The Journals and the Instrument Maker

Visuality of Butterfield’s Instruments in the Journal des Sçavans and the Philosophical Transactions around 1680

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The Paris-based instrument maker Michael Butterfield publicised novel and fine quality instruments through the Journal des Sçavans from the journal’s early days on (between 1676 and 1684). The descriptions or advertisements of Butterfield’s instruments were not restricted to textual presentations only, but often included engravings. The reasons for including such images and the role played by the visual aspects of the presentation of instruments are the focus of the present paper. The earliest historical records of Butterfield’s work are provided by the Journal des Sçavans and the Philosophical Transactions during their first two decades of publication. The significance of these records for the historian, however, extends further than the bio-bibliographical aspect. Indeed, the presence of Butterfield’s instruments in periodic journals provides a case study of the conspicuous traits of the visual part of knowledge in such media. The periodic format for erudite and technical content was still in its experimental phase. Hence this essay will focus on the codification of knowledge about technical devices for this serial format. It will also show that these illustrations seem to have played an ambivalent role on both the cognitive and the commercial levels. Finally, it discusses the ways in which images influenced the dissemination of such knowledge, particularly through these two journals. The example allows us to characterize the particular mode of visual representation adopted under the specific constraints of these early periodicals, including its pleasures and problems.


Journal of the Material and Visual History of Science (Formerly: Annali dell'Istituto e Museo di storia della scienza di Firenze)




Marcus Popplow, “Why draw Pictures of Machines? The Social Contexts of Early Modern Machine Drawings,” in Picturing Machines (cit. note 1), pp. 17–48.


Samuel Gessner, “The Use of Printed Images for Instrument Making at the Arsenius Workshop,” Early Science and Medicine, Special Edition: Images in Comparative Perspective: Visual Forms in Astronomy, Medicine and Mathematics, 1470–1650, 2013, 18/1–2:124–152.


Jeanne Peiffer and Jean-Pierre Vittu, “Les journaux savants, formes de la communication et agents de la construction des savoirs (17e–18e siècles),” Dix-huitième siècle, 2008, 40:281–300.


Giovanni-Domenico Cassini, “Description du planisphere royal,” Procès-verbaux. Registre de mathématique / Académie royale des sciences, 15 juin 1680, 18 Nov. 1679–29 Juin 1683, 9:62r–68v, (accessed 1st June 2013).


Marc J. Ratcliff, “Le premier canal d’ importation d’ instruments à Genêve: les Fatio de Duillier et le fabricant Michael Butterfield,” in Mémoires d’ instruments: une histoire des sciences et des savants à Genève, 1559–1914, edited by Marc J. Ratcliff, L.-I. Stahl Gretsch (Genève: Ed. Suzanne Hurter, 2011), pp. 58–62.


See for instance: Frank Fehrenbach, “The Pathos of Function: Leonardo’s Technical Drawings,” in Theatrum scientiarum, vol. 2, Instruments in Art and Science: On the Architectonics of Cultural Boundaries, edited by Jan Lazardzig, Ludger Schwarte and Helmar Schramm (Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 2008), pp. 78–105; Steffen Bogen, “Fließende und unterbrochene Bewegungen: Linien bei Taccola,” in Öffnungen: Zur Theorie und Geschichte der Zeichnung, edited by Friedrich Teja Bach (Munich: Fink, 2009), pp. 241–260.


Martin Kemp, “Temples of the Body and Temples of the Cosmos: Vision and Visualization in the Vesalian and Copernican Revolutions,” in Picturing Knowledge (cit. note 1), pp. 40–85; Sven Dupré, “Visualization in Renaissance optics,” in Picturing Knowledge (cit. note 1), pp. 11–39.


  • Fig. 1

    Graphometer by Michael Butterfield (c. 1635–1724), made in Paris, engraved brass, 18.1 x 27.6 x 13.3 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. 03.21.126). This is one of the very finely produced instruments from Butterfield’s workshop, that shows the high standard of craftsmanship achieved by this maker.Credit: OASC, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Stephen D. Tucker, 1903

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  • Fig. 2a

    Hodometer by Michael Butterfield. Instruments to count the turns of a carriage wheel based on similar principles had been produced since the 16th century. Butterfield’s advertisement states that his instrument was based on a new principle and would be useful to surveyors and geographers, JdS, 5 December 1678.Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Gallica

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  • Fig. 2b

    JdS, 5 Dec. 1678, Amsterdam 1679 Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Gallica

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  • Fig. 3

    Hygroscope by J. Coniers. Two weeks after the publication of a translated account of this instrument in the JdS, Butterfield advertised his own beautifully crafted hygroscope in the same journal. 3a) PhilTrans, 18 July 1676, letter from Dublin (top); 3b) JdS, 15 March 1677, French translation (bottom).Credit: The Royal Society Publishing and Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Gallica

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  • Fig. 4

    Surveyor’s level by Ch. Huygens: JdS, 15 January 1680. This level published by Huygens bears striking resemblances to Butterfield's earlier design.Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Gallica

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  • Fig. 5

    During its circulation a figure might undergo various adaptations, particularly in the case of the Amsterdam edition that was in a in-12° format. Level by Michael Butterfield: 5a) JdS, 6 September 1677, version 1 (top left); 5b) JdS, 6 September 1677, Amsterdam 1678 (right); 5c) JdS, 6 September 1677, reprint, Paris 1724 (bottom left).Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Gallica

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  • Fig. 6a

    Butterfield published his second version of a self-aligning level. Due to lack of space the figure was published alone first, with the text following in the next issue of the JdS. Level by Michael Butterfield: 6a) JdS, 19 December 1678, version 2 [reprint, Paris 1724].Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Gallica

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  • Fig. 6b

    JdS, 19 December 1678, Amsterdam 1679Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Gallica

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  • Fig. 7a

    The figure engraved for the JdS would be the benchmark for the images in other contexts, including Picard’s monographic specialized treatise on levelling. Level by Ch. Huygens. Procès-verbaux Acad. Sc., 13 January 1680.Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Gallica

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  • Fig. 7b

    Level by Ch. Huygens: JdS, 29 January 1680, Paris: Pierre Witte, 1730Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Gallica

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  • Fig. 7c

    Level by Ch. Huygens in Picard, Traité du nivellement, De la Hire ed. 1684Credit: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Gallica

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