The Seventeenth-Century Fitbit and Other Early-Modern Inventions

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As I start to write this, my children and I are in our final days of training for the Junior Great North Run, in which they are participating to raise money for Cancer Research. We have also recently completed our annual Bank Holiday walk, which is another way in which we as a family remember my late husband, John Gurney, since walking was a particular passion of his. This year we walked up the Northumberland Coastal Path from Craster to Berwick upon Tweed over four days. Given all this activity, our Fitbits, the nifty pedometers that strap to your wrist and measure your steps, have been much used. The Fitbit seems to represent a characteristically twenty-first century idea, combining current obsessions with fitness and digital technology, but, while researching my intellectual biography of James Harrington, I came across a description from the mid-seventeenth century of what appears to be a very similar device: 

 Portrait of John Wilkins by Abraham Blooteling, after Mary Beale, c.1670. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D19054. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

Portrait of John Wilkins by Abraham Blooteling, after Mary Beale, c.1670. National Portrait Gallery, NPG D19054. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.

They have been contrived also into little pocket instruments, by which after a man hath walked a whole day together, he may easily know how many steps he hath taken. (John Wilkins, Mathematicall Magick, or, The wonders that may be performed by mechanicall geometry, London, 1648, p. 163).

The author of this passage, John Wilkins, was a theologian, natural philosopher, and the Warden of Wadham College Oxford. He was not the inventor of this device, but was describing an instrument he had read about in the works of the Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius who lived during the first century BCE, making this precursor to the Fitbit not simply a seventeenth-century idea, but one with its roots back in the ancient world.

 Frontispiece to John Wilkins,  Mathematicall Magick . This and the other images below are all reproduced with permission from the Robinson Library, Newcastle University. Special Collections, Friends 38.  I am grateful to Sam Petty for assistance in reproducing these images.

Frontispiece to John Wilkins, Mathematicall Magick. This and the other images below are all reproduced with permission from the Robinson Library, Newcastle University. Special Collections, Friends 38.

I am grateful to Sam Petty for assistance in reproducing these images.

Wilkins's book, Mathematicall Magick, was a popular guide to mechanical inventions. In the spirit of the scientific circles in which he mixed, Wilkins set such knowledge firmly in a religious context, citing Heraclitus on the idea that divine power and wisdom could be discerned even in the common arts. He was also keen to emphasise the utility of such knowledge and the importance of it being disseminated widely. He noted that the eminence of the Germans for mechanical inventions had been attributed to the public lectures given there in Latin and the vernacular. He perhaps hoped his book would perform a similar function in England. Certainly, publishing in English, at a time when many scientific books still appeared in Latin, was deliberate. Explaining his choice of title, Wilkins alluded both to the audience at which the book was directed and its aim:

This whole Discourse I call Mathematicall Magick, because the art of such Mechanicall inventions as are here chiefly insisted upon, hath been formerly so styled; and in allusion to vulgar opinion, which doth commonly attribute all such strange operations unto the power of Magick (Address to the Reader).

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In an attempt to enlighten his readers, Part 1 of the work described the six primary mechanical principles: the balance; the lever; the wheel; the pulley; the wedge; and the screw. Part 2 examined the various kinds of automata that could be developed on the basis of these principles. It was here that various inventions, including the description of the forerunner to the Fitbit, could be found.

Other inventions described in the book are equally prescient. Wilkins devotes some attention to Marin Mersenne's idea of 'a ship, wherein men may safely swim under water', effectively a submarine. (p. 178). He claims that this was already subject to practical experimentation in England by Cornelius Dreble. Wilkins admitted that the idea had not yet been perfected, noting three particular difficulties: how to get things into and out of the vessel without taking in water; how to direct it to particular destinations in the absence of winds and tides for motion and sight of the heavens for direction; and how to get air into the vehicle for respiration and fire for light, warmth and cooking without causing further problems. He went on to offer potential solutions for each.

 Unfortunately no illustrations of the submarine or flying chariot appear in the text, but this image and the next are of the ‘sailing chariot’ which Wilkins also discusses.

Unfortunately no illustrations of the submarine or flying chariot appear in the text, but this image and the next are of the ‘sailing chariot’ which Wilkins also discusses.

Wilkins also explored the possibility of a flying automaton that could propel itself. He was well aware of the potential utility of such a machine, claiming: 'there is not any imaginable invention that could prove of greater benefit to the world, or glory to the Author'. (p. 195). The most likely means by which human flight might be achieved, Wilkins suggested, was by flying chariot. While he acknowledged the difficulties involved in creating a vehicle that would be large enough to hold a human and yet light enough to be propelled, he did not think it improbable that the difficulties would be overcome in time. He was also forward-thinking in his sense of the possibilities it would offer:

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besides the discoveries which might be thereby made in the lunary world; It would be serviceable also for the conveyance of a man to any remote place of this earth: as suppose to the Indies or Antipodes. For when once it was elevated for some few miles, so as to be above that orb of magnetick virtue, which is carried about by the earths diurnall revolution, it might then be very easily and speedily directed to any particular place of this great globe. (p. 220).

In aspiration, if not quite in detail, Wilkins was often not far wrong.

 Harrington ridiculed Wilkins’s suggestion, illustrated here, that it would be possible to uproot a tree using only a machine constructed of two double pulleys, twelve wheels and a sail.

Harrington ridiculed Wilkins’s suggestion, illustrated here, that it would be possible to uproot a tree using only a machine constructed of two double pulleys, twelve wheels and a sail.

While I came across Wilkins during research into Harrington, the relationship between these two men was not happy. They were born near each other in Northamptonshire in the early 1610s, attended Oxford University, and spent time during the 1640s in the service of Charles Louis, the Prince Elector Palatine, with whom they both appear to have had a good relationship. Wilkins even dedicated Mathematicall Magick to Charles Louis, to whom he claimed to owe everything. Yet Wilkins' friend, Matthew Wren, claimed that Harrington saw Wilkins as 'one averse from his Principles and Designes' and suggested mischievously that dedicating his own attack on Harrington to Wilkins would 'excite' Harrington's 'utmost rage'. (Matthew Wren, Monarchy Asserted: Or the State of Monarchicall & Popular Government, London, 1659, The Epistle Dedicatory). I explore the antagonism between Harrington and Wilkins on political, methodological, religious and philosophical matters in my forthcoming book.

My British Academy Fellowship has now ended and by the time this blogpost appears the book that I was working on during that Fellowship should have been submitted to the publisher. In the lull following the effort of completing the book manuscript, I will use the next few blogposts to reflect on some of the fascinating primary texts I have come across during my research into Harrington, of which Wilkins's Mathematicall Magick is a good example.