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Timeline of the Scientific Revolution

My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over seventy books.

The painting “Astronomer by Candlelight” by the Dutch artist Gerrit Dou, c. 1651.

The painting “Astronomer by Candlelight” by the Dutch artist Gerrit Dou, c. 1651.

What Was the Scientific Revolution?

The Scientific Revolution was a period starting around the middle of the 16th century where scholars cast off the old ideas of the ancient philosophers and started to understand the world through rational thought. This period that lasted up until the middle of the 18th century saw a flood of new discoveries and inventions.

At the same time, new methods for studying the physical world, which included rational analysis to draw conclusions from observable evidence, became the norm. New discoveries were coming from every field in science, including astronomy, physics, biology, chemistry, geology, and medicine.

When Did the Scientific Revolution Start?

Many scholars mark the beginning of what we now call the Scientific Revolution with the Polish astronomer and clergyman Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and the publication in 1543 of his groundbreaking work, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres).

Copernicus proposed the idea that the Sun was at the center of the universe rather than the Earth, an idea that rocked the very foundation of scientific and religious dogma that had held sway for nearly two thousand years.

When Did the Scientific Revolution End?

Like the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, there is no definitive date for its end; rather, most scholars and historians of science mark the publication of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) as the beginning of the end of the Scientific Revolution.

In this work, first published in 1687, Newton explains through mathematics the laws of motion and universal gravitation. Though his master work was published in the late 17th century, it was well into the middle of the 18th century before “Newtonian Physics” was widely accepted and the flawed physics of Aristotle was finally overthrown.

The Protestant Reformation

Though what is now known as the Protestant Reformation that began in 1517 appears on the surface to have nothing to do with the Scientific Revolution, in a roundabout way it does. This revolution in religion helped set the tone for generations, allowing them to question the wisdom of the ancients and seek new ways of thinking. The reformation of the church began with the German monk Martin Luther (1483-1546), who protested the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, thus marking the beginning of the religious reformation.

This event is important in the history of science because it marks the beginning of the questioning of the dogmas and doctrines of the powerful Roman Catholic Church. This desire to question authority spilt over into the area of natural philosophy (science), allowing progress in the sciences to proceed.

An artist’s depiction of Martin Luther pinning his 95 theses of protest to the door of the church.

An artist’s depiction of Martin Luther pinning his 95 theses of protest to the door of the church.

Timeline (1518 to 1610)

1518 – English humanist and physician Thomas Linacre (c. 1460-1524) founds the Royal College of Physicians in London.

1543 – Belgian anatomist Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) publishes his De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body). Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) present his theory of a sun-centered universe in his work De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres).

1573 – Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) publishes De Nova Stella describing his observations of a supernova (exploding star) in the constellation Cassiopeia.

1576 – Tycho Brahe establishes an astronomical observatory on the Baltic Island of Hven.

1583 – Italian botanist and physician Andrea Cesalpino (1519-1603) devises a system of classifying plants by their structure in his book De Plantis.

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c. 1590 – Dutch optician Zacharias Jansen (c. 1580 – c. 1638) invents the compound microscope using two lenses.

1600 – English physicist and physician William Gilbert (1544-1603) publishes the first English scientific work De magnete, magneticisque corporibus, et de magno magnete tellure (On the Magnet, Magnetic Bodies, and the Great Magnet Earth), in which he explains his investigations into magnetic bodies and electrical attractions. In his work he uses rigorous methods of experimentation, emphasizes observation, and rejects many popular beliefs about magnetism.

1608 – Dutch eyeglass maker Hans Lippershey (c. 1570 – c. 1619) makes the first refracting telescope.

1609 – German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) draws up his first two laws of planetary motion: (1) the planets orbit the Sun in elliptical orbits, one focus of the ellipse at the Sun; and (2) a planet orbits the Sun so that a line drawn from the planet to the Sun always sweeps out equal areas in equal times.

1610 – Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (1562-1642) observes craters on the Moon and the four moons of Jupiter with a refracting telescope that he constructed.

A 1873 painting titled “Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversation with God” by Jan Matejko. The painting depicts Copernicus atop his tower at Frombork, Poland—with the cathedral’s spires in the background—observing the sky with his wooden rulers (right)

A 1873 painting titled “Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversation with God” by Jan Matejko. The painting depicts Copernicus atop his tower at Frombork, Poland—with the cathedral’s spires in the background—observing the sky with his wooden rulers (right)

Galileo Galilei on Motion

The Italian scientist Galileo Galilei made important advances in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, and physics. His work was important for both his discoveries and for the method he used to validate his claims. Galileo differed from those who came before him in that he based his theories on his observations of natural phenomena and demonstrated his theories using carefully prepared experiments.

In the study of motion, Galileo found that a simple pendulum can be used as an accurate clock. He came to this realization while attending a church service in Pisa Cathedral in 1582 where he noticed the regular movements of a lamp swinging above his head. Using his pulse to time the period of the lamp movement back and forth, he determined the length of the cord supporting the lamp determined the period of the swing.

From this observation, he devised experiments with simple pendulums (weights on the end of a string) that found the relationship between the length of the string and the period of the pendulum. Though Galileo did not invent a pendulum clock, the relationship between the period of the pendulum and the length of the string was fundamental to the development of pendulum-based clocks that became a standard for centuries.

Through experimentation, Galileo corrected a fallacy that had been perpetuated since the time of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC). Based on the writings of Aristotle, no one had questioned the belief that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. To show that the speed at which an object falls is not dependent on its weight, according to legend, in 1602 Galileo dropped two cannonballs of different weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa and showed that they hit the ground at the same time.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Galileo on Astronomy and the Order of the Universe

Galileo took what was little more than a toy at the time and made a working telescope that was capable of making astronomical observations. With his instrument he observed the Moon, making detailed drawings of the mountains and craters at different times during the month. In 1610 he turned his telescope to the planet Jupiter and discovered the four bright moons that orbit the planet. He later observed the Sun and noted the black spots that move slowly across its surface. From the movement of the spots across the surface, he concluded that the Sun must be rotating.

Galileo’s observations of the stars, planets, and the Moon convinced him that the Sun was the center of the solar system, confirming in his mind that Nicolaus Copernicus was correct. However, his ideas were contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, which adhered to the ancient model of the Earth at the center of the universe.

In 1632 he published his theory of the order of the universe in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic and Copernican. The pope, who had supported Galileo up until this point, was offended and the book was banned. A year later Galileo was arrested, brought before the Inquisition, and under threat of imprisonment or worse, he recanted his heretical views.

Galileo’s drawing of the surface of the Moon.

Galileo’s drawing of the surface of the Moon.

Timeline (1618 to 1628)

1618 – Johannes Kepler states his third law of planetary motion: the square of the period in which a planet orbits the Sun is proportional to the cube of its average distance from the Sun.

1620 – English scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) publishes the Novum Organum, which sought to establish a method based on observation and experimentation in opposition to Aristotle. In his work, Bacon states, “For my way of discovering sciences goes far to level men’s wits, and leaves but little to individual excellence; because it performs everything by the surest rules and demonstration” (Aphorism 122).

1622 – English mathematician William Oughtred (1574-1660) creates a calculating machine called the slide rule, which uses logarithms to perform multiplication and division.

1628 – English physician William Harvey (1578-1657) explains the circulation of blood through the heart, lungs, and the human body. Harvey publishes Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (On the Motion of the Heart and Blood).

William Harvey Discovers the Circulation of Blood

During his study of animals, William Harvey developed a theory of how blood circulates throughout the body. He observed in a single hour the heart pumps far more blood than the total amount of blood in an animal. Harvey reasoned that the blood must be going around in a continuous loop in what he referred to as “a circle of ceaseless motion.”

Figure - An experiment from Harvey's de Motu Cordis

Figure - An experiment from Harvey's de Motu Cordis

Timeline (1632 to 1676)

1632 – Galileo Galilei publishes his book on astronomical observations, Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo, tolemaico e copernico (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems—Ptolemaic and Copernican).

1637 – In London, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society is first published. The journal prints letters from the learned, the curious, and those seeking to expound on new discoveries, theories, and observations of natural phenomena. The journal publishes many articles that were important to the spread of the new science associated with the Scientific Revolution. The French mathematician, philosopher, and scientist René Descartes (1596-1650) publishes his Discourse on the Method, which helped establish the scientific method.

1640 – French mathematician Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665) proposes that light always travels in straight lines.

1642 – French scientist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) states that the pressure within a liquid is the same everywhere within the liquid. This principle is fundamental to the working of all hydraulic machinery. German anatomist Johann Wirsung (1600-1643) discovers the pancreatic duct, which carries digestive juice from the pancreas to the small intestine.

1650 – The University of Leyden in the Netherlands establishes the first properly equipped chemistry laboratory.

1657 – Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) writes the first book on mathematical probability theory and produces the first pendulum clock. The clock kept time to within five minutes a day, which was an improvement on earlier types of clocks.

1658 – Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680) first describes red blood cells.

1659 – English physician Thomas Willis (1621-1675) first describes typhoid fever.

1660 – French physicist Edmé Mariotte (1620-1684) discovers the blind spot on the retina of the eye where the optic nerve joins the retina.

1661 – Irish scientist Robert Boyle (1627-1691) is the first to define chemical elements. A year later he formulates what becomes known as Boyle’s law: that at a fixed temperature the pressure of a gas is inversely proportional to its volume.

1665 – English scientist and inventor Robert Hooke (1635-1703) coins the word cell to describe the “little boxes” he observes in plant tissue using a microscope of his own invention.

1670 – English physician Thomas Willis (1621-1675) detects the presence of sugar in the urine of patients with diabetes.

1671 – English scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1627) demonstrates that a glass prism disperses white light into a spectrum of rainbow colors.

1675 – The Royal Greenwich Observatory in England is founded by King Charles II. The primary mission of the observatory is to help navigation at sea by fixing longitude, improving the determination of star positions, and timekeeping.

1676 – Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) makes observations of bacteria from a simple microscope of his own construction. Robert Hooke proposes Hooke’s law, which states that when an elastic object stretches, the stress (force per unit area) in it is proportional to the strain (change in dimensions).

Hooke’s Law

Hooke’s Law

Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution

One of the giant thinkers of the Scientific Revolution was the Englishman Isaac Newton (1642-1727). He made fundamental breakthroughs in mathematics and established the basic laws that have become the cornerstones of modern astronomy and physics. Newton was born in eastern England, brought up by his grandmother, and educated at local schools before attending Trinity College, which is part of Cambridge University. Shortly after he received his bachelor’s degree in 1665, the plague broke out in London, forcing many to flee to the countryside.

It was during those two years in quarantine at his family’s farm that he worked out the principles of “fluxions,” which led to the development of differential calculus. He also studied the nature of light and examined the elements of circular motion, applying his analysis to explain the motion of the Moon and the planets. From his work on the planets and the Moon, he came up with the inverse square relationship, which is that the radially directed force acting on a planet decreases with the square of the distance from the Sun.

This relationship became critical in his development of the law of universal gravitation. Later he wrote of this time in his life, “At this time I was in the prime of my age of invention and minded mathematics and philosophy more than any time since.” Newton used the word philosophy for what today we call physics.

Newton’s Contributions to the Field of Motion and Gravitation

In 1667 Newton received a fellowship at Trinity College and became a professor of mathematics two years later. There he turned his attention to understanding what happens when objects move—asking, what makes them start moving and what makes them stop or change direction? He summed up his conclusions on motion in three laws of motion (see the figure below).

Newton also made groundbreaking contributions to astronomy and our understanding of the force of gravity. According to the legendary story, while sitting in an orchard he witnessed an apple fall to the ground; this event sparked his genius to begin his study of gravity.

To answer the question of why the apple fell, he concluded that it was attracted toward the Earth by a force, which we now call gravity. Using his own laws of motion, he determined that all objects in the universe are affected by gravitational forces, thus keeping the Moon in orbit around the Earth, and the Earth in orbit around the Sun.

Out of his investigation into gravity, he produced a formula, the universal law of gravitation, that states the gravitational force between any two objects is equal to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the distance between them. Robert Hooke, a contemporary of Newton, also devised a law of gravity in about 1678 and published his ideas a few years later. Hooke and Newton became bitter rivals over their differing views.

Newton’s three laws of motion.

Newton’s three laws of motion.

Newton’s Contributions to the Field of Optics

In addition to the fundamental work in astronomy, mathematics, and physics, Newton also made significant advances in the field of optics. By allowing a narrow beam of sunlight to pass through a glass prism, he observed the splitting of the light into a rainbow of colors. By this, he showed that white light is made up of a variety of colors (or wavelengths).

This breaking up of white light into its constituent colors by curved glass produced an annoying effect called “chromatic aberration” in the telescopes of the day. This effect produces halos of color around bright objects when viewed through a simple refracting telescope, like the one Galileo used. To counter this aberration, Newton devised one of the first reflecting telescopes.

Rather than use a lens to bend the light to create magnification, he used a curved mirror. Light reflecting off of a mirror does not experience chromatic aberration, thus giving a clear and crisp image to the observer. Newton’s design formed the basis of nearly all giant telescopes in observatories around the world today.

His study of the properties of light convinced Newton that light was composed of the “flux” of minute particles, which he called “corpuscles.” His theory was soon challenged by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens and others. They proposed that light had a wave-like nature, kin to water waves from a speeding boat on a lake, rather than Newton’s conception of light as a group of particles. It would not be until the 20th century that this controversy was put to rest when modern physicists concluded that light has both a wave- and a particle-like nature.

– Replica of Newton’s reflecting telescope.

– Replica of Newton’s reflecting telescope.

Timeline (1679 – 1752)

1679 – German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) introduces binary arithmetic, which only uses two digits. This type of arithmetic forms the basis of all modern computers.

1687 – Isaac Newton publishes his major work Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy).

Title page from Newton’s Principia

Title page from Newton’s Principia

1693 – The College of William and Mary is founded in Williamsburg, Virginia, by royal charter.

1694 – German botanist Rudolf Camerarius (1665-1721) establishes that plants have male and female parts.

1700 – German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) founds the Berlin Academy, the first major national academy of science.

1701 – Italian physician Giacomo Pylarini (1659-1715) inoculates three children with smallpox to prevent more serious disease later in life.

1704 – Isaac Newton publishes his book Opticks, in which he proposes the corpuscular (particle) theory of light and explains the actions of lenses and prisms.

1706 – Welsh mathematician William Jones (1675-1749) introduces the symbol π (Greek letter pi) for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter (π = 3.14159…).

1714 – Polish inventor Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686-1736) invents the mercury thermometer, which is much more accurate than thermometers using alcohol. The British government offers £20,000 reward for a method to determine longitude at sea. In 1759, clockmaker John Harrison claims the prize.

1718 – English astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742) identifies stellar proper motion, the apparent movement of a star that results from the star’s gradual movement relative to the sun.

1725 – The St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences is founded in Russia by Peter the Great.

1727 – English botanist Stephen Hales (1677-1761) writes Vegetable Staticks, the first book on plant physiology.

1733 – French mathematician Abraham de Moivre (1667-1754) discovers the normal distribution curve (bell-shaped), which becomes important in statistical studies. French chemist Charles du Fay (1698-1739) characterizes two types of static electricity.

1735 – Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) publishes System Naturae, in which he classifies natural objects into three kingdoms: animal, plant, or mineral. In 1749 he introduces binomial naming (genus and species names).

1738 – Swiss scientist Daniel Bernoulli (1700-1782) is the first to put forward a kinetic theory of gases, which states that gases are composed of rapidly moving small particles of matter.

1743 – American scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and the American botanist John Bartram (1699-1777) found the American Philosophical Society.

1745 – The Dutch physicist Pieter van Musschenbroek (1692-1761) invents the Leyden jar, an electrical component that stores a high-voltage electric charge between electrical conductors on the inside and outside of a glass jar.

– Leyden jar construction diagram

– Leyden jar construction diagram

1752 – Benjamin Franklin demonstrates the electrical nature of lightning with his famous kite-flying experiment during a lightning storm.

References

Bynum. W.F., E.J. Browne, and Roy Porter (Editors). Dictionary of the History of Science. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Daintith, John and Derek Gjertsen (Editors). A Dictionary of Scientists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Goddard, Jolyon (Editor). Concise History of Science & Invention: An Illustrated Time Line. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2010.

Jacob, Margaret C. The Scientific Revolution: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.

Millar, David, et al. (Editors). The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

West, Doug. A Short Biography of the Scientist Sir Isaac Newton. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2015.

West, Doug. Galileo Galilei: A Short Biography. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2015.

West, Doug. Nicolaus Copernicus: A Short Biography: The Astronomer Who Moved the Earth. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2018.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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