Samuel Hartlib

Samuel Hartlib or Hartlieb (c. 1600 – 10 March 1662)[1] was a polymath of German origin who settled, married and died in England. He was an active promoter and expert writer in many fields, interested in science, medicine, agriculture, politics, and education. He was a contemporary of Robert Boyle, whom he knew well, and a neighbour of Samuel Pepys in Axe Yard, London, in the early 1660s. He studied briefly at the University of Cambridge upon arriving in England.


Hartlib is often described as an "intelligencer", and indeed has been called "the Great Intelligencer of Europe".[2] His main aim in life was to further knowledge and so he kept in touch with a vast array of contacts, from high philosophers to gentleman farmers. He maintained a voluminous correspondence and much of this has survived, having been lost entirely from 1667 to 1945;[3] it is housed in a special Hartlib collection at the University of Sheffield in England.

Hartlib became one of the best-connected intellectual figures of the Commonwealth era, and was responsible for patents, spreading information and fostering learning. He circulated designs for calculators, double-writing instruments, seed-machines and siege engines. His letters, in German, Latin, English and other languages, have been the subject of close modern scholarship.

Hartlib set out with the universalist goal "to record all human knowledge and to make it universally available for the education of all mankind".[4] His work has been compared to modern internet search engines.[5]


Hartlib was born in Elbing (now Elbląg in Poland). His mother was the daughter of a rich English merchant in Danzig (Gdańsk). His father is said to have been a refugee merchant from Poland.[6] He studied at the Gymnasium in Brieg (Brzeg) and at the Albertina. He went on to Herborn Academy, where he studied under Johannes Heinrich Alsted and Johannes Bisterfeld.[7] Although briefly at the University of Cambridge, supported by John Preston,[8], he does not seem to have formally studied there.[9]

Hartlib met the Scottish preacher John Dury in 1628. In the same year Hartlib relocated to England, faced with the prospect of being caught in a war zone, as Imperial armies moved into the western parts of Poland and the chance of intervention by Sweden grew.[10][11] He first unsuccessfully set up a school in line with his theories of education, in Chichester, and in 1630 moved permanently to London, living in Duke's Place, Holborn.[12] An early patron was John Williams, the Bishop of Lincoln, who was leading the clerical opposition to Archbishop William Laud.[13] Another supporter was John Pym; Pym would use Hartlib later, as a go-between with Dutch Calvinists in London, in an effort to dig up evidence against Laud.[14][15] Hugh Trevor-Roper argues in his essay Three Foreigners (referring to Hartlib, Dury and the absent Comenius) that Hartlib and the others were the "philosophers" of the "country party" or anti-court grouping of the 1630s and early 1640s, united in their support for these outside voices if agreeing on little else.[16][17]

During the Civil War, Hartlib occupied himself with the peaceful study of agriculture, publishing various works by himself, and printing at his own expense several treatises by others on the subject. He planned a school for the sons of gentlemen, to be conducted on new principles, and this probably was the occasion of his friend John Milton's Tractate on Education, addressed to him in 1644, and of William Petty's Two Letters on the same subject, in 1647 and 1648.[18] Another associate in that period was Walter Blith, a noted writer on husbandry.[1]

For his various labours, Hartlib received a pension of £100 from Oliver Cromwell, afterwards increased to £300, as he had spent all his fortune on his experiments. But Hartlib died in poverty: Samuel Pepys in 1660 noted that Hartlib's daughter Nan was fortunate to have found a rich husband, since she was penniless.[19] His association with Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth resulted in him being sidelined after Charles II's Restoration. He lost his pension, which had already fallen into arrears. Some of his correspondents went so far as to ask for their letters from his archive, fearing they could be compromised by them.[6][20]


In 1629 he married Mary Burmingham, daughter of Philip Burmingham; she died about 1660. They had at least six children. His family life is rather poorly documented: one useful source of information is the Diary of Samuel Pepys, since Pepys was a close neighbour of the Hartlib family in Axe Yard in the early 1660s and a friend of Hartlib's son Samuel Jr, a clerk in the government service.[21] Hartlib's daughter Mary married the physician and chemist Frederick Clod, or Clodius, referred to as "Doctor Clodius" in the Diary.[22] Another daughter Anna (Nan) married the merchant, writer and preacher Johannes Roder of Utrecht in 1660, despite her lack of a dowry. Samuel Pepys, a guest at the wedding, described it as an occasion of "very great state, cost and noble company".[23] Always the realist, Pepys thought it an excellent match for Nan: "a great fortune for her to light on, she having nothing in the world".[24] Hartlib, having heard a good deal of this kind of gossip, indignantly denied that he had married off his daughter to gain a share of the Roder fortune, but the marriage was certainly advantageous, since Roder's father was a rich man, and also because Roder, as a prophet/preacher during the Cromwell years, had foretold the "coming of a king". This worked to his advantage after the return of Charles II.[25]


Hartlib was indebted to Francis Bacon for a general theory of education, and this formed common ground for him and Jan Comenius.[26] Hartlib published two studies of Comenius's work: Conatuum Comenianorum praeludia (1637) and Comenii pansophiae prodromus et didactica dissertatio (1639).[6] He also put much effort into getting Comenius, of the Protestant Moravian Brethren, to visit England. Hartlib's two closest correspondents were John Dury, and Comenius. The latter had the concept of a "tree of knowledge", continuously branching out and growing. He also put his own spin on Bacon's ideas. In 1640 he addressed the English Parliament with his Utopian plans involving a new commonwealth and the advancement of learning. Shortly before the English Civil War broke out, John Gauden preached in 1640 to Parliament, recommending that Dury and Comenius be invited to England, and naming Hartlib as a likely contact.[27]

Men like Hartlib and Comenius wanted to make the spread of knowledge easier, at a time when most knowledge was not categorised or standardised by any widespread conventions or academic disciplines, and libraries were mostly private. They wanted to enlighten and educate, and to improve society, as religious people who saw this as the work of God. Comenius arrived in England in 1641, bad timing considering that war was imminent. His presence failed to transform the position in education, though a substantial literature grew up, particularly on university reform, where Oliver Cromwell set up a new institution. Comenius left in 1642; under Cromwell elementary schooling was expanded from 1646, and Durham College was set up, with staff from Hartlib's associates.[28]

Bacon had formulated a project for a research institute, under the title "Salomon's House" in his New Atlantis of 1624. This theoretical scheme was important for Hartlib, who angled during the 1640s for public funding for it. He was unsuccessful except for a small pension for himself, but gathered like-minded others: Dury, John Milton, Kenelm Digby, William Petty, and his own son-in-law Frederick Clod (Clodius).[29]

Milton dedicated his 1644 Of Education to Hartlib, whom he had come to know the year before and who had pressed him to publish his educational ideas. But he gave the Comenian agenda short shrift in the work. Barbara Lewalski considers his dismissive attitude as disingenous, since he had probably used texts by Comenius in his own teaching.[30] Hezekiah Woodward, linked at the time in the minds of Presbyterians and officialdom with Milton as a dangerous writer, was also significant as an educational follower of Comenius and Bacon, and friend of Hartlib.[31]

Hartlib Circle – Royal Society

The "Hartlib circle" of contacts and correspondents, built up from around 1630, was one of the foundations of the Royal Society of London which was established a generation later, in 1660. The relationship, however, is not transparent, because Hartlib and close supporters, with the exception of William Petty, were excluded from the Royal Society when it was set up from 1660.

Economics, agriculture, politics

The utopian Description of the Famous Kingdome of Macaria appeared under Hartlib's name, but is now considered to be by Gabriel Plattes (1600–1655), a friend of his.[32][33] A practical project was the establishment of a workhouse, as part of the Corporation of the Poor of London. This initiative is reckoned a major influence on the later philanthropic schemes of John Bellers.[34]

In 1641, Hartlib wrote Relation of that which hath been lately attempted to procure Ecclesiastical Peace among Protestants.[6] After Comenius left England, and in particular from 1646 onwards, the Hartlib group agitated for religious reform and toleration, against the Presbyterian dominance in the Long Parliament. They also proposed economic, technical and agricultural improvements, particularly through Sir Cheney Culpeper, and Henry Robinson.[35] Benjamin Worsley, Secretary to the Council of Trade from 1650, was a Hartlibian.[36]

Hartlib valued useful knowledge: anything that could increase crop yields, or cure disease. One of Hartlib's great interests was agriculture. He worked to spread Dutch farming practices in England, such as using nitrogenous crops like cabbage to replenish the soil with nitrogen, to increase the yield of next season's crop. In 1652 he issued a second edition of Richard Weston's Discourse of Flanders Husbandry (1645).[6] Hartlib corresponded with many landowners, as well as academics, in his quest for knowledge.

From 1650 Hartlib was interested in and influential on fruit husbandry. A letter by Sir Richard Child, surveying the area, received publication in one of his books Samuel Hartlib, his Legacy, or an Enlargement of the Discourse of Husbandry used in Brabant and Flanders;[6] and Hartlib introduced John Beale, another author on orchards, to John Evelyn who would eventually write an important work in the area, Sylva (1664).[37] In 1655 Hartlib wrote The Reformed Commonwealth of Bees, featuring a transparent glass beehive, to a design by Christopher Wren.[38] John Evelyn showed him the manuscript of his Elysium Britannicum, at the end of the 1650s.[39]

Science and medicine

The work of Paracelsus, a 16th-century physician and alchemist who made bold claims for his science, was also one of the inspirations to Hartlib and early chemistry. Hartlib was open-minded, and often tested the ideas and theories of his correspondents. For his own trouble with kidney stones, Hartlib took to drinking diluted sulphuric acid – an intended cure that may have contributed to his death.

Hartlib was interested in theories and practices that modern science would deem irrational, or superstitious – for example, sympathetic medicine, based on the idea that things in nature that bore a resemblance to an ailment could be used to treat it. Hence a plant that looked like a snake might be used to treat snake bites, or a yellow herb to treat jaundice.[40]


  • Hartlib's correspondence and notes, over 25,000 pages, were published in 1995 on CD. They are available free of charge on the web.[41]


  1. The Galileo Project; M. Greengrass, "Hartlib, Samuel (c. 1600–1662)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, UK: OUP, 2004) Retrieved 26 April 2016, pay-walled for date of death.
  2. Arved Hübler, Peter Linde and John W. T. Smith, Electronic Publishing '01: 2001 in the Digital Publishing Odyssey (IOS Press, 2001). ISBN 1-58603-191-0
  3. Hugh Trevor-Roper, From Counter-Reformation to Glorious Revolution (1992), p. 227.
  4. The Hartlib Papers Project – University of Sheffield
  5. Eine Vorgeschichte der Internet-Suchmaschine
  6. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Hartlib, Samuel" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  7. M. M. Slaughter, Universal Languages and Scientific Taxonomy in the Seventeenth Century (2010), p. 232; Google Books.
  8. Andrew Pyle (editor), Dictionary of Seventeenth-Century British Philosophers (2000), article Hartlib, Samuel, pp. 393–395
  9. He is not mentioned in J. and J. A. Venn's Alumni Cantabrigienses, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  10. Greengrass, M. "Hartlib, Samuel". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/12500.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  11. Andrew Pyle (editor), The Dictionary of Seventeenth Century British Philosophers (2000), Thoemmes Press (two volumes), article Hartlib, Samuel , p. 393.
  12. Hugh Trevor-Roper, "Three Foreigners: The Philosophers of the Puritan Revolution", The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Religion, the Reformation, and Social Change, Indianapolis, 1967, p. 232.
  13. Roper 1967, p. 237; Hugh Trevor-Roper, From Counter-Reformation to Glorious Revolution (1992), p. 256.
  14. Roper 1992, p. 257.
  15. Ole Peter Grell, Dutch Calvinists in Early Stuart London: The Dutch Church in Austin Friars, 1603–1642 (1989), p. 245.
  16. Roper 1967, pp. 237–293, especially p. 258.
  17. Three Foreigners, online text.
  18. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Hartlib, Samuel" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. We may assume that Chisholm relates to The Advice to Hartlib (1647); the other letter may have been the pamphlet on Double Writing (1648).
  19. Pepys's Diary 1 July 1660.
  20. Lisa Jardine, On a Grander Scale: the outstanding career of Sir Christopher Wren (2002), p. 88.
  21. Claire Tomalin Samuel Pepys – the Unequalled Self Penguin Books edition 2003 p. 69.
  22. Pepys's Diary 17 March 1660.
  23. Pepys's Diary 10 July 1660.
  24. Pepys's Diary 1 July 1660.
  25. See footnote to the Complete Diary of Samuel Pepys, entry for 1 July 1660.
  26. John Paul Russo, The Future Without a Past: The Humanities in a Technological Society (2005), p. 90.
  27. Roper 1967, p. 300.
  28. Roper 1992, p. 225.
  29. Markku Peltonen, The Cambridge Companion to Bacon (1996), pp. 164–165.
  30. Barbara Lewalski, The Life of John Milton (2003), pp. 172–173.
  31. Christopher Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (1965), p. 102.
  32. .
  33. John L. Brooke, The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644–1844 (1996), p. 20.
  34. .
  35. J. P. Cooper, Social and Economic Policies under the Commonwealth, pp. 125 and 131, in G. E. Aylmer, editor, The Interregnum (1972).
  36. Christopher Hill, God's Englishman (1972 edition), p. 126.
  37. Adam Smyth, A Pleasing Sinne: Drink and Conviviality in Seventeenth-century England (2004), pp. 163–165.
  38. Lisa Jardine, On a Grander Scale: the outstanding career of Sir Christopher Wren (2002), p. 108.
  39. Therese O'Malley, John Evelyn's "Elysium Britannicum" and European Gardening (1998), p. 143.
  40. Moss, Kay K. (1999). Southern Folk Medicine, 1750–1820. University of South Carolina Press. p. 224. ISBN 1-57003-289-0.
  41. The Hartlib Papers

Further reading

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