Warriors and Builders


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Design for a royal carriage, in Jacques Besson, Théâtre des Instrumens Mathematiques et Mécaniques

Lyon: Barthélémy Vincent, second edition of 1578, amplified by François Béroald, with plates engraved by René Boyvin and Jacques Androuet du Cerceau.

History of Science Collection, Division of Rare and Manuscripts Collections, Cornell University Library


Jacques Besson (ca. 1540–1573) was a “docte mathématicien” (“learned mathematician”) and engineer who gained early fame by providing the town of Lausanne, Switzerland, with an ingenious pump for public fountains, and with his invention at age 26 of the cosmolabe, an elaborate instrument that could be used for navigation, surveying, cartography, and astronomy. When Charles IX, then aged 19, made a royal visit to Orléans in 1569, the young mathematics teacher presented him a draft of a new treatise that was to become the present book two years later. The king was enthusiastic, and he granted Besson the title of Maître des machines du roi or “Master of the King's Engines,” a lodging at the court, and exclusive rights to his designs—a good example of scientific patronage.


The prestige of inventors was immense at this time: one need only recall the circumstances of the encounter between François I and Leonardo da Vinci. The latter was present at the meeting of the French king and Pope Leo X, which took place in Bologna on December 1515. Leonardo was commissioned to make, not a painting, but a mechanical lion, that could walk forward, then open its chest to reveal a cluster of lilies, all for the King. And the reason why he was subsequently invited by Francis I to come and settle in France was primarily as a great artist, but also as the creator of this amazing machine. Besson's problem was that he was a Protestant.  Fearing the increasing religious fanaticism in France, he emigrated to England in 1572, where he died the following year. He introduced, among other things, the semi-automatic screw-cutting lathe, and created a prototype of the water turbine, but he also designed a new royal carriage ("novum vehiculi regalis genus") represented here, which features a comfortable suspension to absorb bumps in the road!


Besson’s 1571 or 1572 book inaugurated a new genre, known as the “théâtres de machines." They represented a new way of thinking that was cultivated during the Renaissance, starting of course with Leonardo da Vinci, who conceptualized the helicopter and the tank: scientific principles could be applied to the development of new machines and technical devices, particularly in the fields of hydraulics and war engines. However, Besson was arguably the first to showcase and publicize his inventions (for the most part, perfectly workable, if costly) in a book, and to bring them to the attention of generous patrons by way of spectacular illustrations and detailed comments.