Funding Basic Research

by Kieran Healy on August 31, 2003

My gradual progress through the multi-volume Latham and Matthews transcription of The Diary of Samuel Pepys continues. Here we are on February 1st 1664:

bq. Thence to White-Hall, where in the Dukes chamber the King came and stayed an hour or two, laughing at Sir W. Petty, who was there about his boat, and at Gresham College in general … Gresham College he mightily laughed at for spending its time only in weighing of ayre, and doing nothing else since they sat.

William Petty was a fascinating character who is remembered variously as a pioneer in demography and political economy, the man responsible for the first really good map of Ireland and, as we see him here, the designer of a novel “double-bottomed boat” (i.e., a catamaran). Pepys’ editors — who have a great line in dry commentary — chime in with a footnote:

bq. The gibe was of course untrue, and in any case this laughable weighing of air did in fact lead (by way of Newcomen’s steam-engine in Anne’s reign) to the development of steam power. Cf. the similar complaint of a pamphleteer in 1680: “We prize our selves in fruitless Curiosities; we turn our lice and Fleas into Bulls and Pigs by our Magnifying-glasses; we are searching for the World in the Moon with our Telescopes; we send to weigh the Air on the top of Teneriffe … which are voted ingenuities, whilst the Notions of Trade are turned into Ridicule or much out of fashion”.

We also learn that the French Ambassador, “in a despatch to Louis XIV of 25 January/4 February, referred to Petty’s double-bottomed ship as ‘la plus ridicule et inutile machine que l’esprit de l’homme puisse concevoir.'”



Ophelia Benson 08.31.03 at 7:34 pm

Very interesting. Sounds so like Gulliver in Laputa, or a bit farther along like the US Senator Proxmire who loved to laugh at pure research. So heart-warming, how full history is of sniggering Philistines laughing at everything they don’t instantly understand. Charles II and Charles III, a pair of know-nothings mocking their betters. Very tiring.


dsquared 08.31.03 at 10:22 pm

Petty was also the first really good theorist of taxation, and the first good British economist.

I’ve just realised that I ought to have posted a proper “hiatus” announcement by the way; I’m on holiday at the moment.


nick sweeney 08.31.03 at 10:35 pm

Actually, Petty’s view is better contextualised when you appreciate that he, together with Oxonian sparkle Thomas Willis, was responsible for the ‘resurrection’ of Anne Green back in 1650 when he was in his late twenties. He was a 17th-century anatomist, a hands-on type: one of those in that generation which remained sceptical of the formalisation of ‘experimental philosophy’, even as his colleagues embraced the opportunities that rose from the transition from ad hoc study groups in Oxford and London to the more formal organisations of Gresham College and the Royal Society. And I get the feeling that he didn’t particularly fit in with the clubbable world of science in the 1660s. Hence his decision to apply his abilities in other fields.

What was Planck’s comment? ‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grow up that is familiar with it.’


Dell Adams 09.01.03 at 1:44 am


marcy 09.01.03 at 3:58 am

Claire Tomalin’s biography of Pepys is excellent and fills in much of the information about his life and times on either side of the diary

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