Newton’s Great Promoter

Most people have heard of Sir Isaac Newton, though most are vague on the details of his theories on gravity etc. But his work was written in Latin and they were incredibly complex and hard to comprehend, even by his fellow scientists. But they were understood by French born vicar John Theophilus Desaguliers who devised a series of experiments to demonstrate Newton’s ideas, so brought them to a much wider audience. He also translated them into French, and translated European works into English, so encouraged the exchange of ideas between England and the continent which helped pave the way for the expansion of science and education which paved the way for the industrial revolution.

Desaguliers was also important in establishing modern Freemasonry both in Britain and on the Continent. In its early days it was not the secret society often attributed to it today, but a gentleman’s club similar to many others, but devoted to the spread of knowledge, especially that of masonry and building skills, but education and knowledge in the wider sense. Like many clubs and societies formed in England at the end of the 17th century, it played an important role in bringing together people with different religious and political ideas, so helping to rebuild society after the strife of the Civil War.

But Desagulliers did much much more. He became the first public demonstrator of science for the Royal Society, and went to Bath to demonstrate the eclipse of the sun in May 1724, instigating the provincial tours of a wide range of scientists, bringing cutting edge research to isolated communities, and encouraging anyone who could afford admittance to see science as a spectacle, so encouraged them to try their hand at improving whatever tools or equipment they had to hand.

Desaguliers’ protege was Charles Labelye, a Swiss clockmaker who became surveyor for Westminster Bridge, the first bridge to be built across the Thames for several centuries.  Desagulliers was consultant on the construction and his own home, where he held lectures and had a large collection of models and curiosities, was demolished to make way for the access to the bridge. So he was the primary civil engineer in the country. He collaborated with clockmakers such as James Graham, and natural philosophers, supporting and promoting each others’ work.

But he was no bore. He travelled widely, enjoyed good company and wrote plays and poems.

So why is he not better known? He did not actually discover or invent anything – his life was mostly spent promoting the work of others. He also tested and improved ideas and technologies of others. He was interested in subjects from smoking shimneys to draining land, fountains and fireworks and much much more. He is well known by freemasons, so this tends to put people off him. He seems to have done well financially, with church livings, wages from the Royal Society and patronage from the great Duke of Chandos and others, but he used much of his money making expensive instruments such as orrerries so was not a member of the chattering classes.

He played a huge role in creating our modern world. and as with many innovative people, his heirs followed in his steps. His youngest son Thomas became a respected artillery officer, the first chief fire officer at Woolwich, the first Royal Artillery officer to be elected fellow of the Royal Society, and contributed fireworks to the first performance of Handel’s Fireworks Music. He married a granddaughter of Sir Cloudsley Shovel. One of his descendants was Dame Mary Lucy Cartwright (1900-98) a distinguished mathematician  and one of the first women accepted to the Royal Society. Another descendant married James Phillips Kay who published details of terrible working conditions in Lancashire cotton mills.

Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Audrey T. Carpenter John Theophilus Desaguliers A Natural Philosopher, Engineer and Freemason in Newtonian England


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