Age of Invention: New Atlantis
Come Read With Me
This week, it’s time to try something different. I’ve been meaning, for a while, to occasionally do things that are a bit more interactive with readers of this newsletter. But that’s difficult to do when it’s all about history — it’s not something that can easily be discussed without the other person also having prior knowledge or expertise. I get occasional questions, and I learn new things from readers’ comments and responses all the time. But for the most part our interactions tend to have a single direction: I research, you read.
Until now. Thanks to an app called Threadable, it turns out that it’s very simple for me to host a sort of interactive online reading circle. For you, that is, to read some of the most interesting sources from the history of invention alongside me: to see and comment and respond to my annotations, to add annotations of your own, ask questions, discuss the text with me and with other readers of this newsletter, and hopefully learn about the history of invention in a slightly different and more engaged way. I envision potentially developing it into a kind of online “great books” seminar on the history of innovation.
And where better to start, I thought, than with the works of that great seventeenth-century philosopher of science and invention, Francis Bacon. We have run into Bacon plenty of times on the newsletter — he was an important government figure throughout the first few decades of the seventeenth century, and last year I wrote a short profile on him for paid subscribers. Very soon (spoiler alert) we will see how his political career suddenly came crashing down thanks to the controversies surrounding monopoly patents. But I’m always a bit dissatisfied when I mention him, because I want readers to really appreciate his work and not just have a brief spark of recognition at his name.
So given this is an experiment — the Threadable app is still in development — I chose one of Bacon’s shortest but most accessible and impactful works to start: his utopian work of science fiction, The New Atlantis.
First published in 1626, shortly after Bacon’s death, The New Atlantis was appended by his secretary to a much larger collection of his experiments and theories of natural history, entitled Sylva Sylvarum. The Sylva was probably never supposed to be published as a book. It’s strangely incoherent and out of character, leading some historians to believe that the secretary was just cashing in by publishing Bacon’s manuscript notes. But its brief and unfinished sci-fi appendage would turn it into Bacon’s best-selling work — a major inspiration to the founders of the Royal Society, and to generations of inventors and scientists for at least the next hundred years.
I’ve uploaded a first round of my annotations to it already on the Threadable app, so if you’re interested to take part you can download it here. (It’s free) Then just log in and enter the code 6 5 6 5 0 to join my reading circle, read the work, see my notes, add your own (either privately or to the rest of the circle), ask questions, and respond to others’ comments too. (So far, unfortunately, it’s currently only available on iOS devices like iPhones and iPads. But the developers assure me that it’ll soon be available on desktop and then on Android devices too. So I’ll make sure to add a P.S. to a future email when that happens.)
I’m excited to see how the experiment goes. Next week, it’s back to where we left off last time.
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