Steel-soled shoes

October 18, 2010

In March 1685 the librarian Henri Justel wrote from Paris to the Royal Society in London, with a description of a new ‘Engine that consumes smoak & prevents all sorts of the most foetid things cast into the fire’. Enclosed within the letter was an advertisement describing the machine, below which was printed a second advertisement, for ‘Semelles d’Acier’ – steel soles for the shoes.

Leur usage este d’empechere de sentir la dureté du pavé, de l’Estrie & des pointes des Pierres, & de tenir le pied en estat si foiblesque le soient les Soulier

Justel’s report was read aloud at the next Royal Society meeting on 10 March, 1685/6, and duly recorded in the Society journal book, which mentions

steel soles for shoes wch are made very light and yet preserve the feet from the inequality of the Pavemt and sharpness of the stones.

The shift, in the Society’s translation, from the ‘dureté’, or hardness, of the pavement, to its ‘inequalities’, could imply that pedestrians experienced different problems with the climate, terrain or architecture in different urban surroundings: problems which were common to the inhabitants of each place. In this case, the advert might show an interest on the part of virtuosic communities in London and Paris – the ‘scavans et curieux’, mentioned in the blurb – not only to make methodological leaps and theoretical distinctions, but also to develop (and profit from) practical innovations along the lines of everyday life – like the story, probably apocryphal, that Newton invented the cat-flap.

But the bill does not appeal to a sense of shared experience – the environment is particularised rather than shared, and the Society’s translation of the advertisement literally offers a way for those with sufficient means to make the ground more equal for themselves than for others.

And the predicament, which is located where the body makes contact with the solid world, is described in different forms elsewhere in seventeenth-century texts, such as in the following account from Robert Boyle’s History of the Air (1692). Boyle’s informant is ‘an Ingenious Gentleman’, who, experiencing inhospitable terrain, suggests a cheaper but more exhausting solution:

in the Island of St Louis, or near it, at a certain Season of the Year, when hot winds blew from the Continent, the Sand on the Shores would be so scorching hot, that he was not able to stand upon it, but it would, through the Soles of his Shoes, scorch his Feet, unless he walked very fast.


It has often been noted how the first images of Earth from space drastically changed our perspective of the planet. But a similar perspective was imagined by Richard Bentley in the eighth sermon he delivered against atheism in December 1692.

In the tenth section of the sermon Bentley responded to a quotation from Lucretius, who had — amidst an apparent description of the inhospitability of the planet — advanced the contention that ‘in no way for us the power of gods / Fashioned the world and brought it into being; / So great the fault with which it stands endowed’ (On the Nature of the Universe, trans. Sir Ronald Melville, book V, 197-9).

Bentley responded to this by beginning:

some men are out of Love with the features and mean of our Earth; they do not like this rugged and irregular Surface, these Precipices and Valleys and the gaping Channel of the Ocean. This with them is Deformity, and rather carries the face of a Ruin or a rude and indigested Lump of Atoms that casually convened so, than a Work of Divine Artifice. They would have the vast Body of a Planet to be as elegant and round as a factitious Globe represents it; to be every where smooth and equable, and as plain as the Elysian Fields.

He continues to ask upon what grounds men structure these objections and complaints about the earth, and it is here that he asks the reader to imagine, via mathematics, how the earth would look if one viewed it from space. He first imagines the horror of viewing the dry ocean from space, and how marked it would be from normal land. Secondly, he images the ocean bed to appear as normal land if it was covered with vegetation. He imagines how a man would not be able to distinguish the middle of the ocean from normal earth if this were so:

Why, if we suppose the Ocean to be dry, and that we look down upon the empty Channel from some higher Region of the Air, how horrid and ghastly and unnatural would it look? Now admitting this Supposition; Let us suppose too that the Soil of this dry Channel were covered with Grass and Trees in manner of the Continent, and then see what would follow. If a man could be carried asleep and placed in the very middle of this dry Ocean; it must be allowed, that he could not distinguish it from the inhabited Earth. For if the bottom should be unequal with Shelves and Rocks and Precipices and Gulfs; these being now apparel’d with a vesture of Plants, would only resemble the Mountains and Valleys that he was accustomed to before.

Because the contours of the ocean would be so subtle (i.e. like a large valley raher than a steep chasm), the man would not be able to note the difference. He would need to be carried up into the air:

So that to make this Man sensible what a deep Cavity he was placed in; he must be carried so high in the Air, till he could see at one view the whole Breadth of the Channel, and so compare the depression of the Middle with the elevation of the Banks. But then a very small skill in Mathematicks is enough to instruct us, that before he could arrive to that distance from the Earth, all the inequality of Surface would be lost to his View: the wide Ocean would appear to him like an even and uniform Plane (uniform as to its Level, though not as to Light and Shade) though every Rock of the Sea was as high as the Pico of Teneriff.

Bentley does allow for the possibility of such a perspective that would allow a view of the contours of an empty ocean, but, with that perspective not available, dismisses as futile the act of imagining it, and of following those imaginings to atheism:

But though we should grant, that the dry Gulf of the Ocean would appear vastly hollow and horrible from the top of a high Cloud: yet what a way of reasoning is this from the freaks of Imagination, and impossible Suppositions? Is the Sea ever likely to be evaporated by the Sun, or to be emptied with Buckets? Why then must we fancy this impossible dryness; and then upon that fictitious account calumniate Nature, as deformed and ruinous and unworthy of a Divine Author?

The Growth of Metal

June 18, 2009

In 1674 Robert Boyle published his Hidden Qualities of the Air in which he demonstrated the existence of said hidden qualities  with the example of metals which had been extracted from mines and exposed to the air, and which had grown, or multiplied. Boyle does not argue the point adroitly, but instead prefers to include several testimonials (what he calls observations) from people who have seen metals multiplying in the air. The first is this:

Observations about the growth of tin

AN ancient Owner of Mines, being asked by me, Whether he could, otherwise than upon the Conjectures of vulgar Tradition, prove, that Minerals grow even after the Veins have been dug? Answer’d affirmatively; and being desired to let me know his proofs, he gave me these that follow.

He told me, that not far from his House there was a Tin-Mine, which the old Diggers affirm’d to have been left off, some said eighty, some an hundred & twenty years ago, because they had by their washing and vanning separated all the Ore from the rest of the Earth, and yet of late years they found it so richly impregnated with Metalline Particles, that it was wrought over again with very good profit, and preferr’d to some other Mines that were actually wrought, and had never been so robb’d. And when I objected, that probably this might proceed from the laziness and unskilfulness of Workmen in those times, who left in the Earth the Tin that was lately separated, and might then have been so; I was answer’d, that ’twas a known thing in the Country, that in those times the Mine-men were more careful and laborious to separate the Metalline part from the rest of the Ore, than now they are.

He also affirmed to me, that in his own time some Tenants and Neighbours of his (imploy’d by him) having got all the Ore they could out of a great quantity of stuff, dug out of a Tin-Mine, they laid the remains in great heaps expos’d to the Air, and within twenty and thirty years after, found them so richly impregnated, that they wrought them over again with good benefit.

And lastly he assured me, that, in a Work of his own, wherein he had exercis’d his skill and experience, (which is said to be very great) to separate all the particles of the Tin from the Terrestrial substances, that were dug up with it out of the Vein, he caus’d Dams to be made to stop the Earthy Substance, which the Stream washed away from the Ore, giving passage to the water after it had let fall this Substance, which lying in heaps expos’d to the Air, within ten or twelve years, and sometimes much less, he examin’d this or that heap, and found it to contain such store of Metalline particles, as invited him to work it again and do it with profit. And yet this Gentleman was so dexterous at separating the Metalline from the other parts of Tin-Ore, that I could (not without wonder) see what small Corpuscles he would, to satisfie my Curiosity, sever from vast quantities (in proportion) of Earthy and other Mineral stuff.

Relations agreeable to these, I received from another very ingenious Gentleman that was conversant with Tin-Mines, and lived not far from more than one of them. (pp.3-6)

Boyle continues through lead, iron, silver and gold, mixing testimony from unnamed ingenious gentlemen conversant with metal mining with books and travel reports. There is an article discussing Boyle’s sources online here

Robert Boyle published this title in 1686 ‘to make you the clearest Representation I can, of what Men generally (if they understand themselves) do, or with Congruity to the Axioms they admit and use, ought to conceive Nature to be.’

In it he railed against the Aristotelian, metaphorical styling of nature, writing that, amongst his contemporaries, ‘the vulgar Notion of Nature may be conveniently enough expres’d by some such Description as this.’

Nature is a most wise Being, that does nothing in vain, does not miss of her Ends; does always that which (of the things she can do) is best to be done; and this she does by the most direct or compendious ways, neither employing any things superfluous, nor being wanting in things necessary; she teaches & inclines every one of her Works to preserve it self. And, as in the Microcosm (Man) ’tis she that is the Curer of Diseases, so in the Macrocosm (the World,) for the conservation of the Universe, she abhors a Vacuum, making particular Bodies act contrary to their own Inclinations and Interests, to prevent it, for the publick Good. (pp.58-9)

Boyle then questions the way men talk about Nature as an agent.

It may therefore, in this place, be pertinent to add, That such Phrases, as, that Nature, or Faculty, Suction, doth this or that, are not the only ones, wherein I observe, that Men ascribe to a notional thing, that which, indeed, is perform’d by real Agents; as, when we say, that the Law punishes Murder with Death, that it protects the Innocent, releases a Debtor out of Prison, when he has satisfied his Creditors (and the Ministers of Justice) on which, or the like occasions, we may justly say, That ’tis plain that the Law, which, being in it self a dead Letter, is but a notional Rule, cannot, in a Physical sense, be said to perform these things; but they are really performed by Judges, Officers, Executioners, and other Men, acting according to that Rule. (pp.62-3)