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Prometheus's Fire: Abstracts

Chapter 3: The Transmogrification of the Irish Colonial Tradition of Mathematics, Science and Engineering

Dr Norman McMillan

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Sir William Petty

Analysing the origins of Dublin science in the Protestant colonial context, the author goes in some depth into Church-State relations, and the Baconian theory of the State. The Tudor monarchy used Trinity College as a means of exiling intellectuals of the Puritan persuasion, perceived as a threat.

The period before 1641 under Laud and Strafford was dedicated to destroying Trinity as a Puritan power-base. Under Cromwell the situation was reversed, and Trinity became a source of conscious Baconian influence, under the influence of 'The New Atlantis', the prime movers being Petty and Hartlib.

The institutional development of science and education, as laid down by these pioneers, persisted over the centuries, even up to GF Fitzgerald in the 1890s who was reading and quoting Bacon in the context of his campaigning for technical education in Dublin.

The author brings out the American connection via Dublin-visiting Puritans such as Winthrop (1606-1676) who became Governor of Connecticut, and Mather (1639-1723) who founded the Boston Philosophical Society and became President of Harvard. Mather was a pioneer republican who opposed Charles II's attempt to suppress Boston's Charter in 1683.

Coming to the 18th century the author goes in some depth into the role of the Dublin Philosophical Society, with Molyneux and Berkeley, as a bridge between the pioneers and the later flowering of Irish colonial science in the 19th century. He traces the institutional linkages and relates them to the original Baconian model of Petty and Hartlib. He traces the industrial influences via those of the colonists who became Quakers.

The author concludes by adumbrating the uptake of the Baconian approach to education by the emerging Catholic business community, starting with Kane. The overall sweep of this chapter is something of a challenge to historians, containing is it does seminal ideas for numerous theses in what is almost a virgin field of academic research. It also, paradoxically, can be said to outline how the Irish both scientific and democratic republican traditions might be linked back to Cromwell via the Enlightenment.

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