First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Russell Shorto

Amsterdam and the history of science

Rene Descartes, the so-called father of modern philosophy, arrived in Amsterdam in 1628. As a thinker and writer whose ideas at times crossed both the Catholic Church and the French King, he was attracted by the city’s famous freedom of expression. And he wasn’t disappointed. “In what other country could you find such complete freedom?” he wrote to a friend after he had taken up residence.

Today Descartes is thought of as an abstract thinker, but in his lifetime he was restlessly active in applying his ideas to the real world. His interest in the workings of the human eye resulted not only in a philosophical treatise on optics but a desire to transform the way people saw the world. And he quickly found that the city of Amsterdam inspired him in achieving his dreams. Shortly after arriving, Descartes wrote a long letter to a French tool maker outlining, in page after page of text and diagrams, a device he wanted the man to create that he believed would change the world and make both of them rich. It was a machine for manufacturing telescopic lenses. The machine would turn out lenses far faster than a human could, and with greater precision. He even drew pictures of what the device would look like.

In fact, Amsterdam was already well on its way to becoming the scientific capital of Europe. The Dutch not only had the most open and tolerant of societies, they were also, in the course of the seventeenth century, the continent’s businessmen par excellence – and when it came to the development of science, those two things worked hand in hand to make Amsterdam a unique place. The city’s open culture brought thinkers like Descartes. It also gave rise to the most prolific publishing climate in Europe. As an industry, publishing is unique in that its end products are ideas, which naturally spawn more ideas. The twin occurrences – that the city became a hub for scientists, and that it became the centre of publishing – fed one another, resulting in the astounding fact that, over the course of the 17th century, approximately one third of all books published in the entire world were produced in Amsterdam.

Within the field of publishing, the city became the centre of a sub-speciality: cartography. The hunger to know the scope of the planet was at its height in that era. Producing new, accurate maps of distant regions required hundreds of bits of information. The offices of Amsterdam’s cartographers (such as the famous Blaeu family) became the Big Data hubs of the era. Merchants who did business in the East Indies, ship’s captains and trained hydrographers sent their measurements of coastlines, tides, currents, etc. All of the data was compiled and analysed in the cartographic offices, resulting in meticulously rendered maps of places as far-flung as Java, Mexico and Morocco. Like nearly all of the city’s scientific activity in its Golden Age, the cartographic work had immensely practical applications. It was used by commercial enterprises, notably the Dutch East India Company, to explore, exploit and trade.

The presence of scientific thinkers and the proliferation of scientific treatises from the city’s presses, combined with the legendary Dutch business acumen, meant that Amsterdam also became the centre of scientific industry in other arenas. Fabricators in Amsterdam turned out lenses, microscopes, telescopes, dissecting tools and other equipment that the burgeoning arena of science required. Natural philosophers – as scientists were then termed – placed orders from all over Europe, or visited the city in person to have equipment made to their precise specifications. Descartes’ dream became reality in ways far beyond even the French genius’s ability to imagine.

Russell Shorto

Russell Shorto (1959) is an American author, historian and journalist, best known for his book on the Dutch origins of New York City, The Island at the Center of the World. He is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and is the former director of The John Adams Institute in Amsterdam, where he lived between 2007 and 2014. In 2009, Russell received a Dutch knighthood in the Order of Orange-Nassau. His most recent book, Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City, was published by Doubleday in October 2013.