This short piece appeared in the Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, 86 (2005), 12-13, part of a special number commemorating the work of John R. Millburn. The interpretation of the syllabus marginalia that features here emerged only during the writing, and could not be conclusively demonstrated before publication. Subsequent investigation has confirmed the dating and shed further light on Benjamin Martin’s lecturing practice and London career. But there is more work still to be done: the snippets of shorthand remain undeciphered.

Benjamin Martin, from beginning to end

In his obituary, Tony Simcock recounts the story of John Millburn’s first contact with Benjamin Martin through the pages of New Scientist in the early 1960s. There is a striking symmetry to the fact that Martin was not only at the origin of Millburn’s enduring engagement with the history of science, but also the focus of one of his last studies.

Title page.
Figure 1
Page 2.
Figure 2

In 2004, a previously unknown Benjamin Martin lecture syllabus came onto the market (Roger Gaskell Rare Books, catalogue 35 item 43). This is a single half-sheet, printed on both sides and intended to be folded to form eight pages. The contents are simple: a title page (figure 1) followed by an outline of fourteen lectures. The merest glance at the opening lecture (figure 2) gives an instant and accurate flavour of Martin’s enterprise. We move immediately from the most grand and abstruse elements of Newtonian philosophy – the laws of attraction and repulsion, the universal power of nature – to the extremely particular and concrete: the nature of glues, cements and soldering. While Martin promises to unlock the true causes of nature’s ‘principal phenomena’, the first lecture shows that he also appreciated the value of medals and mirrors in capturing and holding his audience’s attention. The remainder of the course ranges widely over electricity and magnetism, pneumatics, astronomy, optics, hydrostatics and hydraulics, mechanics, gunnery and fortification, and the use of the sphere and terrestrial globe, illustrated wherever possible with improved apparatus of Martin’s own design.

John Millburn acquired this rare piece of ephemera and generously donated it to the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford. He not only published a brief notice in the last issue of The Country Showman (no. 8, December 2004) but, entirely characteristically, accompanied his donation with a more substantial paper: Benjamin Martin's Lecture Courses and Syllabuses (Aylesbury: [the author], 2004). This ten page ‘publication’ is now accessioned and catalogued in the museum’s library, along with several other of Millburn’s privately printed and distributed texts.

Prior to the discovery of this new syllabus, there were three other Martin examples known, each of which advertises a shorter course of either six or twelve lectures. None of the four examples are dated, but the other three all include book lists which, given Martin’s prolific printed output, can be dated to within a year or two. Millburn was led to produce a detailed analysis of this new syllabus because it has no such ready means for dating.

His investigation is typically careful and systematic. He reviews the other syllabuses and relates them to Martin’s textbooks; using advertisements placed in London newspapers from 1756 to 1762, he reconstructs the topics, times and cost of Martin’s evening lectures for the first winter seasons after his establishment in the capital; he then compares the new 14 lecture syllabus with these listings to suggest a date in the later 1750s; finally, he adduces some corroborating evidence from the type-ornaments which decorate the text and separate the lectures, and which also appear in some of his other contemporary publications.

Although he allowed for the possibility that the syllabus might date from the period just after Martin settled in London in the mid-1750s, Millburn concluded that, on balance, the most likely date for the syllabus was c. 1758. When planning this brief piece I frankly assumed that no more could be said on the matter. In trawling through newspaper adverts, collating the subjects of individual lectures and even drawing on its typography, surely Millburn had comprehensively exhausted the evidence which the syllabus could supply?

Yet it turns out that there is just a little more to be said. Figure 2 shows that there are some marginalia on the sheet. Slight though they appear, might they be in any way significant? This question takes us into material which Millburn did not tackle. Perhaps it might seem inappropriate in this commemorative issue to step beyond the direct celebration of his achievement. But I think that Millburn himself would have approved: he not only systematically quarried newspapers and archives for fresh information but drew out the precise significance of even the smallest scraps of ephemeral evidence.

The annotation against the head of Lecture I is evidently in one of the many early-modern systems of non-phonetic shorthand. I cannot read it, but it should come as no surprise that Martin’s polymathic interests included a short commercial dalliance with the art. Equally unsurprising, it was John Millburn who unearthed the connection. Among the ‘Anomalous Activities’ noted in the 1986 Supplement to his biography, Millburn noted that Martin took subscriptions for and sold John Angel’s 1758 work on shorthand, and that in March 1759 Angel opened a school for shorthand near Martin’s shop (pp. 56-7).

While the timing of the association with Angel agrees remarkably with Millburn’s dating of the syllabus, there is no reason to think that this shorthand is the work of Martin himself. More likely, the notes were added by a visitor to Martin’s shop, where the syllabus would have been freely available. Indeed, the annotations may have been made by a member of his lecture audience.

Only the headings of the first seven lectures are annotated in any way. The first lecture, with its shorthand, is fullest; its text contains what appears to be the number 18. Lecture VI also has a slight shorthand squiggle. The other five annotated lectures each have a number, creating a sequence from I to VII of 18?, 20, 23, 25, 27, ?, 3. Now, Martin typically lectured on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (though in some years he omitted Wednesday lectures). These numbers do make sense as dates: 18? (W), 20 (F), 23 (M), 25 (W), 27 (F), ? (M), 3 (W).

At first sight, it might seem unlikely that Martin would start a course of lectures on a Wednesday. It is of course Millburn who puts us right on this point. In his account of the new syllabus, he cites a preliminary advertisement in the Daily Advertiser of Monday 31 October 1757 as a typical example of those that Martin placed: “MR. BENJAMIN MARTIN will begin his Course of Lectures in Experimental Philosophy, on Wednesday next, at Half an Hour after Six, at his House two Doors below Crane-Court in Fleet-Street; where Syllabuses of the Course may be had gratis”.

Moreover, if these marginal numbers are dates then they tell us much more than the days of the week. For it is evident that the course began in a month with 29 days, and that not only was it therefore a leap year, but that it was a February with five Sundays. This dramatically narrows down the possible date of the annotations, since such years are widely spaced (generally at 28 year intervals, but with allowances for the leap rules of the Gregorian calendar). Indeed, the only year that can match Millburn’s arguments on dating is 1756.

Rather remarkably, and by great calendrical good fortune, these annotations therefore appear to provide the earliest evidence of the launch of Martin’s long-running London lecturing career. He had made a brief and abortive foray in 1745, but quickly abandoned the attempt and returned to provincial lecturing. Millburn documented the London lectures from 1756 onwards using newspaper advertisements, his earliest evidence being for a full winter season of four courses from November 1756 to April 1757. But Millburn had also demonstrated from the City Land Tax books that Martin settled at the premises “two Doors below Crane-Court” in Fleet Street between September 1755 and May 1756, with circumstantial evidence favouring a date nearer the latter than the former.

The dating of the lecture course to February 1756 says nothing about where Martin was based, nor indeed does it prove by itself that Martin was even in London. However, from the format of the course, the one shilling price of individual lectures and the inclusion of apparatus published at the end of 1755 in Martin’s General Magazine, Millburn was in no doubt that this was indeed a London syllabus. But what of the conspicuous blank following the words “The Lectures to be read at” on the title page (figure 1)? Millburn was inclined to think that the information to be inserted was the time of the lectures, though he also considered that it might have been a coffee house location prior to his securing of the Fleet Street shop. Either remains possible.

There may yet still be unlocated advertisement evidence from the London newspapers which will confirm the dating suggestion I have made here. Moreover, as this issue of the Bulletin goes to press, news is awaited on the decipherment of the shorthand. Perhaps the first lecture will prove to have been annotated with a venue and the date Wednesday, February 18th, with the sixth recorded as 1 March. Perhaps not. Whatever the case, it is only by pursuing these minute hints that we will reach the level of detail and accuracy with which John Millburn would have been satisfied.

There is one further point to add. In addition to their other annotation, the first three lectures have a cross beside them. Perhaps this anonymous owner went to the first three lectures and abandoned the rest of the course? By charging for individual lectures rather than requiring a substantial subscription for a complete series (as he had done earlier in his career), Martin not only lowered the financial barrier to attendance but made it much less costly to drop out.

If Martin were alive today he would surely be an internet entrepreneur. How could he have resisted riding the wave of publicity, new media, low cost, universal reach and novel business models? Equally irresistible is the thought that Millburn’s research is peculiarly appropriate to the web. Benjamin Martin was for John Millburn not only the beginning and the end, but a recurring theme and preoccupation of his historical researches. It is a somewhat involved task to trace Millburn’s Martin researches through the original biography in 1976, its Supplement in 1986, the analysis of Martin’s instrument catalogues in Retailer of the Sciences (1986), and then on to the wonderfully-styled The Country Showman, or, Newsletter of the Benjamin Martin Appreciation Society (beginning in 1997) and the self-published Bibliography of 1998. This mix of fastidious detail, complex data and constantly updated information plays to one of the strengths of the web as a medium, not to mention its ability to deliver colour images in quantity much more cheaply than print.

Perhaps, as we remember and celebrate John Millburn’s extraordinary and disciplined love of history and instruments, we should also look to the future. His electronic files still exist, and significant parts of his reference work could no doubt be converted and consolidated into web-accessible databases. Just think how pleased Benjamin Martin would have been at the notion that his bibliography would appear, not just for a few readers in select libraries, but illustrated and available to all.