Plate 4 from Americae Retectio
by Johannes Stradanus

Overview

 

In Stradanus's print, Magellan sits absorbed by his calculations and the instruments before him. His calculations with the compass and armillary sphere allow him to steer a course through the terrors of the deep and the novelties of the new lands surrounding his ship (which is also prominently equipped with cannon). Instrument making assumed new importance in this period for such disciplines as navigation, measuring, surveying, and cartography. The makers of instruments, as well as associated practitioners, such as mathematicians and mapmakers, came to occupy a new place in the production of knowledge. Instruments were used to contain, guide, and discipline observation and experience.

The desire to order experience and observation can be viewed in tandem with the emergence of early modern states, which increasingly demonstrated their power through such diverse means as horticulture, navigation, warfare, hydraulic engineering, and cartography. In the process, the unruly natural world came instead to be considered ordered, predictable, and quantifiable—in short, capable of scientific analysis.

But what is science? How do people construct scientific knowledge? How are the objects of science constructed? How is this scientific knowledge distributed or deployed? Chandra Mukerji has argued that knowledge is a social and local construction shared by people in a given community. She uses the concept of "distributed cognition" as a model for thinking about the construction of material objects, disciplines, and bodies of knowledge. The model of distributed cognition rejects the traditional idea of the individual genius and recognizes that both disciplines and material constructions are usually produced through the input of many different individuals with widely diverse backgrounds and knowledge bases. For example, Mukerji has described such a process in her study of the building of the Canal du Midi, a great canal in southwest France that ran from Toulouse on the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean and was built between 1660 and the 1680s during the reign of the "Sun King" Louis XIV. Diverse individuals with different kinds of expertise and practices—such as a tax collectors, local surveyors, and engineers from Paris—made the construction of the canal and a body of engineering and cartographic knowledge simultaneously possible.

Because instruments and maps convey and shape knowledge and so transform human practice, they too are part of the construction of scientific knowledge. The example of the astrolabe, an instrument used for observing the altitudes and positions of celestial bodies, may serve. This instrument was long used by astronomers. When the location of celestial bodies came to be useful for ascertaining the position of ships in oceanic voyages, it was adopted for navigation. Thus the astrolabe organized a network of practitioners who distributed and used navigational and cosmographical knowledge. Of course, astrolabes and maps embodied the biases and cultural presuppositions of their makers. In effect, they determined how their users should view the world.

The new experiences provided by transoceanic navigation also called for new instruments, and Europeans' perception of the world informed their development. For example, navigators realized that the magnetic north pole was not in the same place as the geographic north pole. Called magnetic variation, the phenomenon drove instrument-makers and theoreticians to develop new instruments based on compasses as well as new and better explanations of those compasses' behavior. Addressing such problems, navigators like Robert Norman and William Borough explained how compass-based instrumentation could get mariners to and from their destination reliably, and other investigators like William Gilbert explicated the behavior and properties of the magnet itself in De Magnete (1600).

These navigators developed maps of their own, and additional maps were generated at court from navigators' reports. The two types of maps were rarely the same, but both kinds of maps came to be political statements. The omissions from maps are often more telling than the inclusions, as countries tried to protect their discoveries or as political or ideological situations dictated.

The production of maps of new lands and new oceans is perhaps the area in which the disciplining of experience and the rise of European states converges most forcefully. The numerous maps that appeared in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were also created within the context of specific national and/or commercial contexts (e.g., Spain or the Dutch East India Company). The cartographical enterprise was a product of collaborations among mathematicians, geographers, navigators, and sailors. But the cooperation of various disciplines does not add up to objectivity. Recent scholarship has reassessed, or even fundamentally questioned, the objectivity of maps. Social forces influence cartography, and it may be more useful to ask how pre-modern maps functioned as tools for navigators, merchants, and princes, than to label them (accurately) as inaccurate.

The quantification of nature was another central arena for the ordering of experience, and "mathematical" instruments, as they came to be called, performed this translation of messy nature to orderly number. Jim Bennett's work makes clear that instruments in the sixteenth century were devised to accomplish certain specific goals within the tasks of practical mathematics, such as surveying a field or piloting a ship; they were not intended to model the world or demonstrate new theoretical principles. By the mid-seventeenth century, however, mathematical instruments began uncovering truths about nature that were not previously available to natural philosophers. Mathematical instrument makers then began making claims about natural philosophy, a place, as Bennett remarked, "they had no right to go." One of the first such claimants was Robert Norman. His Newe Attractive included machines that Bennett has characterized as early philosophical machines, that is, machines constructed to test or demonstrate principles that make claims about the nature of the world. An example is Norman's "dip circle," an instrument made to investigate geomagnetism. Mathematical instruments and their makers moved wholesale into such pursuits in the seventeenth century, led by individuals such as Robert Hooke (1635-1703), who fused the mechanical and the theoretical into a new form of natural philosophy. In the process, a mechanical explanation of nature emerged, particularly in the work of the English natural philosophers who would form the Royal Society.

Thus what we now call experimental science arose in part from the commingling of various disciplines of experience, including practitioners with their utilitarian instruments and theoreticians concerned with the composition and workings of nature. Each transgressed into pursuits where "they had no right to go."