John Wilkins (1614-1672) is one of the few persons to have held positions of authority at both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge where his subject area was natural philosophy (physics). Wilkins was educated at a small school in Oxford before he moved to Magdalene Hall where his tutor, John Tombes (1602–1676), became one of his greatest inspirations. He graduated with a B.A. degree in 1631 and an M.A. degree in 1634. He studied astronomy with John Bainbridge (1582–1643), another person who proved an inspiration for Wilkins (Aarsleff, 2008).
He sought to gain acceptance for the groundbreaking work of the new scientists of the time including Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), which the church felt was contrary to its beliefs and teachings (Aarsleff, 2008). He is further championed for his fostering of religious tolerance and is credited with developments toward decimalisation that would eventually lead to the metric system (Rooney, 2008).
John Wilkins, Mathematical magick: or, The wonders that may be performed by mechanical geometry (London, 1691), p. 81.
His book Mathematical magick, published in 1691, is an account of the fundamental principles of machines. The first part, Archimedes or Mechanical Powers, describes the balance, lever, wheel, pulley, wedge and screw, the basic principles during this time. A classic example is the ‘law of the lever’. The image above shows Wilkins’ illustration of Archimedes’ promise to lift the earth using the multiplication of force by the combination of levers which is depicted below.
John Wilkins, Mathematical magick: or, The wonders that may be performed by mechanical geometry (London, 1691), p. 84.
Wilkins was a shy man and didn’t seek recognition for his excellent work. For example, in 1638 Wilkins anonymously published his first book The discovery of a world in the moon (Van Dyck). Two years later, he published A disclosure concerning a new planet, again anonymously. Wilkins believed the moon is a habitable planet and one day man would be able to travel there (O’Connor and Robertson, 2002). Another of his works in this vein, A discovery of a new world, is also part of Worth’s collection.
In Mathematical Magick Wilkins uses very simple notation to explain his theories and workings. In fact, he published a book dedicated to developing a universal mathematical language where notation and language barriers would no longer be an issue which had to be rewritten since the original was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 (O’Connor and Robertson, 2002). One of the main attributes of his writing was the impression that his work addressed the common person with education and not just the elite academic. This is evidenced by Wilkins writing in English rather than Latin, the language of scholars.
John Wilkins, Mathematical magick: or, The wonders that may be performed by mechanical geometry (London, 1691), p. 158.
In Daedalus or Mechanical Motions, the second part of Mathematical magick, Wilkins details his outlook on future technical developments. One such idea was a land yacht designed to be driven by two sails on two masts, and a wagon to be powered by a vertical axis wind turbine shown above.
Another idea he described was the smokejack, first sketched by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). This machine consisted of horizontal sails mounted on a vertical shaft and driven by the hot air rising up a chimney. A gearing system was used so that the smokejack could turn a roasting spit (O’Connor and Robertson, 2002).
John Wilkins, Mathematical magick: or, The wonders that may be performed by mechanical geometry (London, 1691), p. 150.
Aarsleff, H., John Wilkins Biography, Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography (encyclopedia.com, 2008).
O’Connor, J.J. and E.F. Robertson, John Wilkins, MacTutor History of Mathematics, (University of St Andrews, February 2002).
Rooney, Anne, The Story of Mathematics (London: Arcturus Publishing, 2008) p 65.
Van Dyck, M. and K. Vermeir, Varieties of Wonder. John Wilkins’ mathematical magic and the perpetuity of invention (2016) p 3.
Text: Cian McNevin, Shaun Murphy & Fionnán Howard