Huygens and his Correspondents


THE great edition of the works of Christian Huygens now in course of publication at the Hague (NATURE, vols. xxxviii. p. 103, xl. p. 591) continues to issue from the press, at a leisurely rate indeed, yet, all things considered, with creditable punctuality. A slight delay in the appearance of the third volume, now before us is fully accounted for by the discovery, in the National Library at Paris, of some documents bearing on the history of the pendulum-clock, which it was judged expedient to incorporate with it in the form of an appendix. Their interest is considerable, although their import be not subversive of received ideas. They serve to confirm the originality of Huygens, while illustrating the zeal displayed in contesting it. Such debates recur in every chapter of scientific history. They sometimes rouse impatience by their apparent triviality, but seldom fail, none the less, to bring out curious and suggestive facts. It is well when they are conducted with as little acrimony as in the present case. Huygens's brilliant success in applying the pendulum to the regulation of clocks in 1657 gave the signal for the raising of adverse claims to priority. Those of Galileo were the best founded; and they were championed by Prince Leopold de' Medici, brother of Ferdinand II., the reigning Grand Duke of Tuscany. Several of his letters on the subject to Boullaud are now published for the first time; he employed Viviani, a disciple of Galileo, to draw up a “statement of claim” on his behalf; and he sent to Paris, for communication to Huygens, a drawing of a model for a time-piece begun under Galileo's directions in the last year of his life (1641). Its reproduction (at p. 8 of the work under notice) shows indeed a pendulum connected with wheelwork, but no clock in the proper sense—means for continuing the motion, either in the shape of weights or springs, being totally absent. Galileo in fact, was on the track of an invention which eluded him. He saw that the thing was to be done, but never quite achieved the doing of it. Old age and infirmity precluded him from this final triumph. He died, re infectâ, leaving his ideas to be perfected by his son Vincenzo, one of the “about to be's” of the world, whose dilatoriness, as usual in such cases, marred his ingenuity; his over-drawn account with time being at last peremptorily closed by the intervention of death. Huygens succeeded to the task ignorant of these previous attempts to deal with it; to which, indeed, attention was only directed by the effective completeness of his resulting discovery.

Œuvres Complètes de Christiaan Huygens.

Tome Troisième, “Correspondance, 1660–61.” (La Haye: Martinus Nijhoff, 1890.)

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CLERKE, A. Huygens and his Correspondents. Nature 43, 433–434 (1891) doi:10.1038/043433a0

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