Force, lifting machines, and the perpetuum mobile from Descartes to Smeaton

Activiteit: Talk or presentation at a conference


Machines designed to lift weights, such as levers, inclined planes, and pulleys, were the central topic of the well-defined, mathematical Renaissance science of “mechanica”. This science assessed the working such machines in terms of their equilibrium conditions, based on the law of the lever and the center of gravity. Since Galileo and Stevin brought statics to maturity, scholarship on later developments in the study of simple machines is virtually non-existent.

In this paper, I will argue that this is unwarranted and that the study of machines played an important role particularly in the conceptual development of the notion of force, and did so while moving far beyond the science of equilibrium conditions “mechanica” had been before. I highlight how Descartes’ “Traité de Mechanique” (1637) introduced a new measure of ‘force’ in his analysis of machines. Although this measure was largely ignored by Descartes’ contemporaries and his own later work, I show the notion became important again after being reconfigured by Leibniz as ‘living force’. Among other things, it was used by early eighteenth-century scholars and engineers to develop a measure of machine efficiency and to give a physical argument against the possibility of a perpetuum mobile.
Periode9 jun 2023
EvenementstitelScientiae 2023: Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern World
LocatiePrague, Czech Republic
Mate van erkenningInternational