Thursday, January 19, 2006

Besson and the Rise of Technology

"From the 1530's onward there is a slow but steady increase in the number of printed books on technology, and by the latter third of the century, print had become a suitable medium both for descriptive works and for presentation of technical innovations, as well as discussions of the significance of technology in general. This movement toward a fully public medium completed the transformation initiated with the shift toward manuscripts in the fifteenth century.

Technology, which had once been nearly the exclusive possession of a particular craft group, was now being displayed and discussed before a wide audience of educated, but unspecialized readers. By 1600, technical information was being transmitted through three main channels: the older, oral medium of the craft group; the manuscript which circulated among interested parties; and the printed work intended for a "semi-popular," moderately learned, lay public. With minor modifications, this situation persisted until the late eighteenth century and the rise of schools of engineering. Its final transformation came only in the following century with the rise of industrial societies and the beginnings of mass secondary education."

In the 2nd half of the 16th century a genre of technical publications emerged that are collectively known as the 'Theatre of Machines'. These were highly illustrated books which sought to bring both the fanciful and innovative machines to the literate public.

It was the mathematician, engineer, pastor and chemist Jacques Besson's Theatrum Instrumentorum et Machinarum which gave its name to the body of works that were produced for 2 centuries. A minor edition of this book was first issued in 1573 but the complete treatise, from which the above images have been taken, came out in 1578. There had been other mechanical publications but what set Bresson's book apart is that it was documenting his inventions rather than describing what was already in existence, per se.

Incidentally, the book's dedication apparently attempts to establish both copyright and patent ownership, under royal patronage - a very early and novel assertion for a renaissance work.

60 copper plate engravings by René Boyvin depict "lathes, stone cutters, saw mills, horse carriages, barrels, dredges, pile drivers, grist mills, hauling machines, cranes, elevators, pumps, salvage machines, nautical propulsion machines, and many others."
“Economic necessity certainly was not the motivating force behind the plethora of technological novelties. They were the products of a fertile imagination that took delight in itself and it its ability to operate within the constraints of the possible, if not the useful. Some of the novel mechanisms pictured in the machine books were later incorporated into practical devices; others stand unused as proof of the fertility of the contriving mind.” (Basalla, 1988)


Kristine said...

Dear Peacay,
Many congratulations on winning the Best New Blog Award at Cliopatra! My favourite early modern machine is Ramelli's reading machine from his Le diverse et artificiose machine del Capitano Agostina Ramelli, 1588.
He describes it as an ingenious machine, "very useful and convenient for anyone who takes pleasure in study." It was never built in the renaissance, but apparently the architect Daniel Libeskind has recently built one.

pk said...

Thanks very much Kristene.

Wow, I love that Ramelli pic (there's a 2Mb version here). I had not seen it before - so that's what the internet used to look like huh?

I have had Ramelli on the back of my mind for a long time - moving slowly towards his book. One of these days...

George said...

Great post! It's nice to see Besson getting some press.

I'd like to make one small correction. I think that most of the plates were engraved by Jacques Androuet Ducerceau. It's interesting to think of how a relatively famous Huguenot artist and engraver would end up etching plates for a math teacher/failed pastor/creator of mathematical instruments/distiller of perfumes!

Besson kicked off an entire genre of works. He and Ramelli seem to get most of the credit for the genre's popularity. I think that some of the bit players need more attention. The lives of Heinrich Zeising, Ambroise Bachot, Jean Errard de Bar-le-Duc, and Georg Andreas Bockler are still largely unknown.

Bockler, for example, seems to have been very successful. His Theatri Machinarum Novum appears in the libraries of Hooke, Halley, and Pepys despite being an almost direct copy of de Strada's earlier work which was largely copied from manuscripts by Franceso di Giorgio Martini!

Zeising did something different. While copying Ramelli and Besson, he placed people in the foreground. Compare Ramelli's original with Zeising's copy. Is the creepy supervisor really necessary? Why?

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