Cover image for Instruments and the imagination
Instruments and the imagination
Hankins, Thomas L.
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Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [1995]

Physical Description:
xiv, 337 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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Q185 .H25 1995 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Thomas Hankins and Robert Silverman investigate an array of instruments from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century that seem at first to be marginal to science--magnetic clocks that were said to operate by the movements of sunflower seeds, magic lanterns, ocular harpsichords (machines that played different colored lights in harmonious mixtures), Aeolian harps (a form of wind chime), and other instruments of "natural magic" designed to produce wondrous effects. By looking at these and the first recording instruments, the stereoscope, and speaking machines, the authors show that "scientific instruments" first made their appearance as devices used to evoke wonder in the beholder, as in works of magic and the theater.

The authors also demonstrate that these instruments, even though they were often "tricks," were seen by their inventors as more than trickery. In the view of Athanasius Kircher, for instance, the sunflower clock was not merely a hoax, but an effort to demonstrate, however fraudulently, his truly held belief that the ability of a flower to follow the sun was due to the same cosmic magnetic influence as that which moved the planets and caused the rotation of the earth. The marvels revealed in this work raise and answer questions about the connections between natural science and natural magic, the meaning of demonstration, the role of language and the senses in science, and the connections among art, music, literature, and natural science.

Originally published in 1995.

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Reviews 1

Choice Review

A historical study (1600-1900) is provided of instruments, both those devised to entertain and mystify and those designed to illustrate hidden analogies of nature and to heighten the sensual experience of nature. The sunflower clock of Kircher (1633), dependent on a hidden mechanism, was not seen as a fake but as a legitimate illustration of Aristotelian principles. The magic lantern was for most of its history an instrument of wonder and entertainment, losing its magical quality only recently. An ocular harpsichord (never built) was designed to illustrate an analogy between color and sound. The aeolian harp, a dozen or so tightly strung strings past which a breeze could flow, was analogous to an air prism, producing a spectrum of emotive sounds from a steady breeze. The stereoscope reproduced and even enhanced the three-dimensionality of its pictures, entertaining and raising exciting questions about nature more broadly than computerized "virtual reality" does today. Hankins and Silverman present a detailed, convincing case that a new view of the history of science comes from focusing on instrumentation rather than theory. A major contribution, not just to the history of unusual instruments but to the history of science itself. Upper-division undergraduate through professional. A. B. Stewart; Wright State University

Table of Contents

"This is an important, welcome, and brilliantly executed book...
One of the best available discussions of the ways in which
Renaissance magic was transformed into forms of natural philosophical reasoning."Simon Schaffer