The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 5 - The Northern Inventor

Sweden has few spectacular mountains but many beautiful hills. One of the loveliest spots in the land is Mount Kinnekulle, which :rises steeply from a sandy plain on the shores of Lake Venner, majestically dominating several lesser hills that surround it at a respectful distance.

An August day in 1715 found Swedenborg riding up the side of this mountain, fifteen miles from Brunsbo, where he was spending the summer.

It was clear to Emanuel from his travels that Sweden was far behind other countries in science, specifically in astronomy. If only a Swede could claim the magnificent prize offered for the solution of the longitude problem! His own method, recognized by competent authorities abroad, only required exact lunar tables for its completion. But nowhere in the entire country was there a place where celestial observations could be made. The only observatory, a small one at Upsala, with outmoded instruments, could not even serve for establishing accurately the latitude and longitude of Stockholm, for which foreign astronomers were constantly clamoring. To get such data in exchange for, their own information was a debt that every civilized country recognized. It was high time that Sweden established an observatory unless she wanted to lose all credit and honor in the learned world. It was also needed in navigation, for establishing the declination of the magnetic needle, for the study of meteorology and for determining the nature of the air, not to mention observations of the aurora borealis.

Young Swedenborg was on his way to look for a site for himself where he could build a small private observatory. Here he intended during the winter to make the sorely needed observations for his thesis. Was not Mount Kinnekulle intended by nature for this purpose? Some years later he described it as follows:

At first it slopes a little, but gradually more and more, until it rises sharply . . . On its lower edge there are houses, farms and whole parishes; on the summit, marshes and woods. In charm and fertility it is a veritable little Eden. Fruit trees grow there as in a wild woods, and there are orchards of walnut trees. The air and the soil assist everything that is planted there to grow in more glorious profusion than elsewhere. On one side, from the highest point, a plain is seen where the vision terminates in a cloudlike forest as if on the horizon itself. On the other side the sight is lost in Lake Venner, discerning naught but sky and water. On the third and -fourth sides two great heights, Mount Billingen and Mount Hunneberg, cut off the view.

The elevation itself is another cause for wonder, for the eye unobstructedly glides over water or rests on some approaching sail many miles away. The common people living upon this hill have noticed things worthy of investigation by the learned, namely that clouds, rain and thunder originate, as it were, on the summit, so that he who dwells on that height would seem to be its Jupiter and the hill a small heavenly Olympus, since the quality of the air derives its origin thence. In short, it is a height with which nature has adorned the land of Westrogothia and which she has intended as the most unique observatory in the world, were there only men like Cassini, Brahe, or Helvetius to lend it their name and fame.[43]

How remarkable Kinnekulle really is, was not known until modern times, when geologists found it to be a veritable museum of pre-glacial history. Today there is a small lookout up there, which the visitor can easily reach, erected perhaps on the very site chosen by Swedenborg so many years before. But he never built his private observatory there. In the fall of the year he visited Upsala to renew acquaintance with friends and relatives and other plans were then proposed, probably by Erik Benzelius. He and the professors considered Upsala a much more suitable place than a rural hilltop to build an observatory - which they did - twenty-four years later.

Again Emanuel waited for a turn in his affairs that would indicate which way his future was to shape itself. Even before his homecoming, the ever-vigilant Bishop Swedberg had told the king that he had a son who was greatly inclined to mathematics and mechanics and might become a very useful subject if he were helped to a position at Upsala, or elsewhere. Such a position would also enable him to complete his plan for publishing his own and Polhem's inventions. Swedenborg stood at the beginning of his career, inspired by an ambition to serve his country in a constructive way. And how sorely his native land needed a restorative l He was never very enthusiastic about the idea of seeking a position for himself at the university. The project that interested him greatly was the publication of a scientific magazine. In Upsala lay Polhem's materials which Benzelius himself intended to publish at same future time. The time was now ripe for bringing them out in the interests of "learning and manufactures." It was decided that this, the first scientific journal to be issued in Sweden, should be patterned after those of foreign societies, and come out in Swedish instead of Latin, especially since it was intended to reach the general public and kindle in the Swedish people the spirit of scientific inquiry. It was hoped that the journal also would serve as the basis for a future learned society, which in fact it did, for the present Society of Sciences of Upsala regards this publication as the first of its Proceedings. Swedenborg called it Daedalus Hyperboreus, or "The Northern Daedalus" after the Greek hero supposed to have been the world's first inventor. Daedalus and his son Icarus had constructed artificial wings to effect their escape from the labyrinth of Crete and its monster Minotaur.

After consulting with Benzelius and deciding on the contents of the first number of the magazine, Swedenborg left Upsala for Stockholm, on November 19, to look up the models of Polhem's inventions that were stored in the building of the Board of Mines on Mynt Torget.

He found the models in the "Mechanical Laboratory" which Polhem, aided by public funds, had started fourteen years earlier. The grant of money had long since been withdrawn to support the wars, and all that remained of the collection were some broken-down remnants of the machines now sadly neglected. "The machines in the Board of Mines are falling into ruin as time advances," he wrote to Benzelius. "In six or ten years they will be good only for firewood, unless I choose to avert their fate by means of a little brass and a little ink and paper" (Stockholm, August, 1715).[44]

All his different interests could be blended into one, Swedenborg thought, by his being installed in a position at the University. But where were the funds to come from, since no vacancy existed? He begged Benzelius to suggest the means for a professorship of mechanics. Perhaps it could be done by diminishing the salaries of the other professors? A faculty of mathematics and science, he argued, was as necessary and useful as a faculty of philosophy and would be of far greater benefit to the country. It could promote manufacturers, mining and navigation and therefore might well be given a seventh part of the University's appropriation.

He proposes a faculty of four fellowships, Benzelius being the secretary and Swedenborg himself the professor of mechanics. Na´vely he suggests that the professors would look favorably upon this arrangement, since they would only be called upon to make some slight sacrifice for the purpose of advancing the cause of public education. "But," he adds, "although all of this is proposed more in jest than in earnest, still, should it gain somebody's consent [meaning the King's] it could be followed by a recommendation to the proper authorities . . ." (Brunsbo, March 4, 1716).[45]

The suggestion seems to have come as something of a shock to the librarian, as well it might, and he probably administered a well-deserved rebuke to the young aspirant who dared to suggest so drastic a change in so sacrosanct a matter as the professors' salaries. For in his next letter Swedenborg hastens to apologize:

I was very glad to hear your opinion on my proposition. I have never been and never will be so forgetful of myself and my good standing at Upsala as to want the professors to support me to their own prejudice. But I thought that by such a desperate and execrable proposal I should compel your prudence and imagination to think of something better. As I wrote it merely as a joke, I can very easily mend it by telling the truth. Besides, it is impossible for this to have spread any further, since I had it well hidden in the envelope directed to you, and had my seal stamped upon it so that no one could have peeped into it. Nevertheless, I wish' some plan could be proposed for the establishment of such a faculty, and it could most easily be accomplished by the retirement of some of the professorships that are least needed . . . " (Brunsbo, March 19, 1716).[46]

"As to the salary of a professor of mechanics," replied Benzelius later, "I know nothing better than that Mr. Polhem be made a regular assessor [official associate or member] of the Board of Commerce, and that you be made director of the Mechanical Laboratory in his stead, and that it be brought here to Upsala. The rank of Director can then be made equal to that of the professors. The rest is, in my opinion, a chimera, for the regular professor of geometry is obliged to lecture also on mechanics . . . I wish you could come here so that we could talk it over." (Upsala, April 2, 1716) [47]

Swedenborg replied that he would indeed come to Upsala but that nowadays "one does not know what place one is safest in" (probably a reference to the danger of being conscripted). He applauded Benzelius' scheme for obtaining an observatory in Upsala by reconditioning one of the castle towers, using the bricks that lay among the ruins from the fire, and selling some discarded iron pipes to pay for it. But even this scheme was discouraged by the unprogressive mathematicians of Upsala, who seemed to have lost all initiative or desire to follow up any plan, however clever.

"It is a fatality with mathematicians that they remain mostly in theory," Swedenborg groans. "In my opinion it would be a profitable thing if every ten mathematicians had one thoroughly practical man who could lead the others to market: in which case this one man would gain more renown and be of greater service than all the ten taken together . . . " Only the establishment of manufactures, he thought, could heal the stricken land (Brunsbo, June 2, 1716) [48]

The following autumn there was a vacancy at the university and the consistory favored Swedenborg's application for a professorship. But nothing more came of it, for by that time Emanuel was engaged in the weightier business of attendance on the king and advancing personally the cause of science in Sweden.

The Daedalus, however, materialized. It seems that Erik Benzelius assisted considerably with the editing of the magazine and that his brother Gustaf, then a clerk in the royal archives, looked after the printing in Stockholm:

Polhem was pleased with the plan and the treatment of the material submitted to him in advance. He modestly excused himself from the extravagant praise bestowed upon him in the Preface: "For this I am most humbly grateful, but I would advise that it be done more sparingly, in order that the delicate mind may not experience disgust thereat, for no such praise can come to a native-born man, especially in his own lifetime." Polhem assured Swedenborg that "Materials and subjects shall not be lacking as long as I live and God grants me my customary health and vigor." [49] Polhem now had a great desire to see Swedenborg before his "few remaining days cut off the carrying out of his design." Polhem's frequent references to his possible demise are somewhat amusing, for he lived to reach the ripe old age of ninety years!

He had written Benzelius that he would be very pleased if the young man would pay him a personal visit at his home in Dalecarlia. This invitation he repeated to Swedenborg himself:

If it be not too troublesome for you, sir, to travel so long a distance, I, would count it as a great favor and pleasure, if you would pay me a visit here at Stiernsund ... I wish you happiness and blessings, a merry Christmas holiday, and prospects for a more gladsome New Year, and I remain, with many kind greetings, most learned sir, your most obedient servant, Christop. Polhamer

- one of the five different ways in which the name of this notable man was spelled.

Emanuel was spending that Christmas at Starbo, Dalecarlia, with his younger sister Hedwig and her husband, Master of Mines Lars Benzelstjerna, who managed the ironworks there, the property of Emanuel's stepmother. His visit to Polhem seems to have taken place in the beginning of February, when he traveled the forty miles from Starbo to consult him about the second issue of the, magazine.

It was then that Emanuel met Polhem's son Gabriel, sixteen years old, and his two daughters, the elder of whom, Maria, was seventeen, Emerentia, her younger sister, being only twelve, and yet soon. destined to play a part in the story of Swedenborg's life.

On the tenth of January, 1716, the Stockholm newspapers announced the first number of the Daedalus Hyperboreus,[50] containing an article on Polhem's ear trumpets and tubes, and some other pieces by Emanuel Swedberg. The second number contained: a description of Polhem's hoisting machine, two articles on coinage, and one on the recent solar eclipse. The third number contained articles on weights and measures, air-pumps and the measurement of air. "In the fourth number of the Daedalus," wrote Emanuel to Benzelius, "I think to insert some Daedalian speculations about a flying machine."

Swedenborg's flying-machine has been described as more properly a species of controllable glider than in any real sense an anticipation of the modern airplane. It was not provided with any source of power, such as an engine, to drive it through the air or to take it off the ground. Swedenborg's machine depended upon the wind for flight, and had to be launched from a rooftop. It was equipped with movable wings controlled by the pilot, but these cannot be considered as in any sense a driving mechanism. Polhem seems to have had some qualms in respect to printing the article. Flying by artificial means, he said, presents the same difficulties as does perpetual motion or gold-making. It seems easily done, at first sight - but!

Swedenborg, however, did not think he had invented a machine that would fly. He merely states that he concludes from many things "that a machine might be invented which would carry and transmit us through the air, and that we are not to be excluded from the overhead element." Humorously, he adds a quotation from Fontanelle:

The art of flying is hardly yet born. It will be perfected and some day people will fly up to the moon. Do we pretend to have discovered everything, or to have brought our knowledge to a point where nothing can be added to it? Oh, for mercy's sake, let us agree that there is still something left for the ages to come![51]

One of the many interests that Polhem shared with Swedenborg was the desire to introduce the study of arithmetic to the common people of Sweden. Polhem had put together the fundamentals of this subject in fifty-seven short lessons. The book was entirely in line with Emanuel's purpose in publishing the Daedalus in Swedish, namely to advance popular education. In his enthusiasm he offered to print Polhem's work at his own expense, not that he wanted to become a bookseller, but because he thought the work useful enough to find a ready market

It was probably during his stay at Stiernsund that Swedenborg got his article on Polhem's "Curious Tap," described in the fifth number of the Daedalus. Evidently the tap was already in use among the professors at Upsala, and indeed was much appreciated for Dr. Roberg, who was asked to make a drawing of it, was rather reluctant as he would have to take apart one of the taps and no one in Upsala was willing to have his tap destroyed. However, Swedenborg too possessed a tap, which lay in a little box in one of the upper drawers of the room he had occupied in Upsala. This was to be handed over to Doctor Roberg if he undertook the task of description.

The contrivance had a curious origin. Tradition says that Polhem had a maid whose duty it was to fetch him beer. The maid had a sweetheart who also was thirsty. Polhem, who had a reputation for closeness, figured out that when the servant girl reported the beer-barrel as empty it could not have been so had there been no leakage. So he invented an ingenious tap by means of which the outflow of beer could be measured. Thus not only was his own economic welfare assured, but the maid's morals as well. The imparter of this information said that some fifty years ago one of Polhem's taps made of iron was found lying on a remote stove-shelf at Stiernsund, very rusty and dusty, having evidently lain there undisturbed ever since the great inventor's day.[53]

Polhem thought that the learned ought to have a better practical knowledge of the things they were teaching, and that very often "Nature has arrangements entirely different from what Descartes and most of his followers believe." Instead of speculations, he advocated daily experiments in mechanics and reflection on causes. "I never approve of anything that cannot stand examination for all cases and circumstances," he said; "and as soon as one thing contradicts another, I hold the whole foundation to be false."[54]

During their talks at Stiernsund, Polhem and Swedenborg had developed the idea that when peace came they would establish a mechanical institute at Upsala. This institute would undertake to supply the people with useful machines such as the newly improved threshing machine which would greatly increase the harvest. All the large estates and villages were to be supplied with these threshing machines, the institute receiving half of the profits, Polhem a third, and the director a sixth. Foreigners would then see that the Swedes were not discouraged in misfortune although they had shown themselves proud enough in prosperity. All these things Polhem wanted to lay before the king and he hoped to have Emanuel accompany him to court. Even while staying in Turkey, King Charles had been informed of Polhem's useful inventions and he followed with lively interest particularly those that could be turned to the service of war.

On his return to Brunsbo, Emanuel took long walks about the country. He examined rocks, springs, soils and mud; and talked to the peasants about what he found. There was a black clay that might be good for dye, and a white clay with commercial value for making crockery and clay pipes. He continued working up articles for the Daedalus, rewriting one of Polhem's On the Causes of Things[55] that is of particular interest. He also wrote out, for the first time, his solution for the finding of the longitude at sea to submit to the judgment of the learned - in spite of the continued absence of lunar tables.

Swedenborg now was twenty-eight years of age, as full of ambition as ever, but with no settled occupation. His hopes of accompanying Polhem to attend the king seemed doomed to disappointment, for Charles was planning to cross over into Norway in order to drive the Danes out of that country.

"It seems to me that Sweden is now laid low, and her last agony is soon to come," he wrote. "Probably many desire that the torment may be short . . . " Polhem also thought that now "all good plans have come to naught."

The king's sister, Princess Ulrika Eleonora, a member of the ruling council, was residing for the time being at Wadstena castle, not far from Brunsbo. At her earnest entreaty her long absent brother finally agreed to pay his sister a hasty visit. Incognito, through storm and rain, King Charles crossed Lake Vetter in a rowboat, secured a horse on the opposite side of the lake and rode seven miles to the castle where, muddy and soaked, he presented himself before his sister, passed the night, and was gone again the following day. It was their first meeting in eighteen years, and also their last! The boy who accompanied the king stopped at Brunsbo parsonage on his return.[56]

At the end of September Swedenborg was again in Upsala where he applied for a position to fill a recent vacancy.[57] Nothing came of it, however, for a few days later things suddenly took a more hopeful turn for the young scientist. A royal order authorized Polhem to build a dry-dock for the naval station at Karlskrona, to facilitate the prosecution of the naval warfare against the Danes. It was agreed that Emanuel should accompany him and present his Daedalus, and other plans, for the advancement of science. A handsome edition of the magazine was prepared, to which was added an elaborate dedication, and the following verse:

Lo, Daedalus did mount the winds and from on high,
  Did scorn the snares King Minos laid on earth.
So mount the winds, my Daedalus, by thine art,
  And scorn the snares the common herd shall lay![58]

After a visit to the factory at Stiernsund, Emanuel set out with Polhem for Lund, stopping over to spend a day at Brunsbo. Like their mythical predecessors these two modern inventors went to seek their fortune. What fate would be theirs? In the ancient fable, Icarus, proudly disdaining the counsel of Daedalus, flew too near to the sun. Its rays melted the wax used to attach his wings, and he plunged into the sea. Invention, too, must pursue a wise course if it is to survive the effects of its own ingenuity!

to Chapter 6