AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXII, No. 1, Spring 2000


Natural Philosophy and Early Physics in the American Philosophical Society Library
by Robert Cox

Please click on any photo to view an enlarged version.

A wind rose from Charles Morton's System of Physicks (image)As the zealots of the new millennium launch headlong into the future, others cling to the past. The manuscript collections of the American Philosophical Society Library, for one, cling to a small, but growing array of materials for those atavists who insist on the relevance of the past, documenting the development of physics from the late 17th through the early 19th centuries. As noted in previous issues of the AIP History Newsletter, the APS houses a number of collections of correspondence or diaries for the study of the physical sciences as they painstakingly metamorphosed from natural philosophy into physics and allied disciplines. There are also a number of manuscript treatises on the subject, for example two European works once owned by Benjamin Franklin: a set of extracts from Benoit de Maillet’s Nouveau Système du Monde (915 pp.), and C.L.B. Wavran’s Essai de physique (397pp.), both from the mid-18th century.

Three works with strong American connections have been recently acquired or properly identified. Perhaps the most exciting of these is a copy of Charles Morton’s System of Physicks (also known as the Compendium Physicae). The son of a Cornish minster, Morton cast his lot with the Puritan radicals during the English Revolution. At Wadham College, Oxford, his associates included Robert Boyle, William Petty, and Christopher Wren, and although Morton was decidely a peripheral figure in their circle, he nevertheless imbibed heavily of the fashionable quaffs of empiricism and rationalism while studying for his bachelor’s (1649) and master’s degrees (1652). During the 1670s and 1680s, he shed the mantle of obscurity for the robes of Puritan controversy, rising to prominence as head of an elite academy at Newington Green. Established as an educational alternative for those excluded from Oxford and Cambridge due to their refusal to swear conformity to the Church of England, the Academy at Newington Green was a paragon of progressive education. For his students, including Samuel Wesley and Daniel Defoe, Morton sought to put into practice the principles he had learned at Oxford—Aristotelianism, the application of scientific logic and rigor, and a staunch piety. Befitting his social and religious views, he taught in the vernacular, preparing brief, but systematic manuscript expositions of each subject which his students were expected to copy out longhand while attempting to master the material. His System of Physicks is the best known of his several systems. For his students’ benefit, Morton ended each chapter with memorable (in fact, mnemonic) rhyming couplets by way of summary. Typical of his poetic style: “In subterraneous caverns winds doe frolick / when Mother Earth is troubled with the Cholick.”

Unloved by the Royal government for his dissent, Morton attracted more positive notice in Puritan-friendly Massachusetts Bay, and in 1685, he agreed to emigrate. Morton’s shadow fell over the Harvard College curriculum, and his System of Physicks became the standard work in natural philosophy used at Harvard (and later Yale) well into the 1720s. Morton’s System became one of the most important vehicles for disseminating the new empirical science of the 17th century in America. Acquired as an unidentified work in the 1950s and identified in 1998, the APS copy of Morton’s System is one of the most complete copies extant.

John Questebrune’s A Short Introduction to Natural Philosophy, 1718-1720, writtenSeventeenth Century Discussion of the optics of the rainbow (image) 35 years later, inevitably bears resemblance to Morton. Questebrune studied at the University College, Dublin, before accepting a position as domestic chaplain to the 6th Earl of Gallway. His system, also intended as a comprehensive view of physical bodies and the forces affecting them, is embellished with even more elaborate pen and ink and watercolor illustrations than Morton’s, and it may have been used for private instruction within the Earl’s home and circle. Like Morton, Questebrune includes study of the earth and human body within the scope of “physics.” While the Questebrune manuscript was written in Kilkenny, Ireland, it has a distinctly American veneer: by 1784 it had been acquired by the well-known Philadelphia botanist, William Hamilton (d.1824), known as a flaming Loyalist during the American Revolution.

The third work is also the product of student labor, but reflects a period in which natural philosophy had become considerably more specialized. It is a volume of notes kept by John Austin Stevens (1795-1874) while a student at Yale in 1812. That year, Stevens attended twenty lectures given by Jeremiah Day (1773-1867), Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy from 1803 until 1817, and later President of the University. For Day, philosophy subtended “knowledge of the nature and reason of things,” but by the time Stevens entered Yale, natural philosophy (as distinct from moral philosophy, which Day later taught) had rid itself of the animal body. The primary significance of this volume of notes may lie as much in documenting scientific education at Yale at a time when that university was at the forefront in introducing science into the college curriculum.

For more information, contact Robert S. Cox, Manuscripts Librarian, American Philosophical Society, 105 S. Fifth St., Philadelphia, PA 19106 (215) 440-3409,

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