Natural Histories


See the world through Hannah Winthrop’s eyes. Your gaze dips down into the high-polished tea table and shears past John Singleton Copley’s brush, into summer 1773. Shown here serenely grasping a nectarine branch, Hannah likely knew that her world—what she called the “same little peaceful circle”—was spinning into a new revolution.

Daily revolutions of scientific discovery surrounded her at home, and gave Hannah’s world more dimension on the page. When scientist-husband John, the Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, pulled through a severe illness in 1772, Hannah praised heaven that: “the shadow in the dial has lengthened—O may it be increased even fifteen degrees.” Hannah’s longterm interest in science, as an explanatory metaphor and as a precise plea to Providence for happiness, reflects early Americans’ fervor to develop the field. John, the longtime guardian of Harvard’s “phylosophy chamber” of scientific apparatus, instructed legions of students in his 41-year career and laid groundwork for what became the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Together, the couple annotated almanacs and attended experiments. She admired the Transit of Venus, and confessed “an affectation of dabbling in Astronomy.” On any given day, Hannah wove her way through the brass-and-glass grand orreries of celestial motion with which John taught. She saw his students make wooden sundials, serviceable but far less ornate than those still imported from Europe. And, crossing home to Mount Auburn and (now) JFK Streets, Hannah would have winced at the boom-clap of the electricity-minded undergraduates blowing up miniature mahogany and tin “thunder-houses” in leafy Harvard Yard.

Joseph Pope, Grand Orrery, 1776-1787

Like her peers, a deep curiosity about “nature and nature’s God” guided Hannah’s pen. In conversations with friends like Mercy Otis Warren and Abigail Adams, Hannah used a hybrid language of science and Christianity to illustrate people and events. She cataloged Mercy, for example, as the “Friend of my heart who is engraven there as with the point of a diamond.” Certain that Providence intervened in individual lives to fulfill destiny, Hannah explored corners of science far beyond what she called the customary “Female Line.” She remained wary, though, of what those observations meant. Take, for example, Hannah’s view that a display of ringing lightning bells was lively and “convincing…of the utility of pointed conductors.” In the same breath, she rushed to add that “to some persons, it appears in a presumptuous light for mortals to meddle with the grand Artillery of Heaven.”

Fleeing Boston in April 1775, first to Fresh Pond and then to Andover in order to escape the “din of arms & the Clarion of War,” Hannah spared a backward glance for Harvard’s orphaned equipment. For John Winthrop, who had built and burnished the colonies’ scientific reputation for decades, it was a grim scene. For Hannah, who wrote movingly in her letters of how “Terrestial” events mirrored those above, it was the onset of a painful eclipse.“The youth dispersed, the hands of their preceptors sealed up,” Hannah reported to Mercy, “those fountains of knowledge, the Library & Apparatus entirely useless & perhaps may fall into those hands whose highest joy would be to plunge us into darkness & ignorance that we might become fitter Subjects for Slavery & Despotic rule.” Comprising an unrivaled colonial trove of Anglo-French and American-made designs, the instruments had been ruined once before, when Harvard Hall burned in 1764. It had taken a £2,000 grant from the Massachusetts General Court, several private donors, the shopping acumen of Benjamin Franklin, and the labor of John Winthrop to replace and repair what Hannah labeled America’s “important Treasures.”

Shortly after John’s death in 1779, Hannah watched as his scientific instruments were packed up for the college. Hannah confided to Mercy that this act, more than any other, left her feeling “bereft of my most essential portion…deeply affected with being derobed of those emblems, those badges of office that marked the astronomer…My porr wounded heart was most exquisitely touched by a requisition of those enlightening tubes thro which he often led me to view the wonders of creating power, but a successor must now enjoy all those advantages.”

fishyFortunately, the philosophy chamber was reinstalled and survived the Revolution. Harvard curators, like Dr. Sara Schechner, have continued to collect and preserve these realms of scientific culture. With Schechner kindly acting as expert guide, The Junto visited its more modern incarnation as museum, the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. And we peeked in on an excellent, student-curated exhibition inspired by the publication of Tangible Things: Making History Through Objects (Oxford University Press, 2015). Using scientific instruments as “more than window-dressing” to round out our cultural view of early scientific Americans like Hannah Winthrop, Schechner pointed out that instruments embody the ideas and intentions of their makers in unique form. As one placard notes: “Instruments can be theory-laden.” A walk through the objects makes the case: Joseph Pope’s grand orrery with bronze figures (Newton, Franklin, and James Bowdoin) likely cast by Paul Revere; neat kits of surveying equipment used to mark lines of nationhood; an English globe adorned with constellations named for King Charles I (and II); the giant clocks that helped Harvard to “sell time” to the railroads; and even a “fresh” catch of the day from 1793 (see above). Want to research more? Start here.

One comment on “Natural Histories

  1. […] The Junto: Natural Histories […]


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