Book Reviews

Free review — The Italian Renaissance of Machines

Review of “The Italian Renaissance of Machines”

Paolo Galluzzi is the director of the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy.  A historian of science, he’s published extensively on the Galileo, Leonardo, and Italian Renaissance aspects of the scientific revolution.  He is a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and has teaching appointments at the Universities of Siena and Florence.

In “Machines”, Galluzzi profiles the emergence of a particular historical archetype familiar to us even today on the TED Talk stage — the artist-engineer.  Before Da Vinci, engineers were mostly anonymous, but the Renaissance established draftsmanship as a high art in and of itself, and cultivated rockstar reputations for the many engineers who emerged in the tradition of Leonardo.  None of the works of these engineers were ever printed, but their manuscripts were circulated and widely read.  Galluzzi argues that these manuscripts represent the first systematic recourse to illustrations in engineering text, and prose largely in dialogue with them.  The sciences of architecture, anatomy, hydraulics, geology, and military engineering all required skilled draftsmanship, and these documents introduced a new concept of learning — characterized by observation and visual expression — which was distinct from traditional knowledge, which was based on eloquence and rhetoric.  Later generations of the movement built on this foundation with increasingly abstract geometry, incorporating the emerging science of mechanics, and culminating in Galileo’s bright line between those practicing mechanics with and without mathematical skill.

Galluzzi compiles source drawings from national libraries in Florence, Madrid, the British Museum, and the Vatican.  Chapter one profiles Taccola (1382-1453), dubbed the “Sienese Archimedes”, who was the first effective promoter of a movement for the cultural recognition of technical knowledge and practice.  Taccola’s last compilation was found in Paris in the early 19th century, having been preserved at the Ottoman court until 1687.  It contains over two thousand drawings, and while they were perhaps intended for eminent patrons, it appears that none of them ever left his study.  These were neither presentational works, nor workshop notebooks, instead constituting a new literary genre.  They contained Taccola’s interview with Brunelleschi, with illustrated methods for laying bridge foundations underwater, the earliest documented visual representation of the three-speed hoist which was critical to Brunelleschi’s construction of the dome at Il Duomo (the Florence cathedral).  

Francesco Di Giorgio, also Sienese, adapted many of Taccola’s designs, including machines for moving and lifting obelisks and columns, raising water, and wagons with complex transmissions — worm screws, metal racks, and reduction gears.  Galluzzi explains that it is unclear if any of Giorgio’s designs were ever built; they may constitute a kind of experimental archaeology interpreting ancient Roman sources.  Giorgio’s work contains the first-ever known depiction of a human descending under a parachute, military subjects combining traditional war machines (ie. siege engines) with depictions of firearms and artillery, as well as instructions for targeting them.  Methods for moving and filtering water were omnipresent, given Siena’s reliance upon complex hydraulic culture.  Landscape and animals appear in a manner more realistic than the machines, since mathematical perspective is not yet present.  

In chapter two, Galluzzi surveys Leonardo’s machine-oriented output, and describes how it lays a conceptual foundation for his later anatomical work.  Leonardo’s earliest drawings of machines date from the 1470s.  These are now in mathematical perspective, a significant advance over the work of Di Giorgio, but retain occasional deliberate distortions which appear to be intentional, so as to better expose the inner workings of various mechanisms.  Galluzzi characterizes this as Leonardo’s “anatomical approach”, which constitutes a major shift from the traditional analysis of machines as indivisible entities to one more focused on a limited number of basic mechanisms, which can be combined to yield a variety of devices.  He explains that there is significant disagreement among scholars as to whether or not Leonardo, in these machine studies, was in fact grappling with principles of mechanics in a manner that prefigured and anticipated Galileo.

Galluzzi presents ample evidence of Leonardo’s virtuosity here — this is the first documented evidence of the use of plan and elevation perspectives, exploded views, and lettered/numbered components.  Leonardo further uses many sequences of drawings to depict kinematic relationships between components, in the style of modern animation.  Shadows are employed to depict spatial relationships, and he uses hatching with curved lines to demonstrate patterns of wear.  Galluzzi contends that this is evidence of Leonardo attempting to gain insight into the sources and directions of the forces being applied inside the machines.  All of this “density of information” is almost impossible to communicate with text, and from 1490 onward, drawings occupy more space in Leonardo’s written work than text.  

Next Galluzzi draws a causal line between the machine studies and Leonardo’s anatomical illustrations after 1500.  Galluzzi believes that Leonardo perceived the human body as a series of “motor contrivances”, pointing to vivid examples like depictions of the action of the intercostal muscles in breathing, the reduction of jaw movements to the laws of levers, and the replacement of muscle with lines of force, representing them as wires.  He describes Leonardo’s plan for a “visual anatomical encyclopedia” of the body, at various structural levels (musculature, circulation, membranes, skeletal, etc.).  Indeed, Leonardo boasted that drawings were superior to direct observation during dissection.  Here he claimed illustration as capable of visualizing a level of reality screened from the distorting effects of sensory input. 

In chapter three, Galluzzi surveys attempts by Giocondo (1511, a frequent collaborator of di Giorgio), Cesariano (1521, a member of Bramante’s circle), and Barbaro (1567) to render Escheresque illustrated editions of the rediscovered works of the Roman architect Vitruvius.  In many cases, these engineers could not figure out how Vitruvius’ catapults, ship speedometers, and water pumps worked, but they published their interpretations, hoping that others would build on their efforts.  Cesariano was notable for publishing the first printed edition of Vitruvius in Italian (rather than Latin), and a short manifesto praising the function of a “science of representation — painting and drawing”, as a prerequisite for any form of knowledge.  Barbaro’s aim was not to offer a realistic depiction of any of Vitruvian devices, but rather to speculate on the principles governing their operation.

Galluzzi closes the book by asserting the influence of these engineer-draftsmen on Galileo himself.  After encountering a somewhat hostile reception to the abstract geometric renderings in “Two New Sciences”, his treatise on mechanics, Galileo replaced the illustrations at the beginning of the book with engravings set at a construction site, the Venice Arsenal.  These engravings have concrete realism; an irregular stone hangs from an iron hook at the end of a wooden cantilevered beam anchored in a ruined stone wall.  Having thus anchored the reader in reality, Galileo returns to his geometrical diagrams, but the continuity with the tradition Galluzzi identifies is clear.

“The Italian Renaissance of Machines” is a monumental curation effort.  In contrast to works compiling the complete notebooks of Leonardo, the depiction of a coherent, focused slice of Leonardo’s work in the context of his progenitors and successors is refreshing.  Galluzzi’ s work reveals how art slowly came into the service of science and engineering throughout the 15th century.  

Free review — Reckoning with Matter

Review of “Reckoning with Matter:  Calculating Machines, Innovation, and Thinking about Thinking from Pascal to Babbage”

Matthew L. Jones is the James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization in the Department of History at Columbia University.  He obtained his BA and PhD from Harvard, and his masters from Cambridge.  His focus is on the history of science and technology in early modern Europe, as well as the development of information technology.  

In Reckoning, Jones traces the development of mechanical devices capable of automating basic arithmetic operations, beginning in the mid-17th century.  He structures the book as a chronologically ordered series of profiles of the key “inventors” in the field, and the skilled artisanal collaborators they worked with over centuries of attempts.  Between each profile, he delivers an episodic saga of Charles Babbage’s attempts to realize his Difference Engine.  He closes the book with a meditation on how human perceptions of the limits to machine “creativity” have evolved over the last four centuries.   

In chapters one and two, Jones describes the essential problems requiring solutions in the construction of such a device.  First, it must “mechanize carry” — it must somehow apply sufficient force so as to propagate the carrying of successive digits across the various columns in addition or subtraction.  Second, it must “keep things digital” — in other words, it must track and express whole numbers, despite being constructed from analog mechanical components which possess continuous, rather than discrete, state.  Third, it must match the excellence of manual instruments in simplicity, compactness, and ease of use.  To these ends, device designs relied upon discs and gears, precise division of those discs and gears, and an internal mechanism to drive them.  These components the skills of craftsmen experienced in striking coinage, precision engraving, and clockmaking.  As a pioneer in 1646, Pascal found himself in the position of having to make the case for the utility of such a device.  Pascal pointed to the error-prone and boring process of compiling a long series of sums, common in accounting and bookkeeping.  At that time, numeracy was concentrated in the commercial centers, and an increasing sophistication and density of commercial transactions was creating plausible demand for automation.  Meanwhile, “computation” was seen as a mechanical activity of lower intellectual status, distinct from logic and reasoning (then perceived as not reducible to arithmetic operations).  

Pascal’s machine attempted to automate the cascade of carries, and the necessary force propagation, by means of progressively heavier weights in each column of numbers.  As a result, it was not reversible (incapable of subtraction), and required a level surface for operation.  Jones’ ability to explain intricate and arcane engineering design principles shines through; in an analogical example typical of his explanations throughout the book, he explicates what happens inside a modern mechanical odometer when it turns over one million miles!  Pascal made more than fifty attempts to ruggedize his device, but it never caught on.  Meanwhile, across the Channel in 1669, Morland produced a less ambitious, more portable device that relied upon manual carries.  It automated John Napier’s “bones” method for multiplication.  In a feat of sourcing typical of his extensive primary bibliography, Jones details an itemized invoice for a prototype to Lennox, Morland’s patron, for a sum equivalent to a month’s wages for the entire Lennox household.  Here Jones also introduces an ongoing exploration of the interplay between inventors and artisans, praising Morland’s “knowledge of his limits and taste in collaborators”.  Morland perceived two “classes” — inventors and copiers; Pascal thought artisans lacked theory and weren’t inventors, but acknowledged a symbiotic relationship, where his need for artisan skill was matched by their inability to execute without his theories.  Furthermore, Pascal thought that theory-guided exploration was more efficient than trial-and-error.

Chapter two also relies upon the extensive correspondence between Leibniz and his collaborator Ollivier concerning the four-decade quest to construct Leibniz’s design.  In 1672, Leibniz presented a model of a device capable of multiplication via repeated addition to the Royal Society in London.  After a favorable reception, he embarked on a search in Paris for someone whose fascination with machines exceeded his self-interest, and found Ollivier.  Leibniz was impressed by Colbert’s policy of attracting artisans and then stealing their secrets.  Leibniz awarded Ollivier a three-year fixed price contract for a project that ultimately consumed forty years of effort.  Here Jones emphasizes that the custom of presenting a model enabled an inventor to claim priority, while allowing others to assist the acknowledged inventor.  Since Leibniz was based in Hanover, and Ollivier remained in Paris, almost the entirety of their collaboration is preserved in letters, which are a fascinating dialogue between vague qualitative descriptions by Leibniz, requiring Ollivier’s skilled and discretionary interpretation, and Ollivier’s frustrations with the limits of written communications:  “I cannot explain, the machine would need to be present for you to understand.”  This depiction strengthens Jones’ argument that “technology transfer” in the 17th century was chiefly a matter of moving artisans between geographic locales.  Jones uncovers an unexecuted contract dated 1679 which lays bear Leibniz’s frustrations with his engineer.  It specifies an almost absurd degree of micromanagement that belies the considerable autonomy conveyed in Leibniz’s letters.  Here Jones also admits the limitations imposed by his sources — eventually the Ollivier correspondence falls silent, and Jones is unable to prove that this was due to a move by Ollivier to Hanover.  This seems unlikely, given that Ollivier’s frustrations had grown to a point where he threatened to “melt down everything” on account of Leibniz’s failure to recognize him as more than just a journeyman technician.

Chapter three examines nascent concepts of intellectual property, beginning with an exploration of the 17th century concept of “privilege” as distinct from the modern conception of a “patent”.  Privilege protected an already extant manufacturing process and required “reduction to practice”.  It other words, privilege was seldom awarded to a mere idea on paper.  In this regard, Pascal received special treatment:  a perpetual monopoly for what was then largely a thought experiment.  The reasons for this appear to be a unique confluence of the Pascal family’s relationships in the French court, an ongoing Colbertist process of state primacy exertion over the cities and regions, and the fact that privilege was more a symbolic gift than any actual mechanism for enhanced commercial renumeration.  Across the Channel, Morland ran aground on a general suspicion of patents following the Glorious Revolution; patents were seen as examples of royal overreach and corruption in the pre-Cromwell era.  Leibniz also failed to procure protection, since the typical “window” for successful reduction to practice was only six months.

Chapter four’s title is the splendid “Productivity of Ignorance”.  Leibniz’s ultimate failure was legendary, and this “ignorance” and struggle inspired others to attempt and persist.  After all, if the great Leibniz couldn’t achieve a solution, the problem must be truly worthy.  Jones explores the prevalence of imitation as a virtue — “challenge alone can force the improvement of a talent”, whereas mere copying lacks the same rigor.  This burst of innovation by many competitors produced the first well-working machine, a cylindrical approach which bore an inscription assigning nearly equal credit:  “Braun invented it, Vayringe made it”.

Chapter five chronicles the effort of the Earl of Stanhope, beginning in 1777.  Stanhope was brought up in the middle of the Geneva clockmaking ferment and served a technical apprenticeship in the construction of marine chronometers.  He was a habitual sketcher, tacking between “paper and metal”, but he was ultimately unable to recreate the constellation of talent he’d encountered in Geneva at his Chevening workshop, with the exception of his engineer Varley, to whom he bequeathed its entire contents.  Stanhope and Varley did not publish or patent their designs.  However, it seems that Stanhope’s prototypes exerted great influence on Charles Babbage, and Babbage was scrupulous about dividing credit for his ideas, meeting with Stanhope’s son and heir and procuring Stanhope’s prototypes when the Royal Society requested a “literature review” of sorts, detailing prior attempts and why they had failed.  Jones again acknowledges the limitations of his sources, noting that it is impossible to determine if any of Stanhope’s innovations made their way into Babbage’s designs.

Jones’ interwoven description of Babbage’s quest to build his Difference Engine is a clever structural conceit, but at times the reader struggles to hold the plot thread across the span of the entire book — not unlike the mental persistence required to perform arithmetic.  Babbage conceived of the Difference Engine as a means of automating the production of numerical tables by the method of adding differences, and then automatic typesetting and printing of the resulting value series.  He constructed his first model in 1822, and abandoned the pursuit in 1833 with only a conceptual demonstration of the calculating component.  Jones details Babbage’s iterative relationship with Clement, a “draftsman of the highest order to economize the labor of my [Babbage’s] own head, and a workman to execute the experimental machinery to which I am obliged constantly to have recourse”, as well as his constant struggle to extract sufficient research and development funding from the British government.  Periodically, British officials requested that the Royal Society effectively audit Babbage’s project, a position of considerable discomfort for the Royal Society, given that it had no mandate for the endorsement or rejection of national scientific investments.  Eventually Peel became Prime Minister, and as a longtime opponent of the project, ended Babbage’s patronage.  During Babbage’s meeting with Peel, he cited the opportunity cost of the Difference Engine and its exclusion of other efforts, as well as the government’s irresponsibility in “stringing him along”, leading him to believe that there was a firm commitment to the realization of a functioning device.  In reports on the project, the Royal Society cited the spinoffs from Babbage’s efforts — tools for large-scale draftsmanship, as well as precision toolmaking, which eventually paid dividends for British industry.  In fact, such were the quality of Clement’s drawings that the British Science Museum was able to construct a functioning prototype of the Difference Engine in 1991.  During that project, the museum uncovered a flaw that Babbage would have doubtless encountered and corrected, if he’d had the resources to build it.  Eventually, a Swedish father/son duo, the Scheutzes, build a working machine in 1853 with Babbage’s blessing, and dedicated the first printing of their numerical tables to him.

Chapter six considers the position of arithmetic in the early modern conception of reasoning.  In 1843 Ada Lovelace, Babbage’s longtime collaborator and the daughter of Lord Byron, cautioned that their engines could “only do whatever we know how to order them to perform”.  Calculating machines were seen as simply the wrong sort of matter to think with, since arithmetic was perceived as a small slice of human reasoning.  However, Stanhope had mused that reasoning is merely the “arrangement of signs”, which is reducible to mechanism, implying that reasoning itself is reducible to mechanism.  Leibniz’ view was that the human mind can “transplant itself, such that it gives matter the power of doing more than it could by itself”.  Babbage, grappling with the problem of runtime efficiency, endowed his design with a prediction capability of sorts — “teaching the machine to foresee and then act on that foresight — performing carries before the additions that cause them”.  

This anticipatory calculation aspect is highly analogous to branch prediction in modern microprocessors, and shows that the earliest hardware and software designer was operating at an extremely high level of conceptual sophistication by modern standards.  Indeed, Jones points out that, even today, the performance characteristics of a state-of-the-art chip are not known until the chip is physically produced.  Almost four hundred years later, “rational design” remains a goal rather than a reality, and that is the central message of Jones’ book:  a design on paper seldom survives contact with the physical world, and his work restores a long-neglected balance between the marquee “idea guys” and their engineering collaborators, who actually brought their designs into the physical world.  Jones also shows that the current Information Age, far from a modern phenomenon, is the result of a slow-burn process that began when data was becoming large, if not yet “big”. 


Free Choice Review: Medical Cultures of the Early Modern Spanish Empire

Medical Cultures of the Early Modern Spanish Empire by John Slater, Maria Luz Lopez-Terrada, and Jose Pardo Tomas documents the cultural clashes within the Spanish empire and how they changed the developments of medicine over time in a variety of way. “In short, medical cultures provided demographic, analytical, and even geographic tools that constituted a particular kind of map of knowledge and practice, upon which were plotted the local utilities of pharmacological discoveries; cures for social unrest or decline; spaces for political and institutional struggle; and evolving understandings of monstrousness and normativity,” (Page 3). This book discusses how medicine played a crucial role in Spanish imperialism, as much as the spread of religion, politics, and culture. The authors also argue that these things are intertwined within each other.


John Slater is a professor at the College of Liberal Arts at Colorado State University. He has had publications in the American Historical Review and has had chapters published in such books as Science On Stage in Early Modern Spain Maria Luz Lopez-Terrada is the Research Director at the Spanish National Research Council and the Institute for the Management and Innovation of Knowledge. She has done research in the history of science and has published work on the history of medicine as recently as 2021 Jose Pardo Tomas is a professor at the Universitat de Valencia.. He has published in journals such as the Journal of the History of Collections


Chapter 1 tells the stories of people like Augustin de Albarado and his ill health and his efforts to combat it. He took a hallucinogenic herb known as ololiuhqui. Following this, he was tried for the use of hallucinogenic substances as part of witchcraft. This chapter argues that the collision of the Spanish conquerors and the Native New Spaniards created new cultural norms that can be represented in the case study listed previously, as well as many others.


Chapter 2 talks about the stories of different medical practices’ communications. The author takes a look at questionnaires delivered to the local population of New Spain and analyzes the answers given. Also examined are the conversations between doctors amongst themselves, as well as lay people. These discussions surrounding illness and death revealed the populations’ cultural views surrounding things such as marriage and drunkenness.


Chapter 3 uses symbolic images and relates them to the different studies of medicine. It starts out with the symbol of the dragon and it continues throughout the chapter. It also discusses the inclusion of the Dialogo del Hierro and how it establishes alchemy as a key context to read publications in the Historia Medicinal.


Chapter 4 specifically looks at mailing correspondence between different individuals regarding family, religion, and expertise. The letters discuss different subjects such as food, illness, travel, and the scarcity of physicians. This author argues that the medical culture within New Spain was a result of complex processes brought about by different negotiations.


Chapter 5 deals with two previously unexamined documents related to someone who spread a genetic disease through the Canary Islands in the 16th century and it deals with the implications of these documents. It dives into the cultural representation of hairy peoples through mythology and popular depiction. The author contends that these two documents paint a sharper picture if one considers them within the context of broader anthropological literature.


Chapter 6 takes the correspondence between two individuals, Juan Paez de Castro and Jeronimo Zurita to show the concern that Spain had for Italy’s changing cultural and political-religious chages and the ways this influenced intellectual life in the Iberian Peninsula.


Chapter 7 deals with medical practitioners such as midwives and birth attendants and their symbolic relationship to the Baroque decline. It focuses on Baroque writers and their depictions of childbirth, such as their focus on creation and creator rather than the actual action of giving birth.


Chapter 8 has to do with the portrayal of illness in drama on stage. Some of these illnesses include memory loss and French Pox. It not only covers the knowledge of these illnesses, but it also depicts people’s general reactions to these illnesses. The author argues that the depiction of illnesses does seem to correspond with that of Galenic medicine.


Chapter 9 covers astrological medicine and its relationship with theater. The author seems to think that the depiction of astrological medicine in plays as an alternative mode of medical practice made it perceived in real life that it was more controversial and it also made the practice more available to theological polemics about astrology.


Chapter 10 talks about chymical medicine and its relationship and interactions related to political power, religion, and drama. The author argues that “the language of chymestry had a theatrical dimension that resonated with contemporaneous theology” (Page 215) that allowed priests and friars a much more involved role in the medical process.


The authors use a variety of sources, including primary documents and historiographical monographs related to the subject. One author explains some of the problems with their sources as they used inquisitional reports. These are not always reliable since they are used at a time of great social coercion. This creates a sense of untrustworthiness. The authors’ honesty about their methods is appreciated for the reader. Another author describes their particular use of letters and correspondence as a way of revealing the medical cultures. I believe all of these approaches have merits and downfalls, and a good amount of time is taken in this book to discuss them.


The authors are successful in their pursuit of highlighting how medical practices interacted and influenced cultural dynamics. Whether it is with hairy men and their depictions in mythology or letter correspondence between two practitioners and development of intellectual culture in Italy, the authors are able to draw, more or less, straight lines between the these two aspects of life. However, the book is a bit scattered. The subjects and scopes of each chapter is quite different. This, perhaps, is due to their being multiple authors with different areas of focus and expertise. This could also be seen as appropriate considering they are attempting to depict culture on a transatlantic scale. A seriously bold feat.


Overall, Medical Cultures of the Early Modern Spanish Empire is an interesting read for those who are interested in the history of science, methodology, and cultural history. It does not come across as a popular history and its eclectic yet niche subject matter might find keeping lay readers’ attention difficult. Although suggesting just one chapter to someone interested in a particular topic may not be out of the question.

Free Review: Scientific Americans

The period surrounding the American Revolution is rife with opportunity for scholars to investigate ideological and political trends that contributed to the shaping of the United States in its formative years. Susan Branson does that just that in her book, Scientific Americans, an exploration of the intersection of scientific thought and education with national identity in American history with emphasis on the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Branson received her PhD from Northern Illinois university in 1992 and has earned several awards and grants, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She is currently a professor of history at Syracuse University who specializes in early American history with an emphasis on society and culture, science, and women.

Scientific Americans argues that ideology alone is not enough to affect real change and, thus, there are other factors in play, like scientific thought and motivation, which act on and with ideology. The ideology of early America worked with the increasing interest in and emphasis on scientific education drove a desire for Americans to seek change through what they felt was improvement at all levels of society. Ultimately, “developing technology was a national endeavor” (198) which became a central part of American life and society at all levels. Branson makes these arguments in six chapters which range in scientific and cultural topics from the 1790s through the antebellum period with a conclusion that focuses on American society during its centennial celebration.

In the first chapter, interest in informal knowledge sharing and acquiring became more prevalent and available for a variety of Americans, not only rich, educated elites. These ideas were built upon the groundwork laid early in some of America’s colonies, such as by William Penn and later Benjamin Franklin in Pennsylvania who both believed in the capacity of improvement through collective effort possible through scientific education. Mass education at formal levels was still largely exclusive to select elites, but knowledge-sharing and dissemination of practical information was practiced regularly through printing, primarily through almanacs which focused on useful and applicable information such as astronomy, weather, and farming. Men formed philosophical societies and engaged in sociable events to promote the discussion and demonstration of scientific discovery. Women, too, participated in knowledge acquisition and engagement through reading, attending public lectures, and even private experimentation, though often through the application of household duties.

Chapter two discussed the increasing ambition of young America as it related to scientific efforts and achievements, most notably air travel in the form of the air balloon. The ability to fly had always captured the imaginations of humans, but especially after the first successful flight of a balloon in Paris. Many Americans witnessed this flight, others both successful and not, through illustrations in almanacs. Not long after did Americans begin their own balloon flights in amusement for the general populace but also as a demonstration of the ability and possibility of scientific endeavors. Balloons became a pervasive symbol of American pride and celebration in the early nineteenth century and came to represent the rising and falling ambitions of politicians. There were even thoughts of potentially weaponizing balloons as Americans approached the outbreak of the Civil War.

Chapter three explored the drive and fascination of Americans with machines, especially in the search for a machine operated by perpetual motion. Steam power became what believed was the first step in discovering perpetual motion through machines that improved the efficiency and output of America’s manufacturing and travel industries. So great was this fascination that many in the public were eager to buy into the claims of men like Charles Redheffer who convinced many that he had developed a machine that operated on perpetual motion. Steam was, however, real and far more imagination-capturing, especially in the rise of “The speculative fiction of the early nineteenth century [which] posited a vanished natural world replaced by steel, concrete, and robots” (98). Machines were yet another aspect of the various and seemingly unavoidable effects of science on American culture.

Chapter four demonstrated the realities behind the “speculative fiction” which imagined a world changed and reshaped by scientific ambition and power. American ingenuity became a driving force for perceived progress which led to the stunning and zealous efforts to affect the landscape for development of cities and infrastructure. These efforts were most often focused on changing the access and use of water and waterways. The early nineteenth century saw the development of public water and sewage in cities, the building of the Erie Canal, and eventually the beautification of public spaces with fountains and ponds. Meanwhile, as discussed in chapter five, while the efforts of water works provided tangible goods, the practice of phrenology preyed on a dangerous and persistent mindset in America. Phrenology, the claim “that an individual’s character and talents could be determined by examining the size and shape of the head” (124), became a force for sinister efforts to justify and promote racist ideology and practices. Advocates were often distinguished men of medical practices who spoke and demonstrated publicly phrenological practices in cities across America. The work around phrenology was used in a variety of ways, but most damagingly against non-white race, particularly African Americans, to demonstrate innate inferiority of other races. The drive for progress and ambition for a greater America were not always so noble.

The final chapter shows the culmination of the pervasiveness of science in society through the public celebrations and showcases of the nineteenth century in extravagant fairs and in public-facing institutions. Institutions like the Franklin Institute and the American Institute worked to demonstrate, once again, the possibilities of progress through science by showing the public what was achievable or imaginable through small public fairs. Fairs thus grew to become the natural home of large exhibitions to show off cutting-edge science and prototypes that were often more influential in culture than in science itself.

Branson’s argument and evidence work together so well that they fall together naturally and need virtually no further persuasion to convince the reader that the promotion of science and technology in America has been inextricably linked with national identity and ideas of progress. Scientific Americans is well researched and well written, illuminating moments in early American history which are often represented in a manner which obscures the driving forces Branson articulates or which have been forgotten almost entirely. Her conclusions work to show that these forces have been in American minds from the start and have only changed, never disappeared. The only place where Scientific Americans seemed to lack is in a consistent and regular inclusion of the affect and role of the different marginalized groups – women, African Americans, and Indigenous people – which was argued would be the case in the introduction. Branson fell a bit short of this goal, though likely not due to a lack of effort; however, this aspect of her argument should not have been presented so forwardly based on the final product as information came intermittently and as confirming the exception of this kind of history rather than the rule.

Free Choice Review: Making Medicines in Early Colonial Lima, Peru : Apothecaries, Science and Society

The book Making Medicines in Early Colonial Lima, Peru: Apothecaries, Science and Society provides detail on how apothecaries in Lima practiced medicine and dealt with the new materials that existed in the newly colonized land. In doing this, the book describes how the apothecaries chose not to shift away from their traditional Galenic and Humoral practices. To do this, Newson presents what could be called a micro-history which focuses almost exclusively on a small profession in one colonial city. But by doing this, Newson can provide a detailed account of the factors that influenced the Spanish apothecaries to keep up with their traditional practices. And by doing this, Making Medicines in Early Colonial Lima, Peru, shows how a medical profession with the means and ability to innovate largely maintained its ways in an entirely new environment.

Professor Linda Newson is currently an emeritus professor at King’s College London and previously focused on the impact of colonial rule on native populations, especially with respect to the effects of disease on these populations. For her previous work, she received the Carl O. Sauer Award for Distinguished Scholarship from the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers and the Back Award from the Royal Geographical Society. Even though both of these awards are for her geographically focused work, they show a high level of ability in scholarship on Latin America. Although Newson previously focused mainly on the demographic impact of disease on native populations, she has more recently worked on the practice of medicine in colonial Spain. And though her focus has changed from disease to medicine, he focuses on the Spanish colonies comes through in her work on Lima in this book.

In this book, Newson successfully argues that although apothecaries could have become innovators in the new world, they tended to adhere to traditional practices and import their medical materials from Spain. Chapter One describes why Newson chose to focus on the apothecaries of Lima and establishes the argument as to why they were largely not innovators in the medical field. The focus on the apothecaries in this book is because they are uniquely situated in Spanish medicine to have both the knowledge of the materials and how they are used in medicines, whereas the physician does not have as detailed of knowledge of the actual materials in medicines. This is then used to show how the Galenic and Humoral practices are ingrained within the practice of medicine in Spain and its colonies during this period.

Chapters Two and Three describe the way in which apothecaries were trained and how an apothecary established their business; this then sets up the description in the following chapters as to why traditional practices were maintained in Lima by the apothecaries instead of adopting the plants and practices of the new world. Chapter Two shows how apothecaries were trained in Spain as well as the process by which they were certified by the government. This version of the apothecary business was then used in Peru as they were part of the Spanish Empire. Chapter Three then shows how an apothecary business was created, and by doing this, Newson shows the similarities between the way an apothecary business was created in Spain and Peru. For both chapters, there is a distinct similarity in the way apothecary businesses ran in both Spain and Peru, which goes to support why the traditions of medicine were maintained in the new world.

Chapters Four through Six provide the bulk of the information on how apothecaries obtained their materials and practiced making medicines. Chapter Four shows how the trade influenced the use of medicine imported from Spain. It shows how prices rose on Spanish medicines, but surprisingly colonial apothecaries did not look to new types of plants. Chapter Five shows how the government was involved in maintaining traditional humoral practices in medicine. This took place both because the apothecaries were encouraged legally to maintain traditional practices and because the physicians who prescribed the medicines used traditional humoral solutions. Chapter Six shows the actual practice of making medicine, and again shows a focus by apothecaries on using materials produced in Spain and, if those were unavailable, Old-World plants produced locally. In all three chapters, Newson shows how Lima apothecaries tended toward traditional products for their medicines because of their training and the nature of the practice of medicine in the Spanish Empire.

Chapter Seven changes the book’s focus away from the practices of an apothecary in Lima to their social status and reputation. This section focuses on how the social status of the apothecaries of Lima differed from those in Spain. The major difference is the status and leniency toward apothecaries in Lima because of their short supply. The Chapter later goes on to show how the apothecaries of Lima showed their professionalism through their dress by attempting to focus on sober black clothing to emulate the Spanish monarchs. This further shows how the apothecaries attempted to show their professionalism and set themselves apart as purveyors of medicine they considered below themselves.

This book makes excellent use of various sources, like the books of the town council of Lima and especially collections of the transactions that took place in Lima. One of the most interesting uses of primary sources in Making Medicines in Early Colonial Lima, Peru, is to create interesting tables and graphs. These are used to great effect in chapters four and five to present what was being shipped to Lima and how much this cost to the apothecary, as well as in chapter six to show what kinds of medicines were being made by apothecaries and what they should have. This helps show how close to the practice of medicine the Lima apothecaries were to their counterparts in Spain.

This book provides a very detailed account of how apothecaries in Lima practiced medicine. Because of this, it gives further context to the practice of medicine in the new world and speaks to books like Prospero’s America and Missionary Scientists. This book shows how the Spanish apothecaries continued to practice the medicine very much like their Spanish counterparts, which supports the idea presented in Missionary Scientists that the Spanish used their medicine to show the superiority of their practices, although the apothecaries seemed less willing than the Jesuits to accept the use of native healers. As this book provides information on a very specific topic with a great amount of detail and works to provide more information on how medicine was practiced in the new world, it is best suited for scholarly audiences.

Review of Benjamin Wardhaugh’s Poor Robin’s Prophecies: A Curious Almanac, and the everyday mathematics of Georgian Britain

Review of Benjamin Wardhaugh’s Poor Robin’s Prophecies: A Curious Almanac, and the everyday mathematics of Georgian Britain

Benjamin Wardhaugh’s 2012 book, Poor Robin’s Prophecies: A Curious Almanac and the everyday mathematics of Georgian Britain (Poor Robin’s Prophecies), discusses the various roles math played in the lives of Britain between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Wardhaugh’s general argument is that mathematics in Georgian Britain was an empowering tool in the hands of the everyday Briton and that the same people also used mathematics as a recreational activity.  The author of Poor Robins’s Prophecies, Benjamin Wardhaugh, is a historian of mathematics who received his undergraduate from Trinity College, Cambridge, a master’s in music from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London and his Ph.D. from Hertford College at Oxford.  Wardhaugh served as a Fellow of All Souls College from 2012 -2020.  He is currently based at Oxford, researching and writing.  Wardhaugh’s other research interests include the mathematical theories of music in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England.  Poor Robin’s Prophecies uses primary sources, including textbooks, handwritten exercise books, journals, and almanacs, to illustrate how everyday British people viewed and used mathematics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Wardhaugh arranged his book topically and chronologically with a loose flow from chapter to chapter.  Prince Robin’s Prophecies: A Curious Almanac and the everyday mathematics of Georgian Britain by Benjamin Wardhaugh is an enjoyable, if disjointed, read about the history of mathematics and a long-lived influential almanac in Georgian Britain with a solid first half and a second half that is less engaging.

In Poor Robin’s Prophecies, Wardhaugh seeks answers to multiple historical lines of questioning, including how mathematical calculations and prediction can go wrong, how mathematics was taught and when the British learned it, what was used to teach it, and how Poor Robin himself can be a guide through the timeline of the book.  Wardhaugh’s loose argument for Poor Robin’s Prophecies is that Poor Robin represents how people in Georgian Britain viewed and learned math, and the almanac’s satirical take on life represents the fun that the British would eventually have with mathematics.  Poor Robin’s changing opinion of mathematics is meant to parallel that of the English people’s feelings regarding numbers.  Unfortunately, Wardhaugh’s success in using Poor Robin’s Almanac as a guide for the reader is not as effective as he hoped.  Passages about Poor Robin’s history are scattered throughout the book and often feel stuck in and disconnected from the rest of the text.  Poor Robin’s appearance in the second chapter of Poor Robin’s Prophecies is one of the almanac’s few appearances, which flows nicely with the rest of the text.   The chapter details how mathematical predictions and calculations can go wrong and how those mistakes affected the reputations of mathematicians and mathematics in Britain.  Wardhaugh does an excellent job weaving Poor Robin’s and other almanac’s suspicions about math into this chapter.

Poor Robin’s Prophecies chronicles the increase in the use of mathematics in everyday life and leisure of Georgian Britain, Wardhaugh begins by explaining the distrust Britain in the seventeenth century had of numbers and those who used them, then discusses how math was taught and whom, and how those who learned mathematics employed it in their daily lives.  While Wardhaugh explains the mathematical lives in Georgian Britain, he also attempts to draw parallels with a long-running almanac, Poor Robin’s Almanac, which ran under various authors from 1663 into the nineteenth century.

Chapters two, “The dismal and long expected morning: Getting it wrong,” and three, “Fitted to the meanest capacity: Learning it,” are the most successful at conveying Wardhaugh’s thesis.  In chapter three, Wardhaugh discusses the various methods children and adults use to learn mathematics.    Wardhaugh uses exercise books from several people to illustrate how much pride people took in the knowledge they gained.  Some books are carefully illustrated using multiple colors of ink and watercolors.  Ann Monhan Elcot’s exercise book showed usage in both her childhood and adulthood, indicating she refreshed her knowledge of mathematics using the book.  Ann believed the knowledge in her exercise book was so valuable that she passed it on to her daughter.  Wardhaugh touched on the differences in gender education and explained how mathematics was taught in schools and by tutors.  Poor Robin’s Prophecies includes sample problems throughout, but the problems in chapter three are primarily what an eleven-year-old worked on.  Wardhaugh explains how adults could begin or improve their arithmetic skills as well, using the Spittlefields Mathematical Society as an example.  Wardhaugh explains that the society was initially attended by tradesmen who wanted to improve their mathematical skills.  Although meetings were spent working on arithmetic problems, members were expected to share their knowledge with other members.  Wardhaugh does a thorough enough job covering his points in this chapter and makes it easy to follow.

Poor Robin’s Prophecies has an interesting premise, but the book does not flow well.  The sections on Poor Robin’s Almanac do not always fit in with the chapter’s content, leaving the reader confused about why the sections are there at all.  A book on Poor Robin’s Almanac and one on mathematics in Georgian Britain may have worked better.  That is not to say that the mathematical sections flow very well together.  It almost would have been better if the book was a series of essays instead of attempting continuity throughout.  Poor Robin’s Prophecies is a popular history book with some latitude in the lack of footnotes or end notes.  However, Wardhaugh’s “Notes of Sources” section is almost laughably brief, and his sources are not noted in the text.  This leaves readers who want to know more at a hefty disadvantage.   This book is an interesting introduction to the mathematics of Georgian Britain and gives insight into the lives of those who thought math was worth learning.  A list of secondary and primary sources would help those reading the book go further in their quest for mathematical historical knowledge.  Wardhaugh’s book was an interesting choice for a class on the Scientific Revolution, math is not an obvious fit until one realizes that almost all of the works read this semester have math as a base, but the two books that fit best are  Margaret Schotte’s Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550 – 1800 and Elaine Leong’s Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science, and the Household in Early Modern England.  Schotte’s book covers the mathematical education needed to navigate a ship successfully, and Wardhaugh’s book briefly covers navigation and trigonometry.  Leong’s book discusses the recipe trade in early modern England.  Unsaid in her book are the mathematical skills needed to alter recipes by both men and women, a common practice at the time.  The trade in Leong’s book also connects with Wardhaugh’s book in that while recipes were traded in social networks, mathematical problems were also traded in the same period.  Wardhaugh’s book is best enjoyed by the curious non-specialist reader who wants to know more about the history of mathematics.  Benjamin Wardhaugh’s Poor Robin’s Prophecies: A Curious Almanac, and the everyday mathematics of Georgian Britain is an enjoyable but disjointed read for someone interested in the history of mathematics in Georgian Britain but is not looking to the book for a comprehensive list of further reading.

Free Choice Review: A Not-So-New World: Empire and Environment in French Colonial North America

Christopher M. Parsons is a historian of science, medicine, and the environment in the early modern Atlantic world with a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. His current research explores the spread of European illnesses in New France, New England, and New Netherland in the 1630s “in order to understand how epidemic disease shaped colonial encounters and imperial rivalries,” ( In addition, he teaches courses at Northwestern University as an Associate Professor of History. His 2018 book, A Not-So-New-World: Empire and Environment in French Colonial North America won the Prix Lionel-Groulx award from the Institut d’Historie de l’Amerique Francaise and an honorable mention for the Mary Alice and Philip Boucher Book Prize from the French Colonial Historical Society. This book traces his “longstanding interest in highlighting the contribution of indigenous peoples to the evolution of European and Euro-American environmental sciences,” (

A Not-So-New World: Empire and Environment in French Colonial North America, is an in-depth exploration of France’s colonial aspirations that used ecological cultivation to assert dominance in the “new world.” Parsons places his book among the historiography of French colonial naturalism but asserts that unlike other scholars, this book demonstrates that the flora of the new world was not so unfamiliar to colonists as has been studied before. He says that instead of the novelty of North America posing “a significant challenge to European intellectual traditions,” the “strangely familiar” similarities between the flora and fauna of the old world and the new sparked a different kind of novelty. A novelty which spurred colonials to understand the differences between them and claim the land as a “New France,” which they were divinely authorized to cultivate and civilize in the shape of the old world. American flora, while familiar, was just distinct enough from their European counterparts that they were deemed “sauvage,” and in need of European cultivation. The drive to understand American flora intertwined indigenous knowledge into French settlements, with colonists attempting to “civilize” and “cultivate” native plants, and subsequently the native peoples, to make them more distinctly “French.”

I appreciated that the first chapter of this book was dedicated to understanding the broader ecological and geological histories of the earth. By describing plate tectonics and the genetic links between plants on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, the author ties a science lesson about plant genetics into an explanation of why French explorers and colonists would find the plants of the new world so familiar to the ones they left behind in France. This sets the stage for subsequent chapters to explore why the colonists felt the new world plants were “sauvage,” and their desire to intervene in the social, political, and spiritual lives of the indigenous people who lived there through the cultivation of native flora. Chapter two defines the terms “sauvage,” and “cultivation,” in the context of communicating the observable world to contemporaries in Europe. As Parsons explains, it was how information about “New France was communicated to French audiences [that] made cultivation a central mode for understanding the colony,” (11). One of the strengths of A Not-So-New-World is that each chapter builds upon the concepts of the last. From the definitions of savagery and cultivation of chapter two comes chapter three, which dedicates time to following the missionaries “who sought to intervene in the ecological lives of indigenous people in order to reform their spiritual lives,” (12). The ideas of American flora being savage, and the French duty to cultivate the natural world, are central themes throughout the book which bring focus to the argument that French colonists used the natural world to cement French colonial presence in North America.

Chapters four, five and six focus on the empirical side of natural history, as well as the intellectual exchanges of knowledge that occurred across the Atlantic. Chapter four discusses the results of French experiments cultivating American flora that ultimately failed to achieve the reshaping of the natural world in northeastern North America. It was at this point in these experiments that French colonists began to doubt that colonialism could “reshape ecosystems and climates,” which in turn meant that they had failed in their goal of establishing a New France that mimicked the old (12). In chapter five, Parsons enters the court of Louis XIV as the Royal Academy of Sciences is established. The author argues that the Royal Academy not only facilitated the exchange of knowledge between the colonists and their counterparts in France but enhanced the exchanges of knowledge between colonists and indigenous groups in America that had attempted to take place at the beginning of France’s attempt at colonial settlement and initially failed. This new outlet for scientific conversation shifted attitudes away from the idea of “cultivating” New France as a means of colonization. Parsons concludes his book with a case study in chapter six about the discovery of American ginseng, a plant initially “discovered” in Asia. This case study is significant for a few reasons. First, it is an example of how the question of “whether New France was essentially familiar or an entirely new and foreign continent,” was debated among the intellectuals of the time. Second, it highlights indigenous knowledge in assisting Jesuit missionaries find and identify new types of ginseng. Thirdly, it discusses contemporary debates about ethnographic and cultural “continuities between the old world and the new,” since ginseng had then appeared on different continents. This case study is a culmination of the author’s arguments throughout the book by highlighting different aspects of French colonialism that were used, debated and experimented in North America.

The focused nature of the book suggests it was written for scholars of colonial North America, but it is written in a way that would be familiar to a broader audience. The concepts present in the book are explained thoroughly and concisely so that readers who are unfamiliar with French colonialism would find it easy to understand and analyze. In addition, Parsons includes a few visual aids in the form of maps and botanical illustrations to emphasize points. Considering that this book focuses on natural history in colonial North America, I would have thought that there would have been more scientific illustrations present, but that all depends on the availability of surviving sources. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and honestly cannot find much that I disliked about it. Overall, A Not-So-New World was an interesting new perspective on French colonialism in North America with its focus on ecological cultivation that spurred colonial ideologies, new scientific experiments, and exchanges of knowledge in an attempt to reshape a seemingly familiar landscape into one distinctly French.


Poor Robin’s Prophecies Review

In Benjamin Wardhaugh’s book Poor Robin’s Prophecies: A Curious Almanac, and the Everyday Mathematics of Georgian Britain, the author explores the culture of almanacs and mathematics in eighteenth-century Britain. Wardhaugh obtained his DPhil from Hertford College, Oxford and his Bachelor’s from Trinity College at Cambridge. His research interests include the application of mathematics in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, as well as mathematical theories of music. Several of Wardhaugh’s recent works include The Wealth of Numbers and Gunpowder and Geometry: The Remarkable Life of Charles Hutton. With his knowledge of history and mathematics, Wardhaugh is well-positioned to author a text such as Poor Robin’s Prophecies, with its specific focus on how everyday people interacted with mathematics in early modern Britain.

Instead of an introduction, the author leaps into Chapter One and succinctly states that the book will focus of everyday people and what math did, and conversely, did not do for them in this historical context. The reader is well-prepared to understand his intent of showing how math can get things right and wrong, yet also be considered fun. Within Chapter One, Poor Robin’s Almanac is introduced as a light-hearted, yet satirical almanac that reflects how math could be considered in a fun nature. Almanacs were structured in a different way from the Old Farmer’s Almanacs typically found today, as they often contained political satire, crash courses in mythology or geometry, and medical recipes. Poor Robin’s stance on math was presented through the lens of the poor in terms of their oppression and lack of power. Chapter Two sets the stage to better understand math and its impact to one’s life. Describing two key occurrences helps the author illustrate how math could be perceived as sometimes “getting it wrong” with the examples of the 1699 solar eclipse misinterpretation and the issues surrounding the joint-stock companies, such as the South Sea Company, which was a financial bubble that popped, causing economic disaster. This chapter dealt more with economics as an applied math and the associated reputation of math. As the author transitions to Chapter Three and explains who learned math and in what manner in the eighteenth century, the book’s strength as a reflection on everyday mathematics is apparent. The author depicted women’s lack of math education as an unfortunate byproduct of the period, but he did not discount that women learned math that would be useful in their daily lives. Examination of the relationship between women and math extends into Chapter Four as it delves into an explanation of women and their responsibility for household accounting, thus seeing mathematics in the context of usefulness. The practice of gauging, which was used for taxation, is introduced, along with surveying. Poor Robin even shifted content to share tables, thus showing math in more usable context. A weakness could be in the shift to the content of Chapter Five, which focused on the perceived beauty of math. It explores how math was viewed as therapeutic and healing, as scholars in the eighteenth century believed that math could cure or prevent mental illness. However, the author provides a visual explanation in terms of geometry texts with their diagrams, color inks and illustrative nature, which brings the beauty to life. Math in the setting of a beautiful mind may be more difficult to grasp, but as the author relates it to intellectual curiosity, it makes better sense. Chapter Six was perhaps the most difficult chapter to synthesize in terms of mathematics and the order of the world. With this chapter, it may be a leap for a more casual reader as they may not have grounding in the mindset of the period. However, when the author describes the resultant struggles with the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, the reader could gain a better understanding of the fiscal impact in terms of leases, taxes, contracts, and farming. Order, as a legacy of the Renaissance-era Chain of Being, was paramount. Everyone in society supposedly knew their place, just as every aspect of the government, from the calendar to the national debt, depended on math to keep it in working order. The author’s transitions between chapters provides continuity and serves as an introduction to the following chapter. In Chapter Seven, the author discusses the mathematics of artillery, in which the author spends a significant amount of time writing about the interrelation between cannonballs, physics, and math as England was embroiled in ongoing conflicts. This chapter highlights the evolution of math from the everyday life aspect to a larger-scale impact, focusing on military and order. The text concludes with Chapter Eight, in which the author discusses everyday math in the context of the lottery and other games of chance. The author expresses that math can be played with, like a game of chance. Mathematics is shown at this point to be fun. Of note, this happened to coincide with the introduction of probability theory. Chapter Eight seems to serve a dual purpose as a chapter as well as an epilogue for the story of Poor Robin. In this last chapter, it also provided a retrospective view of almanacs. Readers may wonder why the author decided to consolidate this as a chapter instead of adding an epilogue. It explains Poor Robin’s Almanac and its unique place in history, as it was superseded by almanacs that only included facts and figures. Authors such as Charles Dickens decried the soul-crushing nature of Victorian mathematics, and looked upon Poor Robin’s Almanac, with its blend of humor and mathematical knowledge, with a degree of nostalgia.

I would recommend this book to those that have a keen interest in the intersection of history and mathematics as an everyday tool in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. The author strategically uses his knowledge of Poor Robin’s Almanac as a backbone to understanding how the average person understood math. Poor Robin’s Prophecies made mathematics in early modern Britain generally relatable and readable to those that may consider themselves less knowledgeable in the field of mathematics. For readers who may have experienced struggles with math in their academic career, this book may prove to be slightly difficult to read, as one of the chapters gets deeper into the concepts of trigonometry. The contents of Chapter Eight may be of interest to those familiar with the works of Fermat, Pascal, their letters, and the games of chance referenced in The Unfinished Game and the interrelationship with probability theory and mathematics as fun. The author specializes in the history of math and based on his list of publications is a subject matter expert, but the book may appeal to a larger audience if he would have made this book more digestible by cutting back on some of the deeper and more intensive mathematical content. However, I was left with a better understanding of how ordinary people used math in eighteenth-century England despite my preconceived notions about my mathematical abilities. The book that Poor Robin’s Prophecies most resembles in the historiography of the Scientific Revolution is Sailing School, where the mathematics behind navigation received special attention. The interplay of complex math and practical concepts was just as prominent in Sailing School as it was in Poor Robin’s Prophecies.

The Andean Wonder Drug Review

In Matthew James Crawford’s The Andean Wonder Drug, the author explores the discovery, use, and imperial connections of cinchona bark, spanning from the mid-sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century. Dr. Crawford obtained his PhD and his Masters from the University of California’s San Diego campus and teaches at Kent State University, where he specializes in the early modern Iberian Atlantic world. Dr. Crawford is known for works related to the Andes and healing, such as “The Extirpation of Idolatry and the Secularization of Nature: Jesuits, Missionaries, and Indigenous Healing Knowledge in Early Modern Peru (1590-1710),” “A Cure for Empire? An Andean Wonder Drug and the Politics of Knowledge in the Eighteenth-Century Spanish Empire,” and Drugs on the Page: Pharmacopoeias and Healing Knowledge in the Early Modern Atlantic World, which he co-edited with another author. This compilation of authoritative works establish Dr. Crawford as a subject matter expert in the study of Andean healing knowledge.


In the introduction, Crawford clearly sets the stage for the content of the book, using his sources to construct his argument about the efficacies of cinchona as a true wonder drug. However, the introduction was verbose and could be problematic for readers to digest if they lack sufficient working knowledge of the topic. The major themes of the book are well-documented, and it is apparent that the author plans to address science and empire, early modern science, and the politics of knowledge. The author’s intent in Chapter One is to establish cinchona bark as a remedy from the Andean world. Crawford educates the reader about how cinchona trees grew in the forests of the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Andes, as well as how the bark was used to treat malaria during the Spanish conquest of the region. The usage of cinchona by Andean healers was a reaction to malaria’s arrival in the region, and Crawford’s strength is in giving the reader context about how it became a powerful antimalarial drug. Continuing the theme of colonialism, Chapter Two explains the sixteenth-century origins of cinchona bark as an antimalarial drug and reluctance towards its use to provide context. Europeans were initially hesitant to utilize cinchona bark for malaria, as the bark was seen as “hot,” and one could not treat a fever with something hot according to humoral theory. The author expands upon the themes of science and empire in Chapter Three, where he discusses how cinchona bark became a vital natural resource for the Spanish Empire. Many European empires were interested in the plants that grew in their overseas territories, both for economic and political reasons. However, by the 1770s, the cinchona trees, as a result of intensive harvesting, began to disappear, thus impacting the availability of cinchona bark, the impact of which plays out in later chapters. In an intriguing shift in perspective, Chapter Four discusses the bark collectors and the king’s pharmacists as the main protagonists. The Royal Pharmacy in Madrid was in charge of assessing the quality of the bark, which was difficult to transport and in finite supply. There was a hierarchy of distribution for the cinchona bark, as the best bark was designated for the usage of the royal family, while the lesser qualities were for use by foreign dignitaries and the general public. This might have been an interesting point for the author to have interjected his opinions to see if he had a bias, as he could have brought in medical ethics. The most effective cinchona was used only by the elite, which gives rise to a host of issues involving medicine being viewed as either a right or a privilege. With the shift from pharmacists being the experts on cinchona to botanists filling that role, Chapter Five explores the role of bark collectors. Known as cascarillos, they had to venture deeper into the South American continent to find cinchona trees, as the trees in the Andean region were disappearing. Crawford states that the General Hospital in Madrid was given shipments of cinchona bark to test on patients with various types of malarial fevers. A weakness of Crawford’s work is that I would have liked to have heard the author’s opinion. Chapter Six addresses how plantations had to be introduced in order to replenish the supply of cinchona bark. A strength of Crawford’s work is that he explains why the Spanish crown cared enough about the cinchona trees to suggest replanting them, as cinchona bark was a valuable export from Spanish South America. The author returns to the themes of science and empire in Chapter Seven when he deals with the “war of the quinas,” which was a dispute about the botanical classifications of cinchona between several scientists. One of these scientists supported a royal monopoly on cinchona, viewing a free market as anathema to the vision of empire. The conclusion effectively serves as an epilogue, ending in the nineteenth century with the transplanting of cinchona trees from South America to South Asia to further the British imperial project. British writers claimed that the cinchona tree was about to go extinct, but modern historians have shown that these accounts were exaggerated. Historians play a central role in correcting skewed interpretations of the past, whether they be about the possibility of the cinchona tree going extinct or the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana. The conclusion serves as the culmination of Crawford’s argument, showing that cinchona really was, for all intents and purposes, an Andean wonder drug.


I would recommend this book to someone interested in the pivotal role cinchona bark played in early modern medicine. A notable strength of Crawford’s authoritative text is that he wrote about how cinchona was used as an antimalarial in reaction to the Spanish conquest. In contrast, the weaknesses of the text are its verbosity, especially in the introduction, and its use of foreign terms readers might not understand. In terms of sources utilized, the author had a well-written notes section, but it was strange that he placed essential details that would have provided needed context in his notes. Crawford’s writing style could be verbose and difficult to understand at times, but the overall style of the book was generally readable, and the topic was interesting. The book kept to the themes stated in the introduction, and followed a clear layout as it was broken into two parts that dealt with different themes of the export and use of cinchona bark. As I read the text, I was clear to the intent of the author’s themes in The Andean Wonder Drug were, as the author provided that groundwork in the introduction. A condensed introduction would have been incredibly helpful to understand the author’s intentions better. The author did present his evidence effectively as the nature of the book explored the healing and restorative properties of cinchona bark through the explanation of illness and subsequent treatment with the bark. The book that The Andean Wonder Drug most resembles in the historiography of the Scientific Revolution is Missionary Scientists. Both The Andean Wonder Drug and Missionary Scientists deal with matters of indigenous healing practices that were appropriated by the Spanish for their own needs and imperial desires.

Poor Robin’s Almanac Review

Often in the discussion and exploration of the history of science, scholars find themselves engaged to some degree in the history and application of mathematics as well. This understanding of mathematical applications and their communication in history often allows historians to better recognize exchanges and production of information necessary in the development of the Scientific Revolution as a concept. Benjamin Wardhaugh attempts just that in his work, Poor Robin’s Prophecies. Wardhaugh is a historian of mathematics with interests in history, science, math, and music who earned his PhD at Hertford College, Oxford. He is currently the Quondam Fellow at the All Souls College at Oxford University.

Poor Robin’s Prophecies tracks the history of mathematics, specifically the transmission and use of mathematical information as it concerned the average, less educated person living in England in the eighteenth century. Using mathematics with a focus on the ordinary English people, Wardhaugh hopes to elucidate the aspects of life surrounding this information, such as application of the information, how calculations could go wrong and what effect that had on people, how everyday people learned and understood math, and how math could be used for entertainment. Through these questions and lenses, Wardhaugh endeavors to show the many ways math was used and understood by those who fell below the class and academic strata of royalty, gentry, and academics like Isaac Newton. The book is organized into eight chapters, each covering some aspect of popular mathematical application in the eighteenth century.

The first chapter introduced the argument and angle of the book through an explanation of the background of almanacs, most especially a popular humor almanac, Poor Robin’s Almanac. Almanacs were often used by people to understand some aspect of life, usually involving weather, seasons, farming, calendars, and astrology which would affect the everyday lives of ordinary people frequently. These almanacs became so widely understood and used by the end of the seventeenth century that some began publishing almanac parodies for humor and entertainment, often emulating the formulaic prescriptions and advice of traditional almanacs to become more politically and socially savvy as a means of entertaining readers and irking some in positions of power. The topics covered often revolved around themes that utilized some form of mathematics, like astrology, “so if we wish to know about popular mathematics in this period, it’s astrology we must look at” (7). Astrology provided a way to create jokes that people could only understand with basic knowledge of mathematics, more often how complicated it was and how often mathematicians would get things wrong thus demonizing complicated calculations for predicting in general. The second chapter continued the focus on mathematical mistakes and subsequent distrust and ridicule at the everyday level with a look at predictions and prescriptions of math in events such as a solar eclipse in 1699 and the South Sea Bubble financial crisis. These events were written about and discussed in not only almanacs, but also newspapers, pamphlets, and textbooks which utilized math in order to explain to readers their importance and impact. These disastrous events in particular damaged the reputation of math and its practitioners for decades in England among the general populace.

The third chapter outlined examples of formal instruction of math from the view of two children as well as those who wrote instructional material for use in teaching. These particular children learned arithmetic from Spitalfields Mathematical Society in workbooks filled with notations and work by the children and their instructors. While these workbooks provide a different view into the world of math at this time, the practical application of it, discussed in chapter four, further expanded motivation behind learning through potential use, even in spite of earlier mentioned skepticism. The first and most obvious example of everyday use of math was in personal accounting, such as was kept in the family of Margaret Frank for several generations, a not unusual phenomenon which showed the access of basic mathematical understandings by women. Accounting also extended beyond one home to provide a profession which allowed someone to use math to keep records of transactions for individuals, families, and businesses. Another example of common use given was surveying which utilized specialized tools and math in order to measure and plot land. Thus, as professions like these became more common in the early eighteenth century, almanacs began to engage with practical math once more, “inserting into their publications mathematical information intended to be of practical use” (113).

Chapters five and six focused more on the beauty and reason of math and its ability to precisely explain and quantify nature. In print culture of the eighteenth century, math could be used to explain reason instructionally, but also creatively such as in stories, but also in puzzles which entertained and engaged a wider variety of people beyond gentry and professionals. Social organizations, like the Gentleman’s Society of Spalding, were also created and united in knowledge-sharing practices, often based in mathematical pursuits and related disciplines. These knowledge-based organizations promoted the flow of ideas in an age of “Newtonianism” where mathematical understanding was applied to the natural world as a means of explaining order. Math, therefore, became as much a philosophy as a discipline. In chapter seven, the philosophy of math became the basis of debate beyond social circles to those of larger application, including navigation and military endeavors in order to gain some form of advantage. However, Wardhaugh argued in the first chapter, the fun of math was the topic of chapter eight. Thus, math’s popularity was to blame for ideas of statistical fun in the case of the state lottery or logic puzzles found in publications. In all such cases and examples throughout the book, Wardhagh contended, math provides a unique lens into the lives and society of those in eighteenth century England which held a complicated relationship with the discipline that faced ridicule and respect and was applied in both reason and jest.

Poor Robin’s Almanac is an odd book with a unique subject. Wardhaugh appears to have written a book both focused on and distracted by some combination of math and publication in eighteenth century England. The work is clearly presented as a work of popular writing seeming to emulate the almanacs it intermittently discusses throughout in order to present a fairly rudimentary topic of modes of knowledge sharing especially as it related to math. However, Wardhaugh presents his argument without any formal introduction or conclusion and with a somewhat incoherent flow of information. Most alarmingly though is the lack of any substantial sourcing; the book contains less than six pages of notes for the eight chapters and those notes included are haphazardly and informally written for each chapter which, as the author notes, is not even “an exhaustive list of sources used or consulted” (238). While there is much to criticize, the topic itself is an interesting one, but one that should be more thoroughly and explicitly researched and written more formally to provide a sound and clearly verified basis of information.