed engravings made it an ideal resource for Adams in London, who was one of the first generation of instrument-makers to bring the production and marketing of mathematical, philosophical and optical instruments under the same roof (Baker, 2010, p 45). Books such as Mathematical Elements, which doubled as exhaustive ‘magazines’ of instrument designs, were a crucial factor in this development[2].

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140103/022