BOOK REVIEW: Mathematical Magick

Laura Beduz, Librarian, reviews a historical book from the Library’s special collections.

Mathematical Magick, John Wilkins, 1680

This is one of the earliest books on mechanical engineering housed in the Institution Library. It was published in London in 1680 and was presented to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers by Henry Adams on the 11th Aug 1921. In this work, John Wilkins describes the “mechanical arts”, giving various examples of mechanical inventions and devices, and principles relating to logic, science and maths. It is a beautifully illustrated book, which includes 9 engraved and woodcut illustrations.

Sailing chariot
Sailing chariot

The book was written by Wilkins who was the Lord Bishop of Chester. He was an Anglican clergyman, natural philosopher and a founder of the new natural theology which was compatible with the science of the time. Wilkins was one of the founders of the Royal Society and also led the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Wilkins was knowledgeable in a number of subjects and he devised the decimal system which would later become the metric system.

Wilkins writes knowledgeably about the inventions of his time and also of the past, often making references to Archimedes and Aristotle. In one chapter, Wilkins examines balance and weight and how in ancient times scales were manipulated to achieve a false outcome in order to benefit the merchants. Here Wilkins describes how scales work if they are not constructed precisely and symmetrically, “If the sides of the beam be not equally divided, as suppose one have 10 parts and the other 11; then any two weights that differ according to this proportion, (the heavier being placed on the shorter side, and the lighter on the longer) will equiponderate; and yet both the scales being empty, will hang in æquilibrio, as if they were exactly just and true…”

Sailing chariot in operation
Sailing chariot in operation

In another chapter Wilkins examines motion and the notion of wind power as energy to fuel vehicles such as the ‘flying chariot’ or ‘sailing chariot’. Wilkins quite rightly makes the point, “…what could be more delightful or better husbandry, than to make use of the wind (which costs nothing, and eats nothing) instead of horses?” Wilkins’s demonstrates his awareness of mechanical inventions around the world by mentioning the use of the wind chariots in the Champion plains in China and experiments conducted with chariots in Spain. Wilkins particularly celebrates the chariot invented by Stephinus in the Netherlands, “that it did far exceed the speed of any ship…in two hours space it would pass from Sceveling to Putten”. This chariot had a body shaped likes a boat with four wheels and two sails like that of ship.

Other topics discussed in this eclectic book include automata, leavers, mechanical motions and natural motion of living creatures, wheels, pulleys, wedges, screws, catapults and a comparison of ancient engines and the gun powder instruments of Wilkins’ time.


Wilkins, F. 1680. Mathematical magick: Or, the wonders that may be performed by mechanical geometry concerning mechanical powers, motions being the most easie, pleasant, useful (and yet most neglected) part of mathematicks not before treated in this language. London: Gellibrand.

We have other special collection, historical, books such as Theatrum instrumentorum et machinarum and Technica curiosa and L’automobile: il contributo Italiano all’avvento e all’evoluzione dell’autoveicolo. Unlike our modern books, these cannot be loaned unfortunately but researchers can request to consult the special collections by contacting the Archive and arranging an appointment,

Archives, Institution of Mechanical Engineering



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