The Compendium Physicae

An Introduction by Theodore Hornberger

CHARLES Morton’s Compendium Physicae, here printed for the first time, is the text-book in science which was used by Harvard College students during most of the forty years between 1687 and 1728. As Mr. Morison has shown,1 it was probably compiled by Morton about 1680, brought with him from England in 1686, and adopted at Harvard in time to have visible effects upon the Commencement theses of 1687. A fairly safe presumption is that it was not entirely superseded until 1728, when Isaac Greenwood became the first Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy.

Greenwood’s approach to scientific studies, considerably different from Morton’s, was acquired in London under the tutelage of such teachers as John Theophilus Desaguliers, one of the first popularizers of Sir Isaac Newton’s discoveries and theories. The new technique may be observed in Greenwood’s prospectus, An Experimental Course on Mechanical Philosophy (Boston, 1726), and in the use at Harvard, after 1728, of Thomas Hollis’s gift of a “fine Apparatus for Experimental Philosophy.” That gift, which followed the foundation of the professorship, included “machines for experiments of falling bodies, of the centre of gravity, and of centrifugal forces,” “very nice balances,” siphons, “tubes for the Torricellian experiment,” a “large, double-barrelled Air-Pump,” mirrors (“concave, convex, cylindric”), lenses, prisms, and “the whole apparatus for the Newtonian theory of light and colors.”2

The arrival of this apparatus is a landmark in the history of the teaching of science in America. Yet Morton’s Compendium, as he who reads it will discover, pointed out the importance of experimental methods, described many of them, and gave Harvard students at least a glimpse of the so-called “New Science” when that amazing expansion of the European mind had attracted the attention of but few university men.

Mr. Morison, in his foreword, has told of Morton’s eventful life; his Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century contains the only study made heretofore of the significance and most important origins of the Compendium. There remain but two tasks: to describe the manuscripts which have, after two centuries, come to seem worth printing as a revelation of colonial intellectual life and the transfer of ideas from Europe to America; and to make some additional comment upon the potpourri of ancient and modern ideas which this book presents to the reader interested in the history of science and learning.

The original syllabus which Morton is believed to have prepared for his lectures, and which he must have deposited in the library or some other place convenient for student copyists, can not now be located. It is possible that it may some day be found, but very likely it was destroyed (along with the Hollis apparatus and most of the college library) when Harvard Hall burned in 1764.

Any hope for its eventual discovery rests upon Morton’s will, which assigned to Harvard College the sum of fifty pounds, but gave to his executor the power to dispose of “all his philosophical writings, sermon notes, pamphlets, mathematical instruments and other rarities.” In 1859 William B. Sprague stated that two of Morton’s manuscripts were still preserved: one, with a Latin title, in the library of the, with the title in English, at Bowdoin College.3 The Antiquarian Society now possesses two transcriptions of the Compendium; but that with a Latin title lacks many of the diagrams and otherwise shows evidence of being a copy, although the copyist and the date are unknown. Bowdoin College has no record of ever having owned any Morton papers, though Sprague’s statement is repeated in the notice of Morton in the Dictionary of American Biography. The Massachusetts Historical Society, however, has a transcription by Jeremy Gridley which was presented to it in 1817 by Professor Parker Cleaveland of Bowdoin. It seems likely that Gridley’s copy is the Bowdoin manuscript which Sprague had heard about.

It is possible, moreover, that there are in existence other transcriptions than those listed below, although my own search has been supplemented by investigations of Mr. Morison and of Arthur O. Norton, who has recently published the result of his twenty-year hunt for seventeenth-century Harvard text-books.4 Thus far there are thirteen known copies of Morton’s manuscript. They are listed here in chronological order.5


Bodleian MS., Bodleian Library. (6) 292 pages, with synopses at the end of each chapter. It lacks, however, the mnemonic verses which are in the fuller American transcriptions, and is obviously a copy of an earlier manuscript than that used at Harvard. It was perhaps made by Bartholomew Beale, son of Mary Beale, a popular portrait painter.6 It is dated at the end: “Finitum. 29 Martij 1680.”


Partridge MS., Yale University Library. 58-page extract. It was made by William Partridge (H. C. 1689), who dated it: “11:9:[1687] Incepimus: Iterum Incepimus 18:12:1688 … Compendium hoc Physicum W. P. fuit finitum 13.2.1688.”


Greenleaf MS., Massachusetts Historical Society. 39 pages of synopses, 1-page index, and 96 pages of text and diagrams. This is the text used as the basis for this printed edition. It was made by Daniel Greenleaf (H. C. 1699) and is dated by this inscription: “Transcriptum et Finitum. Octob: 3. Anno. 1697. Per me D: G:”


Eells MS., Tale University Library. 173 pages (pages 135–138 lacking), with diagrams, and with synopses at the ends of chapters. It was made by Nathanael Eells (H. C. 1699), who dated it: “Ended October 28th In The year 1697.”


American Antiquarian Society MS. 113 pages, incomplete (last half of Chapter 30 and all of Chapter 31 lacking), with some diagrams, blank spaces left for others, and a few synopses at the ends of earlier chapters. Its transcriber is unknown.


Curwin MS., Massachusetts Historical Society. 52-page condensation. It was made by George Curwin (H. C. 1701) and carries the date “2do Martii 1700[/I].”


Webb MS., Massachusetts Historical Society, 110 pages, with diagrams, and with a few synopses at the ends of chapters. It was made by John Webb (H. C. 1708), who states: “Transcriptum per me Johannem Webb, Tricessimo Die Julii Anno Christi Millesimo Septingentissimo Septimo.” Webb’s title-page, printed below, carries the date 1687, indicating that he worked from a manuscript copy made in that year and now lost.


Ayer MS., Harvard University Archives. 172 pages, with some diagrams. It was made by Obadiah Ayer (H. C. 1710): “Transcriptum per me Obadiah Ayer Anno 1708.”


Blake MS., Boston Public Library. 161 pages, with diagrams. It is said to be in the handwriting of James Blake (H. C. 1769), but it was perhaps made by Samuel Blake (H. C. 1711), in which case it may date from 1709 or 1710. The library catalogue card gives the date 1713; the dates 1721 and 1768 are on the flyleaf.


Brown MS., Massachusetts Historical Society. 95 pages, followed by a 1-page index; much abbreviated. It was made by John Brown (H. C. 1714), as appears from his autograph at the end. There is no date anywhere in the manuscript.


Ward MS., Harvard University Archives. 113 pages, with a few diagrams. It was made by Robert Ward (H. C. 1719), who dated it: “Finitum … Calendis Octob: Anno Salutis Milesimo septigentesimo decimo quarto.”


Rogers MS., American Antiquarian Society. 172 pages, with diagrams, to which are appended 3 pages of “Rules to be observed in making an almanack,” 6 pages extracted from John Wallis’s article on tides in No. 16 of the Philosophical Transactions, 6 pages of “astronomical definitions,” and 2 pages of mathematical problems. It was made by Nathaniel Rogers (H. C. 1717): “Began April the 18th 1715.” “Finished August 29 1715 Per Nathaniel Rogers.”


Gridley MS., Massachusetts Historical Society. 198 pages, with blank spaces for diagrams. It was made by Jeremy Gridley (H. C. 1725). The title page has the date “Anno Domini Millesimo Septingentesimo Decimo Nono.” At the end of his transcript Gridley has written: “Scriptum per me Jeremiam Gridley Anno D 1721 Laus Deo.” The autograph of Mather Byles (1707–1788) appears on the title page.

The text which is here followed is that made by Daniel Greenleaf, corrected by collation with the Eells MS., the Webb MS., and, on occasional passages, with the two manuscripts at the Antiquarian Society. The Bodleian MS. has been used in a few instances. Brackets indicate either omissions by Greenleaf or the correction of scribal errors which obscure the sense. In either case the principle has been to preserve Greenleaf’s reading except for obvious and bothersome mistakes where both Eells and Webb agree upon a variant. The spelling is Greenleaf’s, as are the capitals and punctuation in all but a very few places where slight changes have been made for the sake of clarity. His paragraphing has not been regularly followed. Superior letters have been brought down to the line and the words spelled out. The diagrams are those made by Greenleaf.

The notions in Morton’s Compendium flow to it from the past through many devious channels. In some cases Morton has culled more or less brand-new ideas from such contemporary sources as the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. More frequently his concepts must be referred back to the science and philosophy (never sharply distinct) of the Middle Ages, or even of remote antiquity. Usually, to be sure, they have been modified by some of the hot debates of the seventeenth century, a period of great intellectual conflict, but in a very real sense the Compendium is a microcosm of men’s speculation about the external world from the time of Empedocles down to the eve of Newton’s Principia—a span of well over two thousand years.

It is not surprising, therefore, that both the ultimate and the intermediate origins of Morton’s information and theory are often uncertain, and that any study of provenience is bound to be fragmentary and uneven. I wish to suggest, however, in addition to Mr. Morison’s comments, three general points of inquiry which have proved fruitful in reaching some understanding of the intellectual climate of Morton’s book. Brief consideration of the more specific sources is offered in the footnotes.

It soon becomes evident that the Compendium is dominated by Aristotelian science. By virtue of centuries of pre-eminence in university studies, Aristotle clearly shapes the larger scheme of Morton’s book, which follows roughly the traditional order in which the Schoolmen arranged the Aristotelian corpus.7 Morton’s second and third chapters simplify, systematize, modify, and yet are ultimately dependent upon the Organon and the Physica, the books of Aristotle which treat of logic and of the general part of physics, and which long formed the introduction to Aristotelian studies. Chapter IV takes on new meaning when it is thought of as a distant echo of the De Caelo. Chapters VI–XI reflect the De Generatione et Corruptione; Chapters XII–XVI are in large part similar to the Meteorologica, whose authenticity, now a matter of scholarly dispute, was not questioned in the Schools. For the remainder of Morton’s book Aristotle’s biological treatises are exceedingly useful, although not so closely related, those in point including the De Anima, whence come many of the definitions and divisions from Chapters XIX–XXX, the Parva Naturalia, and some of the treatises connected with the Historia Animalium. Even the Metaphysica has occasional paragraphs that have tangential relationship to terminology and distinctions employed by Morton. There can be no doubt that Morton was thoroughly grounded in his Aristotle as studied and interpreted by the Schoolmen. What commentaries he knew best remains one of the problems to be solved by some specially qualified scholar.

Morton’s Compendium is also closely related to the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century revolt against Aristotle, as exemplified particularly by René Descartes. For reasons which will appear, Morton’s ideas are not Cartesian in the degree to which they are Aristotelian, yet his book supports the belief of recent scholarship that Descartes was for a time more important in English thought than the much-honored Francis Bacon.8 There is some reason to believe that Morton knew at first hand the Principia Philosophiae, perhaps even the De Homine and Les Passions de l’Âme;9 there is better reason to think that he was familiar with some famous Cartesian text-books. Mr. Morison has shown that there were others who, like Morton, tried to reconcile the new knowledge with the old. His description of Adrian Heereboord’s Parallelismus Aristoteliscae et Cartesianae (1643) and Meletemata Philosophica (1654) indicates a type of transitional text-book long popular at Harvard.10 Closer in spirit to Morton were later disciples of Descartes: Jean Baptiste du Hamel, Jacques Rohault, and Antoine Legrand. Du Hamel was the author of Philosophia Vetus et Nova ad Usum Scholae Accomodata (4 vols., Paris, 1678); Rohault, of a Traité de Physique (Paris, 1671) which was many times revised, translated into Latin and English, and served as a popular text-book well into the eighteenth century. Legrand lived for many years in England, and wrote a number of books organizing the Cartesian ideas into Aristotelian order. Of these the most famous was Institutio Philosophiae, Secundum Principia R. Descartes, Novo Methodo Adornala et Explicata ad Usum Iuventutis Academicae (London, 1672). Later translated by Richard Blome as An Entire Body of Philosophy According to the Principles of Renate Des Cartes (London, 1694), this book was probably known to Morton. It follows the Aristotelian order very much as does the Compendium; it includes a number of diagrams strikingly like Morton’s; it makes many of the Scholastic divisions in language almost exactly the same as Morton’s; and it even uses (though infrequently) the device of mnemonic verses which is such an integral part of Morton’s method. Many of Legrand’s verses come from Lucretius or Ovid, but he is sometimes original, as in this brief summary of the universe:

Mind, Measure, Rest, and Motion,

With Figure, and Position,

To Matter join’d, the Causes be

Of all what here below we see.11

Morton and Legrand (or perhaps Legrand’s translator) clearly belong to the same school of poetry. Indeed, it is hard to escape the conviction that Morton owed his method, and a good deal of his matter, either to Legrant or to some contemporary extremely like him.

The Compendium reflects far more than superficially the stage of English thought represented by Robert Boyle and the early years of the Royal Society. Boyle is not only cited more frequently than any other contemporary writer, but portions of his work also provide much of the matter for several of the chapters.12 Morton’s extensive acquaintance with Boyle’s writings accounts for his tendency to shy away from Cartesianism, even though he does not go the length of accepting atomism or corpuscularianism, which Boyle, with certain theological reservations, embraced, in company with Pierre Gassendi and others.13 Moreover, other members of the Royal Society than Boyle provide much grist for Morton’s mill, John Wallis, Robert Hooke, and Henry Power being particularly in point, as will appear from the notes. From the present-day point of view, these connections are most creditable to Morton, since they constitute his strongest claim to “modernity.” Because of them, he ordinarily rejects Descartes, even where Legrand had most enthusiastically accepted him. And there are enough such connections to justify placing Morton, despite all his faults of omission and over-simplification, at approximately the Boylean stage in the development of modern thought.

It is helpful, in short, to think of Morton’s work as formed by three modes of thought, each of which has been of inestimable value to the intellectual life of the western world. It owes much to the Aristotelians, a good deal to the Cartesians, and most, perhaps, to the much-honored leaders of the Royal Society, who, outlawing theology and politics in their discussions, set out to realize Bacon’s dream of the advancement of learning and the conquest of nature.

Boyle, Morton’s chief scientific master, had said long before the date of the composition of the Compendium that men who sought to write complete systems of natural philosophy had to face the alternative “either idly to repeat what has already [been] … written by others on the same subjects; or else to say any thing on them rather than nothing, lest they should appear not to have said something to every part of the theme, which they had taken upon themselves to write of.” By the very nature of things, Morton’s was an impossible task. But he undertook it, we may be sure, in the spirit of Boyle, who had gone on to say that “such a work may be useful, partly, for the instructing of youth in schools and academies; and partly, that men may have, from time to time, an inventory of what hath been already discovered; whereby the needless labour of seeking after known things may be prevented, and the progress of mankind, as to knowledge, might the better appear.”14 In the pursuit of at least the first part of such an intention, Charles Morton brought to the American colonies some measure of the scientific spirit and some tincture of the scientific mind.