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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Small Mites for the Treasury of Learning: The Everyday Life of the New Science in Late Seventeenth-Century London

  • Author(s): Morgan, Laura Ritchie
  • Advisor(s): Jacob, Margaret C
  • et al.

Drawing on experimental notebooks, account books, estate inventories, and bureaucratic memoranda, this dissertation demonstrates that the investigation and manipulation of the natural world in Restoration London stretched beyond the well-known Royal Society. The Society relied on skills, labor, and unexpected expertise outside its Fellowship to shape its work, while skills valued by the Society’s Fellows were found in pre-existing industries. In addition, the experimentation, observation, and collection practices essential to the new science occurred in small shops, Royal palaces, and the streets of metropolis.

Chapter Two argues that the Society’s first home at Gresham College was an uncontrolled space, neither public nor private, through which many Londoners moved. While some servants, craftspeople, and experts were invited in to contribute skill or labor, the experience and knowledge outsiders unexpectedly brought into the Society, the College, or London itself also influenced the questions investigated by the Society.

Chapter Three is a detailed examination of apothecary John Conyers’s years-long efforts to disprove the theory of air pressure by observing changes in atmospheric moisture. Conyers’s commitment to the explanatory power of Galenic humoral theory and aspects of Aristotelian physics, while simultaneously embracing observation, experiment, and basic mechanism, demonstrate that the ideas of the new science were accepted in piecemeal amalgamation with older theories.

Chapter Four reconstructs Conyers’s collections of curiosities, antiquities, and naturalia and argues that the formation of such small-scale collections involved people and locations across the social spectrum. In Restoration London, collecting objects of curiosity, antiquity, or natural history intersected seamlessly with existing local commercial routines and the chance discoveries unearthed in a city constantly under construction.

Chapter Five examines the importance of practical natural knowledge for the Restoration Royal Mint. The production of dependable English coinage relied on mathematical, chymical, and technological skills, but the work of the Royal Mint did not attract attention from devotees of the new science. Chymically minded Fellows of the Royal Society simultaneously spoke of embracing learning from those with manual experience, and dismissed the skills practical metalworkers had to offer, obscuring the similarities between laboratories of the virtuosi and workshops at the Mint.

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