In this article, I discuss Petrus van Musschenbroek’s research on the strength of materials in relation to his methodological views. In the latter, van Musschenbroek emphasizes the importance of repeating and varying experiments. This is related to his views on the complexity of nature, which play a role in his views on mathematics, laws of nature, causes, and experimental method. In each case, the construction of an (experimental) history is presented as a first step in experimental philosophy, necessary to deal with the complexity of nature. The experimental research on the strength of materials can likewise be seen as aimed at the construction of an (experimental) history. His experimental practice takes the form of a systematic variation of parameters and the performance of an extensive series of experiments on different kinds of substances. In his experimental reports, van Musschenbroek repeatedly points to the utility of his experimental results. This utilitarian attitude is typical for the experimental history literature as discussed by Klein. Van Musschenbroek himself also presents his work as an experimental history. However, unlike the examples discussed by Klein, van Musschenbroek’s experimental history is characterized by a systematic experimental method. I argue that this method can be seen as an example of exploratory experimentation in Steinle’s sense. Finally, I suggest that with its emphasis on the nature and properties of specific materials, it could be fruitful to read van Musschenbroek’s experimental history in light of the emergence of engineering as a discipline in the eighteenth century.
Strong Foundations: Petrus van Musschenbroek’s Experimental Research on the Strength of Materials
Please note that in November 2021, I have officially changed my last name from “Present” to “Beck.” To avoid any confusion, I have added the name “Beck” in brackets when referring to publications made under my old name.
Pieter T. L. Beck; Strong Foundations: Petrus van Musschenbroek’s Experimental Research on the Strength of Materials. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 1 April 2023; 53 (2): 109–146. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/hsns.2023.53.2.109
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