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Wren, Christopher

1. Dates
Born: East Knoyle, Wiltshire, 20 October 1632
Died: London, 25 February, 1723
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 91
2. Father
Occupation: Cleric
Dr. Christopher Wren was the Rector of East Knoyle. From the prominent Anglican family which included his brother, Bishop Matthew Wren, the father was also Chaplain to Charles I, would soon be Dean of Windsor (succeeding his brother) and Registrar of the Garter. In 1638 he was given the "rich rectory" of Haseley, Oxfordshire.
From his string of appointments, clearly prosperous. Note that Wren's mother was the only child and heiress of a Wiltshire squire. In 1649 Wren went to Oxford as a gentleman commoner even though his father had been deprived by the Puritans.
3. Nationality
Birth: English
Career: English
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Oxford, M.A.
Educated at Westminster School.
Oxford, Wadham College, (1649-53); B.A., 1651; M.A., 1653.
D.C.L., conferred by Oxford, 1661.
Ll.D., awarded by Cambridge in 1673.
I don't list either of the honorary degrees.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anglican
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics, Astronomy, Engineering
Subordinate: Anatomy, Mechanics, Instrumentation
Wren is remembered of course as England's great architect; he also wrote five unpublished commentaries on the theory of architecture. Before the fire of London turned him decidedly to architecture, he was a leading scientist although he published almost nothing. Newton classed him with Huygens and Wallis as one of the leading geometers of the day. At 16 he composed a treatise on spherical trigonometry, and a little later he rectified the cycloid. As first Gresham and then Savillian Professor of Astronomy, he developed a graphical method of representing the course (presumed rectilinear) of a comet and a graphical construction of solar eclipses. He worked out a hypothesis on Saturn, with a model that he built, to represent its strange appearance. He composed De corpore saturni, 1657, which he never published and which he abandoned when Huygens' better hypothesis soon came along. He did a measured survey of the moon that resulted in an improved map of its surface.
While in Oxford he did important anatomical work in collaboration with others of the Oxford circle. He did the drawings for Willis's Cerebri anatome. He could be listed as well for physiology; in addition to experiments he devised a method to transfuse blood from one animal to another.
He composed a paper on the laws of impact in 1668, a solution to the problem of perfectly elastic impact.
He was continually active in improving instruments, astronomical first of all, but many others as well. This included various meteorological instruments; Wren could be listed for meteorology for his continued study of it. Before Hooke, he used the microscope to study insects. He studied refraction and optics, lecturing on dioptrics at Gresham College. In a word he could be listed validly under at least ten sciences.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Academia, Government
Secondary: Patronage, Merchant, Publishing
Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, 1653-61..
Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, 1657-61.
Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, 1661-73.
Deputy Surveyor of the Royal Works, 1661-9, then Surveyor, 1669-1718. Member of the Commission to rebuild London, 1666, author of a radical plan (rejected, of course) to rebuild on a modern plan that discarded the old streets, and then architect of the new St. Paul's. He resigned the Savilian chair when the work on St. Paul's began to demand close to full time. He was also in charge (whatever the title) of Windsor Castle, and Surveyor of Westminster Abbey, 1698-1723. Obviously Wren owed all of these positions to patronage, but they carried salaries and I list them under governmental employee. However, he did also have a number of private commissions.
Wren was a director of the Hudson Bay Company for a number of years. In 1688, along with one Roger Jackson, he undertook a housing development along the northern fringe of rebuilt London.
In 1698 he received exclusive rights to publish engravings of St. Paul's, his city churches, Hampton Court, et al., and he apparently earned some money from the publication.
Retired to Hampton Court, 1718.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Eccesiastic Official, Academic, Aristrocrat
Appointed Surveyor of the Royal Works by Charles II in 1669, and knighted in 1673. Wren's entire career as an architect depended on royal patronage. He retained royal favor unclouded through the reigns of James, William and Mary, Queen Anne, and the early years of George I. In 1661 Wren gave his model of the moon, with surface features in relief, to Charles, who kept it with his curiosities and liked to show it to visitors. While working on the planned Winchester Palace for Charles, 1683-5, Wren received an additional £500 per annum. He received £1000 for Chelsea Hospital. Later he worked extensively on Kensington Palace and on Hampton Court for William III.
In the early 60s he frequently entertained Prince Rupert in his laboratory at Oxford, and Rupert put him on the list to receive annually wine from his Rhenish estate.
Wren had a number of ecclesiastical patrons. His first building was the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, commissioned by Gilbert Sheldon, Bishop of London then but soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Seth Ward employed him to survey Salisbury Cathedral. Sancroft commissioned a new chapel at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. John Fell, Dean of Christ Church, had him build Tom Tower over the college entrance.
Wren filled a lot of academic commissions--including a new quadrangle and later a chapel for Trinity College, Oxford (Ralph Bathurst, President of the College), the library for Trinity College, Cambridge (Isaac Barrow, Master).
The Earl of St. Albans commissioned St. James, Piccadilly, about 1682.
I could list as well governmental officials--Joseph Williamson (not yet Sir Joseph) commissioned a block of buildings for Queen's College, Oxford, and Sir Stephen Fox, Paymaster General of the Forces, commissioned Chelsea Hospital.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Architecture, Instruments, Navigation, Cartography, Mechanical Devices, Agriculture, Medical Practice, Military Engineering, Civil Engineering, Hydraulics
The rebuilding of London is obvious, but practical, utilitarian projects dominated Wren's consciousness from childhood when at the age of 13 he invented an astronomical instrument and a pneumatic engine. A year later, now in Oxford, he presented Charles, Elector Palatine, with several mechanical instruments and devices of his own invention. Parentalia (pp. 198-9) lists the topics he presented to the Oxford Philosophical Club in the 50s, a list overwhelmingly practical and utilitarian--e.g, (I select from the list and do not repeat it all) a "goniscope" to measure angles, a "weather wheel" and a weather clock, an instrument to write double, a surveying instrument, several improvements in the art of husbandry, new engines to raise water, new ways to print, pneumatic engines, a way to reckon time, longitude, and distance made good at sea, fortification of ports, new offensive and defensive military engines, inventions in fortification, perfection of coaches. Wren later presented a number of these projects to the Royal Society. There is a problem with him; how far did he carry many of these projects? Since many of them show up several times, since they are not general Baconian talk but specific inventions or projects, and since I want to capture the whole range of his utilitarian, technological enterprises, I am listing inclusively. There is no one else in the catalog whose range of technological involvement was so broad. He can be listed validly in all but four of my categories.
He developed a micromenter, and he attached telescopic sights to astronomical instruments. He devised an adjustable aperture. By developing measuring techniques, he helped transform the telescope into an instrument of quantitative astronomy. He worked at measuring arcs to seconds, and he invented a double, hinged telescope for measuring angles of separation precisely. Likewise there was an improved microscope that allowed measurements, as well as a device to grind hyperbolic lenses (à la Descartes). All sorts of meteorological instruments and some surveying instruments.
Navigation, especially the determination of longitude, was a preoccupation from undergraduate days until his death. He explored all of the methods that seemed feasable at the time, including watches. He also devised a sounding device.
Cartography was a less pronounced occupation, but he did a map of the moon and a map of burned out London, and he invented surveying instruments, including a new level.
All sorts of mechanical devices--watches, windlasses to raise weights, an improved carriage, and experiments in harnessing the force of gunpowder to lift weights and bend springs.
There is enough mention of agricultural interests that I am justified in listing this--a youthful machine, horse drawn, to plant grain, a box hive for bees, a hothouse to grow tropical plants.
I am listing medicine as well. A good half at least of his interest in meteorology was medically connected, governed by the theory that there were epidemic seasons that could be identified. He also developed a method to fumigate and purify sick rooms.
In the early 60s, Charles wanted to commission Wren to build the fortifications and port works at Tangier. Wren managed to beg off, but military engineering bulks fairly large in the Oxford topics, and he was consulted on the works at Tangier.
In the standard areas of civil engineering, such as building bridges, he did not participate that I can find. He did write on methods of building under water (for moles and quays), and his novel trusses to support the span across the Sheldonian Theatre classify as civil engineering.
Wren did not do much hydraulic engineering. However, Sprat mentions improved waterworks, and Wren wrote a tract (unpublished, like nearly everything) on the improvement of navigation by joining rivers. He proposed a major diversion of the Cam to St. John's College. He was concerned (peripherally, I think) with the New River project and with the water it furnished to St. James's Palace.
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Royal Society
One of the members of the philosophical club in Oxford. Later, it was after a lecture he gave at Gresham College in November 1660 that those present decided to organize what became the Royal Society. He was of course one of the original members, and he was on the Council named in the first Charter and many times thereafter. President, 1680-2.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 21, 995-1009. Biographia Britannica, 1st ed. (London, 1747-66), 6.2, 4359-78.
  2. Christopher Wren, Parentalia: or Memoirs of the Family of the Wrens, (London, 1750). Lilly Library C.R. Weld, History of the Royal Society, (London, 1848), pp. 272- 81.
  3. Robert McKeon, "Les débuts de l'astronomie de precision," Physis, 13 (1971), 225-88; 14 (1972), 221-42; especially 13, 245-6 and 14, 229-30.
  4. J.A. Bennett, The Mathematical Science of Christopher Wren, (Cambridge, 1982). For my purposes, this is the best source on Wren that I have come across.
  5. Bryan Little, Sir Christopher Wren: a Historical Biography, (London, 1975).
  6. William C. Gibson, "The Medical Interests of Christopher Wren," in Ladislao Reti and William C. Gibson, Some Aspects of Seventeenth-Century Medicine & Science, Papers Read at the Clark Library, (Los Angeles, 1969).
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Sir Harold Hartley, ed., The Royal Society: Its Origins and Founders, (London, 1960).
  2. John Lindsey, Wren, His Work and Times, (London, 1951).
  3. John Summerson, Sir Christopher Wren, (New York, 1953).
  4. Lawrence Weaver, Sir Christopher Wren: Scientist, Scholar, and Architect, (London, 1923).
  5. Cecil Whitaker-Wilson, Sir Christopher Wren: His Life and Times, (London, 1932).
  6. Harold Hutchinson, Sir Christopher Wren: a Biography, (London, 1975). Kerry Downes, Christopher Wren, (London, 1971).
  7. Margaret D. Whinney, Christopher Wren, (London, 1971).
  8. J.A. Bennett, "Christopher Wren: Astronomy, Architecture, and Mathematical Science," Journal for the History of Astronomy, 6 (l975), 149-84.
  9. There is an enormous literature on Wren, most of it naturally concentrating on his architecture. In the end I got tired of reading it. This list does not exhaust it.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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