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Samuel Hartli(e)b (ca. 1600 – 1662) was a German-British polymath. An active promoter and expert writer in many fields, he was interested in science, medicine, agriculture, politics, and education. He settled in Englandmarker, where he married and died. He was a contemporary of Robert Boyle whom he knew well, and a neighbour of Samuel Pepys in Axe Yard.

Hartlib is often described as an "intelligencer", and indeed has been called "the Great Intelligencer of Europe". His main aim in life was to further knowledge and so he kept in touch with a vast array of contacts, from high philosophers to gentleman farmers. He maintained a voluminous correspondence and much of this has survived, having been lost entirely from 1667 to 1945; it is housed in a special Hartlib collection at the University of Sheffield in England. He became one of the best-connected intellectual figures of the Commonwealth era, and was responsible for patents, spreading information and fostering learning. He circulated designs for calculators, double-writing instruments, seed-machines and siege engines. His letters, in German and English, have been the subject of close modern scholarship.

Hartlib set out with the universalist goal "To record all human knowledge and to make it universally available for the education of all mankind". His work has been compared to modern internet search engines.


Hartlib was born in Elbing marker in the Polish province of Royal Prussia. He studied at the Gymnasium in Brieg marker, and at the Albertina. He was briefly at the University of Cambridgemarker, supported by John Preston.

Hartlib met the Scottishmarker preacher John Dury in 1628. Shortly they both had to take refuge from the Thirty Years War when Elbing was taken by Catholic forces, and Hartlib relocated to England. He first unsuccessfully established a school in line with his theories of education, in Chichestermarker, and then lived in Duke's Place, Londonmarker. An early patron was John Williams, the bishop of Lincoln and hostile to William Laud. Another supporter was John Pym; Pym would use Hartlib later, as a go-between with Dutch Calvinists in London, in an effort to dig up evidence against Laud. It is Hugh Trevor-Roper's thesis, in his essay Three Foreigners (meaning Hartlib, Dury and the absent Comenius), that Hartlib and the others were the "philosophers" of the 'country party' or anti-court grouping of the 1630s and early 1640s, who united in their support for these outside voices, if agreeing on little else.

Hartlib died in poverty. He was associated with Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth and so was sidelined after Charles II's Restoration. Some of his correspondents went as far as to ask for their letters from his archive, fearing that they could be compromised, when he offered.


Hartlib was indebted to Francis Bacon for a general theory of education, and this formed common ground for him and Jan Comenius. Hartlib put much effort into getting Comenius, of the Protestant Moravian Brethren, to visit England. Hartlib's two closest correspondents were John Dury, and Comenius. The latter had the concept of a "tree of knowledge", continuously branching out and growing. He also put his own spin on Bacon's ideas. Shortly before the English Civil War broke out, John Gauden preached in 1640 to Parliament, recommending that Dury and Comenius be invited to England, and naming Hartlib as a likely contact.

Men like Hartlib and Comenius wanted to make the spread of knowledge easier, at a time when most knowledge was not categorised or standardised by any widespread conventions or academic disciplines, and libraries were mostly private. They wanted to enlighten and educate, and to improve society, as religious people who saw this as the work of God. Comenius arrived in England in 1641, bad timing considering that war was imminent. His presence failed to transform the position in education, though a substantial literature grew up, particularly on university reform, where Oliver Cromwell set up a new institution. Comenius left in 1642; under Cromwell elementary schooling was expanded from 1646, and Durham College was set up, with staff from Hartlib's associates.

Bacon had formulated a project for a research institute, under the title "Salomon's House" in his New Atlantis of 1624. This theoretical scheme was important for Hartlib, who angled during the 1640s for public funding for it. He was unsuccessful except for a small pension for himself, but gathered like-minded others: Dury, John Milton, Kenelm Digby, William Petty, Frederick Clod (Clodius).

Milton dedicated his 1644 Of Education to Hartlib, whom he had come to know the year before and who had pressed him to publish his educational ideas. But he gave the Comenian agenda short shrift in the work. Barbara Lewalski considers his dismissive attitude as disingenous, since he had probably used texts by Comenius in his own teaching. Hezekiah Woodward, linked at the time in the minds of Presbyterians and officialdom with Milton as a dangerous writer, was also significant as an educational follower of Comenius and Bacon, and friend of Hartlib.

Hartlib Circle, Invisible College, and the Royal Society's background

The 'Hartlib circle' of contacts and correspondents, built up from around 1630, was one of the foundations of the Royal Society of London which was established a generation later, in 1660. Robert Boyle referred a few times in his correspondence to the 'Invisible College'. Scholarly attention has been paid to identifying this shadowy group. The social picture is not simplistic, since en masse Hartlib's contacts had fingers in every pie.

One of Hartlib's pet projects, a variant on Salomon's House that had more of a public face, was the "Office of Address" — he envisaged an office in every town where somebody might go to find things out. While this might be compatible with Baconian ideas, the immediate inspiration was Théophraste Renaudot and his Paris bureau d'adresse. For example, at a practical level, Hartlib thought people could advertise job vacancies there — and prospective employees would be able to find work. At a more studious level, Hartlib wanted academics to pool their knowledge so that the Office could act as a living and growing form of encyclopedia, in which people could keep adding new information. The Office of address idea was promoted by Considerations tending to the happy Accomplishment of Englands Reformation in Church and State (1647), written by Hartlib and Dury, a pamphlet also including an ambitious tiered system of educational reform. Margery Purver concluded that the Invisible College coincided with the Hartlib-led lobbyists, those who were promoting to the Parliament the concept of an Office of Address. The effective lifetime of this idea has been pinned down to the period 1647 to 1653, and as a second wave of speculation on the ideal society, after Comenius left. There was a limited implementation, by Henry Robinson, in 1650.

In the later Interregnum the "Invisible College" might refer to a group meeting in Gresham Collegemarker. According to Christopher Hill, however, the Gresham College club that was convened from 1645 by Theodore Haak, certainly a Hartlibian, was distinct from the Comenian Invisible College. Lady Ranelagh, who was Boyle's sister, had a London salon during the 1650s, much frequented by virtuosi associated with Hartlib.

One distinguishing feature of the Hartlib Circle was its tolerance of hermetic ideas; Hartlib himself had an interest in sigils and astrology. Boyle too attempted to straddle the opening divide between experimental chemistry and alchemy, by treating the latter in a less esoteric way; he did distance himself to an extent from the Hartlib group on moving to Oxford around 1655. Both Boyle and William Petty became more attached to a third or fourth loose association, the Oxford group around John Wilkins, at this period; Wilkins was to be the founding Secretary of the Royal Society.

In 1660 Hartlib was at work writing to John Evelyn, an important broker of the royal charter for the eventual Society. He was, however, not promoting a purist Baconian model, but an "Antilia". This was the name chosen by Johann Valentin Andreae for a more hermetic and utopian fellowship. The proposal, which conformed to Comenian ideas as more compatible with pansophia or universal wisdom, was in effect decisively rejected. Hartlib was relying on a plan of Bengt Skytte, a son of Johan Skytte and knighted by Charles I, and the move was away from Bacon's clearer emphasis on reforming the natural sciences. Despite some critical voices, the Hartlib-Comenius trend was written out of the Royal Society from the beginning. Hartlib himself died shortly after the Society was set up.

Economics, agriculture, politics

The utopian tract Description of the Famous Kingdome of Macaria appeared under Hartlib's name. It is now considered that it was written by Gabriel Plattes (1600–1655), a friend. A practical project was the establishment of a workhouse, as part of the Corporation of the Poor of London. This initiative is reckoned a major influence on the later philanthropic schemes of John Bellers.

After Comenius left England, and in particular from 1646 onwards, the Hartlib group agitated for religious reform and toleration, against the Presbyterian dominance in the Long Parliament. They also proposed economic, technical and agricultural improvements, particularly through Sir Cheney Culpeper, and Henry Robinson. Benjamin Worsley, Secretary to the Council of Trade from 1650, was a Hartlibian.

Hartlib valued useful knowledge: anything that could increase crop yields, or cure disease. One of Hartlib's great interests was agriculture. He worked to spread Dutchmarker farming practices in England, such as using nitrogenous crops like cabbage to replenish the soil with nitrogen, to increase the yield of next season's crop. In 1652 he issued a second edition of Richard Weston's Discourse of Flanders Husbandry (1645). Hartlib corresponded with many landowners, as well as academics, in his quest for knowledge.

From 1650 Hartlib was very interested in, and influential on, fruit husbandry. A letter by Sir Richard Child, surveying the area, received publication in one of his books Samuel Hartlib, his Legacy, or an Enlargement of the Discourse of Husbandry used in Brabant and Flanders; and Hartlib introduced John Beale, another author on orchards, to John Evelyn who would eventually write an important work in the area, Sylva of 1664. In 1655 Hartlib wrote The Reformed Commonwealth of Bees, featuring a transparent glass beehive, to a design by Christopher Wren. John Evelyn showed him the manuscript of his Elysium Britannicum, at the end of the 1650s.

Science and medicine

The work of Paracelsus, a religious zealot who made bold claims for his science, was also one of the inspirations to Hartlib and early chemistry. He was very open-minded. He often tested the ideas and theories of his correspondents. For his own trouble with kidney stones he took to drinking diluted sulphuric acid — a cure that may have in fact been the death of him.

He was interested in theories and practices that modern science would laugh at — for example, sympathetic medicine. This involved using things in nature that bear a resemblance to the ailment. Hence, a sympathetic cure might be to take a kidney bean (looks like a kidney) and to bury it in the dead of night on the full moon.


  • Hartlib's correspondence and notes, over 25,000 pages, were published in 1995 on CD.


  • H. M. Knox: William Petty's Advice to Samuel Hartlib, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (May, 1953), pp. 131–142

External links

  • Samuel Hartlib at The Garden, the Ark, the Tower, and the Temple: Biblical metaphors of knowledge in early modern Europe. Published by the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxfordmarker.

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