This is the preface (pages iii-v) of Stephen Johnston, ‘Making mathematical practice: gentlemen, practitioners and artisans in Elizabethan England’ (Ph.D. Cambridge, 1994). See the contents page for access to the main chapters online.


This thesis has been researched and written over many years. Such non-conformity with the modern practice of efficient Ph.D. production cannot necessarily be recommended. Nevertheless, it has had certain advantages. Principal among these has been the ability to benefit from the major changes represented by recent historiography. Though my title might suggest the history of mathematics as a prime point of reference, my work is principally linked to the field of science and technology studies. Sociologists and sociological historians such as Bruno Latour and Steve Shapin have been my backstage figures, prompting many of the questions which have driven both narrative and analysis.

I have, however, steered away from the attempt to adjudicate between social constructivism, actor-network theory or any of the other competing programmatic versions of science and technology studies. Having struggled with those writings of the 1970s in which historians explicitly (but often inadequately) responded to the work of Thomas Kuhn, I have sought to avoid the rapid obsolescence which overtakes such efforts. Moreover, the privileging of the recent literature would unbalance a study which has drawn on whatever profitable resources came to hand, whether they were from sociology, earlier historiography or (as has also been the case) from technical ethnography and nautical archaeology. It is therefore under the humble guise of the historian that I present this new interpretation of the Elizabethan culture of mathematical practice. The sufficiency of my account rests on the evidence of its primary material (in the form of books, manuscripts, maps, charts, plans and mathematical instruments) and on the tales that it tells. [page iv:]

Inevitably, I have piled up debts during what has been a lengthy journey. Firstly to my supervisor Jim Bennett, for the example of his own work and for his continued faith in the face of what were (only apparently, of course) perpetually shifting objectives; also to many friends and colleagues for support and discussion, particularly Tim Boon and Alan Morton at the Science Museum, and J.V. Field. As a newcomer to the study of ship design, I was fortunate to find Richard Barker. He not only shared his own knowledge of Renaissance shipping but freely offered his unpublished translations of Renaissance and modern Portuguese sources, sources which would otherwise have remained largely inaccessible to me. Many others have helped through correspondence and personal dialogue; I hope they will not mind if I favour brevity over completeness. Despite such help, this dissertation is the result of my own work and includes nothing which is the outcome of work done in collaboration.

Almost all of the writing and a substantial part of the research for this study have been undertaken since I joined the Science Museum. Particular thanks must go to the museum for providing study leave, and also to its photographic, reprographic and library staff who have assisted over the years. In addition to these resources of time and practical help, my study has also been shaped by other aspects of museum work. Like my mathematical practitioners, I too have worked on construction projects and have (successfully!) sought to persuade central government to part with large sums of money for building. Without suggesting an anachronistic identity of experience, such episodes have altered the questions that I have asked (and, indeed, those that I have been able to ask). [page v:]

But while the museum has figured largely in the preparation of the dissertation, most of the material was written at home. In a study which emphasises the local character of knowledge and action, it is perhaps not surprising that my deepest debts lie where the work of writing actually took place. More than mere thanks are due to Isabelle, who has helped me through to completion.