studies in the history of science and culture

© March 2004
revised 27 September 2009


There were several early-modern biographical accounts of William Petty, two of which I reproduce here: the first, written by Petty’s contemporary and friend, John Aubrey (1626–1697); and the second, by the 18th-century print collector and biographer, the Reverend James Granger (1723–1776).

Granger was influenced by Aubrey’s account of Petty, having read Aubrey’s unpublished MSS. in the Ashmolean Museum. In turn, Granger’s wildly popular Biographical History of England from Egbert the Great to the Revolution, a 3-volume prose catalog of engraved historical portraits which first appeared in 1769, would give Aubrey’s written character of Petty wide circulation.

Petty, a central figure in the 17th-century Oxford and Hartlib Circles, the Cavendish Circle, and the Royal Society, is our earliest recognized “Political economist. He went to sea at an early age, but his precocious talents so excited the envy of his fellow-seamen that they deserted him on the coast of France with a broken leg. Instead of returning home, he studied on the Continent. He published economic treatises, the most important of which was entitled Political Arithmetic (1690) a term signifying what we now call statistics.” (Oliver Lawson Dick, Brief Lives 237)

William Petty (1623–1687)

§  Character No. 1

John Aubrey’s life of William Petty (as printed in Oliver Lawson Dick’s modernized edition of Aubrey’s mss., Brief lives. Edited from the original manuscripts and with an introduction by Oliver Lawson Dick (1949; rpt. London: Secker and Warburg, 1960), pp. 237–241

“His father was by profession a clothier, and also did dye his owne cloathes: he left little or no estate to Sir William. About 12 or 13, i.e. before 15, he haz told me, happened to him the most remarkable accident of life (which he did not tell me) and which was the foundation of all the rest of his greatnes and acquiring riches. He haz told me that he never gott by Legacies, but only x pounds, which was not payd.

“He enformed me that, about 15, in March, he went over into Normandy, to Caen, in a vessell that went hence, with a little stock, and began to play the merchant, and had so good successe that he maintained himselfe, and also educated himselfe; this I guessed was that most remarkable accident that he meant. Here he learn’t the French tongue, and perfected himselfe in the Latin (before, but a competent smattering) and had Greeke enough to serve his turne. Here (at Caen) he studyed the Arts: he was sometime at La Flesshe in the college of Jesuites. At 18, he was (I have heard him say) a better Mathematician then he is now; but when occasion is, he knows how to recurre to more mathematicall Knowledge. At Paris he studyed Anatomie, and read Vesalius with Mr. Thomas Hobbes, who loved his company. Mr. H. then wrot his Optiques; Sir W. P. then had a fine hand in drawing and limning, and drew Mr. Hobbes Opticall schemes for him, which he was pleased to like. At Paris, one time, it happened that he was driven to a great streight for money, and I have heard him say, that he lived a weeke on two peniworth (or 3, I have forgott which, but I thinke the former) of Walnutts.

“He came to Oxon, and entred himselfe of Brasen-nose college. Here he taught Anatomy to the young Scholars. Anatomy was then but little understood by the university, and I remember he kept a body that he brought by water from Reding a good while to read upon some way soused or pickled. About these times Experimentall Philosophy first budded here and was first cultivated by these Vertuosi in that darke time.

“Anno Domini 1650 happened that memorable accident and experiment of the reviving Nan Green a servant maid, who was hang’d in the castle of Oxon for murdering her bastard-child. After she had suffer’d the law, she was cut downe, and carried away in order to be anatomiz’d by some yong physitians, but Dr. William Petty finding life in her, would not venter upon her, only so farr as to recover her life. Which being look’d upon as a great wonder, there was a relation of her recovery printed, and at the end several copies of verses made by the young poets of the Universitie were added.

“He was about 1650 elected Professor of Musique at Gresham Colledge, by, and by the Interest of his Friend Captaine John Graunt (who wrote the Observations on the Bills of Mortality) and at that time was worth but fourtie pounds in all the world.

“Shortly after, he was recommended to the Parliament to be one of the Surveyors of Ireland, to which employment Capt. John Graunt’s interest did also help to give him a Lift, and Edmund Wyld, Esq., also, then a Member of Parliament, and a good fautor of Ingeniose and good men, for meer meritt sake (not being formerly acquainted with him) did him great service, which perhaps he knowes not of.

“Severall made offers to the Parliament to survey it (when the Parliament ordered to have it surveyed) for 4000 pounds, 5000 pounds, 6000 pounds; but Sir William (then Dr.) went lower then them all and gott it. Sir Jonas More contemned it as dangerous, loving to sleepe in a whole skin: he was afrayd of the Tories.

“By this Surveying Employment he gott an Estate in Ireland (before the restauration of King Charles II) of 18,000 pounds per annum, the greatest part wherof he was forced afterwards to refund, the former owners being then declared Innocents. He hath yet there 7 or 8000 pounds per annum and can, from the Mount Mangorton in the com. of Kerry, behold 50,000 Acres of his owne land. He hath an Estate in every province of Ireland.

“The Kingdome of Ireland he hath surveyed, and that with that exactnesse, that there is no Estate there to the value of threscore pounds per annum but he can shew, to the value, and those that he employed for the Geometricall part were ordinary fellowes, some (perhaps) foot-soldiers, that circumambulated with their box and needles, not knowing what they did, which Sir William knew right well how to make use of.

“I remember about 1660 there was a great difference between him and Sir Hierome Sanchy, one of Oliver’s knights. They printed one against the other: this knight was wont to preach at Dublin. The Knight had been a Soldier, and challenged Sir William to fight with him. Sir William is extremely short sighted, and being the challengee it belonged to him to nominate place and weapon. He nominates, for the place, a darke Cellar, and the weapon to be a great Carpenter’s Axe. This turned the knight’s challenge into Ridicule, and so it came to nought.

“Before he went into Ireland, he sollicited, and no doubt he was an admirable good Sollicitor. I have heard him say that in Solliciting (with the same paines) he could dispatch severall businesses, nay, better than one alone, for by conversing with severall he should gaine the more knowledge, and the greater Interest.

“In the time of the Warre with the Dutch, they concluded at the Councell-board at London, to have so many sea men out of Irland (I think 1500). Away to Irland came one with a Commission, and acquaints Sir William with it; sayes Sir William, You will never rayse this number here. Oh, sayd the other, I warrant you, I will not abate you a man. Now Sir William knew ’twas impossible, for he knew how many Tunne of shipping belongd to Ireland, and the rule is, to so many tunnes so many men. Of these shipps halfe were abroad, and of those at home so many men unfit. In fine, the Commissioner with all his diligence could not possibly rayse above 200 seamen there. So we may see how statesmen may mistake for want of this Politique Arithmetique.

“Another time the Councell at Dublin were all in a great racket for the prohibition of Coale from England and Wales, considering that all about Dublin is such a vast quantity of Turfe; so they would improve their rents, sett poor men on worke, and the City should be served with Fuell cheaper. Sir William prima facie knew that this project could not succeed. Sayd he, If you will make an order to hinder the bringing-in of Coales by foreigne vessells, and bring it in Vessells of your owne, I approve of it very well: But for your supposition of the cheapnesse of the Turfe, ’tis true ’tis cheape on the place, but consider carriage, consider the yards that must contayn such a quantity for respective houses, these yards must be rented; what will be the chardge? They supputated, and found that (every thing considered) ’twas much dearer then to fetch coale from Wales, or etc.

“Sir W. Petty was a Rota man, and troubled Mr. James Harrington with his Arithmeticall proportions, reducing Politie to Numbers.

“Anno 1660 he came into England, and was presently recieved into good grace with his Majestie, who was mightily pleased with his discourse. He can be an excellent Droll (if he haz a mind to it) and will preach extempore incomparably, either the Presbyterian way, Independent, Cappucin frier, or Jesuite.

“I remember one St. Andrewe’s day (which is the day of the Generall Meeting of the Royall Society for Annuall Elections) I sayd, Methought ’twas not so well that we should pitch upon the Patron of Scotland’s day, we should rather have taken St. George or St. Isidore (a Philosopher canonized). No, said Sir William, I would rather have had it on St. Thomas day, for he would not beleeve till he had seen and putt his fingers into the Holes, according to the Motto Nullius in verba [not bound to swear obedience to any man’s dogma].

“Anno Domini 1663 he made his double-bottom’d Vessell (launched about New-yeare’s tide) of which he gave a Modell to the Royall Societie made with his owne hands, and it is kept in the Repository at Gresham College. It did doe very good service, but happned to be lost in an extraordinary storme in the Irish sea. About 1665 he presented to the Royall Societie a Discourse of his (in manuscript, of about a Quire of paper) of Building of Shippes, which the Lord Brounker (then President) tooke away, and still keepes, saying, ’Twas too great an Arcanum of State to be commonly perused; but Sir William told me that Dr. Robert Wood, M.D. has a copie of it, which he himselfe haz not.

“Anno Domini 1667 he maried on Trinity Sunday the relict of Sir Maurice Fenton, of Ireland, Knight, daughter of Sir Hasdras Waller of Ireland, a very beautifull and ingeniose Lady, browne, with glorious Eies, by whom he hath some sonnes and daughters, very lovely children, but all like the Mother. He has a naturall Daughter that much resembles him, no legitimate child so much, that acts at the Duke’s Play-house.

“He is a proper handsome man, measured six foot high, good head of browne haire, moderately turning up. His eies are a kind of goose-gray, but very short sighted, and, as to aspect, beautifull, and promise sweetnes of nature, and they doe not decieve, for he is a marvellous good-natured person. Eie-browes thick, darke, and straight (horizontall).

“He is a person of an admirable inventive head, and practicall parts. He hath told me that he hath read but little, that is to say, not since 25 aetat., and is of Mr. Hobbes his mind, that had he read much, as some men have, he had not known so much as he does, nor should have made such Discoveries and improvements.

“He had his patent for Earle of Kilmore and Baron of Shelbrooke, which he stifles during his life to avoyd Envy, but his Sonne will have the benefit of the Precedency. (I expected that his Sonne would have broken-out a Lord or Earle: but it seemes that he had enemies at the Court at Dublin, which out of envy obstructed the passing of his Patent.)

“Monday, 20th March, he was affronted by Mr. Vernon: Tuesday following Sir William and his Ladie’s brother (Mr. Waller) Hectored Mr. Vernon and caned him.

“He has told me, that wheras some men have accidentally come into the way of preferment, by lying at an Inne, and there contracting an Acquaintance; on the Roade; or as some others have donne; he never had any such like opportunity, but hewed out his Fortune himselfe. To be short, he is a person of so great worth and learning, and haz such a prodigious working witt, that he is both fitt for, and an honour to, the highest preferment.

“Sir William Petty had a boy that whistled incomparably well. He after wayted on a Lady, a widowe, of good fortune. Every night this boy was to whistle his Lady asleepe. At last shee could hold out no longer, but bids her chamber-mayd withdrawe: bids him come to bed, setts him to worke, and marries him the next day. This is certeyn true.

“Sir William Petty died at his house in Peccadilly-street (almost opposite to St. James church) on fryday, 16th day of December, 1687, of a Gangrene in his foot, occasioned by the swelling of the Gowt, and is buried with his father and mother in the church at Rumsey, a little Haven towne in Hampshire.”

Ornament from Margaret Cavendish's _Orations of Divers Sorts_ (1st edn., 1662)

§  Character No. 2

The Reverend James Granger’s life of William Petty, as printed in his A Biographical History of England, from Egbert the Great to the Revolution (2nd edn. of 1775, vol. 4, pp. 14–16)

“Sir WILLIAM PETTY; Edwin Sandys sc. large 4to.

“Sir William Petty, who was some time professor of anatomy in Oxford, was fellow of the College of Physicians in the reign of Charles II. He gave early proofs of that comprehensive and inquisitive genius for which he was afterwards so eminent; and which seems to have been designed by nature for every branch of science to which he applied himself. At the age of fifteen, he was master of such a compass of knowledge in the languages, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, navigation, practical mathematics, and mechanical trades, as few are capable of attaining in the longest life. He made his way in the world under great disadvantages in point of circumstances, having acquired a very moderate fortune with as much difficulty, as he afterwards rose with ease to wealth and affluence *. He was an excellent chymist and anatomist, and a perfect master of every other kind of knowledge that was requisite to the profession of physic. He was a very able mathematician, had a fine hand at drawing, was skilful in the practical parts of mechanics, and a most exact surveyor. But what he particularly applied himself to, and understood beyond any man of his age, was the knowledge of the common arts of life, and political arithmetic. His admirable essays in this art, have even raised his reputation to a higher pitch than it rose to in his life-[t]ime; as experience has fully proved the justness of his calculations . This great man, who knew better than any of his contemporaries how to enrich the nation and himself, died the 16th of Dec. 1687, in the 65th year of his age. See the reign of JAMES II.”

Ornament from Margaret Cavendish's _Orations of Divers Sorts_ (1st edn., 1662)


preliminary discussion of Petty’s Down Survey and mapping of Ireland on the Library Previews page for 2 publications by William Petty

discussion of Petty’s proposed college of natural philosophy for tradesmen in the GALLERY exhibit on Chambers’ Cyclopædia

discussion of Petty’s invention of a double-writing machine (an early copy machine) in the introductory write-up on Chambers’ Cyclopædia article for “Pentagraph” in the Library

more detailed discussion of Granger’s A Biographical History of England, and its cultural influences, in the GALLERY exhibit on Margaret Cavendish’s portraiture

a Library monograph (A 17th-Century “Hieroglyphick of the Year”) on Petty’s fellow “Rota man” and keeper of Petty MSS., Dr. Robert Wood


“At Paris he studyed Anatomie, and read Vesalius with
Mr. Thomas Hobbes, who loved his company.”

Discussing this relationship again in his life of Hobbes, Aubrey writes that

Sir William Petty (of Ireland), Regiae Societatis Socius, a person of a stupendous invention and of as great prudence and humanity, had an high esteeme of him. His acquaintance began at Paris, 1648 or 1649, at which time Mr. Hobbes studied Vesalius’ Anatomy, and Sir William with him. He then assisted Mr. Hobbes in draweing his schemes for his booke of optiques, for he had a very fine hand in those dayes for draweing, which draughts Mr. Hobbes did much commend. His facultie in this kind conciliated them the sooner to the familiarity of our common friend, Mr. S. Cowper aforesayd, at whose house they often mett....

(A. Clark’s edn. of Aubrey’s Brief Lives, i: 367–8)

Aubrey’s dates are in error here.

Anthony à Wood, in a note appended to Aubrey’s mss., comments that “Dr. Petty was resident in Oxford 1648–49, and left it (if I am not mistaken) 1652.”

Wood is correct in that Petty had returned to England in 1647 (Petty’s ODNB biographer, Toby Barnard, places Petty in England even earlier than this, stating that “He was back in England by 1646 and continued his education at Oxford.”). In 1648 Petty was at London, pursuing patents on “his engine for corne-businesse” (an experimental seed-drill for sowing corn evenly and without waste) and his copy machine (which produced a duplicate copy of any formal document, as it was written). Petty also published two discourses from London that year: The Advice of W. P. to Mr. Samuel Hartlib for the Advancement of Some Particular Parts of Learning (London, 1647 and 1648), followed by A Declaration Concerning the Newly Invented Art of Double Writing (London, 1648).

So it was earlier than this, c.1645–46, when Petty was active in the Paris-based Newcastle Circle, and most closely associated with Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’s First Draught of Optics (alternately, On Vision), for which Petty did the technical illustrations, was written in 1646, and dedicated to Hobbes’s and Petty’s patron at the time, William Cavendish.

Petty would later acknowledge Newcastle’s formative influence in these early days when dedicating his Discourse ... Concerning the Use of Duplicate Proportion (London, 1674) to the elderly William — in appreciation for William’s unstinting support of natural philosophers 30 years earlier, and no doubt, as a final bid for a legacy of patronage from a man of restored estates who would die two years later in 1676.

Although Aubrey describes Petty as Hobbes’s “great friend and admirer,” Petty’s position in Hobbes’s inner circle was not advertised abroad. In his life of Hobbes, Aubrey notes with dismay that

Lucius Carey, lord Falkland was his [Hobbes’s] great friend and admirer, and so was Sir William Petty; both of which I have here enrolled amongst those friends I have heard him speake of, but Dr. Blackburne left ’em both out [of the Auctarium Vitae Hobbianae, 1681] (to my admiration). I askt him why he had donne so? He answered because they were both ignote [unknown] to foreigners.

(A. Clark’s edn. of Aubrey’s Brief Lives, i: 365–6)

return to AUBREY’S TEXT


“... as he afterwards rose with ease to wealth and affluence *.”

“He told Mr. Aubrey, that he was driven to great straits for money, when he was in France; and that he had lived a week upon two or three pennyworth of walnuts. But he, at length, made his way through all difficulties; and as he expressed it to that gentleman, ‘hewed out his fortune himself.’ MS. by Mr. Aubrey, in Mus. Ashmol.” (Granger, Biographical History, 2nd edn. of 1775, iv: 15n*)

return to GRANGER’S TEXT


“... as experience has fully proved the justness of his calculations †.”

“Captain John Graunt, and Dr. Charles Davenant, rendered themselves famous for political calculation, and have published several excellent books of that kind. The former gained great reputation by his ‘Natural and Political Observations upon the “Bills of Mortality,”’ first published in 1661, 4to. This work has been attributed to his intimate friend William Petty, and the name of Graunt has been by many supposed to be fictitious; but see the life of this ingenious person in the ‘Biographia Britannica.’” (Granger, Biographical History, 2nd edn. of 1775, iv: 15n†)

return to GRANGER’S TEXT


William Petty as a young man, c.1649–50
Painted by Isaac Fuller (1606/1620?–1672).

The portrait, which emphasizes Petty’s early career as a physician and anatomist, was painted while Petty was still at Oxford, where he held a fellowship at Brasenose College, built up a medical practice, and became something of a national celebrity after resuscitating the corpse of Anne Greene, as Aubrey describes in his Life of Petty.

Petty would leave Oxford in 1651 to travel to Ireland as Cromwell’s physician.


Sir William Petty, 1683
Engraved by Edwin Sandys.

The print, with its motto “UT APES • GEOME • TRIA” (on Petty’s coat of arms), Detail showing Petty's arms casts the maturer Petty in the role of applied mathematician, recalling his unwavering commitment to “a Political Arithmetic, and a Geometrical Justice” which Petty had argued would counter “errors” of “falsity, disproportion, and inconsistence” in the polity.

The portrait print appeared as the frontispiece to Petty’s cartographical description of the kingdom of Ireland, Hiberniae delineatio quoad hactenus licuit, perfectissima studio Guilielmi Petty Eq: aurati (London, 1685). The Hiberniae delineatio contains a complete set of maps of Ireland, its provinces, counties, and principal towns, as derived from Petty’s scientific survey of the country in the 1650s.

This is the print catalogued by Granger in his Biographical History of England from Egbert the Great to the Revolution as “Edwin Sandys sc. large 4to.”


“Sir William Petty’s coate of armes”
as drawn by John Aubrey

Aubrey’s original drawing was in “a false colouring” — “scilicet red,” as Lady Petty had described it to Aubrey, who made careful note of his mistake: “... for I find in his scutchin at his house at his death it is azure.” Given the symbolic significance of color in heraldry, the substitution of red for blue was a strange mistake for Lady Petty to have made.

Aubrey glossed his drawing of the Petty family arms as follows: “Ermine, on a bend gules [i.e., ermine dyed red], a [magnetic] needle, pointing to the Polar Star, or, for Petty: impaling, sable three walnut leaves, between 2 bendlets, or, for [his wife, Elizabeth] Waller. ¶ The crest is a beehive, or, with bees about it: the motto is ¶ Ut apes Geometria.”

Core members of the Oxford and Hartlib Circles — both of which included Petty — and the later Royal Society were fascinated by everything relating to bees and beehives. Throughout the 17th century there was great interest in the social life and organization of bees — e.g., did bees live in a commonwealth? or under a monarchy?

The young Christopher Wren designed a special box-beehive while an undergraduate at Oxford.

John Wilkins studied and collected beehives, including the glass beehive he gave to Evelyn at Oxford in the summer of 1654 — such an astounding work of art and unique instrument for natural inquiry that it even drew King Charles II to visit Evelyn in 1663, on purpose to view the hive.

And in 1655, Samuel Hartlib published his The Reformed Common-Wealth of Bees, hoping to persuade Cromwell to support his ambitious program of agricultural reform. But Hartlib’s book continued to have social, economic, and political relevance after, as well as before, the Restoration. E.g., Robert Hooke not only read it, but owned a copy.

Traditional emblematic discourses had long associated bees and beekeeping with Christian industry and economic prosperity. Ripa’s emblem for Artificio (Artifice) pictured a beehive, and was glossed by Pierce Tempest in his 1709 Iconologia as: “The Hive declares the Industry of the Bees, which, being very inconsiderable, are, nevertheless, great as to their Conduct.”

Given this legacy of cultural associations, an active beehive made an ideal crest for a crusading economist, “improver” and renowned inventor such as Petty.

top of page

This Web page was last modified on:  07/18/2016 11:07 AM.