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    John Wilkins

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0916                                                                                                                  

    (Dorothy Stimson)


            John Wilkins (1614-1672, one of the founders of the Royal Society

    and Bishop of Chester (1668-1672), as an amateur scientist and the writer

    of several books on scientific subjects did much to popularize the "new

    learning" of the mid-seventeenth century and to further the work of true

    scientists. Of puritan antecedents and training, after graduation from

    Magdalen Hall, Oxford, he was ordained in 1637 and appointed vicar of

    Fawsley, Northamptonshire, his birthplace. Shortly thereafter he resigned

    and for the next twelve years he was a private chaplain, first to Lord Saye

    and Sele, then to George, Lord Berkeley, and finally to the Prince Elector

    Palatine, nephew of Charles I, while he was in England. In 1648 he was

    made Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, by the Parliamentary Visitors,

    receiving his D.D. the next year. He resigned in 1659 to accept appointment

    by Richard Cromwell as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, whence he was

    ejected immediately after the Restoration in 1660. On his return to London,

    after some lesser appointments he succeeded Seth Ward, newly appointed

    Bishop of Salisbury, as Vicar Of St. Lawrence Jewry in the City of London

    (1662-68. The last four years of his life he was Bishop of Chester. His

    marriage in 1656 with Oliver Cromwell's youngest sister, Robina, the widow

    of Dr. Peter French, brought him added social and political prominence. His

    stepdaughter, Elizabeth French, married John Tillotson, then his curate at

    St. Lawrence Jewry, later Archbishop of Canterbury, his close friend and his

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    EA-Biog. St o i mson: John Wilkins

    executor. To his stepson, Robert French, in his will he left books from

    his study worth forty pounds "at a reasonable appraisal." The bishop had

    no children of his own.

            During the twenty-five or more years that as private chaplain, as a

    college head, and as vicar of a prominent City church, he was living in

    or near London, Dr. Wilkins was an important member first of the "invisible

    college" or club that Boyle and Wallis described as meeting weekly in 1645

    to discuss the current scientific news, then of the Oxford Philosophical

    Society that gathered together a similar group to meet often at the Warden's

    lodgings to perform experiments of all sorts. These two groups were the

    forerunners of the Royal Society for the promotion of natural knowledge,

    proposed in November 1660, after the return of the Royalists, and chartered

    by Charles II in 1662. Dr. Wilkins was very active in the Society during

    its first years, serving repeatedly as a temporary president until the

    Society was formally organized, then becoming one of its first secretaries.

    He served on its Council until he was made Bishop. He was a member of

    many of its committees, he proposed many of the men elected to fellowship

    and he took an active part in experimental work himself as well as in

    encouraging the work of others. In his will he left the sum of 400 pounds

    to the Royal Society, its first large legacy.

            Wilkins' leadership and influence were not solely because of his social

    and ecclesiastical connections nor because of his personality, though he was

    said to have been "universally loved by all who knew him" (Evelyn). It

    was an open secret even in his own day that he was the author of three books

    published anonymously: The Discovery of a World in the Moone, or a Discourse

    tending to prove that 'tis probable there may be another habitable World in

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    EA-Biog. Stimson: John Wilkins

    that Planet (1638), reissued in 1640 with an additional proposition, on

    the possibility of a flight to the moon, and also with a second discourse,

    Concerning a New Planet, tending to prove That ('tis probable) our Earth is

    one of the Planets; Mercury or the Secret and Swift Messenger
    (1641), a

    study of codes, ciphers and other means of secret, swift communication; and

    Mathematical Magick (1648) a little handbook on mechanics. Particularly in

    the first of these books Wilkins proved himself to be one of the early

    supporters in England of the Copernican (heliocentric) theory of the universe,

    evincing a wide acquaintance with the literature on that subject, a highly

    controversial one in those days. His advocacy of it - in English - helped

    the spread of that doctrine and increased the general knowledge of Galileo's

    studies in mechanics as well as in astronomy. After 1648 Wilkins devoted

    most of his writing to his theological interests until, at the urgency of

    his colleagues in the Royal Society, be published his Essay toward a Real

    Character and a Philosophical Language

            Mathematical Magick with its quaint illustrations is still of interest,

    for in it Wilkins foreshadows modern inventions, from talking images and

    flying chariots to machine guns and submarines. The first section, named

    Archimedes in honor of that "ancient" who was "chiefest" in discovering

    mechanical powers, explains the principles of the balance, the lever, the

    wheel, the pulley, the wedge, and the screw and describes their practical

    uses. In the second section, named Daedalus for that one most famous among

    the ancients for his skill in making "automata," Wilkins describes various

    "self-movers," such as windmills, sailing-chariots, clocks and spheres.

            In chapter V of this second edition, Wilkins considers the possibility

    of framing an ark for submarine navigation. He refers to Peère Mersenne in

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    EA-Biog. Stimson: John Wilkins

    the first sentence as having pleasantly descanted upon the maki n g of a ship

    wherein men may safely swim under water, and in the next sentence beyond

    all question because it has been done in England by Cornelius Dreble ( sic ).

    But, he goes on, the submarine boat needs improvement for public use and

    for longer voyages and larger cargoes. Three serious difficulties are

    apparent: how to keep the water out as at the oar holes, how to know one's

    course under water, and how to maintain fresh air, especially as fires will

    be needed for light, for cooking, and for warmth.

            The first difficulty he remedies by devising long soft leather bags

    or tubes, one end fastened to an opening in the side of the boat, but with

    a string to hold it tight. Material to be emptied into the water could then

    be put into the leather bag or tube inside the boat and that end tied. When

    the outer string is untied, the material will fall out of the boat but no

    water will come in. Thus a person or a thing may be brought in or let out

    of the boat without inconvenience.

            The second difficulty he minimizes because the ship will be less in–

    fluenced in her course under water by the surface tides and currents, but

    it would be well to proceed slowly. A heavy weight attached to the bottom of

    the ship might be raised or lowered by ropes to assist the ship to descend or to

    rise in the water. Movement could be secured by several oars protected at the

    oar holes by leather bags similar to those previously proposed. And the

    mariner's compass would be expected to provide the direction.

            The third difficulty is much the most serious. Possibly a man may train

    himself by long use and custom not to need as pure air as persons ordinarily

    do. The vessel may be large enough to permit impure air [ ?] in one part to

    be freshened while fresh air in the other part is being used. Giving the

    air motion by a bellows might help to cool it. Or lamps or fire in the

    boat's center might rarefy the air while the coldness along the sides of

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    EA-Biog. Stimson: John Wilkins

    the vessel might cool and condense it, thus making such a change as would

    fit for use. Furthermore, he states, Mersenne reports that a diver in

    France has some method of by which he can breathe under water for six hours

    and even carry a small lanthorn, "which if it be true ... might be a

    sufficient help against this greatest difficulty."

            The advantages of such a submarine ark, Wilkins claims, are many. It

    is private, as a man travels invisibly. It is safe from tides, tempests,

    pirates, robbers, and "From Ice and great Frosts, which do so much endanger

    the Passages towards the Poles." It would be of great value against a

    hostile navy, which might be undermined and blown up. It could bring

    relief to a besieged place on a coast, or serve to surprise any place access–

    ible by water. It would be of unspeakable benefit for submarine experiments

    and discoveries, whether of deep caverns and subterranean passages or of the

    nature and kinds of fishes. Some of these fishes might serve for food or

    for fuel oil most conveniently for the voyage. "The many fresh springs

    that may probably be met with in the bottom of the sea, will serve for the

    supply of drink and for other occasions." Most of all, it would be useful

    for hunting sunken treasure along the floor of the sea not only from ship–

    wrecks but from the "several precious things that grow there, as pearl, coral,

    mines." For this purpose the great ark may have tied about it at various

    distances lesser cabins for scouts to make such observations as the admiral

    shall direct. Not only could any activity be carried on within this vessel,

    even the printing of its observations if need be, but several colonies could

    inhabit these boats for long periods of time and could bring up their chil–

    dren without any knowledge of land.

            Wilkins ends this fifth chap e ter with the comment that he is not able

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    EA-Biog. Stimson: John Wilkins

    to judge other advantages there are or whether experiment would fully

    answer his conjectures, but because the invention seemed to him ingenious,

    new, and pertinent to his general subject, he thought it worth mentioning.

    However, he has not really made it clear to the reader that in this chapter

    "without any notable exception, every idea put forward by the Bishop "is

    found in the Cogitata Physico Mathematica (Paris 1644), in the section

    "Navis Subaquis Natans," by P e è re Mersenne (1588-1648), the French theologian

    and philosopher. "In the chapter [ ?] penned by Wilkins, the ideas are those

    of Marini Mersenni," (J. Joly, "The Origin of the Submarine," Blackwood's

    vol.202, July, 1917, pp. 106-117). Furthermore, Cornelius

    Drebbel (1572-1634) a Dutchman much favored by James I for his many in–

    ventions, some time between 1610 and 1622 had "built a ship in which one

    could row and navigate under water from Westminster to Greenwich, the

    distance of two Dutch miles, even five or six miles, or se far as one

    pleased... Not long ago this remarkable ship was yet to be seen lying in

    Thames or London river." (C. van der Wonde, 1645, quoted by July, op. cit .

    110-111). Consequently, Wilkins cannot be credited with originating the

    submarine either in theory or in actuality.

            Wilkins' achievement is none the less of value. His scientific writings

    were well received in his own day and at least The Discovery of a World in the

    was translated into French in London in 1640 and in Rouen in 1656.

    Several English editions were issued, the later ones with Wilkins' name thereon.

    Mathematical Magick was reissued in 1680 and 1681. It was included in 1694

    in The Mathematical Works of ... J. W., late Lord Bishop of Chester, and again

    in 1708 in The Collected Mathematical and Philosophical Works of ... John Wilkins

    ..., reissued in 1802.

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    EA-Biog. Stimson: John Wilkins

            In contemporary literature little or nothing was said of his ideas

    about the submarine but a great deal about his conjectures on the possi–

    bility of a flight to the moon. The satirists and the wits seized upon

    this and other suggestions of the early Fellows of the Royal Society as

    a fruitful topic for their plays and poems. Thus Bishop Wilkins' name was

    well known long after his death, and considerable interest was shown in his

    speculations. Also, he was one of the early exponents of the direct, "naked"

    stype of writing advocated by these early Fellows, and as he wrote in short,

    pointed, exact sentences his books were easily read and comprehended.

            Obviously not a great genius nor even a notable innovator, Dr. John

    Wilkins was a lover of scientific pursuits, with an eager curiosity and an

    openness of mind combined with a lively and courageous imagination that

    enabled him to fire others as well as himself with the possibilities he

    saw in the future of science. His most important contribution to science

    was the encouragement and help he gave cooperative experimentation which

    led to the founding of the Royal Society. His books in scientific fields

    may perhaps not unfairly be classed among the curiosities of the history of

    thought, but they have played their part well in making plain to the general

    reader the possibilities that lay ahead of the new science of his day.

            The only modern biography of Bishop Wilkins, The Life and Times of John

    (1910) was written by P. A. Wright Henderson, Warden of Wadham College,

    for the tercentenary of that college. There is also an essay by the Warden on

    Wilkins under the title "An Oxford Trimme," Blackwoods' Magazine , vol. 179

    (February 1906) 166-79. For Wilkins' scientific activities, wee "Doctor Wilkins

    and the Royal Society" by Dorothy Stimson, Journal of Modern History, III

    (December 1931) 539-563. A brief list and a list of his works form a preface of The Collected Mathematical and Philosophical Works of the Right

    Reverend John Wilkins, 1708, reissued in 1802, in two volumes.


    Dorothy Stimson

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