Beckmann, Johann

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Beckmann, Johann

(b. Hoya, Germany, 4 June 1739; d. Göttingen, Germany, 3 February 1811)

economy, technology.

Beckmann was the oldest son of the director of taxation and custodian of postal services, Nicolaus Beckmann, who died in 1745. His mother, the daughter of a Protestant parson, devoted herself to the education of the children. In 1754, at the age of fifteen, Beckmann enrolled in the Gymnasium at Stade, and in 1759 he entered the University of Göttingen, where he studied theology. He soon turned, however, to mathematics, the natural sciences, public finance and administration, and philology. He fancied languages just as much as scientific subjects.

In 1762, after completing his studies, Beckmann traveled to Brunswick and Holland, where he visited factories, mines, and natural history museums. In 1763 he accepted a teaching position at St. Peter’s Gymnasium, a Lutheran school in St. Petersburg, which had been founded by Anton Friedrich Busching. He taught there for two years. Aside from his teaching, Beckmann occupied himself with projects in the natural sciences, such as meteorological observations, and with the history of the natural sciences. In St. Petersburg he became friendly with August Ludwig Schloezer, who was later active in Gottingen as a historian and a political scientist; this friendship greatly influenced Beckmann’s later historical researches. After his sojourn in St. Petersburg, he took an educational trip, which lasted most of the year 1765–1766, through Sweden and Denmark. Again he inspected factories, mines, and foundries, as well as collections of art and of natural objects. His love for natural history led him to Linnaeus, with whom he studied. In the fall of 1766 Beckmann was appointed extraordinary professor of philosophy in Gottingen. At this time he published his first larger work, De historic naturali velerum libellus I, which admirably combines aspects of natural science with philology.

In 1767 Beckmann married the daughter of a parson. Since his labors turned more and more to applied botany, agriculture, and public economy, an ordinary professorship of economic sciences was established in 1770 for him, and he occupied this post until his death. He lectured on mineralogy, agriculture, technology, materials science, commerce, and general public administration. Aside from his teaching duties, he devoted himself to writing.

Beckmann’s scientific importance lies especially in the agricultural sciences, technology, and the history of technology and invention. He can be called the most important representative of German agricultural economy in the second half of the eighteenth century. He founded the independent science of agriculture with his textbook Grundsätze der teutschen Landwirthschaft (1769), and he stressed that practical agriculture needed a scientific foundation: natural history, mineralogy, chemistry, physics, and mathematics were recognized as necessary auxiliary sciences of agriculture. Beckmann’s agricultural science followed the empirical treatment of agriculture practiced by the so-called Hausväter and the older economists. In his general economic treatment of agriculture, however, their special treatments of vegetable raising and of animal husbandry received short shrift. Yet his textbook remained prominent in the field for nearly half a century, until superseded by the work of Albrecht Thaer.

Since agriculture concerns the production of natural products and mining technology leads one into the production of metals, Beckmann became interested in the processing of raw materials by the individual trades. By 1769 he was calling this science of trades “techology,” and in 1777 his Anleitung zur Technologie appeared, the first advanced textbook in this field. It is noteworthy for its systematic approach to the various vocations and for its descriptions of a number of trades. The book was addressed primarily to governmental economic officials, in order to make them cognizant of the problems of trade and manufacture within the framework of public affairs. Beckmann was not without precursors in his attempts to spread technological knowledge, but he was the only one to succeed in introducing technology as a separate subject into the high school curriculum. He enlivened his lectures by using models and by demonstrations, as well as by conducting inspections of manufacturing establishments. His attempt in 1806 (Entwurf der algemeinen Technologie) to compare the processes that are utilized in the various areas of technology and that are based on the same objectives also deserves special attention. Thus, for example, the various methods of crushing or grinding were examined with a view toward profiting from the transfer of an especially efficient procedure from one field to another.

Beckmann should also be credited with being the first reliable historian of inventions, with his Beyträge zur Geschichte der Erfindungen (1782 et s.q.), which is not a complete history of technology but, rather, an admirable collection of historical descriptions of individual inventions. For sources he used primarily literary material, and his excellent philological and good technological knowledge served him well.


I. Original Works. The Staatsbibliothek of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin has forty-two letters written by Beckmann, among them thirty-eight to F. Nicolai; the Library of the Deutsches Museum in Munich has nine letters. Six letters written by Beckmann to Linnaeus between 1765 and 1770 are in Carl von Linné, Bref och skrifvelser II. pt. 1 (Uppsala,1916), 254–268. Hand-written material used by W. Exner for his biography of Beckmann cannot be traced.

The most important published works by Beckmann are De historia naturali veterum libellus I (St. Petersburg-Göttingen. 1766); Anfangsgründe der Naturhistorie (Göttiingen, 1767); Grundsätze der teutschen Land-wirthschaft (Göttingen, 1769; 6th ed., 1806); Physikalischökonomische Bibliothek, 23 vols. (Göttingen, 1770–1806); Anleitung zur Technologie (Göttingen, 1777; 7th ed., 1823); Grundriss zu Vorlesungen über die Naturlehre (Göttingen, 1779, 1785); Beyträge zur Oekonomie, Technologic, Polizey und Cameralwissenschaft, 12 pts. (Göttingen, 1779–1791), of which Beckmann is primarily the editor; Beyträge zur Geschichte der Erfindungen, 5 vols. (Leipzig, 1782–1805; 2nd ed. of Vol. I, 1786; English trans., London, 1797; 4th ed., 1846); Sammlung auserlesener Landesgesetze, welche das Policey- und Cmneralwesen zum Gegenstande haben. 10 pts. (Frankfurt, 1783–1793); Vorbereiung zur Waarenkunde, 2 pts. (Göttingen. 1794–1800); Vorrath Kleiner An-merkungen über mancherley gelehrte Gegenstände. 3 pts. (Göttingen, 1795–1806), of which the third part is Entwurf der algemeinen Technologie (also pub. separately); Lexicon botanicum (Göttingen, 1801); Litteratur der ālteren Reisebeschreibungen, 2 vols. (Göttingen, 1808–1810); and Schwedische Reise in den Jahren 1765–1766 (Uppsala, 1911), a diary.

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Beckmann are W. Exner, Johann Beckmann, Begründer der technologischen Wissenschaft (Vienna, 1878); G. Grundke, “Johann Beckmann als Begründer der Technologie in Deutschland,” in Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Karl-Marx-Universität, Leipzig. Mathematical-Natural Sciences Section, no, 3/4 (1954/1955), 343–352; H. J. Herpel, Entwicklung des landwirtschaftilichen Studiums an der Universität Göttingen (Göttingen, 1932); C. G. Heyne, “Memoria Jo. Beckmann.” in Commentationes Societalis Regiae Scientiarum Gottingensis recentiores, 1 (1808–1811), appendix, 1–15; Ideengeschichte der Agrarwirtschaft and Agrarpolitik im deutschen Sprachgebiet (Munich, 1957); Carl, Count of Klinckowstroem, “Johann Beckmann,” in Neue deutsche Biographie, I (Berlin, 1953), 725–726; G. Schmid, “Linne im Urteil Johann Beckmanns,” in Svenska Linné-sällskapets årsskrift, 20 (1937), 47–70; and U. Troitzsch, Ansätze technologischen Denkens bei den Kameralisten des 17. and 18. Jahrhunderts (Berlin, 1966), pp. 150–165.

Friedrich Klemm

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Beckmann, Johann

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