Settle down with a cup of coffee and take a brief glimpse with us, on this anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, into materials held by the Collections with a connection to this historic period.
In his book Science and the Founding Fathers, I. B. Cohen illustrates the influence of Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke on Thomas Jefferson by pointing out that the third President prominently displayed portraits of these three influential thinkers:
“Thomas Jefferson was surely the only president of the United States who ever read Newton’s Principia. He esteemed Isaac Newton as one of the greatest minds the world had produced. In his gallery of immortals in Monticello, he assigned a high place to a set of three portraits: Isaac Newton, mathematician and natural philosopher; Francis Bacon, jurist and codifier of the methods of science; and John Locke, philosopher of ‘common sense’ and author of the influential Two Treatises of Government. He had obtained these portraits from England, having asked the painter John Trumbull to order copies for him. These three portraits were hung in his office while he was secretary of state.” (Cohen, Science and the Founding Fathers, New York: Norton, 1995, p. 97.)
The History of Science Collections holds many works by these authors, including first editions. Seen above: Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), 1687; Francis Bacon’s Instauratio magna (The Great Instauration), 1620; and John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding, 1690.
While Principia became an exemplar for mathematical physics in the eyes of Newton’s contemporaries, one of his other works, Opticks, served as a model for experimental science. This first English edition of Opticks is pictured below, alongside Newton’s influential paper on light and colors (published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1671), and one of his many studies of biblical chronology.
Through his writings statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon influenced the practice and organization of science and shaped his contemporaries’ views concerning the goals of scientific inquiry. Among the works by Francis Bacon held in the Collections are multiple editions of Sylva sylvarum and Novum Organum, and his Opera omnia of 1665. Bacon inspired many contemporaries to conduct and promote scientific activity in new ways through the establishment of societies and journals. Pictured below (right) is the first page of the first volume of the Philosophical Transactions.
The Collections’ holdings of works by John Locke include his Essay on Human Understanding, published in 1690, and the first Latin edition of this important book. Additional works include Some Thoughts Concerning Education, published in 1693, and the third edition of The Works of John Locke, published in 1740. Highlighted below are sections from Locke’s 1690 work in which he argues against innate ideas as the foundation for human knowledge.
In his book on science and the founding fathers, I. B. Cohen explores the intriguing question of the influence of the axiomatic structure of Euclid’s geometry on Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence. The Collections holds many editions of Euclid’s works, including the first Latin edition published in 1482, John Dee’s edition of 1570, and a 1594 Arabic edition based on the work of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. In addition, our holdings include many geometrical works available in the 18th century and present on the list of books from Jefferson’s library.
Jefferson’s interest in natural philosophy and natural history was wide-ranging. A copy of the second English edition of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is held by the Collections. This work incorporates Jefferson’s political thinking as well as his views on nature.
Visitors entering the History of Science Collections are greeted by a portrait of another prominent figure in the Early Republic and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin made his mark not only as a statesman but as a natural philosopher, well-known in his own time for his investigations of electrical phenomena. The Collections holds a number of his works, including the influential New Experiments and Observations on Electricity (third edition, 1754).
The Midwest Junto in the History of Science, an annual meeting which highlights the work of graduate students in the field, was inaugurated in the late 1950s by a group of scholars who took inspiration from Franklin’s Junto. Among that group of Junto creators was Dr. Duane H. D. Roller, who served as Curator of the History of Science Collections from 1954 to 1990. The 53rd and most recent meeting of the Midwest Junto was held in the OU History of Science Collections in May 2010.
A Sampling of Works from the Revolutionary Period
Several Methods of Making of Salt Petre, a small pamphlet published by the Continental Congress in 1775, is quite rare.
The History of Science Collections includes over sixty print editions of books published in the year 1776. Some of these are first editions, while others are later editions or translations of the works of well-known authors. Authors found within this group include John Flamsteed, Leonhard Euler, Albrecht von Haller, Antoine Lavoisier, and Carl Linnaeus. The following sampling of images from books published in 1776 provides a tantalizing glimpse into the culture of science in this revolutionary era.
Johann Heinrich Sulzer
Select Secondary Works
- I. Bernard Cohen, Benjamin Franklin’s Science (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).
- I. Bernard Cohen, Revolution in Science (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).
- John C. Greene, American Science in the Age of Jefferson (Ames, IA: Iowa State University, 1984).
- Keith Stewart Thomson, Thomas Jefferson and Natural History (Chapel Hill, NC: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2008)