November 2014 Book of the Month: Mathematicall Magick by John Wilkins (1648)

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Title-page of Mathematicall Magick: Fellows’ Library L.3.11 Gall. (© Jesus College, Oxford)

Mathematicall Magick proclaims itself the first text on mechanics written in English. Using ideas indebted to classical authorities like Archimedes, Wilkins defends the intellectual importance of tools usually associated with workmen. Wilkins describes ingenious, labour-saving applications of simple devices like screws and pulleys.

The first part explains the workings of gears and catapults, while the second section demystifies automatic inventions perceived as ‘magick’, such as clocks and windmills. Wilkins also offers support for the feasibility of flying machines and even space travel. The mechanical principles are illustrated throughout, which contributes to the practical, accessible nature of the work. The College’s copy even shows how a reader understood a concept by making his own faint sketch in the margins. 

Reader’s sketch in the margins: Fellows’ Library L.3.11 Gall. (© Jesus College, Oxford)

Reader’s sketch in the margins: Fellows’ Library L.3.11 Gall. (© Jesus College, Oxford)

Wilkins was a scientist of some renown. He was the leading light of the Oxford Philosophical Club, an influential precursor to the Royal Society. Men such as Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle came to the meetings convened at Wilkins’s observatory and garden at Wadham College. He was also the inventor of a universal language, published the first English work on cryptography and wrote a book which considered the practical considerations of voyaging to the moon.

Emma Jones (Library Assistant)

Sources and further reading:

  • Catalogue record on SOLO
  • Chapman, Allan, ‘“A World in the Moon”: Wilkins and his Lunar Voyage of 1640’, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 32(2), 121–132, 1991.
  • Henry, John, ‘Wilkins, John (1614–1672)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.
  • Poole, William, Wadham College Books in the Age of John Wilkins (1614–1672) (Oxford: Wadham College, 2014).
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