Sound advice from the 17th century

For a long time now I’ve been interested in the ways in which the worlds of Restoration experimental philosophy and Restoration trade and other economic activities came into contact. The early Fellows of the Royal Society were adamant that their research programme would be useful (no matter what any of their contemporary detractors thought!) – and I would argue that many of the Fellows wanted science to be useful more specifically in terms of enriching themselves and their country financially. I haven’t yet got around to arguing this in any detail but if I ever finish with Hooke, that’s what I’m going to do. In the meantime, let me introduce you to one of my favorite Fellows, the merchant, linguist, and secret writer of unorthodox religious treatises, Francis Lodwick. Lodwick and Hooke got to know each other in the 1670s and became close friends, meeting (with others) at Jonathan’s coffee-house in Exchange Alley on an almost daily basis throughout the 1690s. Lodwick was Hooke’s companion on one of the last outings recorded in his diary, when they visited some Chinese for tea and attempted to learn a few of the Chinese characters. Hooke wrote ‘I could learn little: 8 or 10 characters pronouncd all alike but of Differing signification’.

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Artists and craftsmen in Hooke’s London (part 2)

In my previous post on this subject I talked about Hooke’s dealings with some of London’s artists. This time I’m going to talk about craftsmen (broadly defined). To set the scene I’d like to share a conversation Hooke had at Garraway’s coffehouse on Boxing Day December 1673 with Andrew Yarranton and ‘Captain Hamden’. These two gentlemen had been to Germany to see some ‘Lattin making works’ – ie. factories producing tin plate – and they described to Hooke what they had seen. This is how Hooke recorded it:

‘many plates beat under ye Hammer at once like leaf gold or tinfoyle. the great difficulty is how to turne it under ye hammer quick enough. much discourse about ye great cast iron rowles softned turned & graven for stuffs. one of six foot long & six foot about. cast iron pillars for bridges. hardning iron into steel quite through. pressing of cloth &c’

I love this conversation because you can smell the Industrial Revolution in the air – but I’m quoting it here because of the reference to cast iron rollers engraved for printing patterns on cloth (‘stuffs’). The first English patent for printing on cloth was taken out a few years later, in 1676, by the artist William Sherwin.

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Artists and craftsmen in Hooke’s London (part 1)

Like many scientists today, the early Fellows of the Royal Society depended on images to explain their work to each other and the outside world. Illustrations accompanied reports of experiments and observations, and the Fellows commissioned drawings of the natural and man-made artefacts shown at meetings or donated to their museum collection. They  were also keenly interested in the processes behind the production of artworks, including printing and dyeing, and colour theory. Recipes for dyes and new techniques that might reduce costs or increase efficiency were regularly discussed at meetings.

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Hooke, Newton and the ‘missing’ portrait

Portraits have a peculiar fascination for people. As Lisa Jardine has pointed out, historical figures come to life so much more vividly when a portrait is available. This is true for historians almost as much as anyone else. Therefore the thought that there might be a lost or unidentified portrait of a famous and controversial figure like Robert Hooke is extremely tantalising. It also grips the public imagination – several visitors to the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary exhibition in summer 2010 commented, ‘they say Newton destroyed a portrait of Hooke’. Indeed, ‘they’ do say this.  The final scene in the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company production ‘The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes’ showed Newton slashing a portrait, a reference that shows how familiar this story has become. Indeed it has all the elements of good drama – passion, the fierce rivalry of two misunderstood geniuses, and violence (well, vandalism at least).

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The resorts of idle and disaffected persons

On Thursday 30 December 1675, a startling proclamation was printed in the London Gazette:

Whereas it is most apparent, That the Multitude of Coffee-houses of late Years set up and kept within this Kingdom . . . and the great resort of Idle and Disaffected persons to them, have produced very evil and dangerous Effects, as well for that many Tradesmen and others do therein mispend much of their time, which might and probably would otherwise be employed in and about their lawful Callings and Affairs; but also, for that in such Houses, and by occasion of the meetings of such Persons therein, divers false, malitious and scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majesties Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm; His Majesty hath thought it fit and necessary, That the said Coffee-houses be (for the future) Put down and Suppressed . . .
(read the whole proclamation on the London Gazette website)

There was a public uproar and he had to back down, but His Majesty Charles II did have a point. Anyone reading Hooke’s diary is under no illusions that a good deal of Hooke’s time that might otherwise have been spent doing who knows what, possibly one of his several lawful callings, was in fact employed in meeting friends at Garraway’s or Jonathan’s. Furthermore, every Restoration Londoner knew that the coffee-house was the place to go for false, malicious and scandalous reports (second only to the palace of Whitehall for really juicy gossip). Hooke probably didn’t go specifically for the scandal, although occasionally he ran across scandal in the course of a visit. He went to meet friends, talk to people, and read the latest news from home and abroad. Of course, the main topic of conversation on 30 December 1675 was the royal proclamation.

You could run into just about anyone at a coffee-house, from shoe-makers to courtiers. Hooke’s friends and associates had their own particular haunts – Hooke often visited Man’s with Sir Christopher Wren, and select Fellows of the Royal Society regularly adjourned to the Crown Tavern in Threadneedle Street after meetings. In the 1670s Hooke’s favored establishment was Garraway’s in Exchange Alley, run by Thomas Garraway; in the 1680s and 1690s he preferred Jonathan’s, kept by Jonathan Miles, again in Exchange Alley. Hooke sometimes visited Jonathan’s three times in a day, and usually met some of his particular friends there. He recorded such visits in a truncated fashion in his diary. Part of an entry for Thursday 17 January 1689 reads:

. . . at Jon Gof Lod Sp Wal: Hayn. Mev. Cur. Pag. of flood. Atlantis &c . . .
meaning ‘at Jonathans. [met] Godfrey, Lodwick, Spencer, Waller, Hains, Meverell, Currer, Paggin. [talk] of flood. Atlantis, &c’. The listing of names became almost compulsive for Hooke in the later part of his diary – this is a typical entry. On this occasion the talk turned to the Biblical flood and its consequences, something Hooke was particularly interested in at this time as part of his theorising about the history and formation of the earth. On other visits Hooke was more interested in reading the latest news printed in the London Gazette, or papers from Scotland, Ireland, Holland and Paris. It was at Jonathan’s that Hooke first learnt of the death of Queen Christina of Sweden (he noted this on Monday 18 March 1689, and again on Thursday 9 May, when the Paris Gazette apparently ran an obituary of the prominent monarch). Happenings closer to home were also discussed, including London mayoral elections and military affairs in Scotland and Ireland.

Just one contemporary drawing of the interior of a seventeenth-century coffee-house exists, now in the British Museum collections. (view it here) It’s just a watercolour sketch, but it gives a good impression of the tobacco pipes, coffee and conversation on offer – a convivial place to spend an evening with Hooke and his friends.