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Perfect Mechanics: Instrument Makers at the Royal Society of London in the Eighteenth Century

Richard Sorrenson
Docent Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Tom Schulte
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In the seventeen hundreds, the Royal Society’s instrument makers were desperately competitive artisans. This book explores decades of activity when periods of legal squabbles, trials at exotic locales, and plagiarism were punctuated by innovation and achievement in measuring the world. With a membership comprising more wealthy dilettantes than scholars, the Society attracted and promoted skilled craftsmen that advanced English science with important applications to navigation and astronomy. These brass instruments glint in overviews of the discoveries made by James Cook, Pierre Louis Maupertuis, and others.

A major portion of this book is a history of the Royal Society of London through its areas of focus and changing attitudes towards mathematics during the Eighteenth Century. Tables and an appendix explore the subjects published in Philosophical Transactions during that time, such as biology, antiquities, philosophy, and “mixed mathematics” (as applied mathematics was referred to at the time). Pure mathematics was at best a minor focus in publishing by the Society; the subject was at times ignored and even denigrated. We learn that Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Society in 1784, called mathematics “little more than a tool with which other sciences are hewd into form” and that his supporters agreed “it was not sufficient to be a Mathematician” to join the hallowed Society. Indeed, there was no need to enumerate the “requisite social qualities” a mathematician lacked.

The book could have benefited from an initial chapter of exposition. Too little is related about the challenges faced at the time, and also too little is offered early on in describing the taxonomy of the development and improvements in instrumentation needed to survey the globe and measure the solar system. A reader will come across mentions of the zenith sector, theodolite, pyrometer, and vitrometer without much benefit of introduction, illustration, or even a glossary. More space is given to how clarity and focus came to compound lenses by uniting spherical and concave lenses. This achromatic doublet makes up an eyepiece that limits the effects of both chromatic and spherical aberration. 

The third act of this book, “Credit and Discredit”, is a detailed look at the rival claims of priority for the invention of the achromatic doublet and improvement of the telescope. The author largely discredits any role Chester Moor Hall may have had, with discredit to spare for Jesse Ramsden, who is generally prominent in any history of the telescope. Much of this concerns the efforts of Ramsden’s brother-in-law, Peter Dollond, to bring credit to his father John Dollond.

Tom Schulte is a senior system engineer for Plex Systems with an appreciation for the practical artistry of the sextant.

The table of contents is not available.