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John Wilkins: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

John Wilkins

(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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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