Interfacing Smual Hartlib

By Greengrass, Mark | History Today, December 1993 | Go to article overview

Interfacing Smual Hartlib


Greengrass, Mark, History Today


Britain' s first information scientist? Mark Greengrass tells the story of a remarkable 17th century polymath and of the modern enterprise to re-categorise and evaluate, with the aid of the modern computer, his archive of knowledge.

Two famous English engravings evoke the confident aspirations of those who promoted the advancement of scientific learning in the seventeenth century. The first is the frontispiece to Francis Bacon's Great Instauration, published in Latin in 1620. It depicts the ship of learning sailing through the pillars of Hercules to the undiscovered but fructiferous lands of 'New Atlantis'. Beneath it lies inscribed the famous biblical passage from Daniel: 'Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased'. The second is the frontispiece to Thomas Sprat' s History of the Royal Society, published in 1667. Within the marbled halls of Academe and to one side of the statue of Charles II, the Jacobean figure of Francis Bacon, 'Artium Instaurator' is pointing towards and beyond the instruments of science, the counterpart of bookish learning. Within the time-span of these two images lies the life and hopes of the remarkable 'intelligencer' Samuel Hartlib.

Hartlib is hardly a household name. He rapidly disappeared into obscurity following his death in 1662, remembered (if at all) only as the person to whom Milton had dedicated his treatise On Education. So some details of his life are in order. Born to a merchant family from the Baltic town of Elbing in Polish Prussia towards the end of the sixteenth century, Hartlib became one of many German Protestant exiles during the Thirty Years' War, a victim of 'religious cleansing'. He eventually settled permanently in London in 1628 and joined the stranger community of the capital. He initially turned to education to provide him with some material security, opening a school for young gentlemen in Chichester. It was not a success and he returned to London, establishing himself at Duke's Place, Westminster, where he lodged students and foreign visitors.

From 1631, Hartlib became the assistant of the Protestant theologian, John Dury, whose incessant efforts to bring together a Europe divided by confessional strife would not have been carried forward without Hartlib's assistance. At the same time, Hartlib cultivated the patronage of various important, mainly Puritan, members of England's governing classes. It was Dury who proposed that his European contacts might become the centre for a network of contacts for the dissemination of information about new books, rare manuscripts, inventions and scientific ideas, as well as new methods of teaching and learning. This idea lay at the heart of what became Hartlib's life-work. From the middle of the 1630s, he directed a kind of pressagency, collecting information on a wide variety of subjects for diffusion around Europe.

Hartlib admired the intelligence services of the Venetian state and hoped that something similar would allow England to direct a pan-European Protestant alliance during the Thirty Years' War. But his vision was never narrowly political. From the 1630s onwards, the collecting of information became only one part of a vast scheme of reformation which encompassed science, education, morality and society. In this respect, his contacts with the Czech Protestant exile, Jan Amos Komensky (Comenius), were of the greatest importance. Hartlib probably knew of Comenius well before they began a regular correspondence in 1632. They shared in many respects the same intellectual formation, both being the product of the 'intellectual Calvinism' of pre-Thirty Years' War central Europe.

It is fatally easy to fashion the history of ideas into the rigid straitjackets of schools of thought but it is not too difficult to discern some of the common elements shared by Comenius and Hartlib. They both believed that true knowledge and edification came from God through the right reading of the three 'books' of his wisdom. …

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