Today, John Bate's wonderful book. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
We know little of the life of John Bate -- only that he
left us a remarkable book. It was not terribly original -- he mostly copied from
earlier authors. But he was enormously influential, if only for one reader: a
teenage boy named Isaac Newton. Newton was at a small private school where he
boarded with an apothecary.
There he found a copy of Bate's book, >
That was an alchemical-sounding title and Newton was famously interested in alchemy.
The book is broken into sections on waterworks, fireworks, drawing, and chemistry
-- halfway mirroring the alchemical elements. But despite all that, something beyond
alchemy went on between Newton and this book.
Take Bate's "Water-workes" -- a fine collection of hydraulic devices: pumps, water
clocks, early thermometers -- also tricky self-refilling bowls. We find experiments
that demonstrate hydraulic pressure and properties of gases. It starts out looking
like alchemy and quickly turns into solid engineering. Newton spent his limited
pennies on a sheaf of paper, and began copying the book out in tiny letters. He
also built one of Bate's water clocks.
The section on fireworks is very much like those boys' books of
the early 20th-century -- the ones responsible for so many lost eyes and fingers.
Rockets, pipe bombs, torpedoes. Such fun! After reading Bate, Newton sent a black
kite aloft at night carrying a small lantern. He meant to terrify his neighbors with it.
Newton paid special attention to the section on drawing, with all its information about
color. He remained fascinated by -- even obsessed with -- color, throughout his life.
Bate's last section gives us the practical face of alchemy. He titled it Extravagants,
but it was all about chemistry -- both practical and flamboyant. We learn how to make ice
that'll melt in fire, but won't dissolve in water. We learn to make marbled paper,
to cement glass, to plate iron with gold, to sir up an ointment for burns or a plaster
So out of this mish-mash of manual arts, techniques, and lingering patina of renaissance
alchemy, emerged Newton with all his brilliance and contradiction. He was the model of
the new experimental scientist, and a caricature of yesterday's magical alchemy. Of
course, other influences shaped this frustratingly complex, sometimes petty, man. But
here in Bate's book we see all the elements and contradictions of the person Newton would
I wish we had time to turn pages together. Bate's directions for mixing paints alone
would bring OSHA inspectors to our door today -- concoctions of cinnabar, egg yolks,
quicksilver, alum, lead, gum Arabic, and brimstone. And that's not the worst of it.
Yet, out of all this came the same Newton Alexander Pope saw, when he wrote,
"God said, Let Newton be! and all was light."
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. Bates, The Mysteries of Nature and Art. (London: Thomas
Harper for Ralph Mabb, 1634/1635). All illustrations are from this source.
Samples of Bate's book may
be seen online here.
J. Gleick, Isaac Newton. (New York: Pantheon, 2003): Chapter 1.
Many of Bate's hydraulic devices are taken from works of the ancient Hellenistic
engineers. See, for example, Episode 1942.
Right/Above: Image of John Bate on the book's frontispiece.
Below: Title page of Bate's The Mysteries of Nature and Art.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H.