Francis Bacon and the use of measurement in experiments

One central component of experimental philosophy is measurement. Various properties, quantities, degrees and qualities were counted and measured with more or less exactitude starting with the early modern period (see for example, the analysis of temperature measurement in A.Borrelli, “The weatherglass and its observers in the early seventeenth century”, in: Claus Zittel, Gisela Engel, Nicole C. Karafyllis and Romano Nanni (eds.), Philosophies of technology: Francis Bacon and its contemporaries, vol. 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2008) 67-130 (Intersections 11/1)). Seen in itself, measurement was almost universally considered a tool meant to improve knowledge and to give strength to different arguments and to rebut others. This attitude was shared by Francis Bacon too, as I briefly attempted to show in a small presentation I have made for the 4th Bucharest Colloquium in Early Modern Science. One can infer this from the following example taken from Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum:

“It is strange how the ancients took up experiments upon credit, and yet did build great matters upon them. The observation of some of the best of them, delivered confidently, is, that a vessel filled with ashes will receive the like quantity of water that it would have done if it had been empty. But this is utterly untrue; for the water will not go in by a fifth part. And I suppose that that fifth part is the difference of the lying close or open of the ashes…” (Sylva Sylvarum, SEH 34).

There are many other examples of experiments in which Bacon used to invoke the measurement and counting of quantities in order to champion his ideas (see for instance, entries 1, 19, 21, 32, 33, 46, 59, 60, 76, 88, 104-110, 156, 159, 248, 306, 307, 309, 310, 318, 324, 363 etc, to give just few examples taken from the first three centuries of Sylva). Here are two more extended examples:

“Dig a pit upon the sea-shore, somewhat above the high-water mark, and sink it as deep as the low-water mark; and as the tide cometh in, it will fill with water, fresh and potable… I remember to have read that trial hath been made of salt water passed through earth, through ten vessels one within another, and yet it hath not lost his saltness, as to become potable: but the same man saith, that (…) salt water drained through twenty vessels hath become fresh… But it is worth the note, how poor the imitations of nature are in common course of experiments, except they be led by great judgment, and some good light of axioms. For first, there is no small difference between a passage of water through twenty small vessels, and through such a distance as between the low-water and high-water mark…” (Sylva Sylvarum, SEH 1-2)


“The continuance of flame, according unto the diversity of the body inflamed, and other circumstances, is worthy the inquiry; chiefly, for that though flame be (almost) of a momentary lasting, yet it receiveth the more and the less: we will first therefore speak (at large) of bodies inflamed wholly and immediately, without any wick to help the inflammation. A spoonful of spirit of wine, a little heated, was taken, and it burnt as long as came to one hundred and sixteen pulses. The same quantity of spirit of wine mixed with the sixth part of a spoonful of nitre, burnt but to the space of ninety-four pulses. Mixed with the like quantity of bay-salt, eighty-three pulses. Mixed with the like quantity of gunpowder, which dissolved into black water, one hundred and ten pulses. A cube or pellet of yellow wax was taken, as much as half the spirit of wine, and set in the midst, and it burnt only to the space of eighty-seven pulses. Mixed with the sixth part of a spoonful of milk, it burnt to the space of one hundred pulses. Mixed with the sixth part of a spoonful of water, it burnt to the space of eighty-six pulses… So that the spirit of wine simple endured the longest; and the spirit of wine with the bay-salt, and the equal quantity of water, were the shortest.” (Sylva Sylvarum, SEH 366)

I propose the following table as a tool for a concise representation of Bacon’s measurement of the continuance of flame:

  • Spirit of wine = 116 pulses
  • Spirit of wine + 1/6 nitre = 94 pulses
  • Spirit of wine + 1/6 bay-salt = 83 pulses
  • Spirit of wine + 1/6 gunpowder = 110 pulses
  • Cube of yellow wax + ½ spirit of wine = 87 pulses
  •  Cube of yellow wax + wine + 1/6milk = 100 pulses
  • Cube of yellow wax + wine + 1/6 water = 86 pulses


This raises a plenty of interesting questions dealing with the way Bacon uses measurement that is worth to be discussed. Here is a tentative list with few of them:

–          What type of measurements does Bacon employ?

–          What type of quantities or qualities is subjected to measurement by Bacon?

–          What other examples of Bacon’s measurements can be represented by such tables?

–          In what theoretical cases is measurement invoked?

–          How important is the exactitude in the measurements?

–          When does measurement help in constructing an argument and when does it help in rejecting other’s arguments?

–          Is measurement an effective tool in building up the theory of matter?

–          Is measurement used independently of Bacon’s theory of matter?

The examples of measurements Sylva Sylvarum presents can be a good starting point for the discussion of these points. Different answers to these questions can also set the stage for a comparative analysis between Bacon’s use of measurement and other philosophical treatments of it.

We would love to hear your comments, suggestions and thoughts on these matters, so please leave us a comment.