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A dissertation presented by

Jean-François Gauvin


The Department of the History of Science

in partial fulfillment of the requirements

for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
in the subject of
History of Science

Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

November 2008
© 2008 — Jean-François Gauvin
All rights reserved.
Advisor: Mario Biagioli Jean-François Gauvin



This dissertation examines the relationships between savants, artisans and machines in

seventeenth-century France (1630-1690). I argue that French natural philosophy was not

exclusively a matter of reason and rational thinking (Cartesianism), commonly

distinguished from the experimentally-inclined England of Francis Bacon and Robert

Boyle or the Italy of Galileo Galilei. Generating scientific knowledge in early modern

France involved rather a combination of intellectual and hands-on practical skills, usually

aimed at the production of instruments and complex machines. I suggest throughout the

dissertation that artisans and savants intersected in technological spaces, where they

formulated epistemic dialogues anchored in the tools and machines created within those

spaces. Looking in turn at Marin Mersenne, René Descartes, and Blaise Pascal I show

how their respective description and interpretation of the pneumatic organ, lens-grinding

machine, and arithmetical machine depended not only upon their knowledge of music,

optics and mathematics but most importantly upon their familiarity with the work of

organ makers, opticians and clockmakers—with whom they were in regular contact.

Within these machines was embedded a plurality of practices (theoretical, experimental

and artisanal) that Mersenne, Descartes, and Pascal themselves understood and

expounded in their writing. Such habits of knowledge, as I call them, though distinctive

were not as unconnected and compartmentalized as they are usually represented in the

literature. The association of theory and practice, in relation to the material culture of
Advisor: Mario Biagioli Jean-François Gauvin

science, became a common trope in the seventeenth century, including in France. The

chapter on Christiaan Huygens and the Académie des sciences shows best how

academicians, savants, honnêtes hommes and artisans formed in the latter seventeenth

century an extended network inside and outside the royal institution, where intellectual

ideas, practical knowledge, and instrumental inventions were shared and fought over by

everyone for privilege and authority. Lastly, by fully integrating instruments and

machines into the intellectual and hands-on practices of knowledge-production in early

modern France, I describe how the concepts of habitus (of the mind and the body) and

organum (instrument) were understood and how historically fitting they are in order to

understand the coordination and tuning of the mind and the body for the production of

science (scientia).


ABSTRACT ................................................................................................................................................ III

LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS ...................................................................................................................VII
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS....................................................................................................................... IX


THE PRACTICE OF NATURAL PHILOSOPHY ..................................................................................28
THE ORGAN AS A POWERFUL SYMBOL OF CHRISTIANITY .........................................................................62
I. Pipe experiments and the production of sounds ...............................................................................79
II. Organology, or the art of musical instrument making.....................................................................93
III. The theory of organ claviers ........................................................................................................106
MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS AND THE “PARFAIT MUSICIEN” .........................................................................114


ORGANON ................................................................................................................................................120
HABITUS AND DESCARTES’S LOGIC OF PRACTICE ....................................................................................124
ORDER AND THE MATHÉMATICITÉ OF MATHESIS ........................................................................................131
ÂMES RÉGLÉES AND THE IDEA OF ARTISAN ..............................................................................................135
THE DIOPTRIQUE AND THE RATIONALIZATION OF THE MECHANICAL ARTS ............................................146
BODY, MACHINES, AND THE DISCIPLINE OF KNOWLEDGE.......................................................................156


EPISTEMOLOGY OF COUTUME.........................................................................................................167
I. Napier’s rabdology, or reckoning rods ...........................................................................................178
II. Napier’s logarithms.......................................................................................................................185
SITUATING PASCAL’S ARITHMETICAL MACHINE.....................................................................................200
ETIENNE PASCAL’S TAX BURDEN AND THE ORIGINS OF THE PASCALINE ................................................204

CLOCKMAKING AND PASCAL’S PRIVILEGE ..............................................................................................221
THE PASCALINE AND THE MARRIAGE BETWEEN THEORY AND PRACTICE...............................................237
MEMORY, COUTUME, AND THE EMBODIMENT OF KNOWLEDGE IN MACHINES .........................................241


ACADÉMIE ROYALE DES SCIENCES ...............................................................................................256
AN URBAN COMMODITY: HUYGENS AND CARRIAGES ............................................................................260
I. The chaise roulante and the business of patents.............................................................................261
II. The theory, practice, and uncertainty of machine design ..............................................................267
APPROVED BY THE ACADÉMIE DES SCIENCES .........................................................................................280
HUYGENS AND THE BUSINESS OF AUTHORSHIP .......................................................................................295
I. Huygens’s barometer, Hubin’s thermometer and the trajectory of an instrument..........................................302
MACHINES, THE ACADEMY’S IMPRIMATUR, AND THE JOURNAL DES SÇAVANS .......................................311


PHILOSOPHICAL KNOWLEDGE .......................................................................................................325

REFERENCES ..........................................................................................................................................368
Primary literature ...............................................................................................................................368
Secondary literature ...........................................................................................................................378


FIGURE 1.1: GERMAN INTABULATION SYSTEM ...............................................................................................39


FIGURE 1.3: MERSENNE’S HURDY-GURDY .....................................................................................................59

FIGURE 1.4: TWO IMAGES OF ST. CECILIA ......................................................................................................69


FIGURE 1.6: MERSENNE’S TABLE OF ORGAN PIPE DIAPASONS ........................................................................91


FIGURE 1.8: MERSENNE’S ORGAN CLAVIERS ................................................................................................109

FIGURE 2.1: RATIONAL AND GEOMETRIC WEAVING PATTERNS.....................................................................143

FIGURE 2.2: DESCARTES’S LENS-GRINDING MACHINE ..................................................................................150

FIGURE 2.3: ARTIFICIAL “ORGANS”..............................................................................................................159


FIGURE 3.2: EXAMPLE OF NAPIER’S BONES ..................................................................................................179

FIGURE 3.3 KIRCHER’S ORGANUM MATHEMATICUM ......................................................................................182

FIGURE 3.4: PETIT’S CYLINDRE ARITHMETIQUE .............................................................................................185



FIGURE 3.7: THE PASCALINE ........................................................................................................................214

FIGURE 3.8: THE PASCALINE’S MECHANISM ILLUSTRATED ...........................................................................224

FIGURE 4.1: THE CHAISE ROULANTE OR MACHINE ROANESQUE.....................................................................263

FIGURE 4.2: VARIATIONS OF THE CHAISE ROULANTE .....................................................................................268


FIGURE 4.4: A NEW TYPE OF FOUR-WHEEL CALÈCHE IN PARIS ......................................................................270

FIGURE 4.5: HUYGENS’S IDEAS ABOUT CARRIAGE SUSPENSIONS..................................................................272

FIGURE 4.6: HUYGENS’S OWN CALÈCHE .......................................................................................................275

FIGURE 4.7: SUPPORT SYSTEMS FOR LARGE TELESCOPE ...............................................................................289

FIGURE 4.8: VARIOUS TYPES OF LEVELS ......................................................................................................291

FIGURE 4.9: COMIERS’S HERO FOUNTAIN ....................................................................................................294

FIGURE 4.10: DE HAUTEFEUILLE’S AND HUYGENS’S BALANCE-SPRING WATCHES ......................................300

FIGURE 4.11: HUYGENS’S BAROMETERS ......................................................................................................303

FIGURE 4.12: VARIOUS MATHEMATICAL INSTRUMENTS ...............................................................................317

FIGURE 5.1: THE HAND AS AN “INSTRUMENT” .............................................................................................338

FIGURE 5.2: GOCLENIUS’S DEFINITION OF HABITUS ......................................................................................345

FIGURE 5.3: GOCLENIUS’S DEFINITION OF HABITUS INTELLECTUS .................................................................346


I have anticipated this moment with pleasure and dread for a couple of years now, torn

between the joy of thanking those who helped me make it through graduate studies at

Harvard and, simultaneously, the fear of forgetting someone or not finding the

appropriate words of acknowledgement. That said, one thing is clear: my deepest

gratitude goes to my advisor—my Doktorvater—Mario Biagioli. During my all-to

unorthodox graduate school journey, Mario has been there for moral support (sometimes

badly needed), opening doors and providing academic opportunities of all sorts. Most

importantly, he helped me understand what it really meant to study history of science. His

intellectual acumen, persistent questioning and incisive remarks have forced me to go

beyond what I thought I could accomplish. Involved but not always looking over my

shoulder, Mario encouraged me to explore and tackle issues about the early modern

material culture of natural philosophy that, at first, I believed I would never contemplate

nor write about. (Ending, for him, in having to read too many half-baked historical and

theoretical assumptions.) He had faith in the project from the onset, which gave me in

return the necessary confidence to pull this through. Mille grazie Mario.

My co-advisors, Ann Blair and Peter Galison, were likewise of seminal

importance. Ann Blair has given me the training in early modern France that was lacking

to embark on this project. Thanks to her teaching, I have acquired a goût prononcé and

the basis of an expertise in early modern French thought and culture. She has been very

patient as regards my slow progress and peculiar parcours, and to my great benefit has

kindly read this tome chapter by chapter, as they were coming out pêle-mêle. Though I

tried my best, I am afraid I have not always been able to find le mot juste, as she pointed

out to me so many times. I feel fortunate to have been guided by such an accomplished

and generous scholar. Peter Galison, no less an accomplished scholar and filmmaker, is

the reason why I came to Harvard in the first place. In fact, he was the one I contacted

when I decided to apply to Harvard—after I finished reading his monumental Image &

Logic. Since my arrival, Peter’s scholarship has been a constant source of inspiration,

somewhat reflected in my own views of early modern material culture. His assistance,

availability and encouragements then and now, as the Director of the Collection of

Historical Scientific Instruments (more on this below), have provided me with more than

I ever expected or hoped for in launching the first phase of my career.

Finally, over the past two years, Matthew L. Jones has been a source of

inspiration and a wonderful reader. He provided thoughtful insights on various technical

fine points of the dissertation and warnings when I went too far astray in intellectual

analyses of early modern material culture (I’m sure he still does not agree with a few

assertions I make regarding Pascal and the arithmetical machine). I was most fortunate

for having the opportunity to work with such a rising star in the field. Matt has still a lot

to teach me, and I am one of his most eager students.

Several other people (now begins my fear) have helped tremendously by reading,

criticizing and discussing with me various drafts of the following chapters. I benefited

over the years from the expertise and intellectual generosity of Jean-Baptiste Fressoz,

Simon Schaffer, Daniel Garber, Lorraine Daston, Elly Truitt, Will Thomas, Justin

Grosslight, Rob Iliffe, Alison Simmons, and Myles Jackson. Though not directly

involved with the dissertation, I was privileged enough to receive training in history of

science from scholars who greatly influenced how I look at the discipline. For that, I am

enormously grateful to Steven Shapin, Naomi Oreskes, Olivier Darrigol, Steve Harris,

John Murdoch, David Kaiser, Bob Brain, and Katy Park.

On the institutional side, besides Harvard’s full scholarship, I was awarded a

Merit Fellowship from Harvard in the Fall of 2006 and a Dibner Institute Graduate

Fellowship (then at MIT) for the year 2005-2006. These two awards, combining for a

continuous year and half of full-time work on my dissertation, allowed me to draft no less

than three chapters. Without this coordinated—and precious—time of research and

writing, I would not pen these acknowledgements right now. Another institution in

Germany, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, provided me with a unique

opportunity to travel around Europe for two months in the summer of 2006, in order to

visit and study museum collections and practices. This project, dubbed the Wandering

Seminar, opened my eyes to a lot of issues regarding the relationships between museum

work, academic traditions and the significane of the material culture of science in

studying history of science. Thanks to Lorraine Daston, head of this pioneering project, I

was able to connect with fourteen other “wanderers” and exchange about the theory and

practices of historical objects—dating from the Renaissance to the present day. The

intellectual rewards and lessons learned during this experience will stay with me far

beyond graduate school. (For a summary of this modern intellectual Grand Tour and a

brief biography of my fellow wanderers, from which I learned plenty, please visit this fun

and valuable website, based on our experience: http://scientificobjects.mpiwg-

berlin.mpg.de/scientificobjects/home/Wandering-Seminar/Website.html. Pisa was such an

incredible experience!)

For the past year and a half, I am also working on a fantastic project right in my

alley: the cataloguing, photographying and online publishing of the Collection of

Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard. This project (examine its ongoing progress

on Waywiser — http://dssmhi1.fas.harvard.edu/emuseumdev/code/emuseum.asp — our online

database) occupies me full-time, and though it is unrelated to my dissertation, it forces

me more than ever to ponder and question the role of instruments and the material culture

of science in the context of academia and academic scholarship. Most importantly, it puts

me in contact with colleagues and other graduate students that I greatly appreciate for

their professionalism, expertise, passion, dedication and good humor: Sara Schechner,

Marty Richardson, Samantha van Gerbig, Phil Loring, Dave Unger, Michael Kelley, Dick

Broadbent, Justin Grosslight, Juan Andrès León, Christina Ramos and Latif Nasser. I

want to especially thank Judith Lajoie and Peter Galison, respectively Director of

Administration and Director of the CHSI, for the confidence they put in me since the

beginning of the project in early 2007, a confidence that has led to the present—and

unexpected—curatorship position.

My mom and dad were pillars of support, psychologically and materially. Maman,

especially, has driven down several times from Chambly to help us take care of the one,

then two little ones, providing me with precious time of dissertation work. Lastly, how

can I ever thank enough my wife Nathalie and my two adorable children, Camille and

Simon, for their love, patience, attention, support, tolerance, and fortitude (did I mention

patience?) in putting up for so many years with my absences, mood swings, anxieties,

and writing dry spells (did I mention absences?) so I could finish my gros livre, as

Camille says. More than anything I could have done had had been alone, they provided

me with a concrete goal, a terminus ad quem I could never have set for myself otherwise.

This goal, and the efforts required to reach it, made me realize more than ever that je vous

aime de tout mon coeur.



In 1671, the Capucin father Chérubin d’Orléans published what should be understood as

a sign of the fast eroding epistemic boundary between theory, experiments and artisanal

knowledge in early modern France. D’Orléans’s study of the telescope, entitled La

Dioptrique oculaire, has a remarkable and telling subtitle: ou la théorique, la positive, et

la méchanique, de l’oculaire dioptrique en toutes ses especes. 1 What is argued in this

dissertation about theory, experimental and artisanal practices, and mechanical devices in

seventeenth-century France is here explicitly enunciated in just a few eloquent words.

The overall structure of d’Orléans’s La Dioptrique oculaire is analogous to René

Descartes’s Dioptrique—which was very influential in France in the 1670s. 2 First comes

the theory of light (how reflection and refraction work); second, the theory of the

telescope (what d’Orléans called the oculaire dioptrique); and third, the positive and

mechanique of the telescope, respectively how to make and use the telescope and how to

cut, grind and polish the most perfect spherical (not Descartes’s hyperbolic) lenses using

specially designed machines. 3 Unlike his famous predecessor, however, d’Orléans

Cherubin d’Orléans, La Dioptrique oculaire, ou la théorique, la positive, et la méchanique, de
l’oculaire dioptrique en toutes ses especes (Paris, 1671).
The author of the review of Isaac Barrow’s Lectiones opticæ et geometricæ for the Journal des
sçavans (Monday, 18 November 1675) mentioned upfront that “L’Optique est une des matieres sur
lesquelles on a fait en ce siecle de plus belles & plus curieuses découvertes. On admire encore tous les jours
la subtilité avec laquelle Mr. Descartes a découvert sur la Dioptrique plusieurs choses qui avoient été
inconnuës aux Anciens… Le principe de M. Descartes sur la Dioptrique est quasi universellement receu.”
(pp. 241-242)
A summary of the book, enumerating every section, is found in English in the Philosophical
Transactions 6 (1671), 3045-3050. It provides no analysis of its content.
] Introduction ]

emphasized a new way of thinking about machines, artisananal practices and theory.

Where Descartes endeavored to reform—rationalize—artisanal skills and mechanical

practices by getting rid of the artisan altogether from the actual manufacture of lenses

(see Chapter two), La Dioptrique oculaire was about the creation of a new kind of

Artiste, someone that would exist in the intersection of theory, practices and mechanical

devices. As D. Graham Burnett suggests, “The essential character of the [lens-grinding]

machine could be discovered and demonstrated by mathematics, but the accidental

character of the machine had to be shaped by experience and attention to the natural and

real characteristics of materials, and the abilities of the human body.” 4 Only those artistes

who embraced at once the theory of light, the positive of telescope making and use, and

the necessary skills of the mechanical arts would gain complete knowledge of the science

of optics. D’Orléans introduced one of the most remarkable and comprehensive epistemic

schemes of the period.

The author’s statement in the foreword is categorical: “I have given no use of the

telescope [Oculaire] that I did not positively reduced to practice, with all the diligence

and exactness required to convince me it was thus.” 5 The theory of optics—the first part

of the work—was in a sense easy, or rather straightforward. It was fairly well understood

at the time and, most of all, certain, based on mathematical principles and ideal mirrors

and lenses. In real life, d’Orléans contended, it obviously was not the case. An almost

D. Graham Burnett has no doubt offered the best analysis of d’Orléans’s work in the general
context of early modern lens making machines. See his Descartes and the hyperbolic quest: Lens making
machines and their significance in the seventeenth century (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society,
2005), 107-121, quote on p. 112.
D’Orléans, La Dioptrique oculaire, iijr (Ordre et dessein de l’auteur): “Je n’ay donné aucun
usage de l’Oculaire, que je n’aye reduit positivement à la pratique, avec toute la diligense, & l’exactitude,
qu’il requeroit pour m’en faire certain.”

] Introduction ]

perfect understanding of the making and use of the telescope could however be achieved

if someone’s long experience in the matter was positively reduced to practice.

Experiments, arbitrarily produced and reproduced, had eventually to be ordered in a

specific way to generate new knowledge about nature. Yet not all experiments and

expérience were useful. According to d’Orléans, one had to ascertain those giving the

most certain of results—the positive part of the process. The term “positif” in early

modern French meant something that was certain and real, something regular and

assured. 6 D’Orléans, in other words, insisted that the making and use of telescopes could

be reduced to principles, just like the theory of optics was. 7 The positive of telescope

making was thus a specialized practice—based on experiments and sometimes on a life-

long experience—that had become as certain as the “practice” of theory.

Yet again, the positive of telescope making was based on ideal lenses—how to

arrange multiple (perfect) lenses to obtain the best results. The final ambition was in

achieving these perfect spherical lenses enabling the assured practice of telescope

making. This was the domain of the mechanique, which was quite distinct from the

positive. 8 Here, d’Orléans distinguished between the simple artisan—the oculariste

vulgaire—and the Artiste curieux, an enlightened craftsman that combined reason to

mechanical skills. 9 These skills, however, had to be used in conjunction with a lens-

Antoine Furetière, Dictionnaire universel (1690), s.v. positif: “Qui est certain & effectif, qu’on
met en fait comme une chose constante & assûrée. Cela n’est point imaginaire, mais est positif. Ce fait est
positif, & il en offre la preuve. Ce ne sont pas des offres labiales, mais reelles & positives.”
D’Orléans, La Dioptrique oculaire, 172, where he summarizes the chief principles for making a
telescope, six in all. See, on p. 189, the table constructed from experience (positive) to build four-lenses
telescope of different sizes.
D’Orléans, La Dioptrique oculaire, 337, “réellement, tres-differentes & distinctes.”
D’Orléans, La Dioptrique oculaire, 393, for example, where he states: “La maniere, que tiennent
les Ocularistes vulgaires, a concaver les verres, n’estant qu’une routine grossiere, & sans esprit: je ne l’ay

] Introduction ]

grinding machine. Not the compound sort, such as Descartes’s, which joined two or more

spinning motions and where the Artiste was completely left out of the grinding process.

The machines designed by d’Orléans were simpler, so that one motion was mechanical

and one regulated by the hands of the Artiste curieux, hands that were guided by his

reason. The lens-grinding machine and the Artiste thus formed a new type of entity in

d’Orléans mechanical rhetoric, the Artiste being seen as the soul of the machine. 10 As

Graham Burnett puts it: “The artisan was the maker, but he had to make through the

machine, which had to be an extension of himself, just as he had to become a

‘component’ within it. The successful system for making had to bind the artisan, the

mechanism, and the analytical ‘essence’ into a tight unit, a unit necessitating the

mechanization of the artisan himself.” 11 The Artiste curieux, to whom was intended

d’Orléans’s book, thus brought into play the theory of optics, experience and experiments

in the form of positive, and manual skills in order to manufacture an instrument such as

the telescope, which was then employed to generate new knowledge about nature.

D’Orléans’s epistemic novelty is evident and striking. He was certainly more

explicit in writing than most of his contemporaries in juxtaposing these three

characteristics—theory, practices and instruments—of early modern natural philosophy,

too often categorized and compartmentalized into separate activities. The chief argument

pas jugée meriter, ny l’estime, ny la main, de nostre Artiste curieux, ny consequemment, la peine d’estre
rectifiée, & corrigée des defauts tres-considerables, qu’elle admet dans la pratique.”
D’Orléans, La Dioptrique oculaire, 380-381: “Car estant animée, & guidée de sa raison, elle est
d’autant moins sujète l’erreur, qu’estant encore doüée de sentiment, elle fait connoistre en sa maniere, si
elle applique exactement, estant libre en cette action, & non necessitée, ou contrainte d’ailleurs, comme
seroit une machine inanimée. C’est donc icy une verité connuë, que nostre Artiste doit tenir pour maxime:
de ne jamais pretendre, pouvoir construire une machine, par le moyen de laquelle il puisse aussi exactement
effectuer en cet art, par un mouvement compliqué, ce que celle d’un simple mouvement, peut faire aidée de
sa main, qui luy en supplée un second.”
Graham Burnett, Descartes and the hyperbolic quest, 120.

] Introduction ]

of this dissertation, however, is to show that what d’Orléans asserted haut et fort in 1671

was an epistemology of knowledge-making already familiar to savants and natural

philosophers, going back to the first decades of the century.

Contemporary to d’Orléans a physician from Toulouse, François Bayle, published

in 1675 a Discours emphasizing the importance of joining reason to experiments. Though

most savants, according to Bayle, were claiming these two activities had to be joined, few

actually did so. Natural philosophy, or physique, had indeed become “a chaos of

metaphysical speculations.” Medicine, Bayle’s own specialty, was in no better shape.

Descartes, for instance, was completely mistaken in his analysis of the heart’s movement,

as he was regarding the function of the pineal gland. Jean Pecquet, who discovered the

thoracic canal by reason and by performing experiments, was condemned by Jean Riolan,

who preferred to remain faithful to the Galenic doctrine. Experiments only, on the other

hand, carried out by empirics without the help of reason, were not the solution either. In

medicine, to formulate a diagnostic without the help of reason was endangering the

patient’s life. Similarly with prescribing medication, since a remedy that worked for some

persons (determined by experiments) may not do so for others. Only reason could

ascertain why it was so. Experiment was blind without the light of reason, whereas reason

was too vague and too uncertain when not grounded on experiments. By the time Bayle

and d’Orléans published their respective work on optics and medicine in the first half of

the 1670s, this rhetoric had become a locus communis in France. 12

François Bayle, Discours sur l’experience et la raison, dans lequel on montre la necessité de les
joindre dans la physique, dans la medecine, & dans la chirurgie (Paris, 1675). The book was reviewed in
the Journal des sçavans, 17 June 1675, 161-162. On Descartes’s medicine, see Vincent Aucante, La
Philosophie médicale de Descartes (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2006), esp. 163-185 and 239-
247. Regarding experiments on the heart’s movement, Aucante says: “L’utilisation que fait Descartes des

] Introduction ]

What was lacking in Bayle’s analysis was the material culture of natural

philosophy and medicine: the tools, instruments and machines involved in producing the

right kind of experiments joined to reason. The abbé Pierre Michon Bourdelot, well-

known for his Parisian academy of savants, and to whom Bayle dedicated his Discours,

addressed this issue in his commentary at the end of Bayle’s book. In complete

agreement with the author’s assessment, Bourdelot mentioned how experiments alone

had given prestige (éclat) to people with little knowledge. Machines of all sorts were also

a great seductress of audiences. (Perhaps he was thinking here of Rohault, famous for his

experimental practices and his vast array of instruments.) Fortunately, savants (habilles

gens) knew how to discourse about them and how to create new knowledge using them. 13

By themselves, machines were no better than reason nor experiments—perhaps even

worst, considering who made and displayed them.

Machines, nonetheless, were in the second half of the seventeenth century an

important ingredient of philosophizing. During Christiaan Huygens’s Parisian visit in the

early 1660s, he did not omit to mention in his Journal what he saw in Henri Louis Habert

de Montmor’s cabinet. He also visited on many occasions the clockmaker Martinot, the

expériences pour ce qui concerne le mouvement du coeur est finalement assez décevante. Sa thèse semble
empruntée à ‘Hippocrate’, mais il en change les causes, introduisant les résultats de sa physique des trois
éléments, qu’il pourrait bien avoir reprise aussi au traité Des chairs de la Collection hippocratique.” (p.
184) Jacques Rohault said similar things to Bayle and d’Orléans in the preface of his Traité de physique
(Paris, 1671).
Bourdelot in Bayle, Discours sur l’experience et la raison, 86-87 where he mentions: “Il est
étrange de voir combien ces Experiences toutes seules ont donné d’éclat à des gens munis de tres petit
sçavoir: Ceux qui en font parade y acquerent de l’estime à bon marché, ils ont la foule pour eux, car tout le
monde ayme le spectacle; on court après des choses extraordinaires, & quand on en fait le récit, n’admirez-
vous point avec quelle avidité on les écarte?” A few sentences later he adds: “Le manege des machines est
for seduisant & tient toûjours l’Auditoire remply, mais il ne s’en faut pas tenir là: Les habilles Gens sçavent
discourir dessus, les véritables Philosophes assemblent des Experiences diverses, & en tirent des inductions
qui s’écartent du sujet le moins qu’il est possible, ils les verifient par d’autres Experiences, virent toûjours à
ce qui peut estre utile.”

] Introduction ]

optician Ménard and the instrument maker Blondeau. 14 Samuel Sorbière, member and

secretary of the Montmor academy, did not himself miss an opportunity to visit

workshops and to report on instruments and machines he came across during his travels

throughout Europe. In his personal letters and talks at the Montmor academy, he often

mentioned the role of experiments in knowledge-production. 15 Balthasar de Monconys

did the same, especially during his stay in London, where he visited the workshops of

Ralph Greatorex, Anthony Thompson and especially Richard Reeve. According to

Sorbière, who visited London at the same time as Monconys, “I found [Monconys] in his

element, immersed in the conversation of natural philosophers and breathing nothing but

machines and new experiments.” Huygens, who was also visiting London at that time,

gave Monconys a drawing of his air pump, which Monconys reproduced in his Journal

and showed to a few people after he left London. There is even a special and useful table

on machines and artifices divers at the end of Monconys’s work. 16

Henri-L. Brugmans, Le séjour de Christian Huygens à Paris et ses relations avec les milieux
scientifiques français, suivi de son Journal de voyage à Paris et à Londres (Paris: Impressions Pierre André,
1935), 143: “Vu son cabinet. Tableaux, instruments de mathema[tique]. Venus d’Aleaume. Pierres
d’aimant. Figures d’Albert Dürer. Jouet des petites planches liées avec des rubans. Esguille suspendue
tournant a tous sens. Petites bouteilles dans l’eau qui montent et descendent, sans qu’on s’en aperçoive.”
Ménard is also mentioned several times in Huygens’s Correspondance.
Samuel Sorbiere, Relations, lettres et discours de Mr de Sorbiere sur diverses matieres
curieuses (Paris, 1660) and Sorbiere, Lettres et discours de Mr de Sorbiere sur diverses matieres curieuses
(Paris, 1660), where he mentions during a talk at the Montmor academy that “Nous nous sommes
dauantage preualus des experiences & de la pratique de nos Cuisiniers, de nos Architectes, & de tous nos
autres Artisans; que de toutes les speculations des Physiciens qui ont pris l’essor, & que nous auons perdu
de veuë incontinent... Euitons le plus que nous pourrons ce langage, & fuyons les inutiles subtilités.
Tendons au plustost à la pratique dans nos raisonnemens sur les causes naturelles que nous recherchons.”
(p. 200)
Balthasar de Monconys, Journal des voyages de Monsieur Monconys, Conseiller du Roy en ses
Conseils d’Estat & Privé, & Lieutenant Criminel au Siege Presidial de Lyon. Où les Sçavants trouveront
un nombre infini de nouveautez, en Machines de Mathematique, Experiences Physiques, Raisonnemens de
la belle Philosophie, curiositez de Chymie, & conversations des Illustres de ce Siecle... 3 vols. (Lyon,
1665-6). For Huygens’s air pump, see vol. 2, p. 73. For Sorbière’s quote, see James A. Bennett, “Shopping
for instruments in Paris and London,” in Merchants & marvels: Commerce, science and art in early
modern Europe, ed. by Pamela H. Smith and Paula Findlen (New York: Routledge, 2002), 370-395, on p.

] Introduction ]

At the Paris Académie des sciences, instruments and machines were omnipresent,

as the well-known engravings from Sébastien Le Clerc illustrates—especially the one

showing the king’s 1671 fictitious visit to the Academy. (Louis XVI did actually pay a

visit to his Academy a decade later.) When William III, king of England, graced the

Academy with his presence in 1690, he was shown all sorts of astronomical instruments

made for the Observatory, and even the salle des machines, where the English monarch

admired Ole Rømer’s two planetaria (built by Thuret) and discoursed on various

mechanical machines. Experiments were performed, machines were seen and operated,

and theoretical claims discussed in the presence of the king of England, all under one

roof. 17 By fully reintegrating the notion of material culture into the domain of French

seventeenth-century knowledge-production, I demonstrate in this dissertation that artisans

and savants—natural philosophers—did not work in a vacuum, oblivious to what each

other was doing. As I suggest, artisans and savants intersected in technological spaces,

where in order to communicate they formulated epistemic dialogues founded on the tools

and machines enclosed within their space. 18

372. Huygens had an unfavorable bias against this work, mentioning in one of his correspondence that “Ie
n’ay pas leu encore les voiages de Monsieur de Monconis, ma curiositè ayant estè diminuee par le raport de
quelques uns qui m’ont dit que c’est un ouurage fort mal digerè, et ou il y a quantitè de choses de peu
d’importance, l’autheur ayant eu de curiositez vaines en plusieurs choses comme en l’astrologie, alchimie
&c. Mais puis que vous dites y avoir pris de la satisfaction j’ay envie de veoir ce que c’est.” Huygens to
Philips Doublet, 6 August 1666, in Oeuvres complètes, 22 vols. (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1888-), vol. 6, no.
1555, p. 73. [Hereafter cited as OC(6), no. 1555, p. 73.]
E. C. Watson, “The early days of the Académie des sciences as portrayed in the engravings of
Sébastien Le Clerc,” Osiris 7 (1939), 556-587. On William III’s visit, see Bernard Le Bovier de
Fontenelle’s Histoire de l’Académie royale des sciences, 2 vols (Paris, 1733), ii:94-104, esp. 102-104.
Richard Westfall has shown, based on a prosopography of early modern natural philosophers,
that more than one fifth were involved in one manner or another with instrumentation, and about three
quarters participated in some technological enterprise. Westfall, “Science and technology during the
Scientific Revolution: An empirical approach,” in Renaissance and revolution: Humanists, scholars,
craftsmen and natural philosophers in early modern Europe, ed. by J. V. Field and Frank A. J. L. James
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 63-72.

] Introduction ]

I have chosen to limit my analysis to France because the history of science

historiography has always overemphasized and contrasted the rationalism—

Cartesianism—of the continental philosophical powerhouse with the experimentally-

driven Baconianism (later Boyleanism) of England and the Galileanism of Italy. What is

shown in the following chapters is the repeated and significant contact with artisans and

instruments “rationalists,” theory-minded individuals such as Marin Mersenne, René

Descartes, Blaise Pascal and Christiaan Huygens had over the course of their careers. In

France, I argue, it was “natural” for a savant to work (and later network in the case of the

Académie des sciences) with artisans, who provided various types of machines and

mechanical skills. 19 I am not trying to argue that Descartes, for instance, was strictly an

empiricist rather than a rationalist. 20 Or that by focusing my attention on instruments and

artisans the latter—not the natural philosophers—ushered in the so-called Scientific

Revolution. 21 Though in the last two decades historians of science have worked toward a

It could even be argued that this happened earlier in the sixteenth century. Decades ago, Paolo
Rossi, Edgard Zilsel, and Franz Borkenau (to name but a few) directed their writings towards unlikely
scholarly figures such as Petrus Ramus and Juan Luis Vives, the latter urging humanists “not be ashamed to
enter into the workshops and into the factories, asking questions of the artisans and trying to become
cognizant of the details of their work.” To place an emphasis on the foundation of a more practical
approach to natural philosophy—searching in other words for the rise of an experimental method—gave
these scholars munitions against the tendency to grant natural philosophy an authority solely derived from
theoretical presuppositions due to high culture elites. Paolo Rossi, Philosophy, technology, and the arts in
the early modern era, transl. by Savaltor Attanasio (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), quote on p. 6. Edgar
Zilsel, “The origins of William Gilbert’s scientific method,” in The social origins of modern science, ed. by
Diederick Raven, Wolfgang Krohn, and Robert S. Cohen (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000),
71-95. Franz Borkenau, “The sociology of the mechanistic world-picture,” Science in Context 1 (1988):
Desmond M. Clarke, Descartes’s philosophy of science (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, c1982).
Several of these approaches emphasizing technology and artisanal epistemologies over “pure”
science would have been labeled “postmoderns” by Paul Forman had he dealt with the early modern era.
Forman, “The primacy of science in modernity, of technology in postmodernity, and of ideology in the
history of technology,” History and Technology 23 (2007), 1-152. The Smithsonian Institution curator
claims that since circa 1980 the historical, sociological and philosophical discourse about science and
technology has been completely overturned, shifting gears from a primacy of science over technology

] Introduction ]

rapprochement between craftsmen and learned individuals in early modern Europe, very

few have studied France. 22 Or, for that matter, tried to understand what a book like

d’Orléans’s La Dioptrique oculaire really represented in linking theory, practice and

machines into a single knowledge-production unit.

This dissertation, in other words, attempts to strike a balance between purely

theoretical and experimental (or artisanal) interpretations of early modern science. It

moves away from these old compartmentalizations of knowledge by integrating

theoretical conceptions, experimental practices and instrumentation into an epistemic

(modern times) to a primacy of technology over science (postmodern times). For instance, Pamela Smith
argues that “it was the actions of these people [craftsmen] that brought about the institutionalization of the
new philosophy and, more importantly, made the new method of pursuing knowledge part of the habits of
mind and action of European scholarly culture.” Pamela H. Smith, The body of the artisan: Art and
experience in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 18. See also the
essay review by Bruce T. Moran, “Knowing how and knowing that: Artisans, bodies, and natural
knowledge in the Scientific Revolution,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 36 (2005), 577-
585. According to Deborah Harkness, the Elizabethan craftsmen’s “significance lies not in the elucidation
of new formulas or the construction of new consmological systems, but in the ways that they organized
their communities and settled disputes; the value they placed on the acquisition of various literacies…; and
the practices they developed that led to an increasingly sophisticated hands-on exploration of the natural
world. These contributions … laid the social foundations for the Scientific Revolution in England and did
the groundwork that was required so that a man like Boyle knew whom to ask, and what to ask for, when
he sought out a man to assist him in his air pump experiments.” Deborah E. Harkness, The jewel house:
Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 10. Clifford
D. Conner is much less nuanced and far more “postmodern” (used here pejoratively) than the previous two
very good scholars, when he says that “The historical priority of technology over theoretical science is most
generally exemplified by the central theme of this book, which is that artisans contributed not only the
mass of empirical knowledge that furnished the raw material of the Scientific Revolution, but the empirical
method itself… It is my contention that the foundations of scientific knowledge owe far more to experiment
and ‘hands-on’ trial-and-error procedures than to abstract thought.” Conner, A people’s history of science:
Miners, midwives, and “low mechanicks” (New York: Nation Books, 2005), 17 and 10 (emphasis original).
Pamela Long, “Power, patronage, and the authorship of ars: From mechanical know-how to
mechanical knowledge in the last scribal age,” Isis 88 (1997), 1-41. Long, Openness, secrecy, authorship:
Technical arts and the culture of knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Baltimore: The Johns
Hopkins University Press, 2001), esp. chaps. 6-7. Paula Findlen, Possessing nature: Museums, collecting,
and scientific culture in early modern Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). Lorraine
Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the order of nature (New York: Zone Books, 1998). Steven
Shapin A social history of truth: Civility and science in seventeenth-century England, (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1994), chap. 8. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the air-
pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the experimental life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985). For France,
the best analysis comes from Anthony Turner, “Mathematical instrument-making in early modern Paris,” in
Luxury trades and consumerism in ancien régime Paris: Studies in the history of the skilled workforce, ed.
by Robert Fox and Anthony Turner (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998), 63-96.

] Introduction ]

whole. My work is somewhat related to John V. Pickstone’s recent concept of “working

knowledges,” which claims that “most, perhaps all, practices of knowledge production

and technics can be analyzed in terms of elemental ways of working and knowing or, to

abbreviate, in terms of working knowledges.” This dissertation is about the plurality of

practices (theoretical, experimental, artisanal), the shared knowledges that were co-

ordinated in order to generate new discoveries about nature. It is about, to borrow from

another recent book in line with my own work, “the mindful hands and handy minds that

collaboratively engaged in inquiry and invention” in France during the seventeenth

century. 23

The following five chapters deal with this plurality of practices, the shared

knowledge that I describe as habits of knowledge (habitus scientiæ). As explained in

more detail in the concluding chapter, the concept of habitus goes back to Greek

Antiquity, in Aristotle especially, and was somewhat systematized in the Middle Ages

through the writings of Aquinas in his Summa theologica. In the early modern period,

Descartes wanted to rid natural philosophy of this scholastic concept, which essentially

promoted habitus to an intellectual faculty linking the mind and the body: habitus in

John V. Pickstone, “Working knowledges before and after circa 1800: Practices and disciplines
in the history of science, technology, and medicine,” Isis 98 (2007), 489-516, quote on p. 494. See also
idem, Ways of knowing: A new history of science, technology and medicine (Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 2000). Lissa Roberts, Simon Schaffer, and Peter Dear, eds., The mindful hand: Inquiry and
invention from the late Renaissance to early industrialisation (Amsterdam: Koninklijke Nederlandse
Akademie van Wetenschappen, 2007), xv. On a similar topic see Horst Bredekamp, Galilei der Künstler:
der Mond, die Sonne, die Hand (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2007). Matteo Valleriani also looked at Galileo
in a more nuanced way, dubbing him an “engineer-scientist” rather than a theoretical genius or simply a
very able practitioner. Valleriani, Galileo engineer (Ph.D. dissertation, Max Planck Institute for the History
of Science, 2007). On Galileo, see also Jochen Büttner et al., Galileo and the shared knowledge of his time
(Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Preprint 228, 2002). Christiaan Huygens has been studied
as well from the practitioner’s side in Maria Helena Marconell, Christiaan Huygens: A foreign inventor in
the Court of Louis XIV. His role as a forerunner of mechanical engineering (Ph.D. dissertation, Open
University, 1999). Another recent example focusing on shared practices between various communities of
practitioners is Pamela H. Smith and Benjamin Schmidt, eds., Making knowledge in early modern Europe:
Practices, objects, and texts, 1400-1800 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007).

] Introduction ]

anima and habitus in corpore. By confining habitus to the realm of the artisan (the body)

and putting forward the notion of intuitus (the mind’s eye) for the discovery of true

knowledge, Descartes aimed at a complete mind-body disconnection. But as I show in

Chapter two, Descartes’s early understanding of the practice of knowledge was strongly

inspired by the fact that the artisan’s habitus increased with training, as the intellectual

Cartesian notion of perspicacitas and sagacitas actually did—reminiscent of Aquinas’s

increase of science (scientiæ) by habitus. 24 I likewise demonstrate in Chapter three,

regarding Pascal’s arithmetical machine, that the concept of habitude (and coutume) was

pregnant with intellectual and moral possibilities, not only limited to artisanal labor. 25

Every chapter in this dissertation deals with theoretical, practical and instrumental

approaches to natural philosophy, and how they interacted together. These habits of

knowledge, though separate and often completely different from one another, were not as

unconnected and compartmentalized as they are usually represented in the literature.

Chapter four, dealing with the Académie royale des sciences, shows best how

academicians, savants, honnêtes hommes and artisans formed an extended network

around and inside the Academy where intellectual ideas, practical knowledge and

instrumental inventions were shared and fought over by all for privilege and authority. In

Aquinas writes: “science can increase in itself by addition; thus when anyone learns several
conclusions of geometry, the same specific habit of science increases in that man. Yet a man’s science
increases, as to the subject’s participation thereof, in intensity, in so far as one man is quicker and readier
than another in considering the same conclusions.” Thomas Aquinas, The Summa theologica of St. Thomas
Aquinas, 2nd ed. (1920), internet resource <http://www.newadvent.org/summa/> (accessed on 1 August
2007), prima secundæ partis, question 52, art. 2. Félix Ravaisson writes similarly that “L’habitude a
d’autant plus de force, que la modification qui l’a produite se prolonge ou se répète davantage. L’habitude
est donc une disposition, à l’égard d’un changement, engendrée dans un être par la continuité ou la
répétition de ce même changement.” Ravaisson, De l’habitude [and] Métaphysique et morale (Paris:
Presses universitaires de France, 1999 [1838]), 106.
The best discussion of habitude in relation to Pascal is Gérard Ferreyrolles, Les Reines du
monde. L’Imagination et la coutume chez Pascal (Paris: Honoré Champion Editeur, 1995), esp. 66-80.

] Introduction ]

sociology and philosophy, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Pierre Maine de Biran, Félix

Ravaisson and Pierre Bourdieu have all studied and interpreted the social and intellectual

epistemic attributes of habitus or habits of knowledge. 26 By fully integrating instrument

and machines—the material culture of natural philosophy—into the practice of early

modern knowledge production, I describe and illustrate in five chapters how habitus and

organum were co-ordinated and tuned to the production of science (scientia).

CHAPTER ONE, on organ making, deals with Marin Mersenne and his most

important treatise, the Harmonie universelle, contenant la théorie et la pratique de la

musique (1636-37)—the first publication of the young science of mechanics according to

Robert Lenoble. 27 Mersenne’s music theory was indeed a powerful approach in the

establishment of a mechanical philosophy aimed at surpassing conventional knowledge—

the somewhat prevalent Greciae fides. Peter Dear, for instance, says that for Mersenne a

“deep and reciprocal relationship” existed between the sciences of mechanics and music,

insofar as universal harmony “functioned not merely as a metaphysical ornament to

technical work in the mathematical sciences but as a vital heuristic and tacit

demonstrative premise in specific pieces of mathematical natural philosophy.” 28 Not only

in natural philosophy, according to the minim Father, but also in politics, moral, religious

contemplation, and the art of war. What has been much less investigated, however, is the

On Durkheim and Weber, see the analysis by Charles Camic, “The matter of habit,” The
American Journal of Sociology 91 (1986), 1039-1087. Pierre Maine de Biran, Influence de l’habitude sur la
faculté de penser, in Oeuvres complètes, ed. by Pierre Tisserand, 14 vols. (Geneva: Slatkine, 1982 [1920-
1949]), vol. 2. Ravaisson, De l’habitude. Pierre Bourdieu, Le Sens pratique (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit,
Robert Lenoble, Mersenne, ou la naissance du mécanisme (Paris: J. Vrin, 1943).
Peter Dear, Mersenne and the learning of the schools (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
1988), 116.

] Introduction ]

place musical instruments take in this notion of harmonie universelle. What role did they

play in Mersenne’s thinking vis-à-vis the mathematical science of music? Did they share

some cognitive claims in Mersenne’s understanding of the classical science of music?

What was his relationship with musical instrument makers? Was Mersenne only trying to

teach the facteurs d’instruments rational methods in crafting the instruments (as he

mentions in the préface), or did he actually learn from them? How did these instruments

help Mersenne think about music theory?

These questions lie at the heart of this first chapter—and, somewhat similarly,

throughout the dissertation. Scholars, to my knowledge, have neglected to study the

specific role of Mersenne’s detailed descriptions bestowed to a variety of musical

instruments, especially the organ. Book three of the Harmonie universelle is thick and

probably remains the best historical reference to early modern musical instruments owing

to its long descriptions and numerous engravings. Mersenne made clear in the preface of

this book that he was applying théorie to pratique. But for what purpose exactly? Was he

simply trying to guide the hand of artisans? To give such detailed descriptions on how to

work with wood and metals, Mersenne had first to penetrate into the workshops and see

for himself how it was done before considering to return the favor. But why spend so

much energy (and expensive paper) in describing musical instruments? Focusing on the

organ, I will show that Mersenne wanted to convey one of the chief principles of

seventeenth-century natural philosophy: i.e. instruments were a fundamental part of

knowledge-production. Through the organ, I argue, Mersenne displayed how much

artisan, experiment and theory were tightly joined into the nascent mechanical

philosophy. The organ, owing to its complexity—it was undoubtedly the most intricate

] Introduction ]

machine of the period—and socio-cultural and religious status during the early modern

period, became for Mersenne the paradigmatic material emblem of the new science of

sound—a special instance of the more general natural philosophy. Not only did the organ

epitomize the nature of sound, it proved his harmonie universelle was not purely

conjectural and metaphysical, confirming he had concretely surpassed ancient

knowledge. The organ, and most musical instruments, once they had received the lights

of theory, would embody the mathematical knowledge at the center of his harmonie

universelle. Yet these same instruments, used as natural philosophical tools, generated

experimental data from which a theory of sound could be “soundly” established. And to

ensure these musical instruments were adequately manufactured, a thorough knowledge

of artisanal craftsmanship was necessary. I will show, in short, that the organ in

Mersenne’s view became the instrument or organum of universal harmony, the material

extension of music theory and mechanical philosophy.

In CHAPTER TWO, on lens making, I continue to show how interrelated

artisans, machines and theory were in French natural philosophy. In this chapter, I first

demonstrate that René Descartes’s notion of natural philosophy was to some extent

rooted in the concept of artisan and craftsmanship. When one takes a closer look at some

of Descartes’s pivotal philosophical writings, the artisan emerges under a more nuanced

and fundamental light. Remarkably enough, even the most unassuming of artisans were

converted into archetypal models of rational discipline and ordered thought. This

assertion is not as bold as it appears, however, because it is in truth the concept of artisan

that the Cartesian method exhibited. The artisan qua genuine homo faber was

metamorphosed into an idealization in Descartes’s writings, a disembodied heuristic

] Introduction ]

metaphor of knowledge production. The Cartesian artisan was not as much “invisible” as

he was “virtual,” an imaginary or simulated concept put forth as a heuristic strategy

developed precisely in order to communicate a novel understanding of the practice of

natural philosophy, one struggling to break with the tradition of scholasticism. By way of

the “idealized artisan,” Descartes attempted to introduce an unconventional method

firmly established on theory, practice, and material culture.

Secondly, I show that the Cartesian machines are better understood when one

explores the concept of organon as the mechanical principle behind Descartes’s early

natural philosophy. My focus will be set on two famous Cartesian machines: the lens-

grinding machine of the Dioptrique and the mathematical compass of the Géométrie. In

the first example, although Descartes required skilled artisans to build his lens-grinding

machine, he did not trust them in shaping perfect hyperbolic lenses; only the machine

could. 29 Described at the end of the Dioptrique, this machine was the natural culmination

of Descartes’s optics: only through the perfection of the machine could he prove his

theory right. Said otherwise, the lens-grinding machine helped embody Descartes’s

optical theory since its sole purpose was to reduce the whole of his optics into a simple

hyperbolic lens. In a similar fashion, the Cartesian compass embodied Descartes’s

geometrical curves because it could generate high-degree curves otherwise impossible to

draw. Both the lens-grinding machine and compass, left alone, were machines. In the

hands of somebody, however, the machine became an instrument, an organon, a genuine

extension of the body. Such an understanding of the role of machines is, I believe, in

Burnett, Descartes and the hyperbolic quest.

] Introduction ]

close relation to Descartes’s interest in anatomy, the study of human organs. 30

CHAPTER THREE, on clockmaking, carries on the dissertation’s main argument

by focusing next on Blaise Pascal’s arithmetical machine, or pascaline, as another perfect

example of the interaction between the mind (Pascal), the body (artisans), and finally a

machine (pascaline) understood as a spiritual organ, a material extension of the mind. To

Pascal, the machine would work flawlessly if and only if some skilled artisan could

reproduce in minute details the design he had imagined. In his Lettre dédicatoire à

Monseigneur le Chancelier regarding the pascaline, Pascal recognized that without an

habile artisan he would not have been able by himself to build the machine. Conversely,

an artisan without an understanding of theory could never make one on its own—as it

happened when one Rouen clockmaker tried to copy the arithmetical machine without

Pascal’s assistance. Therefore, Pascal talked about “la légitime et nécessaire alliance de la

théorie avec l’art.” Theory and practice had to be incorporated together in order to

produce new knowledge and technological products. Mind and body were essential; they

were reinforcing themselves, not fighting against one another. That was, according to

Pascal, the major fault of both savants and artisans. As Mersenne and Descartes

emphasized before him, Pascal was convinced that theory and practice had to work

simultaneously to generate new knowledge about nature. A dichotomy between the mind

and the hand was no longer suitable to the new natural philosophy.

This arithmetical machine, ultimately, was more than a mechanical tour de force,

as was usually acknowledged. The pascaline became a genuine “thinking machine,” one

On Descartes’s interest in anatomical studies, intricately linked to his stay in The Netherlands
and the latter’s empire based on materialism and commercial activities, see Harold J. Cook, Matters of
exchange: Commerce, medicine, and science in the Dutch Golden Age (New Haven: Yale University Press,
2007), chapter 6.

] Introduction ]

that rendered arithmetic as mechanical as, say, an orgue de barbarie; one could now do

mathematics as s/he could play music, without ever knowing anything theoretical about

either science. Pascal’s sister Gilberte later observed this fundamental meaning of the

pascaline when she wrote that his brother’s invention “was considered a novelty since it

reduced to a machine a science that resided completely in the mind.” I also want to stress

in this chapter how Pascal, in creating this machine, shifted the habit of doing arithmetics

from the mind to the body. Before Pascal, arithmetics was performed with pen, paper and

tokens. The mind was constantly solicited in making addition, substraction,

multiplication and division. A habit of the mind had to be acquired to carry out these

arithmetical operations. With Pascal’s machine, I argue, the habit shifted from the mind

to the body. What one had to learn was how to use a stylus, what wheel to turn when,

what manual operations, in sequence, were required in order to perform an addition or a

division. Knowing arithmetics was no longer necessary, according to Pascal. One only

had to be trained to do a bodily algorithm, the machine was now doing the thinking. The

machine, though powered by the hand, was thus a mechanical extension of the mind.

Bodily habits, through the medium of a machine, acted like the mind. This, I believe, was

one of Pascal’s most provocative claim about his invention.

CHAPTER FOUR, on manufacturing machines, takes a closer look at one final

individual, Christiaan Huygens, in relation to an institution, the French Académie royale

des sciences. Regarding instruments and machines, Huygens is well known for his air

pump, clocks, and telescope lenses. Though they are still of interest, I emphasize instead

other aspects of his instrument-making contributions to the French scientific life.

Specifically, how favorably connected Huygens was with both the Parisian intellectual

] Introduction ]

and artisanal milieux. By looking first at his long involvement in carriage designs, I

ground the chapter on two themes: 1) technical design and manufacture of machines and

2) authorship. I show throughout the chapter that these two themes were simply the faces

of the same scientific coin for Huygens. Not only did he invent and manufacture (or had

manufactured) instruments such as the double barometer, the surveying level and the

ones mentioned above, which all had their own authorship issues, as a member of the

Academy Huygens also had the responsibility of assessing inventions from other savants,

gentlemen and artisans—hence of granting legitimate authorship himself. In other words,

I argue, Huygens was continually working with machines and their inventors (of all

social status, including artisans), dealing with technical design and authorship matters.

All of these facets were fully integrated to his natural philosophy. The epistemic space in

which Huygens worked was thus defined as much by his skills in mathematics as it was

by his regular contact with machines and their makers. 31 Around the same time, other

French savants close to the Academy began to see the role of machines and artisans as an

integral part of their natural philosophy. What I show is that by the late 1660s natural

philosophy in France was no longer a matter of great intellectual geniuses, but rather a

profound symbiosis of minds, hands, and machines.

Scholarship on Huygens’s pendulum clocks, for instance, tend to demonstrate that he first
tackled the mathematical properties of the cycloid and only then applied the curve to the construction of an
isochronous clock. Although the mathematical treatment of the cycloid is to Huygens of the utmost
importance to fully understand this new invention, mathematics was not the only force at work here. As
Fokko Jan Dijksterhuis has shown, Huygens’s study of optics was closely related to his hands-on grinding
of telescope lenses. Towards his goal, he combined a theoretical and practical understanding of spherical
lenses to produce in the end a better instrument. In fact, contrary to Descartes and his fundamental
treatment of hyperbolic lenses, Huygens did not try to improve a highly skilled manual savoir-faire by
perfecting a theoretical design. By carefully studying common spherical lenses rather then theoretically
proving that hyperbolic lenses would rid telescopes of their aberrations, “Huygens started out with what
was practically feasible instead of what was theoretically desirable.” Fokko Jan Dijksterhuis, Lenses &
waves: Christiaan Huygens and the mathematical science of optics in the seventeenth century (Dordrecht:
Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004), 67.

] Introduction ]

The center of this extended network of minds, hands and machines was the

Académie royale des sciences, founded in 1666. It not only endorsed but institutionalized

the new epistemic method displayed by a growing number of natural philosophers. For

this to happen, the Academy had to create its own epistemic space and networking

between savants, artisans, and machines. To understand and examine this networking,

however, one needs to unpack the early rhetorical narrative of the Academy as described

by Christian Licoppe: the authoritarian and collective “on” found in the official records

of the institution. 32 This official “on” spoke initially for the entire institution, concealing

in words the individual academicians and their everyday interactions with other members

and non-members alike. The Academy’s rhetoric, imposed on its members, projected the

image of a stable, unique, legitimate, and all-knowing corpus scientiæ, where the messy

stuff of expériences lay hidden within the discourse of the Republic of Letters. What I

show is that behind this collective “on” there was an important networking of savants,

gentlemen and artisans, sometimes in fierce competition against one another over the

authorship and production of machines.

To unpack this rhetorical discourse one can start with an anonymous mémoire

received by Huygens around 1663. First, this project of a learned scientific institution put

emphasis on machines and artisanal knowledge, in tune with what French natural

philosophers had been doing for over half a century. As Huygens could read,

We will make an effort to learn all the practices of the Arts, as much as those who
use them in France and in other Countries and to obtain the design of all the
Machines, and of all the instruments that prove useful, and to know all that the
Workers remark in the materials that they employ, all of the difficulties they

Christian Licoppe, La Formation de la pratique scientifique: le discours de l'expérience en
France et en Angleterre, 1630-1820 (Paris: La Découverte, 1996), chap. 2.

] Introduction ]

encounter in their Works, all they research or even that they wish for in perfecting
their arts, and of all the things from which one makes a List or a Table, so that the
learned can think on it, and they can try by Mechanics or Chemistry or by the
discussion of diverse arts to apply to certain ones, by Analogy, that which applies
to others. [my emphasis]

This somewhat Baconian approach to knowledge hinted at an institutionalized

rapprochement between simple workers and the learned world of the future Academy. In

fact, I show that the aura of secrecy coming from the Academy has perhaps been

overstated in the traditional historiography of the institution.

Second, there is an explicit account later in the text about who should eventually

become an académicien:

The Company will be composed of the most learned people in all the true
Sciences that one can find, as in Geometry, Mechanics, Optics, Astronomy,
Geography &c. in Physics, Medicine, Chemistry, Anatomy, &c. or in the practice
of the Arts, as in Architecture, fortifications, Sculpture, painting, design, Conduits
[Conduite] and the elevation of the Waters, Metallurgy, Agriculture, navigation,
&c. Or of those who will make known to the Company some secret, or some
considerable Invention that they have found, in order to inspire everyone to invent
something of whatever nature it might be, since there is nothing new from which,
with time, one does not find some considerable usefulness. 33

Though no “mechanics” were ever granted membership to the Academy, dozens were

closely linked to the later royal institution and its influential members in order to achieve

the goals described above. The Academy was an elitist institution, yet was an open

epistemic space where artisans, savants and gentlemen met and interacted regularly on

the business of machines. An epistemic space and extensive networking where machine

authorship became an important aspect of the day. Ending the chapter with a short study

of machine authorship as displayed within the Journal des sçavans, the Academy’s

Huygens, OC(4), ? to Huygens, [1663?], no. 1105, pp. 325-329. The English translations were
taken from Robert A. Hatch’s The Scientific Revolution Homepage website, accessed on 29 January 2008.

] Introduction ]

unofficial journal, I expound the significance of printing for machine authorship.

Moreover, I show that most individuals publishing in the Journal des sçavans, whether

artisan, gentleman or savant, often sought beforehand the imprimatur of the Academy,

seeking even more legitimacy for their invention than print itself. Machine authorship in

late-seventeenth-century France was created within the Academy’s epistemic space, by

means of its networking involving artisans, honnêtes hommes, and savants.

The Academy thus epitomized and institutionalized a scientific method based on

the technical and theoretical savoir-faire of artisans and savants. Instruments and

machines had not only become the foundation of the experimental era, but also one of the

chief media through which artisans and savants communicated. By focusing on

Huygens’s and his fellow academicians’ respective and simultaneous theoretical,

instrumental, and experimental approaches to natural philosophy, I demonstrate how

“modern” was their knowledge-producing method. The sheer importance of the Academy

then ensured the adoption of this method by the end of the seventeenth century.

In CHAPTER FIVE, on the organum scientiæ, I end the dissertation with a

historical study on the concept of instrument—or organum. In the previous four chapters,

several types of instruments and machines are encountered, ranging from musical,

mathematical, and optical instruments, to barometers, surveyor levels and clocks. I

demonstrate that these were not only an essential part of the practice of natural

philosophy between 1630 and 1680, but were involved as well in outlining the strong

relationship between French artisans and savants. But what exactly was an instrument in

early modern Europe. How was the concept of instrument understood? Using the

inclusive concept of organum, I show that early modern “instruments” were a key

] Introduction ]

ingredient to our understanding of a logic of practice in natural philosophy. Whether it

was material (object) or intangible (mind), early modern instruments played a

fundamental role in determining the interaction between theory and practice, and between

savants and artisans.

By studying primarily Mersenne’s musical instruments, Descartes’s lens-grinding

machine, Pascal’s arithmetical machine, and Huygens’s carriages and other instruments

of knowledge-production, I looked at concrete and tangible objects—complex devices—

that embodied within their mechanisms notions of natural philosophy. This dissertation is

not about applied metaphysics. I did not try to move orthogonally from the plane of the

debate about what should count as a “natural” (real) in opposition to a “constructed”

(historical) object of scientific inquiry. The applied metaphysics of scientific objects, as

described and understood by Lorraine Daston et al., refers to objects, whether in

substance or not, that display “the dynamic world of what emerges and disappears from

the horizon of working scientists.” The material things forming the core of my study are

certainly more “quotidian” than monsters, dreams, cytoplasmic particles or even culture

itself. Yet I believe that, similarly to these scientific objects, “they grow more richly real

as they become entangled in webs of cultural significance, material practices, and

theoretical derivations.” Applied metaphysics is as valuable an epistemic concept as there

is, one in fact that helps focus attention to a number of “things” that otherwise would

never be perceived as scientific. Yet applied metaphysics bears the risk of losing contact

with what it really means to live in a material world. 34

Lorraine Daston, ed., Biographies of scientific objects (Chicago: the University of Chicago
Press, 2000), 1 and 13 for the respective quotes. Ian Hacking has come up with a somewhat similar notion
in coining the expression “historical ontology.” To him, “Historical ontology is about the ways in which the

] Introduction ]

That said, material things are no longer perceived as inert and passive objects of

study solely defined by thinking subjects. Historians, sociologists and especially

anthropologists recognized several decades before historians of science that things had a

life of their own: they shape the subject and its social context as much as they are shaped

by the latter. Without loosing any of the things’ distinctive materiality, gaining rather a

better understanding of it, scholars have worked out “thing theories” that have become

essential in explaining and confronting their interaction with the human world. 35

Historians and philosophers of science have barely begun sketching such materialists

theory of scientific knowledge, where instruments are considered more than “inscription

devices,” exclusively providing visual displays in scientific texts. Instruments and

machines have matured in some cases into “thing knowledge,” not only raised up to the

level of theory and experiment but literally on a par with the spoken words. 36 They do not

need, that is, to be associated with a written text to signify something. As a thing

possibilities for choice, and for being, arise in history.” It is not “about the coming into being of objects of
study” but rather about “the coming into being of objects, period.” The essence of these objects is
historical, and found somewhere in the grid formed by the three axes of knowledge, power and ethics.
Hacking, Historical ontology (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 23 and 11 respectively
for the quotes. Latour’s “actor-network theory” and Pickering’s “mangle of practice” are other
manifestations of applied metaphysics.
Bill Brown, “Thing theory,” Critical Inquiry 28 (2001), 1-22. The whole issue is dedicated to
this topic. The literature is rich and vast here. For an historical perspective, see Daniel Roche, Histoires des
choses banales. Naissances de la consommation, XVIIe-XIXe siècle (Paris: Fayard, 1997) and Curtis Perry,
ed., Material culture and cultural materialisms in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Turnhout, Belgium:
Brepols, 2001). A good summary on the theoretical concepts of things is found in Christopher Tilley, ed.,
Reading material culture: Structuralism, hermeneutics, and post-structuralism (Cambridge, MA.: B.
Blackwell, 1990).
Davis Baird, Thing knowledge: A philosophy of scientific instruments (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 2004). See also Robert J. Ackermann, Data, instruments, and theory: A dialectical
approach to understanding (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985) and Don Ihde, Instrumental
realism: The interface between philosophy of science and philosophy of technology (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1991). On inscription devices, Latour, Science in action: How to follow scientists and
engineers through society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 64-70, where he writes:
“What is behind a scientific text? Inscriptions. How are these inscriptions obtained? By setting up
instruments.” (p. 69)

] Introduction ]

knowledge, an instrument bears insights about the craft, skill, experimental practice and

theory involved in its coming into being: it can (and does) speaks volume about the

practice of science if one avoids letting it drown in words. 37 Instruments, in other words,

have acquired layers upon layers of meanings in recent decades. They cannot be reduced

anymore to simple matrices of functional performances. They now have to be considered

“thick things,” objects representing multiple (and divergent) points of view. 38

Instruments are “thick” because they are never created without purpose, and on no

account exist isolated from a specific socio-cultural, experimental and rational context.

The goal of this last chapter is thus to give a historical and intellectual account,

not a philosophical analysis, of the use of instruments in the early modern period. 39 Here,

the concept of organum is precious because it encompasses both the material objects as

well as the instrument of the mind, as I explained in the case of Descartes’s méthode in

Chapter two. Organon in Greek, or instrumentum in Latin, is a notion that goes back to

Antiquity, to the idea of nature as a craftsman. Nature, the analogy goes, is as dependent

of its instruments as the artisan is to generate forms. Like the artisan, nature uses tools,

Lorraine Daston, ed., Things that talk: Object lessons from art and science (New York: Zone
Books, 2004). In the introduction, Daston pointedly remarks that “If things are ‘speechless,’ perhaps it is
because they are drowned out by all the talk about them.” (p. 9)
Ken Alder, ed., “Focus: Thick things,” Isis 98 (2007), 80-142. See also Alder, “Making things
the same: Representation, tolerance, and the end of the Old Regime in France,” Social Studies of Science 28
(1998), 499-545.
The philosophical approach has generated a great amount of significant scholarship on the
concept of instrument in the practice of modern science. See, for instance, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger, Toward
a history of epistemic things: Synthesizing proteins in the test tube (Stanford: Stanford University Press,
1997); Peter Keating and Albert Cambrosio, Biomedical platforms: Realigning the normal and the
pathological in late-twentieth-century medicine (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2003); Peter Galison, Image
and logic: A material culture of microphysics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997) and
Galison, Einstein’s clocks, Poincaré’s maps: Empires of time (New York: W.W. Norton & Company,
2003); Andrew Pickering, The mangle of practice: Time, agency & science (Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1995); Hans Radder, ed. The philosophy of scientific experimentation (Pittsburgh:
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003).

] Introduction ]

instrumenta, to produce forms; they participate, in other words, in the causa

instrumentalis, the instrumental cause that makes things happen. Instruments, however,

do not act by themselves; they are inherently linked to a causa principalis, a principal

cause that guides their every action in shaping matter. In the craftsman’s analogy, the

behavior of the hammer cannot be understood unless you study in detail the artisan who

holds it. Although Aristotle never emphasized the materiality of nature’s instruments,

focusing instead on their purposefulness, one influential consequence of the notion of

organon remains his idea that body parts are instruments, or “organs.” Aristotle did not

see the human body as a machine—as Descartes did in his Traité de l’homme. Yet

organs, analogous to the artisan’s tools, displayed routinized and regularized bodily

functions with specific goal-oriented and result-oriented purposes—the purpose of the

heart, which it does machine-like, is to heat the blood. For natural philosophers like

Descartes and William Harvey, the notion of organon epitomized the regularities of

nature; for the artisans, instruments exemplified their way of life. This is where I see an

epistemic terrain d’entente between artisans and savants, framed through the concept of

organon, instrumentum, or tools of knowledge. These mechanical “organs” were nothing

less than vital to the health of natural philosophy. To isolate musical instruments or

mathematical compasses from Mersenne’s musical theory or Descartes’s geometry

respectively, I argue, is no worse than dismembering their natural philosophy.

Yet behind each instrument of science—organum scientiæ—laid a special

training, a particular practice—in short a habitus—that involved either the mind or the

body. (In the case of Pascal’s arithmetical machine, as already mentioned, the habitus of

doing arithmetic shifted from the mind to the body.) Though instruments were essential

] Introduction ]

to the practice of early modern science, these were useless if the required habitus was not

properly carried out. Looking at the habitus in anima and the habitus in corpore, I stress

in this last chapter how the body and the mind were both dynamically engaged (not

necessarily at the same time) toward the production of knowledge in the early modern

period. The habits of knowledge, as the title of this dissertation proposes, expose this

juxtaposition of mind and body in early modern natural philosophy. In what follows,

taking as a point of departure instruments and well-known natural philosophers (or an

institution in the case of the Paris Académie royale des sciences), I demonstrate that

French seventeenth-century natural philosophy was in fact the result of a conjunction

between machines, the individuals who made them, and the savants who used them to

investigate—or reflect upon—nature. The notions of organum and habitus are, I believe,

the most fitting (and historically appropriate) concepts one can think of and elaborate

upon when dealing with the role played by instruments and machines vis-à-vis their

inventors and manufacturers along with the investigators of natural philosophy.





Italian opera, the rebirth of monody, the spread of chamber cantata, and new

genres of instrumental ensemble music, to name but a few. Regarding instrumental


music, its renovation during the Renaissance found a natural setting within natural

philosophy. Due in large part to the influence of instrumental music, the late sixteenth-

and early seventeenth-century musica scientia was amended from being a purely

speculative mathematical science to becoming a more pragmatic analysis of sound—the

nascent acoustics. 40

Within this changing epistemic context, Marin Mersenne’s books on musical

instruments, featured in his well-known Harmonie universelle (1636-37), were

undoubtedly the best early modern illustration of the developing experimental and

mechanistic approach to the study of sound. Although most early modernists—whether

historians, historians of music or historians of science—know about Mersenne’s books of

John Walter Hill, Baroque music: Music in Western Europe, 1580-1750 (New York: W.W.
Norton & Company, 2005). Tim Carter and John Butt, eds., The Cambridge history of seventeenth-century
music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), esp. Penelope Gouk’s chapter “Music and the
sciences,” 132-157. Ann E. Moyer, Musica scientia: Musical scholarship in the Italian Renaissance
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992) is a very good overview of the science of music before the
“experimental turn.” See also Cristle Collins Judd, Reading Renaissance music theory: Hearing with the
eyes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). On the role of musical instruments in the
transformation of instrumental music, Jonathan Wainwright and Peter Holman, eds., From Renaissance to
Baroque: Change in instruments and instrumental music in the seventeenth century (Aldershot, UK:
Ashgate, 2005).
] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

instruments no one (to my knowledge) has attempted to establish the exact meaning and

epistemic function of their publication. 41 H. Floris Cohen, for example, describes well the

overall goal and achievements of Mersenne’s commitment to the material culture of


In Mersenne’s hands a process was completed that had started with father and son
Galilei: the musical instrument was turned into a scientific instrument, capable of
revealing nature’s hidden properties. Not the least important reason why the
Traité des instrumens in Harmonie universelle contains such important
information is the fact that Mersenne used the instrument makers themselves as a
direct source of knowledge. It was one thing to speculate freely on what happens
in an organ pipe; it was something different, and, for the theorist, new, to inquire
of the organ builders after the secrets of their trade. Of course the latter could only
provide the raw material for theoretical reflection, but the point is that without it
no sensible theory formation was at all possible.42

Though accurate, this assessment strictly remains a theoretical statement. Cohen does not

investigate the strong epistemic communion musical instruments, musical instrument

makers, and music theory came to form in Mersenne’s conception of music and universal

harmony. 43 Such an investigation is precisely the objective of the present chapter.

For example, Monique Escudier, Introduction à une étude musicale de la correspondance du
Père Marin Mersenne de 1617 au 20 mars 1634, 2 vols (Paris: Conservatoire national supérieur de
musique, thèse présentée pour le Prix de Musicologie, 1972) is a very useful survey of Mersenne’s music in
his correspondence, but offers no in-depth analysis of musical instruments. Robert Lenoble, Mersenne, ou
la naissance du mécanisme (Paris: Librairie philosophique J. Vrin, 1943) is the classic study on Mersenne,
in which the emergence of the concept of mechanism is explained in detail, but without any consideration
to the material culture of music (or mechanics for that matter). Peter Dear, Mersenne and the learning of
the schools (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988) is essential in understanding where Mersenne’s
concept of universal harmony came from. It offers, however, no indication whatsoever as to the
significance of instruments in Mersenne’s study of music and mechanics, although Dear argues that
Mersenne’s appeal to empiricism was total. From historians of music, most references to Mersenne’s
instruments are in relation to the history of a particular musical instrument, nothing else.
H. Floris Cohen, Quantifying music: The science of music at the first stage of the Scientific
Revolution, 1580-1650 (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1984), 102.
A few scholars have dealt with some of these issues within the English context. Penelope Gouk,
Music, science and natural magic in seventeenth-century England (New Haven: Yale University Press,
1999), shows a “gallery of instruments” that, unfortunately, does not provide much detailed analysis on the
epistemic role of musical instruments. She simply mentions the familiar interpretation of musical
instruments as experimental tools. In a recent book review on early modern music, Myles Jackson argues
for an opening of the disciplinary fields of music and science. One venue is to look at the material culture

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

The first question that came to my mind was this one: why would a seventeenth-

century savant such as Mersenne give a thorough and comprehensive examination of the

material culture of music? A Father Minim educated by Jesuits in the traditional ratio

studiorum, who never played on an instrument, who never wrote music (except perhaps

for one minor composition 44 ), and who never attempted to build even one lute? Why does

the elaborate description of musical instruments fill up seven out of seventeen books of

the Harmonie universelle, or more than a third of Mersenne’s magnum opus? We know

that printed collections of objects (natural and artificial) were an important part of the

culture of collecting and knowledge dissemination to early modern natural history.

Within the architectural and engineering fields, manuscripts drawings and large folio

theaters of machines came to symbolize the powerful network established between the

knowledge makers and the learned elite. No such compendia, however, existed for the

mathematical sciences (music being one of the quadrivium’s four mathematical

disciplines). Books on surveying, astronomy, dialing and usu et fabrica treatises alike

dealt with one or a cluster of instruments, but never gave a comprehensive and

encyclopedic material-culture overview of a discipline. No book from the mathematical

of music and at the instrument maker’s shop. Myles W. Jackson, “Music and science during the Scientific
Revolution,” Perspectives on Science 9 (2001), 106-115. A concrete example is Jackson’s own
Harmonious triads: Physicists, musicians, and instrument makers in nineteenth-century Germany
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006). Jamie C. Kassler, Inner music: Hobbes, Hooke and North on internal
character (London: Athlone, 1995) emphasizes the role of musical instruments, or “resonating systems,” as
controlling metaphors toward the improvement of internal character, linking music to the physiology of the
human body. More recently, see Benjamin Wardhaugh, Mathematical and mechanical studies of music in
late seventeenth-century England (D. Phil., University of Oxford, 2006). I thank Stephen Johnston for
pointing out this reference.
Titelouze to Mersenne, 26 March 1628, in Correspondance du P. Marin Mersenne: religieux
minime, ed. and annotated by Cornélis de Waard (with the collaboration of René Pintard), 17 vols. (Paris:
G. Beauchesne, 1933-1988), vol. 2, 43-46 (hereafter cited as CM II, 43-46). The title of the piece was
Vexilla. It was composed by Mersenne in the form of mathematical numbers, which were then entabulated
by Titelouze. According to the editors of Mersenne’s correspondance, Vexilla is found in Mersenne’s
Harmonicorum libri XII, but not in his Harmonie universelle.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

or natural philosophical traditions can actually be likened to Mersenne’s intricately

detailed, wide-ranging and encompassing books on musical instruments—described in

the second section below. Why did Mersenne do it? Because musical instruments, I claim

in this chapter, were not only data-gathering tools, but also powerful symbols of the

emergent mechanical philosophy. Since music was Mersenne’s paradigmatic scientia of

the harmonie universelle, musical instruments became ipso facto the paradigmatic

instruments of the mechanical sciences, and consequently of Mersenne’s universal

harmony and of the “modern” natural philosopher. 45

As much as other material objects of the period, musical instruments played an

important role in the daily life of early modern Europeans. They were heard everywhere,

all the time, for all circumstances and by all walks of life. They were purchased as well in

larger quantity than never before by the end of the sixteenth century—especially the lute,

given that it was still fairly inexpensive. 46 Yet the fact remains that epistemologically

In the Minim’s mind musical instruments were actually linked to our understanding of the
mechanical laws of art and nature. Peter Dear demonstrates that the concept of universal harmony emerged
from Mersenne’s study of mechanics, which itself was a science wholy dependent on material objects. “By
integrating music with a mechanical account of sound,” Dear argues, Mersenne “succeeded in creating a
way of treating mechanics itself as an exemplification of the harmonious relationships for which music
provided the prototype.” Musical harmony was thus explained by the science of mechanics; yet, Mersenne
strongly believed that the concept of harmony itself laid at a deeper level than mechanics. Harmony,
according to Mersenne, was the presupposed and fundamental notion behind mechanics and consequently
of all of Creation. Music, Dear continues, “provided the paradigm of harmony by which the rest could be
developed and judged.” Dear, Mersenne and the learning of the schools, quotes on 117 and 139
respectively. On the use of material objects in the science of mechanics, Domenico Bertoloni Meli,
Thinking with objects: The transformation of mechanics in the seventeenth century (Baltimore: The Johns
Hopkins University Press, 2006).
François Lesure, “La facture instrumentale à Paris au seizième siècle,” The Galpin Society
Journal 7 (1954), 11-52. For twenty sous tournois, for instance, one could buy either a violin or a lute with
its case in the middle of the sixteenth century. These prices were found throughout the first half of the
seventeenth century as well for cheap instruments. See Madeleine Jurgens, Documents du Minutier central
concernant l’histoire de la musique (1600-1650), 2 vols. (Paris: S.E.V.P.E.N., 1967; La Documentation
Française, 1974), ii:84-93. Another good indication of the widespread distribution of lutes in the beginning
of the seventeenth century is given by Jean Titelouze, a famous Rouen organist and one of Mersenne’s first
correspondents. In Titelouze’s youth (he was born in 1563), everyone admired “un homme qui touchoit le
lut et assez mal pourtant; et maintenant j’en voy cent plus habilles gens que luy mille fois, que l’on ne

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

speaking musical instruments (from the mechanical arts) were still not treated equally as

the human voice (the natural organ of sound production) by the early 1600s, as I will

briefly explain in the first section below. It was one thing for musicians to delight and

entertain crowds with popular and courtly airs and chants—some instrument players

being so skillful they could transform within minutes the mood of their listeners. 47 It was,

on the other hand, completely different to assert that musical instruments could make

original contributions to the study of music. Mersenne, however, did uphold such a

position from the mid 1620s onwards. The first section of this chapter, which may appear

a long digression, addresses this problem by contextualizing the rising significance of

musical instruments in the late cinquecento as legitimate producer of knowledge and

sound. The core problem rested on an art-nature debate between the artificial musical

instrument and the natural human voice, best examplified by the heated discussion in

daigne pas presque escouter.” Titelouze to Mersenne, 2 March 1622, CM I, 76. On the rising influence of
the lute in sixteenth-century France, see the excellent book by Jean-Michel Vaccaro, La Musique de luth en
France au XVIe siècle (Paris: Éditions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1981).
One story, well known, tells of a lute player called at the court of Denmark to demonstrate his
prowess on that matter. Unwilling at first to perform in front of the king and his suite, he finally obliged
them, but asked that all weapons were removed from the royal chamber and that a few courtiers stayed in
the antechamber so they could enter the chamber on his request, if anything were to happen. He then started
to play soft melodies, which had the king and all present sad and melancholic; next the lute player changed
the song for an air more vibrant and gaillard, and all of a sudden everyone was happy and joyful. Finally,
the musician played a Phrygian air, striking hard on the lute’s strings, which had the king and his suite
utterly enraged. The musician gave the signal at that moment and the courtiers from the antechamber came
in, broke the lute on the player’s head (on his demand) and rushed over to the king to restrain him. When
the king finally came back to his senses, he filled the musician with praise, comparing him to Timothy, who
had showed similar skills in the presence of Alexander the Great. The story is taken from Pierre Trichet,
Traité des instruments de musique (vers 1640), ed. by François Lesure (Neuilly-sur-Seine: Société de
musique d’autrefois, 1957), 150-151. A Latin version of this story was written by Albert Krantz, a German
who visited Danemark and later wrote a chronicle, Chronica regnorum aquilonarium Daniæ, Sueciæ, et
Norvagiæ (Strassburg, 1546), published posthumously. According to Lesure, however, Trichet probably
took the information from a certain P. Loyer. See Daniel P. Walker, “Musical humanism in the 16th and
early 17th centuries,” Music Review (1941), 111-112. Mersenne knew this anecdote as well, see his “Traitez
des consonances, des dissonances, des Genres, des Modes, & de la Composition,” book 6, “L’Art de bien
chanter,” part III, “De la Musique Accentuelle,” 365, in Harmonie universelle, contenant la théorie et la
pratique de la musique, 3 vols. (Paris: Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1963), vol. 2 (hereafter
cited as HU1, HU2 or HU3).

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

print opposing Gioseffo Zarlino to Vincenzo Galilei. That artificial instruments, argued

Galilei, were as good, if sometimes not better, than the human voice in producing

knowledge about music was of fundamental importance to Mersenne. In fact, this

assertation became the foundation on which his subsequent study of sound rested.

As Mersenne explained in the dedicatory epistle of the “Traité des instrvmens a

chordes” addressed to Monsieur Henri de Refuge, theory reduced to practice and objects

should not be despised as it so often was by ancient authorities. In these four books, de

Refuge would see rare experiments describing the properties of air and movement in

general, “which ought always to be considered in the mechanics of art as well as of

nature, when one wishes to find the true reason for the difficulties which are there

encountered.” 48 Mersenne dedicated other books to de Refuge, like the Traité de

l’Harmonie universelle (1627) and Les Mechaniques de Galilée (1634), in which

experiments and the material culture of natural philosophy were underscored.

What Mersenne stressed in this new dedication to de Refuge was the following: to

fully understand the production of sound, it had to be studied from all possible sources,

whether natural or artificial. Mersenne’s books on instruments, therefore, attempted to

demonstrate how important it was to investigate the manufacturing of all musical

instruments in order to shed some light on the theoretical study of sound. A few books

later, Mersenne’s dedication of the treatise on the organ to Etienne Pascal went far

beyond the simple understanding of the mechanical arts. There he explained that Pascal

père was probably the best intellectually-prepared savant to discover the causes of some

Mersenne, “Traité des instrvmens à chordes,” book 1, Epitre, n.p. (HU3). Mersenne, The books
on instruments, 11.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

of the experiments Mersenne described, considering he so fruitfully married the practice

of science to its theory. 49 As will be explained below, this marriage between instruments,

practice and theory was exactly what Mersenne tried to convey from the detailed exposé

he wrote on the most influential and majestic early modern musical instruments of all.

In addition, and of significance to my argument, musical instruments in general

were perhaps the best and most perfect Christian tools of knowledge-production since

they could be employed with much effect to praise the Lord—as Mersenne emphasized to

de Refuge in referring to the familiar Psalm 150. 50 As I will demonstrate in section three,

the organ—more than any other musical instrument—held a special religious status in

early modern Europe, a distinction that was fully understood by Mersenne and his

contemporaries, whether Catholics or Protestants. This powerful Church symbol, as I will

then show in section four, became in Mersenne’s writing on the organ the best material

representation of natural philosophy—the perfect combination of artisanal knowledge,

experiments and theory. Spending a third of his books on instruments on the organum

organorum, Mersenne claimed—without having to put it into word—that carefully

Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book VI, Epitre, n.p. (HU3). The Epitre is dated 1 November
1635: “Car soit que l’on considere la Pratique des Mechaniques, ou leurs Raisons, & particulierement celles
de l’Harmonie, il seroit tres-difficile de trouuer vn homme qui les entende mieux que vous: & peut-estre
qu’il n’y en a point de si sçauant, qui ne tint à faueur d’apprendre ce que vous auez medité sur ce suiet. …
I’espere que les rares experiences que vous rencontrerez dans ce liure, vous conuieront à en rechercher les
raisons, car elles meritent l’estude des meilleurs esprits; ioint que vous possedez à vn haut point tous les
Ressorts de la plus subtile Analyse, qui découure tout ce qui peut tomber dans vne imagination bien reglée,
que vous ne pouuez apporter aucune excuse receuable. C’est pourquoy i’ose promettre à tous ceux qui
cherissent les Muses, que vous mettrés bien tost la derniere main à cette partie de la Philosophie, afin
qu’elle ne craigne plus desormais de paroistre deuant les plus sçauans dans la compagnie des autres
sciences, & qu’elle confesse hautement qu’elle vous est plus obligée qu’à nul autre, à raison du mariage
tres-excellent que vous auez fait de la Pratique auec la Theorie.”
The first verse of Psalm 150 reads thus:
Praise Him with sound of trumpet; Praise Him with nablium [psaltery] and harp. / Praise Him with timbrel
[tambourine] and pipe; Praise Him with strings and organ. / Praise Him with cymbals of sound; Praise Him
with cymbals of shouting. / Let every thing that breatheth praise God. Hallelujah.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

studying the manufacturing of organs could be of assistance in becoming a “modern”

natural philosopher as well as a devoted Christian.

This chapter, in short, is about the transformation of the theoretically-inclined

Medieval musicus to the early modern “parfait musicien,” an individual in touch not only

with the theory of music, but also with its material culture. Except perhaps for Galileo,

Mersenne demonstrated better than most contemporary savants how and why doing

science was an enterprise involving everything but armchair natural philosophy.

Mersenne’s books on musical instruments—and especially the organ—epitomized like

none other in the first half of the seventeenth century the new mechanical natural

philosophy, which was ultimately grounded on theory, experiments and a thorough

understanding of the mechanical arts. This happened decades before the so-called English

empiricist turn was inaugurated in the mid seventeenth century.


The popularity of instrumental music during the Renaissance breached a few dogmatic

walls regarding the use and virtue of musical instruments. It is essential to remember that

musical instruments were virtually ubiquitous in Renaissance Europe, and served several

functions in sixteenth-century parochial, urban and court cultures. Just consider

Rabelais’s descriptions of popular fêtes and festivals, French elaborate royal entries in

cities, or even Girolamo Cardano’s youthful habit of wandering all night through Milan,

dripping with perspiration at daybreak from the physical exertion of serenading on his

lute. 51 Not only did scholars begin to pay attention to the manufacture of musical

On Rabelais, see his Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his world,

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

instruments—like Henri Arnaut de Zwolle’s famous treatise (ca. 1440) on the organ and

lute 52 —European courts found a renewed interest and special opportunities for

instrumental music. At the court of Mantua, for example, the Marchesa Isabella d’Este

Gonzaga enrolled the service of the instrument maker and virtuoso instrumentalist

Lorenzo da Pavia to make a variety of musical instruments, such as viols, clavichords,

harpsichords, and lutes. 53 And in France, François I had numerous joueurs d’instruments

in ensembles called musique de l’Écurie and musique de chambre as well as chantres

who sang in the king’s Grande Chapelle. 54

On a larger sociological scale, music had an overall striking impact on the early

modern French court. In fact, it was not by any means fortuitous that the ballet de cour,

air de cour, and musique mesurée were introduced at court during the Wars of Religion.

Music and dance, according to Kate van Orden, participated in the “broad process of

transl. by Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984). On French Royal entries and
other “outdoor” events in streets, cemeteries and fields or during hunting parties and military campaigns,
Isabelle Cazeaux, French music in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1975),
chap. 7. On Cardano’s epic all-nighters, Clement A. Miller, transl. and ed., Hieronymus Cardanus (1501-
1576): Writings on music ([n. p.]: American Institute of Musicology, 1973), 17.
G. Le Cerf, ed. (with the collaboration of E. R. Labande), Les Traités d’Henri-Arnaut de Zwolle
et de divers anonymes (ms B.N. Latin 7295) (Paris, 1932). Arnaut was a professor of medicine to
Monseigneur le duc de Bourgogne. He was also interested in astronomy and even received monetary
rewards for making astronomical instruments. His treatise on music is one of the firsts to study and
describe the manufacture of organs, lutes, and other keyboards instruments like the clavisimbalum. See also
Edward L. Kottick, “Building a 15th-century lute,” The Galpin Society Journal 26 (1973), 72-83. Edwin M.
Ripin, “The early clavichord,” The Musical Quarterly 53 (1967), 518-538.
William F. Prizer, “Isabella d’Este and Lorenzo da Paria, ‘master instrument-maker’,” Early
Music History 2 (1982), 87-127. See also Iain Fenlon, “Isabella d’Este e i suoi contemporanei. Musica e
mecenatismo presso le corti dell’Italia settentrionale,” in Bernardo Clesio e il suo tempo, ed. by Paolo
Prodi (Rome: Bulzoni, 1986), 607-637. On women and musical instruments in general, Lujza Tari,
“Women, musical instruments and instrumental music,” Studia Musicologica Academiæ Scientiarum
Hungaricæ 40 (1999), 95-143.
Christelle Cazaux, La Musique à la cour de François Ier (Paris: École Nationale des Chartes,
2002), 69-160. On royal chapels in general, Juan José Carreras and Bernardo García García, eds., The
Royal Chapel in the time of the Habsburgs: Music and ceremony in early modern European court, transl.
by Yolanda Acker with English edition by Tess Knighton (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2005).

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

behavioral and cultural disciplining that the French aristocracy underwent beginning in

the sixteenth century.” Court music and dance performances were deployed not so much

to quench violent behavior (as one might think) as to make sure the notorious aristocratic

excess of bloodshed was forced out in an orderly and organized way—in the pyrrhic

dances or ballets à cheval, for instance. Music became a royal instrument of social order

at many levels, whether during royal balls, royal entries or sacred Te Deum ceremonies.

“Through the action of music,” argues van Orden, “social bodies cohered.” 55

Although music contributed to religious, courtly and popular activities, the value

and significance of musical instruments continually led to artistic, epistemological, and

theological disagreements in the Christian West. Up until the Renaissance, and through

most of it actually, a distinctive religious and scholarly consensus considered the human

voice as the purest of “instruments,” allowing any well-trained individual to sing in

accordance with the strictest of principles (or consonances) derived from ancient music

theory. This idea went back primarily to Boethius’s early sixth-century De institutione

musica, in which Boethius classified vox in three categories—reciting a prose oration

(emphasis on words spoken), singing a sequence of intervals (emphasis on sung voices),

and doing both at the same time, or the intermediate voice. The notion of vox meant for

Kate van Orden, Music, discipline and arms in early modern France (Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 2005), quotes on pp. 7 and 36 respectively. On dance, see Sarah R. Cohen, Art, dance,
and the body in French culture of ancien régime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). A
similar approach is found in Robert M. Isherwood, Music in the service of the king: France in the
seventeenth century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973). To a philosopher like Cardano, who played
the lute as did more and more men and women (educated or not) during the mid to late Renaissance,
musical instruments could be used not only to manipulate others behavior, but also as an effective source of
self-development. Cardano was arguing for a style of music called monody (or monophony), which
involves only one melodic voice, in contrast to polyphony (involving two or more melodic voices,
generally used today). Monodic music meant anyone could learn for his or herself how to sing or play an
instrument to change, in Cardano’s words, one’s own “morals, moods, or actions.” Miller, Hieronymus
Cardanus (1501-1576): Writings on Music, “On the value of music,” 198-199.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Boethius the spoken or sung voice as well as the abstract tone. In contrast to the abstract

or perfect mathematical tone, the human voice was clearly limited though remained the

best musical instrument of all. Boethius acknowledged that fact early in his treatise,

insisting that human nature was the one and only limitation to the boundlessness of vox. 56

In the West the epitome of singing voices came from the Gregorian chants, or

more specifically from the origins of the Christian liturgical plainchant (cantus planus).

In order to establish the Roman ecclesiastical reform and discipline Pippin the Short and

his descendants emphasized singing as a way to further the development of uniformity in

worship, and consequently unity in religious devotion. Through singing, the ancestors of

early modern French kings aimed to replace the diverse Gallican traditions by a single

rite, later known as Roman Catholicism. Singing Church liturgical texts became above all

a way to celebrate God’s greatness. Far into the Renaissance, in fact, disciplined singing

was believed to be the surest and most adequate method to properly praise the Lord.57

Dissenting (one might say discordant) voices, however, were heard in the early

sixteenth century. In 1511 Sebastian Virdung, a German priest, published the first treatise

in the West on musical instruments, entitled Musica getutscht. This book illustrates

primarily the coming into prominence of instrumental music and the amateur

instrumentalist in the early Renaissance. Virdung composed his treatise as a “self-help”

method, and saw himself as a “silent master” leading the reader step-by-step through the

“The voice [vox] which is continuous and that with which we run through song are inherently
boundless. For by consideration generally agreed upon, no limit is placed either on flowing through words
or on rising to high pitches or sinking to low ones. But human nature imposes its own limitation on both of
these kinds of voice.” Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, Fundamentals of music, transl. by Calvin M.
Bower (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), §12-13, 20-21, quote on p. 21.
Kenneth Levy and John A. Emerson, “Plainchant,” Grove Music Online, ed. by L. Macy
(Accessed via Harvard College Libraries, 22 March 2006), <http://www.grovemusic.com>.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

era’s two most important German instrumental notation systems, the tablatures for

keyboards and lutes. (See Figure 1.1.) In a similar fashion, the book also guided the

music novice through the fingerings of three sizes of recorders. 58 Yet Virdung’s main

focus was not about musical instruments per se, nor was it in explaining the finer points

of abstract music theory. Virdung’s initial motivation for publishing it was chiefly the


Above is a musical piece in what was called “vocal

notation.” The upper right illustration is the
tablature symbols found on a lute according to
Virdung’s German system. To the right, the same
song as above but intabulated so it can be played on
the lute. From Bullard, Musica getutscht, 146, 165,

advancement of Christianity. Enough evidence is found in the Scriptures, according to

Virdung, to trust that “we are bidden and commanded in so many [Biblical] passages to

rejoice in God the Lord actively, that is with instruments.” This is the reason why, he

continued, “I have begun a brief little treatise, writing a small amount about these

Beth Bullard, transl. and ed., Musica getutscht: A treatise on musical instruments (1511) by
Sebastian Virdung (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). Another important study, which
sometimes hold opposing views to Bullard’s, particularly on the role and significance of the printed
woodcuts of instruments, is Edwin M. Ripin, “A reevaluation of Virdung’s ‘Musica getutscht,’” Journal of
the American Musicological Society 29 (1976), 189-223.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

instruments, from which those who wish to share in such promised blessedness may take

some small or tiny bit as a foundation or introduction to the instrument with which to

learn [it], thereby gaining the promised eternal blessedness.” 59

Although Virdung’s book generated adaptations in Latin and Dutch, as well as a

direct translation of the Dutch edition into French, it is particularly recognizable in

Martin Agricola’s Musica instrumentalis deudsch. 60 First published in 1529, Agricola’s

text and engravings are often strikingly similar to Virdung’s Musica getutsch and its

technical purpose was also the same: to instruct in the tablatures of stringed, wind and

keyboard instruments. 61 In the second edition of 1545 (the first one was printed in 1529,

1530, 1532 and 1542) the skilled instrumentalists who objected to disclose their practice

were no longer Agricola’s principal targets. Although the new edition originated from the

view that the 1529 edition was in some places “too obscure and difficult to understand”

Bullard, Musica getutscht, quotes on p. 99. To Virdung, the musical instruments described in the
Psalms had more than a symbolical value: they ought not be treated as allegories—as prescribed by the
Church Fathers—but rather as objects worthy of God’s worship. The rationale behind the publication of his
little book on instrumental music, in fact, was that its use would ultimately increase the number of blessed
people. Furthermore, in writing his treatise in German—including important Biblical passages that
supported his claims—he anticipated the Lutheran reform, demonstrating that the vernacular language
could be used to address matters of faith. Virdung’s book thus aimed at breaking two old dichotomies
pertaining to how one should praise God: voice vs. musical instruments for music; Latin vs. vernacular
languages in relation to the Scriptures.
William E. Hettrick, transl. and ed., The ‘Musica instrumentalis deudsch’ of Martin Agricola: A
treatise on musical instruments, 1529-1545 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994). On the
offspring of Virdung’s treatise, see Bullard, Musica getutscht, 61-88.
Ibid, Appendix 1, 145-146 for a table of Agricola’s woodcut illustrations derived from
Virdung’s Musica getutscht. The thrust behind Agricola’s treatise, however, is somewhat distinct from
Virdung’s, that is Agricola’s chief reason to publish in 1529 was to “democratize” instrumental music, not
to demonstrate how one could praise the Lord. Agricola was hostile to the fact that those skilled in the art
of instrumental music sought to keep their practice a secret following the proverb that said “Art must be
held back, so that art will endure.” Agricola believed it was a truly unchristian demeanor, and hoped that
his treatise would present “to people who are highly celebrated and greatly learned in this art, a Christian
example and model for helping young people…” Thus instrumental music should be perceived as a bona
fide liberal art, fit to be taught in schools; it was not a vulgar craft that needed to be kept secret, but a noble
art that had to be passed on and celebrated. Ibid, 1529 edition, sig. A3v-A4, 4.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

for schoolchildren, 62 the focus was turned toward those who blatantly opposed

instrumental music. To educate “boys” in the “noble art” of instrumental music meant

that “much useless speculation, fantasy and ideas from the mind” had to be eliminated.

Instrumental music was indeed a “noble art,” because it was not only “the source of

remarkable recreation and diversion (as I have experienced)” but, above all, it taught how

to “praise God, who has given this delightful and joyful art—with which the Holy Angels

will also praise Him without ceasing and laud Him to eternity…” 63 As Agricola

explained in the preface of the 1545 edition,

Although, my dear lord Georg Rhau [his patron, friend, and publisher], several
people who have shamefully scorned the Instrumental [Music] and me on account
of it, might almost have discouraged me from my intended and useful writing, I
reasoned finally that, indeed, because they speak about the subject so
monastically (as in a monastery, where one lives quite meditatively and sings only
plainsong without any musical instruments) and perhaps do not understand
anything in particular of this noble art, you might therefore excuse them this time;
you will not follow them, but rather Moses, David and many other excellent
people who have thought very highly of it (as the Psalter etc. indicates) and have
presented and bequeathed us examples of how to praise God in various ways. 64

For Agricola, as well as for Virdung before him, the voice was not the flawless

“instrument” classical and contemporary authors declared it to be—and hence the most

sublime instrument in praising God. Musical instruments were valuable instruments of

worship, sanctioned in numerous sacred texts. 65 The so-called dichotomy between voice

Quote from Agricola’s 1545 edition, sig. A3, 63. To this new edition, however, was added
copious marginal notes and numerous Latin quotations to enhance the erudition of the work. This may be in
response to the critics who noted the lack of classical scholarship in the previous edition. (Mathematical
ratios with examples are also discussed, which is not the case in the first edition.) The work reflects,
according to Hettrick, the general educational and religious environment of Saxony in the 1540s, as is also
illustrated by the several references to Luther and the passionate attacks against the Roman Catholic
Church. Ibid., xvi.
Ibid., 1545 edition, sig. A3, 63.
Ibid, 1545 edition, sig. A4-A4v, 64-65.
Agricola, interestingly enough, was a music teacher in a Magdeburg’s Lateinschule (he was

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

and instruments appeared in the end artificial and dogmatic to at least a few early

cinquecento instrumental musicians and theorists.66

In the late Renaissance such a version of the art-nature debate took a natural

philosophical turn. Not only did it challenge the classical dichotomy between the

concepts of Art (musical instruments) and Nature (voice), it confronted as well (and most

importantly) the authority of ancient learning in arguing that musical instruments,

supported by careful sense experiments, contradicted longstanding assumptions. The

debate was essentially polarized between two giants of the latter cinquecento Italy,

Giuseffo Zarlino and Vincenzo Galilei. It got center stage with the publication of

Zarlino’s Sopplimenti musicali in 1588 and, the following year, Galilei’s Discorso

intorno all’opere di messer Gioseffo Zarlino da Chioggia.

Zarlino spent the first few chapters of the Sopplimenti discussing in an

Aristotelian style the perfection of nature over that of the arts. Since the publication of his

Istitutioni harmoniche in 1558, Zarlino maintained that only the human voice could sing

the vere forme of the Syntono di Tolomeo, or Ptolemy’s syntonic diatonic system of pure

named choirmaster in 1525), and in all likelihood the era’s only German music theorist to consider musica
instrumentalis as important as cantus planus (plainchant). Latin schools in Germany, following Luther’s
wishes, incorporated music as a central component of Protestant education. However, as was the case in
Nuremberg, there is not much evidence that instrumental music was taught or generally held in high
regards by Latin schoolteachers. Nuremberg’s music theorists, especially Sebald Heyden, published
virtually all of their works in Latin in the 1530s and 1540s. These were essentially textbooks destined to the
cities’ Latin schools, textbooks with which students learned the rudiments of music theory, plainchant and
polyphony. Singing—whether in Latin or in German—not instrument playing was taught in Latin schools
as part of the liberal arts curriculum. Agricola’s idiosyncratic approach emphasizing instrumental music
was the exception, not the rule in early Renaissance Germany. Anna Maria Busse Berger, “Agricola [Sore],
Martin,” Grove Music Online (Accessed on 12 February 2006). On music theory and Latin School in
Nuremberg, Cristle Collins Judd, Reading Renaissance music theory, 82-114. The meaning and function of
plainchant vs. polyphony clashed more here than did singing vs. instrument playing.
Jean-Michel Vaccaro, ed., Le Concert des voix et des instruments à la Renaissance (Paris:
CNRS-Editions, 1995). With the help of several case studies, the chief aim of this book is to demonstrate
that indeed, the classic viewpoint regarding the division of vocal and instrumental music in the Renaissance
is more an artifact of history than anything else. On Agricola and other like-minded individuals, see
Howard Mayer Brown, “The instrumentalist’s repertory in the sixteenth century,” in ibid., 21-32.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

mathematical consonances. 67 Even though the mathematically determined true forms of

musical intervals were found on a mechanical monochord, it would be a mistake to think

all modern musical instruments could produce the pure consonances of Ptolemy’s system.

The heart of the matter rested on the fact that the addition of multiple strings on a string

instrument, for instance, did not ultimately produce the consonant true forms of the

syntonic diatonic; only a close approximation, given by a fine-tuning or temperament,

could be achieved on musical instruments. Such temperament, according to Zarlino, was

not derived from a scholarly study of musical intervals, but rather by chance (“che tal

Temperamento, o Participatione sia stata introdutta a caso, & non studiosamente”). In

three dense pages of text, Zarlino thus explained how the combination of multiple strings

on a musical instrument necessitated the use of comma, or minute differences that exist

between two relatively large, nearly identical intervals, in order to attain the consonances’

vere forme. To Zarlino, the whole art of temperament was to fiddle with a musical

instrument until (by chance) it got hold of the syntone of Ptolemy to the closest comma.

It was completely different for the human voice, which (making the necessary

adjustments) “naturally” sang the just intonation of the consonances. Because musical

instruments were above all the result of art, merely imitating nature, 68 they were

inherently flawed, thus unable to “sing” perfectly. Only an “instrument of nature,”

On the traditional meaning of vox see Rossetti, Libellus de rudimentis musices, ed. by Albert
Seay, Critical Texts, no. 12 (Colorado Springs: Colorado College Music Press, 1981), 1-60, quote on p. 5.
Taken from the Thesavrvs mvsicarvm latinarvm, Center for the History of Music and Literature, University
of Indiana <http://www.music.indiana.edu/tml/14th/ZAMLAM_TEXT.html> (Accessed on 13 April 2006).
“percioche non è fuor di ragione il dire, che gli Huomini incominciassero da principio ad
osseruare I canti uarij de gli Vccelli, & ad imitar quelli con le Voci, & dopoi s’insegnassero di trouare &
arteficiosamente fare alcune sorti d’Istrumenti, co i quali potessero imitar non solamente cotali canti, ma
etiando quelli de gli huomini.” Gioseffo Zarlino, Sopplimenti musicali del rev. M. Gioseffo Zarlino da
Chioggia… (Venice, 1588), book I, chap. 2, 13.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

faultless by definition, could. 69

As a loyal student under Zarlino in the 1560s, Galilei first accepted this point of

view. When Galilei began a correspondence on matter of Greek music with the humanist

Girolamo Mei, however, he was exposed to another sort of thinking, one that was

established to some extent in experiments. Mei rejected Zarlino’s theory-laden use of

nature’s just intonation as true to reality. According to him, moderns did not sing in the

syntonic diatonic vere forme Zarlino suggested. But instead of entering into a long

dialectical proof he suggested to Galilei a simple experiment:

Stretch out over a lute (the larger it is the more obvious will what we wish to
prove be to the ear) two … strings of equal length and width and measure out the
frets under them accurately according to the distribution of the intervals in each of
the two species of tuning—syntonic and di[a]tonic—and then, taking the notes of
the tetrachord one by one by means of the frets of each string, observe which of
the two strings gives the notes that correspond to what is sung today. So without
any further doubt the answer will remain clear to anyone, even if what I have
often fancied on my own, more as a matter of opinion than judgment, is not
proved true. 70

Mei was perhaps the first modern scholar to make a sharp distinction between pure and

applied knowledge. As Mei explained to Galilei, the science of arithmetic, for example,

Gioseffo Zarlino, Le Istitutioni harmoniche (Venice, 1561; facsimile of the second edition,
Arnaldo Forni Editore, 1999), book II, chaps. 41 & 42, 125-127. On the dichotomy between art and nature,
Zarlino writes: “Et benche ne i detti istrumenti temperati in tal maniera, non si poßino vsare le consonanze
nella sua perfettione, cioè nella loro vera, & naturale forme; è nondimeno poßibile di poterle vsare, quando
le loro chorde si volesero tirare sotto la ragione delle loro proportioni vere, & naturali. Et questo io dico,
perche molte volte ne hò fatto la esperienza sopra vno istrumento, il quale feci fabricare a que sto
proposito… Ma se cotali incouenienti (dirò cosi) si trouano ne gli Istrumenti arteficiali, nondimeno tra le
Voci, come altre volte diremo, non si trouano tali rispetti: conciosia che riducono ogni cosa nella sua
perfettione, come è il douere: essendo che la Natura, nel fare le cose, è molto superiore all’Arte: & questa
nello imitare fa ogni cosa imperfetta, & quella (rimoßi gli impedimenti) ogni cosa riduce a perfettione.” (p.
Mei to Galilei, 17 January 1578, in Girolamo Mei, Letters on ancient and modern music to
Vincenzo Galilei and Giovanni Bardi, annotated by Claude V. Palisca ([n. p.]: American Institute of
Musicology, 1960), 140 for the Italian text; p. 67 for the English translation. On the role of experiments,
Palisca mentions the school of Padua to which Mei had an opportunity to know. Jacopo Zarabella was the
chief representative of this school. See, for instance, Charles B. Schmitt, “Experience and experiment: A
comparison of Zarabella’s view with Galileo’s De Motu,” Studies in the Renaissance 16 (1969), 80-138.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

was about the properties of numbers “considered for themselves as well as with reference

to other numbers, … which considerations do not serve the practical art of keeping

accounts.” It was similar with the science and practice of music. The science of music

was the investigation of musical tones for themselves with “no other aim than to come to

know the truth itself”; art should then be free to explore in any way it deemed fit “those

tones about which science has learned the truth.” 71

It is in large part due to its correspondence with Mei that Galilei’s Dialogo della

musica antica et della moderna (1581) sprang to life. The dialogue between Piero Strozzi

and Giovanni Bardi, Galilei’s interlocutors, was a long response to Zarlino’s doctrine

exposed in the Istitutioni harmoniche. Following Mei’s inquiry, the book’s goal was to

determine which scale tuning was actually used by modern musicians, vocalists and

instrumentalists. Galilei’s chief finding was that none of the ancient tuning, neither

Ptolemy’s syntonic diatonic nor any other specific one, could explain what our ears liked

to hear and what our reason found to be just and accurate. In the voice of Bardi, Galilei

declared in his Dialogo: “After long observation, I find that natural voices and artfully

made instruments in this modern musical practice really do not sing and play any of the

nine ancient species of diatonic in their simple form but rather three of them variously

mixed by practitioners inadvertently.” 72 Galilei did not start with an abstract idea of a

perfect mathematical scale, but turned his attention instead toward the actual tuning of

musical instruments. Not only did he find that none of the instrument’s temperament

Mei to Galilei, 8 May 1572, in Mei, Letters on ancient and modern music, 103 for the Italian
text; p. 65 for the English translation.
Vincenzo Galilei, Dialogue on ancient and modern music, transl. by Claude V. Palisca (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 77. The three tuning scales were that of Aristoxenus, the ancient
ditonic diatonic, and the syntonic of Ptolemy.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

fitted ancient tunings, each type of instrument had identifiable tuning scales as well. 73

In the Discorso, Galilei reiterated the argument that, contrary to what Zarlino

believed, modern musicians did not sing or play according to the naturally occurring

syntone of Ptolemy. Galilei even refuted Zarlino’s claim that the proof came simply from

the study of tempered instruments. According to Galilei, the evidence was found in the

syntone of Ptolemy itself: “Moreover the intervals sung today are not sung in their natural

true forms, because the syntone I say has its fifth and fourth consonant and dissonant,

whereas those sung and played today are all consonances; therefore the syntone is not

sung nor played [today].” 74 Galilei brashly declared that no one endowed with the faculty

of reason would be so “thick” to adopt Zarlino’s point of view. 75

Perhaps more significantly, the syntone of Ptolemy was no more or no less natural

than any other tuning scale, whether devised mathematically by the ancients or artfully by

modern instrumentalists. As a matter of fact, the syntonic diatonic scale—like any other

tuning scale—was not natural at all but solo tutto artifiziale in Galilei’s words, created by

Moyer, Musica scientia, 241-263 for a very good analysis of Galilei’s works. On Zarlino and
Mei, see ibid., 202-225 and 225-241 respectively. See also, Palisca, Humanism in Italian Renaissance
musical thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 265-279.
“Le ragioni che io adduco che non si ca[n]ti ne si suoni il Sintono della maniera che lui ce lo
disegna, le cauo come si è veduto, non d’altroue che dal medesimo Sintono. Soggiugne appresso che io
dico che gli interualli che si cantano hoggi, non si cantano nelle vere forme loro naturali. Anzi il contrario;
per che il Sintono dico io, ha delle quinte & delle quarte consonanti, & delle dissonanti, & quelle che si
cantano e suonano hoggi son tutte consonanti, adunque non si canta ne si suona il Sintono.” Galilei,
Discorso di Vincentio Galilei, nobile Fiorentino intorno all’opere di messer Gioseffo Zarlino da Chioggia
(Florence, 1589), 33-34. For Zarlino’s critique, Sopplimenti, book IV, chap. 4 and chap. 10.
“ma che realmente egli sia tale, son sicuro che non si trouerà huomo tanto grosso (pur che ci sia
capace di ragione) che lo creda.” Galilei, Discorso, 9. Mei wrote to Galilei a decade before that anyone
who accepted and followed Zarlino’s senario as a proof of the syntone of Ptolemy were “simpletons.” Mei
to Galilei, 17 January 1578, in Mei, Letters on ancient and modern music, 138. Galilei describes Zarlino’s
senario as “impertinent”: “il numero Senario, o altre Zarlinesche impertinenti inouationi…” Galilei,
Discorso, 98.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Ptolemy’s artifice. 76 Zarlino agreed somewhat with this assertion, calling Ptolemy’s scale

in his Sopplimenti the “sintono artifiziale” and the just intonation only sang by voices the

“sintono naturale.” 77 For Galilei, however, this dichotomy between musica naturalis

(vocal music) and musica artificialis (instrumental music) was specious: only natural

sounds existed since they were all produced by natural materia. Consonances were no

doubt natural phenomena, but they were not naturally reproduced by the voice in their

vere forme. Singing well and accurately was an art requiring practice, just as the art of

instrumental music was—or for that matter, medicine, agriculture and animal husbandry,

emphasized Galilei. 78

Art, in other words, did not need inexorably to imitate nature. It was one of the

book’s major conclusions. Taking into account the lengthy argument on the valuable

disposition of art, after establishing that the syntonic diatonic scale—or any other tuning

scale for that matter—was not natural but an artifice of man, Galilei could finally affirm

Galilei, Discorso, 31-32.
Zarlino, Sopplimenti, book IV, chaps. 6-8. Daniel P. Walker, Studies in musical science in the
late Renaissance (London: The Warburg Institute; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1978), chap. 2.
Galilei, Discorso, 70-78, 92-94, 82-84. Descartes said somewhat the same thing to Isaac
Beeckman when, at the very beginning of the Compendium musicæ, he emphasized the significance of
sense experience, establishing a clear distinction between affectiones (characteristics of sound) and affectus
(passions). Descartes explained that only the pitch and duration of sounds should matter to musicians, while
how sounds were produced should be left to physici. It did not make a difference therefore whether sounds
were formed by singers or instrumentalists: both used the two chief properties of sound to convey affectus.
The new Cartesian estheticism thus did not rely on two different kinds of music, musica naturalis and
musical artificialis, the former being more perfect than the latter. Estheticism (affectus) was completely
separated from the actual properties of sound (affectiones), which were explained according to Descartes’s
(and Mersenne’s) mechanistic interpretation of nature. Philippe Vendrix, “La dichotomie
vocal/instrumental dans la théorie musicale aux confins de la Renaissance et du Baroque,” in Le Concert
des voix et des instruments à la Renaissance, 71-81. See also Raymond Court, Sagesse de l’art (arts
plastiques, musique, philosophie) (Paris: Méridiens Klincksieck, 1987), chap. 6, and Brigitte van
Wymeersch, Descartes et l’évolution de l’esthétique musicale (Sprimont: Mardaga, 1999). René Descartes,
Abrégé de musique, transl. and ed. by Frédéric de Buzon (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1987). On
the dichotomy between object and subject, see also Jairo Moreno, Musical representations, subjects, and
objects: The construction of musical thought in Zarlino, Descartes, Rameau, and Weber (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 2004), chap. 2.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

that musical instruments were not improved by the human voice, as Zarlino forcefully

argued, but that most likely the reverse was true. 79 It was precisely what Mersenne

acknowledged and welcomed as a fundamental principle in the beginning of his books on

instruments. 80


The scholarly dispute that erupted between Galilei and Zarlino concerning the epistemic

value of musical instruments was so consequential to Mersenne’s overall conceptual

system that he mentioned it right at the outset in his books on instruments. In the third

proposition of book one dedicated to string instruments, Mersenne—siding all along with

Galileo’s father—stated that

Actually if one tunes instruments according to the perfection of the theory, there
is no doubt that they will have no need of the perfection of the voice, which can
be corrected and adjusted by their means, for one can show whether the voices are
singing exactly only by showing that they conform to the perfect instrument. This
Zarlino should have acknowledged, had he considered it attentively. 81

“Non è vero adunque che non si possa render ragione esatta degli interualli de’ suoni degli
strumenti artifiziali senz’applicargli alle voci naturali; ma è ben vero per il contrario, che no[n] si può
render ragione dell’esatto degli interualli delle voci, senza applicarle a’ suoni degli strumenti artifiziali.”
Galilei, Discorso, 83. In his Dialogo, Galilei says that today’s way of singing originated in Greek unfretted
instruments. Galilei, Dialogue on ancient and modern music, 317. For a discussion of Galilei’s “modern”
understanding of nature, Daniel K. L. Chua, “Vincenzo Galilei, modernity and the division of nature,” in
Music theory and natural order from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century, ed. by Suzannah Clark
and Alexander Rehding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 17-29.
Trichet follows Mersenne in the preface to his treatise on musical instruments: “mais enfin j’ay
jugé que les instruments de musique debvoient emporter la préférence sur la pluspart des raisons qu’on
allegue pour la musique vocale, d’autant qu’ils ont des attraits particuliers et des opérations plus efficaces
qu’elle.” Musicians themselves, Trichet heard, were “beaucoup plus ravis et satisfaicts de leur jeu que de
leur chant: et la raison me semble estre fondée sur ce qu’ils ne peuvent démonstrer qu’ils chantent
justement qu’en faisant apparoir que leurs voix sont conformes a un instrument parfaict.” Trichet, Traité
des instruments de musique (vers 1640), 14. Claude V. Palisca, “Mersenne pro Galilei contra Zarlino,”
Nuova civiltà della macchine 16 (1998), 74-80.
Mersenne, “Traité des instrvmens a chordes,” book I, prop. III, 8 (HU3). English translation in
Mersenne, Harmonie universelle: The books on instruments, transl. by Roger E. Chapman (The Hague: M.
Nijhoff, 1957), 22. (hereafter cited as Mersenne, The books on instruments).

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

According to Mersenne (and somewhat to Aristotle 82 ) the craftsmanship of musical

instruments—if perfected by theory—was superior to the naturally created organs of the

human voice, and therefore the latter should be tuned to the former. Objects of art, in

other words, were not always predestined to becoming poor imitations of nature—

Aristotle’s ars imitatur naturam. 83 It was exactly what argued Galilei against Zarlino

several decades before Mersenne. The latter in fact pushed even further the Renaissance

argument that musical instruments played a significant role to our understanding of

music. In Mersenne’s writings, the material culture of music became nothing short of a

key element to the study of music—and consequently to our understanding of universal


Mersenne’s books on instruments are well known in the field of music. Published

in 1636 as part of the much larger Harmonie universelle, these books, along with book

two of Michael Prætorius’s 1619 Syntagma musicum, are the most important

contributions to our knowledge of early modern musical instruments. Indeed, several

historians of music (and modern instrument makers) have used Mersenne’s and

Prætorius’s detailed descriptions to explore the history and technology of individual

See Aristotle, Problems*, book 19, §918a29-918a34, in The complete works of Aristotle, ed. by
Jonathan Barnes, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984-1985), ii:1431: “Why, if the human
voice is more pleasant than an instrument, is the voice of a man singing without words—as, for example,
when singing nonny-noes—not so pleasant as a flute or lyre? Or is it true that even in the case of an
instrument we get less pleasure if it is not expressive of meaning? The instrument, however, has an
advantage even in its actual effect; for while the human voice is pleasanter, instruments strike the note
better than the human mouth, which is why they are pleasanter to hear than nonny-noes.” This reference
was taken from Past Masters internet resource <http://library.nlx.com> (Accessed via Harvard College
Libraries, 22 April 2007).
Mersenne, “Traité des instrvmens a chordes,” book I, prop. III, 9 (HU3): “Certes il me semble
que l’Art peut estre dit superieur à la Nature ou surpasser la Nature, lorsqu’il donne quelque degré de
perfection à vn sujet, auquel elle ne le peut donner: ce qui n’empesche pas qu’elle ne surmonte l’Art en
plusieurs autres choses.”

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

musical instruments. Few scholars, however, have attempted to outline the

epistemological meaning of these same musical instruments. This is what I will

demonstrate in the section below on Mersenne’s organ. In this one I want to concentrate

rather on a general description of Mersenne’s books on instruments, what were they and

how they came into being.

It is difficult to identify exactly when Mersenne decided to add a treatise—a

compendium—on musical instruments to his overall study of music. In his Questiones in

genesim of 1623, Mersenne was interested primarily with Antiquity’s musical thought,

devoting several columns to the perfection of ancient Greek music and to the more

contemporary musique mesurée of Jean-Antoine de Baïf’s Académie de poésie et de

musique. His approach was then a humanist one, established on the study of rhetoric,

dialectic, classical writings and recent works by Pierre de Ronsard, Pontus de Tyard and

Baïf himself. 84 Four years later, when Mersenne published the Traité de l’Harmonie

universelle, music had become more than a pure intellectual pursuit derived exclusively

from ancient learning. Music, through the idea of a universal harmony, could teach a new

method of learning, one not faithfully restricted to the “tyranny of opinions.” Ancient

writings, Mersenne stressed, should not be blindly received before one has done his own

sense experiments. 85 Although Mersenne’s natural philosophy did not completely stir

David Allen Duncan, The tyranny of opinions undermined: Science, pseudo-science and
scepticism in the musical thought of Marin Mersenne (Ph.D. dissertation, Vanderbilt University, 1981), esp.
chapter 3. On the Académie de musique et de poésie the classic work remains Frances Yates, The French
academies of the sixteenth century (London: Warburg Institute, 1947; reprinted in London: Routledge,
Mersenne, Traité de l’Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1627), book II, préface au lecteur, n.p.,
where he says: “Or ie demande vne chose aux Musiciens, & à tous les sçauans, qu'ils ne me peuuent
honnestement refuser; à sçauoir qu'ils ne croyent à nulle histoire de celles que les anciens rapportent des
effets de la Musique, ou de la maniere qu'elle a esté inuentée, &c. qu'ils n'en ayent premierement fait
l'experience, ou qu'ils n'y soient forcez par la demonstration, car c'est chose étrange que nous embrassons si

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

clear from the “learning of the schools,” as convincingly shown by Peter Dear, there was

nevertheless in the Traité de l’Harmonie universelle a fairly unusual emphasis given to

experiments and the material culture of music. 86 From the mid 1620s—a full decade

before he finally published his books on instruments—Mersenne did deem significant to

start investigating, ascertaining and rationalizing the role of instruments and experiments

with regard to his new natural philosophy.

The 1636 printed books on instruments, printed before any other from the

Harmonie universelle, are divided according to the traditional Boethian system of string

(books 1-4), wind (books 5-6), and percussion (book 7) instruments. One of their avowed

and most apparent purposes was to serve as an encyclopedia of all instruments that ever

existed in the history of humanity. To this end, Mersenne’s vast network of

correspondents proved to be of a tremendous assistance. He received, for example, an

account and a drawing of a South Asian instrument that had just arrived in London from

China during the summer of 1634. 87 From Italy, where most of Mersenne’s research on

facilement les opinions erronées de nos ancestres, encore qu'ils n'ayent eu nulle puissance, ny mesme le
plus souuent nulle volonté de nous obliger à suiure ce qu'ils ont dit, & ce qu'ils ont écrit. Ie desire donc
qu'on se tire de la captiuité qui a accoustumé de lier les hommes, & qu'on ne s'assujettisse plus à la tyrannie
des opinions...”
Mersenne, Traité de l’Harmonie universelle, book I, préface au lecteur, n.p., where he describes
the content of book IX, never printed but heralding the later books on instruments: “Le Neufiéme traite de
toutes sortes d’Instrumens de Musique; esplique leur matiere, leur fabrique, leurs temperamens, leurs
accords, leurs tablatures; enseigne à faire des Instrumens parfaits pour les trois genres de Musique, & pour
leurs especes, sans qu’il soit besoin d’aucun temperament; comme il faut faire des Epinettes qui tiennent
leur son auβi long temps que les Orgues; des Orgues qui prononcent auβi bien les syllabes, les paroles, &
toutes sortes de discours comme font les hommes, & des testes qui parlent, comme celle qu’on attribuë à
Albert le Grand.”
It was an Indian vina, though Mersenne did not know its exact name and was not even sure
whether it came originally from China or India. As soon as he could, he had an engraving made and
included it with a short (second-hand) description to a section on Indian and Turk musical instruments.
Mersenne to Peiresc, 2 July 1634, CM IV, 230; Peiresc to Mersenne, 16 July 1634, ibid., 244 in which
Peiresc tells Mersenne he should get in contact with Sr. Langlois dit Chartres, wonderful musette and flute
player, and someone who could discover the owner of this instrument and arrange for an engraving.
Mersenne to Peiresc, 2 February 1635, CM V, 46, in which he says that Claude Hardy brought back a

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

ancient musical instruments was focused, “Messieurs Gaffarel & Naudé” sent engravings

depicting instruments used by Greeks, Romans and Egyptians as found on several marble

artworks and medals. 88 (See Figure 1.2.) In Rome, moreover, Giambattista Doni was

actively seeking information on ancient musical instruments toward the preparation of a

book on Greek music. Not only did Doni share some of this knowledge with Mersenne

(who waited in vain for the published work 89 ), he also looked for drawings of unusual

Italian contemporary instruments. In addition, he sent to Mersenne a detailed sketch and a

brief account of his newly invented instrument, the Lyra Barberina (dedicated to Pope

Urbain VIII, Maffeo Barberini), a sort of lyra (though resembling a lute) on which gut

strings were affixed to one side and metal strings to the other. 90

drawing of the said instrument. Mersenne, “Traité des instrvmens a chordes,” book IV, prop. XX (sic,
XVIII), 227-228 (HU3). Mersenne to Doni, 2 February 1635, CM V, 35. In the Harmonicorum libri XII
Mersenne writes: “Placet autem hîc Sinense vel Indicum Instrumentum describere, cuius figuram beneficio
atque diligentiâ summi viri domini Hardy ex Anglia accepi.” Harmonicorum libri XII, vol. 2, book II, prop.
XXI, 111. On the vina, Claudie Marcel-Dubois, Les Instruments de musique de l’Inde ancienne (Paris:
Presses Universitaires de France, 1941), 79-80.
Jacques Gaffarel to Mersenne, (June 1633?), CM III, 443-444. Gabriel Naudé also sent to
Mersenne an engraving taken from an Antiquity marble artwork representing Orpheus with his lyra, which
was also added to the Harmonie universelle on the verso of the title page. See Naudé to Pierre Gassendi, 6
March 1632, CM III, 266-267. See also Naudé to Mersenne, 12 November 1633, CM III, 533-536 for more
of Naudé’s efforts in securing images from ancient instruments.
Mersenne to Peiresc, 14 May 1634, CM IV, 136, where Mersenne writes: “Il m’escrivit il y a
tres longtemps qu’il y metteroit quantité de choses de la musique et des instruments antiques. Dieu veuille
que je puise voir son livre avant que de mettre fin au mien, affin de luy donner la louange qu’il meritera,
comme je luy ay mandé.”
Doni to Mersenne, 15 October 1633, CM III, 508-509, where it says that “Au reste, l’instrument
est reussy, d’un ton fort doux, de façon qu’il surpasse le lut et la harpe encore qu’il participe de tous deux.
Je n’ay point pretendu pourtant de renouveller l’ancienne Lire tout ainsi qu’elle estoit (encore que cest
instrument y approche fort, comme vous pouvez voir par ce peu de crayon que je vous envoye), mais de
l’enrichir des nouvelles inventions. Le costé qui a les cordes d’airain (qui est celuy qui se voit dans ce
dessein), a les touches immobiles dans la [sic] manche, comme le cistre, mais chaque ton divisé en quattre
dieses enarmoniques. Il y a de plus une petite harpe de huict chordes au costé des cordes de lut, dont
apparoissent les chevilles au costé gauche.” See also Doni to Mersenne, 8 April 1634, CM IV, 90.
Mersenne mentions Doni’s lyra in his Harmonie universelle, “Traité des instrvmens a chordes,” book II,
prop. 6, 100 (HU3). However, Mersenne omits to mention it in the Latin version, the Harmonicorum libri
XII, which earned him a minor reproach from Doni (who as an excuse for Mersenne blamed the quality of
the drawing), Doni to Mersenne, [May 1636], CM VI, 71-72. On the lyra barberina, see Claude V. Palisca,
G.B. Doni’s Lyra Barberina (Bologna: A.M.I.S., 1981), which is a facsimile with a commentary of Doni’s

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]


On the left, the Indian instrument from China (with the two decorated pear-shape resonance gourds),
which found its way to London in 1634. On the right, a compilation of ancient instruments described by
two of Mersenne’s faithful correspondents in Italy: “Since many desire to know the customs of antiquity, I
wish not to omit the instruments the Greeks, Romans, and the Egyptians used, if the old marbles of Italy
and the medallions do not mislead us. The following figures have been taken from them and have been
sent [to] me by Mr. Gaffarel and Mr. Naudé, both excellent persons.” Mersenne, “Traité des instrvmens a
chordes,” book III, prop. XXV [sic, XIV], 172. Mersenne, The books on instruments, 221. Images are
taken from Mersenne, “Traité des instrvmens a chordes,” book IV, prop. XX [sic, XVIII], 228; book III,
prop. XXV [sic, XIV], 173.

Closer to home, in France, Christophe de Villiers, a physician of Sens and one of

Mersenne’s most prolific correspondents on music and demonology, was the first to draw

the Minim’s attention toward an uncommon musical instrument: the trompette marine, a

one-string instrument that sounds like a brass trumpet. 91 After de Villiers sent a drawing

and a complete physical description of the instrument he had examined, it still took

book published posthumously.

On the history, music and construction of this instrument, see Cecil Adkins, “Trumpet marine,”
Grove Music Online (Accessed on 9 August 2006). It was known since the fifteenth century.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Mersenne several more months before he heard it play in Paris. The account Mersenne

ultimately gave in the Harmonie universelle was completely different from de Villiers’s

basic physical description—reminiscent instead of Pierre Trichet’s and Descartes’s. The

account focused rather on the instrument’s production of sound and how one could and

should play it. It was essentially theoretical, and because the instrument only had one

string (in general), Mersenne stressed its theoretical likeness to the monochord. 92

Although all these correspondents and their particular exposés on ancient, foreign,

strange and modern musical instruments were useful, one person, owing to his own vast

network of relationships, did more than anyone else in trying to secure musical

knowledge for Mersenne: Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, the celebrated gentleman

from Provence and Mersenne’s most important patron.

Toward the end of 1632, Peiresc—with the assistance of Pierre Gassendi—began

to recognize the worth of Mersenne’s music project and instrument compendium. As

regards uncommon musical instruments, Peiresc then only knew about one Sanbucca (or

Sambuca), a kind of harp of Greek origin that had been built in Rome, though he had

never received a good account of how it sounded. On foreign music from the Levant,

Christophe de Villiers to Mersenne, 3 March 1634, CM IV, 59-60: “J’oubliois encor à vous dire
que l’on m’a fait part d’un instrument qui n’est pas connu, qui s’appelle Trompette marine. Si n’en avez
entendre parler, je vous en envoyeray un pourtraict, tel qu’on me l’a representee. Et s’il arrive que je la
voye, comme j’espere, je vous en donneray encore plus particuliere intelligence. Elle n’est pas maintenant
au pays. Celuy qui m’en a parlé, l’a ouy trompetter et dit qu’elle se fait entendre aussi loin que les
trompettes de guerre. Et neantmoins n’est que boys, le corps triangulaire, avec une corde tendue (comme à
vostre viole), laquelle se touche avecque l’arcelet et rend le son susdit. Mais qui est plus merveilleux, c’est
que le corps par en bas n’est large que de 8 poulces au plus, tant en boys que en cavité; et par en hault, prez
du manche, d’un poulce seullement. Si n’en avez ouy parler, ne vous en travaillez daventage. Je vous en ay
mandé cecy, parce que je n’ay veu le pourtrait de tel instrument dans les vostres que vous m’avez envoyé.”
See also de Villiers to Mersenne, 17 August 1634, ibid., 319-322; de Villiers to Mersenne, 20 October
1634, ibid., 370-371, where he says that he is happy Mersenne could finally hear it, since it is the only way
to believe what people say about it. Mersenne’s description is found in “Traité des instrvmens a chordes,”
book IV, prop. XIV [sic, XII], 217-222 (HU3). On Trichet and Descartes, François Lesure, “Pierre
Trichet’s Traité des instruments de musique: supplément,” The Galpin Society Journal 15 (1962), 70-81,
on pp. 78-80; Descartes to Mersenne, [15 September 1634?], CM V, 360-361.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

however, Peiresc told Gassendi he would send a small mémoire to several non-Western

locations to assist with Mersenne’s research. 93 Peiresc had developed over the years a

vast network of correspondents in the Middle East and in North Africa, which he used at

length, for instance, toward his study of geography and cartography. 94

Mersenne was quick in thanking Gassendi for the good words put on his behalf,

while reminding the Provence savant at the same time of his promise to deliver a small

drawing of the type of cymbals played in that part of France. 95 After an early May 1633

letter to Peiresc, in which Mersenne explained his desire to know every detail of music

theory and musical instruments from the Arabs, Turks and Persians—so that “nothing

was omitted to please the curious”—scores of letters followed between them and between

Peiresc and several other correspondents in Tunis, Alep (Syria), Cairo, Jerusalem, and

Constantinople. 96 One particular Arab manuscript appeared promising on those matters,

Peiresc to Gassendi, 21 December 1632, CM III, 351-352.
Peiresc’s correspondents depended overwhelmingly on French collaborators, including
ambassadors, secretaries of French ambassadors, consuls and vice-consuls, merchants, ship captains
travelling in the Mediterranean and missionaries. See Sonja Brentjes, Peiresc’s interests in the Middle East
and Northern Africa in respect to geography and cartography (Berlin: Max Planck Institute for the History
of Science [preprint 269], 2004). See also Sydney Aufrère, La Momie et la tempête: Nicolas-Claude Fabri
de Peiresc et la curiosité égyptienne en Provence au début du XVIIe siècle (Avignon: Editions A.
Barthélemy, c1990). I would like to thank Sonja Brentjes for this last reference and for providing me with a
copy of her preprint.
Mersenne to Gassendi, 5 January 1633, CM IV, 355, where Mersenne writes: “Vous m’aves
promis un petit crayon des cymbales usitees en Provence. Je n’attendz plus que cela avec les instructions de
l’Orient, car je peux maintenant dire que nous chanterons in omni genere musicorum instrumentorum. Je
vous remercie de la faveur que vous m’avez faicte auprez de M. de Peiresc. S’il en reussit quelque response
favorable, j’augmenteray mes actions de graces.” Mersenne received the drawing more than a year later,
after many other epistolary exchanges with Peiresc himself. Mersenne to Peiresc, 1 May 1633, CM III, 394;
Peiresc to Mersenne, 1 May 1634, CM IV, 109 and Mersenne to Peiresc, 14 May 1634, ibid., 135.
Mersenne described them in his Harmonie universelle, “Des instrumens de percvssion,” book VII, prop. 26,
53 (HU3).
Peiresc to Thomas d’Arcos, (end of January or beginning of February 1633), CM III, 373-374;
Peiresc to Father Théophile Minuti, 12 October 1633, ibid., 494-495; Peiresc to Father Jacques de
Vendôme, [12 October 1633?], ibid, 496; Peiresc to Jean Magy, 15 May 1634, CM IV, 155; Peiresc to
Henri de Gournay, comte de Marcheville, 19 March 1634, ibid., 80. For a summary of Peiresc’s efforts on
behalf of Mersenne, Peiresc to Mersenne, 13-15 October 1633, CM III, 497-505. A typical request read

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

until it turned into a little epistolary drama between Mersenne and Peiresc, the former

trying to find someone in Paris with the language skills to translate it, and the latter

striving a year later to pass it along to someone else who would make a better use of it. 97

Despite Peiresc’s efforts, as the correspondences show, Mersenne ultimately abandoned

the idea of integrating in his Harmonie universelle any thorough knowledge of Greek and

oriental music after several years of fruitless investigation. 98

Regarding ancient and foreign musical instruments, Peiresc also paid a close

attention to his cabinet de curiosités, then one of the richest in France. 99 He mentioned to

thus, this one to d’Arcos: “Pour un ouvrage excellent de la musique qui se va mettre soubz presse, on
desireroit d’avoir quelque cognoissance de la musique et façon de chanter dont se servent aujourd’huy les
Grecs vulgaires, les Turcs, les Persans, les Aegyptiens, les Mores et autres peuples de ces pays là. Sy en
tout ou en partie, vous pouvez obliger ce bon personnage, je vous asseure qu’il n’en sera pas ingrat et que
c’est un homme qui le vaut bien.”
At first, Mersenne and Peiresc thought that this manuscript would be very useful: “[on] y
trouvera des fondements et maximes principales de la plus excellente musique des anciens Grecs, à ce que
nous en avons peu juger à l’ouverture du livre, et à la consideration des figures geometriquement
representatives des proportions et rapportz des tons, avec des differentes couleurs pour les entredistinguer
et desmesler plus commodement; ce que je n’avois jamais veu en tous les livres imprimés et mss qui
m’estoient passez par les mains. Ce qui nous a faict recognoistre que, parmy ces peuples barbares, il fault
qu’il y ait eu des esprits bien desliés.” Peiresc to Father Gilles de Loches, 20 May 1634, CM IV, 158-159.
Nothing useful really came out from this manuscript. See Peiresc to Jean Magy, 15 May 1634, CM IV, 155;
Peiresc to Mersenne, 18 June 1634, ibid., 177-178; Claude Saumaise to Peiresc, 2 September 1634, ibid.,
344-345; Mersenne to Peiresc, 15 January 1635, CM V, 28; Mersenne to Doni, 2 February 1635, ibid., 41;
Peiresc to Mersenne, 20 March 1635, ibid., 107-108; Peiresc to Mersenne, 5 May 1635, ibid., 162-172;
Peiresc to N. Aubery, sieur du Mesnil, 8 May 1635, ibid., 173-174; Mersenne to Peiresc, 23 May 1635,
ibid., 208-210; Mersenne to Peiresc, 25 May 1635, ibid., 215; Peiresc to Jacques Dupuy, 5 June 1635, ibid.,
226-227; Peiresc to Dupuy, 26 June 1635, ibid., 255-256; Peiresc to Mersenne, 3 July 1635, ibid., 274-278,
and many others.
Mersenne to Peiresc, 20 March 1634, CM IV, 82, where he wrote: “Je n’espère maintenant plus
rien de la musique des Grecs, ni des Orientaux, après avoir attendu 2 ou 3 ou 4 ans après sans aucun fruit,
comme vous sçavez, quoyque j’aye tenté la voye de Rome, de Venise et de Constantinople. Je croy que
nous les surpassons tous en ceste matiere. C’est pourquoy je ne veux plus m’en mettre en peine.” After
receiving news of the Arab manuscript, Mersenne showed a little bit more optimism, saying to Peiresc he
would organize his books, especially the one on instruments, so that he could easily add anything new from
those countries. Mersenne to Peiresc, 14 May 1634, CM IV, 133-134. In the end, nothing came out of this
research. Surprisingly, both Peiresc and Mersenne would have gathered more information on Arabic music
and musical instruments by looking at medieval Latin manuscripts on medicine, astrology and philosophy
kept in European collections. Charles Burnett, “European knowledge of Arabic texts referring to music:
Some new material,” Early Music History 12 (1993), 1-17.
On Peiresc’s cabinet in general, Agnès Bresson, “Le cabinet de Peiresc et de quelques autres,”
<http://www.peiresc.org/Cabinet.html> (Accessed on 25 May 2005).

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Mersenne a few musical instruments he owned, such as an ivory horn from India, and

sent him specifics on several other instrument representations depicted on various plates,

coins and cups from China and the Middle East. 100 Although Mersenne was grateful for

Peiresc’s commitment toward the goal of gathering as much information as possible on

rare and forgotten musical instruments, every so often the Minim lacked enthusiasm for

Peiresc’s discoveries and sometimes even breached the patron-client etiquette. On one

particular Middle Eastern cup, which Mersenne had had analyzed in Paris, it was

determined that the text was not written in Arabic but rather was composed of strange

words without any meaning; more importantly, however, it was believed that comparable

cups were sold all the time in markets of Arab countries, as frequently as vulgar earth

ware was in Paris. The cup, in short, was worthless. In saying such a thing, Mersenne

inadvertently harmed Peiresc’s reputation as a distinguished collector of artifacts, a fact

the Provence gentleman promptly pointed out, as courteously as possible. 101 Yet the

reproach was obvious. Peiresc, actually, criticized on several other occasions Mersenne’s

lack of “written diplomacy,” something the Minim apparently had a difficult time

understanding and conforming to. 102 Though remarkable, Mersenne went beyond

Peiresc to Mersenne, 13-15 October 1633, CM III, 503-504; Peiresc to Mersenne, 18 June
1634, CM IV, 179; Mersenne to Peiresc, 2 July 1634, ibid., 226-227; Peiresc to Mersenne, 5 May 1635,
CM V, 170-171; Peiresc to Mersenne, 10 and 15 May 1635, ibid., 185-186.
Mersenne to Peiresc, 17 May 1735, CM V, 201-205; Mersenne to Peiresc, 25 May 1635, ibid.,
212-215; Mersenne to Peiresc, 14 June 1635, ibid., 240-241; Peiresc to Mersenne, 17 July 1635, ibid., 315-
318; Peiresc to Mersenne, 23 July 1635, ibid., 332. On Peiresc’s patronage and relationship to Mersenne,
Lisa T. Sarasohn, “Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc and the patronage of the new science in the seventeenth
century,” Isis 84 (1993), 70-90.
See, for instance, Peiresc to Mersenne, 13 August 1634, CM IV, 287: “Et ne feray pas de
difficulté de vous dire librement mes sentimens et tout ce que me demanderés, puisque l’avés agreable,
vous reiterant surtout la priere tres humble que je vous ay si devant faite, de vous abstenir de toute sorte
d’aigreur et de paroles piquantes, rudes et subjetés à sinistre interpretation. Et si vous pouviés enchore
retrancher la plus grande partie des contredis et refutations de propositions et opinions que vous
n’approuvés pas comme les vostres, vostre ouvrage en vaudroit au centuple, et d’un lecteur vous en

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Peiresc’s cabinet of curiosities as a source of potential information. He also tried (often

indirectly) to secure drawings and descriptions of ancient and uncommon musical

instruments from other notable Italian and French cabinets owned by Francesco Gualdo,

Johannes Rosinus, Claude Menetrié and Pierre Trichet. 103

Yet the vast majority of instruments described and portrayed by Mersenne in the

Harmonie universelle were familiar ones, such as the lute, the harp, the flute, the guitar,

the violin, the organ (to which we will come back in the next two sections) and bells, to

name but a few. Moreover, no musical instrument was unworthy of consideration and

study. The hurdy-gurdy (vielle-à-roue), for instance, known as organistrum in the Gothic

period, was then a large instrument found in cloisters and monastic schools to teach

music, perform religious polyphony and provide correct intonation for singers. (See

Figure 1.3.) Needing two players at first, it was redesigned in the thirteenth century for a

single player and was named afterwards chifonie or symphonia. Although its origin is

linked to liturgical music, the hurdy-gurdy slowly lost its former excellence during the

Middle Ages and early modern period owing to its association with the chansons de geste

and the low social status of its players. Depicted in the hands of poor people and blind

attireriés à milliers des plus honestes gents, qui n’ont pas de loisir pour lisre de si gros volumes et qui ne se
soussient pas de sçavoir les moyens de refuter les opinions insoubstenables ou mutilés; qui, au contraire,
seroient bien aises de voir en peu de discours vos plus belles et plus dignes observations bien arresonees. Si
vous l’avés une foys pratiqué, vous ne voudriés pas avoir faict aultrement et benirés l’heure que vous vous
serés astrainé dans ces bornes-là qui sont un peu plus à la mode du temps que ces prolixes traités des
escholes que peu des gents manient hors de colleges.” Although Mersenne wrote he would change his style,
it was not the end of it. See Peiresc to Jacques Dupuy, 11 July 1634, ibid., 237; Mersenne to Peiresc, 24
August 1634, ibid., 328; Peiresc to Mersenne, 3 July 1635, CM V, 277-278; Peiresc to Mersenne, 20
November 1636, CM VI, 154-156.
Jean-Jacques Bouchard to Mersenne, 1 January 1635, CM V, 1-4; Mersenne to Doni, 2
February 1635, ibid., 39; Mersenne to Peiresc, 2 February 1635, ibid., 46; Mersenne, “Traité des
instrvmens a chordes,” book IV, prop. 4, 184-185; prop. XX [sic, XVIII], 227-228 (HU3); Mersenne to
Peiresc, [ca. 1 September 1635], CM V, 377-378.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]


On the left, the hurdy-gurdy as depicted in Mersenne, “Traité des instrvmens a chordes,” book IV, prop.
XII [sic, X], 215. On the right, Georges de la Tour’s celebrated Hurdy-gurdy player, ca. 1631-1636.
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, France, taken from Web Gallery of Art (Accessed on 10 March 2006),
<http://www.wga.hu>. Poems such as this one were common since the Middle Ages: “Dist Mahier de
Gournay, ne vous irai celant, / Ens ou pays de France ou pays Normant / Ainsi vont li aveugles et ly
Povres truant / De si fais instrumens li Bourgeois esbattant / En l’apella depuis un instrument truant: / Car
ils vont d’huis en huis leur instrument portant / Et demandent leur pain.” Quoted in Corrette, La Belle
vielleuse, 3.

beggars (and even in hell) by Renaissance’s painters such as Brueghel and Bosch, the

hurdy-gurdy symbolized above all a connection between physical and moral blindness. 104

Prætorius showed a clear disdain vis-à-vis the hurdy-gurdy, saying that this “lyre”

Francis Baines, Edmund A. Bowles and Robert A. Green, “Hurdy-Gurdy,” Grove Music Online
(Accessed on 24 August 2006). Edmund A. Bowles, “La hiérarchie des instruments de musique dans
l’Europe féodale,” Revue de musicologie 42 (1958), 155-169, on pp. 167-169. Emanuel Winternitz,
Musical instruments and their symbolism in Western art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), chap.
4. The hurdy-gurdy briefly gained its lettres de noblesse during the reign of Louis XV. Claude Flagel, “La
vielle parisienne sous Louis XV: un modèle pour deux siècles,” in Instrumentistes et luthiers parisiens,
XVIIe-XIXe siècles, ed. by Florence Gétreau (Paris: Délégation à l’Action artistique de la ville de Paris,
[1988]), 117-134. Robert A. Green, The hurdy-gurdy in eighteenth-century France (Bloomington and
Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995). For an eighteenth-century textbook on how to play the
hurdy-gurdy, Michel Corrette, La Belle vielleuse, introduction by Claude Flagel (Saint-Denis-le-Gast: J.F.
Détrée, 1978).

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

was only played by “peasants and traipsing old women.” 105 Contrary to most music

scholars, however, Mersenne maintained that

If men of rank would ordinarily play the Symphonie, which is called the hurdy-
gurdy, it would not be so scorned as it is, but because it is played on by the poor,
and particularly by the indigents [the blind] who gain their livelihood with this
instrument, it is held in less esteem than the others, although they do not give as
much pleasure. This does not keep me from explaining it here, since science does
not pertain to the rich any more than to the poor, and there is nothing so base and
vile in nature or the arts that it is not worthy of consideration. 106

Mersenne was after natural philosophical knowledge and against popular prejudice or

ancient authority. Understanding the production of sounds from a hurdy-gurdy, therefore,

was as useful and valuable as if it were from a “noble” violin or harpsichord. 107

Mersenne’s books on instruments do not offer comprehensive historical

descriptions of ancient and modern musical instruments, like those of Galilei and Doni in

Italy and Pierre Trichet in France, over the span of several years. 108 Mersenne’s books on

Michael Prætorius, Syntagma musicum II: De organographia, transl. and ed. by David Z.
Crookes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 56.
Mersenne, “Traité des instrvmens a chordes,” book IV, prop. XII [sic, X], 211 (HU3).
Mersenne, The books on instruments, 271.
Mersenne, “Traité des instrvmens a chordes,” book IV, prop. XII [sic, X], 213 (HU3).
Mersenne, The books on instruments, 273. Kircher’s description of the hurdy-gurdy is also more positive
than most at that time: “Lyræ vulgaris figuram indicat, quod quamuis instrumentum sit tritum, & vulgare,
& mendicis passim in vsu, est tamen structura, & chordarum, quas binas, aut quaternas habet, sectione
mirum quantum ingeniosum; omnem harmoniæ varietatem exhibet; constat præterea plectris & palmulis
suis, ex quarum pressione chordæ tactæ, quam volueris modulationem facilè exhibueris rotæ S
circumductione terentis chordas, & in sonum incitantis, verbo nihil aliud est, quam monochordum, vel
dychordum, varia sectione plectrorum in harmoniam excitatum, Verùm tempus tera[n]si in tritisissimo
passim instrumento explicando immorabor, quare figuram adiunctam consule.” Athanasius Kircher,
Musurgia universalis, sive Ars magna consoni et dissoni, 2 vols (Rome, 1650; facsimile Hildesheim,
Zürich, New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 2004), book 6, i:487.
Galilei, Dialogue on ancient and modern music. Galilei probably influenced Doni’s approach
to the historical research of ancient Greek musical instruments. In the case of Trichet, his well-known
contemporary manuscript located at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris was with Mersenne’s
books on instruments the most comprehensive treatise on the material culture of music. However, as
Trichet wrote to Mersenne, his objective was quite different from the Minim’s: “Quant à moi, tout ce que je
pretends en mon livre est seulement de traitter historiquement des instruments de musique sans m’amuser à
des recerches qui surpassent la capacité de mon esprit. Sur quoi voulant avoir vostre jugement, je m’estois
mis en chemin pour vous aller voir à Paris, durant que la contagion affligeoit la ville de Bourdeaux...”

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

instruments are somewhat closer to Prætorius’s Theatrum instrumentorum as regards the

kind of detailed physical descriptions and explanations of sound production. Prætorius’s

book would have in fact been helpful to Mersenne if he only had gotten hold of a copy

before the publication of the Harmonie universelle. 109 But even more than Prætorius’s

treatise on instruments—like none other before really—Mersenne’s is filled with

technical details of fabrication and theoretical methods of improving their designs.

Mersenne wanted his readers to realize above all else that to fully understand the nature

of sound, one had not only to be au fait with the “natural” producers of sounds, but most

importantly with the “artificial” ones—the man-made musical instruments. This

exceptional emphasis on “mechanics” and “craftsmanship,” which to some extent

intruded in the standard theoretical and practical study of music, held a key role in

Mersenne’s natural philosophical practice and rhetoric. Simply said, musical instruments

were transformed into emblematic tools of the new mechanical natural philosophy. And

from them all, none better than the king of all instruments to articulate that perspective:

the pneumatic organ.

Trichet to Mersenne, 9 January 1631, CM III, 4-5. Trichet, Traité des instruments de musique (vers 1640).
This is not a complete edition of Trichet’s manuscript. Other excerpts were later published by Lesure in the
The Galpin Society Journal.
Not that Mersenne did not try to get hold of a copy, looking in the Netherlands (Beeckman) and
mostly in Italy (Doni). Mersenne to André Rivet, 30 October [1628], CM II, 107-108; Peiresc to Mersenne,
13-15 October 1633, CM III, 501-502; Doni to Mersenne, 8 November 1634, CM IV, 393; Mersenne to
Doni, 2 February 1635, CM V, 39-40 where he says that “Peut-estre que Scapin qu’on a icy veu jouer de 40
ou 50 sortes d’instrumentz sur le theatre avoit veu ce livre…”; Doni to Mersenne, 8 September 1635, CM
V, 392. Mersenne briefly discussed Prætorius’s work in his 1638 Novvelles observations physiqves et
mathematiqves, XIV. Obseruation: De la multitude des Instrumens harmoniques, & particulierement des
nouueaux, included at the end of HU3. Trichet could not find it either in Bordeaux. Trichet, Traité des
instruments de musique (vers 1640), 15.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]


Of all the known early modern musical instruments, the most sublime and perfect was

said to be the organ. It was for the Church as well as for most scholars the organum

organorum, i.e. the instrument of instruments. Cardano, for instance, after elaborating

nine rules by which to judge the perfection of musical instruments, declared the organ the

most perfect one:

Considering all reasons together and not individually the organ is superior to other
instruments. Although all instruments are called organs in Greek, this one alone
has retained the name through its superiority and the others have changed. Out of
the nine conditions by which one instrument is judged better than another the
organ holds the first place in all conditions except the eight [regarding the
production of very small intervals], in which it is possibly surpassed by one
instrument or another. But if it is divided by dieses instead of semitones, not only
in place of those that are present but also those that can be formed, it is the most
excellent of all, truly the instrument of kings. It is the most simple of simple
instruments and the most elaborate of the elaborate. In every category, therefore,
the simple organ is the most perfect, pleasant, melodious, noble, and excellent
instrument. 110

And to Mersenne’s contemporary Trichet, the mechanical structure of and the melody

coming from the organ let any listener wondering whether such an invention was actually

divine rather than secular. 111

Organs gained a religious status that no other musical instrument came close to

reaching in Europe. They became in the course of the Middle Ages the only musical

instrument sanctioned by the Church to play during Mass. For that reason alone they

achieved a unique status in the academic, royal, and social-cultural environments of early

Miller, Hieronymus Cardanus (1501-1576), 56. In a Vatican manuscript, however, Cardano
says that the lyra is the most elegant and perfect of instruments. Ibid., 178-182 and 199-206.
Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” Epitre, n.p. (HU3). Prætorius, Syntagma musicum: Textes
relatifs à l’orgue, comprenant aussi la basse générale ou continue, transl. and ed. by Jacques Leguy
(Chatenay Malabry: Éditions Ars Musicæ, 1999), 25. Trichet, Traité des instruments de musique (vers
1640), 23-24.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

modern Europe, often celebrated in poems and scholarly works. During the Wars of

Religion, as explained below, the organ was targeted by radical reformists and Huguenots

alike as an icon of past superstition. The revival and growth of organ making in France

between 1580 and 1640, in fact, had a direct connection to the Calvinists’ acharnement

against the sublime instrument—in parallel to the Catholic counter-reformation desire to

incite the general population in praying God. 112 The organ, in short, was not only the

most complex piece of machinery built in early modern Europe. It was, more importantly,

one of the dominant symbols—icons—of Christianity.

The organ, however, has not always received such esteem. James McKinnon

showed in a well-known article that since the time of the early Church Fathers, Psalm

commentaries interpreted every mention of musical instrument allegorically. To praise

God with musical instruments was an ancient and obsolete Jewish practice (the book of

Psalms is located in the Old Testament), which should be condemned in Christian

devotion. Musical instruments were deemed as something evil, compelling people away

from the sacred Word by means of earthly passions. What the Church Fathers, and

virtually all medieval commentators that followed them, did was to justify and account

for these atavistic references to instruments. According to McKinnon, the allegorical

exegesis were meant to transform the “material things of the Old Testament [into]

prophesies or types of the spiritual realities of the New Testament.” The psalterium and

kithara of Psalm 56:9, according to Pseudo-Athanasius’s commentary, stood for the soul

and the body respectively. To the Church Fathers musical instruments symbolized

Norbert Dufourcq, Le Livre de l’orgue français, 1589-1789, 5 vols. (Paris: Editions A. & J.
Picard, 1971-1982), iii:87-88. See also Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation (New York: Viking, 2003),

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

nothing more than doctrinal or ethical truths. 113 In fact, “instrumental allegory [was] so

common in the Middle Ages that a medieval ecclesiastic [could] hardly speak of musical

instruments without lapsing into it.” 114 Up until the thirteenth century, commentators

such as Isidore de Séville and Thomas Aquinas claimed that musical instruments,

including the organ, were simply unnecessary to the practice of worship—better adapted

to the popular theaters than the Church. 115

Throughout the Middle Ages, therefore, musical instruments were forbidden in

church and little heard as a rule during the liturgical service. Writings by ecclesiastics and

music theorists such as Guido d’Arezzo, Gulielmus Durandus, Philippe de Mézières and

Gilles de Zamore despised medieval jongleurs and instrumentalists who played in public

squares during fêtes and other popular celebrations. According de Zamore’s Ars musica

(ca. 1270) only the organ was suitable for the Church, while other instruments were

“being commonly rejected because of the abuses of the jongleurs [histrionum].” 116

James W. McKinnon, “Musical instruments in medieval Psalm commentaries and Psalters,”
Journal of the American Musicological Society 21 (1968), 3-20, quote on p. 7. Musical instruments are
mentioned in Psalms 32, 42, 48, 56, 67, 70, 80, 91, 97, 130, 136, 143, 147, 149, 150 (according to the
numbering of the Vulgate). In another example, commenting on Psalm 80:4, Pseudo-Athanasius remarks:
“‘Blow a trumpet at the new moon.’ As formerly, Israel, taking up the corporeal trumpet, blew it at the new
moon, because God had commanded this to commemorate that the Israelites had been freed from the
Egyptian servitude; so now the new people using the trumpet of the Gospel, whose sound has gone forth
into the whole world, commands that it be blown at the new moon, that is, in the renewal of its mind,
proclaiming and bearing witness that the evangelical trumpet has freed its mind from the spiritual Egypt,
that is, from the power of darkness.” Quote on pp. 6-7. See also McKinnon, “The meaning of the Patristic
polemic against musical instruments,” Current Musicology 1 (1965), 69-82.
McKinnon, “Musical instruments in medieval Psalm commentaries and Psalters,” 12.
Yvonne Rokseth, La Musique d’orgue au XVe siècle et au début du XVIe (Paris: Librairie E.
Droz, 1930; reprint ed., Hildesheim: Olms, 1996), 1-2.
The Latin quote read thus: “Organa in speciali non nominantur, quia organum est generale
nomen vasorum omnium musicorum: specialiter est appropriatum instrumento ex multis composito fistulis
sive cannis, cui folles adhibentur. Et hoc solo musico instrumento utitur ecclesia in diversis cantibus, et in
prosis, in sequentiis, et in hymnis, propter abusum histrionum, eiectis aliis communiter instrumentis.”
Johannes Aegidius Zamorensis, Ars musica, in Scriptores ecclesiastici de musica sacra potissimum, 3 vols.,
ed. by Martin Gerbert (St. Blaise: Typis San-Blasianis, 1784; reprint ed., Hildesheim: Olms, 1963), ii:370-
93, on p. 388. Taken from the Thesavrvs mvsicarvm latinarvm, Center for the History of Music and

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Several ecclesiastical synods and councils, such as Trier (1227), Lyons (1274), and

Vienna (1311), and the Statutes of Bourges (1407) banned all instruments from sacred

liturgy with the exception of the organ. This considered opinion vis-à-vis the organ,

which originated essentially in the late thirteenth century, derived partly from the

improvement of sound tonalities blasted out by the pneumatic machine and partly from

the concurrent decline (even decadence) of liturgical singing by Church choirs and

general assemblies. Owing to these two key events, organs found by the fourteenth

century a natural niche in most cathedrals and monasteries as an encouragement and

support to vocal worshiping. 117

The Renaissance did not modify this general view on musical instruments with

respect to religious practices. Ecclesiastical authors like Biagio Rossetti still claimed that

musical instruments—except for the organ—should be banished from the divine service

altogether. In his Libellus de rudimentis musices (1529) Rossetti asserted that musical

instruments distracted the mind of churchgoers away from devotional matters and

towards sin. Organs, however, properly played, could in contrast attract the listeners’

attention to liturgical texts. 118 Evidence shows, however, that instruments other than the

organ were infiltrating sixteenth-century churches as well. In Northern Europe, Erasmus

and Martin Luther complained in numerous writings about the cacophonic presence of

Literature, University of Indiana <http://www.music.indiana.edu/tml/14th/ZAMLAM_TEXT.html>

(Accessed on 6 April 2006). The English quote comes from Edmund A. Bowles, “Were musical
instruments used in the liturgical service during the Middle Ages?,” The Galpin Society Journal 10 (1957),
40-56, quote on p. 46.
Rokseth, La Musique d’orgue au XVe siècle et au début du XVIe, 3 and 150-151.
Moyer, Musica scientia, 149-151. Contrary criticisms were heard in mid- seventeenth-century
Germany. Although less frequent, they illustrate the “large doses” of organ music in those years. See
Alexander Silbiger, “Fantasy and craft: The solo instrumentalist,” in The Cambridge history of seventeenth-
century music, 426-478, on pp. 444-445.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

musical instruments during mass. Erasmus, in his Declarationes ad censuras … facultatis

theologiæ parisiensis (1532) criticized what he called the booming sounds of instruments,

“the almost warlike din of organs, straight trumpets, curved trumpets, horns and also

bombards, since these too are admitted in divine worship.” After a mass in which a bass-

voiced sacristan, who accompanied himself with a lute, sang the Kyrie and Patrem Luther

wrote ironically that “I could hardly refrain from laughing because I was not accustomed

to such organ playing…” Even Montaigne, a few decades later, was likewise

dumbfounded to hear violins accompanying the organ during a Mass he attended in

Verona. 119

But what Erasmus, Luther, and the majority of Reformists and Catholic counter-

reformists fought against was not the organ per say, but the kind of music performed

during Mass. Dances and frivolous chansons were improvised on the sacred instrument

and played in churches—what Erasmus called shameful love songs (amatoria fœdæque

cantilenæ). The habit became so generalized that the Council of Sens (1528) had to

remind all organists to abstain from playing lascivious and immodest popular music in

churches. The Council of Cologne (1536) and the Council of Trent (1562) maintained

similar positions on the subject. Yet the regulation was so badly ignored that it had to be

reiterated in the Councils of Reims (1564), Cambrai (1565) and Bordeaux (1583):

“vitetur lasciva musica … moderetur organorum usus.” 120

Leslie Korrick, “Instrumental music in the early 16th-century Mass: New evidence,” Early
Music 18 (1990), 359-370, quotes on p. 360 and 362 respectively. Richard Sherr, “Questions concerning
instrumental ensemble music in sacred contexts in the early sixteenth century,” in Le Concert des voix et
des instruments à la Renaissance, 145-156. This new trend came later to Italy, beginning in the 1540s.
Rokseth, La Musique d’orgue au XVe siècle et au début du XVIe, 152.
Rokseth, La Musique d’orgue au XVe siècle et au début du XVIe, 154-156. Erasmus seemed
particularly upset by what he heard in the churches of England. He wrote: “We have brought into sacred

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

According to Erasmus, “if polyphonic music and organ playing are not acceptable

in churches, they can be omitted without loss of piety; if they are acceptable, care must be

taken that such music is worthy of the house of God.” Erasmus strongly disapproved of

the fact that “in certain churches, because of the concord of organs and singers, important

parts of the service are omitted or curtailed.” 121 This position was precisely what Luther

and the Lutherans maintained throughout the Protestant Reform. To them, when done

properly, music, singing and organ playing were an important part of the Christian

liturgy. Other Reformist movements, however, and especially radical sects condemned

either singing alone or both singing and organ playing during Mass. After the Diet of

Worms, for instance, while Luther laid low in Wartburg Castle, Andreas Karlstadt started

preaching in Wittenberg. Although he later came to accept some singing, he banished the

organ altogether from the liturgy, calling it the “celestial bagpipe.” He saw the organ as

an icon of the old papist ways, as were all sorts of other images. In Zürich, Huldrych

Zwingli muted the organs and condemned singing, “this barbarous mumbling” as he

called it. While in Geneva, John Calvin accepted singing in his Articles of 1537 since

“we know from experience that song has great force and vigor to arouse and inflame the

hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal.” Organs,

on the other hand, did not fare well under Calvinism. More often than not, they were

destroyed as in Lausanne, Biberach, Frankfurt, Schönthal and Ulm, where horses were

edifices a certain elaborate and theatrical music, a confused interplay of diverse sounds, such as I do not
believe was ever heard in Greek or Roman theaters. Straight trumpets, curved trumpets, pipes and
sambucas resound everywhere, and vie with human voices. Amourous and shameful songs are heard, the
kind to which harlots and mimes dance. People flock to church as to a theather for aural delight.” Clement
A. Miller, “Erasmus on music,” The Musical Quarterly 52 (1966), 332-349, quote on p. 339.
Miller, “Erasmus on music,” quotes on p. 341.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

brought into the church to break and remove the largest pipes. 122

In France, the Huguenots’ iconoclasm reached a level of damage perhaps

unsurpassed in the rest of Europe. From the eradication of images to the complete

obliteration of churches, Huguenots aimed chiefly at the removal of the sacred aura

surrounding a universe they thought was built around signs and symbols. 123 That the

organ was likewise targeted by extremists is perhaps not surprising considering its ever

more noticeable iconographical representation in relation to music. Dating back to the

fourteenth century, organs were found on music manuscripts, churches’ frescos and

exterior cornices and decorating city doors. Music, one of the seven liberal arts, was

beginning to be depicted as a woman playing on a portative or positive organ. Lady

Music herself, St. Cecilia, was frequently personified with an organ—though not always,

see figure 1.4. In bestiaries, the organ was played by the most gentle of monsters, a siren,

whereas a sow could be seen holding a hurdy-gurdy and a man-dragon a flute. And when

an ass was depicted with its hooves on the clavier of an organ, the animal had a monk’s

tonsure, thus mocking the foolishness of the organist rather than the instrument. Angels,

lastly, were also commonly illustrated with the liturgical instrument in their hands.124

Apart from Calvinists, Huguenots and marginal extremist sects, the Protestant

Gordon Rupp, “Andrew Karlstadt and Reformation Puritanism,” The Journal of Theological
Studies 10 (1959), 308-326. See also Karlstadt own book, Vom Abtuhung der Bilder (1522). Charles
Garside, Jr., “The origins of Calvin’s theology of music: 1536-1543,” Transactions of the American
Philosophical Society, New Series, 69 (1979), 1-36, quotes on pp. 11 and 17 respectively. Jean Happel,
“Orgues et organistes en Alsace au XVIe siècle. Le Rôle de l’orgue dans le culte protestant à Strasbourg,”
Cahiers et Mémoires de l’orgue 15-16 (1976), 3-52, on p. 38.
One of the best studies on the level of destruction caused by the Huguenot iconoclasm is Denis
Crouzet, Les Guerriers de Dieu. La Violence au temps des troubles de religion (vers 1525-1610), 2 vols.
(Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 1990), i:493-561.
Rokseth, La Musique d’orgue au XVe siècle et au début du XVIe, 8-9. Lady Music’s preferred
musical instrument changed with the goût du jour: an organ in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; a lute
or viola da gamba in the seventeenth century; and a harpsichord in the eighteenth century.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Reform had actually no misgivings against the organ as a liturgical aid to worship.

Although Strasburg’s organs, for example, were muted from circa 1520 to 1560, they

were kept intact, as were most organs in the rest of Alsace; in fact, the region experienced

an uninterrupted growth in organ making during the same period. 125 Lutherans even

became fervent defenders of the organ as the century progressed, opposing the Calvinists’

repeated rhetorical denunciations and physical assaults against the pneumatic machine.


On the left, Lady Music, taken from Hettrick, The ‘Musica instrumentalis deudsch’, 1545 edition, sig. Av,
p. 62. On the right, Raphael’s St Cecilia (1514), taken from Web Gallery of Art (Accessed on 10 March
2006), <http://www.wga.hu>. The instruments in Lady Music’s engraving are perhaps displayed to
reminisce Psalm 136:1-2, which talks about the Jewish exile from Jerusalem after Babylon conquered it:
“There we sat down, by the rivers in Babylon. We cried when we remembered Zion. There we hung up
our harps [instruments] on the willow trees [poplars]” since they were unable to sing and play for
strangers in a strange land. As for St Cecilia’s painting, it could be an interpretation of Job 30:31, “my
organ [is changed] into the voice of those who weep.”

For most of the sixteenth century, Lutherans maintained a general adiaphorist

Happel, “Orgues et organistes en Alsace au XVIe siècle,” 8-20.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

doctrine regarding issues of worship, meaning that for the sake of “peace and good order

in the church” certain religious practices or things were labeled “indifferent matters,” or

adiaphora. These were understood as matters that were neither necessary nor contributory

to salvation. 126 Organ music was one such adiaphora—until the latter part of the century.

At the 1586 colloquy of Montbéliard, the Lutherans started shifting towards an explicit

defense of instrumental music. At Montbéliard, the Calvinist spokesman, Theodore Beza,

condemned the destruction of organs—where horses were brought inside Reformed

churches to tear apart the pipes—and argued for the adiaphoric nature of the pneumatic

machine, upholding that the Reform movement “was not bound to install organs in the

churches again.” Where they still existed, however, their use was permitted. “But that it is

necessary from the instruction and commandment of God to play on the organ and in the

church,” that he disagreed. Jakob Andreae, Beza’s Lutheran counterpart, was caught off-

guard by the Calvinist’s unexpected moderate stance. Though he acknowledged Beza’s

conclusion, at some point during the conversation he asserted that music should not be

treated as a neutral matter. Music and organ playing, he charged, were “not only not

forbidden but rather expressly commanded in order that one praise God therewith, as is

written in Psalm 150.” 127

What started as a discussion between Lutherans and Calvinists became a

somewhat spiteful controversy by the early seventeenth century. During a sermon

preached in 1621 at the dedication of the organ in Sommerhausen, for example,

Joyce L. Irwin, Neither voice nor heart alone: German Lutheran theology of music in the age
of the Baroque (New York: Peter Lang, 1993), 11.
Irwin, Neither voice nor heart alone, 13-15, quotes on pp. 14-15. On Luther’s viewpoint on
music, see Walter E. Buszin, “Luther on music,” The Musical Quarterly 32 (1946), 80-97.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Hieronymus Theodoricus scowled the Calvinists for dubbing the organ the “trumpets by

which the Antichrist is favored and called to court.” Matthias Hoe, in his Commentary on

the Apocalypse (1611), simply labeled critics of church music “amusical hypocrites.” He

even overthrew the traditional Lutheran adiaphoric conventions to voice a straight

apology of instrumental music:

For even if the words are not understood by all, nevertheless just as soldiers are
enlivened by the sound of a trumpet, so in the meetings of the church and in the
spiritual army the very variety of voices and the harmony of the organs excites
devout minds greatly to earnest prayers and works of grace.

In 1615, Christoph Frick surpassed them all in writing that those who scorned music such

as Karlstadt, Zwinglians and Calvinists would face divine punishment (and experience

nightmarish harmonies): “It is certain that such people will be at the place where there

will be nothing but howling and gnashing of teeth; with the hellish wolves and all the

damned in eternity they will cry out dolefully.” Lutherans’ overstatements were an

indication that Calvinists were gaining some ground in Germany. As the controversy

intensified, music in the Lutheran liturgy eventually lost its adiaphoric status; love of

music—and organ playing—increasingly became an article of faith. 128

Organs received a harsh treatment as well in Puritan England. As early as 1536,

the Lower House of Convocation included music and organ playing among the eighty-

four faults and abuses of religion. In 1567, a tract entitled “The Praise of Music”

mentioned that “not so few as one hundred organs were taken down and the pipes sold to

make pewter dishes.” Just a few years later, some Puritans reaffirmed that “concerning

singing of psalms, we allow of the people’s joining with one voice in a plain tune, but not

Irwin, Neither voice nor heart alone, 16-22, quotes on pp. 19, 20 and 21-22.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

of tossing the psalms from one side to the other with intermingly of organs.” And in

1586, radicals asked that “all cathedral churches [were] put down where the service of

God is grievously abused by piping with organs…” At the start of the English civil war in

1642, soldiers waged a battle against the organ at Canterbury while organ pipes from

Westminster Abbey were carried away and bartered for beer. The Chichester organ was

put down with poleaxes and soldiers marched in the street of Exeter blowing into organ

pipes newly removed. It is in the midst of this conflict, moreover, that organs were

included into the category of “superstitious monuments,” thus sealing their fate for

roughly half a century. 129

An anonymous work, “Printed in the yeer of Discord 1642,” is revealing of the

hostility and ill feeling surrounding the pneumatic machine. Written in the form of a

nasty yet somewhat comical dialogue between Purple and Orange-Tawny (two colors

marking disgrace and lack of honor in England), the text exposes more than a religious

rift between the supporters and opponents of the organ. Orange-Tawny, after a series of

fitting insults in reply to Purple’s, goes straight to the point: “I will hold no disputation

with thee, but jog on in my holy violence to erect a religious battery against (those pipes

of Popery & Superstition) the Organs.” 130 Purple, however, wants to hear more details

regarding Orange-Tawny’s ludicrous actions:

P[urple]. You have well satisfied me; I did imagine one decent Ceremony or other
was threatned [sic], you made such a holy hast about it: but why these Organs,
which were well thought of, and by the judicious worthily esteemed before you

Yorke Bannard, “Music of the Commonwealth: A corrected chapter in musical history,” Music
& Letters 3 (1922), 394-401.
Anonymous, Newes from Pauls: Containing A Relation of the angry Disputation betwixt the
two Church-Quarrellers, Orange-Tawnie and Purple: Being A Contention about the Lawfulnesse or
Unlawfulnesse of Organs and other Ceremonies (London, 1642), 2.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

were nine days old, or your untuneable nurse taught you to lap milk, should by
your extravagant zeal be now refuted and opposed, is my wonder.

O[range-Tawny]. I tell thee, they be the timbrels of Satan, and entice the eares of
the religious to fancy sounds of vanity, whilest the smock apparelled Singing men
fill the ears of our select Brethren with crotchers. 131

Purple, however, is not at all convinced by his adversary’s argument. The allegations

appear so lame that Purple ridicules Orange-Tawny when the latter tried to validate a

claim made by one of his Brother-in-arms:

P. He said, the sweetnesse of the musick lull’d him into so sweet a sleep, that
another by him (inspired with the spirit of providence) stole away his hat and
Bible, for which disaster he verily thought Organs were ordained to no other or no
better purpose, but to give assistance to pilferers, and such as come not to pray to
God, but prey upon their neighbours.

O. And verily, a sound reason; but short of mine; for whilest I was sleeping, one
stole away my wife.

P. Is that all? I would never have been so violent against the Organs for so small a
cause, surely I should rather love Organs the better all the dayes of my life, that
should rid me of so great a trouble. 132

Above and beyond the jest of the writing, the message of the work is simple:

those who destroy organs are grunts and low lives, whereas those who are trying to save

them are of the highest quality. Compare the list of characters (and notice the humor)

provided by both protagonists:

O. In the first place here is Ananias Slie Glazier, Hotofernes Holy-Hanke

Pewterer, John Judas Serjeant, Michael Meddle-much Pin-maker, Nehemiah
Needlesse Tobacco-pipe-maker, Marmaduke Marre-all Gunsmith, Stephen Stare
Spectacle-maker, Ralph Round-scull Button-maker, Simon Schisme Felt-maker,
Richard Riot Lock-Smith, Aminadad Mercilesse Butcher, and Edmond End-all
Dyer; these are the names of the men, the rest consisteth in the allowance of
women and apprentices, which you shall at large heare named.

Ibid., 2.
Ibid., 3

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

P. Indeed I will not sir; you have been too tedious already; if your men be no
better, I guesse what your women and apprentices are: I will now name you onely
fix that shall oppose your twelve, and they are these. Thomas True-heart
Gentleman, Lawrence Loyall Esquire, Francis Well-borne Gentleman, Richard
Royall-thought Esquire, Constantin Tryall-proofe Gentleman, Charles Good-
cause Esquire, with many more as well borne, and of as noble natures, which you
are not worthy to heare named, since not capable to understand… 133

Organs were still very much admired by the elite of England throughout the seventeenth

century. Its music was heard often outside of churches and composers actually improved

on past harmonies. Though John Milton, for instance, compared the organ in Paradise

Lost to the House of Demons, or Pandaemonium, he was a great lover (and player) of

organ music. 134 Organ music was thus healthy overall across the Channel, the chief

exception being the Church of England. Only toward the end of the century were new

organs built and their value to the Church liturgy defended with renewed vigor. 135

The Netherlands is certainly where the organ was best tolerated. Though the

synods of 1574 and 1578 decreed that “the organs, which have been tolerated for a time,

must by all means be removed from the church,” very little damage were caused to these

pneumatic machines. What probably saved them from obliteration was the fact that as

religious forces worked for their banishment from the churches, town councils took over

Ibid., 4-5.
Francis Routh, Early English organ music from the Middle Ages to 1837 (London: Barrie &
Jenkins, 1973), 50-138. Gretchen L. Finney, “‘Organical musick’ and ecstasy,” Journal of the History of
Ideas 8 (1947), 273-292. Helen and Peter Williams, “Milton and music; or the Pandaemonic organ,” The
Musical Times 107 (1966), 760-763. Bannard, “Music of the Commonwealth,” 396-401.
Joseph Brookbank, The well-tuned organ, or, An exercitation wherein this question is fully and
largely discussed, whether or no instrumental and organickal musick be lawful in holy publick
assemblies… (London, 1660). John Reading, A sermon delivered in the Cathedral Church of Canterbury,
concerning church-musick… (London, 1663). Ralph Battell, The lawfulness and expediency of church-
musick asserted in a sermon preached at St. Brides-Church… (London, 1694-95). John Newte, Mr.
Newte’s sermon concerning the lawfulness and use of organ in the Christian church (London, 1696).
Gabriel Towerson, A sermon concerning vocal and instrumental musick in the church as it was delivered in
the parish church of St. Andrew Undershaft, upon the 31th of May, 1696, being Whit-Sunday, and the day
wherein the organ there erected was first made use of (London, 1696).

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

the building and repair of organs, as well as the appointment of organists. Thanks to such

an arrangement, numerous organ recitals were performed in churches throughout the

Netherlands, before and after Mass. Notwithstanding this accommodement, a vociferous

opposition continued to mount against the organ. This is well illustrated by the 1634

inaugural address of Gisbertus Voetius, newly appointed Professor at the Utrecht

Gymnasium, in which he asked for nothing less than the complete ban of the organ in

churches. The social elite, as in England, counterattacked in order to shield the organ

from fanatics. Constantijn Huygens, music lover and one of the better known and most

influential aristocrats of the era, wrote an anonymous book in defense of the organ. He

clearly fought “against our irreligious and quite unedifying use of the organ,” but called

for retinue with regard to the obliteration of the mechanical machine. Huygens received a

lot of support from leading ministers and educators. And the violent response to

Huygens’s book by Jan Janszoon Calckman, considered a serious public offense,

contributed more to the acceptance of organ playing in churches than anything else in the

Low Countries. 136

In the Netherlands, as in England and the rest of the European continent, the

organ provoked passionate, even zealous, reactions during the Reformation. It was

everything but an inert piece of elaborate craftsmanship. To some fanatics it symbolized

the worst of Christianity, i.e. the popish abuse of rituals and the scandalous decadence of

Hill, Baroque music: Music in Western Europe, 1580-1750, 154-156. Henry A. Bruinsma,
“The organ controversy in the Netherlands Reformation to 1640,” Journal of the American Musicological
Society 7 (1954), 205-212. Constantijn Huygens, Use and nonuse of the organ in the churches of the United
Netherlands, transl. and ed. by Ericka E. Smit-Vanrotte (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Institute of Mediaeval Music,
1964). A. J. Servaas van Rooyen, “Huygens contra Calckman en vice-versa,” Tijschrift der Vereeniging
voor Noord-Nederlands Muziekgeschiedenis 9 (1912), 170-173. Wouter Kalkman, “Constantijn Huygens
en de Haagse orgelstrijd,” Tijschrift der Vereeniging voor Noord-Nederlands Muziekgeschiedenis 31
(1981), 167-177.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

true faith. In Catholic France, on the other hand, the organ was a truly blessed liturgical

instrument. Organ music in church, and secular devotional airs in general, 137 aimed in

fact at securing the Catholic faith under attack by the Calvinist radicals. Church music in

France also had to be regulated during the Counter Reformation, during which time

several synods addressed the question without ever stipulating a universal resolution

applicable to all Catholic nations. 138 In 1600 Clement VIII’s Cœremoniale first regulated

organ-playing rules for Catholics. Beside specifying when and how the organ should

sound during Mass, it is written in black and white that the organ was the only musical

instrument tolerated: “Cavendum autem ne sonus organi sit lascivus … nec alia

instrumenta musicalia praeter ipsum organum addantur.” 139 At the time Mersenne wrote

the Harmonie universelle, anyone who attended church regularly in Catholic France

acknowledged that the organ was the most sacred musical instrument of them all.

The same way Lutherans and Catholics claimed organ music helped people praise

In the form of sung devotional airs, seventeenth-century French Church leaders also believed
music could become another instrument of their Catholic campaign to convert frivolous and immoral
female aristocrats into dévotes, whose newly-found devotion to God would transcend their worldly desire.
Catherine Gordon-Seifert, “From impurity to piety: Mid 17th-century French devotional airs and the
spiritual conversion of women,” The Journal of Musicology 22 (2005), 268-291.
Restrictions of instrument music in churches were attenuated as the sixteenth-century
progressed. At and after the Council of Trent, for instance, no clear-cut instruction was given as to whether
musical instruments should be banned from masses. In fact, out of the thirty-three synods ante 1600
consulted by Paolo Fabbri, only five dioceses in Catholic Europe appeared to have explicitly forbidden any
use of musical instruments in church other than the organ. Even more striking, Fabbri discovered that in
cities where secular institutions were closely linked to the organization of church life and activity, like
Cremona and Udine, musical instruments played a more central role in divine celebrations than elsewhere.
In a sense, late Renaissance instrumental music in church came to symbolize not only an evolution of taste
and musical disposition, but most importantly the sort of sociocultural relationship (or political channels)
existing between Church and State. Paolo Fabbri, “Norme et pratique du concert des voix et des
instruments dans la liturgie catholique après le concile de Trente,” in Le Concert des voix et des
instruments à la Renaissance, 97-103.
Clement VIII’s Cœremoniale is described in detail in Denise Launay, La Musique religieuse en
France du Concile de Trente à 1804 (Paris: Publications de la Société française de musicologie; Editions
Klincksieck, 1993), 66-80.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

the Lord, Mersenne used the detailed description of the mechanical organ to help artisans

and savants understand the production of natural philosophical knowledge. The

ecumenical virtues of the church organ were transformed, in the secular and material

world, into epistemological virtues. By keeping the organ as mechanical as possible,

without imposing on it any allegorical or religious representation, Mersenne was able to

use the organ as a most worthy secular object of knowledge, which could be studied by

Christians of all faiths. The same piece of machinery thus symbolized the best religious

(Mass) and secular (natural philosophy) practices. It is to the craftsmanship of the

mechanical machine that we now turn our attention to.


To Mersenne the organ was simply one of the most admirable pneumatic machines ever

invented. (See Figure 1.5.) And strictly that. Not once in the book was he tempted by the

art of allegory, portraying the organ as a symbol of God’s creation, for instance, as

Athanasius Kircher did in his 1650 Musurgia universalis—where in book X on universal

harmony he illustrated the divine organ, in which each of the six days of creation had its

corresponding organ register. 140 Although Mersenne did not try to give his mechanical

Kircher, Musurgia universalis, book 10, ii:366, where he describes the Deus organædus
creating the world playing on his celestial organ: “Quemadmodum igitur Opifex quidam Organum
fabricaturus, primum varìas substructiones, veluti prima quædam operis rudimenta ponit, deinde fistulas
omnis generis co[n]ficit, canales æris ventique conductores disponit, & ad maiorem harmoniæ varietatem
demonstrandam varios adaptat canones, quos Registra vulgo vocant, postea folles veluti quædam ventorum
conceptacula, quorum perpetuo motu ær constrictus atque intra ventorum canales coactus suppeditatur,
ordinat. Demum Clauiarium veluti vltimum artis suæ directorem disponit, tandem digitorum ope,
registrorumque varia combinatione taxillos siue palmulas, quostastos vocant, feriens, eam quam in organis
cum admiratione sentimus, harmoniæ varietatem producit. DEVS Opt. Max. haud absimili ratione
mundanum hoc organum inexhausta quadam varietate dissono-consonum fabricaturus…” For a general
discussion of celestial organs, Hans Davidsson, “The organ in seventeenth-century cosmology,” in The
organ as a mirror of its time: North European reflections, 1610-2000, ed. by Keral J. Snyder (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2002), 78-91.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

organ an allegorical meaning, any reader could tell it represented more than a simple


Left, the portative organ depicted in Mersenne’s, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. I, 310. Right, the organ
from St Maclou Church in Rouen built in the middle of the sixteenth century.

For Titelouze, the famous Rouen organ player and composer, no other musical instrument was more
sublime than the organ, as we can read from one of his poems: “Cessez vos bruits, luth trop mélancolique /
Aigre pandore, et violon quinteux / … / Mais le tuyau respond, sonne et persiste / Aux longs sujets que
l’expert organiste / Traite en touchant le clavier marqueté / D’un vent la force en cent bouches partie / Fait
animer en longue fermeté / D’un sourd métail une grande harmonie.” Quoted in Escudier, Introduction à
une étude musicale de la correspondance du Père Marin Mersenne, 1:181-182.

musical instrument. Reading Mersenne’s description of the organ gives indeed incredible

insights into the practice of natural philosophy, which in addition to a thorough

knowledge of theory, now involved experimental data gathering and hands-on savoir-

faire from the mechanical arts. Not that making an actual organ made a savant out of you.

(Mersenne’s description by itself was insufficient to manufacture such an intricate piece

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

of machinery. 141 ) Making the organ was less important to Mersenne than the account of

the rigorous procedure entailing its construction—seldom carried out by instrument

makers. The organ, in other words, reified the practices of the nascent mechanical

philosophy into a respected and altogether Christian early modern material entity. The

musical harmony produced by the organ within the Church context was not only a

powerful religious symbol: it epitomized and materialized the role theory, experiment,

and the mechanical arts played in Mersenne’s overall notion of harmonie universelle.


Up until the late sixteenth century, Pythagoras’s and Boethius’s method based on

the mathematical theory of proportions were usually called upon in matters related to the

theory of sound. 142 Numbers wholly dominated the science of music: they not only

structured musical theory, they defined music’s quintessence. This sublime power of

numbers over music was attacked by Galilei in his dispute against Zarlino. Guided by

Mei, Galilei took the path of experiments with musical instruments. As stated by Paolo

Gozza, “music in Galilei and Mei is discourse, not science of the necessary but art of the

possible. It is music from the rhetorical and anthropological perspective of

Actually, toward the end of the book on organs, Mersenne explicitly instructed his readers to go
and visit the instrument maker’s workshops to find out more about the accurate manufacture of organs: “As
to the practice which are most certain, it is fitting to consult the best makers, such as Valeran, le Pescheur,
and many others, which have made the greatest part of the organs which are seen in the churches, and from
whom can be learned everything that is missing in this treatise…” Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book VI,
prop. XLV, 412 (HU3). Mersenne, The books on instruments, 493.
Virdung, for instance, wrote that “To write about these ringing instruments and also about
organ pipes, I would choose Boethius, because these have to do with the mensur, that is, [with] the
measurement of the tubes and the weight of the metals (like the hammer), and that is expressed through the
theory of the proportions. [I have] written nothing at all about these [here], but [I am] saving [this subject]
for the complete work.” Bullard, Musica getutscht, 110-111.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

communication and fruition, in contrast to music from the perspective of the opus

perfectum et absolutum.” 143 Sense experience, for Galilei, had to replace the blind

following of ancient authorities. Right from the beginning of his Dialogue on ancient and

modern music, Galilei—in the voice of Strozzi—fixed the new program of musical


I desire in those things in which the sense is involved that we always set aside (as
Aristotle says in the eighth [book] of the Physics) not only authority but
seemingly plausible reasoning that may be contrary to any perception of truth. For
it seems to me that those who, for the sake of proving some conclusion, want us to
believe simply on the basis of authority without adducing valid arguments for it
are doing something laughable, not to say (with the Philosopher) acting like silly
fools. 144

Galilei’s anti-theoretical reaction led him later, in his Discorso, to become the first

musician ever to reveal the falsity of Pythagoras’s celebrated (and most likely

apocryphal) musical experiments in a blacksmith’s workshop. Galilei destroyed all these

with meticulous experiments of his own, which dealt over time a severe blow to number

mysticism and ancient authorities in music. 145 Mersenne, drawing again on Galilei’s

investigations, just could not believe that no one since Pythagoras had bothered doing

these simple experiments to “discover the truth.” 146

Claude Palisca has perhaps been the most influential and prolific historian of

Paolo Gozza, “Introduction,” in Number to sound: The musical way to the Scientific
Revolution, ed. by idem (Dordrecht, Boston, and London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000), 41.
Galilei, Dialogue on ancient and modern music, 12.
Galilei, Discorso, 103-105. See also Galilei’s unpublished manuscripts in Claude V. Palisca,
The Florentine camerata: Documentary studies and translations (New Haven and London: Yale University
Press, 1989), 152-207. Palisca, Humanism in Italian Renaissance thought, 269-277.
Mersenne, Traité de l’Harmonie universelle, book 2, théorème XIV, 447: All these great
scholars “ont esté si negligens qu'ils n'ont pas fait vne seule experience pour découurir la verité, & pour
desabuser le monde. Ie ne pense pas qu'il y ait vn homme de iugement qui vueille maintenant croire ce que
disent tous ces Autheurs s'ils ne l'experimentent auparauant, puis qu'ils nous ont donné des fables pour des
histoires en vne chose qui est si claire & si euidente...”

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

music regarding the experimental aspect of Galilei’s life. He was also the first one to

point out letters from Giovanni Battista Benedetti to the composer Cipriano de Rore, ca.

1563, in which Benedetti’s experiments with consonances led him to postulate a

relationship between musical intervals and the vibrating motion of the monochord string.

Physics here, for the first time, defined what musical consonances were, not numerology

à la Zarlino or geometry à la Kepler. 147 Palisca’s research, followed closely by Stillman

Drake’s, tried to establish the likely relevance of the new experimental method in

Renaissance music to the rise of the experimental method usually associated to the

Scientific Revolution. Both Palisca and Drake agree that Vincenzo Galilei’s own

experiments with lute strings were probably accomplished with the help of his son,

Galileo, thus guiding the younger Galilei’s first steps towards the experimental path that

heralded the birth of a new era in natural philosophy. 148 Such an interpretation is

attractive considering, for instance, Mersenne’s own developing experimental

practices. 149 Music is certainly not the only factor here, yet it is still more plausible—on

the Continent at least—than to look at the English empiricist tradition fleshed out by

Francis Bacon.

Claude V. Palisca, “Scientific empiricism in musical thought,” in Seventeenth-century science
and the arts, ed. by H. H. Rhys (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 91-137. Cohen, Quantifying
music, 75-78. Palisca, Humanism in Italian Renaissance thought, 257-265. Benedetti’s two letters were
published by de Rore in 1585 in his Diversarujm speculationum mathematicarum & physicorum liber.
Claude V. Palisca, “Was Galileo’s father an experimental scientist?,” in Music and science in
the age of Galileo, ed. by Victor Coelho (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1992), 143-151. Idem,
“Vincenzo Galilei, scienziato sperimentale, mentore del figlio Galileo,” Nuncius 15 (2000), 497-514.
Stillman Drake, “Renaissance music and experimental science,” Journal of the History of Ideas 31 (1970),
483-500. Claude V. Palisca, “Music and scientific discovery,” in idem., Music and ideas in the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 131-160.
In a well-thought article, Daniel Garber has tried to explain how and why Mersenne began to
study, appreciate, and promote Galileo’s approach to natural philosophy. It is interesting to note, however,
that he never mentions the role music may have had in Mersenne’s change of heart towards Galileo.
Garber, “On the frontlines of the Scientific Revolution: How Mersenne learned to love Galileo,”
Perspectives on Science 12 (2004), 135-163.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Lord Verulam’s study of music is found almost exclusively in the second and

third centuries of the Sylva sylvarum. His aim was simple: to bridge the contemplative

and active parts of music, the theory and the practice. 150 Yet reading Bacon’s Sylva

sylvarum—as Mersenne and Descartes likely did—one finds that the idea of experiment

and the notion that craftsmen and instruments were essential to the reform of natural

philosophy, albeit mentioned as powerful rhetorical tools, were unsupported by concrete

evidence. Bacon’s account of sound, in fact, relied heavily on natural magic (Ficino and

Della Porta, most notably) and Aristotelian knowledge rather than tangible experimental

results. In his New Atlantis, Bacon did refer to “sound-houses, where we practise and

demonstrate all sounds, and their generation.” And also at the royal court, where he

experienced for himself that the “sweetest and best Harmony is, when every Part or

Instrument is, not heard by itself, but a conflation of them all, which requireth to stand

some distance off.” 151 Besides all those observations, however, Bacon most likely never

produced any real experiments with musical instruments, as his Italian forerunners did.

Mersenne will go one step further by exemplifying what it meant to bridge the gap

between theory and practice in natural philosophy.

Mersenne’s experimental research with organ pipes is traceable to the early

1620s. With the help of Robert Cornier, Mersenne sought to have experiments done by

other parties in order to confirm his own results. To this end, Cornier employed an

Francis Bacon, Sylva sylvarum: or a natural history, in ten centuries (London, 1683), §100:
“Musick in the Practice hath been well pursued, and in good Variety; but in the Theory, and especially in
the Tielding of the Causes of the Practick, very weakly & being reduced into certain Mystical subtilties, of
no use and not much truth. We shall therefore, after our manner, joyn the Contemplative and Active Part
Bacon, New Atlantis and the Great Instauration, ed. by Jerry Weinberger, rev. ed. (Wheeling,
Ill.: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1989), 78-79. Bacon, Sylva sylvarum, §225. Gouk, Music, science, and natural
magic in seventeenth-century England, 158-170.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

“organiste” known within the circle of Rouen honnêtes hommes concerned with musical

matters. This organ maker, who also dabbled with pneumatics in Cornelis Drebbel-like

submarine experiments, conducted a series of musical experiments to determine how

sounds were modified when air went through pipes of the same length but different sizes.

Although the organ maker told Cornier that the pipe’s size mattered to the production of

sound—which was well-known to members of his profession—Cornier could not give

Mersenne quantitative findings due to the organiste’s prolonged absence from Rouen; he

apparently did not leave any detailed written account. (Which may well be a disguised

excuse for secrecy, since organ makers were very jealous of this secret.) Cornier,

however, heard from M. Le Febvre—another curieux (perhaps a member of the well-

known Rouen family of organ makers) on familiar terms with the said instrument

maker—that the organiste had taken his measurements from the rectangular tin plates,

before they were rolled up into pipes, as Mersenne most likely suggested. The size,

therefore, was the width of the tin plate, or when rolled-up the circumference; size was

not measured as the diameter (or cross-section) of the pipe. Cornier assured Mersenne

that as soon as the organiste would be back, everything would be settled to his

satisfaction. 152

Although this specific set of initial experiments may not have given Mersenne any

significant information, these were nevertheless the type of evidence he was relying

upon. Around the same time, Mersenne made (or had other people make for him) other

related experiments in Paris, in which the size of several different pipes was kept constant

Cornier to Mersenne, 23 November 1625, CM I, 310; Cornier to Mersenne, 16 March [1626],
ibid., 416-417; Cornier to Mersenne, 22 March 1626, ibid., 427-430.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

whereas the length was adjusted according to the musical intervals. Mersenne reported

this set of experiments to Father Jean Chastelier, who replied he was no expert himself in

these matters, yet knew classical texts well enough to quote chapter ten of Censorinus’s

third-century De die natali, in which the Latin author mentioned Pythagoras’s own

experiments with flutes. The quote Chastelier transcribed in the letter mentioned that

flutes of identical size but of different lengths gave the consonances if, like strings, they

were cut in the right proportions, i.e. a flute of 12 fingers (digitorum) in length made a

sound an octave inferior to a six-fingers flute; and the same six-fingers flute in length was

a fifth superior in tone to the one measuring nine fingers. To Chastelier, such writing was

enough to convince him that Mersenne had erred somewhere with his experiments.

However, he did not see why he would painstakingly search for the causes of these

experimental mistakes when they were so remote from the real things, or in other words

so far from the truth of the ancients. 153

What had Mersenne discovered in this set of experiments? That if one used small

diameter pipes, say of three lignes (roughly 6 mm) and a base length of half a foot,

Pythagoras’s explanation of consonances described by Chastelier was approximately

verified—i.e. if you double the length of this small pipe, it will sound an almost perfect

octave lower. But what Mersenne discovered, and Galilei before him, was that with

bigger sounding pipes this proposition did not stand anymore. In a series of numerical

examples, Mersenne demonstrated that doubling the length of a pipe while at the same

time keeping the size constant did not produce the required octave; the sound was off by

Father Jean Chastelier to Mersenne, 11 July 1626, CM I, 478-479, where he writes in Latin:
“Hæc Censorinus. Quo fit ut facile Antiquis assentiar et experimenta de quibus scribis credam non fuisse
accurata. Unde non video cur me excruciem in quærendis causis experimentorum quæ rei veritati non

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

half a tone, a tone, or even more. 154 Similarly, though the Rouen organiste most likely did

not provide Mersenne with hard evidence, the Minim was able to report numerous

experimental results proving that keeping the length of organ pipes constant while

varying the size did not produce the required consonances either. Here he used five half-

foot pipes of diameters ranging from three lines to four inches, always doubling in size

following the geometrical series. (Mersenne sometimes defined size (grosseur) as the

width of tin plates or diameter (cross-section) of pipes.) The experiments showed that it

was virtually impossible to reach an octave when keeping the pipes’ length constant

while modifying the size. Mersenne wrote that to reach a sound an octave lower, one

would have to add two inches in diameter and two feet in length to the biggest pipe.

Mersenne’s description of the pipes’ dimension was precise to make sure that if “one

encounters other intervals in pipes larger or smaller, he will have occasion for seeking the

reason.” 155

Mersenne’s experimental method and results were seriously undermining the

tyranny of opinions some contemporaries, e.g. Father Chastelier, upheld. After these two

propositions, Mersenne could ascertain with good reason that “Since experience has

shown us that the pipes ought to be of different lengths and widths to make all the pitches

of the organ, these two dimensions must be joined together, so as to have sounds which

are proportional in their pitch, sweetness and harmony.” 156 For someone like de Villiers,

however, there were still many hidden things (bien des choses cachées) that reason could

Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XIII, 333-334 (HU3).
Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XII, 331-332 (HU3), quote on p. 331. Mersenne,
The books on instruments, 416.
Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XIV, 334 (HU3). Mersenne, The books on
instruments, 419.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

not account for regarding the rapport between length and width in pipes. De Villiers

made his own experiments with rectangular and cylindrical pipes, though they were not

organ pipes per se but simple pipes open at both ends, in which he blew with his mouth.

Using two identical tin plates, one shaped into a rectangular pipe and the other into a

cylindrical one, he found out there was a difference of a minor tone between their

respective sounds, the rectangular pipe making a re and the cylindrical one an ut. Both

were four inches (poulce du Roy) in length minus one line, whereas the cylindrical pipe

had a diameter of one inch and a half plus one line and the base diagonal of the

rectangular pipe made two inches minus three lines. Two similarly shaped pipes, but

twice in length this time, sounded on the contrary the unison. De Villiers was astonished

to find out these two pipes sounded the same even though their volume was different

(which he simply measured by filling them with water). It was strange, de Villiers

explained, because with the two smaller pipes, which sounded differently, their volume

were unequal. Why was it not the case with the pipes twice in length? De Villiers was

confused and, because of these results, concluded that a generalization regarding the

length and size of organ pipes was almost certainly impossible. 157

Mersenne knew, however, that the volume of pipes did not automatically

determined how they would sound. This he probably owed to organ makers. Mersenne

discovered that there was no standardization in the size of tin plates—plates that were

later rolled-up into cylinders. To make an eight-foot organ pipe, for instance, some organ

De Villiers to Mersenne, 15 May 1635, CM V, 191-193. His conclusion: “Mais je ne trouve pas
qu’on doive rien asseurer de ce[ci], parce que je crois autant de diversitez de hauteur et largeur ès tuyaux, il
y aura toujours diversité de raison en leur tons, tellement que je crois qu’il est bien dificile de disposer la
comparaison des hauteus et largeurs des tuyaux pour en faire des proportions de tons et tirer des
consequences par la reigle de troys.” (p. 193) See also de Villiers to Mersenne, 25 February 1635, ibid., 63-
64; de Villiers to Mersenne, 1 May 1635, ibid., 148-151.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

makers used metallic sheets eight feet tall but with a width of two fifths, a third or a

quarter its height. It thus meant that with some adjustments—using an accordoir, for

example, or cutting a slice to one or the other pipe 158 —two slightly different pipes would

sound exactly the same, not withstanding the fact their volume was also different. On this

specific point, artisanal practices were probably even more useful than experiments

themselves. To Mersenne, therefore, “it is of little importance in what proportion they are

made, so long as they speak well; but since that depends on the industry and opinion of

the maker [Facteur], and since pipes are met with whose height is five or six times the

width, it is not necessary to explain this more extensively.” 159

Mersenne’s ultimate objective was to standardize and rationalize the production

of organ pipes. As he said, it did not really matter whether the width of the tin or lead

plates was a third, two-fifth or a quarter of its length. This proportion, however, had to

remain the same throughout the building process. Mathematical ratios of musical

intervals compelled it. From one template, therefore, it became possible to find the

precise division of the octave. Regarding how the width and length should vary,

Mersenne explained that

Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XXX, 368 (HU3), where he says about the organ
makers: “C’est pourquoy il n’est pas necessaire que les Facteurs soient bien exacts à la taille de leurs
tuyaux, puis qu’il est necessaire qu’ils y touchent soit en les roignant, ou en les eslargissant & restressissant
auec leurs accordoirs : quoy qu’il soit bien à propos qu’il les fassent en raison triplée de l’interualle des
sons qu’ils doiuent faire, afin qu’ils facent des tons mieux proportionnez, & plus plains & nourris. Mais il
n’est pas besoin de les aduertir de cecy, puis que nous experimentons qu’ils roignent souuent plusieurs
tuyaux d’vn pied entier, ou de plusieurs pouces pour les mettre d’accord.”
Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. IIII, 319 (HU3). Mersenne, The books on
instruments, 404. In another proposition, Mersenne mentions that “Mais il suffit de remarquer que l’on peut
donner vne infinité de differentes figures aux tuyaux tant ouuerts que bouchez, suiuant les differentes
inuentions de la Geometrie: par exemple, on les peut faire de parties de parabole, d’hyperbole ou d’ellipse:
d’où les Facteurs peuuent tirer de nouuelles graces pour l’harmonie.” Ibid., prop. VII, 323. Mersenne
makes similar claims in prop. XLIII. See also prop. XVIII, p. 346 where Mersenne says that a surveyor
named Cornu was able to make a rectangular pipe sound to the unison of cylindrical one.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

the pipes make the desired interval exactly if their height and width have the same
ratio as the said interval. For example, if the diameter of a pipe a foot in length is
made 15/6 of an inch wide [22 lignes], it will make the octave perfectly with the
pipe half a foot in length, whose diameter is half the other. Thus it happens that if
the pipes are taken as solid cylinders, they ought to be in triple ratio with the ratio
of the intervals, which represent the roots, and the simple length of the pipes, as
the double ratio of that of the said intervals represent the cylindrical surfaces of
the pipes. 160

In other words, two proportional pipes, one half the other, would have an octave between

them. This 2:1 ratio in sound was thus comparable to an 8:1 ratio in volume. Similarly, a

3:2 ratio in sound (or a fifth) between two pipes would have their ratio in volume

changed in a proportion of 27:8. Mersenne produced a table, proposed by a clever

surveyor named Cornu, which detailed the volumetric ratio of numerous other

intervals. 161

Such a rationalization of organ pipe making, based on artisanal practices and

experiments, would ensure, according to Mersenne, the most accurate of sound

production in organs. The internal volume of pipe was not as much a valuable tool of

measurement as an a posteriori theoretical reasoning extrapolated from facts. Although

experiments and artisanal practice gave Mersenne useful information on the relationship

between the construction of organ pipes and how they sounded, simple mathematical

order imposed a thorough orderliness once the fundamentals had been discovered. And it

is this theoretical conclusion that could be useful to organ makers. Therefore, they “have

need of no greater understanding to make their diapason and their very exact pipes,

although all the pipes of which I have spoken may not be sufficient to give all the just

Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XIV, 335 (HU3); Mersenne, The book on
instruments, 419.
Ibid., 335-336.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

consonances against each key.” That is why, based on the same simple and

experimentally determined principles, Mersenne added “another diapason as general as

can be wished, as long as one does not go to infinity.” 162

“[T]he table that follows contains all that can be reasonably desired on the subject

[the division of the octave], aside from which there is nothing for the makers to know.” 163

(See Figure 1.6.) In this full-page table, Mersenne combined knowledge acquired from

experiments, artisanal practices and the theory of mathematical proportions. This table—

drawn to scale, the height being one foot (pied de roy)—contains eleven columns

showing the length and width of organ pipes according to several divisions of the

diapason (or octave). Column one shows the thirteen degrees of the equally tempered

diapason (twelve equal semitones). Columns two and three shows another tempered

diapason invented by Salinas, the great Spanish music theorist. Columns four and five

show thirteen pipes in their perfection, according to a meantone temperament, following

the previous proposition. Moreover, “the fourth column contains the entire four octaves,

that is to say the whole keyboard of the organ; and it has thirteen degrees in the first

octave, and fourteen in the second, so that there is seen the degree or key which is

missing in the said ordinary organ keyboard.” 164 Columns six and seven shows the

nineteen pipes derived from the perfect diapason, which comprise the three genera of

music, i.e. diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic. Next, and

because the seventh column does not comprise all of the perfect diapason of
Salinas, which has twenty-five degrees or twenty-five pipes, and since it still lacks

Ibid., 337. Mersenne, The book on instruments, 421.
Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XV, 338 (HU3); Mersenne, The book on
instruments, 422.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

two degrees in this one, as I have shown elsewhere, I wish here to propose the
most perfect diapason of all those which have been given up to now, that is to say,
the one contained in the eighth and ninth columns, for the eighth contains thirteen
degrees, which are proper to it (in which the octave of the sixth and seventh
columns is excluded) since it has thirty-two degrees, pitches, keys, or pipes in its
octave, each of which follows the justness of the harmonic numbers.” 165 (This
will be useful in the section on keyboards, below.)

Columns ten contains all thirty-two intervals of the diapason “from which the makers can

take the just measure of all sorts of one-foot pipes, or that of pipes which are smaller or

larger. This can be done similarly with the other columns.” 166 The last column mentions

the width to length proportions (which is somewhat arbitrary, as said earlier) given to the

two rectangular templates on which mathematical ratios were based upon: one is one-

fourth and the other one-sixth of the one-foot long template.

This table systematizes what Mersenne learned from organ makers, experiments

conducted by himself or others on organ pipes, and from the pure mathematical theory of

music. To Mersenne, such a table could (and should) become the organ maker’s

fundamental paper organon, guaranteeing—in principle at least—the perfection of organ

pipes. It was a powerful rhetorical and didactic tool as well, which illustrated to natural

philosophers and honnêtes hommes how important experiments and artisanal knowledge

really were in formulating theoretical generalizations. 167

Ibid., 340. Mersenne, The books on instruments, 423-424.
Ibid. Mersenne, The books on instruments, 424.
On tables in general, Domenico Bertoloni Meli, “The role of numerical tables in Galileo and
Mersenne,” Perspectives on Science 12 (2004), 164-190 where he describes many of Mersenne’s tables
found in the Harmonie universelle, which have mostly didactic, philosophical, and esthetic purposes. In our
case, however, I believe that experimental data are embedded in this table and the way Mersenne
constructed it not solely rooted in theory.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]



Above, a flue pipe showing how it should

be cut to obtain the desired musical
interval. On the right, the universal table
with which organ makers can build the
most precise and just set of organ pipes
for various diapasons. Mersenne, “Traité
de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. X, 328; prop.
XV, 338-339.

Mersenne, however, was fully aware of the material shortcomings of his

rationalization. He knew, for instance, that there was no better instrument than the ear to

tune an organ. The difficulty did not reside in his theoretical generalization, but rather in

the actual organ-pipe making. His table would be perfectly fine

Unless one is able to trim all the pipes exactly enough and adjust the wind so
equally and with so much skill that all the pipes are found in tune without its
being necessary to make use of the ears to tune them. This would happen always
if one observed all the proportions and circumstances of which I have spoken in
this book, if the material should follow the exactness of the mind and if the
manual operation corresponded perfectly with science. But since this is beyond
the industry of men, who cannot anticipate the great multitude of occurrences
which accompany lead, tin, wood, and the other materials with which the pipes

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

are made, and which are met even in the air, I assume that the ears are entirely
necessary to tune the pipes. 168

Reason was not enough. To achieve perfection, countless experiments on organ pipes

needed to be performed, and it was where musical instrument makers became so

indispensable. Why, for example, did organ pipes sing different intervals when air

pressure varied? What was the relationship between air pressure, musical intervals and

the material components of pipes? For Mersenne the “manufacturers can help out

Philosophy by preparing a catalogue of the pipes which rise only a semitone, or a third, or

a fourth, or a fifth, etc., for it will be easier to find the reason when one understands the

qualities of the pipes which cause the difference of these pitches…” 169 Bacon’s empirical

method of data accumulation was perhaps an influence here. (Although critical of

Bacon’s brute fact gathering, Mersenne was all the same working on a translation of the

Sylvan sylvarum. 170 ) And to accomplish such a monumental and difficult labor, who

Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XXIX, 363 (HU3). Mersenne, The book on
instruments, 446. He repeats something similar in the subsequent proposition: “Or si l’on pouuuoit tailler
les tuyaux si iustes, & leur donner le vent si esgal, qu’ils se trouuassent d’accord en les mettant sur les
registres, sans qu’il fust besoin de les roigner, ou de les toucher de l’accordoir, l’oreille ne seroit pas
necessaire pour accorder, mais il est tres-difficile de faire les tuyaux si iustes qu’il n’y faille nullement
toucher pour les eslargir, estressir, accourcir, ou alterer, soit que l’on vse de temperament, ou que l’on les
tienne iustes suiuant les raisons harmoniques, d’autant qu’il est trop difficile d’obseruer toutes les
proportions des bouches, des languettes & de l’ouuerture des pieds, & que la matière des differents tuyaux
n’est pas semblable : ioint que les petits tuyaux proportionnez comme les grans, ne font pas les mesmes
interualles, comme i’ay remarqué en parlant de ceux qui sont d’esgale hauteur & de differente largeur.”
(pp. 367-368)
Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XXIX [sic, XIX], 346-347 (HU3). Mersenne, The
book on instruments, 430. Mersenne was interested in this topic since the early and mid 1620s. See Cornier
to Mersenne, 18 August [1625], CM I, 263-267.
Cornier to Mersenne, 24 December [1627], 611-612: “Si vous pouvés achever la traduction du
Sylva Sylvarum à l’ayde de vostre Anglois et le donner au public, je croy que vous feriés une chose fort
aggreable à beaucoup de monde. Pour moy je vous diray que je n’estime pas tant en Bacon la curiosité de
ses experiences comme les consequences qu’il en tire, et la methode, avec laquelle il s’en sert. C’est
pourquoy (encor que ses observations soient fort ordinaires), je pense que ce seroit une chose fort aggreable
à beaucoup de monde de congnoistre ses procedés.” On Mersenne’s criticism, found mostly in his Vérité
des sciences (1625) and focused on Bacon’s Novum organum, see Lenoble, Mersenne, ou la naissance du
mécanisme, 325-335.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

would be better qualified than the people building and designing organs?


Organology is the “study of musical instruments in terms of their history and

social function, design, construction and relation to performance.” It is a modern

historiographical concept that deals with the scientific study of musical instruments and

the symbolism and folklore functions of the material culture of music as investigated, for

example, by ethnomusicologists. 171 I want to use it here in a particular—perhaps

anachronistic—way, as an epistemic notion put forward by Mersenne to enlighten the

role and value of artisans and musical instruments (and material culture in general)

towards the aim of perfecting the mechanical arts themselves. Not only were artisans

useful in performing experiments, as described in the previous section, they were also the

sole source of hands-on knowledge, which according to most natural philosophers needed

to be rationalized. Studying and describing meticulously the art of musical instrument

making thus gave Mersenne compelling arguments against armchair natural philosophy.

Experiments had to go hand-in-hand with instrument making. The solution to the

improvement of natural philosophy was found in the workshops. This argument is not

novel, yet Mersenne’s books on instruments are probably one of the best early modern

cases in point, which has never been exploited previously. 172

Laurence Libin, “Organology,” Grove Music Online (Accessed on 12 September 2006). On
general issues, Geneviève Dournon, “Instrumentariums et classifications,” Revue de musicologie 79 (1993),
The classic literature on this topic is Paolo Rossi, Philosophy, technology, and the arts in the
early modern era, transl. by Salvator Attanasio (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). Jim Bennett, “The
mechanic’s philosophy and the mechanical philosophy,” History of Science 24 (1986), 1-28. Pamela O.
Long, “Power, patronage, and the authorship of ars: From mechanical know-how to mechanical knowledge

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Michael Prætorius had a genuine admiration for musical instrument makers:

“When we come to describe musical instruments, we should treat them as the art-works

of outstanding, intelligent craftsmen, who have brought them into being by manual and

intellectual effort. By applying precise plans to suitable materials, they have skillfully

fashioned instruments which can be used to publish the glory of God, or—which is

perfectly legitimate—to give pleasure to mankind, with their sweet, harmonious

sounds.” 173 Mersenne did not oppose the common joueurs d’instruments, who delighted

simple folks with their sweet harmonies, yet believed they were less valuable than bona

fide artisans. 174 Indeed, musical instrument makers were truly central to Mersenne’s

work. As he reminded the readers of the book on organ, due to the great and multifaceted

complexity of this machine, “whatever one may say and whatever figures one can give to

explain everything that concerns the construction of the organ, it is very difficult to have

it understood when one has not seen one made, or has not considered the pieces in the

large as well as in detail.” 175 To fully understand how an organ works, therefore, one had

to observe how it was actually put together. This can mean only one thing: Mersenne

in the last scribal age,” Isis 87 (1997), 1-41; Long, Openness, secrecy, authorship: Technical arts and the
culture of knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press,
2001), esp. chaps. 6-7. Paula Findlen, Possessing nature: Museums, collecting, and scientific culture in
early modern Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). Daston and Park, Wonders and the
order of nature, 1150-1750. Deborah Harkness, The jewel house: Elizabethan London and the Scientific
Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007). Smith, The body of the artisan.
Prætorius, Syntagma musicum II: De organographia, 21.
On Mersenne’s view of ménestriers, see Les Prelvdes de l’Harmonie vniverselle, ov qvestions
curievses Vtiles aux Predicateurs, aux Theologiens, aux Astrologues, aux Medecins & aux Philosophes
(Paris: Chez Henry Gvenon, 1634), 185: “Quant à ce que l’on obiecte de l’inutilité des Musiciens
ordinaires, que l’on appelle Menestriers, dont plusieurs se seruent pourleur passe-temps, il ne sont pas
blasmables, puis qu’ils se seruent de leur industrie pour entretenir leurs familles, car encore qu’ils ne soient
pas si vtiles que les autres artisans, on les peut neantmoins tolerer dans les Republiques, puis qu’ils ne font
tort à personne, & que chacun peut receuoir quelque partie du plaisir innocent, qui procede de leurs sons, &
de leur harmonie.”
Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, préface au lecteur, n.p. (HU3). Mersenne, The books on
instruments, 392.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

regularly conferred with organ makers—and as a rule with musical instrument makers.

There is actually no other way he could have collected all the facts on the choice of

woods, metals, tools, glue, etc., and could explain how to resolve tricky technical

obstacles such as building the organ’s pipes, wind-chest and keyboard. (See Figure 1.7.)


Both engravings show how the organ’s wind-chest and clavier are linked together. Though these engravings
were copied from Salomon de Caus, they were based on artisanal knowledge. Mersenne did not use de
Caus’s printed descriptions, however; he wrote his own, more detailed ones. De Caus’s Raison des forces
mouuantes, book 3, 10-12. Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. II, 314-315.

In a few instances, Mersenne did borrow from and refer to published works, such

as de Caus’s Raisons des forces mouuantes to describe the clavier, the wind-chest and

how organ pipes were molded and shaped. (Even though some of Mersenne’s friends

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

thought de Caus was a rather poor music theorist and organ maker. 176 ) He also studied

Vannoccio Biringuccio’s De la pirotechnia, originally published in 1540 but translated in

French and printed in Rouen in 1627, in order to describe the fabrication of bellows

(which blow wind into organ pipes) and most importantly to expound on how bells of

various shapes and sizes were cast-ironed and tuned. Yet most of the time book

knowledge was insufficient. On metalworking, for example,

Now if one wishes to know more, he must consult the casters and make many
experiments on this matter, with sulfur, which makes red iron cast by its touch
alone, and which has an admirable power over all the metals, as well as with
antinomy and the other minerals. From this one can draw enough understanding
to establish a particular science. 177

But Mersenne was also fully aware that bell makers were not always utilizing reason in

making and tuning large bells:

Now this brochette, or rule, of the bells so follows the harmonic ratios of the
tones, that one will have perfect tuning of the bells if one follows the thicknesses
marked on each line. But I wish to explain here the general method of making
whatever diapason one wishes, for the founders go only by guessing when they
have bells to cast more weighty, thicker, and larger than those which are marked
on their brochettes, which they cannot increase because they do not know the
construction through a certain and infallible science which I explain here. 178

Cornier to Mersenne, 27 January 1626, CM I, 350-351: “A la premiere [lettre de Mersenne
reçue par Cornier] donc je vous diray qu’entre tous ceux que je congnois qui ont quelque intelligence de la
musique, De Caux est tenu pour fort peu intelligent en ce qui concerne cete science et ay-je oüi tenir que,
pour son honneur, il eust fort bien faict de ne publier pas son livre. Il me semble aussi que lors que vous
estiez icy [son voyage à Rouen en mai 1625], Le Vasseur vous dict quelque chose de cela mesmes à propos
de ces tuyaux d’orgues et vous tesmoigna avoir une opinion contraire à ce que dict de Caux.” De Caus’s
book on music is Institutions harmoniques (Frankfurt, 1615) and on organ making, Raisons des forces
mouuantes (Frankfurt, 1615). See also Cornier to Mersenne, 21 September 1625, ibid., 294.
Mersenne, “Des instrumens de percvssion,” book 7, prop. VI, 8 (HU3). Mersenne, The books
on instruments, 507. On the generation of metals in the earth, Mersenne mentions Palissy and Agricola. On
Biringuccio, Cornier to Mersenne, 16 March 1626, CM I, 417-418; Cornier to Mersenne, 29 March [1628],
CM II, 50-51.
Mersenne, “Des instrumens de percvssion,” book 7, prop. VII, 11 (HU3). Mersenne, The books
on instruments, 510. Mersenne’s correspondent in Nevers mentioned how they also went “à taston” while
making bells: “Il n’y a aucun maistre fondeur en cette ville [Nevers], duquel on puisse sçavoir de combien
il amoindrit chaque cloche pour chaque ton, ny combien il donne d’espesseur au diamètre et à la hauteur de
la cloche, ny en quelle proportion il mesle ses matieres pour faire son metail. Bien ay-je ouy dire que les
fondeurs permettent à chacun de jetter dans la fonte, qui une piece d’argent, qui un sol ou autre métail. Ce

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Mersenne no doubt wanted to rationalize artisanal practices when possible—perhaps

more than Descartes, who told Mersenne he had never considered what would be the

most perfect shape of a bell 179 ; and, according to Doni, musical instrument makers lacked

so much in theoretical knowledge that he found no harpsichord maker in Rome who had

ever heard of the monochord. 180 Theory was one thing, which Mersenne could describe

from other books or deduce from experience. With regard to the precise description of

artisanal practices, however, Mersenne could not have done it without engaging in an

authentic workshop experience.

All in all, information gathered from printed works—or manuscripts 181 —is rather

small in Mersenne’s books on instruments, and thus cannot explain the incredible amount

of facts and artisanal knowledge found in the book on organs (and the other ones as well).

Take, for instance, Mersenne’s description on how to shape and weld an organ pipe:

As to the solder and the method of soldering the pipes, it must be remarked that
the mixture is composed of a twelfth part of tin to the lead, and that it must be
forged quite evenly on a polished anvil like that of the tinsmiths. Now after the
pipes are proportioned, one takes each of them aside, and before rolling it on the
mill, one rubs the sides of the tube with chalk diluted with a little water and gum,
and for this one heats the mixture a little. This done, one begins to bend the side
of the tube, which ought to be along the length of the mould on which it is rolled.
Afterwards, one strikes all around the said mould with a rule that is completely

qui me faict croire que communement ils n’y regardent de si prez, quoy que je sçache qu’en plusieurs lieux
les choches y sont fort bien d’accord, et en autres elles sonnent musicalement.” Bredeau to Mersenne, 13
July 1628, CM II, 99.
Descartes to Mersenne, January 1630, AT i, 111.
Doni to Mersenne, 8 April 1634, CM IV, 88-89: “Vous ne sçauriez croire combien regne
l’ignorance par deça en faict de teorie et vous le pouriez juger de cecy, que voulant faire un monochorde
(encores que de plusieurs cordes), je n’ay trouveé personne de ces faiseurs de clavicimbles, dont il y en a de
fort experts, qui en ayent ouy parler; et je suis fort estonné qu’un estude si beau et si plaisant soit si fort
I found one manuscript destined to engravers, sculptors, painters, gilders, and draughtsmen in
the Bibliothèque nationale de France, département des manuscrits français, 9155. Folio 46r ff. that deals
with how to decorate wood for furniture, cabinets, lutes and violins.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

flat and rather long. And then the body of the tube is removed from the mould, so
that there remains the width of a feather between the ends which are to be joined
together, so as to rub with the preceding mixture. And after it is dry, one takes a
small knife, which is so adjusted in the hand that the length of the blade passes
along the thumb and its shaft is between the little finger and the fourth. And then
one places the point, pressed by the thumb, lightly upon the edge of each side, and
by running along the edge of each side from one end to the other, one presses
them so that being joined together they form a small channel or gutter. Now
having grated it, one takes the end of a candle and rubs on it so that the solder will
run along it better. This is made of a point of lead, a pound of fine tin, and a
quarter of tin-glass for the lead pipes. But one makes use of two pounds of pure
tin, one pound of lead and a quarter of tin-glass of those of tin. Yet this mixture
depends on the judgement and pleasure of the manufacturers. To this must be
added that to solder the pipes well, it is necessary to place a little solder at the two
ends before having it run the length, so as to fix the two sides of the body and to
straighten and adjust one with the other. 182

Neither Prætorius’s celebrated organographia nor even de Caus’s engineer-like works

described in print, in so many details, the steps and techniques required to fashion an

organ pipe. (Mersenne made a similar highly-detailed description of the wind-chest. 183 )

The question to ask is thus obvious: Was it that unusual for Mersenne to do such a thing?

No. I believe Mersenne was accustomed to call on artisans and converse with them. He

was, for instance, so excited about a Spanish monk visiting Paris, who apparently built

organs as well as he was playing them, that two of his correspondents warned him against

his own enthusiasm. 184 Although not many such examples are available to us, one is

thoroughly interesting and can serve to prove this point.

It starts with a letter from Peiresc dated early May 1634. In it, the Provence

gentilhomme told Mersenne that a young lawyer from Aix, named Mr. Gailhard, shall

Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. VI, 321-322 (HU3). Mersenne, The books on
instruments, 406. See also prop. XVII, 344-345.
Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XLIV, 400-404 (HU3).
Cornier to Mersenne, 16 March [1626], CM I, 417; Father Chastelier to Mersenne, 11 July
1626, ibid., 479.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

visit him on a mission: to gather every imaginable information on public and private

fountains. Peiresc wanted to know—presumably for one or both of his estates—the

“vulgar” names of all the parts (tools, machines, pipes, conduits, faucets, basins, etc.)

needed for the manufacture and ornamentation of fountains; the correct proportions of

water conduits depending on the amount of space available, and how they should be

arranged to vary the flow of water; finally all the prices and the names of the artisans who

did this kind of work. Peiresc believed that Mersenne would have more patience than the

young messenger to accomplish such a task. Perhaps related to the latter, Peiresc also

asked Mersenne to write a precise memoir on vases, in which the dimension and the

names of all common vases and their individual parts, whether in wood, terracotta, metal,

glass, or gold plated would be penned down. This should be a simple and enjoyable

undertaking spent—Peiresc indicated—browsing within the workshops of the most

intelligent and capable of artisans. Peiresc, moreover, thought that knowing these specific

matters would help to rectify (redresser) poor artisanal practices. 185

Whether or not Mersenne wanted to rectify the work of the fontainiers, he

nevertheless complied with Peiresc’s request. To do so, he consulted with the overseer of

the Rougi and the Belleville-sur-Sablon fountains in the suburbs of Paris. The great

number of potential difficulties in building such an extensive work had Mersenne write to

Peiresc that the latter should send someone on site to study all there was to learn.

Peiresc to Mersenne, 1 May 1634, CM IV, 110-111; Peiresc to Mersenne, 18 June 1634, ibid.,
182-183. Peiresc was in the habit of asking such detailed memoirs. Around the same time, he asked Father
Cœlestinus to spend around ten days in the vicinity of Mount Kasios (North-East of Alep) to look at the
possible remnants of the ancient cult of Jupiter Cassius, to observe the lunar eclipse of August 1635, to
investigate various natural properties of the mountain, to transcribe any type of inscription he could find
and back on the plain, to ask questions to the nearby peasants on vapors and fumes that ascended the
mountain. Brentjes, Peiresc’s interest in the Middle East and Northern Africa, 2-3.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Mersenne saw all the tools of the trade, and he told Peiresc that besides an overall

manager carpenters, stonecutters, plumbers, bricklayers, etc. would be needed. Mersenne

even told Peiresc that he could make experiments to better understand the flow of water

in pipes—which remained one of the major problems at that time—and to determine why

the wind caused loud noises in conduits.

Peiresc was happy with Mersenne’s first account, yet wanted to make sure the

commission did not do violence to the Minim’s natural inclination—implying here that

perhaps Mersenne could be uncomfortable in the company of artisans. Mersenne obliged

gracefully though, never complaining—which he was prone to do. On a festive day he

even went 1,500 pas underground to carefully look at water conduits; the noise of the

villagers, however, was so loud that he could not notice anything. He told Peiresc he

would go back on a working day, when less people were in the streets. This Parisian

fontainier, however, becoming less cooperative as time went by, forced Mersenne to call

on another one who worked for a gentleman in Liencourt, in the Pas-de-Calais. The latter

wrote a memoir that pleased Peiresc, but it still was not complete enough. Too many

particulars, related to the actual artisanal practice, were missing. Peiresc wanted to know

how exactly the fountain makers distributed water to different places, the specifics on

faucets made of various materials, the ornamentation of basins and fountains themselves,

etc. 186 In short, Peiresc wanted a complete and comprehensive description on fountain

making, similar perhaps to the ones Mersenne gave on musical instruments.

The information Peiresc sought was simply not found in books like Salomon de

Mersenne to Peiresc, 2 July 1634, CM IV, 230-231; Peiresc to Mersenne, 16 July 1634, ibid.,
247-249; Mersenne to Peiresc, 26 July 1634, ibid., 268; Mersenne to Peiresc, 24 August 1634, ibid., 328;
Mersenne to Peiresc, 2 February 1635, CM V, 47; Peiresc to Mersenne, 8 May 1635, ibid., 175-176;
Mersenne to Peiresc, 17 May 1635, ibid., 203.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Caus’s hydraulic opus. Exact techniques and artisanal practices, unsurprisingly, were

available only from those who performed them. But what about secrecy? Artisans and

engineers like de Caus, or the well-known Girard Desargues, often petitioned for

lucrative contracts with the city of Paris to take care of the waterworks. Hence, were

Peiresc and Mersenne hindered in their fact gathering on fountains due to trade secrets?

Mersenne said so, observing that the gens mecaniques were afraid people like him

wanted to strip them of their gaigne-pain, although it was Mersenne’s remotest idea. It

was (and still is) the usual trope, also acknowledged by de Villiers’s hired organiste

pertaining to the tuning of his organ; or by Peiresc, who told Mersenne about a bell

maker that could give him helpful guidance, if it was not from the fact that, as all artisans,

this one was jealous of his practice. 187

Was secrecy a predicament in Mersenne’s case a propos of musical instruments?

Was Mersenne a potential threat to artisans? Musical instrument makers (maîtres faiseurs

d’instruments de musique) were incorporated by letters patents signed by Henry IV in

1599, perhaps a mark of their ever-growing numbers toward the end of the sixteenth

century. Before the guild was established, most musicians crafted their own musical

instruments. Within the new regulation, musical instrument makers were not as free as

before, but still were allowed some leniency regarding what they could build. For

instance, they were permitted by the letters patents to manufacture and decorate cases for

On fountains in general and how “ordinary” they were in early modern France, Daniel Roche,
Histoire des choses banales. Naissance de la consommation, XVIIe-XIXe siècle (Paris: Fayard, 1997), 169-
174. See also Simon Werrett, “Wonders never cease: Descartes’s Météores and the rainbow fountain,”
British Journal for the History of Science 34 (2001), 129-147. On de Caus’s and Desargues’s appointments
with the city of Paris, Registres des délibérations du bureau de la ville de Paris, publiés par les soins du
Service historique, 20 vols. (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1883-1984), 18: 58-59; 19: 275-276. De Villiers
to Mersenne, 25 February 1635, CM V, 53-54; Peiresc to Mersenne, [6 September 1633], CM III, 474-475;
Mersenne to Peiresc, 2 February 1635, CM V, 47.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

their instruments, which clearly stepped on the exclusive rights of leather makers

(gainiers); likewise regarding the ornamentation of instruments with inlaid work of wood

and precious metals, infringing on the cabinetmakers (ébénistes) prerogatives. 188 Only

individuals who were incorporated—namely had done their six-year apprenticeship in

bonne et due forme—were allowed to build and sell musical instruments in Paris. Some

artisans may have strongly defended their right to secrecy, but scores of faiseurs

d’instruments lived in Paris in the first half of the seventeenth century, and several of

them were prosperous—and educated—enough to partake in natural philosophical

exchanges with an erudite like Mersenne. 189 The harpsichord maker Jean Denis wrote

that all sorts of people came to visit him; some to discuss his work—as Mersenne likely

did numerous times—and others to play on his harpsichords, during which time he would

detect all the awkward gestures (simagrées) younger and older customers displayed in

public. 190

René de Lespinasse, Les Métiers et corporations de la ville de Paris, 3 vols. (Paris: Imprimerie
Nationale, 1886-1897), iii:593-596.
The number of musical instrument makers in Paris can be approximated from the official
records of the minutier central. Not all of them were as well-off as, for instance, Jean Desmoulins, but still
a few seems to have part of the bourgeois society. Take Thomas Le Vacher, “facteur d’instruments de
musique et bourgeois de Paris,” who inhabited a house on rue de la Pelleterie. After he died in 1624,
furniture worth 175 livres, cloths worth 48 livres, a library containing ten books, and musical instruments
worth 264 livres were found in his house. Jurgens, Documents du Minutier central concernant l’histoire de
la musique, i:772. The documents show that these instrument makers had a much nicer signature than other
artisans, reflecting a better education. (Ibid., 26-28). See also Catherine Massip, “Facteurs d’instruments et
maîtres à danser parisiens au XVIIe siècle,” in Instrumentistes et luthiers parisiens, XVIIe-XIXe siècles, 17-
Jean Denis, Traité de l’accord de l’espinette, new introduction by Alan Curtis (New York: Da
Capo Press, 1969 [second ed. of 1650]), 39: “Estant du mestier de faiseur d’Instruments de Musique, ie suis
obligé de receuoir toutes sortes de personnes en ma boutique, aucuns viennent pour voir & entendre mes
Ouurages [his musical instruments], d’autres viennent pour achepter, & par ainsi j’ay le contentement de
voir toucher toutes sortes de personnes, & de voir toutes les simagrées & postures qui se font, dont
plusieurs personnes ne se donnent point de garde…” Mersenne mentioned Denis in the “Traité des
instrvmens a chordes,” book 3, prop. XX, 159 (HU3): “Il faut seulement remarquer que l’vn des principaux
secrets de l’Epinette consiste à barrer la table, dont la bonté depend de l’excellente barrure, qui a esté
pratiquée en perfection par Anthoine Potin, & Emery ou Mederic, que l’on recognoist auoir esté les

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Mersenne, of course, wanted neither to build nor sell musical instruments. And

even though the information he gathered from artisans was sometimes exhaustive the

question remains: would someone be able to build an organ (or any other instrument for

that matter) solely based on Mersenne’s written descriptions? It is very doubtful.

Mersenne often referred to the artisan’s expertise in making such and such instrument’s

parts. For the spinet, its excellence depended upon “many conditions and particulars, but

especially on the braces one places under the table, inasmuch as it is difficult to brace the

spinets perfectly, and it is one of the greatest secrets of the art, the research of which I

leave to the manufacturers.” 191 In another proposition on the harpsichord, Mersenne even

mentioned that at least 1,500 separate parts were necessary to build one of these clavier

instruments. He did not describe all the parts in detail, which would make it virtually

impossible for anyone without previous knowledge, experience or access to a harpsichord

maker to build a working model. 192 Moreover, it appears that some kind of knowledge-

sharing between different guilds may have been more common than it is usually thought.

Organ makers, for instance, needed to get in touch with artisans from other specialized

crafts to learn the secrets of glue making, in order to experiment how organ pipes

sounded when made from a wide variety of material. 193 The six-year apprenticeship to

meilleurs Facteurs de France, ausquels les meilleurs Facteurs de maintenant, à sçauoir Iean Iacquet, le
Breton, & Iean Denys ont succedé, lesquels sont excellents en leur art...”
Mersenne, “Traité des instrvmens a chordes,” book 3, prop. I, 107 (HU3). Mersenne, The books
on instruments, 159-160.
Mersenne, “Traité des instrvmens a chordes,” book 3, prop. XX, 159 (HU3).
Mersenne did not describe in detail all the possible glues “d’autant que cela ne sert de rien à
nostre suiet, & que les Facteurs d’Orgues le peuuent apprendre des artisans qui s’en seruent, s’ils sont assez
curieux pour experimenter la diuersité des sons, qui se peuuent faire par des tuyaux de toutes sortes de
matiere, dont ils peuuent tirer beaucoup de secrets pour l’harmonie. “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop.
XVII, 345 (HU3).

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

enter the faiseurs d’instruments’ guild, therefore, was not for nothing: musical

instruments, most importantly the organ, were some of the most difficult early modern

pieces of technology to manufacture. The concept of secrecy may be valid between

artisans, but probably lacked any significance and consequence between an artisan and a

savant: both knew that a written text could never replace hands-on experience. Not unlike

Peiresc’s fountains, Mersenne probably believed it was essential to grasp as many aspects

as possible regarding the mechanical art of musical instrument making to understand it

and, essentially, improve it further.

Though substantial and often drawn from life, Mersenne’s descriptions of musical

instruments were nonetheless akin to theatrum mechanicorum illustrations and

Descartes’s lens-grinding machine: they were convincing, but largely insufficient to

create working models, as Jean Ferrier tried to tell Descartes in their famous epistolary

exchange (see Chapter two). 194 Mersenne understood well enough the craftsmanship of

organs to recognize the important features of this technology, and in one particular

proposition he explained how to examine and judge the excellence of an organ. 195 The

interesting thing here is that Mersenne’s explanation was not unlike the contract an organ

maker would put in writing to build or repair an organ. Everything from the bellows,

wind-chest, organ pipes and the choice of registration (jeux) gave indications as to the

quality and purpose of an organ. 196 As those contracts show, moreover, there was no

On the topic of machine representations, Wolfgang Lefèvre, ed., Picturing machines, 1400-
1700 (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2004).
Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XXXVII, 382-384 (HU3).
Dufourcq, Le Livre de l’orgue français, vol. 1, for the variety of contracts. Jurgens, Documents
du Minutier central concernant l’histoire de la musique also gives good examples of contracts during the
first half of the seventeenth century. For instance, the one signed on 23 December 1635, Marché pour la
réparation des orgues de l’église Saint-Jean-en Grève, par Valeran de Heman (vol. 1, 814-816), one of the

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

unique way to build an organ. Each organ was different, depending on the quality of the

material used and also the allocated space to set it in. There was thus no single template.

Organ makers always had to adapt the dimensions of the wind-chest and bellows to fit

them in a specific space, whether in a church or a private home. Mersenne was fully

aware of this matter, mentioning that a typical wind-chest for a principal 8’ (an eight-foot


such as ordinarily those are in churches where there is only one organ cabinet, one
can make the wind chest five or six feet in length, according to the judgment and
preference of the maker, for there are some who more easily find place for their
stops on a wind chest of four feet, than others do on one of five feet. That is why I
do not in any way limit the size so that the cleverness of the manufacturers can
decrease them [que la subtilité des Facteurs n’en puise diminuer]. 197

Although there were probably as many design variations of musical instruments

as there were faiseurs d’instruments, one still has the feeling reading the books on

instruments that Mersenne sought to standardize, to harmonize the different artisanal

practices; each instrument was described as a coherent and theoretical entity, a non

problematical idealtype model based on a rationalization of craftsmanship. Mersenne’s

seven books on instruments were more than an illustrated compendium: they were a

rhetorical and epistemic tool aimed at honnêtes hommes and natural philosophers, which

cogently demonstrated that improving the mechanical arts meant one had first to study

them carefully, in every possible detail. No shortcuts would ever prove to be meaningful

in achieving such a task.

two organ makers mentioned by Mersenne, and from whom he could have taken most of his information on
organ building.
Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XLIV, 400 (HU3). Mersenne, The books on
instruments, 481. For the general description of the bellows, Ibid., prop. XXXIV, 378. Mersenne
descriptions are in accord with Dufourcq’s comprehensive analysis of the French organ. Dufourcq, Le Livre
de l’orgue français, esp. vol. 3.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Artisans had a crucial role towards the understanding and perfecting of the

mechanical arts. The instruments they crafted and their expertise with various kinds of

materials were essential for the natural philosophical practice of experiments. As it was

demonstrated earlier experiments with organ pipes led to theoretical generalizations

regarding sound production. The reverse process, however, was not at all excluded—and

of obvious significance. Not every aspect of music called for the help of artisanal



Mersenne strongly believed that the mathematical foundation of music theory

could greatly improve the practice of organ playing as well. This he showed by studying

the “science of organ claviers.” In fact, Mersenne explained that “Zarlino would not have

taken so much pains in explaining the syntone of Ptolemy, which misses many degrees, if

he had had an understanding of the keyboards that I propose in the treatise on the spinet

and the organ.” 198 Mersenne, in brief, tried to relocate the complete knowledge of

musical genres into a mechanical device, i.e. the organ clavier. 199

Organ claviers—all clavier instruments actually—had an obvious problem: “Since

I [Mersenne] have shown that the keyboard and the diapason, which contains the diatonic

genre, which is used now in its perfection, have 32, 27, 25, or at least 19 keys or degrees

in each octave, and since the ordinary keyboards, organ as well as spinet, have only

Mersenne, “Traité des instrvmens a chordes,” book I, prop. 3, 9 (HU3). Mersenne, The books
on instruments, 22-23 (translation slightly modified).
Mersenne, “Traité de la voix, et des chants,” book 3 entitled “Des genres, des especes, des
Systemes, & des Modes de la Musique.” (HU2)

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

thirteen, it follows that they cannot be just, if one wants to find in them everything that is

in the nineteen degrees of the perfect keyboard [for the diatonic genre]. 200 Experiments

revealed how to build organ pipes that would produce the sounds of the perfect diapason;

now a clavier had to match this same perfect diapason, so that theory and practice could

ultimately work hand-in-hand.

The traditional organ clavier (or keyboard) had (and still has today) thirteen keys

(marches), which was tuned according to the meantone temperament, i.e. a tuning made

of pure major thirds and where the fifths are smaller and the fourths larger by a quarter of

the syntonic comma—hence the label 1/4-comma meantone. As quoted above by

Mersenne, this sort of tuning does not give pure consonances, but tempered ones. To

Mersenne, a good tuning had to follow the just intonation of consonances, not simply for

musical or mathematical reasons, but more importantly to fight skepticism. In La Vérité

des sciences (1625) and the Questions harmoniques (1634) Mersenne declared that

skeptics argued against music being a science owing to the fact that there existed no

certain and evident principles to provide concords based on simple mathematical ratios.

Tempered musical intervals, as found on virtually all musical instruments, only conveyed

a sense that music was established on the vagueness and ambiguity of music theorists,

musicians, and musical instrument makers. For it was well known that string instruments

were usually tuned to an equal temperament (based on twelve equal semitones) whereas

for clavier instruments, as said above, the 1/4-comma meantone was favored (though

several other irregular temperaments existed and were in use in Renaissance and Baroque

Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XVI, 341 (HU3). Mersenne, The books on
instruments, 424-425.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

music). 201 To Mersenne, therefore, a new kind of keyboard (whether for organs, spinet or

harpsichord) was needed to embed the theory of just intonation into the mechanical arts

and thus, hopefully, help fight skepticism.

Proceeding methodically, Mersenne started with two thirteen-key claviers

differently tempered, neither of which displaying however perfect major and minor thirds

and sixths. 202 (See Figure 1.8.) In order to produce all the just intoned consonances, these

two claviers had to be combined into a seventeen-key clavier. Yet even this keyboard was

insufficient to exhibit the just intonation of the complete diatonic genre, which needs at

least eighteen tones (hence nineteen keys). The latter, although exhibiting the three

musical genres, did not do so perfectly for the chromatic and enharmonic ones, yet would

be the best-tempered nineteen-key organ keyboard one could imagine, matching the third

column of the organ-pipe table presented below. To fully render the perfect harmonic

diapason, a clavier would need twenty-seven keys, the first row of keys for the diatonic

genre, the second row for the chromatic and the last row for the enharmonic. The table

that accompanies the clavier’s drawing was the real thing though, displaying at a glance

the perfection of the harmonic diapason, such that one (says Mersenne) could

Mark Lindley, “Mersenne on keyboard tuning,” Journal of Music Theory 24 (1980), 166-203.
On temperament in general, see Lindley, “Temperaments,” Grove Music Online (Accessed on 12
September 2006).
“Or le clauier ordinaire tant des grandes Orgues que seruent aux Eglises, que des cabinets dont
on vse dans les chambres particulieres, a treize marches sur chaque Octaue, & n’est nullement different de
celuy des Epinettes, dont i’ay parlé dans le liure des instrumens à chordes: c’est pourquoy il n’est pas
besoin de le mettre icy, si ce n’est pour faire plaisir aux Organistes & aux Facteurs, qui pourront plus
aysément comparer les nouueaux clauiers que ie donne, auec le clavier ordinaire, afin de voir & de suppleer
ce qui y manque pour auoir tous les accords & les interualles dans leur iuste proportion.” Mersenne, “Traité
de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XXII, 349 (HU3).

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]


Above, the common thirteen-key clavier with a

meantone temperament. Upper right, the
seventeen-key clavier based upon two differently
tempered thirteen-key ones. To the right, one of
the two nineteen-key claviers discussed by
Mersenne, which display the perfect diatonic
genre. Below, a table that explains how to achieve
the perfect twenty-seven-key clavier
encompassing all three musical genres. Lower
right, the said clavier. Mersenne, “Traité de
l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XXII, 349-353; prop.
XXIII, 353-358.

straightforwardly extract from it this twenty-seven key clavier. (The table was supposedly

so self-explanatory that “it would be unnecessary to add the figure of the keyboard,

except that I desire to make its understanding so easy for the organists and the makers

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

that they may find no difficulty.” 203

Mersenne did not explain how to manufacture these very special claviers (the only

account by Mersenne on keyboard-making was a general one on the movement

mechanism of the keys, as seen in figure 1.7 above). Such distinctive claviers were not

utterly uncommon, especially in the harpsichord family of instruments, for example the

nineteen-key clavier built in 1639 by Joan Albert Ban based on Mersenne’s own,

Zarlino’s nineteen-key clavier built in 1548 by Maestro Comenico Pesarese, Doni’s

three-manual sixty keys per octave organ clavier described in his Compendio del trattato

de’ generi, e de’ modi (Rome, 1635), and the two-manual thirty-six keys per octave

clavier of Nicola Vicentino’s archicembalo, “the foremost and perfect instrument, in that

none of the keys lacks any consonances.” 204 Drawn from the most exact theory of

music—which could be confirmed by the monochord, Mersenne’s twenty-seven-key

clavier had great advantages:

As for the usefulness that can be made of this keyboard, it is very great, for it
shows exactly the intervals of the three genres of music, and gives a greater light
on the harmony that the Greeks [and the Latins] have written of. Thus if one
teaches music and the method of singing to children by means of its keys, they
would be able to understand the most subtle ratios of all sorts of compositions and
concerts in very little time, and to sing enharmonic airs as easily as the chromatic
and diatonic ones. I am omitting many other uses that the organists can advise, if
they use the keyboard on which they will make a quantity of beautiful passages
and pretty touches which cannot be found on ordinary keyboards. 205

Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XXIII, 356 (HU3). Mersenne, The books on
instruments, 437.
Lindley, “Mersenne on keyboard tuning,” 168-170. Ban’s keyboard is found in his Kort Zangh-
Bericht (Amsterdam, 1643) and information are given in Mersenne’s correspondence. On Ban, Daniel P.
Walker, “Joan Albert Ban and Mersenne’s musical competition of 1640,” Music and Letters 57 (1976),
233-255. On Vicentino, see his Ancient music adapted to modern practice, transl. by Maria Rika Maniates,
ed. by Claude V. Palisca (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), quotation on p. 315. Stuart Isacoff,
Temperament: the idea that solved music’s greatest riddle (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 181. J.
Murray Barbour, Tuning and temperament: A historical survey (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), 111.
Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XXIII, 357 (HU3). Mersenne, The books on

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

And because these claviers were so perfect, nothing should stop organists using them,

even if it meant learning anew how to play the organ:

Now it is certain that these keyboards ought to be preferred to the old ones, since
they contain a greater number of consonances and other intervals in their
justness… For it is of no importance that the difficulty of playing them is greater,
inasmuch as it is not necessary to feel pity for the pains nor to avoid the work
which leads to perfection. To this I add that they will be played as easily as the
others when the hands become accustomed to them, because they follow the
infallible rule of reason. And there is no need for working to hide their
imperfection, as happens in ordinary keyboards since they do not have them, as is
seen in the two last keyboards of the preceding proposition in which all the
consonances are quite just and without any temperament. 206

In this case, musicians and the mechanical arts had to meet the terms of the music

theorist, for only through the latter’s scientia would a better musical instrument be

designed and built, and consequently would music approach the long lost perfection of


Mersenne argued elsewhere in his Harmonie universelle that music performed on

instruments, 439. On how the organ can help one learn to sing just without a maître, “Traité des chants,”
book 2, prop. XXXVII, 46-47 (HU2). Yet a maître de chant is needed to give more charm to the voice,
since instruments cannot teach “certains charmes que l’on inuente tous les iours pour embellir les chants, &
pour enrichir les Concerts.”
Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XXIII, 354 (HU3). Mersenne, The books on
instruments, 437. Playing skillfully was a matter of practice, not of knowledge according to Trichet: “Avant
de finir ce discours j’ay voulu mettre en cet endroit pour desennuyer le lecteur une question de Saint
Augustin qui concerne les joüeurs d’instruments et qui pouvoit estre placée ailleurs aussi bien qu’ici.
Scavoir s’il faut attribuer cette adresse qu’aucuns ont a remuer soupplement les doigts, ou bien a la science
ou bien a l’usage. Car il peut arriver que, faisant comparaison de deux joüeurs d’instruments l’un avec
l’autre, le moins scavant pourra surpasser son compagnon par le doux mouvement des doigts; que si cette
agilité de la main estoit inséparablement annexée a la science, chascun y excelleroit d’autant plus qu’il se
seroit perfectionné en la cognoissance de la musique, ce qui néantmoings n’est pas tousjours véritable.
Mais, dira-t-on, ce que font les doigts est une opération plustot de l’esprit que du corps, car l’esprit
commande et les doigts obéissent; cela despend donc de la science qui est adhérante à l’âme. Certes, il
faudroit nécessairement advoüer cette objection si les doigts se rendoient tousjours souples et obéïssants a
nos intentions, de façon que voulant bien a propos pinser et mignarder quelque chorde les doigts y
accourussent tout aussistot sans manquer aucunement. Mais, puisque nous voyons bien souvent des doctes
médecins n’estre si habiles a couper quelque membre gasté qu’un simple chirurgien, il faut croire que cette
manuelle opération despend plustot de l’exercice et de la pratique que de la science.” Trichet, Traité des
instruments de musique (vers 1640), 84-85.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

ordinary (meaning tempered) organs, or other similar keyboard instruments, was as

barbarous, rude and unpleasant as orations mal ordonnées. 207 This appears in perfect

agreement with the pure theory of musical harmony and the organ claviers he devised.

Yet it seems that Mersenne was not always specially adamant regarding the best type of

tuning for instruments. There is evidence in some of Mersenne’s writings that he could

have, or would have favored a universal diapason for all instruments, established on

equal temperament, if it were not for the strong disapproval he received from Descartes,

Doni, and the harpsichord maker Jean Denis, who was perhaps Mersenne’s best source in

Paris on keyboard instrument tuning. 208 In his Traité de l’Harmonie universelle, for

instance, although Mersenne mentioned that all instruments were imperfect due to their

tempered tuning, he said that it would be impossible to tune equal tempered instruments

such as the lute and the viola in concord with meantone tempered keyboard instruments

“unless we modify the temperament of the ones or the others.” 209 In the last proposition

Mersenne, “Traitez des consonances, des dissonances, des Genres, des Modes, & de la
Composition,” book 3, prop. 7, 161 (HU2): “Et si les Compositions que l’on ioüe sur l’Orgue ou sur les
autres Instrumens à Clauier, ou à touches, peuuent estre comparees aux harangues des Orateurs : l’on peut
dire que les pieces que l’on joüe sur les Instrumens ordinaires sont en comparaison de celles qui se
ioûroient sur des Instrumens graduez selon lesdits Systemes parfaits, ce que sont les Oraisons mal
ordonnees, fort rudes, & dont la locution est barbare & malplaisante, en comparaison des Harangues tres-
polies, & si excellentes, qu’on n’y peut ajoûter, ny en oster aucune lettre sans en estropier le discours, &
sans le rendre plus imparfait qu’il n’estoit deuant.”
Lindley, “Mersenne on keyboard tuning,” esp. 179-193. Dominique Devie, Le Tempérament
musical. Philosophie, histoire, théorie et pratique (Béziers: Société de musicologie de Languedoc, 1990),
79-94. Barbour, Tuning and temperament, where he says on p. 98: “Although Marin Mersenne was a
zealous advocate of equal temperament in practice, he took pains to present literally dozens of tables in just
intonation.” Franz Josef Ratte, Die Temperatur der Clavierinstrumente. Quellenstudien zu den
theoretischen Grundlagen und praktischen Anwendungen von der Antike bis ins 17. Jahrhundert (Kassel:
Bärenreiter, 1991), 228-241. Jean Denis did favor a tempered clavier for the harpsichord, but not equal
temperament. To him, the most perfect temperament for a clavier was the meantone. Denis, Traité de
l’accord de l’espinette, 9.
Mersenne, Traité de l’Harmonie universelle, book 1, théorème XXX, 301. “Il faut neantmoins
remarquer que le temperament qui se fait par la seule distribution du comma est plus propre pour les
instrumens à clauier, que pour ceux qu’on pince, ou dont on iouë auec l’archet, qui supposent le
temperament precedent, c’est à dire l’égalité des tons, & y ajoustent l’égalité des demy-tons par la

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

of the book on organ, Mersenne even described a geometrical method, devised by

Roberval, to calculate the proportional means associated with the twelve equal semitones

of equal temperament. 210 A theoretical ambiguity or indecision is present here that can

also be easily connected to the crafting of organ pipes. Looking back again at the organ-

pipe table depicted above, the first column actually displays how to cut a pipe into twelve

equal semitones, as an equal tempered organ would require to play in tune with a string

instrument. To favor equal temperament would certainly necessitate a completely new

rationale, one that could still be established on mathematical ratios (as Mersenne also

makes evident), but most likely would find support in musical practice and cultural taste.

Mersenne’s twenty-seven-key organ clavier became a true mechanical

representation—an embodiment—of the most perfect musical harmony attainable by any

of God’s creation. Yet without the precise craftsmanship of organ pipes (since each of the

twenty-seven keys found on the clavier needed to be connected to a pipe), which was

brought to light by experiments on the width and height of pipes, organ claviers were

simply useless. Furthermore, musical instrument makers not only helped with

experimental researches, but provided Mersenne with enough material data to compile his

books on instruments, on which he established the foundation of the new mechanical


Mersenne’s compendium meant more than a simple collection of instruments: it

symbolized in Mersenne’s work the notion that natural philosophy should be understood

distribution de la Diese, comme ie montreray en parlant des luths & des violes, qui ont tous leurs tons &
leurs demy-tons égaux, & par consequent leur Octaue diuisées en trois Tierces majeures, ou en six tons, ou
douze demy-tons. De la vient que … tout ce qu’on iouë sur ces instrumens est imparfait, & qu’on ne les
peut accorder iustement auec les orgues, ou auec l’épinette, si on ne change le temperament des uns ou des
Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book 6, prop. XLV, 408-412 (HU3).

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

as a combination of theory, experiments, and mechanical instruments (organa), and that

all these facets of mechanical philosophy vindicated one another. No other early modern

work on natural philosophy emphasized to such an extent the value and meaning of

mechanical instruments as epistemic tools of natural philosophical knowledge-



Musical instruments clearly were not always thought to be indispensable to the musica

scientia. Toward the end of book one of De institutione musica Boethius, echoing

Aristotle, explained quid musicus est:

Now one should bear in mind that every art and also every discipline considers
reason inherently more honorable than a skill which is practiced by the hand and
the labor of an artisan. For it is much better and nobler to know about what
someone else fashions than to execute that about which someone else knows; in
fact, physical skill serves as slave, while reason rules like a mistress. Unless the
hand acts according to the will of reason, it acts in vain. How much nobler, then,
is the study of music as a rational discipline than as composition and
performance! It is as much nobler as the mind is superior to the body; for devoid
of reason, one remains in servitude… It follows, then, that rational speculation is
not dependent on the act of making, whereas manual works are nothing unless
they are guided by reason. Just how great the splendor and merit of reason are can
be perceived from the fact that those people—the so-called men of physical
skill—take their names not from a discipline, but rather from instruments; for
instance, the kitharist is named after the kithara, the aulete after the aulos, and the
others after the names of their instruments. But a musician is one who has gained
knowledge of making music by weighing with the reason, not through the
servitude of work, but through the sovereignty of speculation. 211

Music was an integral part of the scholastic quadrivium, accompanied by arithmetic,

geometry, and astronomy. To know music meant only one thing: to understand numbers’

ratio. Mathematical intervals characterized everything about music; numbers gave music

its power over the world (musica mundana) and humanity (musica humana).

Boethius, Fundamentals of music, §34, 50-51.

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Things changed considerably during the Renaissance. Numbers were no longer

the unique provider of musical knowledge. Besides natural magic and Ficino’s

Neoplatonism, which lead him down the mystical path of linking music with spiritus,

scholars began to add the trivium, or grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic as basic elements of

music learning. Italian humanists, following the lead of Giovanni del Lago, began

applying classical grammar to musical composition. This move was founded on a

concern to replicate within music the structured and formal qualities of the written text.

What made a text perfect, especially its cadence and the various traditional distinctiones,

or punctuations, had to be imitated in music. The trivium had nothing to do with the

determination of music’s character—pitch, genres, modes, etc.—but everything to do

with the harmonization of verbal and musical syntax applied to both prose and poetry.

Zarlino, for instance, mentioned that the “proportioned order of words” in grammar

corresponded to that of sounds; the “proportion of syllogisms” in dialectics produced

“wonderful harmony [concento] and great pleasure to the ear”; and rhetoric called for the

application of “musical accents at the right times” as a means of giving “marvelous

delight to the hearers” during an oration or sermon. 212 In France, the musique mesurée of

the Académie de poésie et de musique, a modified accentual version of classical meters,

was an effort to put into music the rational structure of the vers mesurés invented by Baïf,

thus at last reuniting music and poetry together—as the members of the Academy

claimed it had been throughout Antiquity. 213 Rhetoric and poetry did not only influence

Palisca, Humanism in Italian Renaissance musical thought, chap. 12 for a general discussion.
On Zarlino, Paolo da Col, “The tradition and science: The Institutioni harmoniche of Gioseffo Zarlino,” in
Zarlino, Le Institutioni harmoniche, 41. See also Moyer, Musica scientia, 217.
On musique mesurée, Howard Mayer Brown and Richard Freedman, “Vers mesurés, vers
mesurés à l’antique,” Grove Music Online (Accessed on 25 September 2006). See also Daniel P. Walker,

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

music theory: it, for instance, played a crucial role in determining the Cartesian treatment

of mathematics so it moved from being a simple craft to a real instrument of scientia. In

Descartes’s epistemology of evident knowledge, rhetoric and poetry as cognitive

exercises helped the mind finding the clear and distinct things—intuitus—so important

for the method. 214

Mersenne stood by such a humanistic viewpoint, arguing that the parfait musicien

needed all types of knowledge, not only the mathematical culture of the quadrivium. In

the Traité de l’Harmonie universelle, he described how the liberal arts and the other

sciences were valuable to fully understand and practice music. Grammar, Mersenne

explained, was used to go back to the Greek roots of the musical language (consonances,

diapason, diapente, etc.) to grasp its true meaning, as it did for languages. Verbal

rhetorical figures taught how to arrange the subject matter of music so it pleased listeners

the most. Poetry was even more necessary than rhetoric, since it was tailor-made for

singing. Logic taught how to reason (and thus how to understand music theory)—music

depended upon arithmetic and geometry; astronomy showed how to find the consonances

in the movements, sizes, intervals and distances of stars and planets. Music was

subordinated to physics, which taught the nature of sounds and its properties.

Metaphysics conveyed the relationships between sounds and all natural beings. Medicine

taught how to find the temperament of listeners, and how to adapt songs accordingly.

Morality explained how to behave at concerts, and politics demonstrated the modes and

Music, spirit, and language in the Renaissance, ed. by Penelope Gouk (London: Variorum Reprints, 1985).
Matthew L. Jones, The good life in the Scientific Revolution: Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, and
the cultivation of virtue (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), chap. 2. On rhetoric, see also
Jean-Vincent Blanchard, L’Optique du discours au XVIIe siècle. De la rhétorique des jésuites au style de la
raison moderne (Descartes, Pascal) (Québec: Les Presses de l’Université Laval, 2005).

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

movements required to prevent the corruption of the standard of behaviors and to

preserve the virtues that made empires and republics flourish. 215 Mersenne’s concept of

the perfect musician as defined here was not exactly original: it was in fact akin to

Zarlino’s Istitutioni harmoniche. 216 What makes Mersenne’s description of the parfait

musicien genuinely innovative was the addition of the mechanical arts at the end of the

list. Musical instrument and musical instrument making entered musica scientia through

Mersenne’s notion that music was the best representation of universal harmony tout


In the Préludes de l’Harmonie universelle Mersenne explained, echoing

Descartes, that the sciences should not be considered as separate fields of knowledge, but

rather as a unity. In Mersenne’s words, all the sciences “have created together an

unbreakable society [ont iuré entr’elles vne inuiolable societé].” 217 One, however, cannot

study them all at once; but since they all “hold hands,” one should rather focus on a

particular science and from it, ascertain the others. Mersenne, of course, concentrated on

music, where he reiterated what he had said in the Traité de l’Harmonie universelle,

namely that studying music meant exploring all the rational and practical knowledge

Mersenne, Traité de l’Harmonie universelle, théorème V, 20-22. On rhetoric, David Allen
Duncan, “Persuading the affections: Rhetorical theory and Mersenne’s advice to harmonic orators,” in
French musical thought, 1600-1800, ed. by Georgia Cowart (Ann Arbor: U.M.I Research Press, 1989),
Zarlino, Institutioni harmoniche, book 4, chap. 35, “Quel, che debbe hauere ciascuno, che
desidera di venire a qualche perfettione nella musica.”
Mersenne, Les Préludes de l’Harmonie universelle, Question V, 155-156: “Les sciences ont
iuré entr’elles vne inuiolable societé, il est quasi impossible de les separer, car elles souffrent plustost que
l’on les déchire; & si quelqu’vn s’y opiniastre, son trauail ne luy en arrache que des lambeaux imparfaicts
& confus. Elle ne viennent pourtant pas toutes ensemble, mais elles se tiennent tellement par la main,
qu’elles se suiuent d’vn ordre naturel qu’il est dangereux de changer, parce qu’elles refusent d’entrer
autrement où elles sont appellees.”

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

available to mankind, including the design of new musical instruments. 218 Mersenne said

it best in the Traité, where he explained that the making of musical instruments belonged

to the parfait musicien, who must know all the materials entering into the craftsmanship

of all instruments, “otherwise he will find neither the pleasure nor the honor that comes

from this knowledge, and thus will be deprived of the great utility he could gain from

it.” 219 To Mersenne, the material culture of music was as significant as the seven liberal

arts and all the other sciences in achieving the status of the perfect musician. This, I

believe, is one of Mersenne’s foremost contributions to the study of music and, by

ricochet, to the whole field of early modern natural philosophy—since music served as

Mersenne’s paradigmatic knowledge-producing scientia.

From Mersenne onward, the role and purpose of musical instruments in musica

scientia became indisputable. A “Complete Musitian,” according to the 1653 English

edition of Descartes’s Compendium musicæ:

is required a more then superficial insight into all kinds of Humane Learning. For,
He must be a Physiologist; that He may demonstrate the Creation, Nature,
Proprieties, and Effects of a Natural Sound. A Philologer, to inquire into the first
Invention, Institution, and succeding Propagation of an Artificial Sound, or
Musick. An Arithmetician, to be able to explaine the Causes of Motions
Harmonical, by Numbers, and declare the Mysteries of the new Algebraical
Musick. A Geometrician; to evince, in great variety, the Original of Intervalls
Consono-dissonant, by the Geometrical, Algebraical, Mechanical Division of a

Ibid., 138-143. Here Mersenne puts under the art of drawing the creation of musical
instruments and other technological feats: “& par consequent à la Pourtraicture, tant pour cela, que pour
desseigner les nouueaux instrumens que le Musicien peut inuenter en corrigeant les vns, & adioustant aux
autres, & pour ordonner des grottes, & des machines hydraulique, & pneumatiques, qu’il rendra capables
de toute sorte d’harmonie.” (p.143)
Mersenne, Traité de l’harmonie universelle, book 1, théorème II, 10-11: “I’ajouste seulement
qu’elle [la musique] considere la nature des corps, & leurs proprietez, parce que la fabrique des
instrumens de Musique appartient au Musicien, qui doit connoistre le bois & les autres matieres qui seruent
pour faire les instrumens de Musique, comme sont les peaux, les intestins & les metaux dont on fait les
orgues, les luths, les violes, les cistres, les harpes, les flûtes, les trompettes, les hauts-bois, & les autres
instrumens, s’il veut estre parfait Musicien, autrement il n’aura pas le plaisir ny l’honneur qu’il peut
receuoir de cette connoissance, & sera priué de la grande vtilité qu’il en pourroit tirer.”

] Organ Making: Mersenne’s Musical Instruments ]

Monochord. A Poet; to conform his Thoughts, and Words to the Lawes of præcise
Numbers, and distinguish the Euphonie of Vowells and Syllables. A Mechanique;
to know the exquisite Structure of Fabrick of all Musical Instruments, Winde,
Stringed, or Tympanous aliàs Pulsatile. A Metallist; to explore the different
Contemperations of Barytonous and Oxytonous, or Grave and Acute toned
Metalls, in order to the Casting of tuneable Bells, for Chimes, &c. An Anatomist;
to satisfie concerning the Manner, and Organs of the Sense of Hearing. A
Melothetick; to lay down a demonstrative method for the Composing, or Setting
of all Tunes, and Ayres. And, lastly, He must be so far a Magician, as to excite
Wonder, with reducing into Practice the Thaumaturgical, or admirable Secrets of
Musick… 220

This long passage, which includes artisanal knowledge and the material culture of music,

describes very well the new scientia of music by the mid seventeenth century. 221

Kircher’s 1650 Musurgia universalis, the next great music compendium after Prætorius’s

and Mersenne’s, could not achieve its universal goal without introducing long

descriptions of musical instruments—which borrowed heavily in fact from Mersenne’s

own, engravings included. This, I believe, is an argument too often forgotten when

dealing with the meaning of harmonia universalis. Mersenne’s instrumentarium is

perhaps the best illustration that the mechanical arts and the material culture of music had

finally crossed an important early modern intellectual threshold: they were finally

included within the “universal” of the universal harmony. Mersenne’s books on musical

instruments, in other words, opened the door to a complete redefinition of the meaning of

artisans and instruments to natural philosophy. Descartes, as we will see next, reflected

on the same issues as well, assuming different though by no means trivial conclusions.

Lord W. Brouncker, Renatus Descartes excellent compendium of musick: with necessary and
judicious animadversions therupon (London, 1653), to the reader, n.p. For an analysis of this work,
Descartes, Abrégé de musique, 37-40.
Natural magic, since Bacon, has been more relevant in seventeenth-century England than on
the Continent as regards the science of music. See Gouk, Music, science and natural magic in seventeenth-
century England. Another very good discussion on the same topic is Linda Phyllis Austern, “‘’Tis Nature’s
voice’: Music, natural philosophy and the hidden world in seventeenth-century England,” in Music theory
and natural order from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century, 30-67.



Discours de la méthode, “is suffering because of the need for innumerable

observations which I cannot possibly make without the help of others [sans l’aide

d’autrui].” 222 Scholars have investigated the epistemic role of observations and

experiments in Cartesian natural philosophy, but few have considered these “others” fit to

assist Descartes in his quest for truth. 223 Yet Descartes is quite adamant as to whom he

wants help from:

True, as regards observations which may help in [natural philosophy], one man
could not possibly make them all. But also he could not usefully employ other
hands than his own, except those of artisans, or such persons as he could pay,
who would be led by the hope of gain (a most effective motive) to do precisely
what he ordered them to do. For voluntary helpers, who might offer to help him

This chapter has been published in a slightly modified version in History of Science 44 (2006),
Descartes, Discours de la méthode, AT, vi:75; CSM, i:149. All quotes from Descartes were
taken from Œuvres de Descartes, ed. by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, 11 vols (Paris: J. Vrin, 1996)
[hereafter cited as AT, vi:33-45]. For the English translation I used The philosophical writings of
Descartes, transl. by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch, 3 vols (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1984-1991) [hereafter cited as CSM, i:123-135].
On the role of observations and experiments, see Daniel Garber, “Descartes and experiment in
the Discourse and Essays,” in Descartes embodied: reading Cartesian philosophy through Cartesian
science, idem (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 85-110; Ralph M. Blake, “The rôle of
experience in Descartes’ theory of method (I),” The Philosophical Review 38 (1929), 125-43; Blake, “The
rôle of experience in Descartes’ theory of method (II),” The Philosophical Review 38 (1929), 201-18; Alan
Gewirtz, “Experience and the non-mathematical in the Cartesian method,” Journal of the History of Ideas 2
(1941), 183-210; Desmond M. Clarke, Descartes’s philosophy of science (Manchester: Manchester
University Press, c1982); Spyros Sakellariadis, “Descartes’s use of empirical data to test hypotheses,” Isis
78 (1982), 68-76.
] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

from curiosity or a desire to learn, usually promise more than they achieve and
make fine proposals which never come to anything. In addition, they would
inevitably wish to be rewarded by having certain difficulties explained to them,
or at any rate by compliments and useless conversation, which could not but
waste a lot of [the natural philosopher’s] time. 224

Taken literally, this quotation from the Discours de la méthode establishes the status of

artisans as a docile main d’œuvre, whose mechanical skills should help uncover, under

the tutelage of natural philosophers, nature’s deepest secrets. 225 Volontaires, or honnêtes

curieux, are given even less credit here, perceived as a nuisance rather than the source

and authority of knowledge—in contrast to Robert Boyle’s conception of gentlemanly

science. 226 Is it the whole story? Are Cartesian artisans coarse “invisible technicians,” the

experienced hands of natural philosophers? 227 Could artisans somehow encourage or

inspire the latter?

Artisans and experimental practices have become in the last twenty years or so a

hot topic of interest to scholars of early modern natural philosophy. Hardly any, however,

have investigated what artisans really meant to rational philosophers like Marin

Mersenne—as I have attempted to show in the previous chapter—or René Descartes. 228 I

Descartes, Discours de la méthode, AT, vi:72-73; CSM, i:148.
Money sometimes was not a good enough incentive to hold artisans in check. When the time
came, for instance, to engrave the plates for the Discours and Essais, Descartes and his printer made sure
the engraver would not leave without address or procrastinate for too long. The only way to enforce their
wish was to keep this engraver (Franz Schooten the younger) “under house arrest”: “Celui qui les taille [the
plates] me contente assez, et le libraire le tient en son logis, de peur qu’il ne lui échappe.” Descartes to
Constantijn Huygens, 30 October 1636, AT, i:614.
Steven Shapin, A social history of truth: Civility and science in seventeenth-century England
(Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994). I have contented elsewhere that volontaires, although
unhelpful in producing knowledge per se, were Descartes’s vectors of knowledge dissemination; they were
the ones who Descartes trusted would make his philosophy known. Gauvin, “Volontaires and artisans in
Descartes’s natural philosophy,” unpublished manuscript presented at the History of Science Society
annual meeting, Cambridge, MA, 21 November 2003.
Shapin, A social history of truth, chap. 8.
Jim Bennett, “The mechanic’s philosophy and the mechanical philosophy,” History of Science

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

hope to demonstrate in the first three parts of this chapter that artisans, at least for a short

period of time, were more than rough and mindless helping hands for Descartes. I believe

they held a rather crucial epistemic function that initially supported the very foundation

of Cartesian knowledge, namely the mathesis universalis. Descartes, I explain, saw in the

early 1620s an inherent order in the practice of simple métiers. Yet such order, unveiled

in the Regulæ ad directionem ingenii, was not encountered in the hands-on practices

themselves. Method was found beyond the specific gestes of artisans—beyond the

uniqueness of each individual ars. Inspired by Pierre Bourdieu I argue that Descartes may

have seen some sort of structured discipline within artisanal habitus. He discovered the

unity of practice that explained theoretically—rationally—how artisans built machines

and manufactured goods, assuming early in life that artisans were endowed with some

sort of an âme réglée (orderly soul), an innate and orderly reason guiding manual work.

Descartes, however, started to question the artisan’s inherent structured order as

soon as he landed in Paris in the mid-1620s. Before then, never once did he team up with

artisans—although he examined how they worked. Theoretical assertions were mostly

based on dialogues with natural philosophers (inclined towards the mechanical arts like

Isaac Beeckman) and on idiosyncratic observations made during his European tour.

When Descartes arrived in Paris and began to study optics in the company of real

24 (1986), 1-28. Pamela O. Long, “Power, patronage, and the authorship of ars: From mechanical know-
how to mechanical knowledge in the last scribal age,” Isis 88 (1997), 1-41; Long, Openness, secrecy,
authorship: Technical arts and the culture of knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), esp. chaps. 6-7; Paula Findlen, Possessing nature: Museums,
collecting, and scientific culture in early modern Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994);
Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the order of nature, 1150-1750 (New York: Zone
Books, 1998); Deborah Harkness, The jewel house: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 2007); Pamela H. Smith, The body of the artisan: Art and experience in the
Scientific Revolution (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004). On the latter see the essay review
by Bruce T. Moran, “Knowing how and knowing that: Artisans, bodies, and natural knowledge in the
Scientific Revolution,” Studies in the history and philosophy of science 36 (2005), 577-585.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

artisans, his opinion of them wavered. Artisans, including his protégé Jean Ferrier, did

not demonstrate the intrinsic âme réglée he thought he had previously contemplated. The

artisanal trope guiding hitherto the notion of mathesis had to be replaced by something

displaying even more order, i.e. machines in the form of automata. Following D. Graham

Burnett’s insightful essay, I will show in the fourth part of the chapter that the Dioptrique

was in fact a treatise written to put in order the activity of the mechanical arts. Machines,

according to Descartes, ought to resemble natural philosophical ideas; their design,

consequently, needed to be generated by the method. Systematizing the mechanical arts

thus ensured that the artisan’s âme déréglée would never misconstrue the creation of an

orderly soul.

The Discours de la méthode and its essays, I believe, sought to dominate both the

mind and the body of early modern individuals. In the ultimate section of the chapter, I

conjecture that through the trope of machinelike order, Descartes’s method became an

instrument of authority. The method aimed not only at the production of rational and

mechanical knowledge, but perhaps more importantly at fashioning a new ideal Man, one

that could serve adequately both the State and scientia. Descartes’s goal (not unlike

Francis Bacon’s) was to forge a novum organum, a new kind of “instrument” to replace

the old peripatetic one. The method was thus a conceptual organon, a multifaceted

instrument of authority created to act on the socio-cultural as well as on the natural

philosophical fields of knowledge. The method, in other words, was designed to create

honnêtes hommes; it was Descartes’s timely response to the rise of French absolutism.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]


Artisans and Cartesian rational knowledge give the impression of an unusual pair. The

first rule of the Regulæ ad directionem ingenii in fact questions the very role artisans play

in Descartes’s philosophy. Rule I opposes widening the established (and essentially

artisanal) use of habitus to the realm of scientia. Habitus, i.e. the “bodily aptitude and

practice” of artisans, first and foremost secures proficiency in individual arts; it is

connected to the uniqueness of ars, each and every art requiring a set of bodily deftness

and movements (gestes) ordinarily distinct from one artisanal practice to another. 229 Yet

Aristotle developed this conception of art into a habitus scientiarum, a notion to which

Aquinas, Suárez, and Eustachius a Sancto Paulo’s philosophies adhered, fragmenting

scientia into a multiplicity of independent knowledge-components, each imposing their

own special intellectual skills and training. Akin to the various arts every science—

knowledge—is created unique and is said to possess its proper system of principles in

order to ensure logical and coherent deductive links between objects of a same genus. 230

The Aristotelian model of an ideal science thus involved, by definition, a collection of

principles that were non transferable to any other science, just as habitus was exclusive to

either the farmer or the cithara player in Descartes’s well-known example. 231

As Descartes explains, “for one man cannot turn his hand to both farming and harp-playing
[cithara], or to several different tasks of this kind, as easily as he can to just one of them.” Descartes,
Regulæ ad directionem ingenii, AT, x:359-360; CSM, i:9.
“Habituum autem varia sunt genera, alii enim sunt animi, alii vero corporis.” Eustachius a
Sancto Paulo, Summa philosophica quadripartita, 2 vols (Lyon, 1609), ii:121. See Etienne Gilson, Index
scolastico-cartésien (Paris, 1912), s.v. habitus. Descartes, Règles utiles et claires pour la direction de
l’esprit en la recherche de la vérité, ed. and transl. by Jean-Luc Marion (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1977), 90-91.
“Arithmetical demonstration and the other sciences likewise possess, each of them, their own
genera; so that if the demonstration is to pass from one sphere to another, the genus must be either
absolutely or to some extent the same. If this is not so, transference is clearly impossible, because the
extreme and the middle terms must be drawn from the same genus: otherwise, as predicated, they will not
be essential and will thus be accidents.” Aristotle, Posterior analytics I.7. The Internet Classics Archives

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

Descartes argued forcefully in Rule I against the generalization of habitus because

“the knowledge of one truth does not, like skill in one art, hinder us from discovering

another; on the contrary it helps us.” Descartes instead gave credence in Rule I to the

unity of scientia, i.e. to the idea of an interconnectedness of knowledge commensurate

with the universal wisdom. 232 Hence, to liken the artisan’s habitus to scientia was sterile

and vain “since what makes us stray from the correct way of seeking the truth is chiefly

our ignoring the general end of universal wisdom and directing our studies towards some

particular ends.” 233 Rather, it should be “acknowledged that all the sciences are so closely

interconnected that it is much easier to learn them all together than to separate one from

the other.” To seek true knowledge, therefore, one must avoid the study of particular

sciences and try instead to “increase the natural light of his reason,” which will not only

help solve this or that scholastic problem, but also show the will “what decision it ought

to make in each of life’s contingencies.” 234 In contrast to the multiplicity of arts there was

only one science for Descartes, one universal knowledge guided by an all-encompassing

wisdom. In other words, habitus was to the uniqueness of ars what wisdom was to the

unity of scientia. 235

Although the character of habitus is unequivocal in Rule I, I would suggest it was

<classics.mit.edu> (accessed on 3 August 2005). A very good discussion is found in Peter Dear, Discipline
and experience: The mathematical way in the Scientific Revolution (Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 1995), 36-46.
On the interconnectedness of knowledge as one of the central components of Descartes’s
project, Daniel Garber, Descartes’s metaphysical physics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press,
Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:359-361; CSM, i:9-10 for the quotes.
Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:361; CSM, i:10.
On the uniqueness of ars and unity of scientia, Jean-Luc Marion, Sur l’ontologie grise de
Descartes. Science cartésienne et savoir aristotélicien dans les Regulæ, 2nd edn (Paris: Vrin, 1981), 25-30.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

not utterly useless and purposeless to the Cartesian method of knowledge production.

Looking beyond the uniqueness of habitus, to the higher ground of methodology, one can

witness how artisanal practices actually bring to light Descartes’s epistemology of

rational knowledge, namely the concept of order underpinning the Cartesian method. The

method is rarely described as a bona fide logic of practice. As such the method—not yet a

metaphysics in the Regulæ—takes place prior to any theoretical or experimental activity

of natural philosophy; it lies at the foundation of all Cartesian knowledge. 236 Within the

method are embedded a series of well-defined logical rules one has to learn and—more

importantly—learn to follow; being familiar with them does not guarantee success on the

path to true knowledge. Consequently one has to practice, to train in the method, because

without practice it remains a mere jeu de l’esprit. Descartes wrote that the method

consisted “more in practice than theory,” and that the ultimate aim of the Discours de la

méthode was to uncover “a practical philosophy which might replace the speculative

philosophy taught in the schools.” 237 Accordingly, the four-rule method unveiled in the

Discours—summarizing the Regulæ—was not to be taught but rather was to be

continually exercised, Descartes himself being compelled to “practice [it] constantly ... in

Jean-Luc Marion suggests that the Regulæ contain the seeds of the Cartesian metaphysics as
found in the Meditations, but it does not then unfold because Descartes was unable to properly order the
intellectual simple natures with the common simple natures. Marion, “Cartesian metaphysics and the role
of the simple natures,” in The Cambridge companion to Descartes, ed. by John Cottingham (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1992), 115-139.
Descartes to Marin Mersenne, March 1637?, AT, i:349. Descartes, Discours de la méthode,
AT, vi:61; CSM, i:142. In a very insightful analysis of Descartes’s famous anaclastic line, Daniel Garber
shows how the programmatic statement of the method can be reconciled with a theory of practice.
Following closely this example Garber explains that what the method gives is a “workable procedure for
discovering an appropriate path” between the reductive steps the knower has to take from a question asked
to the actual intuitus, in this case, of a potentia naturalis. From there, the constructive steps (deductions)
take us back to the question asked, for which we are now in possession of certain knowledge. Garber,
Descartes’s metaphysical physics, 35-36 (emphasis original). For a very helpful diagram, see Garber,
“Descartes and experiment in the Discourse and Essays,” in Descartes embodied, 85-110, on p. 100.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

order to strengthen myself more and more in its use.” 238

This emphasis on practice was not merely rhetorical; through such a practical

philosophy the power and action of all things would be known “as distinctly as we know

the various crafts of our artisans.” 239 Although Descartes belittled habitus as a legitimate

approach of knowledge production, he found an inherent logic beyond the observable

gestures of artisans, an artisanal logic that could help natural philosophers acquiring a

universal method. Descartes explained in Rules IX and X of the Regulæ “how we can

make our employment of intuitus and deductio more skilful,” and by the same token

“how to cultivate two special mental faculties, viz. perspicacity [perspicacitas] in the

distinct intuition of particular things and discernment [sagacitas] in the methodical

deduction of one thing from another.” 240 Perspicacitas is linked to intuitus, the certain

experientia of Rule III, as the natural mental ability to concentrate “upon the most

insignificant and easiest of matters” and to focus intensively “to acquire the habit of

intuiting the truth distinctly and clearly.” Descartes contended that “[s]ome people of

course are born with a much greater aptitude for this sort of insight than others; but our

minds can become much better equipped for it through method and practice.” Artisans,

for instance, “who engage in delicate operations, and are used to fixing their eyes on a

single point, acquire through practice the ability to make perfect distinctions between

Descartes, Discours de la méthode, AT, vi:22; CSM, i:122. Descartes emphasizes the same
point a few pages later: “Moreover, I continued practising the method I had prescribed for myself. Besides
taking care in general to conduct all my thoughts according to its rules, I set aside some hours now and
again to apply it more particularly to mathematical problems.” (AT, vi:29; CSM, i:125) See also Descartes,
Règles utiles et claires pour la direction de l’esprit, 208. A more detailed and somewhat similar analysis is
given in Peter A. Schouls, Descartes and the possibility of science (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000),
Descartes, Discours de la méthode, AT, vi:61-62; CSM, i:142-143.
Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:400; CSM, i:33.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

things, however minute and delicate.” 241

Perspicacitas was not a bodily disposition acquired through time and hands-on

practice: it was rather a mental faculty innate to every thinking being. Artisans were not

the only people endowed with such a power of perception. 242 However, according to

Descartes, their habitus—the ability, for instance, to fix one’s eyes on a single point—

illustrated best how to attune one’s own inherent perspicacitas. Echoing Renaissance

humanists who urged natural philosophers to enter the craftsman’s workshops and study

the practice of their trade, Descartes suggested that the capacity to distinguish the most

minute and delicate of things—to intuit the common simple natures—is strengthened by

the action of artisanal practices. 243 The gestural knowledge of artisans could not by itself

produce ideas, yet it could exhibit courses of action that guided the mind towards


Regarding sagacitas, Descartes’s other constitutive mental faculty, Rule X

stipulates that in order to acquire it one should “methodically survey even the most

insignificant products of human skill, especially those which display or presuppose

order.” In line with perspicacitas, sagacitas—the mental skill to exercise deductio—can

be aptly brought to light from the arts and crafts:

Since not all minds have such a natural disposition to puzzle things out by their
own exertions, the message of this Rule is that we must not take up the more
difficult and arduous issues immediately, but must first tackle the simplest and

Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:400-402; CSM, i:33-34.
Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:371; CSM, i:16. Descartes maintains that “the power of judging well
and of distinguishing the true from the false—which is what we properly call ‘good sense’ or ‘reason’—is
naturally equal in all men.” Descartes, Discours de la méthode, AT, vi:2; CSM, i:111.
The classic reference remains Paolo Rossi, Philosophy, technology, and the arts in the early
modern era, transl. by Salvator Attanasio (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970). A more sophisticated
analysis has recently been published by Smith, The body of the artisan.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

least exalted arts, and especially those in which order prevails—such as weaving
and carpet-making, or the more feminine arts of embroidery, in which threads are
interwoven in an infinitely varied pattern. Number-games and any games
involving arithmetic, and the like, belong here. It is surprising how much all these
activities exercise our minds, provided of course we discover them for ourselves
and not from others. For, since nothing in these activities remains hidden and they
are totally adapted to human cognitive capacities, they present us in the most
distinct way with innumerable instances of order, each one different from the
other, yet all regular. Human discernment [sagacitas] consists almost entirely in
the proper observance of such order. 244

Sagacitas directly followed perspicacitas: it was the crucial mental faculty that put in

series what perspicacitas had discovered. If perspicacitas, which aimed at “attentively

noting in all things that which is absolute in the highest degree,” is truly the “whole secret

of the art,” sagacitas was indispensable in figuring out the chain of inferences from the

most absolute to the most relative of things. 245 And to create flawless chains of inferences

Descartes knew no better way “than by accustoming ourselves to reflecting with some

discernment [cum quâdam sagacitate reflectere] on the minute details of the things we

have already perceived.” 246 Referring once again to the most unassuming of artisans

reinforced the epistemic connection between what lied beyond habitus and the way minds

should be disciplined. 247

Descartes’s artisanal knowledge-making model diverged from the scholastic

weapons of choice, syllogisms. To rid philosophy of unproven truth-producing premises,

Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:404; CSM, i:35.
Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:382; CSM, i:22.
Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:384; CSM, i:23.
According to Jean-Luc Marion, Descartes would have used in French the word “adresse”—and
not “sagacité,” which is close to “perspicacité”—to designate this mental faculty, a word the natural
philosopher happily applied to both mechanical and mental skills. For instance, “il faut de l’adresse et de
l’habitude pour faire et pour ajuster les machines que j’ai décrites,” and “savoir joindre l’adresse de la main
à celle de l’esprit.” Descartes, Discours de la méthode, AT, vi:77 and Descartes to Huygens, 1 November
1635, AT, i:330, respectively. Descartes, Règles utiles et claires pour la direction de l’esprit, 208-209.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

he created a new method inspired by a general and inherent logic of practice found within

habitus. Although the School’s training in syllogism was better than nothing (given that it

exercised the minds of the young—which without guidance “might head towards a

precipice”), Descartes refocused the scholar’s attention on the artisanal practices, on the

things that were “perfectly known and incapable of being doubted.” 248 The method,

Descartes explained,

cannot go so far as to teach us how to perform the actual operations of intuitus

and deductio, since these are the simplest of all and quite basic. If our intellect
were not already able to perform them, it would not comprehend any of the rules
of the method, however easy they might be. 249

The Cartesian method did not teach how to use intuitus and deductio, both being natural

abilities. The method was rather created to instruct how mastery of these two innate

powers could be achieved. This meant the introduction, use and continual exercise of

matter-of-fact mental faculties such as perspicacitas and sagacitas, their proficiency

drawing from basic mathematics and down-to-earth artisanal practices.

Artisanal practices, however, were not to be studied for their own sake, but as

exemplary practices of the method. Take, for instance, Descartes’s example of

blacksmithing. If first deprived of all the instruments of his trade the blacksmith—like

any artisan exercising a self-supporting mechanical art—initially uses either a hard rock

or an unformed mass of iron as an anvil, a stone as a hammer, pincers made of wood, and

other rudimentary tools he might need to begin working. Of course, he will not start

making swords, helmets, and metallic artefacts immediately, but rather will fabricate an

Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:362-364; CSM, i:10-11. In the Discours Descartes mentions that he
did not “cease to value the exercises done in the Schools.” Descartes, Discours de la méthode, AT, vi:5;
CSM, i:113.
Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:372; CSM, i:16.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

anvil, all sorts of hammers, pincers and metallic tools necessary to his trade. Only then

will the blacksmith be in a position to undertake the production of commodities. This

example taken from Rule VIII teaches that unmethodical and inconsistent operations

should be proscribed to create merchandise—or to solve mathematical problems and

settle philosophical disputes. 250 Here Descartes did not emphasize the blacksmith’s

bodily skills in making tools, swords or helmets—and he certainly did not try to improve

those skills per se. Rather, he focused on the blacksmith’s working method and orderly

approach towards the production of materials. The method, seen through the eyes of this

mechanical art, becomes an unbroken “mechanical” thinking process, one that is

methodical and intended for a specific goal. Nothing is left to chance, random practices

or accidental judgements. 251 In this well-known example, producing Cartesian knowledge

and producing artisanal goods look as though they fundamentally came from one and the

same logic of practice, the function of an ordered thinking process.


The question of order is undeniably one of the most important in the Regulæ and the

Discours. In fact, it underlies the Cartesian logic of practice: “The whole method consists

entirely in the ordering and arranging of the objects on which we must concentrate our

Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:397; CSM, i:31.
The “continuous and wholly uninterrupted sweep of thought” refers to Rule VII and is part of
Descartes’s theory of order. On the mechanical thinking process, this could explain some of Descartes’s
strange assertion like: “Ce qui cadre beaucoup avec ma manière de philosopher, et qui revient
merveilleusement à toutes les expériences mécaniques que j’ai faites de la nature à ce sujet.” Descartes to
Villebressieu, summer 1631, AT, i:217. See also Descartes to Froidmont, 3 October 1637, AT, i:420-421.
Descartes, Règles utiles et claires pour la direction de l’esprit, 204.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

mind’s eye if we are to discover some truth.” 252 The preceding example of the blacksmith

(forgeron in French) is by no mean random: if we cannot discern an apparent order, we

have to mentally forge one (sed tamen aliquem fingemus, or forger un ordre) by the

power of cogitatio. 253 Rule IV of the Regulæ accounts for the full meaning of order,

embedded in the concept of mathesis universalis and established as the bedrock of

Descartes’s logic of practice. Since the study of Jean-Paul Weber Rule IV is often

divided into two parts. 254 The rule is said to have been written at two different times and

to bear two different purposes: the question and search for certainty through a method in

IV-A (1619), and the establishment of an even more general mathesis as the universal—

and mathematical—way to certain knowledge in IV-B (1628). Jean-Luc Marion,

however, has convincingly shown that this dichotomy is merely apparent. What unites the

methodical search for certainty to the mathematical model of knowledge is the more

abstract notion of the mathématicité of mathematics, the intrinsic order of mathematics.

The Cartesian mathesis, contrary to what is generally believed, is not grounded in

mathematics per se, but rather in a universal abstraction articulated from the orderly

nature of mathematics. Descartes in Rule IV is trying to stretch truth and certainty

beyond the realm of mathematics, to the entire body of human knowledge (scientia). As

he explained in the same rule “When I considered the matter more closely, I came to see

that the exclusive concern of mathesis [ad Mathesim] is with questions of order or

Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:379; CSM, i:20.
Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:404; CSM, i:35, where it is translated as “to invent an order.” For a
complete discussion see Marion, Sur l’ontologie grise de Descartes, 71-78.
Jean-Paul Weber, La Constitution du texte des Regulæ (Paris: Société d’édition d'enseignement
supérieur, 1964). See also John Schuster, “Descartes’ mathesis universalis, 1619-1628,” in Descartes,
philosophy, mathematics and physics, ed. by Stephen Gaukroger (Sussex: Harvester Press; Totowa, N.J.:
Barnes & Noble Books, 1980), 41-96.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

measure and that it is irrelevant whether the measure in question involves numbers,

shapes, stars, sounds, or any other object whatever.” 255 Mathematics here “merely”

served the purpose of acquiring this science of order: it did not epitomize it. 256

Descartes was thus looking for a new way to establish on a solid philosophical

foundation both non-mathematical (causal) and mathematical (intellectual) objects. This

is the chief objective of Rule IV: to achieve the unity of knowledge. 257 To do so he

required more than mathematics: he needed to uncover the abstract notion of

mathématicité within non-mathematical objects. Rule II makes this exact statement,

asserting that “in seeking the right path of truth we ought to concern ourselves only with

objects which admit of as much certainty as the demonstration of arithmetic and

geometry.” 258 I believe Descartes found the path towards the mathématicité of non-

Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:377-378; CSM, i:19. Marion, Sur l’ontologie grise de Descartes, 55-
69, is perhaps the most sophisticated and persuasive analysis of the mathesis universalis.
This point is made in Rule XIV of the Regulæ: “For the Rules which I am about to expound are
much more readily employed in the study of these sciences [arithmetic and geometry] (where they are all
that is needed) than in any other sort of problem. Moreover, these Rules are so useful in the pursuit of
deeper wisdom that I have no hesitation in saying that this part of our method was designed not for the sake
of mathematical problems; our intention was, rather, that the mathematical problems should be studied
almost exclusively for the sake of the excellent practice which they give us in the method.” Descartes,
Regulæ, AT, x:442; CSM i:58-59. The science of order produced by the mathesis universalis represents
Michel Foucault’s seventeenth-century shift of épistémè. Foucault acknowledges that order does not
necessarily mean an all-out mathematization of knowledge. Foucault, Les Mots et les choses: une
archéologie des sciences humaines (Paris: Gallimard, 1966 [2001]), 71.
Rule IV should be understood as Descartes’s response to the intellectual clash between the
Jesuits Benito Pereira and Christopher Clavius regarding the epistemology of mathematics. Descartes’s
mathesis universalis is neither Pereira’s philosophia prima nor Clavius’s attempt at defending the
philosophical status of mathematics. The mathesis is a highly developed philosophical blend between two
traditions found within the Society of Jesus. Edouard Mehl, Descartes en Allemagne, 1619-1620. Le
contexte allemand de l’élaboration de la science cartésienne (Strasbourg: Presses Universitaires de
Strasbourg, 2001), 243-261. Dear, Discipline and experience, 32-46.
Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:366; CSM, i:12-13. Marion, Sur l’ontologie grise de Descartes, 42:
“L’apparente contradiction ... du privilège préalablement reconnu aux seules mathématiques, plus qu’une
incohérence, traduit le coup de force et l’intention profonde des Regulæ: mettre au jour, à l’encontre de la
constante aristotélicienne, où certitude et ‘physique’ restent inversement proportionnelles, des objets non-
mathématiques (et donc ‘physique’) propres à fournir le même degré (voire un plus grand) de certitude, que
n’en fournit l’objet des mathématiques; considérer comme certain un objet non-mathématique: telle est la

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

mathematical objects within the sphere of habitus.

Because Descartes wanted to deal with non-mathematical objects he could not

fully dispose of habitus. Habitus itself, for instance, meant the bodily disposition of

artisans and musicians to produce specific knowledge. Habitus and its gestural

knowledge, for Descartes, was unique to each ars. But as we have seen with the example

of the blacksmith, the contemplation of mechanical arts permitted the revelation of a

general built-in procedure, a structured discipline that was not pure rational thinking, yet

not a completely disorganized way of creation. he saw in this structured discipline orderly

systems without specific ends, yet not at all chaotic or governed by the mere fortune of

the hands. 259 For example, Descartes witnessed in weavers and embroiderers something

similar to “an infinite yet strictly limited generative capacity” emanating from some

calculated regularities; as an explicit sign of order, they conditioned the artisan’s work

habits. 260 Artisans’ know-how was to some extent organized because it followed a

structured discipline moulded by regulated practices. As long as it administered order—

as in the case of blacksmiths and weavers—such a structured discipline could be drawn

upon to invent a series of epistemic steps leading to the more fundamental mathesis.

These steps in the field of the mechanical arts could be understood as structural exercices,

an overall pedagogical strategy that went further than a trial and error training system.

Descartes’s close attention to object-oriented structural exercises could well explain why

tâche que se fixent les Regulæ, au terme de la seconde [règle].”

I follow here the theoretical idea of structures structurées et structurantes of Pierre Bourdieu,
Le Sens pratique (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1980), 88-89.
Bourdieu, Le Sens pratique, 92. Regarding weaving and other simple arts, “they present us in
the most distinct way with innumerable instances of order, each one different from the other, yet all
regular.” Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:404; CSM, i:35.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

the Cartesian notions of perspicacitas—to find the most absolute of things—and

sagacitas—to put into series—designed to train the mind in the method were illustrated

by both the mathematical disciplines and the mechanical arts. 261

What Descartes dismissed back in Rule I was not habitus per se, but rather the

uniqueness of art, the fact that specific gestes must be learned for each art. Looking

beyond the bodily dispositions of habitus, beyond the uniqueness of the artisanal

techniques, we find a structured discipline leading to one and the same internal logic of

practice. Although each art has its own techniques the structured discipline found within

habitus is based on a unity of practice, a theoretical framework suitable for all matters of

art. It is through this abstract and more general understanding of habitus—the

mathématicité of non-mathematical objects—that Descartes fashioned to a certain extent

the unity of practice found in the mathesis universalis. Ars and scientia are not as

alienated in Cartesian knowledge as they are usually thought to be.


In La Recherche de la verité Descartes points out that “enough truth can be known in

each subject to satisfy amply the curiosity of orderly souls [âmes réglées].” 262 The

pursuit of knowledge must be guided by an orderly soul, which ought not search for

“those simple [and textual] forms of knowledge which can be acquired without any

On exercices structuraux Bourdieu, Le Sens pratique, 126. Interestingly enough, perspicacitas
and sagacitas as exercices structuraux for the mind find a correspondence in the mechanical arts that not
even Francis Bacon dared contemplate. To Lord Verulam “The human mind is misled by looking at what is
done in the mechanical arts, in which bodies are entirely changed by composition and separation, into
supposing that something similar also happens in the universal nature of things.” Francis Bacon, The new
organon, ed. by Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000),
aphorism LXVI, 53.
Descartes, La Recherche de la verité, AT, x:500; CSM, ii:402.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

process of reasoning, such as languages, history, geography and in general any subject

which rests on experience alone” but should rather inquire into “ordinary facts about

which everyone has heard”—and which artisans are thoroughly accustomed to. 263 A

closer look at Descartes’s early writings shows the artisan emerging under a more

nuanced and fundamental light. In fact, I claim, the artisan in the Regulæ should not be

seen as an amenable aide but rather as a powerful epistemic model to the production of

rational knowledge. Remarkably enough, some of the most unassuming and mechanical

artisans are converted into archetypal models of rational discipline and orderly thoughts.

However, it is the concept of artisan and artisanal practices that characterizes the

Cartesian method. The artisan as genuine homo faber is transformed in Descartes’s

writings into an idealization, a disembodied epistemic metaphor compelled by order. The

body techniques, the gestural knowledge of practices are completely dropped and

superseded by an abstract rationalization, an âme réglée, which communicates a new

theoretical understanding of the practice of natural philosophy. 264 The Cartesian artisan

becomes not so much “invisible” as s/he becomes “ideal.”

The chief characteristic of Cartesian artisans is unquestionably their condition of

being “properly mechanic” individuals. 265 Descartes (so far as I know) always used in

Descartes, La Recherche de la verité, AT, x:502-03; CSM, ii:403-04.
The literature on this topic is rich. See, for instance, Marcel Mauss, “Body techniques,” in
Sociology and psychology: essays, ed. by Ben Brewster (London: Routledge, 1979), 97-135 and Otto
Sibum, “Reworking the mechanical value of heat: Instruments of precision and gestures of accuracy in
early Victorian England,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 26 (1995), 73-106.
Charles Loyseau, A treatise of orders and plain dignities, ed. and transl. by Howell A. Lloyd
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994 [1610]), 179-181. Some tradesmen such as “apothecaries,
goldsmiths, jewellers, haberdashers, wholesalers, drapers, hosiers, and others like them,” gained some
prominence because their crafts involved commerce. The latter artisans, who called themselves
“honourable men” and “bourgeois,” were morally superior to other tradesmen whose métiers “consist[ed]
rather in physical labour than in commercial activity or in shrewdness of mind.” Mere manual laborers
were almost by definition the basest artisans of them all since “there is no worse occupation than to have no

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

French, in published and unpublished texts, the word “artisan” rather than “artiste” in

identifying craftsmen. This distinction is clearly not arbitrary and denotes another

epistemic dichotomy between forms of learning and, ultimately, the nature of knowledge

ascertained. Socially and etymologically speaking artisan and artiste meant essentially the

same thing in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (both derived from the Latin

artifex). 266 To Descartes, however, an “artiste” was and remained someone who dealt

with the Grand Art, or alchemy, one of these “false sciences” for which he knew enough

about “to be liable not to be deceived” by their promises. 267 Marin Mersenne believed

that such artistes were in a position to assist natural philosophers, although his confidence

they would eventually do so was low. 268 Nonetheless, behind the substantive “artisan”

Descartes recommended we look specifically at the mechanical arts and their

practitioners—not at alchemists and Paracelsians—in order to acquire an orderly soul.

The Cartesian artisan, therefore, was not guided by an “epistemology of the hunt.”

occupation.” To qualify as a honnête homme an artisan had to leave the manual labor almost entirely to
others, thus transforming himself into a merchant.
See Jean Nicot, Thresor de la langue française (1606) where one can read under artisan:
“Artisan, ou Artiste, Artifex, Opifex.” L’Académie française made the distinction we are accustomed to use
today only in 1762: “artiste, celui qui travaille dans un art où le génie et la main doivent concourir (un
peintre, un architecte sont des artistes); l’artisan est un ouvrier dans un art mécanique, un homme de
métier.” Le Grand Robert de la langue française, ed. by Alain Rey, s.v. artisan. For a historical analysis of
this significant shift, Larry Shiner, The invention of art: A cultural history (Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 2001), 99-120. Jean de La Fontaine, for instance, in one of his fables—Le Lion abattu par
l’homme—used “artisan” to describe a painter.
Descartes, Discours de la méthode, AT, vi:9; CSM, i:115. In the Furetière and Académie
française dictionaries, “artiste” is used especially to portray alchemists. In the Middle Ages, it became
common to name “artistes” (or sometimes artiens) those who studied the liberal arts—scholars en
devenir—and “artifex” those who practiced the mechanical arts. Shiner, The invention of art, 30.
“Ce que l’on pourroit desirer d’eux [Peripateticiens] (au cas qu’ils voulussent ayder à establir la
vraye Philosophie) consiste seulement à dresser des memoires fidelles des leurs obseruations, & de leurs
experiences: ce qu’il ne faut pas esperer iusqu’à ce que les honnestes hommes s’employent à cet art, &
iusques à ce que les Artistes & Operateurs ayent quitté l’imagination de la poudre de projection, de la
Magnesie des sages, & de la pierre Philosophique.” Mersenne, Qvestions inovyes, ov recreation des
sçavans (Paris, 1634; facsimile Stuttgart: F. Frommann, 1972), question xxviii, 126-127.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

Unconstrained by a pure perception of order this “venatic methodology,” as described by

William Eamon, is “a kind of practical intelligence based upon acquired skill, experience,

subtle wit, and quick judgment: in short, cunning.” 269 The venatic methodology was

needed, it was believed, to chase the signs and clues, the signatures of substances and

materials, so as to pick the scent and as a result uncover these secrets—the modern

facts—“tucked snugly in under the blanket of scientia.” Cunning, or mêtis as known to

the Greeks, supplanted orderly thoughts. 270 In Descartes’s judgment, artistes rather than

artisans possessed and exercised such a mêtis; one could say they were endowed with an

âme déréglée. When Descartes contemplated artisans in the early 1620s he saw

something completely different: no venatio, no conjectural knowledge, no cunning, only

a pure and uncompromising order in their logic of practice.

The “idea of artisan” is of course not original to Descartes. In the Platonic tradition the

Creator of the world and man was symbolized by a craftsman—namely a Demiurge—

imposing order onto Nature from the universal chaos. Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue

Gorgias, asserted the relevance of artisans in enlightening such a tale of creation:

The craftsmen having their eye on their task do not select and apply to it at
random what they apply; rather they see to it that their work comes to have a
definite form [eidos]. For instance, painters, house builders, shipwrights, and all
other craftsmen whomever you wish to choose, place all things in some order and
compel one part to suit another and to harmonize with it until the whole thing as
they fashion it has order and beautiful organization.

William Eamon, Science and the secrets of nature: Books of secrets in medieval and early
modern culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 281.
Eamon, Science and the secrets of nature, 284. On the concept of mêtis more generally, Marcel
Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, Les Ruses de l’intelligence. La mètis des Grecs (Paris: Flammarion,

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

Artisans, trying to reach ideal Forms, systematized the mechanical arts as the Demiurge

did with Nature’s matter. Order was thus inherent neither in the arts nor in Nature: it was

imposed from outside, from an external cause, from a demiourgos. In the Aristotelian

tradition, conversely, Nature herself followed an orderly purpose. Nature’s own innate

craftsmanship turned into the attribute to which artisans were now referred: ars imitatur

naturam. Whereas Aristotle used the artisan as a powerful analogy to illustrate, confirm,

and justify nature’s modus operandi Plato’s Demiurge qua craftsman was a full blown

epistemic representation of nature as a machine, orderly built like any other invention

from the mechanical arts. 271

For Descartes Nature could not act as a model leading to the mathesis. The

mathesis was instead at the origins of the “grande mécanique de la nature.”

Rediscovering the mathesis (suppressed “with a kind of pernicious cunning” from the

writings of the Ancients, as artisans customarily do with their own inventions 272 ) is to

uncover how the universe was built and set in motion—the great Cartesian fables of Le

Monde and L’Homme. Art did not imitate nature; art and nature were rather guided by a

more general mathesis. According to Descartes, anyone endowed with this science of

order would not have to bodily struggle with matter and ars. Such a struggle with reality

was indicative of a disorder in knowledge-making practices. Artisans and artistes

labouring, toiling in the workshops, manipulating and transforming matter through sweat,

burns, grease, and heat “practiced knowing … that constituted a bodily engagement with

Friedrich Solmsen, “Nature as craftsman in Greek thought,” Journal of the History of Ideas 24
(1963), 473-496 (Plato, Gorgias, 503e, quoted on p. 484). See also Bertrand Gille, Les Mécaniciens grecs.
La naissance de la technologie (Paris: Seuil, 1980). On Aristotle and his legacy, Smith, The body of the
Descartes, Regulæ, AT, x:375-377; CSM, i:18-19.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

nature.” To Descartes, it merely gave them the illusion of acquiring a first-hand

understanding of reality. This “artisanal epistemology,” epitomized by the practices of

alchemy, and especially by the writings of Paracelsus, went against the approach of an

orderly soul. 273 The Cartesian âme réglée was only concerned with strategies inculcated

by the mathématicité of the mathesis, which was not derived from the gestural knowledge

of artisanal practices but from the inbuilt structured discipline of habitus.

Take another of Descartes’s paradigmatic examples from the Regulæ, weaving.

The choice of this craft is historically charged and once again not taken randomly. In

France, after the devastation caused by the Wars of Religion, the Bourbon economic

restoration instigated by Henry IV was wholly felt within the textile industry. In Beauvais

alone, 700 to 800 looms were continuously in operation, employing roughly half of the

city’s population in the first half the seventeenth century. Dijon was even more important

as a ville drapante, surpassed only by the several new manufactures opening at that time

in the Parisian region. 274 Interestingly enough the technological design of the horizontal

loom had not changed significantly since its introduction in the twelfth century. This

technical revolution was significant for at least one medieval philosopher. Five centuries

before Descartes’s birth weaving became one of Hugh of St. Victor’s archetypes of the

mechanical arts, inspired from the trivium and quadrivium of the liberal arts. Hugh

argued in his Didascalicon for a division between ratio (wisdom, order) and

Smith, The body of the artisan, esp. chaps 4 and 5 (quote on p. 142).
Pierre Goubert, Beauvais et le Beauvaisis de 1600 à 1730: contribution à l’histoire sociale de
la France du XVIIe siècle (Paris: S. E. V. P. E. N, 1960), 281-82, 585. Pierre Deyon, “Variations de la
production textile aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles,” Annales: ESC 18 (1963), 921-55. James R. Farr, Hand of
honor: Artisans and their world in Dijon, 1550-1650 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988). Henri Heller,
Labour, science and technology in France, 1500-1620 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996),
chap. 6.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

administratio (actual practices) in the mechanical arts, maintaining that a ratio of

mechanical origins should also be regarded as an integral part of philosophy. 275

Descartes, half a millennium later, similarly saw ratio—not just the actual gestes of

administratio—behind the mechanical arts, what we associated with the structured

discipline of habitus.

Weavers on their looms actually did not bodily struggle with the machine and the fabric,

as Descartes may have himself noticed. In fact, such bodily struggles would have resulted

in a poor quality of the manufactured goods since everything about mechanical weaving

was governed by a strict order of procedure and the smooth, continuous and regular

movements of the couple man/woman-machine (mostly women until the fifteenth

century). (Notice here two fundamental concepts of the Regulæ: order [Rule IV] and

regular and uninterrupted motion [Rule VII].) To achieve the best quality of draperies

weavers had to become one with the machine, as if they were just another link in the

great chain (tela) driving the looms. (This body-machine symbiosis was so manifest that

weavers were often called telier in old French and teler in old English.) The body and

hands-on experience of weavers did not by themselves guarantee excellence; one needed

to look instead at the orderly and uninterrupted movements of the body-machine entity

taken as a whole. Weavers in Descartes’s observation and contemplation became an

abstraction of order owing to their symbiosis with a mechanical device. Their orderly

souls thus emanated naturally from the technology of weaving. 276 (See figure 2.1.)

Roger Baron, Science et sagesse chez Hugues de Saint-Victor (Paris: Lethielleux, 1957), 60-87.
Dominique Cardon, La Draperie au Moyen Âge. Essor d’une grande industrie européenne
(Paris: CNRS, 1999), 416-417, 539-563. See also Giorgio Israel, “Des Regulæ à la Géométrie,” Revue
d’histoire des sciences 51 (1998), 183-236, where he discusses the role of weaving in Descartes’s thinking.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

Although Descartes skillfully used the artisan as a rhetorical trope there is no

indication he himself ever dabbled with crafts or worked with artisans before his optical

days in Paris in the mid 1620s. 277 We know that when he left the Collège La Flèche to

travel around Europe, to find knowledge “in the great book of the world,” he mixed “with

people of diverse temperaments and ranks [diuerses humeurs & conditions],” which no

doubt suggests some acquaintances with artisans and instrument makers. 278 In Holland,

particularly, the collective embarrassment of riches and the Baconian style of natural

philosophy caught his eyes. 279

There, during his well-known stay with Isaac Beeckman in 1618, he realized that

scientia and ars should not be subordinated to one another; he recognized that both were

needed in concert to reveal the true nature of the world. 280 As the first “physico-

mathematici” in Europe, Beeckman and Descartes claimed, they tried—in the hydrostatic

According to Adrien Baillet, if Descartes had been raised in a condition allowing him to
become an artisan, he would have been a skillful one because, we learn, he had in his youth a particular
inclination for the arts. Like so many other such claims made by Baillet this one could be utterly wrong, or
at best a misinterpretation. Adrien Baillet, La Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes, 2 vols (Paris, 1691), i:35.
Geneviève Rodis-Lewis believes Baillet has his chronology wrong here. This remark should be associated
to a much later phase in Descartes’s life. Rodis-Lewis, “Descartes’ life and the development of his
philosophy,” in The Cambridge companion to Descartes, 21-57, on p. 26. Descartes himself often
contradicts Baillet’s assertion. He said, for instance, that he was born without any manual abilities: “pour
moy … i’estois venu au monde sans mains.” Descartes to ***, [Nov.-Dec. 1638?], AT, ii:452.
Descartes, Discours de la méthode, AT, vi:9; CSM, i:115. On the role of travel during the early
modern period, see the remarkable opus by Daniel Roche, Humeurs vagabondes. De la circulation des
hommes et de l’utilité des voyages (Paris: Fayard, 2003).
Simon Schama, The embarrassment of riches: An interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden
Age (New York: Vintage, 1997). On Dutch Baconianism, Svetlana Alpers, The art of describing: Dutch art
in the seventeenth century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983), esp. chap. 1. Smith, The body
of the artisan, esp. chaps 5 and 6.
This is first thing Beeckman writes down in his Journal: “Quæritur cur artes inter se non sint
subordinatæ…” On the importance of both scientia and ars, he also writes down on the first page of the
Journal: “Ad excitandum artium studium illud maximè faceret, si immunitates alicujus vectigalis etc. ijs
qui Euclidis Elementa intelligerent, promitterentur. Quibus bene intellectis, pauci cætera studia negligerent,
etiam in medijs occupationibus mechanicis.” Isaac Beeckman, Journal tenu par Isaac Beeckman de 1604 à
1634, ed. by Cornélis de Waard, 4 vols (The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1939-1953), i:1 for both quotes.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

manuscript for example—to unify the mathematical study of nature with true ontological,

corpuscular-mechanical, causes. Trained in the candle making and water-conduit laying

trades Beeckman was able to theorize his hands-on knowledge of the mechanical arts in

order to raise to the realm of concepts the operations of artisans and machines. “What


Ellen Harlizius-Klück, a resident scholar at the Deutsches Museum, is working in 2006 on an early
eighteenth-century German book on textile patterns (based on a previous book dated 1677) that
demonstrates precisely the orderly fashion (and not the randomness) with which these “threads are
interwoven in an infinitely varied pattern,” to quote Descartes again. Her work (and similar analyses
done by computer scientists, see: www.handweaving.net) shows that these textile patterns were
rationalized in such a way that simple mathematical equations can be derived from the lines and dots
printed in the book and destined to guide the weavers’ hands on the mechanical looms. Textile patterns,
therefore, were an artisanal form of reason, one that appears to have been noticed by Descartes. The
book was by Nathanael Lumscher, Neu eingerichtetes Weber Kunst und Bild Buch… (Bayreuth, 1708).
I would like to thank Dr. Harlizius-Klück for sharing her research with me.

Beeckman was demanding in natural philosophy was the application of the criteria of

meaningful communication between mechanical artisans—the appeal to a pictorial or

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

imaginable structure of parts whose motions are controlled within a putative theory of

mechanics.” 281 Beeckman gave the initial impetus to Descartes’s later contention that the

mechanical arts could function as a methodological guideline for the purpose of

discovering the laws of nature.

Before leaving Holland Descartes invented his proportional compass, this simple

instrument that altered how he thought about mathematics. 282 In Germany a few months

later, he did more than remain in his “stone-heated room” and dream about a mirabilis

scientiæ fundamenta: he sought the company of mathematicians such as Johannes

Faulhaber and Peter Roth, and most probably conferred with the instrument maker and

mathematical practitioner Benjamin Bramer and Jost Bürgi. 283 Late in the 1610s

Descartes adopted a mathematical practice that was by no means strange nor unrewarding

to those searching for the foundation of a new natural philosophy. It has been for the last

twenty years Jim Bennett’s contention that the mechanical philosophy was not solely an

intellectual construction, but something that was founded with the help of “mechanics,”

Stephen Gaukroger and John Schuster, “The hydrodynamic paradox and the origins of
Cartesian dynamics,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 23 (2002), 535-572, quote on p.
552. For a general appraisal of the Beeckman-Descartes relationship, Gaukroger, Descartes: An intellectual
biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), chap. 3; Klaas van Berkel, “Descartes’ debt to Beeckman:
Inspiration, cooperation, conflict,” in Descartes’ natural philosophy, ed. by Stephen Gaukroger, John
Schuster, and John Sutton (London: Routledge, 2000), 46-59. The classic work on Beeckman remains Van
Berkel, Isaac Beeckman (1588-1637) en de mechanisering van het wereldbeeld (Amsterdam: Rodopi,
1983), 217-235 for the role of technology in Beeckman’s thinking.
Gaukroger, Descartes: An intellectual biography, 92-103. John A. Schuster, Descartes and the
scientific revolution, 1618-1634: An interpretation, 2 vols (Ph.D. Dissertation, Princeton University, 1977),
i:117-127. Henk J. M. Bos, “On the representation of curves in Descartes’ géométrie,” Archives for the
History of Exact Sciences 24 (1981), 295-338. Michel Serfati, “Les compas cartésiens,” Archives de
philosophie 56 (1993), 197-230.
Baillet, La Vie de M. Des-cartes, i:67-70 on meeting the two mathematicians. On Bramer and
his instruments, Descartes, Cogitationes privatæ, AT, x:241-242. The best analysis of Descartes in
Germany and the significance of this sojourn is Mehl, Descartes en Allemagne. See also William R. Shea,
The magic of numbers and motion: The scientific career of René Descartes (Canton, MA: Science History
Publications, U.S.A., 1991), 103-107.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

those whose job focused on applying the mathematical sciences. Bennett demonstrates

how the practical mathematical sciences were transformed, through the use of

instruments, into legitimate natural philosophical knowledge. In describing this contract

between practice and knowledge, Bennett has recently drew on the notion of “virtue” to

encompass both integrity and effectiveness of action. As he explains, “the integrity of the

grounding of an instrument or of a practical technique in geometrical science ensures its

efficiency as well as the certainty of its results.” In this context, both instrument and

operator become grounded in the mathematical sciences. “In a sense,” Bennett continues,

“mathematics is ‘embodied,’ in instrument and operator; it is founded on a science

rendered applicable through virtuous instruments and through codes of practice mastered

by the expert practitioner.” In other words late sixteenth-century mechanics stood for an

epistemic culture that comprised mathematical practitioners, their instruments and the

scientia of geometry. Descartes’s idea of artisans endowed with orderly souls has to some

extent a foundation in this late Renaissance epistemic culture. 284

Descartes employed to his advantage the trope of artisans (whether weavers or

blacksmiths) because their ratio appeared universal, reaching the mathématicité of

mathematics. Descartes’s few years spent in Paris in the mid 1620s, however, would

significantly modify this methodological point of view. He soon shifted his portrayal of

artisans; he began to see them as individuals possessing unreliable bodily dispositions, in

serious need of a rigorous rational training in the logic of practice. This change of heart

was due to Descartes’s direct dealings (at long last) with artisans.

Bennett, “The mechanics’ philosophy and the mechanical philosophy”; Bennett, “Geometry in
context in the sixteenth century: The view from the museum,” Early Science and Medicine 7 (2002), 214-
230, quotes on pp. 229-230. On epistemic culture see Karin Knorr-Cetina, Epistemic cultures: How the
sciences make knowledge (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]


Descartes’s most celebrated achievement during his Parisian sojourn in the mid 1620s

was the elaboration of the law of refraction, demonstrating that the anaclastic line was

Kepler’s hyperboloid. How he discovered the sine law has been the subject of several

conjectures over the past two decades. 285 For our purpose we need only to emphasize the

fact that Descartes was lucky enough to study with possibly one of the best Parisian

géomètres and optical practitioners of the time, the bourgeois Claude Mydorge. Mersenne

thought approvingly of Mydorge as a mathematician and draughtsman, praising the latter

many times in the second book of his Questiones celeberrimæ in genesim, dedicated to

conic sections and the fabrication of mirrors. 286 Optics and mirrors piqued Mydorge’s

curiosity for intellectual reasons as well as for concerns regarding his social status.

Mirrors of all kinds were a rare luxury before 1630, highly regarded and

expensive objects of self-fashioning for the aristocracy in contact with the French court.

The best accounts are Stephen Gaukroger, Descartes: An intellectual biography, 135-186; John
A. Schuster, “Descartes opticien: The construction of the law of refraction and the manufacture of its
physical rationales,” in Descartes’s natural philosophy, 258-312; Shea, The magic of numbers and motion,
149-163. See A. I. Sabra, Theories of light from Descartes to Newton (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1981), 93-135 for Fermat’s criticisms.
Drawing accurate parabolic mirrors held no secrets to Mydorge, judging from a letter sent by
Robert Cornier to Mersenne, one of the Minim’s early correspondents: “I do not know of any other means
of making parabolic mirrors beyond those with which you are acquainted, especially since you have the
paper of Mr. Mydorge who knows all that can be known on the matter. I can only tell you that Mr.
[Guillaume] Le Vasseur says that he has found an absolutely certain way by the sines. But I cannot say
more since I do not yet know how he goes about it.” Cornier to Mersenne, 18 August [1625], in
Correspondance du Père Marin Mersenne, religieux minime, ed. by Cornélis de Waard, 17 vols (Paris: G.
Beauchesne, 1933-1988), i:260-261. Quoted in Shea, The magic of numbers and motion, 150. This Le
Vasseur was an instrument maker from Rouen, well-known in the region for his work in navigation and
map making. Cornier to Mersenne, 16 January 1626: “Je vous envoie le billet tel que Le Vasseur me l’a
envoyé pour responce à ce que vous me demandiés des longitudes et latitudes.” Correspondance du Père
Marin Mersenne, i:332. See also ibid, 242-243. His method to draw parabolic shapes “by the sines” most
likely has nothing to do with Descartes’s (and Mydorge’s) later determination of the sine law for the
refraction of light. Snel (in the 1620s) and Harriot (ca. 1598) found the same law of refraction, but both
were unknown to Descartes.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

It is probably no exaggeration to state that Mydorge spent as much as 100,000 écus

towards the manufacture of countless mirrors and lenses—considering it was not

uncommon to be acquainted with people who had ruined themselves buying richly

decorated mirrors of all dimensions. 287 Besides natural philosophy, extravagance of that

kind served well Mydorge’s noblesse de robe’s inclination of social climbing contra blue-

blood landed gentry. In fact he became such a master at polishing mirrors that one of

Mersenne’s early correspondents asked whether the Trésorier de France would agree to

pass on the secret of his art. Although Mydorge was a genuine honnête homme—and thus

not inclined to hide his expertise as an artisan would be—a secret like this was too good

to be shared, not so much for profit as for esteem and honour. 288 Whatever Mydorge’s

chief motivation his effort at producing such fancy objects of high Parisian fashion was

central to Descartes’s later formulation and proof of the sine law. 289 Alongside Mydorge

was an instrument maker well known in Mersenne’s circle, and who worked with the

Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, Histoire du miroir (Paris: Imago, 1994), 31-39. At the end of the
century mirrors became objects of common consumption for the noblesse and bourgeoisie alike. On
Mydorge’s disbursement, Baillet, La Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes, ii:326.
Cornier to Mersenne, 16 janvier 1626, “Ce que vous me mandés de l’excellence des miroirs de
M Midorge, me faict souvenir de vous prier de me mander si c’est de sa façon et, si ainsi est, quelle en est
la matiere et la dose.” Cornier to Mersenne, 27 janvier 1626: “Je vous remercie de toute mon affection de la
peone que vous prenés à m’expliquer les miroirs de Mr Midorge et ses opinions. J’euse bien desiré scavoir
son poli, mais puisqu’il se le reserve, il n’en fault point parler. J’en scay quelques uns qui sont bons et dont
j’ay veu l’effect qui, je croy, se peut conduire à une grande perfection.” Correspondance du Père Marin
Mersenne, i:331 and 354 respectively.
On Mydorge’s importance for Descartes as an instrument maker cum natural philosopher,
Baillet writes: “Rien au monde ne luy fut plus utile que ces verres pour connoître & pour expliquer, comme
il a fait depuis dans sa Dioptrique, la nature de la lumiére, de la vision, & de la réfraction. M. Mydorge luy
en fit faire de paraboliques & d’hyperboliques, d’ovales & d’élliptiques. Et comme il avoit la main aussi
sûre & aussi délicate que l’esprit subtil, il voulut décrire luy-même les hyperboles & les éllipses. C’est ce
qui fut d’un secours merveilleux à M. Descartes non seulement pour mieux comprendre qu’il n’avoit fait
jusqu’alors la nature de l’éllipse & de l’hyperbole, leur propriété touchant les réfractions, la maniére dont
on doit les décrire; mais encore pour se confirmer dans plusieurs belles découvertes qu’il avoit déja faites
auparavant touchant la lumiére, & les moyens de perfectionner la vision.” Baillet, La Vie de Monsieur Des-
Cartes, i:149-150.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

premier ingénieur du roy Jacques Aleaume in the early 1620s. 290 It was, naturally, Jean

Ferrier, Descartes’s most famous artisan. 291

According to Adrian Baillet, Ferrier was adroit and most of all esteemed by

Parisian scholars:

This Ferrier mentioned by M. Descartes, probably introduced to him through

Mydorge, was not a simple artisan who only knew how to move his hands. He
understood the theory of his occupation and knew optics and mechanics as well as
any Collège Royal professor. He was not totally unfamiliar with the rest of
mathematics, and in spite of his status he was welcomed in the circles of savants
as if he were one of their own. 292

Ferrier, Descartes, and Mydorge drew, cut, and hand-polished lenses (hyperbolic

included) as early as 1626. Their endeavour was reported by Mersenne to Robert Cornier,

who replied that Ferrier’s ability as a craftsman would most certainly be tested. 293 We

When Aleaume passed away late in 1627, Peiresc feared for his manuscripts (some of which
written by Viète) and instruments. Peiresc thus suggested on 8 January 1628 that “l’instrument [the
compass] que luy avoit faict Ferrier pour descrire la ligne necessaire à la convexité desdictes lunettes et
miroirs convexes, et les verres et miroirs qu’il en avoit essayez ... il faudroit que cela passast par les mains
de Mr Midorge, tresorier de France ... lequel seul je cognois en ce pais le plus approchant de la curiosité de
feu Mr Alleaume et de sa doctrine et prattique aux mathematiques et mechaniques.” Quoted in Mersenne,
Correspondance du Père Marin Mersenne, i:617. See also Cornier to Mersenne, 24 décembre [1627]: “Je
croy que Mr Midorge ne se sera pas oublié dans la venduë de Mr Alleaume.” Ibid., 613.
Ferrier’s first name is sometimes questioned. Maurice Daumas suggests it is Guillaume,
establishing his assertion on the nineteenth-century French instrument maker Camille Sébastien Nachet.
Yet, Jean-Baptiste Morin in a 1634 publication refers to Ferrier as “D. Ioannes Ferrier, instrumentorum
mathematicorum sollertissimus et accuratissimus fabrefactor.” I use the latter information in naming
Ferrier. Daumas, Les Instruments scientifiques aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (Paris: Presses Universitaires de
France, 1953), 98. Morin is quoted in Correspondance du Père Marin Mersenne, i:516.
Baillet, La Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes, i:151.
Cornier to Mersenne, 16 March 1626, in Mersenne, Correspondance du Père Marin Mersenne,
i:420. This part of the letter refers, according to the editors of the Correspondance, to a letter sent by
Mydorge to Mersenne regarding the hyperbolic or elliptical shape of the anaclastic line. Mydorge to
Mersenne, [Feb.-March, 1626?], in ibid., i:404-415. For a discussion of the dating of this letter, Gaukroger,
Descartes: An intellectual biography, 438-439. Regarding Ferrier and parabolic mirrors, Cornier continues:
“Il [Ferrier] dict une chose merveilleuse, qu’une si petite partie de parabole brusle avec effect si loing. Car
d’ordinaire, pour brusler de loing, estant necessaire d’avoir une portion d’une grande circonference, cela est
si plat en petit volume qu’il demeure avec très peu de force.” Correspondance du Père Marin Mersenne,
i:420. Descartes will later say that it is impossible for a miroir ardent to burn at a distance of one ligue
(lieue) unless the mirror was over twelve meters (“plus de six toises”) across, even if it had been the work
of an Angel. Descartes to Mersenne, January 1630, AT, i:109-110. Mersenne discusses this topic in
Qvestions inovyes, question xxxv. On the history (legend) of Archimedes great burning mirrors, D. L.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

know from a much later letter to Constantijn Huygens that Descartes, thanks to

Mydorge’s draughtsmanship and Ferrier’s technical skill, shaped around 1627 a

hyperbolic lens that provided proof of the law of refraction. 294 Although Mydorge’s

drawing and mathematical proficiency were never doubted by either Mersenne or

Descartes, Ferrier’s skills as a mécanicien were, as Cornier had anticipated, thoroughly

tested and eventually questioned.

Before Descartes landed in Paris, Mersenne had already criticized in Questiones

in genesim the ability of artisans to manufacture good mirrors and lenses. 295 Descartes

too became dissatisfied with the artisans’ craftsmanship, which did not meet his early

expectations. Hence he allegedly trained in the art of lens grinding a few Parisian

tourneurs, a know-how he seemed to have mastered according to Baillet. 296 Following

the relationships between Descartes, Ferrier and other Dutch and French artisans in

relation to the mechanized production of hyperbolic lenses, one can identify a significant

break regarding the epistemic value previously attributed by Descartes to these same

artisans. In a recent monograph D. Graham Burnett persuasively shows that although the

project of making telescopes may have itself initiated “a new form of cooperation”

between artisans and savants, the mechanization of lens making “can be understood as an

Simms, “Archimedes and the burning mirrors of Syracuse,” Technology and Culture 18 (1977), 1-24.
Descartes to Huygens, [December 1635], AT, i:335-337.
“Quid ita, nunquid hujuscemodi operibus utilissimis caremus, quia multi, qui has lineas
repererunt, eas aeterno silentio involvunt, ne quando alicui proficiant.” Quoted in Correspondance du Père
Marin Mersenne, i:299.
“[Descartes] devint luy-même en trés peu de têms un grand maître dans l’art de tailler les
verres: & comme l’industrie des Mathématiciens se trouve souvent inutile par la faute des Ouvriers dont
l’adresse ne répond pas toûjours à l’esprit des Auteurs qui les font travailler, il s’appliqua particuliérement
à former la main de quelques Tourneurs qu’il trouva les plus experts, & les mieux disposez à ce travail. En
quoy il eut la satisfaction de voir le succez de ses soins avant que de sortir de la France pour se retirer en
Hollande.” Baillet, La Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes, i:150.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

effort to end this new and interdependent relationship.” 297 In Descartes’s mind the

artisan—including Ferrier—changed from an ideal metaphor of order to a down-to-earth

and mundane Jacques Metius, the Dutch optician described at the beginning of the

Dioptrique who stumbled upon the discovery of the telescope through sheer mêtis.

Whether Ferrier’s failure as an instrument maker was due to psychological distress or to

his ambition of


An overall view of Descartes’s lens-grinding machine. Several steps were required to cut an hyperbolic
lens. The central part of the machine is the essential one, because its special conception enables the iron
tools Y67 and Z89 to cut any material in an hyperbolic shape. The purpose of this section of the machine is
to shape the big stone wheel that will then grind the glass into an hyperbolic lens. To achieve this, the glass
is rotated on itself and is ground by the movement of the wheel. Virtually no artisanal skills are required
here, only brute manual labor. Descartes, Dioptrique, AT, vi:218.

becoming a honnête homme through a royal nomination at the Galerie du Louvre did not

matter to Descartes in the end. What Descartes ultimately recognized in Ferrier and

D. Graham Burnett, Descartes and the hyperbolic quest: Lens making machines and their
significance in the seventeenth century (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2005), 36. On
Descartes, Ferrier and artisans see also Shea, The magic of numbers and motion, 151-158, 191-201; Giulia
Belgioioso, “Descartes e gli artigiani,” in La Biografia intellettuale di René Descartes attraverso la
Correspondance, ed. by Jean-Robert Armogathe, Giulia Belgioioso, and Carlo Vinti (Naples: Vivarium,
1999), 113-165.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

others was the simple fact that artisans in general were in need of a thorough method. 298

The invention and manufacture of a mechanized lens-making machine compelled

Descartes to reconsider his conviction that the artisan was an epistemic metaphor

exemplifying a logical and disciplined orderly soul: exit the inherently methodical artisan

that guided his initial notion of mathesis. (See Figure 2.2.) The “rational” artisan no

longer was prevalent in his philosophical argument. He needed a new metaphor, one that

would essentially be more structured and logical—like a machine. Burnett is here more

relevant than ever when he claims that “In Descartes’ view the shortcomings of craftsmen

lay in their being insufficiently mechanical: they were not entirely scrutable in

mechanical terms, and therefore the path to perfected lens making lay in the

mechanization of the craftsman, more automation, and the alienation of the hand of the

artisan.” 299

Because it was simply unbearable to think that an invention si vtile & si admirable

as the telescope was solely due to naked cunning and hands-on experience, Descartes’s

Dioptrique, which he began writing in the early 1630s, became the rational response to

Descartes is not insensitive to Ferrier’s problems, which he associates to some sort of
psychological unrest: “Aprés tout, ie plains fort Mr. Ferrier & voudrois bien pouuoir, sans trop
d’incommodité, soulager sa mauuaise fortune; car il la merite meilleure, & je ne connois en luy de deffaut,
sinon qu’il ne fait jamais son conte sur le pié des choses présentes, mais seulement de celles qu’il espere ou
qui sont passées, & qu’il a vne certaine irresolution qui l’empesche d’executer ce qu’il entreprend. Ie lui ay
rebattu presque la mesme chose en toutes les lettres que ie luy ai écrittes; mais vous auez plus de prudence
que moy, pour sçauoir ce qu’il faut dire & conseiller.” Descartes to Mersenne, [18 March 1630], AT, i:132.
Ferrier’s lack of mechanical skills may have been caused by a too strong inclination towards pure
mathematics: “[L]a douceur qu’il [Ferrier] avoit trouvée dans la méditation, & dans les entretiens des
Mathématiciens, avoit beaucoup diminué en luy l’habitude du travail [manuel].” Baillet, La Vie de
Monsieur Des-Cartes, i:186. In a letter Ferrier sent to Descartes, he mentions indeed how much he wants to
“taste” and “comprehend” the “true foundations of science” from scholars such as Descartes “tant i’ay
d’ambition de me faire connoistre par quelque chose au delà du commun.” Ferrier to Descartes, 26 October
1629, AT, i:51.
Burnett, Descartes and the hyperbolic quest, 36.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

the artisan’s lack of method. 300 Although the Dioptrique may look like a manual of

technical instruction aimed at producing telescopes, it should be considered above all as a

work edifying the method. 301 The essay, furthermore, was not intended for a hypothetical

überartisan—as Bruce Eastwood argues—but was rather meant for artisans tout court, to

those âmes déréglées populating the mechanical arts. 302 The Dioptrique was written in

such a way that it established precisely how the mechanical arts should be carried out; it

showed that building complex machines should no longer be a matter of one’s cunning or

hands-on experience. The Dioptrique was meant to inculcate onto the mechanical arts

Descartes’s new and universal logic—his method.

Back in 1626 Cornier believed Descartes would never find the law of refraction if

he did not reason out first how to make telescopes of all focal lengths. 303 Descartes of

course thought (and said) otherwise, and the explanation of refraction is found in the

second discourse of the Dioptrique, right after the nature of light and well before the art

of telescope making. His procedure thus reflected his entire philosophy of the order of

reasons: from the nature of light to the law of refraction, he then proceeded to the

working of the eye, the ability to see in general, how to perfect the latter with artificial

lenses, and finally how to mechanically build telescope (and microscope) lenses free of

Descartes to Golius, [January 1632], AT, i:234-235 where Descartes mentions he will send the
first part of his Dioptrique that deals with refraction, without the philosophy.
Philippe Hamou, La Mutation du visible. Essai sur la portée épistémologique des instruments
d’optique au XVIIe siècle, 2 vols (Villeneuve D’Ascq (Nord): Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 1999),
Bruce Stansfield Eastwood, “Descartes on refraction: scientific versus rhetorical method,” Isis
75 (1984), 481-502.
“Au surplus je ne croy pas que vostre mathematicien [Descartes], quelqu’habile homme qu’il
soit, puisse bien donner des raisons des refractions jusques à ce qu’il ait enseigné de faire des lunetes de
Hollande par raison et reglement en telle longueur que l’on vouldra. Car en cela git un des plus grands
secrets des refractions à mon advis…” Cornier to Mersenne, 16 March 1626, in Correspondance du Père
Marin Mersenne, i:420.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

spherical aberration. The lens-grinding machine—or any other machine for that matter—

was the very last thing an artisan should worry about; without a comprehensive

understanding of the problem at hand, artisans reverted back to a craftsmanship based on

the dreadful mêtis—back in other words to the modus operandi of the Dutch Metius.

What Descartes was trying to accomplish in the Dioptrique had nothing to do with late

Renaissance engineering, whose famous yet mostly artistic theatres of machines depicted

extravagant mechanisms and rarely offered theoretical guidelines on how to make and

study them. 304 The Dioptrique—not unlike Salomon de Caus’s Les Raisons des forces

movvantes (Frankfurt, 1615)—was a contrario an effort to bring to the order of discourse

what ought to regulate and organize the artisanal practices. The telescope here became a

powerful emblem of the necessity to carry out a thorough re-examination of the

mechanical arts. The Cartesian telescope should consequently be understood as the by-

product of a methodical mechanical art put to its perfection.

At the apex of the Dioptrique the lens-grinding machine bore the burden of the

proof of the Cartesian method. If no one could make the machine work, no hyperbolic

lens could be produced; with no lenses the truthfulness of the Cartesian optical science

could not be demonstrated; and without the latter demonstration, the whole Cartesian

method was put in jeopardy. No wonder Descartes always held a defensive stance

regarding the fabrication of this machine. Already in 1630 he believed his machine was

conceptually sound and emphasized that building it came down essentially to Ferrier’s

It is interesting to note that the theoretical portion of Jacques Besson’s Theatrum
instrumentorum machinarum (Orleans, 1569) was never published, yet developed in the manuscript version
(British Library) of the work. Alex Keller, “A manuscript version of Jacques Besson’s book of machines,
with his unpublished principles of mechanics,” in On the pre-modern technology and science: Studies in
honour of Lynn White, Jr., ed. by B. S. Hall and D. C. West (Malibu: Undena Publications, 1976), 75-95.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

skills. In like fashion, towards the end of the Discours de la méthode he wanted his

readers to understand and remember that if “artisans are not immediately able to put into

operation the invention explained in the Dioptrique, I do not think it can on that account

be said to be defective.” A year later he was again on the defensive when he learned from

Mersenne that Girard Desargues was discussing with the Cardinal de Richelieu the

opportunity to exploit on a grand scale the part of Dioptrique pertaining to the

mechanical manufacture of hyperbolic lenses. Flattered by the idea Descartes

nevertheless worried that if the artisans assigned to this task were not under his

immediate supervision they would be unsuccessful and, in consequence, he could be held

responsible for their failing. 305 He knew that if artisans did not succeed in making

hyperbolic lenses with the lens-grinding machine, this failure would not be seen as a

mere imperfection of the mechanical design: it would be acknowledged as a collapse of

the Cartesian method.

Although no other instrument in the Cartesian corpus equaled the lens-grinding

machine in authority, mechanical apparatus were never far from Descartes’s mind. 306 To

Golius, for example, he described a measuring instrument of his invention to prove

experimentally the authenticity of the law of refraction, giving sufficient details (drawing

included) to build it. 307 Descartes also tried over time to improve weight-driven clocks, to

Descartes to Ferrier, [2 December 1630], AT, i:185. Descartes, Discours de la méthode, AT,
vi:77; CSM, i:150. Descartes to Mersenne, [25 January 1638?], AT, i:500-501; Daumas, Les Instruments
scientifiques aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, 99; Baillet, La Vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes, i:320-321.
Descartes is fully aware that precise instrument making is of the utmost importance to natural
philosophy. Instruments can be used, for instance, to ascertain the number, velocity, and shape of sunspots
and to know how the air refracts the light from the stars, and whether it also affects the light from the
Moon. Descartes to Mersenne, January 1630, AT, i:113: “Mais ces choses là requierent des instrumens si
iustes …”
Descartes to Golius, [2 February 1632], AT, i:236-240. “Ie ne doute point que vous ne puissiés

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

assess an Archimedean screw invented by a Dutch engineer, and to perfect an apparatus

he saw in Leucheron’s (Van Etten’s) Récréations mathématiques describing a harquebus

shooting a lead ball vertically—which, after many trials, it was said, did not fall back on

earth. 308 Even the study of rainbows in the essay Météores rested heavily on the material

culture of rainbow fountain making set in seventeenth-century courtly gardens. 309 What

made the lens-grinding machine distinctive came from the fact that Descartes used it to

demonstrate a simple truth: the strict organization of knowledge required to build this

machine demonstrated the Cartesian method. The artisan had been supplanted by another

metaphor, encompassing this time the inbuilt order of levers and gears—the order of

mechanism. Descartes was teaching a new and universal habitus, one based on the

rational and mechanical attributes of the method. The lens-grinding machine became in

this context more than an artisan’s tool: it became an epistemological instrument; better

yet a thing knowledge, namely an object fully embodying the Cartesian mechanization of

trouuer plusieurs autres inuentions meilleures que celle cy pour faire la mesme experience, si vous prenés la
peine d’en chercher; mais pource que ie scay que vous aués beaucoup d’autres occupations, i’ay creu que si
vous n’y auiés pas encore pensé, ie vous soulagerois peut-estre d’autant ….” (ibid., 240)
Arthur H. Schrynemakers, “Descartes and the weight-driven chain-clock,” Isis 60 (1969), 233-
236. On the Archimedean screw, Descartes to Huygens, 15 November 1643, AT, iv:761-766. According to
Leucheron, the experiment was done many times with the same result. Descartes does not doubt the
outcome per se, but still believe it is worth exploring further. Mersenne asked someone to do the
experiment with an arquebuze, giving still an identical result as in the Récréations mathématiques.
Descartes, however, is not convinced and does not judge it sufficient to draw certain knowledge from it
(quelque chose de certain). He therefore suggests to do the experiment again with an instrument of his
design, using a cannon always kept in the upright position by a system of pulleys. Descartes to Mersenne,
[April 1634], AT, i:287; Descartes to Mersenne, 15 May 1634, AT, i:293-294. The choice of a cannon,
which could support a cannonball of 30 to 40 pounds is better because the iron from which it is made does
not melt has easily as the lead ball from the harquebus, and moreover such a big ball would be found easier
if it came back on earth.
Descartes uses these fashionable machines to investigate the phenomenon, as well as to
relocate wonder from garden engineers to natural philosophers, thus displacing a “science of miracles”
from simple technical achievements to the knowledge of mathematics and mechanical philosophy. Simon
Werrett, “Wonders never cease: Descartes’s Météores and the rainbow fountain,” British Journal for the
History of Science 34 (2001), 129-147.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

knowledge. 310


In a comment made on the motion of individual particles with regard to the overall

structure of celestial matter, Descartes declares to Burman that although “the entire

system [of the universe] is in a state of equilibrium,”

[it] is a very difficult thing to conceive of, because it is a mathematical and

mechanical truth. We are not sufficiently accustomed to thinking of machines, and
this has been the source of nearly all error in philosophy. 311

By now, and for close to two decades, Descartes had abolished artisans as the epistemic

emblem of order and replaced them with the more visual and tactile mechanical order of

machines. This “mechanical turn” was so compelling that, as Graham Burnett tentatively

illustrates, a closer connection between the mechanically produced hyperbolic lenses of

the Dioptrique and the mind’s eyes’ “metaphysical lens”—or hyperbolic doubt—found in

the Meditations could be entertained without too much of a stretch. 312 The machine in the

end did not only supplant the artisan; it ultimately incarnated Cartesian metaphysics and

natural philosophy. The machine became a thing knowledge.

This, I believe, should be taken literally. In the Sidereus nuncius, for instance,

Galileo did not mention the telescope by name, referring instead to “the instrument

[organum] with the benefit of which [great things of nature] make themselves manifest to

Davis Baird, Thing knowledge: A philosophy of scientific instruments (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 2004). Burnett, Descartes and the hyperbolic quest, 132 for the association of the the lens-
grinding machine to an “epistemological instrument.” On the philosophy of instrumentation, Hans Radder,
ed., The philosophy of scientific experimentation (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003).
Descartes to Burman, AT, v:174. English translation in John Cottingham, ed., Descartes’
conversation with Burman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 44 §73.
Burnett, Descartes and the hyperbolic quest, 125-132.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

our sight.” 313 It is not unusual here for Galileo to speak of a mechanical instrument as an

organon—a thing that serves a specific purpose—following the traditional Aristotelian

definition of the word. Where Descartes distanced himself from Galileo and other natural

philosophers, however, was in the explicit and epistemic connection he made between an

artificial and a natural organon; between a mechanical instrument and a bodily organ. 314

In the Dioptrique the correlation between mechanization and organon was firmly

established. In the essay Descartes compared the same telescope to an “organe exterieur,”

an organon or instrument that could be put over another external organ, namely the

human eye. 315 For Descartes it was a simple matter of joining together two mechanical

organs, the telescope and the human eye—the latter, as claimed by Kepler already, being

nothing more than another machine, a camera obscura. 316 More mechanization here

meant a sure path towards perfection, in this case the perfection of vision. The telescope,

moreover, was not unlike Descartes’s compasses found in the Géométrie. Both were

mechanical extensions of corporeal organs (eye and hand) that served the purpose of

achieving a kind of knowledge otherwise unattainable—heavenly phenomena and

complex mechanical curves respectively. That knowledge could never be intuited with

any other “natural” organ; it could not be made certain without these special mechanical

Galileo Galilei, Sidereus nuncius, in Le opere di Galileo Galilei, ed. by Antonio Favaro, 20
vols (Florence: Tip. di G. Barbèra, 1890-1909), iii:59. For the English translation, Galileo, Sidereus
nuncius or The sidereal messenger, transl. by Albert van Helden (Chicago: The University of Chicago
Press, 1989), 35.
A very good analysis of organon qua instrument is given by Don Bates, “Machina ex Deo:
William Harvey and the meaning of instrument,” Journal of the History of Ideas 61 (2000), 577-593. See
also Dennis Des Chene, Spirits and clocks: Machine and organism in Descartes (Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 2001), 89-95 for an analysis of Suárez’s notion of instrument.
“Si bien qu’il ne nous reste a considerer que les organes exterieurs, entre lesquels ie comprens
toutes les parties transparentes de l’œil, aussy bien que tous les autres cors qu’on peut mettre entre luy &
l’obiet.” Descartes, Dioptrique, AT, vi:148.
Descartes, Dioptrique, AT, vi:114-117.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

prostheses. Instruments, or mechanical organa could therefore be added to bodily senses

in order to achieve clear and distinct knowledge. 317 The telescope and compass were in

this context mechanical addenda that could be likened to Ambroise Paré’s famous

artificial hand: once attached to the body, they became whole with it—reminiscent of the

weavers and their looms previously mentioned; they were fully integrated, incorporated,

and acted as if they were an original part of the body, a “natural organon.” 318 (See Figure


This multiplication of mechanisms—organa—was not a problem but a virtue in

Cartesian natural philosophy. When Huygens reported to Descartes in September 1637

that an Amsterdam tourneur could build the lens-grinding machine with fewer

contrivances than depicted in the Dioptrique, Descartes was left unconvinced. Although

such an outcome would be received with enthusiasm, he strongly believed his machine

did not need less but more mechanical contrivances, things omitted in the original

description but easy to discover with experience. 319 Artisans’ and engineers’ habitus told

Matthew Jones argues somewhat similarly when he writes that Descartes’s compasses “offered
the crucial heuristic, a material propaedeutic, for Descartes’[s] revised account of mathematics freed from
memory and subject to a criterion of graspable unity. A simple mathematical instrument became the model
and exemplar of the knowledge of Descartes’s new subject, the one supposedly so removed from the
material.” Jones, “Descartes’s geometry as spiritual exercise,” Critical Inquiry 28 (2001), 40-71, quote on
p. 61.
Ambroise Paré, Les Œuvres de M. Ambroise Paré conseiller, et premier chirurgien du roy
(Paris, 1598), Chapter 22, “Des moyens & artifices d’adiouster ce qui defaut naturellement ou par
Huygens to Descartes, 8 September 1637, AT, i:395-396: “Mais comme il [le tourneur
d’Amsterdam] est homme industrieux en matiere de mouuemens mechaniques, il presume de venir a bout
de vostre inuention a beaucoup moins de façon. En effect, il produit des choses si estranges par des petites
machines de deux liards, que si ce n’estoit vous, Monsieur, i’espererois qu’il abregeroit de quelque chose
ce que vous auez desseigné pour arriuer a la perfection de ces verres; nous verrons ce qui arriuera, & vous
en rendrons compte.” Descartes to Huygens, 5 October 1637, AT, i:433: “Mais puisqu’il vous plaist en
sçauoir mon opinion, ie vous diray franchement que tant s’en faut que i’espere qu’il en viene a bout, auec
des machines qui ayent moins de façon que la miene, qu’au contraire ie me persuade qu’on y doit encore
adiouster diuerses choses, que i’ay omises, mais que ie croy n’estre point si difficiles a inuenter que l’vsage
ne les enseigne.”

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

them otherwise, however, i.e. fewer moving parts was better as regards applied

mechanics. It was, for example, Salomon de Caus’s chief assumption. He criticized late


Above, the telescope as an “organe exterieur,”

an instrument attached to the human eye, a
natural organon, which was nothing more than
a camera obscura. On the right, Paré’s famous
artificial hand. Once attached to the human
body it acted as “naturally” as could any other
extension of the hand, for instance Descartes’s
geometrical compas (upper right). Descartes,
Dioptrique, AT, vi:202. Paré, Les Œuvres de
M. Ambroise Paré, chap. 22. Descartes,
Géométrie, AT, vi:391.

Renaissance engineers like Besson and Ramelli for their overly mechanized machines:

they may look good on paper, but in reality would simply not work (or be practical)

because the operational ratio of time over the number of geared wheels had been

extended too much. 320 Yet for Descartes, more mechanization meant only one thing: one

“[M]ais pour reuenir à ceux qui ont eu cognoissance des Machines mouuantes & Hidrauliques,
peu en ont escrit de nostre temps, bien est vray, que Jacob Besson, Augustin Ramelly, & quelques autres

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

was approaching Nature’s perfection. The difference between God’s machines and

human-built machines was no longer a difference in degree, but a difference in quantity;

although His machines are composed of more parts, tinier parts and more intricate parts,

the act of creation itself—and our mechanical understanding of creation—is identical to

both our and God’s machines. Only the incommensurable number of parts in God’s

machines keeps the power of the summum Artifex beyond our reach and

comprehension. 321

The human body understood as a system of mechanical organa circles back to the

notion of habitus. Habitus can be translated in both French and English as disposition,

and inasmuch as reason was Descartes’s sole universal instrument, the human body as a

machine was composed and ordered according to the particular disposition des organes,

each organon properly positioned in the body and responsible for a specific task or

action. 322 This instrumental conception of the human body arose in the early 1630s in

Descartes’s L’Homme, at the same time he began to repudiate the artisan as his

knowledge-making epistemic metaphor. In this treatise on man Descartes supposed our

material incarnation to be nothing else than a statue or machine—and it was how

ont mis en lumiere quelques Machines par eux inventees sur le papier, mais peu d’icelles peuuent auoir
aucun effect, & ont creu, que par vne multiplication de roües dentelees, lesdites machines auroient effect,
selon leur pensee, & n’ont pas consideré, que ladite multiplication est liee auec le temps, comme il sera
monstré en son lieu ....” Salomon de Caus, Les Raisons des forces movvantes Auec diuerses Machines tant
vtilles que plaisantes Aus quelles sont adioints plusieurs deβeings de grotes et fontaines (Frankfurt, 1615),
n.p., Epistre au Lecteur. De Caus gives an example (Theoresme XVI) of a machine to raise weights made of
six geared wheels of increasing size. Although, theoretically, multiplying the number of wheels can expand
infinitely the load a machine can lift, in this theorem de Caus calculates that a worker would have to turn
the crank 2,985,984 times to cause the sixth and biggest wheel to make a single revolution. Assuming this
worker could turn the crank 10,000 times a day, it would still take 298 days for the sixth wheel to complete
one revolution!
Des Chene, Spirits and clocks, 101-102.
Descartes, Discours de la méthode, AT, vi:57; CSM, i:140. See also Descartes, Règles utiles et
claires pour la direction de l’esprit, 89-91.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

Descartes meant it to be depicted. 323 It was designed by God in such a way that “inside it

all the parts required to make it walk, eat, breathe, and indeed to imitate all those of our

functions which can be imagined to proceed from matter and to depend solely on the

disposition of our organs.” 324 The world on which this machine lived, Descartes’s

Monde, written around the same time, was no different. All the particles were sorted out

and reorganized from the original chaos into a perfectly pre-disposed order. And the

motion of these particles, while given a rectilinear mouvemens by God, was repeatedly

curved or irregular owing to “the various dispositions of matter.” 325 The disposition of

matter and organs in the world and in the human body respectively displayed the

importance of organization (from organon) in Descartes’s natural philosophy. In other

words, Descartes was organ-izing all of knowledge, scientia; he was imposing order on

the universe.

Although automata (and particularly clocks) epitomized in early modern Europe

the supreme qualities of regularity, order, and harmony, Descartes’s original impetus to

mechanize the body in imitation of his well-ordered method may not have naturally

occurred from the contemplation of automated figures in the grottoes of the Royal

gardens at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, as is usually assumed. 326 One, I believe, has to look

On the representation of bodily parts in Descartes’s first two posthumous editions of the
treatise on man, Rebecca M. Wilkin, “Figuring the dead Descartes: Claude Clerselier’s Homme de René
Descartes (1664),” Representations 83 (2003), 38-66.
Descartes, L’Homme, AT, xi:120; CSM, i:99.
Descartes, Le Monde, AT, xi:34-35, 46-47; CSM, i:97 for the quote.
Gaukroger, Descartes: An intellectual biography, 63-64. Werrett, “Wonders never cease.” On
clocks see Otto Mayr, Authority, liberty & automatic machinery in early modern Europe (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1986) and Gerhard Dohrn-van Rossum, The history of the hour: Clocks and
modern temporal orders, transl. by Thomas Dunlap (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), esp.
chap. 8.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

for a much broader picture, specifically the rise of French absolutism. In France, scholars

such as Jean Bodin and Charles Loyseau wrote influential treatises emphasizing the

socio-political and cultural advantages of a disciplined and well-organized state during

and after the devastating Wars of Religion. “In all things there must be order, for the sake

of decorum and for their control,” reasoned Loyseau in the very first sentence of his

treatise. 327 The clergy and royal authorities strove from the late sixteenth century onward

to impose a sense of order over a chaotic popular culture by attempting to control the

mind and body of the menu peuple. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s “political technology

of the body,” Robert Muchembled describes how the state began a repression of the body

centring on sexual conducts, the social mastery of one’s own body—how to become a

honnête homme—and the penal system. Such disciplining of the body and personal

behaviour became an essential element of the early modern “civilizing process” described

in Norbert Elias’s celebrated work. The clergy, in a similar fashion, came down hard on

witchcraft, popular fêtes, and such credulous mentality as an effective way to shape and

thus control the mind of simple people. Religious morality and complete obedience to a

father figure—family patriarch, king, God—became effective means of enforcing a

measure of civil order. Mind and body were no longer the private property of beings in

ancien régime France. Individuals became social bodies, inseparable from the royal and

religious authorities of the kingdom. 328

Loyseau, A treatise of orders and plain dignities, 5.
Robert Muchembled, Culture populaire et culture des élites dans la France moderne (XVe-
XVIII siècle), 2nd edn. (Paris: Flammarion, 1991), 225-285. Michel Foucault, Surveiller et punir. Naissance

de la prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), esp. 159-227. Norbert Elias, The civilizing process: Sociogenetic and
psychogenetic investigations, rev. edn. (Oxford and Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 2000). An
interesting criticism of Elias’s thesis is found in Hans Peter Duerr, Nudité et pudeur: le mythe du processus
de civilisation, transl. by Véronique Bodin and Jacqueline Pincemin (Paris: Maison des sciences de

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

In the microcosm of artisanal life a similar fashioning of body and mind took

place. One of Henry IV’s conseillers, Barthélemy Laffemas, maintained in the early

seventeenth century that order actually reigned in the French manufactures before the

disintegration of the state’s royal authority caused by the religious wars. To improve

commerce the king needed to restore “to their past perfection” the drapery and dye

manufactures. 329 A discipline of labour was seen as essential to the success of any

artisanal practice. Hence the key for master guildsmen was control over skill, both its

meaning and its possession: skill had to be made synonymous with discipline and

subordination. Training apprentices was not the only task of a master: the transmission of

trade values was as important. Artisanal habitus was as much a result of hands-on

training as it was indoctrination to the specific attitude of a community. To become a

master an apprentice had to show his/her mind and body were appropriately moulded.

Skill, as James Farr insightfully notes, “was as much a cultural construct articulating

boundaries of a community defined by status and a sense of difference as an indicator of

l’homme, 1998). Such a radical rationalization of the state and social life can only be understood in light of
the disorders created by the Wars of Religion. See, for instance, Denis Crouzet, Les Guerriers de Dieu: la
violence au temps des troubles de religion, vers 1525-vers 1610, 2 vols (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 1990),
ii:624 and Mack P. Holt, The French wars of religion, 1562-1629 (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1995), 210-216. One of the most interesting sociological studies on this topic is Pierre Bourdieu,
Méditations pascaliennes, rev. edn. (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2003), 185-234: “Les injonctions sociales les
plus sérieuses s’adressent non à l’intellect mais au corps.” (p. 204)
Laffemas, Reiglement genéral pour dresser les manufactures en ce royaulme (1603), where he
wrote: “Le defaut de nos polices a perverti l’ordre qui s’observoit, tant a la fabrique des manufactures qu’à
l’effet de tout ce qui en dépend ….” Hence the king had to reestablish the “manufactures de draperie et de
teintures en leur légalité, bonté et perfection anciennes.” Quoted in Emile Levasseur, Histoire des classes
ouvrières et de l’industrie en France avant 1789, 2 vols (Paris: A. Rousseau, 1900-1901), ii:155.
Contemporary to Laffemas, Antoine de Monchrestien comes to an identical conclusion in 1615 when he
says that “Le plus Royal exercice que peuvent prendre Vos Majestés c’est de ramener à l’ordre ce qui est
détraqué. De régler et distinguer les Arts tombez en une monstrueuse confusion.” Monchrestien, Traicté de
l’œconomie politique, ed. by François Billacois (Geneva: Droz, 1999), 66.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

the economic capacity of a worker.” 330 Discipline and subordination of skills, both for the

body and the mind, facilitated the establishment of order within guild society. This is why

the so-called “masters by letters,” individuals nominated by royal instances without

producing a masterpiece—like the Galerie du Louvre’s artisans—were scorned by master

guildsmen. Their displeasure was not so much built around the fact that masters of

letters’ skills were often questionable, but rather that their socially-constructed authority

as legitimate masters was undermined. The challenging and expensive process of creating

a chef-d’œuvre was actually about value and skill subordination of future trade masters

rather than skill credentials per se. 331

An orderly soul structured around the Cartesian method required above all an

organized body, one that acted as a material instrument, a suitable organon. Through

methodical order, Descartes sought to incorporate a new (absolute) way of knowing into

early modern bodies. His organon—his method or knowledge-producing instrument—

generated a logic of practice in both natural philosophy and the mechanical arts, ordering

mental and manual skills of philosophers and artisans towards the act of creating ideas

and machines. I have argued that the method as exhibited in the Dioptrique was the key

in bringing forth a rational foundation for the mechanical arts, and therefore in building

exact instruments and machines. Owing to the method, instruments (or “bodily” parts)

could be designed and built in such a way as to enhance natural abilities, skills, and

habitus of living organs; instruments, organa, were mechanically upgrading the human

James R. Farr, “Cultural analysis and early modern artisans,” in The artisan and the European
town, 1500-1900, ed. by Geoffrey Crossick (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997), 56-74, quote on p. 67.
For “masters of letters,” Loyseau, A treatise of orders and plain dignities, 226. For how
“unfair” was the production of masterpieces, Levasseur, Histoire des classes ouvrières et de l’industrie en
France avant 1789, ii:141.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

body to a higher degree of perfection. 332 The method had a foot in both the realm of

rational philosophy and in the machine world. It was neither pure thought nor vile

méchanique alone: it was both at the same time.

Descartes desired to reorganize thinking and hands-on practices, and consequently

to oversee how natural philosophers created ideas and artisans manipulated matter. He

wanted to ensure, more exactly to control the acquisition of knowledge. Yet the method

was not only beneficial to natural philosophy. Matthew Jones has convincingly shown

that Descartes’s Géométrie—the essay that best epitomizes the Cartesian method—was a

sophisticated system of “spiritual exercises” aimed at cultivating one’s self, at finding a

better—and orderly—way of life through the practice of higher mathematics (to examine

oneself geometrically Mersenne would say). 333 As a universal generator of orderly souls

the method thus suggested one fundamental socio-cultural outcome: based on the

inherent bon sens of mankind, Descartes’s method became a constraining yet

multifaceted pedagogical instrument, a pedagogical tool or organon that could shape any

individual into a honnête homme. 334 According to Peter Dear, Descartes used the notion

of mechanization to establish the criteria of intelligibility in natural philosophy and from

the latter, to observe how it constrained bodily behaviours. Domineering one’s own

passions came down to exerting control over one’s own body. Descartes wanted in short

Neil M. Ribe pointedly argues that nature in the end “is not a source of standards but is itself
subject to the higher standard of Cartesian rationality.” Ribe, “Cartesian optics and the mastery of nature,”
Isis 88 (1997), 42-61, quote on p. 53.
Matthew L. Jones, “Descartes’s geometry as spiritual exercise.” Mersenne, Qvestions inovyes,
question xii, 45-46.
Descartes’s universal bon sens is the very first assertion he makes in the Discours de la
méthode. On Descartes’s philosophy of education in general, Daniel Garber, “Descartes, or the cultivation
of the intellect,” in Descartes embodied, 277-295.

] Lens Making: Artisans, Machines, and Descartes’s Organon ]

to understand in mechanical terms the movement involved in the civilizing process of

absolutism. 335 In this context, the man-machine concept was an attempt to embody the

Cartesian method into the emergent early modern social body.

Consonant with Francis Bacon’s novum organum, Descartes’s organon can

ultimately be understood as an instrument that “more or less equalises intellects, and

leaves little opportunity for superiority, since it achieves everything by most certain rules

and forms of proof.” 336 By fully ordering and constraining knowledge-making processes

(both body and mind) anyone, embracing the right method, could become a lord and

master of Nature—in other words a honnête homme. Descartes, reaching to a wide-

ranging audience, made sure no one would be left out of his natural philosophical

civilizing process. 337 In the end, Descartes’s most famous opus was, among many other

things, a universal book of civilité.

Peter Dear, “A mechanical microcosm: bodily passions, good manners, and Cartesian
mechanism,” in Science incarnate: Historical embodiments of natural knowledge, ed. by Christopher
Lawrence and Steven Shapin (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 51-82.
Bacon, The new organon, aphorism CXXII, 95.
On Descartes’s audience generally, Jean-Pierre Cavaillé, “Descartes stratège de la destination,”
XVII siècle 177 (1992), 551-559; Cavaillé, “‘Le plus éloquent philosophe des derniers temps’: les
stratégies d’auteur de René Descartes,” Annales: histoire, sciences sociales (1994), 349-367.





beginning of the Entretien avec M. de Sacy, which almost suggest its inventor

was in possession of some kind of magical powers:

in the

It was common knowledge that [Pascal] seemed able to animate copper, and to
give to brass the power of thought. Little unthinking wheels, each rimmed with
then ten digits, were so arranged by him that they could give accounts [rendre
raison] even to the most reasonable persons, and he could in a sense make dumb
machines speak.

Pascal worked so hard on this machine, it is said, that his mind was disturbed (avoir la

tête démontée) for the next three years. 338 According to Pascal’s sister Gilberte, the

young savant’s exhaustion did not come from the labor he put into designing the

machine, but rather in trying to make the Rouen artisans understand what it was all

about. 339 This tension between the rational mind of Pascal and the craftsmanship of

artisans is at the center of this chapter.

Pascal’s arithmetical machine, or roue Paschaline—or simply pascaline as it was

also referred to—was an early modern technical exploit that received considerable

Pascal, Entretien avec M. de Sacy sur Epictète et Montaigne, in Pascal, Oeuvres complètes, ed.
by Jean Mesnard, 4 vols. (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1964-1992), iii:124-157. [Hereafter cited as Pascal,
OC, iii:124-157.] English quote from Jean Khalfa, “Pascal’s theory of knowledge,” in The Cambridge
companion to Pascal, ed. by Nicholas Hammond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 122-
143, on p. 123.
Gilberte Périer, La Vie de Monsieur Pascal, seconde version, in Pascal, OC, 1:608.
] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

attention within the circle of French savants and gentlemen. Though most of the attention

was positive, some was unfavorable, such as the October 1648 letter from Balthasar

Gerbier to Samuel Hartlib. An English gentleman traveller, Gerbier came upon Pascal’s

“Bocks” not long after a model in wood was finished, and thought it resembled

something invented in England twenty-four years earlier. (Gerbier most likely meant

William Pratt’s 1617 arithmeticall jewel, discussed below.) Gerbier found many

problems with the pascaline. First, its user had to be knowledgeable in arithmetic, which

ran contrary to Pascal’s rhetorical stance. Multiplications and divisions were complicated

and it even took two pascalines to make a simple rule of three. It was heavy, difficult to

move, expensive (50 pistoles, or 500 livres) and useless to anyone who would like to

learn the art of arithmetic. In other words, Gerbier did not admire this mechanical

contraption supposed to “think” by itself. He ended his letter to Hartlib quoting the

former ruler of the Low Countries: “Infine a Rare Invention farre saught, and deare

baught: putt them jn the Storre house was the old Prince of Orange wont to saye and lett

us proceede on the ordinary readdy way.” 340

Sir Balthasar Gerbier to Samuel Hartlib, 4 October 1648, Hartlib Correspondence (CD-ROM),
10/2/13A: “Heare is to be seene a rare worke Inuented by Mr Pascall Sonne to a President Off this
Parlement: It is a casse with Sundry wheeles att least thirty, it serue for Arithmetike: and heere you shall
haue a drauft of jt jn lue of which I should bee glad to see a drauft of a little deuise whih was jnuented jn
England somme 24 yeares past beeing a little board with copper things to turne with a stick to cast
accounts. This us the Instrument her att Paris [drawing] The Bocks is of Ebonne, two foot In length; 9
Inches broad; accordingly jn height: The wheeles are of Copper: and seeme as so many Dialls or watches,
sett with numbers 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. The two rowes aboue are copper round things, wheron appeare
little white papers sett with Cifers; when the hand sturres with a Stick the wheeles belowe, those little round
things aboue turne according the wheele beloowe moues, by 100/m/1., lesse, or more the Calculation
desired js made suddainly: The Bocks within [deletion] thirty weeles which moue according the hand
turnes the uppermost wheeles … Butt a man must first be exact jn Arithmetike before he can make use of
this Instrument, which cost 50 pistols and no rulle of three can be made butt by two of these Instruments,
which are not portatiue, and Infine a Rare Invention farre saught, and deare baught: putt them jn the Storre
house was the old Prince of Orange wont to saye and lett us proceede on the ordinary readdy way.” See
also Courrier du CIBP, 19 (1997), quoted and partly translated in French by Jacques Attali, Blaise Pascal
ou le génie français (Paris: Fayard, 2000), 88-89.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

As we will see later, Gerbier was not the only one to believe the pascaline’s

rightful place was in a cabinet of curiosities, not in the hands of mathematical

practitioners, financiers, and various other number-minded dilettantes and professionals.

It is also interesting to note that less than a century after its invention, in Germany at

least, the pascaline was virtually dismissed as a significant contribution to the domain of

calculating machines. While in France the arithmetical machine found a niche in Jean-

Gaffin Gallon’s Machines et inventions approuvées par l’Académie royale des sciences

and later in the Encyclopédie, Jacob Leupold omitted Pascal’s arithmetical machine in his

Theatrum arithmetico-geometricum, though he mentioned inventions by Caspar Schott,

Grillet, Johannis Poleni, Leibniz and himself. 341

This chapter aims at (re)contextualizing Pascal’s arithmetical machine into the

intellectual, artisanal, and socio-cultural milieux of its time. Though the pascaline is well

known to historians of science and technology alike, few have attempted to situate it

within the overall context of seventeenth-century France. 342 What did Pascal try to

achieve with his machine? What were the problems he faced with the clockmakers and

their specific artisanal culture? To whom was the pascaline intended for? Why did it

seem so strange and incongruous to early modern honnêtes hommes?

Jacob Leupold, Theatrum arithmetico-geometricum, das ist: Schau-Platz der Rechen- und
Mess-Kunst, darinnen enthalten dieser beyden Wissenschaften nöthige Grund-Regeln und Handgriffe so
wohl, als auch die unterschiedene Instrumente und Machinen, welche theils in der Ausübung auf den
Papier theils auch im Felde besonderen Vortheil geben können, in sonderheit wird hierinnen erklaärt
(Leipzig, 1727 [Hannover: Th. Schäfer, 1982]). On Schott’s, Leupold’s and Grillet’s arithmetical machine
based on Napier’s bones, see chap. 8, pp. 20-26; on mechanical arithmetical machines by Poleni, Leupold
and Leibniz, see chaps. 9, 10, and 11, pp. 27-40.
Matthew Jones is currently working on a book on these types of machine, especially by Samuel
Morland, Pascal, and Leibniz, entitled The matter of calculation: Early modern calculating machines,
statecraft and thinking about thinking (forthcoming), chap. 1 for Morland and Pascal; chap. 2 for Leibniz. I
would like to thank the author for sharing his manuscript with me.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

Before answering these questions, it was important to first situate the arithmetical

machine within the context of early modern methods of calculation. Hence the first

section deals with the technology of calculation, or the vast assortment of mathematical

instruments that facilitated calculations. Although instruments for mathematical purposes

go back to Antiquity, and were highly developped in the Islamic world (mostly

astrolabes, quadrants and sundials) and later in the Renaissance West, I focus my analysis

on two early-seventeenth-century inventions by John Napier: rabdology and logarithms.

The reason is quite simple: both techniques aimed at transforming multiplications and

divisions into additions and subtractions—Pascal’s primary rationale behind his

arithmetical machine. This first section gives a survey of the mathematical instruments

invented to comply with and facilitate these two new mathematical practices, which were

extremely successful and widespread by the time Pascal began working on the

pascaline. 343 The fact that Pascal completely disregarded these two mathematical

practices and tried essentially to remain faithful to the traditional art of arithmetic is

evidence of Pascal’s intended audience for his invention: the French gentlemen and


Sections 2 through 6 of this chapter address this particular point of the pascaline’s

targeted audience. Early modern English gentlemen and French honnêtes hommes were

two different sorts of users. In England, mathematical practices and instruments were

An overall survey of the use and significance of mathematical instruments in Western Europe
was obviously impossible to accomplish here. A number of good books and articles deal with the topic.
One thing, however, which is often forgotten in the latter is the tremendous importance of the Islamic
tradition. I have become convinced that the study of the role and use of mathematical instruments in
Renaissance Europe simply cannot be complete without a hard look at the knowledge and savoir-faire of
Arabic mathematical practitioners. The best entry points on that subject are David A. King, In synchrony
with the heavens: Studies in astronomical timekeeping and instrumentation in medieval Islamic civilization,
2 vols (Leiden: Brill, 2004-2005) and François Charette, Mathematical instrumentation in fourteenth-
century Egypt and Syria: The illustrated treatise of Najm al-Din al-Misri (Leiden: Brill, 2003).

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

more respectable to a gentleman than they were to a French honnête homme. Though

instruments were made, delivered and found in Parisian hôtels particuliers and in

princely collections (the famous and royal Galerie du Louvre hosted several

mathematical instrument makers) they did not particularly interest the upper echelons of

French society as they did in England. Pascal, of course, was well aware of this situation.

He thus adapted his invention to the taste of his intended French audience, creating a

rhetoric for the machine around polite conversation rather than detailed written

descriptions like those in contemporary fabrica et usus books produced by mathematical

practitioners. Even though Pascal invented the machine to alleviate his father’s headaches

as a royal tax collector, financiers and merchants, who tallied large amount of numbers,

were not especially in Pascal’s mind. The pascaline was more than a mechanical

contraption useful for business: used properly, it could bestow honnêteté.

The machine, however, required more than conceptualization: it had to be

produced in materiam. These same sections discuss, besides Pascal’s two principal

contributions on the subject, the socio-cultural origins of the pascaline—namely the

clockmaking industry so vital to its manufacturing. These sections show that the

production of Pascal’s machine and the granting of the privilege were directly linked to

the early modern French clockmaking industry. But the study of the pascaline also

conveys the profound impression it left on anyone carefully studying Pascal’s rhetoric.

Though savants figured at the top of Pascal’s knowledge-production hierarchy, artisans

had an essential role to play, one too often disregarded by Pascal’s contemporaries. Just

as in the case of the organ and the lens-grinding machine, I argue that Pascal’s

arithmetical machine, too, symbolized the close alliance between theoretical, practical,

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

and artisanal knowledge. The arithmetical machine married theory and practice, a claim

emphasized by Pascal and essential to his theory of knowledge.

The last section deals with memory and the epistemology of the Pascalian concept

of coutume. Mathematical instruments, such as Napier’s bones or the later slide rules,

materialized abstract mathematical concepts (Pythagorean tables of multiplication and

logarithms respectively). To use these mathematical instruments, however, meant one

had to learn (though not necessarily understand) specific mathematical practices. Pascal’s

arithmetical machine went one step further: it embedded both the abstract theory and

practices of arithmetic into its geared mechanism. It was no longer necessary to

remember (memorize) how to carry out an addition or a division with the plume and

jetons. Owing to the pascaline’s design, one had only to perform with a stylus specific

and repetitive gestes on the small reckoning wheels of the machine. In the promising

seventeenth-century mechanical culture, memory was no longer strictly a concept of the

mind, the result of an intricate social structure or contained by vast and rich natural

landscapes. 344 Memory, perhaps for the first time, stepped into the realm of materiality; it

became incarnated into the geared-regularity of early modern machines—which explains

why so many historians of technology push back the development of computers to

Pascal’s arithmetical machine. 345 In the specific case of the pascaline, earlier mnemonic

arts (ars memoriæ) was being replaced by bodily knowledge (ars corporalis): the practice

of arithmetic was being moved from the mind to the body. Pascal, said otherwise,

Maurice Halbwachs, Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire (Paris: La Haye, Mouton Editeur, 1975
[1925]). Simon Schama, Landscape and memory (New York: Vintage Books, 1996). See also the essential
Paul Ricoeur, La Mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2000).
See, for example, Vernon Pratt, Thinking machines: The evolution of artificial intelligence
(Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987) and Jean Marguin, Histoire des instruments et machines à calculer. Trois
siècles de mécanique pensante, 1642-1942 (Paris: Hermann, 1994).

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

transformed arithmetical knowledge from a scientia to a mundane coutume. Whereas

René Descartes tried hard to get rid of the artisan’s habitus in designing his lens-grinding

machine, as demonstrated in Chapter two, Pascal, conversely, believed that bodily

coutumes could become an authoritative source of knowledge, less prone than the mind to

commit errors. Cartesian rationalism was not the best source of knowledge—Pascal

famously declared Descartes inutile et incertain. 346 Only the combination of mind

(rationalism), body (coutume) and machine (pascaline) promised the greatest rewards in

domain of natural philosophy. That, in short, was the epistemic lesson of the arithmetical


This chapter is a first attempt at recreating the socio-cultural and intellectual

context of Pascal’s arithmetical machine. Like the preceding chapters on Mersenne’s

organ and Descartes’s lens-grinding machine, this chapter demonstrates how multifaceted

natural philosophy was in France in the seventeenth century. It involved not only

Cartesian rationalism, but various aspects of scientific practices and craftsmanship.


Pascal’s Avis nécessaire, written for those desiring to see and learn how to use the

arithmetical machine, begins with what must have sounded very promising to an early

modern gentleman dabbling with numbers: the machine, it says, could perform without

any effort whatsoever all the arithmetical operations that had so often worn out one’s

Pascal, Pensées, ed. by Gérard Ferreyrolles (Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 2000), S445. Pascal also
wrote on Descartes: “Il faut dire en gros: ‘Cela se fait par figure et mouvement,’ car cela est vrai. Mais de
dire quelles et composer la machine, cela est ridicule, car cela est inutile et incertain et pénible. Et quand
cela serait vrai, nous n’estimons pas que toute la philosophie vaille une heure de peine.” Ibid., S118

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

mind (qui t’a souventefois fatigué l’esprit) by means of the plume and the jetons. 347 The

conventional and most widely employed method to add, substract, multiply and divide

numbers used the pen (plume) to inscribe numbers on paper and a calculating table (not

unlike the old Chinese abacus) on which tokens (jetons) were used as a memory device to

help with the four basic arithmetical operations. Of the latter operations, multiplication

and division were the ones posing the biggest challenge to would-be mathematicians.

The plume and jetons illustrated the fact that multiplications (and divisions) could

be converted into series of simple additions (and subtractions). In the example of figure

3.1 (image on the right), 763 is multiplied by 46. With the help of jetons, you proceed in

four steps. First you put 763 on the left of what was called the “tree.” Each of those jetons

now represent the number 46, or a multiple of 46 (the jetons in between lines are valued

5, 50, 500, etc.); the jetons on the right are employed to add numbers in successive order.

On the first line on the left side, since we have three jetons, you begin by adding 46 + 46

+ 46 with the jetons on the right hand side of the tree. After completing this second step,

you move one line up on the left hand side. You then repeat the addition of 46s, but at the

same line-level as the jetons on the left, i.e. you move one line higher on the right side of

the tree and just add six times the number 46—which is actually 460. In other words,

rather than beginning your additions on the line labelled “i” you play this time on the line

labelled “C.” Moving one line up is equivalent to saying you are multiplying by 10 what

you are doing. Fourth and last step, and for similar reasons—multiplying by 100 this

time—you move still one line higher than the last operations on the right side of the tree

to finish the multiplication (7 times 46). In more familiar fashion, this is what you do:

Pascal, Avis nécessaire, OC, ii:334.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

46 The addition so far as seen from the right side
of the engraving after the second step.
46x The “x” symbolizes the factor 10, which
46x is felt by moving one line up on the
right side of the tree.
The addition so far as seen from the right side
2898 of the engraving after the third step.
46xx The “xx” symbolizes the factor 100,
46xx which is felt by moving two lines up on
46xx the right side of the tree.
The final result after the fourth and final step of
35098 the multiplication. It is the jetons representation
you find on the right side of the tree.

This method is and was much longer than performing a real multiplication, but it

had the advantage of avoiding the dreaded Pythagorean or multiplication tables—though

they were found in printed books and thus did not need to be learned by rote. Once one

learned how to perform such a task, it became a somewhat repetitive manipulation, one

that required time, care and attention but no special kind of erudition or memorization—

again, if need be, addition and subtraction tables were found in printed books. 348

Here is how Jean Trenchant explained this particular multiplication: “Multiplier. Povr
multiplier vne somme, comme 763 par 46. Premierement ie pose la somme à multiplier derriere l’arbre,
comme vous voyez: puis commençant en bas, ie leue vn get, pour lequel ie pose 46 à main droicte: & ainsi
ie continue de leuer tous les gets de bas contremont, l’vn apres l’autre, & tousiours pour chasque get que ie
leue de derriere ie pose 46 à dextre & à vis dont ie l’ay leué, c’est à dire, si ie leue vn cent, ie pose 46 ce[n]s
sçauoir est 4 sur la ligne des milliers, vn en l’espace au dessous, & vn sur la ligne des cens, ce sont 46 cens,
& ainsi des autres. Ceste multiplication monte 35098.” Jean Trenchant, L’Arithmetique de Iean Trenchant,
Departie en trois liures. Ensemble vn petit discours des Changes. Auec l’art de calculer aux Getons.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]


On the left, William Pratt’s 1617 arithmeticall jewel, a small calculating instrument that was nothing more
than a variant of the common abacus. A copy of the actual instrument is found in the Department of
Medieval and Later Antiquities, British Museum. See Turner, “Mathematical instruments and the education
of gentlemen,” 81. On the right, an excerpt from Jean Trenchant’s art de calculer aux getons, bounded with
his L’Arithmetique, which was first published in 1558 (this edition is dated from 1618).

For most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the technology of plume and

jetons was, as the Jesuit Jean François said in his arithmetic treatise of 1653, “the easiest,

safest [assurées], and most common of all.” 349 Some (pocket) books, such as Alexandre

Jean’s 1637 Arithmetiqve au miroir, offered pages upon pages of multiplication tables

designed to help its owner in making a variety of French currency conversions and small

commercial transactions, without him or her having to know how to multiply or do

simple rules of three. 350 Others tried to improve on the conventional technique of plume

Reueuë & augmentee en ceste derniere edition, tant de plusieurs regles & articles, par l’Autheur, que d’vne
Table de poids de vingt deux Prouinces, correspondans l’vne à l’autre (Paris, 1618).
Jean François, S.J., L’Arithmetique ov l’art de compter tovte sorte de nombres, Auec la Plume,
& les Iettons (Renne, 1653), 4.
Alexandre Jean, Arithmetiqve au miroir. Par laquelle on peut (en quatre vaccations de demie

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

and jetons, like William Pratt who invented the arithmeticall jewel and published a book

in 1617 explaining its use. (See Figure 3.1.) According to a later account by John Aubrey,

Dr Pell told me, that one Jeremiah Grinken [a mathematical instrument maker]
frequented Mr Gunters Lectures at Gresham-College: He used an Instrument
called a Mathematicall Jewell, by which he did speedily performe all Operations
in Arithmeticke, without writing any figures, by little Sectors of Brasse [or some
Semi-Circles] that did turn every one of them upon a Center. The Doctor has the
Booke … he told me, he thought his name is [William] Pratt. 351

Pratt was a mathematical practitioner and a member—along with Thomas Bretnor, John

Johnson and Aaron Rathborne—of the active circle of London’s mathematical teachers

close to Gresham College. 352 His arithmeticall jewel was nothing more than a

rudimentary mechanical reconfiguration of the conventional reckoning technique: a

portable, fancier and gentlemanly adaptation of the plume and jetons. With the exception

here that you did not need paper to inscribe, for instance, the carry-over numbers of an

addition; one could instead, using a small metallic stylus, “inscribe” them on the

instrument’s appropriate sectors of brasse. The reckoning method, nonetheless, was

precisely the same as the plume and jetons. Although a number of these new and

sophisticated devices might have created some excitement in the field of arithmetic, they

heure chacune) pratiquer les plus belles regles d’icelle (n.p., 1637). For instance, “Pour sçauoir à quoy se
monte le sol pour liure de quelque somme que ce soit, il faut trouuer la colomne qui represente le nombre
de vostre somme, & dans la premiere ligne des sols, vous trouuerez à quoy se monte ledit sol pour liure.”
(p.10). A new edition of this work was published in 1649. I found it at Houghton Library, Harvard
University, bounded with Sieur de Baresme, L’Arithmetique nouvelle, dans sa véritable perfection. Où l’on
peut en très-peu de tems facilement, & même seul, aprendre à compter, chiffrer & calculer sans Maître
toutes sortes de Sommes. Mise dans une facilité toute particuliére, qui n’a point encore parû (Paris, 1646?)
Also in that same book, Anonymous, Methode facile pour apprendre l’arithmetique de soi-même, et sans
maître (Auxerre, 1656).
Ms Aubrey, 10 f 37, Bodleian Library, Oxford University. Quoted from Anthony Turner,
“Mathematical instruments and the education of gentlemen,” Annals of Science 30 (1973), 51-88, on pp.
83-84. Pratt, in association with John Harper and Jeremy Drury, received a patent on 27 March 1616 “for
the sole making of a table for casting accounts.”
E. G. R. Taylor, The mathematical practitioners of Tudor & Stuart England (Cambridge:
Cambridge Univerity Press, 1954), 204-205.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

were still founded on established century-old techniques of calculation. It was not until

two mathematical practices—rabdology and logarithm—were invented in the 1610s by

the Scottish mathematical practitioner John Napier, that the early modern science of

calculation took a genuine new turn.


Napier published his Rabdologiæ, seu numerationis per virgulas in 1617, after

having published in 1614 his Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descriptio. We will come

back to logarithms later. These were more famous and important as a mathematical tool

but Napier used rabdology to calculate the logarithmic tables appended to his Mirifici

logarithmorum. What Napier did with this rabdology, or art of reckoning with numbered

rods, 353 was to adapt and expand on an algorithm known in thirteenth-century Italy as the

Gelosia method, which had been devised in India several centuries before and later

transmitted to Europe. In both cases, the basic idea was to replace demanding

calculations, involving multiplications and divisions of long numbers, by the simpler and

better known arithmetical operations of addition and subtraction. 354 Napier’s reckoning

rods, simply said, were just a clever way to use multiplication tables without having to

learn them.

John Napier, Rabdologiae, seu Numerationis per virgulas libri duo cum appendice de
expeditissimo multiplicationis promptuario. Quibus accessit & arithmeticae localis liber vnus. Authore &
inventore Ioanne Nepero, Barone Merchistonii, &c. Scoto (Edinburgh, 1617), 1: “Rabdologia est Ars
Computandi per Virgulas numeratrices.”
Ibid., where Napier wrote that “Virgulæ autem numeratrices, sunt virgulæ quadratæ, mobiles,
simplicium notarum multiplis inscriptæ, ad difficiliores Arithmaticæ vulgaris operationes facilè & expeditè
perficiendas.” For an English translation of this work, the only one to my knowledge, see Napier,
Rabdology, transl. by William F. Richardson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990).

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

John Dansie, in the first English vernacular account of Napier’s rabdology, thus

described the chief purpose of reckoning rods:

The vse of them is Arithmeticall aymeing chiefly at the most difficult parts of that
art: viz multiplication, diuision, extraction of the square & cubique Roots whose
intricate operations, these little moueables doth so facillitate, that the meanest
capacity may in 2 houres learne to multiply and diuide, which are the parts
indeauored in this little manuell. 355

The principle behind these Napier’s bones, as they were (and still are) often dubbed when

made of ivory, 356 is simple and less time-consuming than the jetons—though one needed

pen and paper to inscribe the result of the

partial sums and, if need be, the carry-over

numbers for those who did not want to

memorize them. In the following example,

let us multiply 6497 by 6. You first go to

the rod (0-9) on the far left and look at line

6. Then, going from right to left, you add

the numbers diagonally on that line. The

FIGURE 3.2: EXAMPLE OF NAPIER’S BONES first number of the multiplication is 2;
An example of how to arrange Napier’s bones.

the second is (4+4); the third is (5+4); the fourth is (2+6) and the last is 3. In other words,

the result is 38982. If you wanted to multiply that same number 6497 by 359, you would

John Dansie, A Mathematicall manuel: Wherein Is handled Arithmeticke, planimetry,
stereometry, and the embattelling of armies. Whereby any man that can but add and subtract, may learne
to multiply and divide in two houres by rabdologie, without any trouble at all to the memorie. Whereunto is
annexed the measuring of superficies, solids, the gageing of caske, with inuention of proportionall
numbers, fitted to the subdiuisions of gageing rods; and the embattelling of armies according to the
discipline now in vse. Written by Iohn Dansie student in the mathematiques (London, 1627), 2.
Ibid., 1: “or as they are vulgarly called Napeirs bones.”

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

repeat the same process three times with lines 3, 5 and 9 and finally add those three

partial sums, taking into account the fact that the number 3 here actually represents 300

and 5 represents 50 (meaning that when you add those three partial sums, you have to be

careful where you position the numbers, shifting one column to the left for 5 and two for

3). Divisions with reckoning rods were a little bit longer but equally simple. 357

Napier’s rods rapidly became popular in England. According to Seth Partridge, a

London-based surveyor and mathematical practitioner, these reckoning rods were easy to

make in any material whasoever; they could either be manufactured by oneself or bought

in good London instrument shops:

These speaking-Rods may be made either of Silver, Brasse, Ivorie, or Wood, as

the maker and user of them best pleaseth, but they are most ordinarily made of
good sollid Box, and being thereof made, they are as usefull as those made of any
other substance whatsoever, Nay, I hold them more light and nimble then those
made of Mettall; … Every practitioner may make them himselfe by cutting the
faces of every one of the printed papers of the Rods, and so placed on a square
piece of wood as before; or else they are ready made in Wood, by Master John
Thompson in Hosier lane neere Smithfield, who makes all kinde of Mathematicall
Instruments, and also by Mr. Anthony Thompson in Gresham Colledge, and by Mr.
Thomas Browne at the Globe neere Aldgate. In Silver or Brasse they are made by
Mr. Elias Allen, over against St. Clements Church without Temple-Barre. 358

Their success in the decades following Napier’s 1617 publication can be gauged by the

sizeable amount of existing reckoning rods in museum collections in Europe and North

America and by the several versions and alterations made to them. 359

A short history and a précis of their use is found in D. J. Bryden, Napier’s bones: A history and
instruction manual (London: Harriet Wynter Ltd., 1992).
Seth Partridge, Rabdologia, or, The art of numbring by rods whereby the tedious operations of
multiplication, and division, and of extraction of roots, both square and cubick, are avoided, being for the
most part performed by addition and subtraction: with many examples for the practice of the same: first
invented by the Lord Napier, Baron of Marchiston, and since explained, and made usefull for all sorts of
men (London, 1648), 2-4. On Partridge see Taylor, The mathematical practitioners, 209.
For the description of several of these different sorts of Napier’s bones, see D. Baxandall and
Jane Pugh, Calculating machines and instruments (London: Science Museum, 1975 [1926]). See also D. J.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

They became representative as well of the kind of mathematical tools entitled to

the education of a prince. One of the best known illustrations of such a case was

Athanasius Kircher’s Organum mathematicum, a “mathematical instrument” or box—

also called cista—within which the basic principles of arithmetic, geometry, fortification,

chronology, horography, astronomy, astrology, steganography (encryption), and music

were explained. (See Figure 3.3.) For arithmetic—the primum Organi Loculamentum—

Kircher precisely chose Napier’s reckoning rods, made in paper glued on wood and

provided in three sets of ten rods. 360 Like the other mathematical disciplines embodied in

the organum, these wooden rods were meant to assist its owner in making calculations

without “capitis defatigatione.” In the letter acknowledging the reception of Kircher’s

organum mathematicum, the young Archduke of Austria Joseph Karl wrote he was

pleased with such a gift that would help him better understand the rudiments of the

mathematical disciplines, which were truly worthy of a king. As a matter of fact, he wrote

Kircher that the “organum pleases me more and more.” 361

Bryden, “Scientific relics: John Napier’s bones,” Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society 76 (March
2003), 6-9.
According to Gaspar Schott, who wrote the description of Kircher’s organum mathematicum,
we learn that although this number could be smaller, the more tabellas arithmeticas (as he called the
reckoning rods) one had, the easier it would be to calculate larger numbers: “Non opus est, ut habeantur
triginta Tabellæ Arithmetiæ, quot in primo loculamento Organi Mathematici continentur, & in præsenti
Iconismo II. repræsentur: sed possunt esse pauciores. Quò tamen plures sunt, eò majores numeri per ipsas
fine difficultate ac defatigatione ferè ulla multiplicari ac dividi possunt. Triginta sunt abundè satis.” Schott,
Organum mathematicum libris IX explicatum (Herbipoli [Würzburg], 1668), 71. For a general description
of this instruments and those similar to it, Mara Miniati, “Les cistæ mathematicæ et l’organisation des
connaissances au XVIIe siècle,” in Studies in the History of Scientific Instruments, ed. by Christine Blondel
et al. (London: Rogers Turner Books Ltd, 1989), 43-51. A nice example in found in Florence at the Istituto
e Museo di storia della scienza.
Archduke Joseph Karl to Kircher, 31 December 1661, where he wrote: “Placet mihi sedulitas,
ut magna cum facilitate capiam disciplinas Mathematicas, quas iure merìto regias ac principe dignas
appellasti. Futurium vero est, ut mihi magis magisque placeat organum…” See also the draft of the letter
Kircher sent to Karl Joseph on 7 July 1661, in which he described his instrument: “Mitto per manus P.
Pizzoni Serenissimae Vestrae Celsitudini, Instrumentum quoddam quod Organum mathematicum appello;
in quo summa facilitate traduntur illae Artes mathematicae, ad quas Serentitatem vestram inclinari audio,

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]



Here is part of the description Schott

provided for Kircher’s organum
mathematicum, above: “Nempe est
Cistula A B C D E F G, scalari formâ
ad modum Organorum
pneumaticorum, quorum in templis
nostris est usus, constructa è ligno
polito, auro & aliis coloribus, ad
majorem ornatum, oculorumque
delectationem, variè & affabrè
depicta. Insistit immobiliter basi
latiori B H I K D, intus cavæ, ex
eadem materiâ fabricatæ, eisdemque
coloribus exornatæ. Altitudines A B
& G C, ac longitudines A G & B C,
possunt esse majores aut minores,
quàm figura exhibet; uti & latitudines
A F, G E, C D, quæ in præsenti
figura justò contractiores sunt,
Opticæ legibus id postulantibus,
quàm in prototypo.” Schott,
Organum mathematicum, 54-55
(above). Below, Schott’s
modification of the reckoning rods,
the “Nova cistula pro tabellis
Neperianis, facilisq[ue] ac jucundus
illarum usus,” chap. 12 of the
Organum mathematicum.

Yet Gaspar Schott, to whom we owe the printed description of Kircher’s organum

mathematicum in 1668, added his own innovation to Napier’s reckoning rods. 362 Instead

of having to deal with a number of individual little rods each time one desired to perform

a multiplication, Schott designed a box (cistula) in which Napier’s rods were converted

Regibus et Principibus uti par est, nullo non tempore summo in honore habitae?” Both letters are found in
the Archivio della Pontificia università Gregoriana, Rome, APUG 555, f.075r and f.098r respectively. The
letters were extracted from the Athanasius Kircher Correspondence Project established by Michael John
Gorman and Nick Wilding <> (accessed on 24 November
Schott, Organum mathematicum, 133-136. A nice overview of Schott’s life and activities is
found in the introductory essay of Kaspar Schott: La technica curiosa; saggio introduttivo di Michael John
Gorman e Nick Wilding; con uno studio linguistico e traduzioni annotate dal latino a cura di Maurizio
Sonnino; prefazione di Paolo Galluzzi (Roma: Edizioni dell'Elefante, 2000).

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

“idque in hunc modum” into cylinders, each one of them incorporating the complete set

of multiples from one to nine previously found on several separate rods. 363 (See Figure

3.3.) To operate the machine, one only had to turn the cylinders’ handles to the proper

figure needed to be multiplied, and it then only became a matter of following Napier’s

well-defined rules of rabdology. Moreover, to ensure the machine would be utilized by

the greatest possible number of people, a table of addition and subtraction was provided

on the inside cover of the cistula. This system was not entirely new since in the early

1620s Wilhelm Schickard used it in what is now famously known as the first arithmetical

machine. Whether Caspar Schott knew about it is unknown, and perhaps unlikely since

Schickard machine was lost to a fire and known only through two letters sent to Kepler in

1623-24. After Schott’s publication, however, this new rabdological machine was

reproduced and redesigned many times, especially in England. In France, the clockmaker

René Grillet borrowed this concept in making his machine arithmétique in the 1670s and

Claude Perrault modified it considerably for his abaque rhabdologique toward the end of

the century. In Germany, still later, Jacob Leupold adapted it to his own Rechen-

Machine. 364

“Fiant quotquot volueris (decem sufficiunt) cylindruli, æqualis inter se omnes longitudinis &
crassitiei. In convexa superficie singulorum describatur Tabela cum numeris, quam suprâ cap. 8. §. 1. ex
Nepero dedi; idque in hunc modum. Totam convexam cylindrulorum superficiem divide secundùm
longitudinem in decem æqualia spatiola, juxta numerum decem columnularum citatæ Tabulæ Neperianæ.
Singula spatiola divide in novem quadratula, & singula quadratula in duo triangula; triangulis verò inscribe
eosdem numeros, qui in citata Tabula Neperiana scripti sunt, modo & ordine eodem qui ibi.” Schott,
Organum mathematicum, 134.
On Grillet, see his Curiositez mathematiques (Paris, 1673) and the “Novvelle machine
d’arithmetiqve de l’invention du Sieur Grillet Hologeur a Paris,” Journal des sçavans, 25 April 1678, 161-
164. Rabdology was also used in various other mechanical calculating machines. Samuel Morland, for
instance, designed one calculating machine on Napier’s principle and so did Claude Perrault later in the
century. Morland, A new and most useful instrument for adition and subtraction of pounds, shillings, pence,
and farthings (London, 1672); Perrault, “Abaque rhabdologique inventé par M. Perrault, de l’Academie
royale des sciences,” in Machines et inventions approuvées par l’Académie royale des sciences, depuis son
établissement jusqu’à present; avec leur Description. Dessinées & publiées du consentement de

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

A lesser known modification to Napier’s bones was invented in France by Pierre

Petit, king counsellor and Intendant des Fortifications, who devised what he called an

arithmetical cylinder. (See Figure 3.4.) According to Petit, people ceased using Napier’s

“beautiful invention” because “the multitude and embarasment [sic] of those sticks, filled

with numbers on all sides, proved longsom and tedious.” 365 Since Petit found this method

of calculating still useful—and because it was “easier to improve on inventions than to

become an inventor”—he designed long bands or ribbons of paper each containing all the

multiples of Napier’s rabdology. Those long bands were then attached end to end and

mounted on a wooden cylinder the size of a child’s drum or a hat, and of a length which

depended on the quantity of bands one wished to have in order to make calculations with

large numbers. 366 The reckoning principles were of course identical to Napier’s rods’.

Petit deemed these common enough by then that he wrote only a brief summary of how

to proceed toward making a multiplication and a division.

l’Adadémie, par M. Gallon, 7 vols (Paris, 1735-1777), i:55-58. An example is found in the Musée des arts
et métiers, Paris, inv. number 00800-0000. Leopold, Theatrum arithmetico-geometricum, 25. Leupold’s
machine was not unlike Pierre Petit’s arithmetical cylinder, described below.
Pierre Petit, Dissertations academiques sur la nature du froid et du chaud. Avec un Discours
sur la construction & l’usage d’un Cylindre Arithmetique, inventé par le mesme Autheur (Paris, 1653), 6
(this pagination is separated from the previous Dissertations): “Mais parce que la multitude & l’embarras
de ces petits bastons remplis de chiffres de tous costez, apportoit des longueurs à leur arrengement, & à leur
usage, à cause de leur mobilité & changement de places; on a quitté la pratique de cette belle invention.”
Petit’s book was reviewed in the Philosophical Transactions 6 (1671), 3043-3045, where I took the English
quote (p. 3044). A French summary of this book is found in the Journal des sçavans, lundy 13. Juin 1672,
Ibid., 8-9: “je m’avisay encores pour un plus grand abrégé de plier ces bandes en cercles bien
égaux & de coler sur chacun d’iceux trois ou quatre petits boutons de bois de la grosseur d’une teste
d’épingle, puis de les mettre sur un rouleau ou Cylindre de bois ou carton, sur lequel on les pût tourner par
le moyen desdits boutons: & c’est pour cela que j’appelle cette petite machine Cylindre Arithmetique, qui
est environ de la grosseur ou diametre d’un tambour d’enfant, ou d’une forme de chapeau, & de la longueur
ou hauteur que l’on veut pour contenir tant de bandes ou cercles qu’on desire pour faire de grandes

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]



Each strip or ribbon in Petit’s

cylindre arithmetique contains the
whole set of numbers from one to
nine as found on Napier’s bones.
The section with Roman numerals
is there to visually delimit the
multiplicant, so as to avoid any
confusion when multiplying. As he
wrote: “I’y adjoustay une file de
characteres ou chiffres romains, I,
pour mettre à costé & vis à vis des
nombres multipliants & divisants;
tres-utiles, tant pour marquer le
commencement & la fin desdits
nombres, pour s’arrester où il faut
(toutes les bandes n’estant pas
employez en toutes les operations)
que pour marquer le multiple dont
on se veut servir en chaque
no[m]bre.” Petit, Discours sur la
construction & l’usage d’un
Cylindre Arithmetique, 7.


Despite these interesting and fairly popular innovations, Napier’s rabdology was

only a procedural technique aimed at facilitating calculation. The chief prize and true

mathematical innovation was Napier’s logarithms. Published in 1614, Napier’s Mirifici

logarithmorum found a rather quick acceptance by mathematical practitioners all over

Europe, from Kepler in Prague to Aleaume in Paris. Yet the impact was perhaps best felt

in England, where a translation by Edward Wright—supplied by an appendix from Henri

Briggs—was published as early as 1616; it was followed by a series of books and

mathematical instruments that explained and facilitated their use. 367 According to Napier

John Napier, Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descriptio, ejusque usus, in utraque

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

himself, there was nothing so “troublesome” to “Calculators” than the multiplication,

division, and extraction of square and cubic roots of great numbers, “which besides the

tedious expence of time, are for the most part subiect to many slippery errors.” Not only

his invention did “cast away from the worke it selfe, euen the very numbers themselues

that are to be multiplied, diuided, and resolued into rootes, and putteth other numbers in

their place, which performe as much as they can do, onely by Addition and Subtraction,

Diuision by two, or Diuision by three…” 368 The mathematical salvation of early modern

astronomers and sailors came from providing them with a method to execute the most

difficult of calculating feats using simple additions and subtractions of “artificiall”

numbers, or logarithms.

In contrast to rabdology, where one would have to perform several additions,

logarithms could give the result of such a multiplication as 124 x 764 simply by looking

at printed tables and adding two numbers. Here is how it was done. Taking, for instance,

Briggs’s Arithmetica logarithmica one first located in the mathematical tables the

logarithm of 124—which is 2,09342,16851,6224; the same was done with 764, which

gives a second 15-digit number, 2,88309,33585,7569. One then adds these two numbers,

resulting in the “artificiall” number 4,97651,50437,3793. To find the result of the initial

trigonometria, ut etiam in omni logistica mathematica, amplissimi, facillimi, & expeditissimi explicatio.
Authore ac inventore, Ioanne Nepero, Barone Merchistonii, &c. Scoto. (Edinburgh, 1614). Napier, A
description of the admirable table oe [sic] logarithmes with a declaration of the most plentiful, easy, and
speedy vse thereof in both kindes of trigonometrie, as also in all mathematicall calculations / invented and
published in Latin by that honorable L. Iohn Nepair ... ; and translated into English by the late learned and
famous mathematician Edward Wright; with an addition of an instrumentall table to finde the part
proportionall, inuented by the translator, and described in the end of the booke by Henry Brigs ... ; all
perused and approued by the author, & published since the death of the translator (London, 1616). It was
reedited in 1618.
Napier’s preface to A description of the admirable table oe [sic] logarithmes, sig. A5r-A5v.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

multiplication, it sufficed to return to the mathematical tables in order to revert to the

corresponding “naturall” number 94,736. 369

Logarithms were often called “artificiall numbers” or “borrowed numbers”

because, as we just saw, they transformed “naturall numbers” into completely different

ones. At the root of this transformation is a simple concept, based on mathematical

proportions. As Edmund Wingate explained in his Arithmetiqve made easie,

“Logarithmes are borrowed numbers, which differ amongst themselves by Arithmeticall

proportion, as the numbers that borrow them differ by Geometricall proportion.” 370 Take

the following series of numbers:

Henry Briggs, Arithmetica logarithmica sive Logarithmorum chiliades triginta, pro numeris
naturali serie crescentibus ab unitate ad 20,000: et a 90,000 ad 100,000 Quorum ope multa perficiuntur
arithmetica problemata et geometrica. Hos numeros primus invenit clarissimus vir Iohannes Neperus baro
Merchistonij: eos autem ex eiusdem sententia mutavit, eorumque ortum et vsum illustravit Henricus
Briggius, in celeberrima Academia Oxoniensi geometriae professor Savilianus (London, 1624), for all the
numbers. Briggs published the logarithms for the numbers 1 to 20,000 and 90,000 to 100,000. Adriaen
Vlacq filled the gap between 20,000 and 90,000 in Arithmetiqve logarithmetiqve ov la constrvction et vsage
d’vne table contenant les Logarithmes de tous les Nombres depuis l’Vnité jusques à 100000. Et d’vne avtre
table en laquelle sont comprins les Logarithmes des Sinus, Tangentes & Secantes, de tous les Degrez et
Minutes du quart du Cercle, selon le Raid de 10,00000,0000 parties. Par le moyen desqvelles on resovlt
tres-facilement les Problemes Arithmetiques & Geometriques. Ces nombres premierement sont inventez
par Iean Neper Baron de Marchiston: Mais Henry Brigs Professeur de la Geometrie en l’Vniversité
d’Oxford, les a changé, & leur Nature, Origines, & Vsage illustré selon l’intention du dit Neper (Gouda,
1628). Vlacq, however, cut the last four decimal numbers of Briggs’s logarithms.
Edmund Wingate, Arithmetique made easie in tvvo bookes. The former, of naturall
arithmetique: containing a perfect method for the true knowledge and practice of arithmetique, according
to the ancient vulgar way, without dependance vpon any other author for the grounds thereof. The other of
artificiall arithmetique, discovering how to resolve all questions of arithmetique by addition and
subtraction. Together with an appendix, resolving likewise by addition and subtraction all questions, that
concerne equation of time, interest of money, and valuation of purchases, leases, annuities, and the like
(London, 1630), 152.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]


1 1 0 5 5

2 10 1 8 6

4 100 2 11 7

8 1,000 3 14 8

16 10,000 4 17 9

32 100,000 5 20 10

64 1,000,000 6 23 11

The first two columns, A and B, are geometrical progressions, i.e. the quotient of two

consecutive numbers is equal to any two different consecutive numbers (for instance,

2:4::8:16). The other three columns, C, D, and E are arithmetical progressions, i.e. the

difference between any two consecutive numbers is equal to the difference of any two

other consecutive numbers (for instance, 1-2=5-6). From here, one makes a one to one

correspondence between, say, column B and C such that the logarithm of 1 is equal to 0;

the logarithm of 10 is equal to 1; the logarithm of 100 is 2, etc. In modern notation one

finds log101=0; log1010=1; log10100=2, etc. or, equivalently, 1=100; 10=101; 100=102, etc.

By definition, taking the logarithm of a number (x) is finding the numerical indice (n) in

a given base (b) that will give this exact number: logbx=n or x=bn. Owing to the

properties of indices in multiplication, multiplying two numbers x=bn by y=bm is equal to

xy=bn+m, or the sum n+m of the respective logarithms: logbx=n plus logby=m. Likewise,

dividing two numbers is simply the subtraction of the numbers’ respective logarithms.

Although using and understanding the properties of logarithms was easy enough,

the truly demanding part was computing the needed logarithms. It is why books filled

with thousands of logarithmic tables were published. Only by means of these tables were

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

logarithms made genuinely useful. Because, as Wingate demonstrated, finding from

scratch a simple logarithm, such as the logarithm of 2, often involved scores of protracted

calculations, especially taking the square roots of at least twelve-decimal-place numbers,

but also as divisions and multiplications by two of similar behemoth numbers and one or

multiple rules of three. No wonder Napier invented his reckoning rods as a mathematical

aid to these time-consuming calculations. 371 Although some astronomers took notice of

logarithms, like Kepler who published three books on the subject, it is in the domain of

navigation that they soon became the most practical and convenient of calculating

techniques. 372

Since Gerard Mercator published a chart in 1569 with the proper projection of the

earth’s sphere, taking one’s bearing on the sea had to be modified. Mercator’s chart was

To find the logarithm of 2, Wingate started first by calculating a series of continuall meanes.
Taking the number 10, he wrote under it its square root; then he took the square root of the last number;
and the square root of that number again… until he arrived (after 24 iterations) at three numbers which all
have six 0 (he called them cyphers) in their first decimal places (such as 1.000000548979). Depending on
the degree of accuracy desired, one would continue this process until s/he obtained the number of cyphers
needed. To find the logarithm of all these numbers, he then explained that since the logarithm of 10 was 1,
and since he took the successive square root of each numbers, the logarithm of each of these numbers could
be found easily by dividing by two 24 times the number 1 (if x=100.5, then log10x=0.5). The basic idea
behind calculating the square root so many times until one reached a number with six cyphers is because
Wingate showed that at this level of accuracy, the numbers thus found became proportional to their
logarithm! Hence to find the logarithm of such a similar small number, one only needed to make a rule of
three. It is this property that he then used to find the logarithm of 2. First, he took again the square root of
two until he found his first numbers with six cyphers (20 iterations!); using the rule of three with the other
small logarithms found earlier, he calculated the logarithm for this small number. Finally, he multiplied this
logarithm by two until he reached the number for the logarithm of 2. All logarithms were not as difficult to
find. For instance, to find the logarithm of 5, we know that 10÷2=5, and owing to the properties of
logarithms, log1010÷log102=log105, or one minus the logarithm of 2 found with much labor gives log105.
And consequently, one can easily find the logarithm of all the numbers that are made by the multiplication
and division of these three numbers, i.e. 2, 5, and 10. Wingate, Arithmetique made easie, 164-175.
On Kepler, see Charles Naux, Histoire des logarithmes de Neper à Euler, 2 vols. (Paris:
Librairie scientifique et technique A. Blanchard, 1966-1971), i:128-158. It is the best overall historical
account on logarithm I found so far. Before logarithms became standardized as a mathematical tool, the
most common mathematical trick used in astronomy was called prostapheresis, invented by an Arabic
astronomer in the eleventh century but popularized in Latin West by Tycho Brahe. What it does again is
transform long multiplications with trigonometrical numbers into simple additions, most specifically of the
following sort: sin a x cos b = ½ [sin (a+b) + sin (a-b)]. Ibid., 30-32.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

no “plane” chart, meaning that the distortion introduced by this novel projection—which

kept the parallel meridians—introduced the concept of spherical triangles in navigation.

Mathematicians already had instruments at their disposition to perform these more

complex calculations with sine and cosine functions, like Peter Apian’s well-known

Instrvmentvm primi mobilis later replicated in brass by Egnatio Danti in 1568. 373 In order

to help seamen, however, Edmund Gunter first adapted the sector to navigation use, a

mathematical instrument recently invented and mostly used by surveyors, military

engineers and other mathematical practitioners. In his 1623 De sectore et radio, Gunter

explained how to apply to navigation the special lines he added to the instrument, like the

lines divided according to trigonometrical functions and a linear scale of the meridional

parts (especially designed to work out problems of positions and distances on a Mercator-

projected chart). In that same work, moreover, Gunter introduced a logarithmic scale or

rule he placed on a cross-staff—besides the lines of numbers, he engraved the lines of the

logarithms of sines and tangents—so that calculations with spherical triangles were

performed by means of Napier’s invention. Three years before, in 1620, Gunter had

already published the logarithmic tables for trigonometric functions; so what the

logarithmic scale did was reproducing on a seaman’s instrument the logarithmic tables

found in printed books. (See Figure 3.5.) With a simple pair of dividers, one could

perform with tools logarithmic additions and subtractions without the awkwardness of

Peter Apian, Instrvmentvm primi mobilis… (Nuremberg, 1534). On Danti’s instrument, found
at the Istituto e Museo di storia della scienza in Florence, see Epact: Scientific instruments of Medieval and
Renaissance Europe <http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/epact/catalogue.php?ENumber=43630&Search=primi>
(Accessed on 19 March 2007).

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

having to flip through the pages of a bulky book—in the rain on the deck of a rolling

ship, for instance. 374



In the 1623 English translation of his Canon triangvlorvm,

Gunter, explained that “For these Sines are not such as halfe the
chords of the double arke, nor these Tangents perpendiculars at
the end of the Diameter; but other numbers substituted in their
place, for attaining the same end, by a more easy way, such as the
Logarithmes of the Lord of Merchiston, and thereupon I call them
Artificiall Sinces and Tangents.” (p. sig. A2r) The title-page here is
from the original Latin 1620 edition. Below, Wingate’s engraving
of a section of his line of proportion as printed in The
construction, and vse of the line of proportion.

Gunter, Canon triangulorum, sive Tabulae sinuum et tangentium artificialium ad radium
10000.0000. & ad scrupula prima quadrantis. Per Edm: Gunter, professorem astronomiae in Collegio
Greshamensi (London, 1620). An English edition was published in 1623. Gunter, De sectore & radio. The
description and vse of the sector in three bookes. The description and vse of the cross-staffe in other three
bookes. For such as are studious of mathematicall practise (London, 1623). James A. Bennett, The divided
circle: A history of instruments for astronomy, navigation and surveying (Oxford: Phaidon and Christie’s,
1987), 60-63. On Gunter’s scale, Florian Cajori, A history of the logarithmic slide rule and allied
instruments and On the history of Gunter’s scale and the slide rule during the seventeenth century
(Mendham, NJ: Astragal Press, 1994). See also Anthony Turner, “‘Utile pour les calculs’: The logarithmic
scale rule in France and England during the seventeenth century,” Archives internationales d’histoire des
sciences 38 (1988), 252-270.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

Gunter’s scale had a successful fortune. Travelling in France as Henrietta Maria’s

tutor, daughter of the late French king Henry IV and soon to be wedded to king Charles I,

Wingate demonstrated Napier’s logarithms and Gunter’s new mathematical instrument to

a number of Parisian savants, 375 which ultimately led him to write a short treatise on the


The occasion of composing this Treatise was this: In Anno 1624 I making a
journey into France, had the happinesse to be the first transporter of the use of
these inventions into those parts; Where as soone as I was arrived, divers
Mathematicians of the chiefest note in Paris, resorting to my chamber, and I
communicating unto them first the manifold uses of the Logarithmes described
upon Master Gunters Crosse-staffe, they earnestly importuned mee to expresse
them by some short Treactate in the French Tongue, which when I had composed,
and prefixed thereunto a Preface declaring the whole History of the rare and
exquisite Invention of Logarithmes … as also of Master Gunters rare invention
for projecting the Logarithmes in plane, I was advised by Master Alleaume the
Kings chiefe engineir to dedicate my Booke to MONSIEUR the Kings brother,
whose favourable admittance thereof, encouraged mee not long after to present
him with this Treatise also… 376

But because a certain lawyer from Dijon, after receiving instructions from Wingate

himself, threatened to publish right away something on the logarithmic scale rule,

Wingate had to rush through the press his own account, leaving out the usus part of this

otherwise typical fabrica et usus work, namely how to employ the rule in navigation,

Some of these Parisian savants that may have then seen Wingate’s instrument were Etienne
Flantin, Guillaume Ferrier, Claude Bidault, Etienne Raulin, Jacques Aleaume (all from the Galerie du
Louvre), Denis Henrion, Pierre Dujardin, Melchior Tavernier, Claude Piquet, A. Vernier and Daniel
Chorez, who at one point or another had all constructed mathematical instruments. Daumas, Les
Instruments scientifiques aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1953), 97-98
and Anthony Turner’s more extensive list in idem, “Mathematical instrument-making in early modern
Paris,” in Luxury trades and consumerism in ancien régime France. Studies in the history of the skilled
workforce, ed. by Robert Fox and Anthony Turner (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), 63-96, on p. 88.
Edmund Wingate, Logarithmotechnia, or The construction, and use of the logarithmeticall
tables by the help of which, multiplication is performed by addition, division by subtraction, the extraction
of the square root by bipartition, and of the cube root by tripartition, &c. Finally, the golden rule, and the
resolution of triangles, as well right lined, as sphericall by addition and subtraction. First published in the
French tongue by Edmund Wingate, an English gentleman: and after translated into English by the same
author (London, 1635), sig. A4r-A4v. The French book to which Wingate refers to is L’Usage de la reigle
de proportion en l’arithmetique et geometrie (Paris, 1624). I have not seen this book yet.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

astronomy, dialling, the military arts, etc. The reigle de proportion, nevertheless, was

found in Paris in the shop of Melchior Tavernier, Graveur & Imprimeur du roy pour les

tailles douces. 377

Although Wingate published in 1628 an English translation of the previous work,

The construction and vse of the line of proportion, it was only in his 1630 Arithmetiqve

made easie that Wingate fully developed the concept of this mathematical instrument.

(See Figure 3.5.) In the preface of the latter work, he mentioned that although “how

admirabl[ly] vsefull those [logarithmic] Tables might be” great benefit would arise if they

were made less bulky, portable, and inexpensive. After some thought, Wingate

“hap[pe]ned vpon this way, which, as I co[n]ceiue, is the planest and best, that can bee

inuented for abreuiating the Tables of Logarithmes.” This instrument, in fact, was “so

portable, that being rolled vp you may inclose it in a paper box no bigger then your

finger, and little more then two inches long; and as for the vse thereof, you may discouer

at one view the Logarithme of any number whatsoever vpon it…” 378 Wingate saw huge

advantages in using this printed-on-paper instrument, of which the “infallibility of the

Impreßion is not the least; for it being at first perfectly engrauen, there can be no error

committed in Printing the copies thereof; whereas the Tables of Logarithmes (printed at

In the preface of L’Usage de la reigle de proportion, Wingate wrote: “mais un certain
Bourguignon, se disait Avocat au Parlement de Dijon, à qui j’en avois aussi entr’autres en partie monstré
l’usage, a tasché de rompre mon entreprise faisant imprimer ce que je luy en avois communiqué.” Cited
from Turner, “‘Utile pour les calculs’,” 253. The information on Tavernier is found at the back of the title
page. See Cajori, On the history of Gunter’s scale and the slide rule, 140. This was not an uncommon
problem shared by mathematical practitioners. Galileo faced a similar situation with his geometrical and
military compass. Quite happy to use manuscript copies of the compass’ instructional manual for his
students, he was forced to publish it after hearing someone was “getting ready to appropriate” his
invention. Conversely to Wingate, however, what was left out (deliberately) was the fabrica part, not the
usus one. Ten months later, he accused Baldassare Capra of plagiarizing both his book and instrument. See
Mario Biagioli, Galileo’s instrument of credit: Telescopes, images, secrecy (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2006), 4.
Wingate, Arithmetiqve made easie, preface, sig. A3v-A4r. (italics original)

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

large in figures) are subiect to many faults, either in the Composing, Correcting, or

Imprinting, whatsoeuer care or circumspection may be vsed to preuent the same.” 379 For

Wingate, the rule of proportion was a “Mechanicall Table of Logarithmes,” 380 a material

incarnation of a mathematical concept tremendously helpful to all the practices of the

mixed mathematics. But moreover, epistemologically speaking, the rule of proportion as

a mathematical instrument became the one and only “material device” capable of

perfectly embodying the tables of logarithms and, consequently, the abstract

mathematical notion of logarithm. We will see later how Pascal pushed such a

mechanical conception to its limit with his arithmetical machine.

Two years after Wingate’s reigle de proportion appeared in Paris, Denis Henrion

described a similar instrument in a book entitled Logocanon, ov regle proportionnelle

(1626). (See Figure 3.6.) Henrion, never mentioning Wingate’s visit to Paris, said he

received Gunter’s lastest works on logarithms and the logarithmic scale rule published

just a few years before. As a mathematical practitioner himself, Henrion knew perfectly

well that although the sector, or compas de proportion, was a useful instrument for

practical mathematics—that same year he reedited a book on this instrument, originally

published in 1618—the regle de proportion was better suited to make calculations on

Ibid., sig. A5r. (italics original) According to the entry “Logarithm” in Wikipedia, for instance,
“Vlacq’s table [see note 32] was later found to contain 603 errors, but ‘this cannot be regarded as a great
number, when it is considered that the table was the result of an original calculation, and that more than
2,100,000 printed figures are liable to error.’ (Athenaeum, 15 June 1872. See also the Monthly Notices of
the Royal Astronomical Society for May 1872.)” Wingate wrote as well, regarding the actual printed size of
the line of proportion: “And lest any man should wonder, why I haue giuen it so long a forme, and not
rather haue confined it within the limits of this Volume, my Answere is, that I could haue conueniently
couched it, within three pages of this Booke; but then it could not haue been reduced to so portable a
forme, as aforesaid; and besides being thus ordered, you may if you please pate it vpon a conuenient board,
and, vsing the Compasses with it, resolue most questions of Arithmetique without help of the pen…” Ibid.,
sig. A4v. (italics original)
Ibid., 289.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

spherical triangles. To his regle, besides Gunter’s logarithmic lines of numbers, sines and

tangents, Henrion engraved other useful and conventional lines plus what he called

geometrical treillis, made of parallelograms and rectangle triangles used as a draughting

scale. 381 A few years later, Henrion combined in a single instrument, the mecometre,

three mathematical instruments routinely used separately: the compas de proportion, the

regle proportionnelle and Philippe Danfrie’s graphometer. This instrument—which

looked much like Danfrie’s graphometer—could perform all the mathematical

calculations and the measuring of distances and angles that those three others did

independently, in addition one could do with it everything “without knowing anything

more than simple arithmetical numeration [i.e. additions and subtractions].” 382

D. Henrion, Logocanon, ov regle proportionnelle svr Laquelle sont appliquées plusieurs lignes
& figures, diuisées selon diuerses proportions & mesures, en faueur de ceux qui se delectent en la
practique des diuines Mathematiques (Paris, 1626). In the advice to the readers, Henrion wrote: “Il y-a
enuiron deux ans que le sieur Gunter, Professeur en Astronomie au College de Gresham à Londres, publia
en Anglois diuers traittez de Mathematique, lesquels il m’e[n]voya, & entre autre chose digne de luy, il y-a
qu’ayant appliqué sur vne regle les Logarithmes, Sinus, & Tangentes artificielles, declarées au precedent
traicté, il en enseigne l’vsage: & jaçoit qu’il y-ait bien de l’embaras en diuerses operations, lesquelles on
pratique fort aisément sur le Compas de proportion; si est-ce toutesfois que pour ce qui concerne les
Triangles Spheriques, cette regle est plus commode qu’iceluy Compas, encore que nous y ayons adiousté
quelques lignes qui rendent beaucoup d’operations plus faciles qu’elles n’estoient auparauant: C’est
pourquoy ie me suis resolu d’expliquer aux François, non seulement ce que ledit sieur Gunter a enseigné
aux Anglois, touchant l’vsage de ladite Regle, mais aussi de transporter sur icelle regle plusieurs autres
lignes que les trois que ledit Gunter y-a appliquées, & encor quelques figures couppées selon diverses
proportions par des lignes paralleles, qui constituent quantité de petits Triangles, & Quadrangles, lesquels
font ensemble vne forme de treilly: au moyen desquelles lignes adioinctes, & de ces treillis Geometriques,
les vtilitez de ladite Regle que nous surnommons Proportionelle, seront de beaucoup augmentées, &
plusieurs operations facilitées: non toutefois que nous nous voulions maintenant arrester à toutes les
operations qui se peuuent faire & pratiquer sur ladicte Regle, ains seulement aux plus belles & vtiles,
delaissant les autres iusques à vne autre fois. Adieu.” See also Turner, “‘Utile pour les calculs’,” 255-256.
D. Henrion, L’Vsage du mecometre. Qvi est vn instrvment Geometrique, auec lequel on peut
tres-facilement mesurer toutes sortes de longueurs & distances visibles; prendre & rapporter au petit pied
le plan ndes villes, Chasteaux & autres places; trasser tant sur le papier que sur la terre telles figures &
fortifications qu’on voudra; faire toutes sortes de Cartes tant Geographiques que Chorographiques; &
pratiquer toutes les autres operations d’Arithmetique & de Geometrie, qui se pratiquent auec le Compas de
proportion, la Regle proportionnelle, le Graphometre & la Boussole (Paris, 1630). In the preface to the
readers Henrion wrote: “Combien que tous les instrumens de Mathematiques venus à ma cognoissance, il
n’y en ait point de plus parfaict & vniuersel, ny mesme de si commode & vtile que le Compas de
proportion par nous mis en lumiere: Neantmoins quelques operations de la Trigonometrie se pratique[n]t
beaucoup plus facilement sur la Regle proportionnelle, que sur ledit Compas: Et en toutes les operations de

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]



Above, Henrion’s regle

proportionnelle. Picture taken
from the Houghton Library copy
at Harvard University. Right,
Delamain’s Grammelogia, Or the
mathematicall ring (London,
1630). An example of such a ring
can be found in the Museum of
the history of science, Oxford

In France, no mathematical practitioner or savant after Henrion appears to have

done anything new on logarithms until Jacques Buot published his treatise on the Vsage

la campagne, ie prefere & me sers plustost du demy cercle, qu’aucuns appellent Graphometre, que dudit
Compas; sans toutesfois me seruir du Rapporteur, que Philippes Danfrie adjoinct audit Graphometre, ny
aussi du Recipiangle mentionné au dernier Chap. du I. l[ivre] des Fortifications du sieur Errard, ains
seulement de deux poincts que ie m’aduisay dés l’année 1609, de faire marquer au mesme Graphometre,
sçauoir, l’vn au diametre d’iceluy, & l’autre en l’alidade: Mais ayant consideré que si on y pouuoit encore
appliquer les lignes & diuisions, tant de nostre dit Compas que de la Regle de proportion, ledit
Graphometre en seroit beaucoup plus parfait & vtile, i’en aurois recherché le moyen, & l’ayant trouué, i’ay
fait vn abbregé & sommaire recueil des plus belles & vtiles operations dudit instrument, lequel (amy
lecteur) ie te presente icy. Et iaçoit que cet Instrument soit fort simple & aisé à fabriquer, i’espere
neantmoins que tu le trouueras plus vniuersel, commode & vtile qu’aucun autre qui iusques à present ait
esté mis au iour, veu qu’auec iceluy tu pourras non seulement pratiquer toutes les propositions que nous
auons enseignees tant au liure de l’Vsage dudit Compas de proportion, qu’en celuy de la Regle
proportionnelle, mais aussi mesurer toutes sortes de longueurs & distances beaucoup plus facilement &
promptement qu’auec tout autre Instrument, quant bien tu ne sçaurois autre regle d’Arithmetique que la
simple numerations…”

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

de la rove de proportion in 1647. 383 Judging from Buot’s description of the instrument,

the rove de proportion must have looked to a mathematical practitioner strangely similar

to the English circles of proportion, or mathematicall ring as coined by Richard

Delamain. The focus of a bitter priority dispute between Delamain and William

Oughtred, these circles of proportion were more than just Gunter’s logarithmic scale rule

or Wingate’s line of proportion bent into a circle: Each circle could be rotated separately

on a central pivot so that in actual fact this instrument was the ancestor of the slide rule,

one of the most widely used mathematical instruments until the invention of the modern

computer. 384

In a letter sent to Buot in September 1646, reprinted as a long foreword notice to

the book, Pierre Petit gave a short history of logarithms, including Wingate’s visit to

Paris (though he did not name him by name), and pointed out why the logarithmic scale

rule was not really a success. According to him, one did not trust the dividers’ points on

the tiny engraved number lines of the regle de proportion, so that this instrument did not

completely eliminate the need for logarithmic tables, the use of rabdology and the pen.

After mentioning his cylindre arithmetique, he came to Buot’s invention of the rotating

logarithmic circles or rouës, which avoided the use of a compas or dividers. What

Jacques Buot, Vsage de la rove de proportion, Sur laquelle on pratique promptement &
facilement toutes les Reigles de l’Arithmetique & les Analogies de la Trigonometrie Geometrique &
Astronomique. Oevvre tres-necessaire aux Marchands, Banquiers, Asseeurs des Tailles, Ingenieurs,
Astronomes, &c. (Paris, 1647). We know close to nothing of Buot’s life and activities. All we know was he
later became a member of the Académie royale des sciences and invented an astronomical instrument, as
one can gather from the following article: “Equerre azimutale, inventée par M. Buot, de l’Academie royale
des sciences,” in Machines et inventions approuvées par l’Académie royale des sciences, i:67-69.
On the history of the mathematicall ring and its priority dispute, Anthony Turner, “William
Oughtred, Richard Delamain and the horizontal instrument in seventeenth-century England,” Annali
dell’Istituto e Museo di storia della scienza di Firenze 6/2 (1981), 99-125. Turner, “Mathematical
instruments and the education of gentlemen.” Cajori, On the history of Gunter’s scale and the slide rule
during the seventeenth century. Katherine Hill, “‘Juglers or schollers?’: Negotiating the role of a
mathematical practitioner,” British Journal for the History of Science 31 (1998), 253-274.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

surprised Petit the most was the fact that, as maintained by Buot, the idea of arranging

these circles together came neither from the regle de proportion nor from any other part,

but rather from the principle of logarithms themselves.385 Wherever Buot’s idea came

from, Petit found it most useful, exact and easy to use. Lastly, Petit gave to Buot some

recommendations regarding the dimension that the instrument should have, the

configuration of the different circles. He advised that they should form a spiral rather

than be disposed into concentric circles. He also noted the importance of a good quality

print in the book so that, if the instrument was not engraved on brass, one could use the

printed version, and called for detailed explanation focused on the instrument rather than

on its relevance to cosmography, surveying, fortifications, astronomy, etc. 386


This brief survey of mathematical instruments and practices of calculation does

not do justice to the vast amount of books and instruments actually printed and built in

early modern Europe to improve computational skills and performance. 387 Too often

overlooked in this context is how Pascal’s arithmetical machine fit into the overall

development of these early modern mathematical devices. According to Pierre Petit, the

In the body of the text, Buot mentions Wingate’s regle proportionnelle and Henrion’s
mecometre, but says that this “instrument ayant pris son estre de l’habitude secrette ou des veritables
rapports que les nombres on ensemble…” Buot, Vsage de la rove de proportion, 4-5.
Petit to Buot, 23 September 1646. Petit’s comments form part of the first section of Buot’s
book, Vsage de la rove de proportion, 17-34.
For France, see Camille Frémontier-Murphy, Les Instruments de mathématiques, XVIe-XVIIe
siècle: cadrans solaires, astrolabes, globes, nécessaires de mathématiques, instruments d’arpentage,
microscopes (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, 2002). An important early modern survey is Nicolas
Bion, Traité de la construction et des principaux usages des instrumens de mathematique. Avec les figures
necessaires pour l’intelligence de ce traité… (Paris, 1709). On England and Europe in general, see the
works by Gerard L’E. Turner, Anthony Turner and Jim Bennett to name but a few “instrument” scholars.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

pascaline—though imperfect—was a true advance, something as significant and

noteworthy as Napier’s own inventions. In his letter to Buot, 388 Petit declared:

I find that since the invention of logarithms and rabdology, nothing of

significance occurred regarding the practice of numbers other than Monsieur
Pascal’s box or instrument. It is a device truly invented with as much success
[bonheur] and speculation as his author has intelligence and knowledge [science].
It consists, however, in a number of wheels, springs, and movements, and one
needs the head and hands of a good clockmaker to understand how it works and to
manufacture it, as well as the skills and knowledge of a good arithmetician to
operate it. [For all these reasons], one fears that its use will never become
widespread [commun], and that instead of being employed in financial bureaux
and regional administrations [Eslections] to calculate taxes [Tailles], or in
merchant offices to compute their rules of discount and company, [the machine]
will be stored in cabinets and librairies, there to be admired. 389

Though Petit found the pascaline truly novel as regards the “practice of numbers,” its

ultimate purpose was not to aid mathematical practitioners, astronomers and mariners in

performing ever more difficult series of calculations. It was meant rather to assist

merchants and tax collectors in doing their mercantile and governmental duties.

What Petit found so interesting about the pascaline—and what also created the

machine’s imperfection and fascination—was the fact it did not come from the print

Petit most likely discovered Pascal’s arithmetical machine while visiting Rouen in 1646 on his
way to Dieppe, where he had to report on some kind of submarine equipment. (This letter he sent to Buot
was written and signed from Dieppe during that short stay.) It was on Petit’s return trip to Rouen that he
then performed with the Pascals’ the famous experiment on the vacuum, memorialized in the letter Petit
sent to Monsieur Chanut in November of that same year. Petit to Chanut, 19 or 26 November 1646, in
Pascal, OC, ii:346-359. One of the best analysis of this experiment is found in Matthew L. Jones, “Writing
and sentiment: Blaise Pascal, the vacuum, and the Pensées,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of
Science 32 (2001), 139-181.
Petit’s letter to Buot, in ibid., 24-25: “ie trouue que depuis ce temps-là des Logarithmes &
Rabdologie, il ne s’est rien produit de considerable touchant la pratique des nombres que la Boëte ou
instrument de Monsieur Pascal. Piece veritablement inuentée avec autant de bonheur & de speculation que
son autheur a d’esprit & de science. Mais comme elle consiste en quantité de Rouës, de Ressorts, & de
mouuements, & qu’il faut la teste & la main d’vn bon Horologeur pour la comprendre & l’executer, comme
l’adresse & la connoissance d’vn bon Arithmeticien pour s’en pouuoir seruir. Il est à craindre que son
vsage n’en soit iamais rendu commun, & qu’on la gardera plustost dans des Cabinets & grandes
Bibliotheques pour y estre admirée, que dans des Bureaux des Finances & Eslections pour départir les
Tailles, ou dans les Contoirs des Marchands, pour y faire leurs Regles d’Escomptes & de Compagnies.”
See also Pascal, OC, ii:344-345.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

culture, like rabdology, logarithms, and arithmetic, where books were more important

than the material devices they explained. Pascal’s device originated in contrast from the

machine world, the geared universe of clocks and watches, which involved another type

of relationship between maker and user, as Mario Biagioli recently shown. 390 Privilege

was granted for the machine itself, not for the printed text explaining its construction and

use. For this reason alone, the pascaline was a distinct type of early modern mathematical

device, aimed moreover at a different sort of clientèle, one inclined towards money rather

than mathematical practices.

The following sections focus on the arithmetical machine per se in order to better

situate it within its social, cultural and material-instrumental contexts. The pascaline’s

true novelty as a mathematical instrument, it will be explained, is found equally in its

mechanism as in the overall theory of knowledge-production it created.


Jacques Buot advertised his rove de proportion as an œuvre tres-necessaire to merchants,

bankers and tax collectors [asseseurs des tailles]. And for those who had to perform long

calculations, he asserted it was better to own a large rove de proportion, between two and

a half and three feet in diameter, because the instrument would bring its user significant

convenience and exactness, and would not be cumbersome since one could just leave it in

the office. 391 Buot was not the only mathematical practitioner to advertise mathematical

instruments as useful tools to merchants, bankers and other kind of higher and lower

Mario Biagioli, “From print to patents: Living on instruments in early modern Europe,” History
of Science 44 (2006), 139-186.
Buot, Vsage de la rove de proportion, 30-31.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

financiers. (At least one of Pascal’s contemporaries from the republic of letters thought

the pascaline would be extremely useful to merchants, bankers and businessmen. 392 ) In

England, especially, logarithms were promoted as an aid to commercial and financial

practices. Wingate provided an appendix to his Arithmetiqve made easie aimed at

“resolving likewise by Addition and Subtraction all Questions, that concerne Equation of

Time, Interest of money, and Valuation of Purchases, Leases, Annuities, and the like.” 393

In his 1635 Logarithmotechnia, Wingate also added some monetary problems that could

be solved easily with logarithms. 394 Logarithms acquired such an authority in England

that in 1674, a philo-accomptant like John Mayne could publish a treatise in which the

section on compound interest was explained almost entirely in terms of “artificiall”

numbers. 395

English mathematical practitioners, according to Katherine Neal, played the

rhetorical card of utility as a means to justify the value of mathematics to everyday life—

J. Chapelain to Christiaan Huygens, 20 August 1659, in Huygens, Oeuvres complètes, 22 vols.
(The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1888-), ii:469: “Je ne scay si estant en France vous n’avués point veu entre ses
[Roberval] mains vne Machine dvne multitude estrange de rouages disposes de sorte qu’ils seruent a faire
auec vne justesse et prontitude admirables les quatre regles premieres dArithmetique au grand soulagement
des Marchands, Banquiers et Gens d’affaires.”
Wingate, Arithmetiqve made easie, title page. (emphasis original). He repeats the same thing on
sig. A6 .
Wingate, Logarithmotechnia, 74-75, for instance problem XI: “A summe of money being
forborne for a certain time, to finde how much it will be augmented at the expiration of the same time,
accounting interest upon interest according to a certaine rate propounded.”
John Mayne, Socius mercatoris: or The merchant's companion: in three parts. The first, being
a plain and easie introduction to arithmetick, vulgur and decimal, the extraction of the square and cube
roots, with a table of 200 square roots, and their use in the resolution of square equations. The second, a
treatise of simple and compound interest and rebate, with two tables for the calculation of the value of
leases or annuities, payable quarterly, the one for simple, the other compound interest, at 6 per cent. per
annum, with rules for making the like for any other rate. The third, a new and exact way of measuring
solids in the form of a prismoid and cylindroid, with the frustums of pyramids and of a cone: whereunto is
added, some practical rules and examples for cask-gauging. By John Mayne, philo-accomptant. (London,
1674), 118-143.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

and perhaps more importantly to distance their discipline from natural magic. 396 Yet at

the same time, these mathematical practitioners aimed their work and instruments at a

gentlemanly clientèle needing ever more skills in mathematics to pursue a career in trade

and government. 397 In France, by contrast, reckonmasters who published books on

arithmetic had probably a greater influence on French noblesse than did the mathematical

practitioners. Denis Henrion, as a representative of the latter, most certainly sought the

help and support of the gentlemen in publishing on the compas de proportion, or in

putting out a plain mathematical text, as the following title suggests: Mémoires

mathematiqves, recueillis et dressez en favevr de la noblesse Françoise (Paris, 1623). 398

But contrary to their English counterparts, Henrion and most French mathematical

practitioners were not, generally speaking, dealing with commercial arithmetic—and

when they did, they followed the conventional scholarship of reckonmasters. 399 This field

had its own set of practitioners going back to the early sixteenth century.

Katherine Neal, “The rhetoric of utility: Avoiding occult associations for mathematics through
profitability and pleasure,” History of Science 37 (1999), 151-178.
Turner, “Mathematical instruments and the education of gentlemen.”
In the reader’s preface, Henrion mentioned regarding the compas de proportion: “Mais en
l’annee 1616, voyant que les affaires ausquels sa [Alleaume] charge d’Ingenieur l’occupent, ne luy en
donnoient le loisir, acquiesçant aux prieres de plusieurs de mes amis, & Gentils-hommes mes disciples, ie
tiray de mesdits Memoires Mathem. & rapportay en ce liuret les plus vtiles & necessaires operations dudit
Compas de proportion, & icelles expliquay le plus clairement & intelligiblement qu’il me futs possible, afin
que ceux à qui plaist ledit instrument trouuassent plus aisément ce dont ils auroient besoin: au prealable
desquelles operations, ie mets aussi la constrction dudit compas.” Henrion, L’Vsage dv compas de
proportion, 4th ed. (Paris, 1631).
Denis Henrion, Collection, ou recveil de divers traictez mathematiques. A sçavoir;
d’Artithmetique, d’Algebre, de la solution de diuers Problemes & questions, tant Geometriques,
qu’Astronomiques. Comme außi de plusieurs moyens pour mesurer toutes sortes de quantitez, soient lignes,
superficies & corps. Item, de la Sphere du monde, auec l’vsage & pratique, tant de l’Astrolabe, du Quarré
Geometrique, & des Globes, que du compas de proportion: Et encore de la construction des fortifications
pratiquées aux pays bas (Paris, 1621), where he explains the basic arithmetic operations plus the règle de
société ou de compagnie, the règle d’alligation ou d’alliage, and the extraction of square and cubic roots,
as most treatise of arithmetic did.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

Natalie Zemon Davis has shown that sixteenth-century French books on

arithmetic could be understood not only as teaching methods but as a way of justifying

business life, to demonstrate that business and financial practices ought not be judged

vulgar and vile by the nobility. To convey their rhetoric of usefulness, arithmetic books

typically discarded the moral issues about deception and the sin of avarice linked to

commerce and finance to focus instead on the reckoning techniques. Examples of

interest-bearing loans and merchandise prices, for instance, were abstracted from their

usual theological and moralist references to just price, personal needs of merchants, and

proper standard of living. Most received “decorations” in the latter sixteenth century, i.e.

poems by eminent men of letters and fancy dedications praising the author and the noble

value of arithmetics, gave to certain books on commercial arithmetics “an aura of honor.”

The incompatibility of nobility with business activity, however, is well

documented, from the French acts of dérogeance of 1540, 1561, and 1579—noblemen

caught “trafficking in merchandise” risked losing their privileges of nobility—to the

writings of clerics and individuals on the side of nobility like the Protestant jurist

Innocent Gentillet. And though a number of mathematicians such as Milles de Norry,

Jacques Chauvet and Guillaume Gosselin wrote “honorable” works on commercial

arithmetics and often addressed an aristocratic audience due to their entries at court, the

favorable rhetoric of business life probably received very little attention within the

nobility. Such books, nonetheless, produced an impact on the ever growing French

bourgeoisie, those merchants and financiers themselves who saw, within the rhetoric of

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

these books, that business was a worthwhile enterprise and perhaps not worth loosing its

virtues—and monetary comfort—to more abstract and intangible non-business values. 400

In what follows, I claim that Pascal’s arithmetical machine was not only meant to

ease Blaise’s father Etienne heavy workload with numbers—or any other reckoning

misery suffered by noblesse de robe gentlemen put in similar situations—but was also

designed as a genuine luxury object capable of reaching the French nobility, provided it

was pitched with a fitting rhetoric. The fact that Pascal made his machine—the notion of

machine is important here—elegant and expensive, dedicated it to the chancelier Séguier,

and did not provide a detailed written account of its use and construction, all point toward

the fact that the pascaline was aimed at least as much (if not more) at the highest elite of

French citizens, the nobility, than at the reckonmasters and other noblesse de robe clients

Pascal may have tried to win over at the same time. Pascal’s arithmetical machine

embodied better than any other mathematical instrument previously invented both the

science of arithmetic and the concept of honnêteté.


Etienne Pascal arrived in the city of Rouen, capital of the Normandy province, in January

1640 as the Commissaire député par sa Majesté en la Haute Normandie, or the financial

assistant to the intendant Claude de Paris. Appointed by the Cardinal de Richelieu,

Natalie Zemon Davis, “Sixteenth-century French arithmetics on the business life,” Journal of
the History of Ideas 21 (1960), 18-48. Idem, “Mathematicians in the sixteenth-century French academies:
Some further evidence,” Renaissance News 11 (1958), 3-10. For a more general aperçu, Geoffrey Poitras,
The early history of financial economics, 1478-1776: From commercial arithmetic to life annuities and
joint stocks (Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2000), esp. chap. 4. On merchant
treatises in general, Pierre Jeannin, “Les Manuels de pratique commerciale imprimés pour les marchands
français (XVIe-XVIIIe siècle),” in Le Négoce international, XIIIe-XXe siècle, ed. by François M. Crouzet
(Paris: Economica, 1989), 35-58.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

Etienne Pascal had been in self-imposed exile from Paris less than a year before he

headed north to Rouen. Pascal père had participated in a large demonstration of angry

rentiers on 24 March 1638, mostly noblesse de robe and bourgeois individuals who

displayed their great displeasure at seeing their rentes sur l’Hôtel de Ville (annuities that

pay interests) unpaid or diminished. Pascal père had invested virtually all his capital from

the sale of his house in Clermont and office of second président en la Cour des Aides de

Montferrand in this simple and supposedly safe and trustworthy state investment. The

fixed interest was 5,55% (or denier 18), enough to live on with Pascal père’s initial

investment of close to 100,000 livres. But since the declaration of war with Spain the

king of France and his ministers decided to take back a few quartiers (quarters, as four

times a year) of paid interests.

After some protesters verbally threatened the Chancelier Séguier and the Cardinal

de Richelieu during the manifestation, a number of them were emprisoned in the Bastille.

To avoid long-term resentment and retribution from the highest instances of the State,

Pascal père judged it best to disappear from Paris for a while. 401 It is to his daughter

Jacqueline, Blaise’s younger sister, that Etienne Pascal ultimately owed his return to good

grace in Richelieu’s eyes—so the story goes. Known for her talent in poetry, Jacqueline

went immediately to the Cardinal after acting in a play attended by Louis XIII’s most

influential and feared minister. In front of Richelieu, the youngest Pascal then recited a

poem in which she pleaded the Cardinal to let her father come back from exile. Richelieu

loved it. He told Jacqueline to write to her father that he could return to Paris safely, and

André Le Gall, Pascal (Paris: Flammarion, 2000), 97-101. On Pascal’s père office of président
in Clermont, see ibid., 79-93. Régine Pouzet, Chronique des Pascal: Les affaires du monde, d’Etienne
Pascal à Marguerite Périer, 1588-1733 (Paris: Champion, 2001).

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

that Pascal père should visit him with the whole family—because the Cardinal also

wanted to see the fort savant Pascal fils, Blaise. That encounter occurred on 3 April

1639. 402

Nine months later, Etienne Pascal arrived as a royal representative to the ravaged

city of Rouen. One of the most prosperous provinces of France just a few decades earlier,

owing in large part to a strong maritime trade, Normandy was struck during Louis XIII’s

reign by natural and (most of all) human-made afflictions. Since 1623 the plague had

become an endemic disease in Rouen, reaping death (11,000 persons in 1637 alone) and

an almost complete collapse of commerce. The province would have probably faced this

ordeal better if it had not been for the escalating taxes imposed on Rouen and Normandy

to replenish the king’s ever empty coffers. New taxes on leather, wine, dyed cloth, salt

(the gabelle), paper and cardboard (cartes) as well as special commercial privileges given

to local and foreign producers of goods (like cheap English cloth) infuriated and

impoverished Rouen’s artisanal communities. Overtaxation, perhaps more than anything

else, created the rebellious armée de souffrance known as the Nu-Pieds. At its strongest,

this army of suffering had 20,000 people wrecking havoc all over the province. In Rouen,

a clockmaker named Noël Ducastel, dit Gorin, lead the three-day riot on 21-22-23 August

1639 during which time financiers’ houses were reduced to ashes, whilst the salt tax

collector, Le Tellier de Tourneville, barely escaped alive from his besieged residence.

Le Gall, Pascal, 125-136. Here is the poem written by Jacqueline: “Ne vous étonnez pas,
incomparable Armand, / Si j’ai mal contenté vos yeux et vos oreilles. / Mon esprit, agité de frayeurs sans
pareilles, / Interdit à mon corps et voix et mouvement. / Mais pour me rendre ici capable de vous plaire, /
Rappelez d’exil mon misérable père.” Ibid., 134. See also Pascal, OC, ii:213, where the last three sentences
read: “Sauvez cet innocent d’un péril manifeste. / Et lors vous me rendrez l’entière liberté / De l’esprit et du
corps, de la voix et du geste.” Jacqueline wrote the letter to her father the following day, 4 April 1639, in
which she detailed what happened. Pascal, OC, ii:210-212.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

The Parlement acted quickly enough to momentarily quench the rebellion, capturing on

the 22nd the unruly Gorin. The Rouen riot and the disorders caused in the province by the

Nu-Pieds army, however, prompted Richelieu to send to Normandy an army of 6,000

foreign mercenaries lead by a colonel Gassion. By late November Caen was disarmed

and the Nu-Pieds army was crushed in the faubourgs of Avranches. On new year’s eve

1639, Gassion entered Rouen without encountering any resistance. 403

To retake political control of the province Richelieu sent one of his creatures, the

chancelier Séguier, on whom had been bestowed extraordinary powers. Séguier, for a

short period of time, became the sole master and supreme judge of Rouen and Normandy,

on top of the then dismissed Parlement. Séguier established his royal authority swiftly; on

7 January 1640 he condemned to torture and death, without trial and on a simple verbal

command, Gorin and four other accomplices for having taken part in the August riots. 404

And as if the exactions of the occupying army were not bad enough (Séguier convicted a

Henri Fouquet, Histoire civile, politique et commerciale de Rouen depuis les temps les plus
reculés jusqu’à nos jours, 2 vols. (Rouen: Chez M. Métérie, libraire and Chez M. Augé, libraire, 1876),
i:528-544. René Herval, Histoire de Rouen, 2 vols. (Rouen: Maugard, 1947-49), ii:122-138. On the Nu-
Pieds rebellion, see Yves-Marie Bercé, Croquants et nu-pieds: Les soulèvements paysans en France du
XVIe au XIXe siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 1991). Madeleine Foisil, La Révolte des nu-pieds et les révoltes
normandes de 1639 (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1970). On Rouen’s trade activities before the
Nu-Pieds rebellion, Gayle K. Brunelle, The New World merchants of Rouen, 1559-1630 (Kirksville, MI:
Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, Inc., 1991). See also Jacques Bottin and Jochen Hook, “Structures et
formes d’organisation du commerce à Rouen au début du 17e siècle: le cas de Michel van Damme,” in Le
Négoce international, 59-93.
Here is how it is related in Séguier’s diary: “Le dict jour, dès le matin, Mgr le chancelier a
envoyé, par le prévost de l’Isle, prononcer son ordonnance verbale au prisonniers détenuz, par l’ordre du
Parlement, dans le vieux palais, de la roüe contre le nommé Gorrin, lequel, pendant la sedition, alloit par la
ville, aveq une balle de feu ardente au bout d’un baston, marquer les maisons que l’on debvoit brusler,
démolir ou piller; et de la mort, par la corde, contre [the four others] trouvez et surpris dans quelques
maisons pillées, quoy que non chargéz de butin, à ce que l’on dict.” A. Floquet, Diaire ou journal du
voyage du chancelier Séguier en Normandie après la sédition des nu-pieds (1639-1640) et documents
relatifs à ce voyage et à la sédition (Rouen: Edouard Frère, 1842), 112. This abuse of power was not
forgotten and called barbaric by some at the time of the Fronde (see documents footnoted on pp. 112-115).
On this and other condemnations by Séguier, Foisil, La Révolte des nu-pieds et les révoltes normandes de
1639, 300-311.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

few soldiers to control the rest of Gassion’s mercenaries) Séguier reimposed the tax on

dyed cloth, largely responsible for the rebellion in the first place, as well as the

formidable sum of 1,055,000 livres of taxes payable by the Rouen Hôtel de Ville. When

Séguier decided it was taking too much time for the city’s bourgeois and commissaires to

come up with the hard cash, he demanded that 250,000 livres were paid immediately and

that all the inhabitants of the city, in an act of solidarity, were put to contribution. 405

Although order gradually returned to Rouen, its commerce and industry were

quelled once again by the imposition of harsh taxes. In the Etats of 1643 the Normandy

representatives declared that the “city of Rouen, capital of this province, is crushed by

such prodigious taxations that only a feeble appearance is left today of its tax exemption

status [franchise], which in the past used to make its glory…” These Etats also

mentioned that the taxes levied from the Hôtel de Ville since 1640 amounted to more

than three million livres and that the tax on dyed cloth, one of Rouen’s best industries

before the rebellion of 1639, left more than 50,000 families of artisans on the city’s

pavement. 406 In the midst of social disturbances, it became Etienne Pascal’s

responsibility as the royal commissaire sur les tailles to make sure the province of

Normandy would comply with its tax obligations, whatever the cost.

Pascal père was a meticulous, forthright and honest man. His probity was already

noticed as président en la Cour des Aides of Clermont many years earlier. In Rouen, for

“Le soir [on 4 February], mon dict seigr le chancelier a parlé sévèrement aux principaux
bourgeois et commissaires pour l’administration de la ville, sur quelque retardement qu’ilz apportoient au
payement des premières 250 mil # qu’ilz ont promis sur le million 55 mil livres à quoy ils ont été taxéz.”
Floquet, Diaire ou journal du voyage du chancelier Séguier en Normandie, 242. Fouquet, Histoire civile,
politique et commerciale de Rouen, 547-548 (he mentions the sum of 1,085,000). Foisil, La Révolte des nu-
pieds et les révoltes normandes de 1639, 315 (she mentions the sum of 1,005,554).
Herval, Histoire de Rouen, ii:148.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

instance, he went as far as sending home his secretary, a certain M. Jolivet (a distant

family member), for accepting a bribe of one louis d’or. Owing to a reputation of

righteousness, it appears that a number of Rouennais had asked for Pascal père to become

the sole intendant of Normandy. Yet such a diligence and moral integrity, though

certainly appreciated, came at a price: it meant he fulfilled his job as best he could as tax

supervisor. 407 The determination of the correct amount of taxes Rouen and each of the

1,800 communities in Normandy had to pay, required Pascal père to travel around the

province. The task of calculating enormous amounts of numbers in millions of livres,

sols, and deniers necessitated ultimately the help of his son Blaise and one of his cousins’

son, Florin Perrier, who would soon marry Blaise’s sister Gilberte. But even additional

“computers” pushed the eldest Pascal to the limit of exhaustion. In the post scriptum of a

1643 letter Blaise sent to Gilberte, Pascal père famously wrote he never in his life carried

out one-tenth the amount of work he had at that moment, hardly ever going to sleep

before two o’clock in the morning. 408 When Gilberte later recounted in the Vie de

Monsieur Pascal that her brother designed the arithmetical machine at the age of nineteen

years old, she placed its invention exactly during the period of intensive work Pascal père

described in the previous post scriptum. 409 The origins of the pascaline was thus deeply

embedded in the early modern financial responsibilities of Etienne Pascal’s position as

Le Gall, Pascal, 140-141 for Rouen and chap. 2 for Pascal’s père official activities in
Blaise Pascal to Gilberte Périer, 31 January 1643, in Pascal, OC, ii:282-283, where Pascal talks
about his father’s “voyage des élections” avec de Paris. The post scriptum reads: “Ma bonne fille
m’excusera si je ne lui écris comme je désirerais, n’y ayant aucun loisir. Car je n’ai jamais été dans
l’embarras à la dixième partie de ce que j’y suis à présent. Je ne saurais l’être davantage à moins d’en avoir
trop; il y a quatre mois que je [ne] me suis couché six fois devant deux heures après minuit.”
Gilberte Périer, La Vie de Monsieur Pascal, in Pascal, OC, i:576.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

commissaire sur les tailles. The material culture of money in the form of tax reform and

collection, not higher mathematical rationale nor technical prowesses, provided the initial

impetus for its creation.

In Pascal’s dedicatory letter to the chancelier Séguier, the young Archimedes—as

he was sometimes called by Marin Mersenne—mentioned the difficulty of using the

common method of calculations to perform lengthy arithmetical operations such as the

determination of taxes. Only after an extensive period of meditation, Pascal wrote, did he

determine that a simpler and faster approach could actually be discovered. 410 It is

interesting to note that Pascal’s moyens ordinaires to perform arithmetical operations was

the plume and jetons, nothing else. It was the only method referred to in Séguier’s

dedication, in the Avis nécessaire cited earlier in the chapter, in the privilège and in

Gilberte’s Vie de Monsieur Pascal. 411 No mention whatsoever of rabdology and

logarithms, as we saw above in relation to the English context, though Pascal père and

fils were most likely aware of these two, by then well-known, mathematical practices as

regular members of Mersenne’s Parisian circle of mathematicians.

The fact that Pascal did not bring up in his discourse the newest—and sometimes

more efficient—calculating techniques developed by mathematical practitioners points to

Pascal, “Lettre dédicatoire à Monseigneur le Chancelier sur le sujet de la machine
nouvellement inventée par le Sieur B.P. pour faire toutes sortes d’opérations d’arithmétique par un
mouvement réglé sans plume ni jetons,” in Pascal, OC, ii:332 where he writes: “Les longueurs et les
difficultés des moyens ordinaires dont on se sert m’ayant fait penser à quelque secours plus prompt et plus
facile, pour me soulager dans les grands calculs où j’ai été occupé depuis quelques années en plusieurs
affaires qui dépendent des emplois dont il vous a plus d’honorer mon père pour le service de Sa Majesté en
la Haute Normandie, j’employai à cette recherche toute la connaissance que mon inclination et le travail de
mes premières études m’ont fait acquérir dans les mathématiques; et après une profonde méditation, je
reconnus que ce secours n’était pas impossible à trouver.”
See full title in ibid. Pascal, “Avis nécessaire à ceux qui auront curiosité de voir la machine
arithmétique, et de s’en servir,” in Pascal, OC, ii:334. “Privilège pour la machine d’arithmétique de M.
Pascal,” in Pascal, OC, ii:712. Périer, La Vie de Monsieur Pascal, 576.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

two correlated assertions, examined in the following subsection. First, rabdology and

logarithms had a marginal impact on the French milieu of reckonmasters—and by

ricochet on merchants, financiers and bankers, despite efforts by individuals such as

Henrion, Petit and Buot. Pascal, therefore, did not find his primary insight from

mathematical practitioners in developing the arithmetical machine. Pascal, in other

words, steered clear of the fabrica et usus tradition common to mathematical instrument

makers. Second, the pascaline’s rhetoric of effortless calculations was meant to convince

and meet the needs of a specially targeted clientèle, one which owned money and,

contrary to Pascal’s father, did not necessarily want to learn complex mathematical



In his book describing the art of reckoning all kinds of numbers with the plume and

jetons, the Jesuit Jean François briefly described other methods that could facilitate

arithmetial operations, namely rabdology, a printed book filled with multiplication tables,

and the rouë Paschaline. Though the latter made all the arithmetical operations with

“confidence and swiftness by means of a local motion,” François brought up major

drawbacks to the invention: it was expensive (the pascaline sold for 100 livres), there was

a possibility that if it broke there would be no replacement parts (or wheels) to be found,

and perhaps more importantly it left its user in complete ignorance of the art of

arithmetic. 412 For this last reason—and possibly because of the machine’s lack of

Jean François, S.J., L’Arithmetique ov l’art de compter tovte sorte de nombres, Auec la Plume,
& les Iettons (Renne, 1653), 22-23. See §6 Quelques moyens d’abbreger, & de faciliter les Operations
expliquées cy-dessus: “L’Instrument nommé la rouë Paschaline les fait auec asseurance & promptitude par

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

commercial success—François omitted to mention the pascaline in the 1657 reedition of

his book.

It is a fact that the pascaline was not a machine designed to teach or tutor in the

art of arithmetic. But neither was it a simple machine, requiring absolutely no knowledge

of arithmetic—contrary to Gilberte’s assertion found in her Vie de Monsieur Pascal. It

would have been very difficult indeed (most likely impossible) for someone without the

most basic notions of arithmetic to make calculations with Pascal’s arithmetical machine.

Degrees of reckoning complexity increased according to the type of operation involved,

from effortless to intricate in the following order: addition, subtraction, multiplication

and division. Although Pascal claimed in the privilège that his machine could perform all

the basic arithmetical operations “as well as all the other rules of arithmetic,” 413 Guy

Mourlevat has convincingly demonstrated the somewhat laborious task ahead of anyone

interested in using the pascaline. The only exception to this rule was making an addition,

which in fact was the only straightforward arithmetical operation that could be performed

on the pascaline.

To perform an addition all that was required was to enter in successive order any

number of numbers to be added. The only rule to follow was to make sure they were

vn petit mouuement local: mais la cherté de cét instrument qui se vend 100. liures, & le danger que quelque
rouë ne vienne à manquer, & l’ignorance qu’il laisse de l’Arithmetique le rend bien rare.” This quote is
found also in Pascal, OC, ii:1009. Tallemant de Réaux, in Les Historiettes, mentioned that the pascaline
was sold 400 livres and that it was “si difficile à faire qu’il n’y a qu’un ouvrier, qui est à Rouen, qui la
sache faire.” Pascal, OC, i:464.
Pascal, “Privilège,” 712, where he mentions the following: “il a inventé plusieurs choses, et
particulièrement une machine par le moyen de laquelle on peut faire toutes sortes de supputations,
additions, soustractions, multiplications, divisions, et toutes les autres règles d’arithmétique, tant en nombre
entier que rompu, sans se servir de plume ni jetons, par une méthode beaucoup plus simple, plus facile à
apprendre, plus prompte à l’exécution et moins pénible à l’esprit que les autres façons de calculer qui ont
été en usage jusqu’à maintenant…”

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

entered correctly, that is on the appropriate wheel (thousand, hundred, unit, sol, denier,

etc.). It was not even required to enter the digits of a number from right to left, in order.

One could enter them on the machine in any sequence, putting 2 before 5 and then 6 and

8 for 5,286 if one chooses. This was made possible thanks to the carry mechanism found

inside the pascaline, the most significant feature of the machine. In short, performing

additions lived up to the promise of a machine that was unproblematic required no

mathematical skills from its user. The other three arithmetical operations, however,

necessitated more work. 414 (See Figure 3.7.)

Strictly speaking, the user of the pascaline did not need to know much of

arithmetic, besides being able to count from one to ten. Though the machine’s modus

operandi could be understood and carried out without grasping the finer theoretical points

Guy Mourlevat, Les Machines arithmétiques de Blaise Pascal (Clermont-Ferrand: La Française
d’Edition et d’Imprimerie, 1988), 50-70. This essay is part of the series Mémoires de l’Académie des
sciences, belles-lettres et arts de Clermont-Ferrand, vol. LI. Because the numbered-wheels on the machine
were always turning in the same direction—left to right—, two sets of numbers were drawn: 0 to 9 on the
bottom line, 9 to 0 on the top line. To do an addition, the movable horizontal rod covering parts of the small
windows was in an up position. To perform a subtraction, the horizontal rod was in a down position. This is
where it could get confusing, because to make a subtraction one needed to use the complement of nine (and
12 and 20 when dealing with deniers and sols). That is, to make the following subtraction 65 - 27, one
needed first to inscribe the number 34 on the machine (3 and 4 being both the complement of nine of 6 and
5). The number inscribed, 34, is invisible since it is under the rod; what one sees on the above windows is
the wanted number, 65. From here, to substract 27, one needed to inscribe 27 and the machine did the rest,
showing the result of 38. But what had been done, really, was an addition, since 34 was first inscribed (to
show 65) and then 27, which gives 61. But this number remains invisible, and only its complement of nine,
38, is seen in the above windows. Multiplication with the pascaline also involved a series of additions, akin
to the jetons technique described in the first section above. To multiply 246 by 132, after placing the rod in
its up position, one needed to inscribe 246 twice; then 246 three times, but shifting the numbers one space
to the left to take into account the fact that the multiplicant was 30, not 3; lastly, shifting once again one
space to the left, one would inscribe 246. The result would appear automatically, 32,472. Performing a
division on the pascaline was undoubtedly the most intricate of the arithmetical operations. Like the
subtraction, the rod had to be placed in its down position. To divide 157 by 32, one first inscribed the
complement of nine (842) to show 157. Then one inscribed 32, which results in 125; 32 is inscribed again,
resulting in 93; once more gives 61; one last time and the number seen in the windows is 29, which is
smaller than 32. Therefore, the result of the division is 4, remaining 29. Yet again, this is no different than
using the plume and jetons technique, and it would certainly not be that more difficult to arrive at the same
result by moving around a few jetons. It gets much trickier when one decides to divide two nombres
rompus, i.e. numbers in livres, sols and deniers or decimal numbers.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

of arithmetic, it would have been most difficult to calculate square and cubic roots with

the pascaline without arithmetical knowledge. These computations involved some

educated guesses multiplications, and/or complicated sequences of divisions depending

on the algorithm employed. Teaching such complex arithmetical practices, however, was

the chief aim of printed books on arithmetic—hence François’s criticism of the pascaline.


Engraving taken from “Machine arithmetique, de M.

Pascal,” in Machines et inventions approuvées par
l’Académie royale des sciences, iv:137-139, pt. 1.

Below, an exemplar from the Musée des arts et métiers,

Paris. The wheel on the far right is for the deniers (12
teeth), next to it is the wheel for the sols (20 teeth), next
to it is the wheel for the livres (ten teeth) and the
following ones are muliples of ten in livres.

From the sixteenth-century textbooks discussed earlier to François Le Gendre’s

L’Arithmétique en sa perfection, mise en pratiqve selon l’vsage des financiers, banqviers

et marchands (1663) and Jacques Savary’s Le parfait negociant ou Instruction generale

pour ce qui regarde le commerce de toute sorte de marchandises, tant de France que des

pays estrangers (1675) the chief purpose of these works was to teach the basic and finer

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

points of the art of arithmetic. Once again, Pascal’s machine distanced itself from the

print culture. Its chief aim was not the understanding of mathematic, but its utility in

counting. It was a machine akin to a crane, which was meant to lift heavy things, not to

explain the theory of mechanics, or a clock, meant to tell time not to understand the

diurnal motion of the earth.

By distancing himself from these printed books, Pascal also made certain his

machine would not be viewed and mistaken for a mathematical instrument. Fabrica et

usus books written by mathematical practitioners such as Henrion, Petit, Wingate,

Delamain, Buot, Gunter, and many others devoted a large part of their works to the

description and use of new inventions. These books focused the attention of the reader on

the usefulness and replication qualities of the instrument by means of long and technical

accounts, customarily accompanied by one or several engravings. The privilege granted

to mathematical practitioners was usually aimed at the (immaterial) text of the book, not

at the (material) instrument per se; anyone following the precise explanation given by the

inventor could replicate the instrument for personal use or even for selling purposes. 415

(One uncommon exception was Buot’s rove de proportion, for which the privilege was

On patents and paper instruments, see Biagioli, “From print to patents,” 160-166. Paper
instruments have interesting lives. They were not only meant as useful and cheap mathematical devices, but
were also thought as “objects” worth collecting. On this topic, see Catherine Eagleton and Boris Jardine,
“Collections and projections: Henry Sutton’s paper instruments,” Journal of the History of Collections 17
(2005), 1-13. Jim Bennett has worked out a typology of sixteenth-century mathematical instruments, within
which paper instruments found a natural place: “There are brass instruments, wooden instruments, paper
instruments, paper instruments with moving parts within books, woodcuts within books where there are no
moving paper parts but where there is an anchored thread for relating scales to each other, there are
woodcuts without threads but where the accompanying text invites the reader to use the instrument on the
page by applying a thread or a rule to read off the scales, and there are woodcuts where there is no such
instruction but which have the scales in every detail and which could certainly be used in this way.” Jim
Bennett, “Knowing and doing in the sixteenth century: What were instruments for?,” British Journal for the
History of Science 36 (2003), 129-150, quote on pp. 140-141.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

granted, de graces speciales it says, to both the text and the instrument. 416 ) Pascal,

however, did not endow his machine with this type of exposé. Such a decision on his part

cannot be explained solely by a concern with the privilege rights to the machine (see next

subsection). Pascal sought in all probability to distance himself from other contemporary

mathematical practitioners in order to access a completely different kind of clientèle, one

with larger monetary means and significantly lower interest in mathematics and technical

intricacies. In the Avis nécessaire Pascal tried hard to justify his motive not to pen down,

as did the géomètres, a fabrica et usus account of the pascaline. To the reader, Pascal


I hope you will approve my decision to omit such a discourse when you take the
time to ponder upon, on the one hand, the ease with which the construction and
use of this machine can be explained by word of mouth and with a brief
discussion and, on the other hand, when you consider the trouble [embarras] and
the difficulty it would have been to convey in writing the measurements, shapes,
proportions, locations and all other properties of so many differents parts. You
will then judge that this tenet [doctrine] is one which can only be taught viva
voce, and that a written discourse on this matter would be as useless and awkward
as one used to describe every parts of a watch, of which the explanation is made
so simple when done by word of mouth. And apparently such a [written]
discourse would produce nothing more than an infallible disgust in the mind of
many, showing them a thousand difficulties were none are to be found. 417

Buot, Vsage de la rove de proportion, 44-45, where the Privilege dv Roy mentions that “Luy
auons permis & permettons de graces speciales par ces presentes de faire imprimer ladite Rouë de
Proportion & le liure de son Vsage, soit à part ou ensemble, les vendre ou faire vendre par tels Libraires
que bon luy semblera en toute l’estenduë de nostre Royaume … & deffences à tous autres de quelque
qualité & condition qu’ils soient, de faire, contrefaire, grauer, imprimer, ou faire grauer ny imprimer,
vendre ny distribuer ladite Rouë ny ledit liure de son Vsage, soit en l’estat qu’ils sont à present, ou qu’ils
seront cy-apres …”
Pascal, Avis nécessaire, in OC, ii:334-335: “Oui, j’espère que tu approuveras que je me sois
abstenu de ce discours, si tu prends la peine de faire réflexion d’une part sur la facilité qu’il y a d’expliquer
de bouche et d’entendre par une brève conférence la construction et l’usage de cette machine, et, d’autre
part, sur l’embarras et la difficulté qu’il y eût eu d’exprimer par écrit les mesures, les formes, les
proportions, les situations et le surplus des propriétés de tant de pièces différentes; lors tu jugeras que cette
doctrine est du nombre de celles qui ne peuvent être enseignées que de vive voix, et qu’un discours par
écrit en cette matière serait autant ou plus inutile et embarrassant que celui qu’on emploierait à la
description de toutes les parties d’une montre, dont toutefois l’explication est si facile, quand elle est faite
bouche à bouche; et qu’apparemment un tel discours ne pourrait produire d’autre effet qu’un infaillible
dégoût en l’esprit de plusieurs, leur faisant concevoir mille difficultés où il n’y en a point du tout.”

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

Putting forward the example of the watch helped in grounding the rhetoric of the

pascaline qua machine on one of the most prestigious expressions of early modern

technology, that of clockmaking.

Pascal described the arithmetical machine as something more than a mere

mathematical tool: it was a complicated piece of machinery, so intricate in fact that

images and written words were simply inappropriate to understand and appreciate it.

Behind the metaphors of the watch qua machine and viva voce dialogue one glimpses at

the clientèle to which Pascal was addressing the pascaline, namely the honnête homme.

To appeal to this specific clientèle, Pascal crafted a clever rhetoric that compelled his

targeted audience to perceive the sophisticated mechanical device as less esoteric and

menial than a mathematical instrument—yet as exciting as a watch—and as more noble

than a book on arithmetic. The pascaline, in other words, was designed—and marketed—

as a machine embodying the virtues of honnêteté.

In sending the curieux interested by the pascaline to the Collège Royal professor

Gilles Personne de Roberval, Pascal underscored the value of conversation described

above. 418 Matthew Jones has convincingly shown the importance of good conversation

for Pascal—and fellow members of the republic of letters—toward the acquisition of

knowledge and the cultivation of virtue. Good conversation, whether about poetry,

politics or mathematics, was a skill any honnête homme needed to master. Moreover, as

Jones explains, “Conversation best taught one to understand and to judge people, books,

and plays. It helped make reasoning rigorous. It best developed speaking and reasoning

Pascal wrote, regarding Roberval, that “[il] leur fera voir succinctement et gratuitement la
facilité des opérations, en fera vendre, et en enseignera l’usage.” Pascal, Avis nécessaire, in OC, ii:341.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

without the crutches of artificial rhetorical figures and syllogisms.” Yet conversation was

only a means to an end, namely how to live one’s life. Mathematics, Jones argues,

became Pascal’s genuine and ideal instrument to cultivate the mind and to find one’s own

limits—a way to the good life: “More than mathematical practice itself, reflecting upon

mathematical thought and practice helps human beings to esteem themselves correctly

and to recognize the powers and limits of human reason. Mathematical practice serves as

a great source of empirical data on human abilities and inabilities.” 419 Could the

arithmetical machine really achieve such high standards of virtuousness? Could the

pascaline be reconciled with the role mathematics and conversation played during

Pascal’s lifetime?

The pascaline, at first glance, had none of the virtuous qualities possessed by

Pascal’s arithmetical triangle. Whereas this triangle, in Pascal’s view, could train the

mind and hone skills and aptitudes, the arithmetical machine was essentially designed to

ease the pain of reckoning. It was created in order to reduce to nothing the mental

exertions caused by long and cumbersome plume and jetons calculations. Yet, if one

could muster (and stomach) the effort, the pascaline could perhaps reveal as powerful a

tool to cultivate the mind as the arithmetical triangle. Jones has shown the great

mathematical flexibility of Pascal’s triangle established in the concept of “enunciation.”

Although the triangle was a static entity, the manner in which one arranged or combined

the numbers associated with rows, columns and diagonals was not. Pascal suggested to

his reader to play with the triangle by changing the name of sets of numbers and thus

Matthew L. Jones, The good life in the Scientific Revolution: Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, and
the cultivation of virtue (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), chap. 3, quote on pp. 128 and
124 respectively. On the role of conversation for the French Republic of Letters, Marc Fumaroli, La
Diplomatie de l’esprit, de Montaigne à La Fontaine (Paris: Gallimard, 1998).

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

formulating equivalent, but different, enunciations. A kind of linguistic game was

embedded within the arithmetical triangle, a game that forced its players to think

differently and originally about mathematical propositions. As Jones explains,

Although Pascal stressed that mathematical practice involves linguistic

transformation, he did not espouse remaining at the level of linguistic
transformation without attempting to develop a deeper understanding. Far from
encouraging the reader mechanically to register the soundness of each deductive
step, Pascal’s effort to demonstrate his discoveries ‘openly’ was supposed to help
to develop the talent, the ingenium, of the reader by laying bare the insights
behind the formal linguistic transformations. Changing enunciations develops a
certain kind of mathematical mind, one capable of producing new relations. This
practice works to develop the capacity for innovatively drawing consequences
from many principles kept in mind without reducing or confusing them. 420

Could someone similarly develop his or her ingenium using the pascaline? Was the

machine constrained by its mechanism? Or endowed with its own internal flexibility?

Was its user, in other words, “mechanically” limited to the prescribed algorithmic

procedures? Most likely not, and this could have been one of Roberval’s teachings.

Nothing, for instance, could stop a particularly enthusiastic user from finding an

original algorithm that would perform subtractions when the horizontal rod of the

pascaline was in its up—instead of its down—position, and vice versa. The same was true

for multiplication and division. And what about discovering original algorithms to

calculate square and cubic roots and, why not, logarithms? Nothing said one had to

“mechanically” follow the prearranged rules of calculation. Although the pascaline’s

mechanical motion was fixed and unchanging, meaning the wheels were reproducing ad

infinitum the same rotational movement, the algorithms designed to make arithmetical

operations could vary considerably. Though the primary purpose of the arithmetical

Jones, The good life in the Scientific Revolution, 95-103, quote on pp. 102-103.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

machine, as the rhetoric went, was to perform effortless arithmetical operations, in the

hands of resourceful and determined users this machine could have been used to sharpen

one’s mathematical mind—as the arithmetical triangle did. 421 What was the latter, in fact,

if not a paper tool, a paper instrument that could, for example, give—effortlessly—the

coefficients of binomial equations? One could use the arithmetical triangle as he or she

would the arithmetical machine, that is without having to ponder upon the mathematical

principles embedded in the material device. 422

Yet Pascal, as Jones explained, explicitly encouraged the reader of the treatise on

the arithmetical triangle to go beyond mere “mechanical” manipulations, while he

emphasized these very same mechanical (or bodily) manipulations as regards the

arithmetical machine. It was as if user and machine had to become one to ensure that the

pascaline would reach its full potential. Sold as a luxury item, like so many expensive

clocks, the pascaline was endowed with an aura of dignity that few mathematical

instruments ever achieved outside princely collections. Embodied within the mechanism

of the pascaline, arithmetic was ennobled like never before. The arithmetical machine, as

envisioned by Pascal, became to arithmetic what the organ was to music: the organum

organorum. Put in the hands of a skilled user the pascaline symbolized the instrumental

perfection of scientific knowledge; and as Mersenne’s organ did, it taught how to practice

natural philosophy. The pascaline was as much a gentleman’s rhetorical device as a

natural philosophical epistemic tool. In the clockwork mechanism of Pascal’s

On the different ways to make subtraction, Mourlevat, Les Machines arithmétiques de Blaise
Pascal, 50.
On the concept of paper tool, see especially David Kaiser, Drawing theories apart: The
dispersion of Feynman diagrams in postwar physics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 7-9
for the definition and literature; chap. 10 for a concrete example.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

arithmetical machine was set up the method of natural philosophy.


The arithmetical machine, despite Pascal’s effort, never was a bestseller in the Parisian

luxury trade. Pascal had better success as an entrepreneur with the later carrosses à cinq

sols, the first Parisian system of “public” (or bourgeois) transportation. Price may have

been an issue here, as Pascal himself spelled it out in the privilège. Accounts vary

significantly, from the Jesuit mathematician François’s 100 livres to Tallemant de

Réaux’s 400 livres and Balthasar Gerbier’s 50 pistoles (or 500 livres). 423 Though high-

priced as a luxury item, the pascaline was not more expensive than a lavishly decorated

(and somewhat accurate) clock or watch. 424 Its greatest flaw, therefore, was perhaps not

its price but the fact it had to live on the periphery of the luxury trade, despite Pascal’s

effort in linking the arithmetical machine to the more fashionable and natural

philosophical universe of clocks and clockmaking. 425

For Tallemant de Reaux’s assertion, see Pascal, OC, i:464. On Gerbier, see note 3. On the
carrosses à cinq sols, ibid., iv:1374-1437. See also on the same topic Eric Lundwall, Les Carrosses à cinq
sols. Pascal entrepreneur (Paris: Science Infuse, 2000). Pascal, Privilège, 713, where he wrote: “Et parce
que ledit instrument est maintenant à un prix excessif qui le rend, par sa cherté, comme inutile au public…”
For price examples, see E. Develle, Les Horlogers blésois au XVIe et au XVIIe siècle (Blois:
Emmanuel Rivière, Editeur, 1913), 47-50. Most watches and clocks described were valued between 75 and
125 livres. 400 livres would have been a very expensive (and royal) amount to spend on such an item, since
several watches valued at 300 livres each were meant to Marie de Médicis in the early 1630s.
Not only, as we will see shortly, did the mechanism of the machine evoke the wheels and gears
of clocks and watches, the pascaline was advertised as a strong and durable instrument, capable of
sustaining without alteration the hardship of travel (reminiscent to, for instance, the numerous clock
experiments then made in trying to determine the longitude at sea). Pascal, Avis nécessaire, 337-338 and
340, where he wrote: “Et quant à la durée et solidité de l’instrument, la seule dureté du métal dont il est
composé pouvait en donner à quelque autre la certitude; mais d’y prendre une assurance entière et la donner
aux autres, je n’ai pu le faire qu’après en avoir fait l’expérience par le transport de l’instrument durant plus
de deux cent cinquante lieues de chemin, sans aucune altération. … [J]’ose te donner assurance que tous les
efforts qu’elle pourrait recevoir en la transportant si loin que tu voudras ne sauraient la corrompre ni lui
faire souffrir la moindre altération.” The distance is roughly equivalent to a Rouen-Clermont return trip.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

What was in vogue and what defined the material culture of nobility remained in

constant flux in seventeenth-century Paris. There were between 2400 and 2500

marchands-merciers in the city by the time Pascal invented and was granted a privilege

for the arithmetical machine. They sold a wide range of goods—jewellery, tapestries,

toys, silk fabrics and ornamental metalwork—to aristocrats and to a rising bourgeoisie

with ever greater financial means. Taste for special kind of cloths, spices, or beverages

such as tea and coffee spread at different rates and new consumer trends (like Pascal’s

own carrosses à cinq sols) became fashionable on a regular basis. In a creative and

growing early modern luxury market Pascal—though he himself advertised his machine

in front of fashionable crowds—appears to have found no successful luxury niche in

which to push his invention. Unlike watches, the pascaline was much heavier and thus

not easily portable; unlike table-top clocks, it was not as ornate and could not do anything

on its own. The pascaline was a luxury item that fit no preestablished fashionable

categories and could not initiate by itself a new one. It became a rarity, and like most

rarities it found its place in cabinets of curiosities. 426

This could explain in part why Christiaan Huygens had better success in selling

copies of his new pendulum clock to French aristocrats. Huygens’s achievement in clock

technology sparked a reaction too often overlooked from a number of savants and

Pascal entertained “duchesses” and “cordons-bleus” at the duchesse d’Aiguillon’s salon in the
petit Luxembourg with his arithmetical machine and his experiments on the vacuum. Jean Loret, La Muse
historique, 14 April 1652, in Pascal, OC, ii:902-903. On luxury trades, see Robert Fox and Anthony
Turner, Luxury trades and consumerism in ancien régime Paris. Woodruff D. Smith, Consumption and the
making of respectability, 1600-1800 (New York: Routledge, 2002). Natacha Coquery, L’Hôtel
aristocratique. Le Marché du luxe à Paris au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Editions de la Sorbonne, 1998). On
commerce in general, Natacha Coquery, ed., La Boutique et la ville. Commerces, commerçants, espaces et
clientèles, XVIe-XXe siècle (Tours: Publication de l’Université François Rabelais, 2000). Franco Angiolini
and Daniel Roche, eds., Cultures et formations négociantes dans l’Europe moderne (Paris: Editions de
l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 1995).

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

members of the French republic of letters, who as a result belatedly reviewed favorably

the pascaline and even sent one exemplar to the Dutch natural philosopher. It was in fact

during that period, in the Fall of 1659, that Charles Bellair penned the first full

description of the pascaline’s clocklike mechanism. (See Figure 3.8.) In a cryptic reply to

Bellair’s letter, Huygens wrote he found the drawings “very curious” and praised the

invention. 427 He thought the drawings difficult to understand however, and thus replied

that he would better appreciate the mechanism after receiving the pascaline. (As Bellair

explained, the carry mechanism was without doubt the most intricate aspect of the

machine. Reading Bellair’s convoluted description, one is reminded of Pascal’s advice in

the Avis nécessaire concerning the pointless use of textual and pictural descriptions of the


It would take a few more months before the arithmetical machine reached

Huygens in the Netherlands and thus could be carefully studied. To that effect, the

distinguished gentleman (possibly Pascal himself) who loaned the machine to Huygens

via Bellair had authorized the Dutch natural philosopher to make copies of it if he so

desired. (Since the pascaline’s privilege could only be enforced in France anyway, as will

be discussed below, the authorization to make copies in Holland should be understood as

a proof of admiration and high regard toward Huygens rather than an extraordinary

Huygens does not appear here to have known the pascaline. Yet in planning a trip to France for
his son ten years earlier, Huygens father, Constantijn, received a correspondence from Mersenne telling
him that “Votre Archimède verra ici l’invention dudit Pascal pour supputer sans peine et sans rien savoir,”
referring to Pascal’s arithmetical machine. Mersenne to Constantijn Huygens, 17 March 1648, in Pascal,
OC, ii:578. Huygens fils will visit Paris in 1655, but apparently did not come into contact with the
pascaline, even though he befriended Jean Chapelain, who praised to him later Pascal’s invention (see

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

favor. 428 ) After having thoroughly examined and used the pascaline, Jean Chapelain was

convinced Huygens would most certainly praise the genie behind the machine “even


The upper right drawing shows the small mechanism ensuring the transport movement of the wheels. As
Bellair explained to Huygens, “Il ne reste plus qu’une pièce à expliquer, qui est la plus difficile de toutes. Je
ne sais si je pourrai bien la faire entendre. Elle est représentée dans la feuille de la seconde figure en 2
manières: A la fait voir par le dessous, et B par le côté. Elle sert à faire passer le mouvement d’une roue à
l’autre par sa pesanteur.” Bellair to Huygens, 4 July 1659, in Huygens, Oeuvres complètes, ii:428-429. Other
such detailed representations of the machine’s mechanism are found in vol. 4 of Gallon’s Machines et
inventions approuvées par l’Académie royale des sciences and Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie
under “Algèbre.”
more so since you will find [this genie] similar to your own.” Unfortunately, no extensive

written account from Huygens is to be found. To the Court Official and mathematician

Du Gast to Huygens, 6 February 1660, in Huygens, Oeuvres complètes, iii:20: “Pour la
personne à qui Monsieur Pascal a fait autrefois ce beau present, et qui est une des premieres en merite que
nous ayons en France, je scay, Monsieur, qu’elle vous honnore parfaitement, et qu’elle a pour vous une
estime toute particuliere. Elle m’a chargé de vous dire, que vous pouuez retenir cet instrument autant de
temps qu’il vous plaira, soit pour le faire voir à vos amis, soit pour en faire faire de semblables; et que
quand vous en aurez disposé ainsy en toute liberté, il n’y aura qu’a le renuoyer par la mesme voye de
Monsieur Petit [a Parisian librarian involved in letter exchange between France and Holland].”

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

Pierre de Carcavy Huygens simply observed that he thought the pascaline was worthy of

admiration and incorporated several belles pensées. 429

The link between early modern arithmetical machines and clockmaking is perhaps

quite obvious. For instance, although Schickard described his device to Kepler simply as

an arithmeticum organum, it is now commonly referred to in German as a Rechenuhr, or

reckoning clock. (Rechenmaschine is also used often, clearly.) 430 Looking at figure 3.8

one easily can recognize the resemblance between the pascaline’s mechanism and the

internal gearing system of a clock or watch. Pascal left no written account regarding the

manner in which he came up with the machine’s complex mechanism. The rhetoric he

used is famous, however, saying that the “lights of geometry, physics and mechanics

provided me with the design, and assured me its operation would be infallible” if only he

could find the right craftsman to build the model he had invented. Since Pascal, he said

himself, could not work with the lathe, hammer and file as well as he did with the pen

and dividers, he had to rely on the practical expertise of artisans, in this case Rouen

clockmakers, to manufacture the pascaline. 431

Until the early seventeenth century, Rouen’s horlogers were part of the serrurier-

arquebusier guild, or locksmith and firearm guild. Two types of clockmakers existed

within that guild: the horlogeur en gros volume, who built the large mechanisms of

Bellair to Huygens, 4 July 1659, in Huygens, Oeuvres complètes, ii:426-429; Huygens to
Bellair, 28 August 1659, ibid., 473; Chapelain to Huygens, 15 October 1659, ibid., 496; Du Gast to
Huygens, 4 December 1659, ibid., 515; Huygens to Carcavy, 26 February 1660, ibid, iii:28. A full dossier
is also found in Pascal, OC, iv:680-698.
The two letters on the arithmetical machine sent to Kepler are found in Schickard’s complete
correspondence, Friedrich Seck, ed., Wilhelm Schickard Briefwechsel, 2 vols. (Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt:
Frommann-Holzboog, 2002), i:135 and 141-142. Volume 2 offers a good bibliography on the topic, see pp.
522-526. See also Pratt, Thinking machines, chap. 3 titled “Calculating clocks.”
For the quote, Pascal, “Lettre dédicatoire,” 332. Pascal used similar argument in the Avis

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

church and public clocks, and the horlogeur en petit volume, or simply clockmaker, who

designed and crafted tabletop clocks and watches. In 1617 the latter, fourteen of them,

solicited the king to grant them their own statutes, claiming that a great prejudice to their

craft and to the public was perpetrated by the abuse and defective items manufactured in

the city by foreigners and others. To solve the problem, they asked that they be granted

the same statutes and privileges as the Parisian clockmakers, following the letter patents

of 1544 and a règlement from 1600. The two representatives appointed by the king to

study the question believed the citizens of Rouen would not be interested in the formal

establishment of the métier d’orloger if regulated by the same rules as those introduced in

Paris. So, to accommodate the clockmakers’ request and to ensure that the other métiers

jurés from Rouen would not fall to prejudice either, new privilege articles were written

(though largely inspired by the Parisian ones). When it was time to formally register this

règlement to the Parlement, the masters from the serrurier-arquebusier guild complained

that they were also horlogers en gros volume, and thus rightfully entitled to make large

clocks. Their protest was heard and received. It was added to the règlement that the new

clockmaker maîtres jurés could not prevent any member from the locksmith and firearm

guild to compete against them for the right of making large clock mechanisms. 432

When Pascal arrived in Rouen in 1642, therefore, the guild of clockmakers was

already well established within the city. Pascal thus had an easy access to several

Charles de Beaurepaire, Dernier recueil de notes historiques et archéologiques concernant le
département de la Seine-Inférieure et plus spécialement la ville de Rouen (Rouen: Imprimerie de Espérance
Cagniard, 1892), 337-340. Ch. Ouin-Lacroix, Histoire des anciennes corporations d’arts et métiers et des
conféries religieuses de la capitale de la Normandie (Rouen: Lecointe Frères, 1850), 186-187, who
mentions that the new corporation was established near the Saint-André-de-la-Ville church and under the
patronage of Saint Eloi. For the Parisian privilege, see René de Lespinasse, Les Métiers et corporations de
la ville de Paris, 3 vols. (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1886-1897), iii:546-560.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

clockmakers such as Noël Hubert, Balthazar Martinot and David Thorelet—who claimed

he was le premier horloger reçu par chef-d’oeuvre à Rouen—and their apprentices, some

of whom received their mastery (maîtrise d’orloger) around the time Pascal finished the

first model of his arithmetical machine. 433 Here is, briefly, how mastery was acquired.

One had to remain an apprentice for at least six years before being given the chance to

apply for a mastery title. Master clockmakers could only have one apprentice during the

first four year of the latter’s training; a second was allowed afterward. The status of

maître juré was sanctioned only after the apprentice had demonstrated he (hardly ever

she) understood the art of clockmaking par examen et essai and had created a

masterpiece—no detail is given here; in Paris, the chef-d’oeuvre was to be at least an

alarm clock (horloge à réveille-matin). (Children of master clockmakers were not

compelled to make a masterpiece if they could convince fellow masters they were

qualified for the métier.) Clockmaker’s widows could keep the workshop open and

continue to take advantage of their deceased husbands’ benefits as long as there was a

qualified clockmaker (a man, as specified) in the house. If the widow remarried with

someone who was not already a master clockmaker, the new husband would have to

produce a masterpiece before he was received as a genuine maître juré. Once the mastery

was achieved, all maîtres jurés could manufacture and sell from their shop every type of

clocks, but only there. (If an assistant [compagnon] was found making clocks outside of

De Beaurepaire, Dernier recueil de notes historiques et archéologiques, 342-344. Noël
Ducastel, dit Gorin, the clockmaker who lead the August 1639 riot and was put to death on order from
Séguier, is not mentioned in de Beaurepaire’s list. He was probably a horloger en gros volume from the
serrurier-arquebusier guild.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

the master’s shop, his work and tools would be confiscated.) Clockmakers, finally, had to

engrave their name on the clocks they built. 434

All these rules and regulations slowed down, but absolutely did not quench the

considerable manufacture of mediocre and fake clocks, as well as the illegal contraband

of all kinds of timekeepers. The example of Blois has been well documented and

accurately corresponds to what was happening elsewhere in France at the same time.

Inferior quality and outright defective clocks were produced by full-fledged master

clockmakers. Thirty pieces of a réveille-matin clock were seized in 1642 at the boutique

of Daniel Maupas, under the complaint of his wife who threatened and accused the jurés

of stealing a golden box. 435 A greater problem still was the forgery and clandestine trade

of clocks. Compagnons as well as mediocre master clockmakers and those called sans

boutiques often reverted to making clocks in remote rooms and greniers in order to

bypass the limiting statutes of the guild. They made clocks which they sold themselves

on the “black market” or worked for unscrupulous goldsmiths or merchants who

possessed their own network of distribution. Clocks were left unsigned, or almost as

often were signed with a fictitious or a well-established clockmaker’s name (usually from

Blois or Paris). And not only timekeepers but also forged lettres de maîtrise were sold to

compagnons in search of a quick access to the trade. These were sizeable problems,

which the Blois master clockmakers feared would ruin the good name of individual

De Beaurepaire, Dernier recueil de notes historiques et archéologiques, 338-340.
Develle, Les Horlogers blésois, 63-64. The pieces taken were: “La cage et les roues du
mouvement, le barrillet avec son arbre, le rochet, la grande roue et la roue de rencontre avec le remontoir et
son pignon, les deux ressorts de grande roue, le barrillet de sonnerie, le marteau du réveil, la roue du cadran
avec le tourniquet et le pignon de rapport, le coq, le ballencier et les deux contrepotences, le garde corde
avec son ressort, la clef et le cercle de cadran, trois cuivreaux et un arbre à tourner … toutes lesquelles
pièces sont vicieuses.”

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

craftsmen and the repute of the whole profession. 436 Worst of all were the

goldsmiths, or orfèvres. Four of them, in four different years (1636, 1640, 1651 and

1660) were condemned by the court of Blois for violating the clockmaker statutes. They

stopped at nothing, forging names and illicitly making all types of luxurious clocks

decorated in gold and in rich enamel paintings. The 1636 lawsuit was instituted against

the orfèvre Isaac Gribelin after some thirty fraudulent clocks were found in his boutique.

All in all, these condemnations apparently were to little avail, aiding only marginally in

promoting law-abiding behavior. 437

Taking into consideration what has just been said regarding the early modern

clockmaking trade, it is not surprising to discover that at least one Rouen clockmaker

tried to steal Pascal’s idea of the arithmetical machine. Pascal needed the expertise and

skills of a clockmaker given the machine’s close similarity with the internal mechanism

of a clock. In the Avis nécessaire he even said that at one point he had several ouvriers

helping him in making the machine. But since the pascaline was not a clock as such, nor

its inventor a Rouen master clockmaker, no justifiable legal recourse was available to

Pascal if someone attempted to replicate the invention for personal fame and profit. And,

as already mentioned, someone did. Pascal named no name—whether he knew it is

unknown. He only described the ouvrier or bonhomme as a talented clockmaker from

Ibid., 70, where after seizing some material in 1636 chez Isaac Gribelin, a goldsmith, they
talked of the “grand désordre causé dans leur état,” describing the “maîtres, tellement décriés, que tous qui
ont acheté des montres, ci-devant, publient hautement que lesd. maîtres orlogers sont des trompeurs.”
Ibid., 70-72. The Paris statutes of 1646, for instance, are quite clear vis-à-vis this division of
expertise. Article 13 says: “Item, qu’il ne sera permis à aucun orfèvre ny autre, de quelque etat et mestier
qu’il soit, de se mesler de travail et negocier, directement ou indirectement, d’aucune marchandise
d’horlogerie grosse ou menue, vieille ny neuve, achevée ou non achevée, s’il n’est reçeu maistre dudit art
d’horloger dans nostre Ville de Paris, pour obvier aux malversations dont le public reçoit un grand
prejudice, à peine de confiscation de la marchandise dont ils seront trouvés saisis et d’amende arbitraire.”
Lespinasse, Les Métiers et corporations de la ville de Paris, iii:555-556.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

Rouen, who made a mock machine based on the account someone had provided him of

Pascal’s first model. Pascal actually saw this travesty of an arithmetical machine. He

described it as well crafted on the outside, clean, nicely filed and polished, but

completely useless considering the fact that the internal mechanism was deficient and

unlike Pascal’s own. Yet, because of its novelty, a curieux from Rouen bought it and put

it on display in his cabinet together with other rare and unusual artefacts.438

According to Pascal’s own account, he was so disgusted by the deception that he

fired all his artisans and decided to quit the whole business. He was mostly concerned

about the numerous other artisans that would be brash enough to do the same, thus

ruining the esteem and public utility such an invention would ever acquire. Fortunately

for the young savant, the chancelier Séguier encouraged Pascal to finish the arithmetical

machine. And to dissipate any fear Pascal may have had, the chancelier decided via the

king’s (more specifically the regent’s) authority to

take out evil from the root and preventing it to spread to the detriment of my
[Pascal’s] reputation and the public’s disadvantage by granting me an uncommon
[qui n’est pas ordinaire] privilege that would stifle before their birth all these
illegitimate abortions that could be engendered outside of the legitimate and
necessary alliance between theory and the [mechanical] arts. 439

Pascal, Avis nécessaire, 339: “Cher lecteur, j’ai sujet de te donner ce dernier avis, après avoir
vu de mes yeux une fausse exécution de ma pensée faite par un ouvrier de la ville de Rouen, horloger de
profession, lequel, sur le simple récit qui lui fut fait de mon premier modèle que j’avais fait quelques mois
auparavant, eut assez de hardiesse pour en entreprendre un autre, et, qui plus est, par une autre espèce de
mouvement; mais comme le bonhomme n’a autre talent que celui de manier adroitement ses outils, et qu’il
ne sait pas seulement si la géométrie et la mécanique sont au monde, aussi (quoiqu’il soit très habile en son
art, et même très industrieux en plusieurs choses qui n’en sont point) ne fit-il qu’une pièce inutile, propre
véritablement, polie et très bien limée par le dehors, mais tellement imparfaite au-dedans qu’elle n’est
d’aucun usage; et toutefois, à cause seulement de sa nouveauté, elle ne fut pas sans estime parmi ceux qui
n’y connaissent rien, et nonobstant tous les défauts essentiels que l’épreuve y fait reconnaître, ne laissa pas
de trouver place dans le cabinet d’un curieux de la même ville, rempli de plusieurs autres pièces rares et
Pascal, Avis nécessaire, 340: “Mais, quelque temps après, Monseigneur le Chancelier, ayant
daigné honorer de sa vue mon premier modèle et donner le témoignage de l’estime qu’il faisait de cette
invention, me fit commandement de la mettre en sa perfection; et, pour dissiper la crainte qui m’avait
retenu quelque temps, il lui plut de retrancher le mal dès sa racine et d’empêcher le cours qu’il pourrait

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

With such a privilege in hand, Pascal no doubt expected to protect and profit from his


The privilege Pascal received for the pascaline was actually a gift from the king of

France, which had nothing to do with the so-called inventor’s rights of today’s patent

law. It better reflected the connections one had with the privilege-granting authority—the

crown of France here—than the originality of the invention. 440 Pascal’s 1649 privilège,

perhaps unsurprisingly, bore some similarity with the revised statutes granted three years

earlier by the same Louis XIV’s regency to the Parisian clockmakers’ guild. Pascal’s

privilege (and the Avis nécessaire before it) mentioned the fact that over fifty different

prototypes were produced, of assorted shapes and composed of various kinds of

mechanisms and materials, before one finally worked to Pascal’s satisfaction. Yet not

only the working model, but all fifty versions and every other possible way of producing

a calculating device were protected by the privilege. 441 It was no doubt, as Mario Biagioli

argues, a strategy fashioned by Pascal to win future infringement cases. It also matched

three specific articles of the Parisian clockmakers’ statutes, which permitted the guild’s

artisans to construct their timekeepers in any form and shape they wanted, and in all

prendre au préjudice de ma réputation et au désavantage du public par la grâce qu’il me fit de m’accorder
un privilège qui n’est pas ordinaire, et qui étouffe avant leur naissance tous ces avortons illégitimes qui
pourraient être engendrés d’ailleurs que de la légitime et nécessaire alliance de la théorie avec l’art.”
Biagioli, “From print to patents,” 141-152.
Pascal, Privilège, 714: “De quelle machine il aurait fait plus de cinquante modèles, tous
différents, les uns composés de verges ou lamines droites, d’autres de courbes, d’autres avec des chaînes;
les uns avec des rouages concentriques, d’autres avec des excentriques, les uns mouvants en ligne droite,
d’autres circulairement, les uns en cônes, d’autres en cylindres, et d’autres tout différents de ceux-là, soit
pour la matière, soit pour la figure, soit pour le mouvement…” The privilege prevented anyone to produce
an arithmetical machine “sans le consentement dudit sieur Pascal fils ou de ceux qui auront droit de lui,
sous prétexte d’augmentation, changement de matière, forme ou figure, ou diverses manières de s’en

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

desired types of material, while at the same time forbidding anyone—goldsmiths

included, ça va de soi!—to make and sell in the city all types of clockwork, gros or petit

volume, old or new, complete or unfinished. 442 Pascal’s privilege also prohibited anyone

who would build such an arithmetical machine outside of France to sell it anywhere

within the realm, corresponding to article 22 of the abovementioned clockmakers’

statutes. 443 (This restriction was applied only to clockmakers, however. Parisian

marchans merciers-jouaillers, whose statutes granted them privilege to sell any type of

merchandise, could sell imported clocks and related goods as long as they had been

approved by the clockmakers’ guild powers that be. 444 ) Finally, any artisan who abided

by the spirit of this privilege and built a pascaline would have to have it punched by a

special mark (decided by Pascal or the privilege’s heirs) that recognized the permission,

Lespinasse, Les Métiers et corporations de la ville de Paris, iii:555-556. Article 13, supra.
Article 18, “Item, qu’il ne sera permis à aucuns revendeurs, revenderesses ou colporteurs, vendre ny faire
vendre aucun ouvrage d’horlogerie, sur peine aux contrevenans de cent livres d’amende.” Article 19, “Item,
que les maistres horlogers pourront faire ou faire faire tous leursdiz ouvrages d’horlogeries, tant les boetes
qu’autres pièces de leurdit art, de telle estoffe et matières qu’ils aviseront bon estre, pour l’embelissement
de leursdits ouvrages tant d’or que d’argent, et autres estoffes qu’ils voudront, sans qu’ils puissent estre
empeschés ny recherchés d’autres que par Nous, sur peine de quinze cens livres d’amende…” This article
follows from an arrêt of the king’s council, dated 8 May 1643. See Savary, Dictionnaire universel de
commerce, ii:829-830. Biagioli, “From print to patents,” 172, n.39.
Lespinasse, Les Métiers et corporations de la ville de Paris, iii:557. Article 22, “Item, qu’il ne
sera permis à aucun maistre horloger de nostre Ville de Paris d’acheter ny faire venir aucun ouvrage neuf
d’horlogerie, tant grosse que menue, dedans ny dehors notre royaume pour raison que ce soit, attendu qu’il
se vend des ouvrages qui sont mal faits, à peine de cent livres d’amende et confiscation desdiz ouvrages.”
Lespinasse, Les Métiers et corporations de la ville de Paris, iii:556. Article 14, “Item, que les
marchans merciers-jouaillers, ayant pouvoir de trafiquer de toutes sortes de marchandises, ne pourront
acheter ny vendre aucunes marchandises d’horlogerie dans nostre Ville et banlieue de Paris, ny autre ville
de nostre royaulme, que premièrement ladite marchandise n’ait esté visitée, marquée et trouvée bonne par
les gardes dudit art d’horloger de nostre Ville de Paris, lesquels pourront aller en visitation chez lesditz
maistres marchans jouaillers pour veoir et visiter ladite marchandise d’horlogerie, dedans l’enclos et l’isle
de nostre Pallais, Ville et banlieue de Paris, pour obvier aux abus et malversations qui se pourroient
commettre au grand prejudice du public. Au cas que lesdits marchans exposent en vente ladite marchandise
avant la visitation, elle sera confisquée, et le marchand expositaire d’icelle condamné en l’amende

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

craftsmanship and working legitimacy of the machine—not unlike, of course, the

conventional use of signatures on valued manufactured goods. 445

This privilege was not as uncommon as Pascal claimed it was. That it applied to

the whole of France, not just Paris, Rouen, Blois or any other smaller region as most

privileges and guild’s statutes did, or that it was granted for a limitless period of time was

certainly unusual, but not overly strange. Like any other privilege of the sort, Pascal was

not restricted on the location where he could put his machine on the market—Roberval’s

Collège Royal was but one possibility—in comparison to Parisian and Rouen

clockmakers, who had the obligation to sell their merchandise from their boutique

only. 446 The privilege, however, was necessary to Pascal since the Parisian guild had

acquired a virtual monopoly on the construction of all kinds of mechanisms that bore a

resemblance to a clock. And to help them achieve this objective the clockmakers had the

right to operate a furnace in their shop, being in a position thereby to fabricate key parts

of their clocks and watches (though they most likely bought small tools of the trade from

the taillandiers-ferblantiers and clock weights from the fondeurs). 447 The privilege, in

Pascal, Privilège, 714: “Enjoignons à cet effet à tous ouvriers qui construironts ou fabriqueront
lesdits instruments en vertu des présentes d’y faire apposer par ledit sieur Pascal ou par ceux qui auront son
droit, telle contremarque qu’ils auront choisie, pour témoignage qu’ils auront visité lesdits instruments et
qu’ils les auront reconnus sans défaut.” Furthermore, and understandably, clockmakers were not allowed to
erase a name on a clock and sell it as their own. Lespinasse, Les Métiers et corporations de la ville de
Paris, iii:555. Article 12, “Item, il ne sera permis à aucun maistre de nostre Ville de Paris de changer ny
effacer aucuns noms qui seront taillés ou gravés sur lesditz ouvrages d’horlogerie, attendu que cela oste la
bonne renommée et repputation de ceux qui les font, et aussy que c’est pour surprendre et tromper le
public, à peine d’amende comme dessus.”
Lespinasse, Les Métiers et corporations de la ville de Paris, iii:555. Clockmakers themselves
could not sell articles outside of their boutique, yet their servants and other Parisian clockmakers could do
it for them. Article 11, “Item, il ne sera permis à aucun maistre dudit art d’horloger de nostredite Ville de
Paris de faire travailler, revendre, ny colporter aucune marchandise hors leur boutique, synon par leurs
domestiques ou par des maitres horlogers de nostre Ville de Paris, à peine de confiscation de la
marchandise et d’amende applicable comme dessus.” Biagioli, “From print to patents,” 150.
Lespinasse, Les Métiers et corporations de la ville de Paris, iii:557. Article 24, “Item, tous

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

other words, granted Pascal not only a quasi universal right of authorship, but also the

exclusive right of crafting himself any clock mechanism pertaining to the arithmetical

machine, if he chose to. (One of Pascal’s later heirs, the chevalier Durant-Pascal, claimed

that his famous relative, having found no clever enough artisan, made one of the smaller

arithmetical machines himself using some files and other tools acquired for the task.

Considering what Pascal wrote on this matter and the fact that any clockmaker was

furnished with a huge assortment of custom-made tools to accomplish similar handiwork,

this assertion in all likelihood is false—and remains unfounded to this day. 448 )

mouvemens ayant pignon de roue allant par ressort et contrepoids seront faits par les maistres horlogers,
attendu que cela despend de leur art; et pourront aussi lesdiz maistres horlogers avoir forge et fourneau en
leur boutique et lieu public, pour fondre et forger tout ce qui depend dudit art…” According to the
taillandiers-ferblantiers letter patents of 1642, the guild members had the duty “Que toutes les limes
douces, limes batardes, limes rudes, escoines de toute sorte de façons, tresses tant petites que grandes,
filières, tarots et forets servant au mestier d’horloger, soient toutes d’acier et acier battu. Et s’il est trouvé
faisant le contraire, l’amendera avec telle condamnation d’amende que de raison.” Ibid., ii:460, article 23.
For the fondeurs, in was specified in the letter patents of 1572 that “Item, lesdits maistres fondeurs ne
feront ne vendront aulcun ouvraige qui ne soyt bien et deuement faict, bon, loial et marchand, bien reparé et
faict de bonne estoffe, sur peyne de confiscation et d’amende arbitraire, et ne vendront ouvraige venant de
la fonte, si ce n’est à ung maistre dudict mestier, excepté les poix à adjouster et menu ouvraige pour les
orlogeurs.” Ibid., 2:422, article 19.
The chevalier wrote around 1804 in a copy of Pascal’s Lettres de A. Dettonville the following:
“La plus petite des deux machines qui a cinq rouës, a le mérite d’avoir éttée faite par pascal lui même; qui
nayant pus trouver un ouvrier assés intelligent pour la faire, se procurat des limes et d’autres outils et fit lui
même touts les rouages qui la composent.” Quoted in Mourlevat, Les Machines arithmétiques de Blaise
Pascal, 40. On the tools clockmakers needed to build clocks and watches, the afterdeath inventory (1638)
of the Blois clockmaker Loys Vautier gives a very good idea of the amount of tools one had to own to have
success in the métier: “Un plat à dorer, une enclume en fer garnie de son billot de bois, six gros marteaux
de fer a forger, un soufflet double de forge, une paire de tenailles de forge, des fers de forge, une paire de
pincettes, quatre grands étaulx d’orloger, deux bigornes de fer d’estably d’orloger, cinq paires de cisouères,
douze petits marteaux de fer d’estably, sept pierres à huile enchâssées de bois, sauf une, une bouillouer de
cuivre rouge, douze livres de laton à ouvrer, treize paires de presses à tourner, dix-neuf arbres à tourner
avec leurs bobines, et deux arbres à croiser (sic) grandes roues avec leurs bobines, plusieurs cuivreaux et
arbres à plier les ressorts, deux petits compas, l’un à balancier et l’autre à calibrer, plusieurs poinçons à
river, plusieurs limes à polir boîtes, trois compas de fer, cinq paires de pincettes de fer, six paires de
grandes tenailles à vis, trois paires [de] presses à river, six couteaux à tailler limes emmanchés de bois, une
grande lime large, dix-huit grandes limes, une râpe, neuf douzaines de limes et une petite plateforme propre
à tasser deux rivetz, deux filières à tirer ressorts, garnies de douze limes, huit livres d’acier en barre, et cinq
pièces d’acier forgé en forme de lames pour faire ressorts d’horlogerie.” Develle, Les Horlogers blésois,

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

Thus Pascal, owing to his privilege, did not have to resort to clockmakers; anyone

with the permission to do so could work on the internal mechanism (and the exterior

shape, appearance and decoration) of the pascaline. It is interesting to note in addition

that the Parisian clockmakers’s guild did not seem to mind this privilege that much.

There is in fact no indication that they ever manifested ire or concern regarding the

pascaline. Less than a decade later, in contrast, Huygens discovered otherwise. In 1658

the Dutch savant tried to secure such a privilege from Louis XIV for his newly invented

pendulum clock. With the help of the astronomer Ismael Boulliau, Huygens formally

requested through the chancelier Séguier that he be granted exclusive rights on French

territory for his clock. Boulliau, unfortunately, reported that the chancelier denied the

request three times and as a justification “has always replied that he did not want all the

master clockmakers of Paris crying after him, and besides there was always the

possibility that someone else had found this same way of [making] clocks.” 449 As we saw

earlier, it did not prevent Huygens from selling his clocks to various members of the

French aristocracy—completely bypassing the clockmakers’ guild. Having not been

granted a privilege did not hinder Huygens from selling his pendulum clocks, but it did

Huygens to Boulliau, 13 June 1658, in Huygens, Oeuvres complètes, ii:183-184: “Vous scauez,
puis que Monsieur l’Ambassadeur a pris la peine de vous en escrire, que je suis deuenu sollicitant en
France pour obtenir Priuilege de ma nouuelle invention d’Horloge. Luy mesme nous asseura aussi avant
hier que vous aviez desia formè une requeste pour ceste effect. Ce qu’ayant appris je me suis trouuè obligè
de vous rendre graces de ce que vous avez la bontè de vous employer dans cette affaire, et de vous prier d’y
continuer avec le mesme soin et la mesme affection: au moins si tant y a qu’il vous semble que nous y
pourrions reüssir. Ce que je vous prie sur tout de me mander.” Boulliau to Huygens, 21 June 1658, in ibid.,
185-186: “Je suis fort fasché que les jinstances, que j’ay faict faire aupres de Monsieur le Chancellier, pour
obtenir le priuilege que vous desires, n’ayent pas reussi. Il a refusé par trois fois de l’accorder, & il a
tousjours respondu qu’il ne vouloit pas faire crier apres luy tous les maistres horologeurs de Paris. & que
mesme il se pouuoit faire que quelqu’un eust trouué cette mesme façon d’horologes. S’il y auoit eu le
moyen de le surmonter, ceux que j’ay emploiez l’auroient faict: Vous estes fondé en exemple & en raison,
mais comme cette grace depend absolument de Monsieur le Chancellier, & luy formant ces difficultez &
obstacles il n’y a pas moyen pourtant d’en venir a bout.” English translation quoted from David S. Landes,
Revolution in time: Clocks and the making of the modern world (Cambridge, MA and London: The
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1983), 117.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

not protect his invention either. It is difficult to tell whether the excuse given by Séguier

was genuine or simply a way of turning down someone who did not hold the required

royal connections to perform such a delicate assignment—after all, Huygens’s father

negotiated with Louis XIV directly so his Archimedes-son be granted a privilege in 1665

for his remontoir clock. 450

Pascal, through his father and his former acquaintance with the Cardinal de

Richelieu, certainly had the ear of the chancelier, more so than Huygens did in 1658. Yet,

it also points to the fact that Pascal’s arithmetical machine was not perceived as a bona

fide threat to the Parisian clockmaking trade. Though the internal mechanism of the

pascaline strangely resembles that of a clock, Pascal’s machine never did gain the

superior prestige and authority that timekeepers retained in early modern Europe. The

pascaline’s epistemic value for natural philosophy, however, was not lost to Pascal and

those who saw the rhetoric hidden in the gears of the machine. There was indeed a

powerful rhetorical argument behind the privilege. The manner in which Pascal phrased

the Avis nécessaire and the 1649 privilège points in fact to one fundamental conclusion

regarding the practice of early modern science: the indispensable union of theory and

practice for the advancement of natural philosophy. Not unlike Mersenne’s organ,

Pascal’s arithmetical machine, taken on its innermost layer of understanding, epitomized

the role played by both artisans and savants in the pursuit of early modern knowledge.

Huygens, Oeuvres complètes, v:254, 256-257, 264, and 279. See Biagioli, “From print to
patents,” 143.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]


In the Lettre dédicatoire and Avis nécessaire Pascal emphasized several times that

creating and making the arithmetical machine necessitated the alliance of theory and the

mechanical arts. Taken separately, Pascal claimed, one was as deficient as the other; both

were essential to the task, whether one liked it or not. Such a stance toward the nature of

knowledge likely came from the time spent with his father at the Mersenne academy. I

have shown in Chapter one how the Minim, especially in his Traité de l’orgue,

underscored the role of theory, experiment and musical instruments in achieving a

complete understanding of the nature of sound. Pascal père, it would appear, fully

endorsed this approach to natural philosophy. Mersenne, actually, dedicated the same

Traité de l’orgue to the elder Pascal, praising Blaise’s father not only for being an

accomplished musician, but more importantly for having married his extensive

knowledge of mathematics to the practical expression of mechanics. 451 To Pascal, who

was taught everything by his father, the conjunction of theory and practice must have felt

natural, allant de soi, owing to the intellectual milieu he was bathing in since the early

adolescence. Though Pascal firmly believed the artisan was subordinated to the grandeur

of the natural philosopher’s mind, the former’s mastery of the mechanical arts was

indispensable to the success of his enterprise—and on the whole of natural philosophy. 452

The tension between theory and practice was already explicit in Pascal’s Lettre

dédicatoire to Séguier. Pascal pointed out that unfamiliar or unusual inventions always

Mersenne, “Traité de l’orgue,” book VI, Epitre, in Harmonie universelle, contenant la théorie
et la pratique de la musique, 3 vols. (Paris: Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1963), iii:n.p. The
Epitre is dated 1 November 1635. See introduction to chapter one for the full quote.
On this grandeur of the natural philosopher vis-à-vis the artisan, see Jones, The matter of
calculation, chap. 1.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

had more censors than approvers. Scholars were especially unsympathetic to novelties.

Instead of trying to understand inventions for what they were, according to Pascal, these

savants more often than not simply judged them impossible—before discarding them as

impertinent little things. (Pierre Petit used the same trope in praising Buot’s rove de

proportion.) 453 In the Avis nécessaire, Pascal warned the reader about the first cloud

(vapeur) that had to be dispersed from his mind, namely that the complexity of the

pascaline could have (and should have) been scaled down. Here Pascal somewhat echoes

what Descartes said regarding the lens-grinding machine (see Chapter two). Complexity

was not a problem here, but a direct manifestation of the need to unify theory and

practice. The suggestion that the arithmetical machine was composed of too many parts

could only come from

certain minds that obviously have some knowledge of mechanics or geometry, but
because they do not know how to join them together, and these last two to
physics, they flatter or deceive themselves in their imaginary impressions,
convinced that outcomes are probable where none are. They possess an imperfect
theory of things in general, which is insufficient to predict specific problems
arising from matter itself or from the particular arrangement of a machine’s
parts—the movements of which having been designed appropriately so that they
remain free and do not encroach on one another. Hence, when these specious
savants will suggest to you that this machine could have been less intricate
[composée], I pray you to give them this reply that I would offer myself if they
were to ask me… 454

Pascal, “Lettre dédicatoire,” 333. Petit’s letter to Buot in Buot, Vsage de la rove de proportion,
18-19, where he wrote: “On ne trouuera pas estrange que i’exalte les Inuenteurs, & que ie me mette en
cholere contre les ignorans qui n’estans pas capables de rien produire de leur chef, ne le sont mesmes pas
d’admirer & reuerer ceux à qui la nature a donné ce genie.” (p.18)
Pascal, Avis nécessaire, 335-336: “Cette proposition ne te peut être faite que par certains esprits
qui ont véritablement quelque connaissance de la mécanique ou de la géométrie, mais qui, pour ne les
savoir joindre l’une et l’autre, et toutes deux ensemble à la physique, se flattent ou se trompent dans leurs
conceptions imaginaires, et se persuadent possibles beaucoup de choses qui ne le sont pas, pour ne posséder
qu’une théorie imparfaite des choses en général, laquelle n’est pas suffisante de leur faire prévoir en
particulier les inconvénients qui arrivent, ou de la part de la matière, ou des places que doivent occuper les
pièces d’une machine dont les mouvements sont différents, afin qu’ils soient libres et qu’ils ne puissent
s’empêcher l’un l’autre. Lors donc que ces savants imparfaits te proposeront que cette machine pouvait être
moins composée, je te conjure de leur faire la réponse que je leur ferais moi-même s’ils me faisaient une

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

Pascal acknowledged his argument seemed paradoxical, i.e. to ensure that the machine’s

operation was as easy as possible its internal mechanism had to be intricate. Yet Pascal

asked the reader of the Avis nécessaire not to judge the pascaline imperfect on account of

its internal complexity. The movement created by the small intertwined wheels, Pascal

argued, was so simple and perfect that it could move effortlessly as many as ten thousand

such wheels if one desired—adding that he was not convinced whether another

comparable principle on which he established this mechanism existed in nature. Although

Pascal did not underscore this point himself in his exposé, one could clearly reflect upon

Pascal’s claim looking at the complexity and (increasing) exactness of a good clock, or

better yet the infinite intricacy of the clockwork universe as described by the rising

mechanical philosophy of Descartes and others. Complex mechanical movements, based

on flawless principles, presented no epistemic conundrum according to Pascal; any

scholar who assumed otherwise was plainly wrong and should be challenged to

demonstrate the contrary.

Artisans alone, as one might expect, fared no better in Pascal’s presentation of his

mechanical epistemology. The second cloud the readers of the Avis nécessaire needed to

disperse would come from the poor copies of the pascaline made by presumptuous

craftsmen. Pascal beseeched his reader to look out for these imperfect reproductions

executed by the ignorance and temerity of such ouvriers. Skilled artisans were certainly

as bad as learned scholars regarding the meaning and assessment of the arithmetical

machine: What scholars put into words, artisans built in materiam. According to Pascal,

telle proposition…”

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

the better artisans were in their art, the more daring was their vanity, which inclined them

to believe they could carry out any new and original work. Intoxicated by this false

conviction, artisans

operate by trial and error, that is to say with uncertainty and without proportions
as determined by art; whence it happens that after a lot of time and labor they do
not produce anything that bears a resemblance to what they had originally
undertaken, or at best they engender a little monster to which lacks the principal
limbs, the other [parts] being distorted and without any proportion. These
imperfections, rendering it ridiculed, never fail to attract the scorn of all who see
it, most of whom blaming without reason the first one who ever thought about this
invention in lieu of trying to find enlightenment from the inventor and then
blaming the presumptuousness of these artisans who, owing to a false impudence
that makes them think they can do more than their peers, manufacture these
useless abortions. 455

The fear that savants would blame Pascal for the flawed copies of the pascaline was

identical to Descartes’s own when he learned from Desargues that the Cardinal de

Richelieu wanted artisans to build several of his lens-grinding machines in order to

develop the lens manufacture in France. The lesson Pascal wanted his reader to bear in

mind was that regarding new inventions the mechanical arts absolutely had to be assisted

by theory “until practice had caused the rules of theory to become so common they could

be reduced to art.” Moreover, Pascal believed that “continuous exercise would give

artisans the habit of following and practising these rules with assurance.” 456

Pascal, Avis nécessaire, 338: “puis, enivrés de cette fausse persuasion, ils travaillent en
tâtonnant, c’est-à-dire sans mesures certaines et sans proportions réglées par art; d’où il arrive qu’après
beaucoup de temps et de travail, ou ils ne produisent rien qui revienne à ce qu’ils ont entrepris, ou, au plus,
ils font paraître un petit monstre auquel manquent les principaux membres, les autres étant informes et sans
aucune proportion: ces imperfections, le rendant ridicule, ne manquent jamais d’attirer le mépris de tous
ceux qui le voient, desquels la plupart rejettent sans raison la faute sur celui qui, le premier, a eu la pensée
d’une telle invention, au lieu de s’en éclaircir avec lui et puis blâmer la présomption de ces artisans qui, par
une fausse hardiesse d’oser entreprendre plus que leurs semblables, produisent ces inutiles avortons.”
Ibid., 338-339.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

Theory and practice, carried out separately, were useless to Pascal and

consequently to anyone desiring to build an arithmetical machine—extrapolating the

argument, it was also true of every new invention coming from either the mind of the

savant or the hands of the artisan. 457 Theory and practice, when combined, became for

Pascal and a growing number of natural philosophers the quintessential ingredient to the

recipe of a good natural philosophy. Studying the arithmetical machine’s fabrica et usus

naturally revealed the virtues of this natural philosophical approach, as the study of

Mersenne’s organ or Descartes’s lens-grinding machine did. To change one’s

predisposition against either theory or practice, Pascal needed to alter conventional habits

of thinking, one more thing the pascaline could teach through the concept of coutume.


John Napier, like most mathematical practitioners did in early modern Europe, extolled

the virtues of mathematics in the dedication of his Mirifici logarithmorum canonis

descriptio (1614) to Charles I. Since no other type of study, Napier wrote, “doth more

acuate and stirre vp generous and heroicall wits to excellent and eminent affaires,” it was

to be expected that “learned and magnanimous Princes in all former ages haue taken great

delight in them,” whereas “the vnskilled and slothfull men haue alwayes pursued them

with most cruell hatred, as vtter enemies to their ignorance and sluggishnesse.” Why

Ibid., 339: “Et tout ainsi qu’il n’était pas en mon pouvoir, avec toute la théorie imaginable,
d’exécuter moi seul mon propre dessein sans l’aide d’un ouvrier qui possédât parfaitement la pratique du
tour, de la lime et du marteau, pour réduire les pièces de la machine dans les mesure et proportions que par
les règles de la théorie je lui prescrivais, il est de même absolument impossible à tous les simples artisans,
si habiles qu’ils soient en leur art, de mettre en perfection une pièce nouvelle qui consiste, comme celle-ci,
en mouvements compliqués, sans l’aide d’une personne qui, par les règles de la théorie, lui donne les
mesures et les proportions de toutes les pièces dont elle doit être composée.”

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

then, Napier asked rhetorically, should not his new invention, the logarithm—“seeing it

abhorreth [by] blunt and base natures”—rightfully “seeke and flye vnto your Highnesse

most noble disposition and patronage?” Logarithms not only eliminated all the

difficulties found in mathematical calculations, “which otherwise might haue beene

distastfull to your worthy towardnesse,” stated Napier, but was “so fitted to helpe the

weaknesse of memory, that by meanes thereof it is easie to resolue most Mathematical

questions in one hours space” instead of the full day or more it would take using

conventional mathematical methods. “[W]hat can bee more delightfull and more

excellent in any kinde of learning,” asked Napier, “than to dispatch honourable and

profound matters, exactly, readily, and without losse of either time or labour”? 458

Napier’s other popular invention, rabdology, was described likewise by John Dansie, who

gave the following subtitle to his 1627 A Mathematicall manuel: “whereby Any man that

can but add and substract, may learne to multiply and divide in two houres by

Rabdologie, without any trouble at all to the memorie.” 459 And in a sonnet dedicated to

Pascal’s arithmetical machine, the poet Dalibray explicitly mentioned how wonderful the

“artifice” of this “wonderful genius” was in demanding no reason nor memory to help

even the “thickest minds” to calculate. 460

Napier, A description of the admirable table oe [sic] logarithmes, sig. A4r.
Dansie, A Mathematicall manuel, subtitle of the book.
Dalibray, Les Oeuvres poétiques, in Pascal, OC, ii:692:
Cher Pascal, qui comprends par un subtil savoir
Ce que la mécanique a de plus admirable,
Et de qui l’artifice aujourd’hui nous fait voir
D’un merveilleux génie une preuve durable,

Après ton grand esprit, que sert-il d’en avoir?

Compter fut l’action d’un homme raisonnable,
Et voilà, maintenant ton art inimitable

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

Mathematical practices like logarithm and rabdology were invented to substitute

the so-called weakness of memory with tools such as printed logarithmic tables, paper or

metallic rules (reigles de proportion), Napier’s bones and finally calculating machines.

The memory involved in making arithmetical operations like multiplication and

subtraction, said differently, was supplanted by material devices created for specific

mathematical practices. Abstract number concepts were materialized into these devices—

they were blackboxed one would say today. They no longer required to be understood nor

remembered by rote. A material object, to which was associated a prescriptive technique,

was replacing intangible memory. This trade-in of the material for the immaterial points

as well to another fundamental aspect regarding mathematical practices in general, and

the pascaline in particular. New material objects necessitated the learning of new gestural

habits, most likely distinct from conventional ones. Using Napier’s bones, for instance,

bound a mathematician to bodily movements drastically different from the plume and

jetons technique: the positioning and reading of rods had nothing to do with the jetons.

Without the proper gestural habit, multiplication with Napier’s bones would prove

impossible. Pascal’s arithmetical machine was no different than other mathematical

instruments in this respect. To use it, one required a completely new habitude, gestural

habits that ensured the proper working of the machine. With time, the concept of

Aux esprits les plus lourds en donne le pouvoir.

Il ne faut pour cet art ni raison ni mémoire,

Par toi chacun l’exerce et sans peine et sans gloire,
Puisque chacun t’en doit et la gloire et l’effet

Ton esprit est semblable à cette âme seconde

Qui va s’insinuant par tout dedans le monde
Et préside et supplée à tout ce qui s’y fait.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

habitude will be generalized into coutume, which became part of Pascal’s epistemology

of knowledge.

Memory was not completely obsolete or useless. In fragment 536 of the Pensées,

Pascal asserted that “memory is necessary for all the operations of reason” and in

fragment 322 he described how central was genealogy (the memory of past generations)

to the ancients’ understanding of history. Memory was also fundamentally linked to

ordinary-life customs in the writings of Epictetus, Montaigne and Salomon de Tultie—or

Pascal himself, the last name being an anagram of Amos Dettonville, Pascal’s alias. 461

Yet memory became an obvious problem when dealing with arithmetic. The pascaline’s

carry mechanism, the most important mechanical feature of the machine, was meant to

alleviate the mind from such a mental exertion:

You [the reader] know as well that while using the plume one is compelled at any
time to carry or borrow numbers, and how many errors slip by in these carries and
borrowings, unless one has a very long habit [habitude] [in such things] and a
deep concentration, which rapidly wears out the mind. This machine relieves
anyone who uses it from this vexation. It suffices that one has judgment, whilst
the machine take over from the failing of memory. And, with no carrying nor
borrowing [to execute], the machine does by itself what its user wants, without
the latter even having to think about it. 462

Memory, however, was but one annoyance to those lacking the mastery of numbers.

According to Pascal, the art of arithmetic as a whole was a chore when the reckoner

lacked the habitude of the plume and jetons. Pascal invented the arithmetical machine to

curtail the superfluousness of the conventional reckoning technique. With this new

Pascal, Pensées, S536 and S322 and S618.
Pascal, Avis nécessaire, 337: “Tu sais de même comme, en opérant par la plume, on est à tous
moments obligé de retenir ou d’emprunter les nombres nécessaires, et combien d’erreurs se glissent dans
ces rétentions et emprunts, à mois d’une très longue habitude et, en outre, d’une attention profonde et qui
fatigue l’esprit en peu de temps. Cette machine délivre celui qui opère par elle de cette vexation; il suffit
qu’il ait le jugement, elle le relève du défaut de la mémoire; et, sans rien retenir ni emprunter, elle fait
d’elle-même ce qu’il désire, sans même qu’il y pense.”

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

machine, the “most ignorant [calculator] will find as much advantage as the most

experienced one” because “the instrument makes up for the lack of knowledge or lack of

habitude” of its user. Pascal added that through the machine’s “necessary movements,”

the user of the pascaline could do with ease, without even thinking about it, every

possible arithmetical operations. 463

The rapidity of the machine’s mechanical action (mouvements nécessaires) was

made obvious when measured up to to the motions (gestes) required by the plume and

jetons technique. In fact, as Pascal argued to his reader, “if you want a more specific

explanation of the speed of the machine’s movements, I would tell you that it is equal to

the quickness [agilité] of the hand working on it.” 464 The gearing system of the machine

did not impede at all the promptitude of the hand; owing to the machine’s design the hand

working on it could become as free and as fast as if it dealt with the plume and jetons. In

contrasting the swiftness of execution of both techniques Pascal underscored one

essential facet of his invention: the necessity of learning a new gestural habitude, one that

was as efficient as the traditional method yet utterly dissimilar. This new gestural

habitude was confounding not because it required a training of the body per se, but

because this bodily accoutumance suggested a corporeal “memory” rather than an act of

memory from the mind—called for with the plume and jetons. The pascaline, in a sense,

demoted arithmetic from the realm of the mind to that of the body. It became a “mere”

addition of la machine, or Pascal’s characterization of the human body. Arithmetic was

Ibid., 337.
Ibid., 337: “Et, enfin, quant à la promptitude, elle paraît de même en la comparant avec celle
des autres deux méthodes du jeton et de la plume; et si tu veux encore une plus particulière explication de
sa vitesse, je te dirai qu’elle est pareille à l’agilité de la main de celui qui opère.”

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

no longer a knowledge derived from the mind, but a precise and rhythmic mechanical

action generated by a body appendage.

According to Eric Lundwall, this could very well explain the pascaline’s failure as

a consumer item. The machine, according to Pascal’s rhetoric, replaced thinking with the

plume and jetons by a complex mechanical system that was easier, simpler, faster and

surer than conventional methods. Pascal said himself in fragment 617 that his machine,

though not endowed with a will of its own, “produce[d] effects closer to genuine thought

than anything animals could do.” 465 With the machine, Pascal tried to bridge the infinite

distance between body and mind referred to in fragment 339. The pascaline, in

Lundwall’s view, thus begged for a leap of imagination that was most likely too difficult

to grasp or to accept by early modern standards of reasoning. Conversely, the success of

Pascal’s next business venture, the carrosses à cinq sols, rested on the coutume of the

coches à la campagne already well established between French provincial towns. Here

Pascal stretched a familiar coutume rather than customer’s imagination. With the

relatively cheap coach rides (five sols), Pascal made sure he stayed within the same order,

l’ordre du corps, or la grandeur de la chair, in granting bourgeois of lower means the

sensation (for a short timespan) of being wealthy and eminent gentlemen. Such an

horizontal symmetry within the grandeur de la chair was the key to the success of the

carrosses à cinq sols. In contrast, the vertical leap demanded by the pascaline between the

Pascal, Pensées, S617: “La machine arithmétique fait des effets qui approchent plus de la
pensée que tout ce que font les animaux. Mais elle ne fait rien qui puisse faire dire qu’elle a de la volonté,
comme les animaux.”

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

grandeur de la chair and the grandeur de l’esprit caused problems and confusion in the

material realm of early modern markets. 466

Yet for Pascal it was of the utmost importance. Following a request from

Bourdelot, a Frenchman connected to the court of Sweden since 1651, Pascal sent to

queen Christina a copy of his arithmetical machine together with a remarkable essay on

the power of the natural sciences. This text offer an early formulation of Pascal’s later

idea of the three orders of grandeur: la chair, l’esprit and la charité. Here, only the first

two were invoked. Yet they were sufficient to establish the core argument of the text.

Looking at the arithmetical machine while reading Pascal’s exposé, Christina must have

understood that l’esprit could not only master corporeal bodies, but mechanical ones as

well. The arithmetical machine, as the source and reference point of Pascal’s famous

letter, became the perfect embodiment of the power and virtue of l’esprit over matter.

Something grander than mere “mechanics” lay behind the wheels and gears of the

machine; something worth the grandeur of a queen—or the chancelier Séguier, as he

liked to be called. Pascal probably believed that the machine, if advertised as a natural

grandeur de l’esprit, would be sought out, cherished and put in the cabinets of seigneurs

and royal dignitaries, themselves grandeurs de la chair. Reciprocally, savants endowed

with the grandeur de l’esprit would want Pascal’s machine because it was found in the

cabinets of seigneurs. (Hence Pascal’s dedication of his first machine to the chancelier

Lundwall, Les Carrosses à cinq sols, 46-47 and 110-111. The other advantage inherent to the
business of the carrosses à cinq sols came from the fact that the artisans working on the coaches need not
be told what to do. Again, the artisanal coutume was continued in this business venture. Pascal, in matters
of coach manufacturing and repairing, did not have to intervene or to break traditional ways of doing. On
this artisanal milieu, though later, see David Lussault, “Des artisans commerçants au service des élites:
selliers carrossiers et charrons à Paris au milieu du XVIIIe siècle,” in La Boutique et la ville. Commerce,
commerçants, espaces et clientèles, XVIe-XXe siècle, ed. by Natacha Coquery (Tours: Publication de
l’université François Rabelais, 2000), 113-130.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

Séguier.) A powerful rhetorical argument was thus set into motion within the mechanism

of the machine, one by far exceeding the machine’s (overstated) utility. 467 Pascal’s

arithmetical machine, I would argue, was proposed as a social status-granting device to

assert one’s own honnêteté. The machine, combining the grandeurs de l’esprit et de la

chair, could be envisioned as a material bridge between two frequently dissociated élites.

It could be understood as the perfect unifying instrument of the republic of letters.

The unification of mind and body symbolized by the arithmetical machine seemed

like it demanded a great power of abstraction, but it actually did not. The reason is

simple: Pascal relocated this apparent abstraction into the familiar notion of habitude or

coutume. Even memory, as one of the prime functions of the mind, did not escape this

move. Conventional reckoning techniques such as the plume and jetons or even Pratt’s

arithmeticall jewel proposed material devices that functioned as aide-mémoire, memory

crutches that failed at one point or another.468 An elaborate memory contraption like

Kircher’s organum mathematicum, however, suggested a more accurate and potentially

more powerful materialization of a thesaurus sapientiae, i.e. the medieval allegory of the

mind as a strongbox representing the storage as well as the internal organization of

memory. (See Figure 3.3.) The organum’s physical loculamenta in which Kircher stored

Bourdelot to Pascal, 14 May 1652, in Pascal, OC, ii:919. Pascal, “Lettre à la sérénissime reine
de Suède,” in ibid., 923-926. On the role of the arithmetical machine on Pascal’s theory of orders see
Christian Meurillon, “La Machine arithmétique à la genèse des ordres pascaliens,” Revues des sciences
humaines 186-187 (1982-83), 147-158 and Haruo Nagase, “Rhétorique de la machine arithmétique:
signification de son invention dans la pensée de Pascal,” Etudes de langue et de littérature françaises 72
(1998), 17-30.
I use aide-mémoire somewhat liberally here. A genuine one would be this late seventeenth-
century English silver medallion one which is depicted on one side the solution of three special cases of
quadratic equations and on the obverse a table used to for the calculation of interest in moneylending and
related financial transactions. See Stephen Johnston, “An English mathematical aide-memoire of the 17th
century,” <http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/staff/saj/aide-memoire> (Accessed on 15 March 2007).

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

and organized mathematical notions of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, etc. bore

a resemblance to the figurative loculamenta evoked by the medieval practitioners of the

art of memory. The metaphorical loci of the traditional Ciceronian art of memory, where

one would store in predetermined symbolic locations fragments of a text such as the

Psalms, were an important feature of the practice of the ars memoriae. Once knowledge

had been stored into a multitude of these loci—usually represented as lighted open

spaces, not too crowded and without excessive amount of details like a church or a

market place—one needed to map onto each memory space a special image, an imagine,

that would then be used to recall the knowledge found in that particular locus of the

mind. The more bizarre, vivid, unusual and evocative the image was, the easier it would

be to recall the desired knowledge from its appropriate memory space. This act of

memory-recalling was what Aristotle had called anamnesis, and it was shattered I would

argue through the utilization of early modern mathematical tools such as Kircher’s

organum mathematicum. 469

Here mental images were useless and powerless in retrieving knowledge from the

instrument’s loculamenta. Once stored in Kircher’s organum, a mathematical concept

was physically recovered by the hand’s physical movement, not by a vivid imagine. Like

mathematical instruments described earlier, Kircher’s organum encompassed abstract

mathematical concepts that did not need to be memorized but were still dependent on

The art of memory is a fascinating topic of study which had a tremendous impact on medieval
scholasticism. On this topic, see Mary Carruthers, The book of memory: A study of memory in medieval
culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). Two other classic books on the art of memory are
Frances Yates, The art of memory (London: Pimlico, 1992 [1966]) and Paolo Rossi, Logic and the art of
memory: The quest for a universal language, transl. by Stephen Clucas (Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 2000). Though both these books discuss the medieval art of memory, they focus their
arguments respectively on the Renaissance transformation of the art of memory through the hermeticism of
Giordano Bruno and the rejection of the hermetic art of memory in favor of an ars memoriae concerned
with questions pertinent to method and logic.

] Clockmaking: Pascal’s Machines, Arithmetic, and the Epistemology of Coutume ]

exact mathematical practices. Pascal’s arithmetical machine, according to the rhetoric,

went even beyond that: it not only stored mathematical knowledge within its gears but the

practice of arithmetic as well. In the end, only gestural movements—or habitudes—were

left, which meant that no memorization nor mathematical practices were required in order

to operate Pascal’s machine. The pascaline became a natural and integral part of la

machine—the Pascalian definition of the human body—by way of the gestural

knowledge encompassing its use.

Habitude and coutume were not exactly identical notions in the seventeenth

century, yet were related to each other. Coutume usually meant a more collective

behavior while habitude was applied to individual actions. Usually, coutume

encompassed both the general and the individual definitions (taking for example Mme de

Sévigné’s writings, who said about various things that Je n’en ferai pas ma coutume).

Whereas coutume could stand-in for habitude, the reverse was an incorrect semantical

usage. Even though Pascal referred to both notions repeatedly, it was the more embracing

concept of coutume that held his attention. In the Pensées, for instance, Pascal mentioned

the substantive habitude only three times compared to forty-nine times for coutume. 470

Therefore, to understand the gestural habitude underlined in the Avis nécessaire it is

necessary to take a closer look at Pascal’s concept of coutume.

In fragment 480 Pascal famously said that “coutume can do everything.” It is all

powerful because one cannot see it or feel it; because most of the time we are unaware of

its presence and action. “The coutume is a second nature that destroys the first.” (S159)

Gérard Ferreyrolles, Les Reines du monde. L’Imagination et la coutume chez Pascal (Paris:
Honoré Champion Editeur, 1995), 17-19. This is the best general analysis of Pascal’s concept of coutume.