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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: Siderius Nuncius February 4, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Up until 1610, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) had made his living as a university mathematician, first at Pisa then at Padua near Venice.  At that time, mathematics was a relatively low university subject, primarily studied as a path toward an education in medicine, law, or theology and philosophy (Scholastic philosophy).  Subjects within the rubric of mathematics included the sciences of mechanics, optics, and astronomy.  The development of geometric and mathematical theories within these sciences constituted logical arguments, but were considered descriptive of the behaviors—rather than explanatory of the natures—of things.  Astronomy, for example, largely involved  the deployment of geometrical methods of predicting future positions of the sun, moon, and planets, leaving their physical qualities, habits of motion, and arrangement to the philosophers.

Galileo’s work in mathematics and mechanics was wide-ranging and ambitious, challenging philosophical assumptions such as that heavier objects fall more quickly, and making use of experimental trials.  He also became aware of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the universe (1543) while a mathematician.  Still, as a university mathematician, however much he felt his work bore upon philosophical forms of knowledge, he was not in a (more…)