John Wilkins: Wikis


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John Wilkins
Born January 1, 1614(1614-01-01)
Fawsley, Northamptonshire
Died November 19, 1672 (aged 58)
Occupation Anglican clergyman, Author, Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, Secretary of the Royal Society, Bishop of Chester
Religious beliefs Church of England
Spouse(s) Robina Cromwell (sister of Oliver)

John Wilkins (January 1, 1614 – November 19, 1672) was an English clergyman, natural philosopher and author. He was the founder of the metric system and first secretary of the Royal Society in 1660 and Bishop of Chester from 1668 until his death.

Wilkins is the only person to have headed a college at both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. He was a polymath, although not a deep innovator in science. His personal qualities were brought out, and obvious to his contemporaries, in reducing political tension in Interregnum Oxford, in founding the Royal Society on non-partisan lines, and in efforts to reach out to religious nonconformists. He was one of the founders of the new natural theology compatible with the science of the time.[1]

As an author, he is particularly known for An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language in which, amongst other things, he proposed a decimal system of measure not unlike the modern metric system. The Ballad of Gresham College (1663), an ode to the Society, describes his efforts:

A Doctor counted very able
Designes that all Mankynd converse shall,
Spite o' th' confusion made att Babell,
By Character call'd Universall.
How long this character will be learning,
That truly passeth my discerning.[2]


Early life

Wilkins was likely born at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire. His father was a goldsmith, and died when he was young; his mother remarried, and Walter Pope was half-brother to Wilkins. His maternal grandfather was a Puritan vicar, John Dod. He was educated at Magdalen Hall (which later became Hertford College), Oxford, being tutored by John Tombes and graduating B.A. in 1631 and M.A. in 1634.[3] He studied astronomy with John Bainbridge.[4]

After ordination, Wilkins became vicar of his home town of Fawsley in 1637, but he soon resigned. He became chaplain successively to Lord Saye and Sele and George Berkeley, 8th Baron Berkeley. In 1644 he became chaplain to Prince Charles Louis, nephew of King Charles I, who was in England; from 1648 Charles Louis was able to take up his position as elector palatine on the Rhine, as a consequence of the Peace of Westphalia. Wilkins may have accompanied him on his return to Heidelberg.

Wilkins was one of the group of savants interested in experimental philosophy who gathered round Charles Scarburgh, the royalist physician who arrived in London in summer 1646 after the fall of Oxford to the parliamentarian forces. These included George Ent, Samuel Foster, Francis Glisson, Jonathan Goddard, Christopher Merrett, and John Wallis. Others of Scarburgh's circle were William Harvey and Seth Ward. This London group was described much later by Wallis, who mentions also Theodore Haak, anchoring it also to the Palatine exiles; while there are clear connections to the Wilkins Oxford 'club', it is no longer considered that these were founders of what later became the Royal Society.[5]

In Oxford and Cambridge

In 1648 he became warden of Wadham College, Oxford. Under him the college prospered. Wilkins fostered political and religious tolerance and drew talented minds to the college, including Christopher Wren.[6] Although he was a supporter of Oliver Cromwell, Royalists placed their sons in his charge. From those in Oxford interested in experimental science, he drew together a significant group or 'club', which by 1650 had been constituted with a set of rules. Besides some of the London group (Goddard, Wallis, Ward, Wren who was a young protégé of Scarburgh), it included (in the account of Thomas Sprat) Ralph Bathurst, Robert Boyle, William Petty, Lawrence Rooke, Thomas Willis, and Matthew Wren.[7] Robert Hooke was gradually recruited into the Wilkins group: he arrived at Christ Church, Oxford in 1653, working his way to an education, became assistant to Willis, and became known to Wilkins (possibly via Richard Busby) as a technician. By 1658 he was working with Boyle.[8]

In 1656, he married Robina French née Cromwell, youngest sister of Oliver Cromwell, who had been widowed in 1655 when her husband Peter French, a canon of Christ Church, Oxford, had died. Wilkins thereby joined a high stratum of Parliamentary society, and the couple used rooms in Whitehall Palace. In 1659, shortly before his death, Oliver Cromwell arranged for Wilkins a new appointment as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge,[9][10] an appointment that was confirmed by Richard Cromwell who succeeded him as Lord Protector. He was there long enough to befriend and become a patron of Isaac Barrow.[11]

In London

Upon the Restoration in 1660, the new authorities deprived Wilkins of the position given him by Cromwell; he gained appointment as prebendary of York and rector of Cranford, Middlesex. In 1661 he was reduced to preacher at Gray's Inn, lodging with his friend Seth Ward. In 1662 he became vicar of St Lawrence Jewry, London. He suffered in the Great Fire of London, losing his vicarage, library and scientific instruments.[12]

Possessing strong scientific tastes, Wilkins was a founding member of the Royal Society and was soon elected fellow and one of the Society's two secretaries: he shared the work with Henry Oldenburg, whom he had met in Oxford in 1656.[6][13]


He became vicar of Polebrook, Northamptonshire, in 1666; prebendary of Exeter in 1667; and in the following year, prebendary of St Paul's and bishop of Chester.

He owed his position as bishop of Chester to the influence of George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham's approach to the religious problem of the day was 'comprehension', something less than religious tolerance but aimed at least at bringing in the Presbyterians among nonconformists to the Church of England by some peaceful form of negotiation and arrangement. Wilkins too thought along these lines.[14] He had been a sympathetic reader of John Humfrey's 1661 justification of his acceptance of re-ordination by William Piers, having already once been ordained in the Presbyterian style by a classis.[15]

As he was ordained he spoke out against the use of penal laws, and immediately tried to gather support from other moderate bishops to see what concessions to the nonconformists could be made.[16] A serious effort was made in 1668 to secure a scheme of comprehension, with William Bates, Richard Baxter and Thomas Manton for the dissenters meeting Wilkins and Hezekiah Burton. Wilkins felt the Presbyterians could be brought within the Church of England, while the Independent separatists were left outside. It fell through by late summer, with Manton blaming John Owen for independent scheming for general toleration with Buckingham, and Baxter pointing the finger at the House of Lords.[17]

Death and legacy

He died in London, most likely from the medicines used to treat his kidney stones and stoppage of urine.[18]

The influence and ambitions of John Wilkins were an important thread in the historical fiction trilogy The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote the short essay The Analytical Language of John Wilkins published in Other Inquisitions 1937-1952.


His numerous written works include:

  • The Discovery of a World in the Moone (1638)[19][20]
  • A Discourse Concerning a New Planet (1640)
  • Mercury, or the Secret and Swift Messenger (1641), the first English-language book on cryptography
  • Ecclesiastes (1646)
  • Mathematical Magick (1648)
  • A Discourse Concerning the Beauty of Providence (1649)
  • A discourse concerning the gift of prayer: shewing what it is, wherein it consists and how far it is attainable by industry (1651)
  • Vindiciae academiarum (1654), with Seth Ward
  • An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (London, 1668), in which he proposes a new universal language for the use of natural philosophers.
  • Of the Principle and Duties of Natural Religion (London, 1675).

The early scientific works were in a popular vein, and have links to the publications of Francis Godwin. The Discovery of a World in the Moone (1638) was followed up by A Discourse Concerning a New Planet (1640). Godwin'sThe Man in the Moone was also published in 1638. In 1641 Wilkins published an anonymous treatise entitled Mercury, or The Secret and Swift Messenger.[21] This was a small work on cryptography; it may well have been influenced by Godwin's Nuncius inanimatus (1629).[22] His Mathematical Magic (1648) was divided into two sections, one on traditional mechanical devices such as the lever, and the other, more speculative, on machines. It drew on many authors, both classical writers and moderns such as Guidobaldo del Monte and Marin Mersenne.[23] It alludes to Godwin's The Man in the Moone, for bird-powered flight.[24] These were light if learned works and admitted both blue-sky thinking, such as the possibility of the Moon being inhabitable, and references to figures on the "occult" side: Trithemius, John Dee, the Rosicrucians, Robert Fludd.[25][26]

Ecclesiastes (1646) is a plea for a plain style in preaching, avoiding rhetoric and scholasticism, for a more direct and emotional appeal.[27][28] It analysed the whole field of available Biblical commentary, for the use of those preparing sermons, and was reprinted many times. It is noted as a transitional work, both in the move away from Ciceronian style in preaching, and in the changing meaning of elocution to the modern sense of vocal production.[29][30]

A Discourse Concerning the Beauty of Providence (1649) took an unfashionable line, namely that divine providence was more inscrutable than current interpreters were saying. It added to the reputation of Wilkins, when the Stuarts returned to the throne, to have warned that the short term reading of events as managed by God was risky.[31]

In 1654, Wilkins joined with Seth Ward in writing Vindiciae academiarum, a reply to John Webster's Academiarum Examen, one of many attacks at the time on the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and their teaching methods. This attack had more clout than most: it was dedicated to John Lambert, a top military figure, and was launched during Barebone's Parliament, when radical change seemed on the cards. Wilkins (as N. S.) provided an open letter to Ward; and Ward (as H. D., also taking the final letters of his name therefore) replied at greater length. Wilkins makes two main points: first, Webster is not addressing the actual state of the universities, which were not as wedded to old scholastic ways, Aristotle, and Galen, as he said; and secondly Webster's mixture of commended authors, without fuller understanding of the topics, really was foolish. In this approach Wilkins had to back away somewhat from his writings of the late 1630s and early 1640s. He made light of this in the way of pointing to Alexander Ross, a very conservative Aristotelian who had attacked his own astronomical works, as a more suitable target for Webster. This exchange was part of the process of the new experimental philosophers throwing off their associations with occultists and radicals.[32]

In 1668 he published his Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language. In it he attempted to create a universal language to replace Latin as a completely unambiguous tongue with which scholars and philosophers could communicate.[33] One aspect of this work was the suggestion of a decimal system of measurement, such as the metric system.[34] In his lexicographical work he collaborated with William Lloyd.[35]


  1. ^ Alister E. McGrath, A Scientific Theology: Nature (2001), p. 242.
  2. ^ Stimson, Dorothy. "'Ballad of Gresham College'". Isis volume 18, number 1, 1932. pp. 103-117.
  3. ^ Dictionary of National Biography
  4. ^ Mordechai Feingold, Mathematical Sciences and New Philosophies, p. 380 in Nicholas Tyacke (editor) The Histosry of the University of Oxford: Vol. IV Seventeenth-century Oxford (1997).
  5. ^ Adrian Tinniswood, His Invention So Fertile: A life of Christopher Wren (2001), pp. 23-4.
  6. ^ a b "Wilkins, John." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press. Sept 2004. Online edition
  7. ^ Margery Purver, The Royal Society: Concept and Creation (1967), p. 205.
  8. ^ Lisa Jardine, The Curious Life of Robert Hooke (2003), pp. 63-75.
  9. ^ The Master of Trinity at Trinity College, Cambridge
  10. ^ Wilkins, John in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  11. ^ Mordechai Feingold, Before Newton: The Life and Times of Isaac Barrow (1990), pp. 52-3.
  12. ^
  13. ^ Daniel Garber, Michael Ayers (editors), The Cambridge History of Seventeenth-century Philosophy (2003) Volume II, p. 1455.
  14. ^ N. H. Keeble, The Restoration: England in the 1660s (2002), p. 123.
  15. ^ Dictionary of National Biography, article Humfrey, John.
  16. ^ John Marshall, Locke and Latitudinarianism, p. 257 in Richard W. F. Kroll, Richard Ashcraft, Perez Zagorin (editors), Philosophy, Science, and Religion in England, 1640-1700 (1991).
  17. ^ William M. Lamont, Richard Baxter and the Millennium (1979), p. 220.
  18. ^ Inwood, Stephen (2005). The Forgotten Genius: The Biography of Robert Hooke 1635-1703. MacAdam/Cage Publishing. ISBN 1596921153.  
  19. ^ Cromwell's moonshot: how one Jacobean scientist tried to kick off the space race from The Independent
  20. ^ The Discovery of a World in the Moon from
  21. ^ M E R C V R Y: The secret and swift Messenger Scan of original book
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^, p. 25.
  25. ^ Noel E. Brann, Trithemius and Magical Theology: A Chapter in the Controversy over Occult Studies in Early Modern Europe (1999), p. 233.
  26. ^ Francis Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (1986), p. 284.
  27. ^ Richard Foster Jones, The Seventeenth Century: Studies in the History of English Thought and Literature from Bacon to Pope (1951), p. 78.
  28. ^ Paul Goring, Rhetoric of Sensibility in Eighteenth-century Culture (2005), p. 37.
  29. ^ I. M. Green, Print and Protestantism in Early Modern England (2000), p. 109.
  30. ^ Theresa Enos (editor), Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication from Ancient Times to the Information Age (1996), p. 764.
  31. ^ Nicholas Guyatt, Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1876 (2007), p. 43.
  32. ^ Allen G. Debus, Science and Education in the Seventeenth Century: The Webster-Ward Debate (1970).
  33. ^ The Analytical Language of John Wilkins from
  34. ^ Metric system 'was British' - from the BBC video news
  35. ^

Further reading

  • Patrick Arkley Wright Henderson, The Life and Times of John Wilkins; Project Gutenberg text
  • O. Funke (1959), On the Sources of John Wilkins' philosophical language. English Studies XL 208.
  • Barbara J. Shapiro (1968), John Wilkins 1614–1672: An Intellectual Biography
  • Fredric Dolezal (1985), Forgotten But Important Lexicographers: John Wilkins and William Lloyd. a Modern Approach to Lexicography Before Johnson
  • J. L. Subbiondo (editor) (1992), John Wilkins and 17th-Century British Linguistics
  • J. L. Subbiondo, Educational Reform in Seventeenth-Century England and John Wilkins' Philosophical Language, anguage & Communication, v21 n3 p273-84 Jul 2001

External links

Academic offices
Preceded by
John Pitt
Warden of Wadham College, Oxford
Succeeded by
Walter Blandford
Preceded by
John Arrowsmith
Master of Trinity College, Cambridge
Succeeded by
Henry Ferne
Church of England titles
Preceded by
George Hall
Bishop of Chester
Succeeded by
John Pearson

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

JOHN WILKINS (1614-1672), bishop of Chester, was born at Fawsley, Northamptonshire, and educated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford. He was ordained and became vicar of Fawsley in 1637, but soon resigned and became chaplain successively to Lord Saye and Sele, Lord Berkeley, and Prince Charles Louis, nephew of Charles I. and afterwards elector palatine of the Rhine. In 1648 he became warden of Wadham College, Oxford. Under him the college was extraordinarily prosperous, for, although a supporter of Cromwell, he was in touch with the most cultured royalists, who placed their sons in his charge. In 1659 Richard Cromwell appointed him master of Trinity College, Cambridge. At the Restoration in 1660 he was deprived, but appointed prebendary of York and rector of Cranford, Middlesex. In 1661 he was preacher at Gray's Inn, and in 1662 vicar of St Lawrence Jewry, London. He became vicar of Polebrook, Northamptonshire, in 1666, prebendary of Exeter in 1667, and in the following year prebendary of St Paul's and bishop of Chester. Possessing strong scientific tastes, he was the chief founder of the Royal Society and its first secretary. November 1672.

The chief of his numerous works is an Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (London, 1668), in which he expounds a new universal language for the use of philosophers. He is remembered also for a curious work entitled The Discovery of a World in the Moon (1638, 3rd ed., with an appendix "The possibility of a passage thither," 1640). Other works are A Discourse concerning a New Planet (1640); Mercury, or the Secret and Swift Messenger (1641), a work of some ingenuity on the means of rapid correspondence; and Mathematical Magick (1648).

See P. A. Wright Henderson, The Life and Times of John Wilkins (1910), and also the article Aeronautics.

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