Project (2019)

Hand-Eye Coordination in Seventeenth-Century Natural Philosophy

In Micrographia (1665), Robert Hooke wrote that to reform natural philosophy was to examine and record “things themselves as they appear” with a “sincere hand and a faithful eye.” As several scholars have noted, the process of instrumental observational science of the seventeenth century was far from straightforward. Observers had to grapple with the properties of glass, fidgeting ants, or cloudy sky; they had to work out what it was that they saw and how to record it on paper. It was something that required dedication and skill. As Hooke noted with rhetorical flourish, it involved the close working of the hand and the eye.  Hand-eye coordination, however, was not something unique to scientific investigations of the period. To what extent did scientific hand-eye coordination overlap with other period forms of hand-eye coordination including drawing, calligraphy, as well as scholarly note-taking?

I examine hitherto understudied sources, namely scientific drawings from the second half of the seventeenth century, spanning a wide range of medium, style, and subject-matter. How different was the process of hand-eye coordination between drawing an object seen through a telescope and a mathematical construct in the mind? Did the period practice of learning to draw by copying prints condition how the eye saw and parsed details? How did pictorial note-taking relate to recording observation, and vice versa? What kind of hand-eye coordination was necessary and desirable, to avoid the vanity of the eye and the sleight of hand? This project will address these questions through a series of cases studies, including Robert Hooke, Johannes Hevelius, and Isaac Newton.