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Beeckman, Isaac

Beeckman, Isaac

(b. Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands, 10 December 1588; d. Dordrecht, Netherlands, 19 May 1637)

physics, mechanics.

In preparation for a career in the Reformed Church, Beeckman studied letters, philosophy, and theology. As a student at Leiden from 1607 to 1610 he came into contact with the Ramist philosopher Rudolph Snell and his son Willebrord. He continued his ministerial studies at Saumur in 1612; in the interim he had privately studied mathematics and nautical science and had learned Hebrew, in Amsterdam, from the Brownist Ainsworth. After he had completed his studies, Beeckman entered his father’s factory, which made candles and water conduits for various purposes, as an apprentice. When his apprenticeship was over, he pursued the same trade in Zierikzee, on the isle of Schouwen, Zeeland, which provided him easy access to the equipment required for experiments in combustion, pumping, and hydrodynamics. In addition to all this, Beeckman found time to study medicine—he received the M.D. from Caen in 1618—although he never practiced it.

In 1618–1619 Beeckman was conrector (assistant headmaster) of the Latin school in Veere, on the island of Walcheren, his brother Jacob being headmaster. While there, he made astronomical observations with Philip van Lansbergen, a well–known Copernican astronomer. In 1619–1620 Beeckman was conrector in Utrecht; he later filled the same position in Rotterdam, once again under his brother’s rectorship. In Rotterdam he founded a Collegium Mechanicum, a society of craftsmen and scholars who occupied themselves with scientific problems, especially those that had technological applications.

In 1627 Beeckman was appointed rector of the Latin school at Dordrecht, which under his direction grew to 600 students and became the best school in the Netherlands. There, in 1628, with the help of the magistrate he established the first meteorological station in Europe, recording wind velocity and direction, rainfall, and temperature, and making astronomical observations with his former pupil Martinus Hortensius and the Reformed minister Andreas Colvius. Among his students were Frederick Stevin, the son of Simon Stevin; Jan de Witt, who became Grand Pensionary of Holland; and George Ent, who was one of the first adherents of Harvey and one of the first members of the Royal Society. Beeckman also planned a series of lectures on physics and mathematics, to be given in the vernacular, “for the benefit of carpenters, bricklayers, skippers, and other burghers.”1 He made experiments in physics and was the unsalaried adviser to the burgomasters on water regulation. Some of the greatest French philosophers went to Dordrecht to see him—Descartes made the trip in 1628 and 1629, Gassendi (who called Beeckman “the best philosopher I have met up to now”) in 1629, and Mersenne in 1630. (Beeckman had first met Descartes at Breda in 1618; Descartes wrote his Compendium musicae for him and recognized that he had never before met one who so closely connected physics with mathematics.) He was an early proponent of the application of a mathematical method in physics; in his inaugural address at Dordrecht (1627) he said that he would introduce his pupils into “the true, that is the mathematical-physical, philosophy.” Nevertheless, he emphasized the necessity of using experiments to check deductions.

Beeckman was a progressive thinker. He accepted the Copernican hypothesis, although with due reservations, and also the conceptions of the infinity of the universe and of atoms and the void. He became an early adherent of the doctrine of circulation of the blood, of which he learned from Ent. His work in astronomy, mechanics, and engineering was strongly influenced by that of Simon Stevin and Willebrord Snell. His early espousal of the corpuscular theory of matter was inspired mainly by the ancient engineers Hero of Alexandria and Vitruvius, by the physician Asclepiades, and, to a lesser extent, by Lucretius—in keeping with these diverse models, Beeckman’s approach to this subject was undogmatic.

As early as 1613, Beeckman, rejecting any internal cause of motion, put forward a principle of inertia for both circular and rectilinear movement: When there is no impediment, there is no reason why velocity and curvature of movement should be altered. He stated that in collision the total quantity of movement remains the same, and deduced different laws for elastic and nonelastic bodies. In 1618 he worked out the law of uniformly accelerated movement of bodies falling in vacuo by combining his law of inertia with the hypothesis that the earth discontinuously attracts falling bodies by tiny impulses. On this basis he found the correct relation between time and space traversed: the distances are as the squares of the times. (“It was Beeckman who went beyond Oresme and Galileo by introducing sound infinitesimal considerations into Oresme’s ‘triangular’ proof” [Clagett, 1961].) When the first impulse imparts the velocity v, the space traversed in the first moment t will be vt; in the second moment the effect of another impulse will be added to the continuing motion acquired in the first moment, so that double the space, i.e., 2vt, will be traversed, Consequently, in n moments the total space traversed will be (in algebraic notation)

In a time twice as long, the space will be 2n(2n + 1)/2vt. That is, the distances traversed will be as n(n + 1)/2 is to 2n(2n + 1)/2, that is, as (n + 1) is to (4n + 2). If the moments are supposed to be infinitely small, and n is supposed to be infinitely great, the proportion will be as 1:4.

Beeckman was a professional scholar as well as a craftsman; consequently his experimental work was as concerned with purely scientific inquiry as with practical applications. Many of the procedures he describes are thought experiments; in other instances, however, he carried out the actual manipulations and made the measurements requisite to formulating the phenomenal law. In 1615, for example, Beeckman determined experimentally the law of the velocity of the outflow of water (usually attributed to Torricelli): The quantity of water passing through a hole in the bottom of a vessel varies as the square root of the height of the water column. He also gave experimental proof that water cannot be changed into air (as was then generally believed) and added a discussion of the errors possible in the procedure that he used. In 1626 he determined the relation between pressure and volume in a measured quantity of air, and discovered that pressure increases in a degree slightly greater than the diminution of the volume. Beeckman attributed the ascent of water in a pump tube not to the “horror of a vacuum,” nor yet to the “weight” of the atmosphere, but rather to the pressure of the air.

Francis Bacon’s works were known to Beeckman as early as 1623. He made both appreciative and devastating comments on the experiments contained in the Historia experimentalis: he agreed that heat is a kind of motion, but thought that Bacon “talks nonsense when saying that water can be transformed into air” and that he “wrongly” believed that refrigeration was always followed by contraction, even when water is turned to ice.2Sylva sylvarum gave, in Beeckman’s opinion, “dubious arguments” of the experiments described.3 He stated the weakness of Bacon’s natural philosophy, saying that Bacon did not know how to relate mathematics to physics.4

In 1627 Beeckman learned of Gilbert’s work; he deemed much of it conformable to his own findings but rejected “internal magnetical force” as the motive power of the earth, holding that the earth is subject to inertial motion in empty space. Beeckman himself offered a purely mechanistic explanation of magnetism; believing only in action by contact, he rejected the notion of any attractive force. He deemed arguments based on simplicity or beauty (as those of Copernicus and Kepler) to be of “no value,” and condemned the idea that the earth should possess intelligence and a soul (as set forth by Gilbert and Kepler) as “unworthy of a philosopher.”5 Beeckman found only mechanistic explanations satisfactory, since only they “put things as it were sensible before the imagination.” When Colvius informed him of Galileo’s theory of tides, Beeckman considered it a strong argument for the rotation of the earth, but suggested first making a mechanical model to test it.6

Beeckman was no more uncritical of his own atomistic philosophy than he was of the theories of others. He confessed to having an irrefutable “argument against all atomists, and accordingly against myself”: while the absolute solidity and incompressibility of true atoms exclude their resilience after collision, their deflection is indeed observable in a multitude of phenomena, so that “it seems that the doctrine of atoms is fundamentally overthrown by these phenomena.” It was therefore necessary to accept the idea of flexible primary particles—even though their properties might be unintelligible—since the scholastic explanations of elasticity were even more incomprehensible.7

Beeckman’s approach to scientific theorizing therefore clearly demonstrates the difference between his method and the more rationalistic one of Descartes. Beeckman’s conceptions were formalized before his meeting with Descartes, and the two were to differ on many questions (for instance, Beeckman held that light is propagated with a finite velocity). Descartes and Mersenne certainly read Beeckman’s diary, however, and Gassendi knew his ideas. Beeckman may thus be considered “a link of the highest importance in the history of the evolution of scientific ideas.”8


1.Journal, II, 455.

2.Ibid., 476.

3.Ibid., III, 57.

4.Ibid., 51.

5.Ibid., 17.

6.Ibid., 171, 206.

7.Ibid., II. 100–101, 157.

8.Koyré, p. 101.


I. Original Works. Beeckman’s dissertation for his M.D. is Theses de febre tertiana intermittente... (Caen, 1618). D. Isaaci Beeckmanni medici et rectoris apud Dordracenos mathematico-physicarum meditationum, quaestionum, solutionum centuria (Utrecht, 1644) is a selection of Beeckman’s notes, which was published by his younger brother Abraham. Of major importance is Journal tenu par Isaac Beeckman de 1604 à 1634, with notes and introduction by C. de Waard, 4 vols. (The Hague, 1939–1953). This work (in Latin and Dutch) is valuable because de Waard’s notes are based largely on sources destroyed in World. War II. Vol. IV contains some of Beeckman’s discourses and documents relating to his life and work.

II. Secondary Literature. Beeckman’s work is dealt with in E. J. Dijksterhuis, Val en Worp (Groningen, 1924), pp. 304–321; R. Hooykaas, “Science and Religion in the 17th Century; Isaac Beeckman (1588–1637),” in Free University Quarterly, 1 (1951), 169–183; A. Koyré, Études galiléennes, II (Paris, 1939), 25–40; and C. de Waard, L’expérience barométrique (Thouars, 1936), pp. 75–91, 145–168.

R. Hooykaas

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"Beeckman, Isaac." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 20 Aug. 2017 <>.

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Beeckman, Isaac

Isaac Beeckman (bāk´mən), 1588–1637, Dutch physicist. An early proponent of mathematical reasoning and experimental verification in natural philosophy, he contributed to the modern conception of inertia and free fall and discovered an important hydrodynamic law concerning the rate of flow of water from a vessel. Although his recorded scientific work is largely confined to his Journael (diary) and notes, he influenced scientific development through his personal acquaintance with such famous contemporaries as René Descartes, Pierre Gassendi, and Marin Mersenne, and through his rectorship of the Latin school at Dordrecht.

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"Beeckman, Isaac." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 20 Aug. 2017 <>.

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