Frames /sing


Spinoza’s Grinding Lathe: An Extended Hypothesis

Johannes Hevelius, also, Johannes Hewel, Johann Hewelke, Johannes Höwelcke or Jan Heweliusz (January 28, 1611 - January 28, 1687)

A Proposed Homologue to Spinoza’s Grinding Lathe

It has been revealed by some digging into the record by Stan Verdult that indeed the lathe that occupies the Rijnsburg Spinoza museum is not of the sort Spinoza would have used (though it may give us a sense of the size of his lathe). [Written about here: The Rijnsburg Lathe: Like the Sun, not 200 Feet Away .] But if we are to come close to understanding the near-daily physical practices Spinoza had engaged in as a lens-grinder and maker of both telescopes and microscopes, we need to narrow the view to the design parameters his grinding lathe likely exhibited. I have mentioned in the past that the foot-driven lathe of Hevelius, as published in his astronomical study of the moon, Selenographia (1647), provides us perhaps of the most revealing illustration of the elements that would have been involved.

We know from Spinoza’s comments on the semi-automated designs of Christiaan Huygens whose home in Voorburghe certainly seems to have visited multiple times, that Spinoza favored a simple grinding mechanism, one in which the glass to be ground was held freely in the hand (affixed to a handle). The general disposition among mid-century savants to further automate the grinding process and remove the human element from the process as much as possible seems to have been looked on withextreme doubt by Spinoza. This does not mean that there was no automated aspects to Spinoza’s lens-lathe, for the lathe itself is a machined dynamic which transfers motions by the hand or the foot to a concentric movement put upon the glass blank. It is only that Spinoza preferred the moment-to-moment, lived craft judgments that came from an artisan’s practice through the encounter withthe machine. In this way our focus should be upon the nature of the machine/human interfaces used by Spinoza, and therefore a central question is whether Spinoza used a hand-driven or foot-driven lathe, with a view to visualizing each as vividly as possible.

Foot-driven lathes were not uncommon in the era, in fact Hevelius’ Illustration of his lathe was published when Spinoza was 15 years old, perhaps a decade before his reported lens-grinding days, and likely was not seen as an innovation then. I suggest that it is to this illustration we must turn if we are to get a clear picture of the kind of physical actions Spinoza trained his eye upon.

the lathe as it appears in Heveliuss Selenographia

the lathe as it appears in Hevelius's Selenographia

In the labeled illustration below, one can see the general action of the foot pedal transfer of power to a concentric motion, and the orientation Spinoza may have had, and the pole that may have been fixed to the ceiling of his room:

Here are various details so as to better see the composition of components:

Here one can see the transfer of the cord to a grinding form’s modular base. It would not be necessary, or even likely that this modularity would be a feature of Spinoza’s lathe, but the horizontal orientation of the grinding dish (as opposed to the vertical angle shown in designs from earlier in the century) would be the preferred design, for this would allow gravity to act as ally in abrasive control and arm fatigue. (We do not know how intermittent Spinoza’s tuberculosis was, a disease that he, by Colerus’s account, suffered from since about the age of 24, but the question of endurance could have been a singificant factor in the kind of lathe Spinoza used.)

In this close-up to the foot pedal one can see the simple nature of the drive mechanism. A foot pedal allows of course one to use the larger leg muscles, a benefit for more arduous projects; but it also informs a vertical tension from the floor to the ceiling. There is a cross dynamic between the communications of the foot to the spring pole high above, which is then read in the relative speeds and intensities by the hand pressing its material downward. The oscillations of upward and downward, a horizontal, yet fixed, stable circular whirrings do suggest a grid of complex physical actions and interface. One may be tempted to see in this cross-dynamic the metaphysics of the verticality of Substanced expression, and the horizontality of modal causations. In any case, the foot pedal lathe leaves a distinct epistemo-kinetic imprint upon the craftsman that engages it, something that surely would have informed Spinoza’s thinking about material and its formation. 

Yet on the level of information on technique, perhaps even of more interest in this close up of the Hevelius drawing is the shape of the grinding forms discs placed haphazardly on the floor. They are not the hollowed-out concave metal forms like those, let us say, Hieronymus Sirturus wrote about in his influential book on technique Telescopium, siue Ars perficiendi nouum illud Galilaei visorium instrumentum ad sydera (1618), (whose spherical perfection was created by being ground against a matching convex iron casting). They appear instead concavely beveled, on the inner slope of which a lens can be angled to be ground (if I read the illustration correctly).

One can see each of these types of grinding forms (a beveled inner edge, and the scalloped dish) in van Gutschoven’s 1663 letter to Christian Huygens which had answered Christiaan’s question as to how to grind smaller objective lenses [comments on: A Method of Grinding Small, Spherical Lenses: Spinoza ]:

Here in the van Gutschoven illustraton a narrow canal (vertically aligned) serves as the grinding surface just inside the lip.

And here is a concave finishing form, in whose center a small lens would be placed for polishing. The two illustrations above simply show that both form designs were employed, and we cannot be sure if Spinoza would have used one or the other, or both (though the degree of curvature shown above would be wholly inappropriate for telescope lenses for which only a slight curvature was needed). One might add, by Spinoza’s use of the terms “dishes” or “plates” for his metal laps, the scalloped spherical form, hollow at the center, one could presume was a main metal form that he used.

To return to the Hevelius example, if we can seriously entertained the prospect that Spinoza used a foot-pedal grinding lathe, I would want to point out the thorough and bodily engagement that grinding would have involved. Not only were the powers of close-eyed concentration, and precise fingered and armed exertions involved, but also a co-ordinated rhythm between the actions of the foot that from a distance below swiveled the grinding form back and forth, reversing itself, restrained from high above, bringing fortha total read of machine tensions which completed a lived circuit between the human body and its attentive results. Spinoza’s entire body would be in play in the workings of the glass, from head to toe. And if one superimposes the requirements of his metaphysics (his equivocal treatment of Thought and Extension, and his definitions of a body and power) upon this organization of machine, idea and flesh, one may see with growing clarity how his crafted practices informed his most abstract thinking.

This is the case found in the Hevelius example, which forms one end in the spectrum of the possible machine designs Spinoza likely used. There is of course a much simpler design, the hand-driven lathe, which Spinoza may have also worked from. The nature of this lathe can be seen in the 1660 Manzini manuscript, and the expert mock up made by the 400th Anniversary of the Telescope team:



One can see the typical concave metal dish (to the left) and the hand-drive of the form. In terms of dynamics instead of a swivel motion to the form, a repeated back and forth oscillation driven by the foot co-ordinated from high above, here the form can be spun in continuing circles in close proximity to the chest. Evidence that Spinoza used just such a design perhaps can be seen in the list of things sold from his estate in November of 1672.

and various instruments for grinding (‘en verscheidene slypgereedschap’) like mills (‘molens’, also plural!) and great and small metal dishes serving for them (‘groote en kleine metale schotels daartoe dienende’) and so on” (en so voort).

That there were multiple mills sold (not a complete list of what he owned one might assume) suggests a variety of more specialized devices, instead of one large workbench as that shown in the Hevelius example. But this is not at all a clear, or exclusive conclusion. Small hand-driven grinding lathes may have been employed for small microscope objectives (which Spinoza favored) or telescope eye-pieces, whereas a foot pedaled, spring pole machine could have been used for larger telescope glasses which could reach nearly 1/2 a foot in diameter.

In digression, there is evidence that Spinoza collaborated with the respected optical mathematician and amateur scientist Johannes Hudde on calculations for a 40 ft lens. To give a sense of it, such a lens would have been approximately 5 inches in diameter, of very slight curvature and only 5 – 8 mm thick: Huygens’s letter to his brother 23 Sept 1667:“Ie voudrois scavoir quelle grandeur d’ouuerture Spinosa et Monsieur Hudde determinent pour les 40 pieds” (See “The Lens Production of Christiaan and Constantijn Huygens” , 1998, by van Helden and van Gent, for the dimensions of similar lenses). Whether Spinoza was in the practice of grinding such lenses, which at the time would have been among the most powerful telescope lenses in Europe, we cannot know. But it seems he was involved in their calculation.

To return, if we are to imagine a hand-driven lathe’s effect upon Spinoza’s rational conception of Mind and Body relations, the form’s spinning, instead of oscillating, motion, may involve less of the entire body than a foot pedal lathe would; the head, the shoulders, the hands would form a frame of power and sensitivity, withthe shoulders acting as fulcrum points of stability and the hands as reading extensions. The cybernetic feedback between the hands, one holding the glass blank, the other whirling in circles would seem to be even more involved, more kinetically woven than that of the foot pedal lathe. The power transfer is more direct the thus the communication between hands more intimate. And one sees how the manifestations of concentric stability and change, eternity and flux, expressed in two respondent revolving discs, certainly could present itself as significant to the circle-loving craftsman as he sought to perfect his lens under physical pressure and frictions of grit.

By my view it seems most likely that Spinoza employed both kinds of lathes, the foot and the hand driven, perhaps at different points in his life, in a process of a refining of techniques. What really is at stake in this analysis I would contend is that one must be able to SEE what Spinoza did during a preponderance of his days, picture it physically, in an affective projection, to fully conceive what he thought. The machine and the human, that mind in the device and the matter of the idea understood to be in mutual conjunction.


3 responses to “Spinoza’s Grinding Lathe: An Extended Hypothesis

  1. Pingback: The Dynamics of a “Spinoza” Spring Pole Lathe: Hegel and the Modes « Frames /sing

  2. Pingback: Evidence toward the nature of Spinoza’s Lathe(s) « Frames /sing

  3. Pingback: Checking Heidegger’s Hammer: The Pleasure and Direction of the Whirr « Frames /sing

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