Swinden, Jan Hendrik Van

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(b. The Hague, Netherlands, 8 June 1746; d. Amsterdam, Netherlands, 9 March 1823)

electricity, magnetism, meteorology, metrology.

The son of Philippe van Swinden and Anna Maria Tollosan, van Swinden was a prolific scientific writer; many of his works were written in French, the language of his ancestors, who had been driven from France by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Most of his experimental work in electricity, magnetism, and meteorology was conducted before 1795, after which year his time was devoted mainly to scientific committee work. In 1798 he was the leading member of the committee that introduced the metric system into the Netherlands. He married Sara Ribolleau in 1768 and had one son who died before him.

Van Swinden’s father, an eminent barrister, wanted his son to study law. Jan, however, from an early age showed more interest in mathematics and mechanics; and although he entered Leiden University to study law in 1763, he soon changed to natural philosophy and mathematics. He was greatly influenced by Newton’s Principia, as is shown by his doctoral thesis, De attractione (1766). He took every opportunity to popularize Newtonian philosophy, and his inaugural lectures at the universities of Franeker and Amsterdam dealt with this topic.

In 1767 van Swinden obtained the chair of philosophy, logic, and metaphysics at Franekar University. He studied all the popular scientific topics of the period, especially magnetism, electricity, meteorolgy, and chemistry, and corresponded with many leading scientists, including Bonnet, Euler, Deluc, J. C. Wilcke, Bertholon, and Lalande. His Tentamen de magnete (1772) dealt with his mathematical theory of magnetism, and in 1777 he and Coulomb shared the gold medal of the Paris Academy of Sciences for a very detailed prize essay on magnetism, Recherches sur les aiguilles aimantées.

Van Swinden’s best-known work in this field, Mémoires sur l’analogie de l’électricité et du magnétisme (1784), included his prize essay on the analogy between magnetism and electricity, in which he compared Mesmer’s animal magnetism with electricity. For this work he was awarded the gold medal of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in 1778. In 1785 van Swinden and van Marum experimented on the influence of electrical discharges on magnets, using the very large electrostatic generator of the Teylers Stichting at Haarlem. Repeating the experiments of Beccaria and others, they noticed that when soft iron or steel bars were placed perpendicular to the line of discharge, the resulting magnetic strength was greater than when the bars were parallel to the direction of the discharge. This puzzling phenomenon could be explained only after Ampére’s work of 1820. Incidentally, Ampére at first thought that the field of force moving around the wire through which the electric current passed was also electrical. In 1822, using his large Offerhaus battery, van Marum demonstrated that it was, in fact, magnetic.

Van Swinden was best-known outside the Netherlands for his extraordinarily accurate meteorological observations. Over a ten-year period, he and some of his pupils at Franeker made hourly observations of the terrestrial magnetism and observed the diurnal variation. His thirteen-year record of barometer, thermometer, and hygrometer readings resulted in the publication of some eighteen papers on meteorological topics in various European journals.

In 1785 van Swinden was appointed professor of philosophy, natural philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy at the University of Amsterdam, where he wrote his mathematical textbook Theoremata geometrica (1786; enlarged and translated into Dutch, 1790) and the first two volumes of a general textbook on natural philosophy, Positiones physicae (1786). The latter ambitious work was never completed. He was appointed chairman of a committee to correct naval charts, which produced a nautical almanac in 1787. He was assisted in this work by his pupil Pieter Nieuwland, who became a lecturer in mathematics, astronomy, and navigation at the University of Amsterdam. The committee’s activities also resulted in the publication of a book on the determination of longitude at sea by lunar observations (1787) and work on nautical instruments (1788). In 1798 van Swinden and Henricus Aeneae were sent to Paris by the Dutch government to attend the congress on the introduction of the metric system. He belonged to the commission (other members were J. G. Tralles, Delambre, Legendre) that recalculated the earth’s meridian, one forty-millionth part of which was called the meter.

During the French occupation of the Netherlands, van Swinden served on committees dealing with such diverse topics as currency reform and the restructuring of univsersity education. In 1808 he was appointed the first president of the Royal Institution of the Netherlands (now the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences and Letters). In 1813, after the overthrow of the French, William I (made king of the Netherlands in 1815) appointed him a councillor of state in recognition of his efforts on behalf of Dutch science.


I. Original Works. Van Swinden’s main works are cited in the text. His MS material on the history of the microscope was published posthumously in G. Moll,“On the First Invention of Telescopes, Collected From the Notes and Papers of the Late Professor [J. H.] van Swinden,”in Journal of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, 1 (1831), 319–332, 483–496. He also wrote a detailed study of Eise Eisinga’s planetarium at Franeker, Beschrijving van een kunstuk, verbeeldende een volledig bewegelijk hemelsgestel, uitgedachten en vervaardigd door Eise Eisinga (Franeker, 1780; repr. 1824, 1831; 3rd ed., enl., 1851). His works are listed in D. Bierens de Haan, Bibliographic neerlandaise histrorico-scientifique (Rome, 1883), 273–277, repr. photographically (Nieuwkoop, 1960, 1965). MSS are in various institutions in the Netherlands; Amsterdam University Library has about 50 letters and many MSS on a variety of topics, including education reform and his trip to Paris in 1798; the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Amsterdam, has a number of notes dealing with scientific topics; weights, measures, and coinage (KA CCC a-g); magnetism and electricity (KA CCCI a-i); meteorology and the northern lights (KA CCCII a-i); mathematics, probability, and population statistics (KA CCCIII a-b); mechanics, astronomy, chronometry, and technology (KA CCCIV a-d); and science and medicine (KA CCCV a-b).

II. Seconary Literature. Only short biographies of van Swinden exist to date: A. J. van der Aa, in Biographisch woordenboek der Nederlanden, XVII (Haarlem, 1784), 1124–1132, with a good bibliography; and P. C. Molhuysen and P. J. Blok, Nieuw Nederlandsch biografisch woordenboek, IV (Leiden, 1918), 1289–1291, which is slightly more detailed. See also G. C. Gerrits, Grote Nederlanders by de opbouw der natuurwetenchappen (Leiden, 1948), 236–241. The best biography in English is G. Moll,“A Biographical Account of J. H. van Swinden,”in Edinburgh Journal of Science, 1 1824), 197–208.

Willem D. Hackmann