John Wilkins Ramp

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John Wilkins(14 February 1614  – 19 November 1672) was an English clergyman, natural philosopher and author, as well as one of the founders of the Royal Society. He was Bishop of Chester from 1668 until his death.

Wilkins is one of the few persons to have headed a college at both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. He was a polymath, although not one of the most important scientific innovators of the period. His personal qualities were brought out, and obvious to his contemporaries, in reducing political tension in Interregnum Oxford, in founding the Royal Society on non-partisan lines, and in efforts to reach out to religious nonconformists. He was one of the founders of the new natural theology compatible with the science of the time. He is particularly known for An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668) in which, amongst other things, he proposed a universal language and a decimal system of measure not unlike the modern metric system.


In 1638 Wilkins published his first book The Discovery of a World in the Moon which was in fact appeared anonymously. In 1640 he published, also anonymously, A Discourse concerning a New Planet and from this time the Discourse and the Discovery have been published together as a single work. The work is addressed to the general reader rather than experts in the subject, and its aim is to popularize the view of the universe due to Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. The main argument is that the Moon is not a shining disk but rather it is a world with a landscape like that of the Earth. Of course Wilkins was not the first to put forward such a theory; for example Galileo had argued in a similar way. Perhaps more surprisingly, he believed that the Moon is a habitable planet and he predicts that one day travel to the Moon will be possible. Again Wilkins was not the first to come up with this suggestion but it is typical of the way that he thought, allowing his mind to roam through ideas which others would have found too unconventional to consider.

Bishop John Wilkins described in his book Mathematical Magic or the wonders that may be performed by mechanical geometry a simple magnetic PM, which was suggested by Johannes Taisnierus. At the upper end of a ramp a magnetic lodestone is mounted. The ramp has two openings; one which allows an iron ball to enter the upper ramp at the bottom and another hole at the top through which the ball can drop to a lower ramp which guides it back to the bottom of the upper ramp.

Wilkins also provided an explanation, why this mechanism cannot work. Why should the ball drop through the upper opening instead of eventually flipping to the lodestone? Why should the ball on the lower ramp roll down against the attraction of the magnet, if it does not on the upper ramp? How does the iron ball find out that it must change the direction of movement at the bottom end of the ramps? These questions and the implied explanation can be found in many articles and apparently is the most natural approach to deflate Taisnierus’ idea. If we do a careful analysis of the device in modern terms, we find out that things are not so simple as they seem. Look at the forces which act on the iron ball. Of course, the position of the magnet, the slope of the ramp and the location of the openings must be carefully adjusted. To our surprise, this device does not violate the law of energy conservation – but it does violate the second law of thermodynamics!

We should keep in mind that Wilkins was one of the first scientists who did a great step forward in science, as he replaced many speculations by experiment. However, this did not hinder him to make very witful considerations about the (possibly) living beings on the moon. It should take some more years until an Isaac Newton stated Hypotheses non fingo. John Wilkins’ scientific work also addressed educated common people – an aspect which shall not be underestimated if we regard the common scientific culture in Europe at his time, most scientists communicating in Latin language. Thus Wilkins can be named one of the fathers of modern science

Hans-Peter Gramatke

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