Henry Smith Williams

THE eighteenth-century philosopher made great strides in his studies of the physical properties of matter and the application of these properties in mechanics, as the steam-engine, the balloon, the optic telegraph, the spinning-jenny, the cotton-gin, the chronometer, the perfected compass, the Leyden jar, the lightning-rod, and a host of minor inventions testify. In a speculative way he had thought out more or less tenable conceptions as to the ultimate nature of matter, as witness the theories of Leibnitz and Boscovich and Davy, to which we may recur.


The full importance of Young's studies of light might perhaps have gained earlier recognition had it not chanced that, at the time when they were made, the attention of the philosophic world was turned with the fixity and fascination of a hypnotic stare upon another field, which for a time brooked no rival. How could the old, familiar phenomenon, light, interest any one when the new agent, galvanism, was in view? As well ask one to fix attention on a star while a meteorite blazes across the sky.

Of the half-dozen surgeons who were prominent in the sixteenth century, Ambroise Pare (1517-1590), called the father of French surgery, is perhaps the most widely known. He rose from the position of a common barber to that of surgeon to three French monarchs, Henry II., Francis II., and Charles IX. Some of his mottoes are still first principles of the medical man.

We saw that in the old Greek days there was no sharp line of demarcation between the field of the philosopher and that of the scientist. In the Hellenistic epoch, however, knowledge became more specialized, and our recent chapters have shown us scientific investigators whose efforts were far enough removed from the intangibilities of the philosopher.

We have now to witness the diversified efforts of a company of men who, working for the most part independently, greatly added to the data of the physical sciences—such men as Boyle, Huygens, Von Gericke, and Hooke. It will be found that the studies of these men covered the whole field of physical sciences as then understood—the field of so-called natural philosophy. We shall best treat these successors of Galileo and precursors of Newton somewhat biographically, pointing out the correspondences and differences between their various accomplishments as we proceed.

Galileo, that giant in physical science of the early seventeenth century, died in 1642. On Christmas day of the same year there was born in England another intellectual giant who was destined to carry forward the work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo to a marvellous consummation through the discovery of the great unifying law in accordance with which the planetary motions are performed. We refer, of course, to the greatest of English physical scientists, Isaac Newton, the Shakespeare of the scientific world.

We come now to the story of what is by common consent the greatest of scientific achievements. The law of universal gravitation is the most far-reaching principle as yet discovered. It has application equally to the minutest particle of matter and to the most distant suns in the universe, yet it is amazing in its very simplicity. As usually phrased, the law is this: That every particle of matter in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that varies directly with the mass of the particles and inversely as the squares of their mutual distance.

During the Newtonian epoch there were numerous important inventions of scientific instruments, as well as many improvements made upon the older ones. Some of these discoveries have been referred to briefly in other places, but their importance in promoting scientific investigation warrants a fuller treatment of some of the more significant.

We have seen how Gilbert, by his experiments with magnets, gave an impetus to the study of magnetism and electricity. Gilbert himself demonstrated some facts and advanced some theories, but the system of general laws was to come later. To this end the discovery of electrical repulsion, as well as attraction, by Von Guericke, with his sulphur ball, was a step forward; but something like a century passed after Gilbert's beginning before anything of much importance was done in the field of electricity.

Modern systematic botany and zoology are usually held to have their beginnings with Linnaeus.

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