14 Annotations

David Quidnunc  •  Link

Fascinating figure

A mathematician and divine, Wilkins (1614-72) was about 56 years old when he first shows up in the diary on 25 November 1660.

During the Interregnum, Wilkins's connection to Oliver Cromwell, his brother-in-law, "had done much to protect Oxford from political interference. His written works, composed in language notable for its simplicity and clarity, included forecasts of submarines and interplanetary travel," says his entry in the L&M Companion volume (source of all the information in this annotation).

Pepys's library eventually contained at least seven of Wilkins's books, including his "Essay towards ... a philosophical language" (1668), in which the author created a universal language in the form of symbols. Pepys made some criticisms of the naval section of the book.

David Quidnunc  •  Link

Wilkins had his 46th birthday 1660. Not 56th.

David Quidnunc  •  Link


(his age, roughly, in parentheses below)

1614 -- born

1648-59 (34-45)
Warden of Wadham College, Oxford

1659-60 (45-46)
Master of Trinity College, Cambridge

1662-onward (48- )
Vicar of "St. Lawrence Jewry"

1663-onward (49- )
Dean of Ripon

1663-68 (49-54)
One of the two secretaries of the Royal Society

1668-72 (54-58)
Bishop of Chester

1672 -- died (58)
-- L&M Companion volume

David Quidnunc  •  Link

Wilkins's standing & where he stood

"One of the most original scholars of his day; a founder of the Royal Society," he was a "liberal" divine who strongly favored keeping moderate Presbyterians in the Church of England and advocated toleration for Nonconformists.
-- L&M Companion

David Quidnunc  •  Link

Wilkins on the web

The L&M Companion only hints at Wilkins's extraordinary life. He had connections both to some of the highest members of English society during the Interregnum and the Restoration. He was the (popular) head of Oxford and Cambridge universities at different times, and was influential in the groupings of scholars who eventually founded the Royal Society. He invented various mechanical devices, speculated on others that would be invented in the next few centuries and wrote pioneering books in ciphers and symbolic language.

Imagine a kind of 17th century clerical Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson, in terms of their holding of high office, intellect, originality, literary output and interest in tolerance.

Links to some informative web pages:

Much more detailed resume:

Excellent online biographical essay:

Many links to Wilkins-related web pages:

David Quidnunc  •  Link

Wilkins's airy speculation ...

"Yet I do seriously and on good grounds affirm it possible to make a flying chariot in which a man may sit and give such a motion unto it as shall convey him through the air. And this perhaps might be made large enough to carry divers men at the same time, together with food for their viaticum and commodities for traffic. It is not the bigness of anything in this kind that can hinder its motion, if the motive faculty be answerable thereunto. We see a great ship swims as well as a small cork, and an eagle flies in the air as well as a little gnat

David Quidnunc  •  Link

Jorge Luis Borges on Wilkins's language book

Borges here is writing about "An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language" (600 pages in large quarto, 1668) by Wilkins (the translation seems a little rough at points):

"He divided the universe in forty categories or classes, these being further subdivided into differences, which was then subdivided into species. He assigned to each class a monosyllable of two letters; to each difference, a consonant; to each species, a vowel. For example: de, which means an element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba, a part of the element fire, a flame. ... The words of the analytical language created by John Wilkins are not mere arbitrary symbols; each letter in them has a meaning ..."

"[I]t is clear that there is no classification of the Universe not being arbitrary and full of conjectures. ... The impossibility of penetrating the divine pattern of the universe cannot stop us from planning human patterns, even though we are conscious they are not definitive. The analytic language of Wilkins is not the least admirable of such patterns. The classes and species that compose it are contradictory and vague; the nimbleness of letters in the words meaning subdivisions and divisions is, no doubt, gifted. The word salmon does not tell us anything; zana, the corresponding word, defines (for the man knowing the forty categories and the species of these categories) a scaled river fish, with ruddy meat."

From: "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins"
A short essay by Jorge Luis Borges


David Quidnunc  •  Link

Head of colleges at both Cambridge and Oxford

There's a mistake in my "Wilkins on the web" annotation. He didn't head up both universities, but colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. I misread a sentence at this web page, which has another very good biographical essay on Wilkins.


Aqua  •  Link

See added notes for contacts and writings by some leaned Gents.http://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1663/08/23/

Terry Foreman  •  Link

A DISCOVERY OR, A DISCOURSE Tending to prove, that 'tis Probable there may be another Habitable W O R L D in the MOON.

With a Discourse Concerning the Probability of a Passage thither. Unto which is Added, A Discourse Concerning a New Planet, Tending to prove, That 'tis Probable Our Earth is one of the Planets.

In Two Parts.

By John Wilkins, late Lord Bijkop of Chester.

The Fourth Edition Corrected and Amended.
L 0 N D 0 N, Printed by f. M & J. A. for John Gilltbrand at the Golden-Ball St. Pauls Church-Yard MDCLXXXIV.


Bill  •  Link

John Wilkins, D.D., born 1614, took the Parliament side, and was made warden of Wadham College, Oxford. In 1656 he married Robina, the widow of Dr. French and sister of Oliver Cromwell. He was appointed Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1659, but was ejected in 1660. Consecrated Bishop of Chester, November 15th, 1668. He died November 19th, 1672. He was one of the founders of the Royal Society, and jokes were often made respecting the publication of his work, "The Discovery of a New World."
---Wheatley, 1896.

Bill  •  Link

"In [John Wilkins's] "Essay Towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language," from 1668, Wilkins laid out a sprawling taxonomic tree that was intended to represent a rational classification of every concept, thing, and action in the universe. Each branch along the tree corresponded to a letter or a syllable, so that assembling a word was simply a matter of tracing a set of forking limbs until you'd arrived on a distant tendril representing the concept you wanted to express. For example, in Wilkins's system, De signifies an element, Deb is fire, and Deba is a flame.
The natural philosopher Robert Hooke was so impressed with Wilkins's language that he published a discourse on pocket watches in it, and proposed it be made the lingua franca of scientific research. That never happened. The language was simply too burdensome, and it soon vanished into obscurity. But Wilkins taxonomic-classification scheme, which organized words by meaning rather than alphabetically, was not entirely without use: it was a predecessor of the first modern thesaurus."
Joshua Foer. New Yorker Magazine, Dec. 24 & 31, 2012, p.88.

Bill  •  Link

Dr. Wilkins, a man of a penetrating genius and enlarged understanding, seems to have been born for the improvement of every kind of knowledge to which he applied himself. He was a very able naturalist and mathematician, and an excellent divine. He disdained to tread in the beaten track of philosophy, as his forefathers had done; but struck into the new road pointed out by the great lord Bacon. Considerable discoveries were made by him and the ingenious persons who assembled at his lodgings in Oxford, before the incorporation of the Royal Society; which was principally contrived by Theodore Haak, Mr. Hartlib, and himself. His books on prayer and preaching, and especially his "Principles and Duties of Natural Religion," shew how able a divine he was. His "Essay towards a real Character and Philosophical Language" is a master-piece of invention, yet has been laughed at together with his chimeras: but even these shew themselves to be the chimeras of a man of genius. He projected the impracticable "Art of Flying," when the nature of the air was but imperfectly known. That branch of philosophy was soon after much improved by the experiments of his friend Mr. Boyle. This excellent person whose character was truly exemplary, as well as extraordinary, died much lamented, the 19th of Nov. 1672.
---A Biographical History of England. J. Granger, 1779.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.



  • Feb


  • Feb