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CABINET // Ready for Takeoff  August 7, 2017 – 07:56 am

On 8 October 1674, Robert Hooke made the following note in his diary: “At Councell at Arundell told Sir Robert Southwell that I could fly, [but] not how.”1 Let us imagine this scene: Hooke, the curator for scientific experiments at the Royal Society in London, just happens to run into his colleague, Southwell. Almost off the cuff, he mentions that he has finally found the key to the puzzle of how a human being can fly. But he does not give away the sensational discovery.

One reason for this may be the fact that the art of flying was still one of the greatest scientific taboos during Hooke’s time. It lay in a realm of secrecy, beyond the boundaries of permitted knowledge. The curiositas that attempted to transgress this boundary was represented by a failed pilot of antiquity: Icarus warned the viewer that high flights would bring calamity, both in a technical and a metaphorical sense. Airspace was sacred space—the gods alone were allowed to soar, weightlessly and mysteriously, through the heavenly regions. Only gradually did flying, through the process 
of secularization, become what we today conceive it to be: a technically feasible activity that is subject to the laws of aerodynamics.

In the seventeenth century, however, the idea 
of a flying machine was met with suspicion. René Descartes, for instance, remarked in 1640 that “one could very probably construct a machine that holds itself in 
the air like a bird, if only in a metaphysical sense, for birds themselves are, at least in my opinion, such machines; but not in a physical and a moral sense, for that would require such delicate and at the same time strong feathers as could not be produced by human hands.”2 Descartes’s concept of the machine served as a metaphorical vehicle to understand the perfection of birds as natural beings. Made by the best of all craftsmen, God, they definitely had to be inimitable. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, however, was far more trusting of the inventive spirit of his era. He repeatedly studied the plan of the Italian Jesuit Francesco Lana di Terzi for the building of an airship. According to Lana, a brass sphere could rise from the ground by means of the airless space inside it.3 Leibniz considered the idea to be possible, although he did not believe in the existence of a vacuum and instead suggested the possibility of a filling substance that was lighter than air. Nonetheless, in a manner similar to Lana, who did not dare to construct his own invention for fear of divine wrath, Leibniz also admitted: “If human beings could also elevate themselves into space, … their wickedness could no longer be held in check.”4 Out of such scruples speaks not the metaphysical argument against flying machines Descartes had proposed, but fear: not the fear of flying demons and witches encouraged by the medieval Inquisition, but rather a new fear of air wars and boundless terror.

For Hooke’s part, he too engaged with the idea 
of an airship. However, his comments on Lana’s and Leibniz’s panicked words are merely laconic: “A man that hears all these things, and should believe the terrible and mischievous consequences, would possibly 
be of the Authors mind, …. But hold a little, ” he interjected, and proceeded to challenge the idea that there could be “any great harm of this Invention to the Civil and Peaceful Government of the World.”5 And unlike 
his Continental colleagues, Hooke was not satisfied 
with mere thought experiments and fictitious scenarios. As an adherent of experimental philosophy, which favored practical experiments over intellectual exercises, Hooke believed the occult mysteries of nature to be beyond the reach of the “naked eye and [the] unmachined hand.”6 Instead, one needed actual machines in order to imitate the inexplicable processes of opaque nature in experimental fashion.

Besnier’s flying apparatus, from Robert Hooke’s Philosophical Collections, 1679-1682.

And yet, coming at the cusp of scientific modernity, the inadequacy of the technological means available to Hooke meant that his pursuit of the mystery of flight had to be routed through a diverse array of strategies: by constructing actual technical models, which he claimed to have designed even as a student at Oxford; through graphic representations, and acoustic and other experiments; and, importantly, also through elaborate rhetorical gestures that he performed in his oral and written presentations. If this variegated approach was insufficient to resolve the problem of how man might fly, its very inadequacy ironically established a mode of inquiry that developed a life of its own and led to more and more discoveries. Hooke liberated the question of flying from the realm of taboo—at the mythical margin of the world—without ever being able to answer it. However, it was precisely this paradoxical state of affairs that enabled him to investigate the notion of flight and thereby make it nearly thinkable and utterable. For Hooke, flying provided both an object of study and a method of inquiry. Always on the verge of grasping the key to one of the greatest secrets of nature, this transgressive scholar moved in a “transit space” between irreconcilable systems of knowledge. From this position, he created a fundamental disorder in the affairs of natural philosophy. Mechanical Spectacles and Conversational Experiments 

As a young scientist, Hooke claimed to have constructed numerous machines and tested their functionality using his own body. A diary entry made in 1656, when Hooke was studying with John Wilkins in Oxford, reads as follows: “I contriv’d and made many trials about the Art of flying in the Air, and moving very swift on the Land and Water, of which I shew’d several Designs to Mr. Wilkins then Warden of Wadham College, and at the same time made a Module, which, by the help of Springs and Wings, rais’d and sustain’d it self in the Air; but finding by my own trials, and afterwards by calculation, that the muscles of a Man’s Body were not sufficient to do any thing considerable of that kind.”7


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