July 2015 Book of the Month: Several essays in political arithmetick by William Petty (1699)

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Title-page of Several essays in political arithmetick: Fellows’ Library N.6.14 Gall. (© Jesus College, Oxford)

Sir William Petty was a pioneering economist with an inquisitive mind. He went to sea as a cabin boy; as a young man, he patented a device for ‘double writing’; and aged twenty-seven, he was appointed Professor of Anatomy at Oxford. While preparing for dissection the body of Anne Green, hanged for the murder of her stillborn son, Petty heard her breathe and succeeded in resuscitating her. Green received a pardon: Petty secured his fame.

This posthumous publication collects Petty’s essays on population and trade. His interests in data collection and measurement were developed in the course of surveying Ireland after Cromwell’s conquest. The first essay anticipates Malthus on limits to exponential growth: ‘That London doubles in Forty Years, and all England in Three Hundred and Sixty Years’. Petty had earlier assisted John Graunt with his Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality, which tallied the deaths of Londoners from the plague.

Population table from Several essays in political arithmetick: Fellows’ Library N.6.14 Gall. (© Jesus College, Oxford)

The Fellows’ Library copy has an Oxford provenance, having first belonged to the book collector Nathaniel Crynes of St John’s, and then to Henry Fisher, University Registrar, who bequeathed it to Jesus.

Owen McKnight (Librarian)

Sources and further reading:

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