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Science in the 17th Century

James A. Watkins is an entrepreneur, musician, and a writer with four non-fiction books and hundreds of magazine articles read by millions.

The Word ‘Scientist’ Is Coined

The word scientist was coined in 1840. But the 17th century is revered among scientists as an age of great discovery. This is the century of Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Pascal, Descartes, and Newton.

The 17th century saw the rise of those we now call scientists. They called themselves natural philosophers. These men caused a profound change in the culture, outlook, and lives of human beings.

Everything is like clockwork. The universe is a machine, as is the human body. Harvey discovered that the human heart is a pump that circulates the blood; Paracelsus that the human body is a vessel of chemical reactions, affected by plants and minerals; Pare that blood vessels should be tied during amputation to prevent the patient from bleeding to death. The use of arithmetic on paper led to the invention of decimals and calculus.


Scientists came to be regarded as those who really know about reality. They caused a split between human experience and scientific fact. The chief idea is that matter is a uniform, invisible substance that underlies all appearances. So things are not what they seem.

But pure science should not receive more than its due. Technology often preceded science—things were often invented that worked before a scientist could explain why they worked. Inventions, like literature and fine art, often appear, and only later can people explain what they mean and how they work. And lest we overlook it: applied science—engineering—is a vital part of human progress.

Palladio had invented the truss in the 16th century, which proved to be of enormous consequence to the architecture, buildings, bridges, and canals of the 17th century. In the 17th century, we see the invention of the telescope and microscope, as well as far superior clocks, and the liquid compass.

The use of mathematics and geometry by science followed the use of them by artists and architects. Science was influenced greatly by merchants who had demonstrated the importance of attention to small details, and the use of mathematics to explain business through the new double-entry bookkeeping system.

International trade was the result of capitalism, with its use of credit, insurance, and accounting. This trade led to the exchange of scientific ideas in wide areas of Christendom. Before this, alchemists guarded their discoveries as secrets that brought them glory and profits they did not want to share. In the 17th century, men of science went the opposite way, having learned from Francis Bacon that scientific truths are discovered bit by bit; that mutual review and correction help further progress for all.

It was the invention of the printing press that freed men to discover and expand their scientific knowledge—not the breaking of some chains imposed by the Church. Before the printing press, hand-copied books were simply so expensive and valuable that the few libraries in existence needed to chain their books down to keep them from being stolen.

You could only read a book in the library. As books became plentiful, libraries allowed people to check them out and take them home for extensive study. And the size of libraries expanded dramatically as books became cheaper to print and a wider range of them became available.

Robert Burton published The Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621. This influential book posited that lack of affection in childhood might so warp the character that the person could never feel proper love for himself or others.

The highest decoration awarded by French kings was the Saint-Espirit—the Holy Ghost (who is both spiritual and intellectual). The German word for spirit is Geist. Thus the spirit of the age is Zeitgeist. But I digress.

Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) said: "I think, therefore I am." He revolutionized philosophy; and is called the "Father of Modern Philosophy." He revolutionized mathematics; and invented analytical geometry. Descartes invented a system of coordinates that is still in use today for graphs, charts, and computer graphics.

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Rene Descartes was born in Brittany. His father was a lawyer and Member of Parliament; his mother died when Rene Descartes was only one year old. The only child of Rene Descartes—a daughter—would die at the age of five after she contracted scarlet fever.

Rene Descartes was educated by the Jesuits, and then became a soldier. He was a devout Catholic, but he permanently moved to the Netherlands in 1628 because the religious freedom there made the Dutch more open to new ideas than in Catholic France.

Rene Descartes posited that while matter occupies space, the mind is impalpable. He wrote that only human beings have minds. And that the mind interacts with the body through the Pineal Gland, which he deemed "The Seat of the Soul."

Rene Descartes stated that the physical world was made up of invisible particles in motion. He believed that all knowledge could be unified through mathematics. Things should be subject to human analysis—"breaking down" in Greek. But science and numbers are not the only truth; and the senses are limited. There are also revelation, intuition, impulse—the mind and the heart. Wisdom lies in knowing the place and limits of all these.

Rene Descartes reasoned that God is perfect and infinite. Therefore, the finite, imperfect mind of man could not have dreamed Him up out of thin air. God created man and endowed him with both matter and mind, which are the distinct constituents of reality.

Rene Descartes went to Sweden to teach Queen Christina during the winter. He stayed in an icy palace, caught pneumonia, and passed away.

Simon Stevin

Simon Stevin (1548-1620) was Flemish. He published Table of Interest Rates in 1582, which may seem common to us but to people in his time interest rates were mysterious and understood only by bankers, who kept them secret and guarded them as valuable property.

But, the greatest invention of Simon Stevin was the metric system, which introduced the word "decimal" into our language in 1608. Simon Stevin demonstrated in his booklet The Tenth how his system would simplify math for merchants and their customers; for bankers and their borrowers.

He suggested the decimal system be used for all weights and measures and coinage, as well as divisions of time and degrees of the arc of a circle. Stevin showed the advantage of using decimals for surveying, measuring cloth and wine casks, for the work of astronomers and mint masters. He went so far as to recommend soldiers be grouped in 10s, 100s, 1000s, and so on.

Simon Stevin wanted to make mathematics the Latin of the scientific community, so that, like Latin, it would overleap vernacular barriers. Simon Stevin put forth a convincing case that his system would universalize measurements worldwide, facilitate trade, and provide a common method of calculation and measurement for science.

The measurements of the day were mostly based on body parts. Among these, the "cubit" is the space between the elbow and the tip of the middle finger; the "fathom" the distance between the outstretched arms. Then there was the "furlong," established on the average length of a furrow: 220 yards. That is the reason that a mile is 5,280 feet: It is eight furlongs.

In the 19th century, the French would implement the basic idea of Simon Stevin, by establishing the "meter" (from the Greek word for measure) as one-ten-millionth of the distance from the Equator to the North Pole; with all other distances smaller or larger based on the meter expressed in multiples of ten.



Johannes Kepler

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) lived in a time when astronomy and astrology were conjoined. He is most famous for his eponymous Laws of Planetary Motion, which he called "Celestial Physics." The modern era of astronomy dates from the publication of this work.

Johannes Kepler, born in Germany, was a devout Christian (a passionate Lutheran) who was motivated to study science by his belief that God had created the world according to an intelligible plan that is accessible through the natural light God granted human beings: the power to reason.

Johannes Kepler believed that the world was created by a Creator who used geometry to establish order and harmony and that this harmony could be explained through musical terms. He wrote that he revealed God's geometrical plan for the universe.

Theology was the first love of Johannes Kepler. He savored the delights of the heavenly salad and went in search of God's recipe. He wrote: "I believe Divine Providence intervened so that by chance I obtained what I could never obtain by my own efforts. I believe this all the more because I have constantly prayed to God that I might succeed."

The mentor to Kepler, Tycho Brahe, bequeathed the voluminous records of his research (on his deathbed) to Kepler. These documents were to provide the foundation Kepler used to prove that the planets orbit the sun in ellipses, and that the speed of the planets depends upon their distance from the sun.

The father of Johannes Kepler was a mercenary who left the family when Johannes was five years old. The mother of Johannes Kepler once served a fourteen-month prison term for practicing witchcraft. Johannes Kepler authored his own epitaph: "I measured the skies, now the shadows I measure; Skybound was the mind, earthbound the body rests."




Santorio Santorio (1561-1636) was born to a wealthy and noble family in Venice.

He founded the modern science of metabolism—the study of transformations that are the processes of life.

Santorio invented the first machine to measure the pulse; and the first medical thermometer.

He also explained the process of perspiration and invented the waterbed.



Cornelius Drebbel

Cornelius Drebbel (1572-1633) was a Dutch illusionist and opera designer. He also may be the greatest inventor you have never heard of.

Drebbel invented the first navigable submarine; the mercury thermometer; the thermostat; the air-conditioner; and a perpetual-motion machine.

He moved to England when he was 32 years old, and there he remained for the rest of his days. His submarine was tested by King James I of England, which makes him the first monarch to travel underwater.

Drebbel also built microscopes and telescopes and is credited with making great improvements to both.



Marin Mersenne

Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) is the very model of the new man of science we find in 17th-century Christendom. He is mostly known today as the "Father of Acoustics."

Mersenne attended Jesuit schools before he studied theology at the Sorbonne in Paris. He then joined the Franciscan Order of Minims. His personal charm made his monastery the center for science in Paris, and he helped make Paris the intellectual center of Europe.

The work of Marin Mersenne is primarily about music theory and musical instruments. More important in the history of science is that he was at the center of a network of mathematicians dedicated to the exchange of ideas, discoveries, and knowledge.

Mersenne believed the discoveries of science confirmed the truths of the Christian faith. The Montmor Academy was founded in 1657, also in Paris, with the express purpose to discover "the clearer knowledge of the works of God."



Giovanni Borelli

Giovanni Borelli (1608-1679) was a physicist and mathematician from Naples, whose chief work focused on the movements of living creatures.

Borelli discovered the physics involved in the movements of the limbs while lifting, walking, running, jumping, and skating—locomotion.

He went on to explain that the same laws of physics applied to the movements in animals of their wings, fins, and legs.

In 1681, Giovanni Borelli published his great book On the Movement of Animals.

He is considered the "Father of biomechanics," the science of animal movements.



Marcello Malpighi

Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694) of Bologna, Italy is the founder of microscopic anatomy.

Malpighi was a doctor who also taught medicine.

He is the man who discovered the structure and function of our lungs—the process of respiration: to replenish the blood with oxygen.

He discovered capillaries and revealed that they connect the arteries to the veins.

Malpighi also discovered the taste buds on our tongues, the pigmentary layer of our skin, and that the brain is an organ.

Queen Christina of Sweden

Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) was a virgin queen who loved political intrigue. At birth she was covered with hair, and so was at first mistaken for a boy. She later said that she thanked God she was born with a man's soul in a woman's body.

Queen Christina was uncommonly strong, loved to ride unruly horses, and was an avid hunter. She viewed women with contempt.

Christina became the queen at the age of six when her father the King was killed in battle. Her father had commanded that she be brought up as a prince, not a princess. At her coronation, she took the oath of a King, not that of a Queen.

The Sweden of Christina's day ruled the Baltic region. She was a Lutheran who spoke five languages including Latin. Queen Christina became a great patron of science. Pascal dedicated his invention of the calculating machine to her.

Queen Christina of Sweden gave up her throne at the age of 28—so she could convert to Catholicism—and moved to Rome. The papal city was alive with poets, musicians, thinkers, and talkers.

Christina was given a wing at the Vatican to live in. She made the rounds of elegant dinners, dances, plays, masques, ballets, and conversations. Christina befriended the great baroque sculptor and architect Bernini. She also founded three academies for the arts and sciences. Christina was the most famous woman in the world during her lifetime.

I Digress

The terms" Middle Ages" and "Medieval" were first used in the 17th century. The idea was that "modern" men were proud of their discoveries and progress and thus wished to set themselves apart from the previous "centuries of ignorance."

Truthfully, there have always been learned men and remarkable discoveries. Look at the awesome workmanship, sound design, and solidity that is obvious in the bridges, houses, and churches built in the Middle Ages. We cannot today duplicate the carvings, stone dressings, and stained glass with all of our "progress."

It is in vogue today to talk of olden times as oppressive to women. That would have been a surprise to them. Women ruled kingdoms, duchies, and counties long before modernity. They also managed huge households and sprawling estates. And they were worshiped by men—hence the wonderful history of poetry about women in Christendom. A lot of propaganda has been marketed by feminists in their pursuit of the destruction of Western Civilization.

The Middle Ages gave us chivalry—and notions of honor. Modern romantic love still uses Medieval terms derived from the Christian faith to address the objects of our love: You are my angel; you are divine; when I am with you I am in heaven.

Women were put on a pedestal by most men in Christendom. Men were physically strong, very well armed, and there were no police in those days. If mistreating women was the aim of men why is there no record of routine rape of women in Christendom? Men of the Middle Ages certainly could have raped and killed women at will.

I dare say that women are more objectified today than they were then. They were respected and their unique qualities were widely admired and lauded. To suppose that since antiquity women have been uniformly oppressed, and treated as chattel by their husbands, is utter nonsense that truly diminishes womanhood by negating their innate powers of intelligence, self-respect, and resourcefulness.


My sources include:

  • The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin
  • From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun
  • Europe by Norman Davies.


James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 05, 2012:

tinku— You are quite welcome. Thank you for coming! :D

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on January 05, 2012:

yo yo girl— Thank you very much for your warm words. I appreciate this visitation from you. :)

tinku on January 04, 2012:

i had a great time here . thank you for your information

yo yo girl on January 04, 2012:

its very informative.if i would have not visited this site i would have been in a confused state and ya i like the way you post

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on November 04, 2011:

Jei Han— You are quite welcome! Thank you for the compliment. I am glad you found this article to be useful. I appreciate the visit and your comments.

Jei Han on November 02, 2011:

thanks for the infos, i need it for our reports...fantastic...

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on April 08, 2011:

kimh039— Your research on "the rule of thumb" is amazing. I thought there was an English law to that effect and I am surprised that it is a myth.

I am happy that you enjoyed my work on this Hub. I sincerely appreciate the affirmation and encouragement. Thank you and you are welcome.

James A Watkins

Kim Harris on April 08, 2011:

no offense taken, James.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on April 07, 2011:

kimh039— I humbly thank you for loving my work. I submit to your judgment as to the crassness and barbarity of medieval men. Perhaps my Hub overly romanticized the conditions of the middle ages. If I have affronted you, I apologize. I love everybody—including those who lived during these times.

Kim Harris on April 05, 2011:

James, you know I love your work. I think this one might possibly be my favorite. I am amazed that you were able to take such a leap from science to politics. Then again, why would I be surprised! There were no laws on the books about rape or domestic violence then. The term "rule of thumb" refers to the first law related to domestic abuse that basically states that a man can be charged if he leaves a mark larger than his thumb on his wife, which was his chattel. I like the idea though that there might have been such a time when women were revered; and I suspect that has been true of some men, maybe most men, since the beginning of time. I think I'd want to see more research on this. I did find this excerpt from wikipedia under "rule of thumb":

Thumb used for regulation

Caricature condemning Buller: Judge Thumb - Patent Sticks for Family Correction - Warranted Lawful!

It is often claimed that the term originally referred to a law that limited the maximum thickness of a stick with which it was permissible for a man to beat his wife.[2][4] British common law before the reign of Charles II permitted a man to give his wife "moderate correction", but no "rule of thumb" (whether called by this name or not) has ever been the law in England.[8][9] Such "moderate correction" specifically excluded beatings, only allowing the husband to confine a wife to the household.[10]

Nonetheless, belief in the existence of a "rule of thumb" law to excuse spousal abuse can be traced as far back as 1782, the year that James Gillray published his satirical cartoon Judge Thumb. The cartoon lambastes Sir Francis Buller, a British judge, for allegedly ruling that a man may legally beat his wife, provided that he used a stick no thicker than his thumb, although it is questionable whether Buller ever made such a pronouncement (poor record-keeping for trial transcripts in that era make it difficult to determine whether such a ruling may have existed). The Body of Liberties adopted in 1641 by the Massachusetts Bay colonists states, “Every married woman shall be free from bodily correction or stripes by her husband, unless it be in his own defense from her assault.”[11] In the United States, legal decisions in Mississippi (1824) and North Carolina (1868 and 1874) make reference to—and reject—an unnamed "old doctrine" or "ancient law" by which a man was allowed to beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb.[2] For example, the 1874 case State v. Oliver (North Carolina Reports, Vol. 70, Sec. 60, p. 44) states: "We assume that the old doctrine that a husband had the right to whip his wife, provided that he used a switch no larger than his thumb, is not the law in North Carolina." In 1976, feminist Del Martin used the phrase "rule of thumb" as a metaphorical reference to describe such a doctrine. She was misinterpreted by many as claiming the doctrine as a direct origin of the phrase and the connection gained currency in 1982, when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report on wife abuse, titled "Under the Rule of Thumb."[9]