Timekeepers, instruments and 'curiosities' in Georgian Britain

As Katy mentioned in her great response to a performance of The Rake's Progress, 'curiosities' were all the rage in Georgian Britain. Although contemporary satirists such as Hogarth poked fun at the more posturing, ill-educated, overzealous or fraudulent of collectors and exhibitors of curiosities, this had far more to do with those individuals' negative characteristics that with the objects themselves.

Today we tend to refer to something as 'curious' or as a 'curiosity' when we mean that it is unusual in a circumscribed and potentially unsettling or negative manner - but these terms had other connotations during the eighteenth century. The Georgians associated them more with what we might call intellectual and scientific curiosity, or a general curiosity about the world. They were intended to be interesting and often wondrous reflections of the manifestations and potential of Nature, Man and their Creator. As we shall see, they also encompassed what we would now call scientific instruments, and timekeepers including those of John Harrison!

Curiosities and curious things were not just inanimate objects - such as a tropical shell, a mounted pufferfish or a piece of artwork carved by distant natives - which could be admired from a visual standpoint. Many purported to produce mechanical motion or to expose hitherto unseeable aspects of natural phenomena, in which case these sights were of equal or greater importance than the instruments that provided them. Mechanical automata were highly popular with the public, as they had been for centuries and would continue to be into the modern era - for example, the 'Monster Robot' below, which was exhibited by Mullard Ltd in 1932!

Monster Robot 1932 SSPL.jpg

Instruments for the study of the appearance and behaviour of the natural world were similarly popular, including: models such as planetaria and orreries; instruments that projected images, including magic lanterns and solar microscopes; and optical instruments such as microscopes, telescopes and burning glasses.

Some of the sellers and makers of instruments and timekeepers specifically treated elements of their stock as 'curiosities'. For example, the respected optician John Yarwell (active 1671 - died 1713) near St Paul's Churchyard, whose trade card from 1683 you can see below, referred to some of his stock as 'optical curiosities' and touted microscopes for observing natural 'curiosities' including the circulation of the blood in fish and 'animalcula' in pepper water. Similar terminology and advertising strategies were employed by other instrument makers and sellers during the eighteenth century, including Yarwell's former apprentice George Willdey (freed from apprenticeship in 1702 - died 1737).

Yarwell trade card 1683 SSPL.jpg

Willdey was one of the longest-serving Masters of the Spectaclemakers' Company, which oversaw the production and sale of optical instruments as well as eyeglasses, and he diversified his retail and wholesale business to include many other fashionable wares as well. In 1720, the optician advertised in the newspapers that his shop near St Paul's was a 'Grand Magazine of Curiosities' and offered to pay sailors for procuring more. His surviving shop accounts, advertisements and trade cards show that he viewed the large numbers of instruments that he sold and bartered at the retail and wholesale levels each year as natural companions to these other fashionable wares.

The concluding passage of Willdey's lengthy advertisement of 1720 reflects how often instruments, timekeepers and other mechanisms were also included amongst the 'curiosities' displayed to a paying audience during the Georgian era - often alongside natural wonders, antiquities, and sensations such as the fabricated remains of mythical beasts. The optician and luxury retailer announced that, 'I have now finished the best Burning Glass in the World, and plac'd it upon the Top of my House'. He then employed about 150 of the most glowing words to describe the purported abilities of the glass to melt all manner of materials including metals and to heat baths and prepare foods in the home, before offering to show it to anyone who had spent five or more shillings at his shop. He concluded with a swipe at a competing burning glass by noting that, 'This far exceeds that show'd in the Privy Garden in White Hall, though each Person paid Half a Crown for the Sight of that.'

Burning Glasses 1799 SSPL.jpg

As with Willdey's erection of a giant burning glass atop his house, showmanship was often closely allied with the widespread interest in the natural world and mechanical possibilities in Georgian Britain. We can see this in the public lecturing of this time at venues from private homes to coffeehouses and theatres, in the commercial and advertising strategies of craftsmen and retailers such as Willdey and even John Harrison, and in the ways in which the learned and literate went to view curiosities and collections or acquired and shared their own. The mechanisms and natural philosophical exhibitions included in many public showings of curiosities and employed in commercially motivated 'stunts', were not as far removed from the experiments exhibited and the technology employed and examined at institutions such as the Royal Society as we might expect.

A colourful satire of instruments-as-curiosities, and one which references the search for the longitude at sea, was the show put on by the popular stage actor Edward Shuter during
the Bartholomew Fair of 1760. (The actor can be seen in the Zoffany portrait below of two years later, in which he is playing Justice Woodcock from the popular ballad opera Love in a Village.) Shuter portrayed a 'Magical Optician' with a warehouse in West Smithfield, 'where will be seen the most uncommon Variety of the greatest Curiosities that were ever exhibited to public View [including] MOMUS, an Astronomer'. Momus would purportedly show the crowd his 'new reflecting Telescope, improved upon the Newtonian Plan, for the Discovery of lost Maidenheads, and the Longitude ; which will put an End to all the Perplexities of the profoundest Mathematicians ; and this Pro Bono Publico, without any Expectation of a Parliamentary Reward for the Automata and Ephemerides.'

Zoffany Love in a Village Wiki.jpg

It was not only such purportedly 'new' optical instruments and automata that were advertised by paying exhibitions of curiosities during the eighteenth century, but also timekeeping mechanisms. This was true in larger public venues but also at the more private showings of 'curiosities' that were not uncommon at the homes of collectors and natural philosophers, and at the homes or workshops of some craftsmen including John Harrison. From H1 in the 1730s onwards, Harrison was not averse to having his inventions displayed to the more literate and influential members of the domestic and foreign public and to other craftsmen, first at the shop of George Graham and then at his own home. (Of course, he often denied fellow clockmakers and foreign representatives a view of the timekeepers' innards, so that they could not steal his innovations!)

We thus have records of the opinions of diverse visitors to Harrison's chronometers, from intellectuals and politicians to artists. This includes our friend William Hogarth, who described H3 as 'one of the most exquisite movements ever made', although not as outwardly beautiful as would be a system created by Nature rather than Man. The clockmaker may have sometimes made financial as well as social and intellectual gains from these visits since it was common for craftsmen, inventors and collectors to charge for the right to view their more interesting wares or acquisitions - and Benjamin Franklin is known to have paid 10 shillings and six pence 'to see his Longitude Clock' in 1757.

As we can see with Harrison's inventions and with Yarwell's descriptions of microscopic views of blood and microorganisms, the Georgian terms 'curious' and 'curiosity' could be applied to almost anything that exhibited qualities such as newness, innovation, ingenuity or exoticness. In fact, when the first known group meeting of the Commissioners of Longitude took place in 1737, the London Evening Post reported it as a meeting of 'Persons of Distinction' who viewed and 'express'd the greatest Satisfaction' at 'a curious Instrument for finding out the Longitude, made by Mr. Harrison of Leather-lane, which he has been six Years in finishing.'

As is true for so many relevant terms that were frequently employed during the eighteenth century -- such as curiosity, perfection, discovery and even board -- we will have to keep in mind the different shades of meaning that have fallen out of use today. The terms 'curious' and 'curiosity' might lead us to dismiss an object or method and its maker or collector as a lightweight if amusing historical footnote - but Georgian curiosities encompassed far more than just bearded ladies like Baba the Turk and narwhale tusks that were dressed up as unicorn horns.

Bearded Lady Wiki.jpg

Picture credits: Yarwell trade card, burning glasses image and Monster Robot photo - Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library; Zoffany portrait and bearded lady photo - Wikimedia Commons.