Hartlib Papers

Ref: MS 61

Title: Hartlib Papers

The papers and correspondence of Samuel Hartlib, educationalist, natural philosopher and polymath of the seventeenth century

Dates: c. 1620 - 1662
Level: Fonds
Extent: 62 boxes (c. 10,000 documents)
Name of creator: Samuel Hartlib

A description of the Pascaline, a digital calculator invented by Pascal, in a letter from Sir Balthazar Gerbier to Samuel Hartlib, Paris, Oct 1648

Administrative / biographical history:

The collection comprises the papers and correspondence of Samuel Hartlib (?1600-1662), known as the Great Intelligencer of Europe, educationalist, natural philosopher and polymath, who dedicated himself to maintaining regular and extensive correspondence with like-minded thinkers around the world, to creating a documentary archive of knowledge and information on many aspects of contemporary life and to communicating that knowledge to others - in effect an encyclopedist of the seventeenth century. He was assisted in his work by close associates and a staff of copyists. The archive, which includes copies of his own letters as well as those sent to him by others, represents the greater part of extant Hartlib material. The seventeenth century was a period of rapid scientific and philosophical development, as well as of social, religious and political crisis, and the Hartlib Papers, as well as providing important insights into the state and the transmission of knowledge of the period also illustrate how intellectual people reacted to the events of the time.

Hartlib was born around 1600 in Elbing in East Prussia, but his mother was English, and his family was involved in an English merchant company in Danzig and Elbing. He was educated at least partly in England, and because of the disruption caused by the Thirty Years War moved permanently to England around 1628. After settling in England he became acquainted with religious leaders (on the reformed side), leading members of universities, men of science, literature, politics, education, agriculture, horticulture, technology and many other areas of knowledge. There is for example an important section of documents relating to the Moravian educationalist and reformer Comenius (Jan Amos Komenský), some of whose works Hartlib published in England before Comenius visited London in 1641 prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. Other notable people with whom he corresponded include John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Robert Boyle, Oliver Cromwell, John Dury, Christopher Wren, René Descartes and Blaise Pascal. In addition he corresponded with the English colonies in America. Sadly, despite his eminent connections, Hartlib was always short of money, though his association with the Parliamentary side resulted in a small pension from Cromwells government, but at the Restoration he fell out of favour, dying in penury two years later in 1662.

The history of the documents after Hartlib's death is obscure, but in more recent times Professor George Turnbull, Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield from 1922 to 1954, was responsible for their rediscovery and transfer to Sheffield, where he carried out transcription and other work on educational papers within the collection, and for their deposit in the University Library.

In late 1987, as a result of British Academy and Leverhulme Trust support, the Hartlib Papers Project was established at the University of Sheffield, and work on the transcription and data-capture of the entire corpus of some 20,000 pages of manuscript, together with a further 5,000 pages of printed ephemera, commenced. The result was originally published as a CD-ROM in 1995; full searching of the text together with access to digitised images of all the original documents is now freely available via the Digital Humantities Institute web pages.

  • Related collections: Turnbull Mss.
  • Source: Deposited by Professor Turnbull in 1964
  • System of arrangement: Based on a catalogue of John Worthington (1618-1671)
  • Subjects: Intellectual life - 17th century; Civilization, Modern - 17th century
  • Names: Hartlib, Samuel, ?1600-1662; Komenský, Jan Amos, 1592-1670
  • Conditions of access: Access to online version at the Digital Humanities Institute. Original documents may be consulted in exceptional circumstances.
  • Restrictions: None
  • Copyright: The University of Sheffield Library
  • Finding aids: Use online version at the Digital Humanities Institute