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Schaffer on Machine Philosophy, Pt. 3: Perpetual Motion September 29, 2013

Posted by Will Thomas in Chymistry, Schaffer Oeuvre.
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A diagram of the purported interior of a perpetual-motion wheel built by Johann Bessler.  From Offyreus, Grundlicher Bericht von dem Perpetua ac per se Mobili (1715)

A diagram of a perpetual-motion wheel built by Johann Bessler. From Orffyreus, Grundlicher Bericht von dem Perpetua ac per se Mobili (1715)

In this post we look at Simon Schaffer’s “The Show That Never Ends: Perpetual Motion in the Early Eighteenth Century,” British Journal for the History of Science 28 (1995): 157-189, in which he sets himself the task of explaining the intellectual and political viability of perpetual motion schemes, particularly in “the lands dominated by the Hapsburgs, the Empire and northern Italy” (162). This is a difficult challenge, since, as Schaffer points out, such machines had been subjected to widespread doubt and criticism from the middle of the seventeenth century. Yet, they did have a place, and what Schaffer, I think, accomplishes here is that he makes that place fit more coherently into what we know about how, in general, engineering and philosophical novelties were handled in the early 18th-century milieu.


Primer: Augustin Jean Fresnel February 11, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Augustin Jean Fresnel (1788-1827) was a French engineer and physicist who was a key figure in the move from an “emission” theory of light to a “wave” theory of light in the optical physics of the early-nineteenth century.  Where a “ray” of light was generally taken to be a physical, if imperceptible, thing, which could (in theory) be counted, the new wave theory took a ray to be only a geometrical construct connecting a luminous source with a point on a wave front as it traveled through an ethereal medium (ether wave propagation!).

Fresnel was the son of an architect who, having a penchant for mathematics, began training at the new Ecole Polytechnique in Paris at the age of seventeen, where he received extensive instruction in methods of mathematical analysis, chemistry, and physics—an education that gave him both a background in natural philosophical conceptualizations as well as in practical technique.

Eager to make a “discovery” of any sort, he bounced between fields early on.  After he left the Ecole in 1806, he worked as an engineer with the elite Corps des Ponts et Chausées (Bridges and Roadworks Corps) for three years, and in 1810 he (more…)

Primer: Newton’s Prism Experiments and Theory of Color December 10, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Today’s Hump-Day History post is written by frequent visitor Thony Christie, a dedicated amateur historian who “once had a semi-professional background”.  He has approved a few editorial truncations and rephrasings.

Update: Not long after this blog post, Thony started his own blog, The Renaissance Mathematicus.

In 1672 the still relatively young and unknown Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, Isaac Newton, published his first piece of experimental philosophy: “A Serie’s of Quere’s Propounded by Mr. Isaac Newton, to be Determin’d by Experiments, Positively and Directly Concluding His New Theory of Light and Colours; and Here Recommended to the Industry of the Lovers of Experimental Philosophy, as they Were Generously Imparted to the Publisher in a Letter of the Said Mr. Newtons of July 8.1672”  in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.  The work became a touchstone in the establishment of the short report of experimental results in a serialized publication as a major means of scientific communication.  The Philosophical Transactions had existed for seven years prior to Newton’s contribution, but had been dedicated primarily to reporting the Royal Society’s regular piecemeal correspondence rather than the systematic presentation of experiments and observations, which was at that time accomplished mainly in the book format.

A sketch by Newton of one of his prism experiments.

A sketch by Newton of one of his prism experiments.

As to the content of Newton’s first publication, it reported a series of simple but elegant experiments with a beam of sunlight and a couple of glass prisms, in which Newton demonstrated that light is not homogeneous and white, but heterogeneous, and made up of different colours each of which (more…)