Author(s) Besson, Jacques
Androuet du Cerceau, Jacques
Boyvin, René
Title Instrumentorum et machinarum... liber primus...
Imprint s.l.s.n.s.d.
Subject Machines, Mathematics
Consult in image mode


     If, as Besson declares, he began to assemble his mechanical inventions in 1544, it is difficult to assume, as biographers vie with each other to do, that he was born in 1540. It would be preferable to consider the early 1530s, or even the end of the 1520s. Let us not forget that he was a native of Colombière, in the Oulx valley, at that time the Escarton d’Oulx. So Besson was born in the Vaux area. We know nothing about the origin of his reformed faith. He died in 1573, perhaps in Montargis where he lived near Renée de France, the duchess of Ferrare who welcomed numerous Huguenot refugees. Among them was Androuet du Cerceau, her architect, the originator of the engravings in the Livre and the Théâtre des instruments.
Even if several shady areas remain, we now know much more about the history of the conception of this work, its preparation, its financing, of its various phases starting from the initial manuscript, the manufacturing of it, and its successive publications and editions. It is no doubt the major work of this inventor of machines, engineer and distiller who introduces himself in his works as a teacher of mathematics. What was it that caused Jacques Besson to initiate for posterity the literary genre, the "théâtre de machines"?
We know very little about his training. He was probably fluent in Latin, because he published his first work in that language. He might have begun his education at the Abbaye d’Oulx which had a grammar school. After his first years of study, he tells us that he left for Italy and one can surmise that it was there that he began to assemble drawings of machines and instruments. These collections were put together by all mathematicians/inventors of machines or engineers. The historical studies of these last decades have fully confirmed this. The main part of Besson’s professional activity was "mathematical", which included mixed mathematics and mechanics. His mathematics courses certainly included courses on theory- in particular, those he taught in Paris in Latin in the early 1550s and some courses in pratical and mixed mathematics in Geneva from 1559 to 1562 and in Orléans from 1565 to 1569. As an engineer and mechanical engineer, an inventor of instruments and machines, quite possibly Besson was active as early as his youthful trip to Italy, but his first known works are situated in Switzerland: from 1557 to 1559 in service with the city of Lausanne, then with the lords of Berne, and from 1559 to 1562 with the city of Geneva. At the same time as he taught lessons of mathematics he accomplished various public works which fell within the province of his mechanical competence. These activities brought him a modest but regular salary. If it is plausible to think that he put his engineering talents to work when he was with Olivier de Serres, from 1562 to 1564, we have no trace of it. We know that he was in Orléans from 1564 to 1569, teaching practical mathematics, because of the publication of his Cosmolabe (Paris, 1567). The invention of this instrument gave rise to an impropriety on the part of two of Besson’s disciples, "Remon Poynet" and "Benoît l’Enginneur", a manufacturer of mathematical instruments, for, in 1566 Poynet published in Paris, at the bookseller Michel Julien’s shop, Le Cosmolabe, à la roynes mère du roy. Its dedication is dated June 1566. As early as September 1566, Besson denounced the theft, "ils ont usurpé le droit de leur maistre", emphasizing that "chacun cognoist assez par l’effect de mes autres inventions, si j’ay esté capable de trouver le Cosmolabe". In turn he dedicated his treatise to Catherine de Médicis and his editor Philippe de Roville obtained a royal privilege. The inventions listed by Besson in the foreward of the Cosmolabe deal with several geometrical problems with practical applications, with chorography, perspective, geography and astronomy. He proposes machines and instruments, a certain number of which would make up the Théâtre des instruments mathématiques.
We see further mention of the future theatre of machines as dedications and printer’s notes appear during these years. In August 1568 Besson dedicated his Art et moyen parfaict de tirer huyles et eaux to François de Balzac d’Entraigues and asserts that "par vostre moyen j’ay poursuivi et continué l’exercice de mes estudes Mathematiques". September 6, 1569, in his dedication to the Art et science de trouver les eaux et fontaines cachées sous terre, he wrote "je travaille aussi à present, pour dedier à Sa Majesté, à un ample livre, distribué en plusieurs inventions nouvelles d’instruments & machines utiles". December 8, 1570, Galiot du Pré, printer of the Art et moyen parfaict de tirer huyles & eaux writes about Besson that he "a impetré & obtenu cette faveur & commandement du roi notre sire, de luy bastir & dresser un autre sien œuvre, declaratif de diverses machines inventions mathematiques, for recommendables & necessaires à nostre Republique". Besson thus obtained royal support and in his preface to the 1571 edition of the Art et moyen parfaict de tirer huyles et eaux..., he explains that he owes François de Montmorency for having introduced him to the king and for having made him understand "qu’il est impossible que je puisse proffiter au public, et subvenir aux frais qu’il me conviendra faire, pour mettre en evidence mes œuvres et inventions de mathematiques, sans estre liberalement aydé et entretenu de sa Majesté".
In December 1570 Besson, who had left Orléans a year earlier, was living in Montargis. When he went to Paris he resided with Philippe Lo, an apothecary, in the faubourg Saint-Jacques. A protégé of the duchess of Ferrare, Besson was therefore close to Androuet du Cerceau whom he asked to engrave the plates of the Livre d’Instruments. And as explained by Galiot du Pré, busy with preparing the engravings, one can assume that his manuscript was finished. This manuscript, discovered at the British Library, was presented by Alex Keller (1976) saying "in short, we have here not only an early state of Besson’s book, but also the unique short treatise which summarises the theories of mecanics which he believed his inventions exemplified" (p. 76). In fact, after the dedication to the king, the manuscript includes a whole first theoretical part, made up of twenty-two principles and two "communes sentences", a part that was not taken up again in the successive editions of the work. It shows an Aristotelian approach, in which intervene particular analytical elements taken from the Problèmes mécaniques of the Pseudo Aristotle. As in his Art et Science de trouver eaux et fontaines, Besson asserts the autonomy of mathematical reasoning and its power to explain the effects obtained, even if its hypotheses are not physically established. This approach has a lot in common with the tradition belonging to the inventors of machines of antiquity who are searching for methods of calculating and do not claim to attain the physical truth of the phenomena, but only to calculate the effects of external causes (i.e., artificial ones). In this respect, Besson’s frequent reference to Copernicus aims at making very clear the advantage obtained by a hypothesis confining its ambition to saving appearances, that is, giving a mathematical account of phenomena, by taking support from an undeniably false representation of the world (heliocentrism). The manuscript was carefully studied by Alex Keller (1976), and Denise Hillard (1981) compared it word by word with the first edition (Latin/French) dated probably 1571, at the latest, the beginning of 1572. In fact, "à Jaques Besson, ingenieur et mathematicien a été allouée la somme de 560 l. t. en consideracion de ses services et pour le recompenser d’ung livre des angins et instrumens mathematiques qu’il a presenté et dedié a sadite majesté…" was found in the Comptes royaux, dated May 12, 1572. It came out in Paris, printed by Fleury Prévost, if the card catalogue at the Part-Dieu Library in Lyons can be believed.
The few rare copies of the first edition which have come down to us note neither place of publication nor date. The privilege, on the back of the title page, indicates: "donné à Orleans, l’an mil cinq cens soixante-neuf, le vingt-septiéme iour de Iuin". Let us not forget that in December 1570 the printer Galiot du Pré announced that Besson was marshaling and preparing "les figures necessaires audict œuvre". The recovered manuscript is the one which Androuet du Cerceau used as a model to engrave his copper plates, for a great majority of the drawings which were reproduced in the plates were inverted. Four of the sixty plates of the Livre premier were engraved by René Boyvin. The "first" book of the Instruments et machines... did not have the sequel that Besson had planned, and his projects were interrupted by his death during the year 1573.

Hélène Vérin (Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris) – 2008

Critical bibliography

J. Besson, Instrumentorum et machinarum quas Jacobus Bessonus Delphinas mathematicus et a machinis practer alia excogitavit multisque vigiliis et laboribus excaluit ad zerum multarum intellectu difficillimarum explicationem et totius Reipublicae utilitatem (facsimile of the 1569=c1571 edition), Paris, Jardin de Flore, 1978.

A. G. Keller, "The Missing Years of Jacques Besson, Inventor of Machines, Teacher of Mathematics, Distiller of Oils, and Huguenot Pastor", Technology and Culture, 14, 1, january 1973, pp. 28-39.

A. G. Keller, "A manuscript Version of Jacques Besson’s Book of Machines, with his unpublished Principles of Mechanics", B. S. Hall & D. C. West (ed.), On Pre-Modern Technology and Science, Malibu, Undena Publications, 1976, pp. 75-103.

L. Dolza & H. Vérin, "Figurer la mécanique: l’énigme des théâtres de machines de la Renaissance", Revue d'Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine, 51-2, 2004-2, pp. 7-37.

L. Dolza & H. Vérin, Theatrum instrumentorum et machinarum : Lione, 1578 di Jacques Besson, introduction, facsimile of the 1578 edition, Rome, Edizioni dell’Elefante, 2001.

E. Droz, Chemins de l’Hérésie, textes et documents, 4, Geneva, Slatkine, 1976, pp. 271-374.

D. Hillard, "Jacques Besson et son Théâtre des instruments mathématiques", Revue française d'histoire du livre, 22, 1979, pp. 5-38.

D. Hillard, "Jacques Besson et son Théâtre des instruments mathématiques : recherches complémentaires", Revue française d'histoire du livre, 30, 1981, pp. 47-69.