Hauksbee, Francis (bap. 1660, d. 1713), natural philosopher and scientific instrument maker
by Stephen Pumfrey

Hauksbee, Francis (bap. 1660, d. 1713), natural philosopher and scientific instrument maker, was baptized on 27 May 1660 in the parish of St Mary-at-the-Walls, Colchester, the fifth of five sons born to Richard Hauksbee (b. 1621), a draper and common councillor of Colchester, and his wife, Mary. Hauksbee entered Colchester grammar school in 1673, and from 1678 to 1685 was apprenticed as a draper in the City of London, initially to his eldest brother, John. He was married to Mary (d. after 1730) by May 1687, when a daughter was born. Five out of eight children survived infancy: Ann, Mary, Francis, Richard, and Calvin; Francis graduated BA from the Queen's College, Oxford, in 1722. Hauksbee took the freedom of Colchester (by patrimony) in 1710 and was free of the Drapers' Company in 1712.

Nothing is known of Hauksbee's move from drapery into the emerging and fashionable business of mathematical and scientific instrument making. He was praised in John Harris's Lexicon technicum (1704) as one of six ‘Ingenious and Industrious Artificers’ (Preface). He made air-pumps and pneumatic engines from premises in the City's Giltspur Street, near the pioneering mathematical school of Christ's Hospital, where he had lived since at least March 1701. Isaac Newton certainly knew of his reputation: Hauksbee was admitted at the first meeting of the Royal Society under Newton's presidency on 15 December 1703. He demonstrated a new air-pump and the intriguing, unstable phenomenon of ‘mercurial phosphorus’ (actually an electrostatic discharge), showing that his ability was already rare. Thereafter he experimented regularly before the society; the work made his name.

In 1704 Hauksbee expanded into the more genteel and ‘philosophical’ business of public lecturing, and engaged the experienced James Hodgson to teach a course in experimental philosophy. Hauksbee's performances in 1704 rehearsed his staple pneumatic experiments, but from April 1705, when Newton was revising his Opticks, he returned to the mercurial phosphorus. He became FRS on 30 November 1705, his status the lowest among the gentry elected hitherto. He offered an important and dramatic experiment at the next meeting, when a ‘fine purple Light, and vivid’ was produced by a glass sphere rotated rapidly against woollen cloth. The light diminished when air was let in, suggesting that it depended neither upon mercury nor air.

Hauksbee's success at the society stemmed from his usefulness to Newton. The new president revived the tradition of weekly experiments, specifically to further his research into light, magnetism, and other phenomena suggesting the existence of active principles or attractive effluvia. Besides the wide-ranging nature of his experiments, Hauksbee's particular skill was the development of apparatus that rendered ‘Effluvia more remarkably conspicuous and … pleasing to the eye of a Spectator’ (Physico-Mechanical Experiments, 52)—and thereby more investigable. From Newton's acknowledgements and Hauksbee's use of Newtonian discourse, one infers that Newton was Hauksbee's philosophical master. In return, Hauksbee made many highly novel and significant experimental discoveries, especially in the field of electricity. Indeed, the society left experimenting to Hauksbee and filled its Philosophical Transactions with his accounts, which he collated in his Physico-Mechanical Experiments on Various Subjects (1709); a posthumous second edition, including later work, appeared in 1719.

In accordance with Newton's speculation that light was an emitted effluvium, Hauksbee pursued in 1706 the effects of friction upon large evacuated glass tubes. When he found that air-filled tubes emitted no light, but crackling sounds, he recognized the similarity to well-known ‘electric’ effects. His improved apparatus, of sturdy glass tubes and small pieces of leaf brass, enabled him to observe attraction, repulsion, the effect later known as ‘electric wind’, and the screening effect of muslin. It quickly became standard equipment.

Hauksbee then developed the first continuous generator of static electricity, using a glass globe rapidly rotated by a geared handle and rubbed, and a primitive electroscope, a semicircle of wire from which dangled woollen threads. Placed around the globe, the threads straightened as if they were attracted to the centre of the globe, suggesting that electricity was a centripetal force like gravity, but caused by the emission of effluvia. Placed inside the globe, threads were repelled from the centre. Despite his Newtonian distaste for ‘Vain Hypotheses’, Hauksbee philosophized that the globes had ‘some little Resemblances of the Grand Phenomena of the Universe’ (Physico-Mechanical Experiments, 57). Such highly visual experiments changed Newton's theory of forces from one of action at a distance to one of ‘subtle effluvia’ modelled on electricity.

Hauksbee's second ground-breaking experimental series, on ‘the ascent of liquors’, was equally Newtonian. In 1708 came the first methodical work on capillarity, showing that it varied with the internal diameter of the tube, but not the thickness. To prove that the attractive forces were possibly universal, Hauksbee demonstrated the rise of liquids between plates not only of glass but also of marble and brass, and showed the attraction also to operate in a vacuum. Later he produced ‘a very Curious Experiment’, which Newton related to the ‘Congruity or Agreement of the Parts of Matter’ (Royal Society, Journal Book, 24, 31 Jan 1712). This developed into a series in which drops of liquid were trapped between a horizontal glass base plate and another plate on top, angled down from the top of the drop to the base. Surface tension sucked the drop into the angle, and Hauksbee found a relationship between the angle and the force required to move the drop. In his last work, concluding on 29 January 1713, he confirmed Brook Taylor's conjecture that the meniscus between two plates of glass, inclined at a slight angle to each other, resembled a hyperbola.

In at least ninety experimental performances Hauksbee also investigated prisms, gunpowder, thermometers, and various engines. He carried out more sustained work on the refractive indices of liquids, combustion and respiration, and attempts at a law of magnetic attraction. He also read numerous papers, and was on hand to impress the society's visitors with his striking experiments.

By 1709 Hauksbee had relocated to Wine Office Court, and by 1712 to Hind Court, both off Fleet Street and near to the Royal Society's house at Crane Court. After the publication in 1709 of his internationally acclaimed Physico-Mechanical Experiments he appears to have given lectures himself, and was sought out as a natural philosopher by visiting foreigners such as Abraham Vater and Zaccharius von Uffenbach.

By January 1712 the science business was more competitive. , son of his brother John, established a rival instrument shop in Crane Court itself, and advertised the educated Humphry Ditton as his lecturer. Hauksbee immediately counter-advertised a course of experiments, based on his Royal Society work, and stressed that he was ‘the only Person to whom the late Improvements are owing’ (Daily Courant, 14 Jan 1712). In the summer he engaged the renowned but theologically disgraced William Whiston, who went on to lecture for Francis junior from March 1713. After Hauksbee's death the rising star Jean Theophilus Desaguliers briefly lectured for his widow. Although the venture failed, it was Desaguliers, not the ambitious Francis junior, who filled Hauksbee's position at the Royal Society.

Hauksbee's Physico-Mechanical Experiments was translated into Italian (1716), Dutch (1735), and French (1754), and was widely read throughout the eighteenth century; it established his international reputation. The French introduction eulogized his experiments as the first exemplification of the systematic spirit in science and Hauksbee himself as possessing the four ‘qualités dont la reunion forme le Physicien’ (‘qualities that together make up the natural philosopher’; Desmarest, xliii). The opinions of outsiders were not shared by his London colleagues, nor perhaps by Hauksbee. Presenting himself as ‘undeserving’ with a ‘want of a learned Education’ he merely proffered ‘surprizing observations’ to ‘the Intelligent Philosophical Reader’ (Physio-Mechanical Experiments, dedicatory letter). For Desaguliers, Hauksbee's experiments were not true philosophy because they followed no mathematical order.

Other fellows of the Royal Society did not treat Hauksbee as a natural philosopher. Although its curator of experiments de facto, he was never curator by office as had been Robert Hooke, his predecessor. He was treated as a servant, employed part-time, ordered to experiment, occasionally chastised, and given no fixed salary. The society's council remunerated him retrospectively ‘as he deserves’. His deserts ranged from £15 to a maximum in 1707 of £40 ‘for his last years waiting upon the Society and shewing and trying their experiments’ (Royal Society, council minutes, 2 July 1707). Hauksbee died in Hind Court, intestate, aged fifty-two, and was buried on 29 April 1713 in the churchyard of St Dunstan-in-the-West. The society acknowledged his death only by granting his widow £20 outstanding remuneration. In 1714 Mary was granted administration of a surely meagre estate. She moved to a Tower Hill almshouse, returned to drapery (taking three apprentices, including her son Calvin), and was given charity by the Drapers' Company in 1716 and, grudgingly, by the Royal Society in 1731.

STEPHEN PUMFREY

Sources  

journal book, 1703–13, RS · council minutes, 1703–13, RS · L. Stewart, The rise of public science: rhetoric, technology, and natural philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660–1750 (1992) · S. Pumfrey, ‘Who did the work? Experimental philosophers and public demonstrators in Augustan England’, British Journal for the History of Science, 28 (1995), 131–56 · Daily Courant (1710–13) · N. Desmarest, ‘Discours historique et raisonné sur les expériences de M. Hauksbee’, in F. Hauksbee, Expériences physico-mécaniques sur différents sujets, trans. M. de Brémond, 2 vols. (1754) · J. Harris, Lexicon technicum, or, An universal English dictionary of arts and sciences, 1–2 (1704–10) · H. Guerlac, ‘Francis Hauksbee: expérimentateur au profit de Newton’, Archives Internationales d'Histoire des Sciences, 16 (1963), 113–28 · P. Boyd, ‘Register of the apprentices and freemen of the Drapers' Company of London’, Drapers' Company, London · freedom book, Drapers' Company, London, FA4 · quarterage book, Drapers' Company, London, QB10 · J. H. Round, ed., Register of the scholars admitted to Colchester School, 1637–1740 (1897) · Colchester Borough Monday Court books, Essex RO, D/B 5 Cb1/25, fol. 97r · parish register, London, Holy Sepulchre without Newgate, GL, MS 7219/2–3 · parish register, St Mary-at-the-Walls, Colchester, 27 May 1660, Essex RO, D/P 245/1/2, 246/1/2 [baptism] · parish register, Earls Colne, Essex, Essex RO, D/P 209/1/2 · parish register, London, St Dunstan-in-the-West, 29 April 1713, GL, MS 10350 [burial] · bishop's commissary court act books, GL, MS 9168/32, fol. 8r · London in 1710: from the travels of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, ed. and trans. W. H. Quarrell and M. Mare (1934)

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Francis Hauksbee (bap. 1660, d. 1713): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/12618