Samuel Hartlib

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HARTLIB, SAMUEL (Samuel Hartlieb; c. 16001662)

HARTLIB, SAMUEL (Samuel Hartlieb; c. 16001662), English reformer. Samuel Hartlib was a scientific "intelligencer" who helped to place England on the map of the emerging Republic of Letters. He was born at Elbing (Elblag) in Poland around 1600 into a distinguished mercantile family, and received an extensive education in Germany and at Cambridge (16251626) under John Preston (15871628), master of Emmanuel College. He retreated to London in 1628 as the Habsburg armies advanced toward the Baltic coast and, after 1630, spent the rest of his life there.

Hartlib began to cultivate his international network of correspondents, assisted by his friend John Dury (15961672), a Calvinist minister whom he had met at Elbing. Together they shared the vision of reconciling Protestant divisions and consorting with a fraternity whose goal was to establish a model Protestant religious community. Hartlib's manuscript diary delineates his obsession for the processes of learning that had already led him to admire and reflect on the works of Francis Bacon. His correspondence with the Czech educational philosopher Jan Amos Comenius (15921670) had begun in 1632, and one of Hartlib's earliest publications was a sketch of pansophy (or encyclopedic learning) that Comenius had sent him. His second, expanded edition of this work (Pansophia Prodromus, 1639), became a prospectus for Comenius in England.

This involvement with Comenius established Hartlib's reputation as an agent of learning. Hartlib believed that Christian solidarity arose out of relations of exchange. God had given all humans a "talent" that should not be "hidden under a bushel" but distributed for the common good. These talents would best be released by a reformation of learning (or Reformation of Schooles as Hartlib entitled his translation of Comenius's Prodromus in 1642). In October 1641, Hartlib published a small utopian treatise entitled Macaria (after an offshore island in Thomas More's Utopia, 1515). Its authorship used to be ascribed to him, but it was evidently written by Gabriel Plattes (16001655). It described a commonwealth in which government and people collaborated in prosperity generated by the practical application of diffused knowledge. Pansophy's ultimate goal was a millennial recovery of the knowledge that humanity had lost after Eden. In a pact signed by Comenius, Hartlib, and Dury on 13 March 1642, they committed themselves to a secret fraternity for the advancement of religious pacification, education, and the reformation of learning. This delineated Hartlib's goals for the rest of his life.

During the English Civil War (16421649), Hartlib stayed in London, acting as an agent for the parliamentary cause. His proposed reformation of learning induced John Milton (16081674) to write his treatise On Education (1644), which he dedicated to Hartlib. Following the parliamentary victory in 1646, Hartlib devoted himself to establishing an "Office of Address" with elements borrowed from a similar agency established in Paris. It was designed as a labor exchange and a means of spreading knowledge on "matters of religion, of learning, and ingenuities." Although never officially instituted, Hartlib was voted an annual pension by the Commonwealth and became "a conduit pipe towards the Publick. . . ." He employed scriveners and translators to copy letters and treatises to others. What is sometimes now called the "Hartlib Circle" was a diverse group of enthusiasts who shared interests in the possibilities of technical change. His surviving papers, rediscovered in London in 1933, testify to the extent of Hartlib's network, although his influence remained mostly behind the scenes. His most visible impact lay in the numerous pamphlets that he published. Their greatest effect was in agriculture, where the advantages of planting new leguminous crops, experimenting with fertilizers and manures, using seed drills and new plows, and advocating the possibilities of apiculture (raising bees) and silk cultivation (in Virginia) were advocated. It is difficult to determine Hartlib's overall impact, because he readily adopted the dominant ideas and language of others and his agenda evolved over time, but his adoption of other people's ideas also involved the perception that, by spreading knowledge, the public good would be served and the coming of the millennium achieved. His commitment to that goal was distinctive, even though it would eventually be carried forward in very different ways after his death by the Royal Society of London.

See also Agriculture ; Bacon, Francis ; Comenius, Jan Amos ; Education ; English Civil War and Interregnum ; English Civil War Radicalism ; Milton, John ; More, Thomas ; Republic of Letters ; Utopia .


Greengrass, M. "Samuel Hartlib and the Commonwealth of Learning." In The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, edited by John Barnard and D. F. McKenzie. Vol. 4, pp. 304322. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

Greengrass, M., and M. P. Leslie, eds. The Hartlib Papers on CD-ROM. 2nd ed. Sheffield, U.K., 2002.

Leslie, Michael, and Timothy Raylor. Culture and Cultivation in Early Modern England: Writing and the Land. Leicester, U.K., 1992.

Turnbull, G. H. Hartlib, Dury, and Comenius: Gleanings from Hartlib's Papers. Liverpool, U.K., 1947.

Webster, Charles. The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine, and Reform, 16261660. London, 1975.

. Samuel Hartlib and the Advancement of Learning. Cambridge, U.K., 1970.

Mark Greengrass

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Hartlib, Samuel

(b. Elbing, Prussia [now Elblag, Poland]; d. London, England, 10 March 1662)

science education, reform, publishing, promotion.

Hartlib’s father, a prominent merchant and dye manufacturer, was originally from Poznan, Poland; his mother was probably English. He was educated at Brieg, Silesia, which he left about 1621—probably for Cambridge, where he seems to have remained until about 1626; he did not matriculate but, presumably, pursued some course of studies. He spent the year 1627-1628 in Elbing but returned to settle in England in 1628. The following year he married Mary Burningham, who died about 1660. Hartlib’s family life is little documented, but he appears to have had at least four sons and two daughters. The eldest, Samuel, born about 1631, is fairly well known; of the daughters, Mary married an alchemist and adept, Frederick Clodius, and Nan married John Roth (or Roder) of Utrecht. (Pepys was at the wedding.) Hartlib tried to establish a school at Chichester, Sussex, in 1630, but his efforts were unsuccessful and thereafter he resided in or near London.

In official records Hartlib is described as a merchant, but there is no evidence that he acquired his income from trade. From 1645 to 1659 he received various grants from Parliament for his public services; he was given money by various private benefactors, especially for his services to education; and he may have made money from the many books he “published” (that is, edited), although he never profited from the inventions he promoted.

Initially, Hartlib devoted his efforts to the Protestant cause, especially to assisting Protestant refugees from Germany (in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War), and to educational reform. In this and much else he shared the views and assisted in the work of John Dury, an ardent advocate of Protestant unity. Hartlib warmly promoted the ideas of the Czech educational reformer J. A. Comenius: he published many of Comenius’ works in England, helped make possible his visit to England in 1641, and constantly advocated his views on universal education, language, government, and peace. In 1641 Hartlib published A Description of the Famous Kingdome of Macaria, a Utopian vision of a state in which enlightened government and true religion were supported by enlightened promotion of trade, medicine, agriculture, and the mechanic arts. Hartlib’s interest in education brought him in touch with John Milton and with the mathematician (and Parliamentarian diplomat) John Pell. The success of the Parliamentary side in the Civil Wars led Hartlib and his friends to hope that something like Macaria might be brought into existence in England—what the young Robert Boyle was to call the Invisible College.

A concrete step was an attempt to establish the Office of Public Address, a scheme devised by Hartlib and Dury and intended as a public and organized version of Hartlib’s many activities. Like Hartlib himself, the Office was to be in part charitable: to put the poor—especially the intellectual and religious poor—in touch with possible benefactors and to act as a labor exchange. Again like Hartlib, the Office was to act as a commercial agent, not only to purchase books and all kinds of property but also to serve as a channel of communication between English and foreign merchants. It was to maintain the sort of correspondence which Hartlib had already established with divines, educators, and scientists, and was to act as a clearinghouse for news of public affairs, new philosophical and educational ideas, inventions, experiments, and schemes. Finally and above all, it was to promote (as Hartlib longed to do) religion, education, and inventions, in a Baconian and Comenian spirit. Although Parliament ignored the scheme, so that Hartlib never had his coveted post of superintendent general, he continued to do the work of the Office of Public Address as best he could, corresponding with Pell in Switzerland, Dury in Holland and Germany, Johannes Hevelius in Danzig, John Winthrop and George Starkey in New England, and dozens more.

In addition, Hartlib tried to promote useful inventions, especially those relating to agriculture, medicine and its ancillary chemistry, and mechanics in general. His interests were so wide as to be inchoate: John Evelyn, who described him as “Master of innumerable curiosities, & very communicative” (Diary, 27 November 1655), learned of German stoves and how to use their heat to perfume the air, and of copying inks and devices. An even wider range of interests is revealed in the letters Hartlib exchanged with Henry Oldenburg in 1658 and 1659, the topics of which include medical and chemical receipts, perpetual motion machines, clocks, lanterns, agricultural machinery, and much else.

Hartlib had many young protégés: William Petty; the very young Robert Boyle, whom he encouraged in useful science; Petty’s future rival, Benjamin Worsley (a chemist); the naturalists Arnold and Gerald Boate; and the inventors Cressy Dymock and Gabriel Plattes. These were the cornerstones of Hartlib’s Invisible College—“that values no knowledge but as it hath a tendency to use,” as Boyle described it. Hartlib was an endless collector of inventions, endlessly hopeful of great things that might spring from the fertile minds of the younger generation, especially hopeful that they might make life better and easier for all mankind. He only dimly comprehended Bacon’s message of the possible utility of science; certainly he never understood that scientific knowledge was needed for a critical understanding of inventions or of the potentialities of science. Most of the information he collected and the discoveries he published were very minor. Yet Hartlib was a not unimportant source of communication among scientists in the decades before the formation of scientific societies, and he was a useful postal and book-buying agent as well.


I. Original Works. Hartlib published some sixty-five works; these are listed in G. H. Turnbull, Hartlib, Duryand Comenius. Gleanings From Hartlib’s Papers (Liverpool, 1947), pp. 88-109. Most of these were edited, collected, or translated by Hartlib; for some he wrote prefaces; others are dedicated to him.

Of the books Hartlib wrote, the most important are A Description of the Famous Kingdome of Macaria (London, 1641); A Faithful and Seasonable Advice, or, the Necessity of a Correspondencie for the Advancement of the Protestant Cause (London, 1643); Considerations Tending to the Happy Accomplishment of Englands Reformation in Church and State (London, 1647), the first suggestion for his Office of Public Address; and A Further Discoverie of the Office of Publick Addresse for Accomodations (London, 1648), which may have been written by Dury.

His best-known collection of tracts on agriculture is Samuel Hartlib His Legacie (London, 1651; 2nd ed., 1652; 3rd ed., 1655); it is an enlargement of a work first printed in 1650 and contains tracts written by. among others, Cressy Dymock, a minor inventor, and Robert Child, a chemical follower of J. B. van Helmont. Robert Boyle’s first published paper appeared in Chymical, Medicinal and Chyrurgical Addresses Made to Samuel Hartlib Esq (London, 1655).

In spite of having been sorted out in the seventeenth century, when valuable material was removed, many of Hartlib’s papers have survived; they are now on deposit in the library of Sheffield University through the courtesy of their owner, Lord Delamere.

A few of his letters were extracted by the recipient and are printed in A. R. and M. B. Hall, The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg, I (Madison—Milwaukee, Wis., 1965).

II. Secondary Literature. The earliest account of Hartlib’s life is H. Dircks, Biographical Memoir of Samuel Hartlib (London, 1865); this was much corrected by F. Althaus, Samuel Hartlib: Ein deutsch—englisches Charakterbild (Leipzig, 1884). G. H. Turnbull, Samuel Hartlib. A Sketch of His Life and His Relation to J. A. Comenius (Oxford, 1920), is a useful short account; a reading of this or of Althaus is presupposed by Turnbull’s Hartlib, Dury and Comenius (see above), which corrects details from Hartlib’s papers but contains no connected biography. The best account of Hartlib’s educational, promotional, and scientific activities is in R. H. Syfret, “The Origins of the Royal Society,” in Notes and Records. Royal Society of London, 5 (1947-1948), 75-137; Miss Syfret was the first to fully identify the Invisible College with Hartlib’s activities. G. H. Turnbull, “Samuel Hartlib’s Influence on the Early History of the Royal Society,” in Notes and Records. Royal Society of London, 10 (1952-1953), 101-130, contains useful references to Hartlib’s MS diary.

Marie Boas Hall

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