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John Wilkins
An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language
London, 1668
fol. in 4s: p 2 a–d2 B–3M4 3a4 3A–3T4
Savile A 4

The design of Ark proposed by John Wilkins in his Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language. Wilkins viewed the Ark not so much as a ship but as a ‘Float to swim above water’. He was careful to allow space for enough meat to sustain the carnivores during the year they spent on the waters: 1,825 sheep, illustrated in the engraving packed tightly into pens in the centre of the deck. Catalogue no.36, plate facing p.166.
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As accounts of the Ark became more elaborate, their natural historical content became more prominent through attempts to name and describe all the animals. In the case of John Wilkins, his ‘enumeration and description of the several species of Animals’ – a necessary preliminary to a universal language – was the occasion for a consideration of the Ark. He is convinced that ‘Philosophy and Mathematicks’ can finally defeat the scoffing of sceptics and atheists. These were indeed the two components of contemporary debate: ‘philosophy’ in this context meant the natural history of animals, while ‘mathematicks’ referred to the size of the cubit, calculations of the space required and the shape and disposition of the overall design.

In fact Wilkins’ treatment of the Ark is, as he acknowledges, a refinement of Buteo’s (catalogue no. 27 ). He establishes an equivalency for each species in terms of one of the three animal units used by Buteo – cow, sheep and wolf – along with space and food requirements for each unit. He is careful to err on the gener ous side in all cases, providing, for example, ‘such fair Stalls or Cabins as may be abundantly sufficient for them in any kind of posture’ (p. 165). He calculates that the carnivores will need 1,825 sheep to eat during the year spent in the Ark, but manages to accommodate all the animals required for food along with those preserved for procreation on the lowest of his three stories. This is illustrated above the view of the exterior of the Ark, with the sheep for food in the pens stretching along the middle of the deck. Insects and such small creatures as mice and rats would not require specific accommodation, while snakes, lizards, frogs, and so forth could live happily enough in the bilge. The calculated quantity of hay for the ruminants was easily stored on the middle deck, while Noah and his family lived above with the birds.

The design of the Ark, which was not a ship but ‘intended only for a kind of Float to swim above water’, also followed Buteo, and its dimensions of 300×50×30 were expressed in the unit of the common cubit. Wilkins addresses the general question of units of length elsewhere in the book, when he observes that the nations of the world are just as divided in this matter as they are in language. His complementary proposal to a universal language is a universal measure based on a natural standard, and the one he favours, which he attributes to Christopher Wren, is the length of a pendulum beating seconds.

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