A bunch of old dead dudes

Great polymaths of history: all-round genius

Image credit: Dreamstime, Diomedia

None of history’s known polymaths quite measure up to Leonardo da Vinci, but here we look back at seven great thinkers set apart by their inventiveness over entirely different domains and by their vigorous creative energy.

It’s hard to be truly original.

Many major discoveries have been made repeatedly by different inventors working without knowledge of each other’s research. Newton and Leibniz invented calculus, Wallace and Darwin found the theory of natural selection at the same time, and Alexander Graham Bell put in a patent for the telephone on the same day as Elisha Gray. These are the quite well-known cases.  

Lesser known examples include the almost independent discovery of the planet Neptune by Leverrier and Adams, oxygen by Scheele and Priestley in 1774, while four different astronomers are credited with the discovery of sunspots (Galileo, Fabricius, Scheiner and Harriott), all in 1611.  

If there are enough competent minds attacking the same problem, invention is inevitable – it is often cumulative and, in that sense, collective.  

Consider the steam engine. It was a group effort over generations, from the 1606 discovery that heated water confined to a bombshell would explode the shell, to the first use of a piston in the steam engine in 1678. By the early 1700s, every sub-element of the modern steam engine had been invented and practically applied.  

Thomas Newcomen constructed a prototype, which Watt improved upon by reducing waste and heat loss sources. Obviously if Watt had never existed, it is ridiculous to presume the steam engine and industrial revolution would never have happened.  

What characterises the following geniuses is not that they were necessarily the first – or the only – thinkers working on a problem, but that the many problems they ironed out were particularly rewarding.

Gottfried Leibniz

Leibniz was born in 1646 in Leipzig. He studied law and philosophy, and published his first dissertation, ‘Disputatio Metaphysica de Principio Individui’, in 1663. By the age of 20 he was a Doctor of Law at the University of Altdorf. Declining a professorship, he spent his 20s undertaking scientific studies and writing.  

Travelling widely, Leibniz became busy with political questions of the day. For example, he attempted to persuade Louis XIV to invade Egypt. In London, he presented a calculating machine at the Royal Society and was granted an honorary fellowship.

Yet, after a sojourn in Paris where he was unable to obtain permanent employment, he settled in the provincial town of Hanover as courtier and librarian to the House of Brunswick (Braunschweig in German).

The Dukes of Brunswick (he served three) gave him ample time to pursue his own interests. He worked on hydraulic presses, windmills and clocks. He played with the idea of repairing the schism between Protestant and Catholic churches.

He strove to reform the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire. He sought a “universal language” that would “end all disputes”. He planned a new health system for the north German kingdom, using statistics on mortality to improve outcomes.

He applied probabilities for provision of an early form of life insurance. His main contribution to philosophy, however, was the invention of ‘monads’ – tiny, irreducible ‘atoms’ of immaterial forces, of which the universe consists in endless quantity, but each of which paradoxically itself encompasses the whole universe.

Leibniz is probably best known in the English-speaking world for his dispute with Newton over who invented calculus. Newton got there first in 1665, but failed to publish the results. Leibniz independently got there about a decade later and published faster, so it is his terminology that prevails in calculus today. His version of calculus was also more refined and elegant. A Royal Society report unfairly finding Leibniz to be a plagiarist sailed through the peer review process, perhaps not unrelated to the fact that the Society’s president was none other than Newton himself.

Mikhail Lomonosov

Lomonosov was born in the far north of Russia in 1710, the son of a fisherman, and died in St Petersburg in 1755. A devoted student of Latin, he went to Moscow at the age of 19. At the Slavic Greek Latin Academy, he passed himself off as a nobleman, as ‘common people’ were not allowed to study there. Having then graduated from the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences, he went to Marburg in Germany to study metallurgy and chemistry. At 35, he returned to St Petersburg to become professor of chemistry.

He formulated the kinetic theory of gases and law of conservation of mass: mass can be neither created nor destroyed, only spatially redistributed. In 1761, he observed a transition across the Sun’s disk by Venus and from that, inferred that Venus had an atmosphere, something experimentally proved only a century later.

Thanks to persistent lobbying, Lomonosov successfully opened a teaching and research lab in St Petersburg in 1749, and as a result of experiments there, went on to establish a factory specialising in glass mosaics. Along with the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, he helped found Moscow University in 1755.   

Lomonosov’s achievements didn’t stop there. He wrote dissertations on mining, geology and astronomy as well as manuals of rhetoric and an important Russian grammar.  

Lomonosov incarnated the Petrine (i.e. Peter the Great’s) ideal of rank achieved through service, rather than by birth alone. His humble origins stood his myth in good stead during the Soviet period: Moscow State University was named after him by Stalin. The first Russian floating nuclear power station unveiled last year (and already derided by its opponents as ‘Chernobyl on ice’) bears Lomonosov’s name too.

Perhaps there was a feeling in the West that his achievements were somewhat oversold, precisely because he was such a towering figure in Soviet mythology. Yet according to an essay by two Lomonosov experts, Professors Robert Crease and Vladimir Shiltsev, his scientific contributions do hold up to scrutiny.  

Nevertheless, every Russian is familiar with the legend about the man who attended school with no books and walked to Moscow. Bars, drinks and numerous other objects continue to be named after him, the authors write. The legends flourish, including the rumour he was the illegitimate son of Peter the Great. The two had many physical similarities – tall, with particularly round heads and fierce tempers. Yet it remains just that, a legend.  

Benjamin Franklin

Boston-born Benjamin Franklin was an American scientist, inventor, administrator and statesman whose face still graces the $100 bill, hence the banknote’s nickname, ‘a Benjamin’. He was one of the so-called ‘founding fathers’ – a group of writers, politicians and thinkers who led the American revolution that broke the country away from Britain.

Born in 1706 to a candlemaker emigrant from Northamptonshire and a local woman, he moved to Philadelphia aged 17, and became a printer, then a newspaper editor.

He published the Poor Richard’s Almanack, a sort of early Reader’s Digest, full of articles and peculiar observations, in which he coined several adages still in use today, including ‘A penny saved is a penny earned’ and ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’.

A prolific inventor and happy, multidisciplinary theorist, he became known for his kite experiments to prove lightning was electricity, during which he made sure to stand on an insulator, keeping dry under a roof while flying his kite – with a wet conducting string attached – into a rising storm.

Franklin pioneered the science of demography, taking notes on America’s population growth, later used by demographer Thomas Malthus. As the USA’s Deputy Postmaster, in constant contact with mail ship captains from the mother country, he learned that some sailing routes out of England seemed much faster than others. The slowest was held up by an eastbound current in the mid-Atlantic, which Franklin named the ‘Gulf Stream’.

However, it took years before British sea captains who took the more southerly route heeded his advice to cut weeks off their sailing time. After the American Revolution, Franklin became ambassador to France and, when back home, a delegate to the convention that drew up the constitution of the United States.

Shen Kuo

The Chinese scholar and scientist Shen Kuo, sometimes spelled Shen Gua, was born in Huangzhou in 1054. After working as a civil servant dealing with water management, he was appointed director of the Astronomy Bureau, where he devised a calendar.

Appointed a senior financial bureaucrat in 1077, he fell out of favour with rulers and was restored to grace only a few years later when commissioned to make a map of all areas under Chinese control.

The emperor was so pleased with the result that he granted Shen Kuo a personal residence, known as Dream Pool, where the latter spent his remaining years writing on a variety of topics, which culminated in his best-known work: ‘Essays from a Dream Pool’. It consisted of more than 500 ‘observations’. He argued land was formed by erosion of mountains and deposition of silt. He linked tides with the phases of the Moon. He explained rainbows as the result of atmospheric refraction, and so on.

In his other works, Shen Kuo wrote, among other topics, on the practical uses of dry docks to repair boats, and described the camera obscura effect. He also authored two geographical atlases and a scholarly text about harmonics in music.

Omar Khayyam

The son of a tentmaker, this Persian scholar, poet and polymath was born in Nishapur, north-eastern Iran.

He worked first in Samarkand and Bukhara, in today’s Uzbekistan, and in 1074 was invited by the sultan to reform the solar calendar and to head an astronomical observatory. His calendar was more accurate than that of Pope Gregory five centuries later. His other astronomical work was a catalogue of the fixed stars.

After the sultan Malikshah fell into disgrace, the observatory was closed and Khayyam had to make a pilgrimage to Mecca to restore his Islamic credentials.

His best-known work in mathematics, ‘Treatise of Demonstrations of the Problems of Algebra’, dealt with the theory of cubic equations. Dubbed ‘the Astronomer Poet of Persia’, Khayyam also wrote about music and philosophy, and many of his views in this area were reflected in the famous work of poetry, the Rubaiyat, which is still hugely popular today.

Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus was born in the Polish town of Torun in 1473 into a family of merchants. After studying astronomy, canon law and medicine at the university of Krakow, he travelled to Italy and became personal physician and land administrator to the Bishop of Warmia in north-western Poland.

He spent his spare time making observations of the planets, often with the naked eye, and tried to formulate a theory concerning their orbits. Aristarchus, a Greek astronomer, proposed the basic idea that the Sun was the centre of the solar system some 1,800 years before, but Aristarchus’s work was “overwhelmed” by the common sense of the time, and much of it was lost. How exactly he got that flash of intellectual insight that put the Sun at the centre, with the Earth spinning around it, remains something of a mystery, according to Copernicus biographer Dava Sobel.

Worried about the reaction, Copernicus put off the publication of his model for years. A young German mathematician, Georg Joachim Rheticus, provided the impetus for publication. He turned up in Torun and took the manuscript with him to be published in Germany. Copernicus’s heliocentric theory was not perfect, but his book, published in his final months of his life, changed the way we see the universe, and hence ourselves.

Emanuel Swedenborg

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) spent most of his life as an administrator in the Swedish iron ore industry. In his spare time, he was busily engaged in many scientific and engineering activities. In his youth, he began Sweden’s first science journal, which featured his proposal for a flying machine. He also worked on plans for a submarine, a musical instrument, a water clock and a machine that would shoot 11,000 bullets an hour.

The then King of Sweden, Charles XII, who was interested in mathematics, saw a copy of the journal and employed Swedenborg in the state mining industry. Working there, he spent his spare time trying to prove the soul is immortal. If you had a sufficiently powerful microscope, you’d be able to see the whole structure of the soul, he maintained.

Swedenborg believed the human being was a clockwork mechanism, made of up of two kinds of particles, which interacted according to mechanistic laws, but were all designed by God, the supreme ‘watch maker’.

He was constantly on the hunt for secrets of the soul and planned for an opus of 17 volumes on the human body, but the project was never finished. Having completed just three volumes, Swedenborg experienced a major existential and religious crisis that changed his identity – the so-called ‘dream crisis’ of 1744.

He ditched natural science and carefully recorded his nightly journeys into the world of angels and spirits. He wrote detailed notes about ‘life’ there, in ‘Heaven and Hell’ and engaged in complicated theological discussions with dead philosophers and inhabitants of outer space. His first theological work was a commentary on Genesis and Exodus, the first two books of the Bible.

Kant thought Swedenborg was a fraud and a lunatic, but Goethe and Schiller, Dostoyevsky and Baudelaire admired him. A whole new religious movement, the so-called New Church, still active today all over the globe, was formed based on Swedenborg’s teachings.  

There’s a Swedenborg Society in London. In Pennsylvania there is a model community called Bryn Athyn, inhabited by Swedenborgians, with its own cathedral and university. Yet Swedenborg is not irrelevant to the science community. German physicist Karl Schwarzschild’s speculations about space around a gravitationally collapsed star, which helped form ideas about black holes and regions beyond time and space, are thought to have been inspired by Swedenborg.


Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles