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Interfacing Smual Hartlib.

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. These were the physical world around us, the power of human reasoning within us, and the divine revelation to be found in the Holy Scriptures. Human books were but a mediocre and insufficient substitute for these three sources of wisdom, especially when they properly complemented one another. Since mankind was created in the image of God, he was capable theoretically of appreciating the universal wisdom of his Creator and the process towards this ultimate truth was christened by Comenius 'pansophy'.

Pansophy was the true objective of all education and scientific endeavour. A profound reform of the methods of teaching and learning and its institution through the authority of a sympathetic state would permit the harmonies of the world and the role of the Creator in the laws of nature to become manifest. Sectarian divisions, controversies and disputes provoked by the Protestant reformation would be brought to an end. Through cooperative endeavour, the most hidden secrets of Nature would be revealed and its secret potential and power released for man's prosperity. The vision was aptly captured by a third famous frontispiece, that of the Opera Didactica Omnia, Comenius' collected educational works, published in Amsterdam in 1657.

This book contained ideas which had first seen the light of day in an essay which Comenius had sent to Hartlib back in the 1630s. Hartlib eventually translated it into English and published it on the eve of the English Civil War in 1641, when every hope and dream of change seemed possible. This pamphlet, The Reformation of Schooles, presented an exalted vision of what might be achieved with true 'interdisciplinarity'. The scientific disciplines had become separate one from another and needed to be reunited and to complement one another:

The most exact Encyclopaedias, or

sums of Art, which I could ever lay my

eyes upon, seemed to me like a chaine

nearly framed of many linkes, but noth-

ing comparable to a perpetual mover,

so artificially made with wheeles, that it

turned it selfe: or like a pile of wood,

very neatly laid in order, with great

care, and diligence, but nothing like

unto a tree arising from its living roots.

What was needed, Hartlib continued, was to have this 'living tree, with living' roots, and living fruits of all the Arts, and Sciences, I meane Pansophy, which is a lively image of the Universe, every way closing, and agreeing with it selfe, every where quickning it selfe, and covering it selfe with fruit'. This was an extraordinary and captivating vision of an organic metaphysic of knowledge. Like a perpetual motion machine, which both Hartlib and Comenius firmly believed in, successive generations would be progressively instructed to know the books of nature, God and reason until mankind attained the ultimate stages of enlightenment. Copies of Comenius' works were distributed by Hartlib in England and Europe, prefaced by an enthusiastic letter. This was an 'extraordinary labour', 'a key for the understanding of the book of Nature, the Bible and of art'. This vision of a 'Universal Learned Corresponding Intelligency' preoccupied Hartlib and his circle of associates until the end of his life.

The possibilities generated by this vision seemed infinite. A true understanding of the physical world should be acquired through collecting together 'natural histories' along the lines suggested by Francis Bacon. Registers of patents and innovations should be constructed to provide catalogues of human ingenuity. Museums of-rareties and curiosities should be instituted. All printed books should be catalogued, their contents summarised by .librarians in accordance with the same method. Hartlib dreamt of the possibility of establishing a great new public library in London beginning with the collections confiscated after the civil wars. Around 1640, Hartlib became enthusiastic about the filing system devised by the English schoolmaster, William Harrison, an early kind of 'filofax'. This would hold slips of paper on which summaries of a book's contents could be written according to a prior schema and then sorted in accordance with different topics. Harrison's invention excited the attentions of several of those in Hartlib's circle including the Kentish gentleman, Sir Cheney Culpeper, who had introduced Comenius to the Long Parliament in 1641. He confessed that its possibilities kept him awake at nights.

But Hartlib was keen to find knowledge wherever it might reside, whether locked away in Oriental tongues, imprisoned in alchemical secrets, reserved by competitive craft guilds, or otherwise hidden by illiteracy. Meanwhile schools and academies should be reformed to teach practical, methodical, integrated learning. Particular attention should be paid to the reform of the teaching of languages. Hartlib's circle was particularly interested in the possibilities of a universal language. At the same time, theologians should be encouraged to discover the fundamental points of Christian doctrine upon which they were all agreed.

The explosion of the English Civil War in 1642 postponed the immediate possibilities for the realisation of such dreams. But they returned in a rather different context after 1646 when Hartlib began to promote the 'Office of Address and Correspondency'. He had in mind an instrument for the communication of commercial and technical knowledge, research and innovation, experimentation, employment and education. In some respects it was rather like its namesake, the 'Bureau d'Adresse', established by the French Protestant physician Thi|ophraste Renaudot in Paris. Hartlib had known of its existence since at least 1639. He hoped for official patronage but, although he received some reimbursement and had Mends in influential places in the Commonwealth government, his scheme was never officially endorsed. Instead, he put together an impressive network of correspondents and, aided by a Latin secretary and several copyists, turned his small residence at Dukes Place - later he would move to Axe Yard, near Chafing Cross - into a free intellectual exchange.

Not for nothing would one of his North American correspondents describe Hartlib as at 'the Hub of the Axletree of Knowledge'. Letters, manuscripts, requests for information, digests of the latest inventions were summarised, copied and sent out again from Hartlib's office on the most diverse range of subjects: astronomy, optics, magnetism, the reform of agriculture, commerce, the banking system, colonisation, cryptography, universal language, chemistry, medicine, the millennium - the complete list would be a long one. Through his office, Hartlib solicited information which formed the basis of his numerous (generally anonymous) collective publications and promoted the development of new ideas and inventions.

There had always been a predictably sceptical reaction to some of the larger ambitions and practical endeavours of Hartlib's circle, even amongst his contemporaries. These reactions grew rapidly stronger after the Restoration. In a very different intellectual and.political climate it was easy to sneer at both the supposed naivety of his ideals and the practical failure of the innovations with which he was associated.

By the 1680s, when John Evelyn was composing his diary, he remembered an afternoon with Hartlib, the 'master of innumerable curiosities', as involving no more than the demonstration of a smoky stove and an ingenious sort of carbon paper. Hartlib's own, more contemporary diary gives us a different account of the meeting, and one which reveals the inevitable error of parallax between the two periods. In his Ephemerides, he recalls Evelyn's visit to his house and their planning enthusiastically together a natural history of mechanical arts in which Evelyn was keen to be a leading contributor. It is the overlying patina of Restoration science which has made the rediscovery of the world of Samuel Hartlib so difficult.

That rediscovery is a twentieth-century phenomenon. In some important respects, it is still under way. It began with the chance discovery of the remains of Hartlib's vast enterprise in a London solicitor's office. The seventy-two extant bundles were discovered there in a chest in 1933 by George Turnbull who Was then Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield. In its library, this chest and these papers now 'reside. They have, of course, been the subject of several scholarly studies since their discovery, notably by Turnbull himself and then, subsequently, by Charles Webster, whose work The Great Instauration (1973) is the foundation upon which all modern studies of the papers must build. Yet the range of topics touched on in the collection and the density of the material summarised in it defies the capacity of any one scholar; and the kinds of questions asked of such an archive are always changing.

This is why, in 1988, the Hartlib Papers Project was inaugurated with the financial support and under the auspices of the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust. The objective of the project was to transcribe the totality of the collection .and establish it as an electronic archive. Five years later the project is nearing completion. Over 20,000 folios of documents have been transcribed by a team of assistants. 120 megabytes of electronic data, approaching 20 million words, are now being checked against the originals, prior to their being published alongside electronic fascimiles of the originals on CDROM. The latest in text-based retrieval technology is being employed to enable scholars to interrogate this huge database powerfully and quickly without limiting or directing the kinds of topic and question which they might seek to ask.

The project began using the software called, appropriately, ASKSAM. Now it has become a pioneer in applying a program entitled TOPIC to large text and image-based data in the humanities. It incorporates advanced techniques for searching large bodies of electronic data with remarkable speed. Through it, digitalised images of the original documentation can be linked to transcriptions of the documents. These transcriptions can be searched by linked search-terms in which each term can be weighted according to an indiVidual user's particular interests. In this fashion, material relating to a particular subject can be readily located from the huge variety of documentation and even viewed in facsimile. So, for example, although the term 'telescope' hardly appears amongst Hartlib's papers, congruent terminology used in the seventeenth century such as 'tube' 'glass' and 'perspective' can be linked together to locate the precise subject area required. Individual topics can then be linked together to pursue a particular topic further. In a curious analogous fashion, the software architecture replicates s)me of the topical logical analysis which the Hartlib circle had first pioneered as a way to the advancement of learning. The exciting result is the creation of an entirely new concept of published edition, one which liberates the text to some degree from the confines of the current editorial practices and prevailing concerns of the period in which it was prepared.

This project will enable us to reassemble many parts of the jigsaw of Europe's fragmented intellectual history at the critical juncture of the mid-seventeenth century. For Hartlib's papers preserve what has often been lost elsewhere. This is particularly the case for Comenius, the 400th anniversary of whose birth was celebrated last year. They also tell us an enormous amount about the informal mechanisms of contact and communication worked at a period just before the foundation of Europe's more formal scientific institutions. So, from Hartlib's papers we can learn about the growth of scientific language, about the development of critical discussion and review, about attitudes to knowledge and its dissemination, and about the formation of the 'virtuoso' culture which would predominate in the period following Hartlib's death.

At a conference hosted in Sheffield last year to coincide with Comenius' anniversary, over 120 delegates, specialists in a wide range of disciplines, came from across the globe to share their findings on these matters. A selection of the results will be published next year by Cambridge University Press in a volume which will coincide with the publication of the first CD-ROM. Both electronic and traditional publication will enable us t.o understand more fully how Hartlib attempted to place England firmly on the axis of the congeries of advanced, urbanised, pluralist, civil societies which ran from northern Italy through the Rhineland to the Netherlands and which proVided a 'countermodel' - intellectually, socially and politically- to the Europe of absolutist states.

There is some satisfaction in imagining that Comenius' dreams of an organic metaphysic of knowledge can, at least to some extent, be recreated within the more modest aspirations of 'interdisciplinarity' of the late-twentieth century and 'through the medium of the computer.


C. Webster, The Great Instauratton (Duckworth, 1975); M. Hunter, Science and Society in Restoration England (Cambridge University Press, 1981); v. Salmon, The Study of Language in Seventeenth-Century England (John Benjamins, 1979); M. Leslie and T. Raylor, Culture and cultivation in Early Modern England. Writing and the Land (Leicester University Press, 1992).

Mark Greengrass is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sheffield and coeditor of Samuel Hartlib and Universal Reformation Studies in Intellectual Communication to be published by Cambridge University Press in June 1994.
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Title Annotation:seventeenth century archivist
Author:Greengrass, Mark
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Biography
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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