History 291 - Fall 2007


Write an essay of about 1500 words on ONE of the following questions.  Your answer should be based on the readings, lectures, and precept discussions of the course so far, and you should support your argument by specific examples drawn from those sources.  No additional research is necessary, but you are welcome to do further reading if you wish. You should, of course, give proper citation for all your sources. Essays are due by 3:00 p.m., Friday, 30 March, in the History Department Office, 129 Dickinson Hall.  NO EXTENSIONS WILL BE GRANTED. Since this is a take-home exercise, it falls under Academic Regulations rather than the Honor Code. Hence, it requires the statement This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations" with your signature, attesting that you have read and understand the provisions set forth in Academic Integrity at Princeton.


It seems to me that the everyday practice of the famous Arsenal of Venice offers to speculative minds a large field for philosophizing, and in particular in that part which is called 'mechanics'."

What do the frontispiece of Domenico Fontana's Moving the Obelisk and the opening words of Galileo Galilei's Two New Sciences tell us about the relationship between engineering experience and the emerging science of mechanics in the 16th  and early 17th centuries? 

(Click on picture to enlarge in a new window.)


Almost all the authors we have discussed this semester wrote at length regarding the relationship of their work to previous systems of knowledge, whether classical or medieval.  Drawing upon at least three authors, discuss how they positioned themselves in relation to the past.  Is there a change detectable over the century between Copernicus and Descartes?


The authors of the historical sources we have read this semester used a variety of means to establish their authority to make claims about their subject. For instance, some claimed their theories or methods were similar to those of other, well-respected authorities, while some tried to assert a new basis for authority.  Choose at least three authors, and compare the ways in which they asserted their authority and attempted to persuade others of it.  What might differences among the authors’ techniques say about their relative status or that of their subject matter? Is there a change in these techniques over the 16th and 17th centuries?


"Mechanics, since it operates against nature or rather in rivalry with the laws of nature, surely deserves our highest admiration."  (Guidobaldo dal Monte, Book of Mechanics, 1577)

"I have seen ... the general run of mechanicians deceived in trying to apply machines to many operations impossible by their nature. ... These deceptions appear to me to have their principal cause in the belief which these craftsmen have, and continue to hold, in being able to raise very great weights with a small force, as if with their machines they could cheat nature, whose instinct --nay, whose most firm constitution-- is that no resistance may be overcome by a force that is not more powerful than it."  (Galileo, Mechanics, 1600)

"Nature to be commanded, must be obeyed."  (Bacon, New Organon, 1620)

How well do these passages illustrate the transition of technology from magic to science, as discussed by William Eamon in his article, "Technology as magic ..."?


The "Skeptical Challenge" of the 17th century presented perhaps the most significant critique of a coherent study of nature as a means of arriving at "Truth." Explain the elements and origins of the challenge, and compare Francis Bacon's and Marin Marsenne's attempts to answer the skeptics. Imagining yourself among their readers at the time, how persuasive do you find their arguments?