OSB archive
OSB archive

John Aubrey: a life surveyed

Pete Wilton

It isn’t everyone who has a set of holes named after them but then John Aubrey was one of the most intriguing characters to surface at Oxford University in the 17th Century.

I’ve blogged before about the role Oxonians played in the founding of the Royal Society 350 years ago. And, whilst he is most famous for his rediscovery of the prehistoric monument at Avebury (and Stonehenge’s Aubrey holes), Aubrey was also a founding fellow of the RS.

Aubrey was a friend to many of the great early scientists, an amateur who was fascinated by their ideas and often joined in their experiments, as well as recording their work for posterity.

William Poole of New College is the curator of an exhibition now on at the Bodleian Library about Aubrey (‘My wit was always working’), he tells me:

‘Aubrey attended Trinity College in the 1640s where there was a little experimental community, particularly keen on learning practical mathematics and doing chemical experiments. He later took personal mathematical tutors. But most of his learning came through his own reading - there was almost no formal instruction in anything we would recognise as a science in his day.’

It was here that he was bitten by the experimental bug at that time spreading like a fever through the city - which would erupt in the 1650s with Wadham’s ‘Experimental philosophy club’.

William reveals that at Oxford Aubrey indulged his - often dangerous - chemical passions: ‘His Trinity friends and he, for instance, were extremely taken with aurum fulminans, exploding gold.’

After entering Trinity in 1642 his studies were interrupted by the English Civil War. According to the DNB’s Adam Fox, it was on a trip from Oxford to Wiltshire in 1649 that Aubrey rediscovered the Avebury megaliths. It would spark a lifelong interest in ancient monuments that would later see him (re)discover the ring of ‘Aubrey’ holes at Stonehenge in 1663.

It was also in 1663 that Aubrey was elected to the Royal Society, William comments: ‘The early Royal Society was rather like a gentleman's club, replete with its own internal factions, and we can associate Aubrey with what we might call the 'Hooke faction', those who worked, drank coffee, and gossiped with the great experimentalist of the early Royal Society, Robert Hooke and also his colleague and friend Christopher Wren.’

He clearly felt at home in this club-like atmosphere: in the 1660s he would present papers on Wiltshire springs, a ‘cloudy star’ and winds, before submitting his ‘Natural History of Wiltshire’ to the RS in 1675.

But it was in his drive to record both the evolution of science and prehistory that Aubrey excelled.

William highlights the short biographies Aubrey wrote of many of his contemporaries, including his friends in the scientific community:

'He believed Hooke that Newton had failed to acknowledge that the inverse square law was suggested to him by Hooke, and Aubrey urged the Oxford biographer Anthony Wood to record the theft for posterity. Wood did not do so, but the letter from Aubrey to Wood, partially written by Hooke, survives, and an image of it is displayed in the exhibition.’

‘As we saw with Hooke and Newton, Aubrey also used his biographical work to guard rights of priority - English authors did not own their own copyrights until 1710, so who actually owned a scientific idea was a murky territory.’

Aubrey brought his interests in practical mathematics to the study of megaliths:

‘He was the first man to visit Stonehenge and Avebury with surveying equipment and draw accurate representations of the positions of the stones. He also correctly reasoned that they were far older structures than was commonly believed. For this work he is regarded as one of the fathers of English archaeology.’

So what might a survey of Aubrey’s life, with all its varied interests and passions, teach us about the evolution of science?

William comments: ‘Scientists could learn that the history of science is about what disparate activities came together to make the modern institutional idea of science possible, what new activities science has subsequently taken under its wing, and what old ones it has shed - and why.’

The exhibition ‘My wit was always working: John Aubrey and the Development of Experimental Science’ is on display at the Bodleian Library until 31 October 2010.

The accompanying book ‘John Aubrey and the Advancement of Learning’ by William Poole is available at the exhibition.