Huygens Family

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HUYGENS FAMILY. Influential in Dutch politics and culture, the Huygens family served the House of Orange, and thus, its political fortunes rose and fell with those of its patrons. Christiaan the Elder (15511624) served William of Orange (William the Silent; 15331584) until the latter's assassination, at which point he became secretary to the Council of State that oversaw the newly formed United Provinces of the Netherlands. His firstborn, Maurits (15951642), was secretary to William's successor, Maurits (15671625), and then the council; his second son, Constantijn (15961687), was secretary to Maurits's younger brother Frederik Hendrik (15841647), then the latter's son William II (16261650), and finally to the council. During the 1640s, as the princes of Orange consolidated power in the United Provinces, Constantijn enjoyed immense authority and accumulated the lands and monies that go with such a relationship. Conversely, during the minority of William III (16501702), with the government controlled by the Republicans and the Orangists in disarray, Constantijn concentrated on the young prince's education and made sure that his eldest son, Constantijn, Jr. (16271697), eventually became William's secretary. When a grown William regained power during war with France (1672) and moved to England to share the throne (1689), Constantijn, Jr., followed. Because William III had no brothers, Constantijn's younger sons had no parallel patrons to serve, even though their father had trained them for civil service. Indeed, the youngest, Philips (16331657), died while on a diplomatic mission. The third son, Lodewijk (16311699), did remain in politics, serving in minor positions and embarrassing the family in a bribery scandal. Constantijn's second son, Christiaan (16291695), made early contact with the scientific communities on both sides of the English Channel while traveling as a diplomatic clerk, even being elected the first foreign member of the Royal Society of London during one such trip in 1663. In 1666 Christiaan abandoned the family profession to follow his natural talent as a scientist, going to Paris to lead the newly formed Académie Royale des Sciences of Louis XIV (ruled 16431715).

Constantijn Huygens, poet, musician, and patron, lived a full life outside of politics. Tutored at home in languages, music, mathematics, and logic, he spent 16161617 studying law at Leiden before setting off as clerk in the diplomatic missions that would foster his career. Repeated visits to England (in 1622 he was even knighted) broadened his early training by exposing him to the experimental science of Francis Bacon (15611626) and Cornelius Drebbel (15721633). Enamored of John Donne's (15721631) poetry, he translated nineteen poems into Dutch even before they had been published in English. Today Constantijn is primarily remembered as one of the leading poets of the Dutch Golden Age, who contributed to the growth of the Dutch language through his verses, such as those included in the collection he called his "cornflowers" (Korenbloemen, 1658). His works range from birthday poems to a comic play (Trijntje Cornelis, 1653) to epic autobiographies (Daghwerck [1638; A day's work], and De Vita Propria Sermonum inter Liberos Libri Duo [1678]). He was a member of the Muiden Circle that gathered around the great Dutch poet and historian Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft (15811647), discussing literature and setting style. A noted composer (only his Pathodia Sacra et Profana survive) and musician, Constantijn argued for the reintroduction of the organ into the Reformed Church. He befriended René Descartes (15961650) when the philosopher settled in Holland during the 1640s, and the two seem to have formed a mutual admiration society. As the arbiter of court patronage, he encouraged the artistic careers of Rembrandt van Rijn (16061669) and Jan Lievens (16071674). Throughout his life he maintained a dilettante's interest in science, particularly the work of his son.

Christiaan Huygens, mathematician, physicist, astronomer, and inventor, was one of the leading scientists of the seventeenth century, most particularly as a founder of the field of applied mathematics. Educated at home, he demonstrated his analytical prowess early on by extending results in classical mathematics, particularly the work of Archimedes, including developing an improved method for determining pi. At the University of Leiden, he studied with Frans van Schooten (c. 16151660) and contributed to the latter's Geometria, a codification of Descartes's mathematics. He accepted the basic principles of Cartesian physics throughout his life but was frequently at odds with the particulars. Thus, he always believed that mechanical theory must be rooted in explanations involving matter in relative motion, but his first major study on moving bodies disproved Descartes's fundamental rules for collisions. Likewise, he opposed the Cartesian explanation of refraction and of the speed of light. On the other hand, he continued to seek a vortex explanation of gravity, even after Isaac Newton (16421727) had undermined Descartes's theory in the Principia. He never achieved his own unified mathematical system of the world, even though he had written many treatises that mathematically analyzed physical problems. Thus, when he invented the first accurate pendulum clock and developed an improved version that made the bob follow a cycloidal path, his description of the successor is wrapped in an elegant theory of curves called evolutes that proved why it was theoretically precise (Horologium Oscillatorium, 1673). Likewise, when he developed his wave theory of light, its justification was a mathematical extension of evolutes to the phenomenon of double refraction, including his assertion, now called the Huygens Principle, that a wave front is the curve (envelope) that is tangent to all the secondary waves emanating pointwise from along the previous front (Traité de la lumière [1690; Treatise on light]). But, although he discovered Saturn's largest moon, Titan (1658), and explained that Saturn's odd appearance could be accounted for by a ring (Systema Saturnium [1659; The system of Saturn]), he never mathematically extended this early work to an analysis of planetary systems, even though he worked extensively on the problem of circular motion. He wrote a treatise on expectations in probability, contributed to the discussions that led to the calculus, designed telescopes and ground their lenses with his older brother, and participated in the development of the air pump, spiral spring watch, and microscope. Unfortunately, many important works only appeared posthumously, including a massive treatise on the refraction of light through lenses (Dioptrica, 1703), and a popularization of cosmology written for his older brother in which he speculated on the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Without publications to assert his priority, his influence depended on his correspondence network, and much of what he accomplished was unwittingly redone by others. Nevertheless, both Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716) considered him the most important precursor of their own work in physics and mathematics.

See also Academies, Learned ; Astronomy ; Bacon, Francis ; Clocks and Watches ; Cosmology ; Descartes, René ; Donne, John ; Dutch Literature and Language ; Dutch Republic ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Mathematics ; Newton, Isaac ; Optics ; Physics ; Rembrandt van Rijn ; Scientific Instruments ; Scientific Method ; Scientific Revolution ; Technology .


Primary Sources

Huygens, Christiaan. The Celestial Worlds Discover'd. Translated by Timothy Childe, 1698. Reprint, London, 1968. Translation of Cosmotheōros (1698).

. Oeuvres complètes de Christiaan Huygens. 22 vols. Edited by a committee of Dutch scholars. The Hague, 18881950.

. The Pendulum Clock or Geometrical Demonstrations Concerning the Motion of Pendula as Applied to Clocks. Translated by Richard J. Blackwell. Ames, Ia., 1986. Translation of Horologium Oscillatorium (1673).

Huygens, Constantijn. De gedichten van Constantijn Huygens. 9 vols. Edited by J. A. Worp. Groningen, Netherlands, 18921899.

. A Selection of the Poems of Sir Constantijn Huygens (15961687). Translated by Peter Davidson and Adriaan van der Weel. Amsterdam, 1996.

Secondary Sources

Bos, H. J. M., et al. Studies on Christiaan Huygens: Invited Papers from the Symposium on the Life and Work of Christiaan Huygens. Amsterdam, 2225 August 1979. Lisse, Netherlands, 1980.

Colie, Rosalie L. "Some Thankfulnesse to Constantine": A Study of English Influence upon the Early Works of Constantijn Huygens. The Hague, 1956.

Daley, Koos. The Triple Fool: A Critical Evaluation of Constantijn Huygens' Translations of John Donne. Nieuwkoop, Netherlands, 1990.

Yoder, Joella G. Unrolling Time: Christiaan Huygens and the Mathematization of Nature. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1988.

Joella G. Yoder

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Huygens Family

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