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Samuel Hartlib
German-British polymath

Samuel Hartlib

Samuel Hartlib
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro German-British polymath
Was Scientist Educator Educator
From Germany
Field Academia Science
Gender male
Birth 1 January 1600, Elbląg, Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship, Poland
Death 1 January 1662, England, United Kingdom (aged 62 years)
The details (from wikipedia)


Samuel Hartli(e)b (c. 1600 – 10 March 1662) was a German-British polymath. An active promoter and expert writer in many fields, he was interested in science, medicine, agriculture, politics, and education. He settled in England, where he married and died. 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.

Hartlib is often described as an "intelligencer", and indeed has been called "the Great Intelligencer of Europe". 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; it is housed in a special Hartlib collection at the University of Sheffield in England. He 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". His work has been compared to modern internet search engines.


Hartlib was born in Elbląg (Elbing), Poland. His mother was the daughter of a rich English merchant at Danzig (Gdańsk). His father is said to have been a refugee merchant from Poland. He studied at the Gymnasium in Brzeg (Brieg), and at the Albertina. At Herborn Academy he studied under Johannes Heinrich Alsted and Johannes Bisterfeld. He was briefly at the University of Cambridge, supported by John Preston.

Hartlib met the Scottish preacher John Dury in 1628; the same year Hartlib relocated to England, in the face of 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. He first unsuccessfully established a school in line with his theories of education, in Chichester, and then lived in Duke's Place, London. An early patron was John Williams, the bishop of Lincoln and hostile to William Laud. 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. It is Hugh Trevor-Roper's thesis, in his essay Three Foreigners (meaning 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, who united in their support for these outside voices, if agreeing on little else.

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. Another associate of his in that period was Walter Blith, a noted writer on husbandry.

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. 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 as far as to ask for their letters from his archive, fearing that they could be compromised.


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 was also a friend of Hartlib's son Samuel junior, a clerk in the Government service. Hartlib's daughter Mary married the physician and chemist Frederick Clod, or Clodius, referred to as "Doctor Clodius" in the Diary. Another daughter Anne (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". 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". 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.


Hartlib was indebted to Francis Bacon for a general theory of education, and this formed common ground for him and Jan Comenius. Hartlib published two studies of Comenius's work: Conatuum Comenianorum praeludia (1637) and Comenii pansophiae prodromus et didactica dissertatio (1639). 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.

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.

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).

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. 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.

Hartlib Circle, Invisible College, and the Royal Society's background

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 tract Description of the Famous Kingdome of Macaria appeared under Hartlib's name. It is now considered that it was written by Gabriel Plattes (1600–1655), a friend. 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.

In 1641, Hartlib wrote Relation of that which hath been lately attempted to procure Ecclesiastical Peace among Protestants. 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. Benjamin Worsley, Secretary to the Council of Trade from 1650, was a Hartlibian.

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). Hartlib corresponded with many landowners, as well as academics, in his quest for knowledge.

From 1650 Hartlib was very 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; and Hartlib introduced John Beale, another author on orchards, to John Evelyn who would eventually write an important work in the area, Sylva of 1664. In 1655 Hartlib wrote The Reformed Commonwealth of Bees, featuring a transparent glass beehive, to a design by Christopher Wren. John Evelyn showed him the manuscript of his Elysium Britannicum, at the end of the 1650s.

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 very 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 – a 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. Sympathetic medicine was based on the concept that things in nature that bear a resemblance to an ailment could be used to treat that ailment. Hence, a plant that looked like a snake might be used to treat snakebites, or a yellow coloured herb might be used to treat jaundice.


  • Hartlib's correspondence and notes, over 25,000 pages, were published in 1995 on CD. They are now available free of charge on the web.
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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