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Huygens’s Collaboration with Instrument Makers

Evidence Towards Huygens’s tendency to appropriate or minimize the design contributions of others

In considering the remote possibility that the rapid improvements that Christiaan Huygens made in the single lens microscope in the years 1677 and 1678 may have reflected the designs of Spinoza’s own microscopes likely purchased by the brothers, [discussed here: Did the Huygenses “buy” Spinoza’s lens polishing technique?; Traces of Spinoza’s Microscope ] one has to consider Huygens’ history of collaboration with the designs of others. J. H. Leopold in his “Christiaan Huygens and his instrument makers” discusses a suggestive falling out between Christiaan Huygens and the renowned clockmaker of Paris, Isaac Thuret. It is one that may shed some light upon Huygens’ tendency to “perfect” or minimize the contributions of others. The disagreement occurs in 1675, two years before Huygens’ synthesis of a new single lens microscope, ending a collaborative relationship that began as early as 1667. As Leopold tells it:

What happened, briefly is the following. In January 1675 Huygens invented a spiral balance spring; an invention which was as vital to portable timekeepers as the pendulum had been for stationary clocks. He promptly went to Thuret to have a model made, in order to apply for a patent. Thuret made the model, but after Huygens left he made another one for himself, with the aid of which he managed to apply for a patent before Huygens did. Huygens was furious about this breach of confidence, and no doubt Thuret did behave very badly though one should remember that we have only Huygens’ version of the matter, and there were a number of important people in Paris who thought that Thuret’s behavior was not quite so unforgivable. And indeed, without distracting in any way from the importance of Huygens’ invention, perhaps this is something to be said for Thuret. When one looks at the first sketches Huygens made of his invention it is clear that the first two (figure 2) differ in a number of details from the next (figure 3): there is a dumb-bell balance, and the spring sits in a small box between the plates where it will be in the way of the ‘scape wheel. In the subsequent sketch, which dates from a few days later, these details have been corrected. It seems possible that on other occasions, too, Thuret had put Huygens’ ideas into a more workmanlike shape, and it must have irked him to be constantly in Huygens’ shadow…The reason Huygens gave for his anger is interesting: he said that over the years he had come to regard Thuret as a friend (228).

While this is certainly at the surface a story of the appropriation of Huygens’ brilliance by another, it shows the fluidity of invention, and the likelihood that Huygens’ abstract and mathematical mechanizing thought process regarded the details of a device less significant than his overall idea of it. Further, we have seen that in his 1678 dealings with Hartsoeker over the microscope that the minimization of the ideas of others, whether malevolent or not, was a tendency in Huygens’ character. What this means for the possible appropriation of any design ideas he may have gained from the purchase of Spinoza’s estate and any instruments included there is hard to say, other than that it would probably be with some ease that he would add the ideas of a recently deceased friend and instrument maker. Further, Leopold’s article generally shows Huygens to be disconnected from the history of the device he turns his inventive mind to, unfocused on the actual mechanism and problem solving focus that a craftsman’s view gives, making the problem solving ideas of others perhaps necessary to both the priming-of-the-pump and the materialization of his remarkable mechanistic intution.

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