National Geographic : 1949 Apr
Christopher Wren (1632-1723); Robert Boyle (1627-91) C HRISTOPHER WREN has been called the English Leonardo da Vinci. Besides being our architect of greatest achievement, he was philosopher, astronomer, prolific in ventor, and skilled mathematician. He will always be remembered with grati tude for the part he played in rebuilding Lon don after the Great Fire which swept away the city as it was in Shakespeare's time. America as well as England benefited by his work; for he designed the oldest academic building in the United States, at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, and his ideas largely influenced William Penn's plan for Philadelphia. It has been suggested by some scholars that the radiating street plan adopted for Annap olis, Maryland, and incorporated into the L'Enfant plan for Washington, D. C., owed its inception to the tradition of Wren's work. Because of delicate health, Wren received his early training at home. His father, the rector of East Knoyle, Wiltshire, possessed some skill in designing buildings; but the son at first showed no desire to take up archi tecture as a profession. He was professor of astronomy at Gresham College when Charles II induced him to turn his back on his studies of the sky and become assistant surveyor general. As a child Wren possessed exceptional brain power. When he was 15, learned mathe maticians conversed with him as with an equal. His versatility was amazing. John Evelyn tells us of a visit to Oxford, where he found "that prodigious young scholar" at work on the production of "a pavement, harder, fairer, and cheaper, than marble." The Great Fire which raged from Septem ber 2-6, 1666, and destroyed "Shakespeare's London" gave Wren, as virtual surveyor general, his great opportunity. On Septem ber 12, almost before the embers had ceased to glow, Wren laid before the King his plan for the rebuilding of the city-perhaps the greatest conception of his life. To this day Londoners are paying for the sins of omission of their forefathers, who failed to seize so unique a chance of making the capital the best laid out city in Europe. Wren introduced entirely new ideas in town planning; his scheme provided for a series of wide streets radiating from a central space. Only a Napoleon would have been able to force through so great a project. Alas, it was too much to expect of a generation that had suffered from the Civil War, the Great Plague, and the Great Fire. Only a few of Wren's proposals were carried out. London had to put up with second best, and Wren threw himself with enthusiasm into the tremendous undertaking of rebuilding St. Paul's, 50 parish churches, 36 halls of city companies, and much else besides. For the task of planning and supervising the building of St. Paul's and the churches he asked a stipend of only £300 per annum, preferring public service to any private advantage. His greatest year was 1669, for he was in volved in the plans for St. Paul's and with the designs of 17 churches. As late as 1710, at the age of 78, he still had himself pulled up in a basket to the dome of St. Paul's, and there he would sit for hours supervising the work. He was 90 when he crowned his career with the tower of St. Michael's. Wren passed most of his time during his last years in a house at Hampton Court. He was accustomed to drive to St. Paul's from time to time, and while sitting under the great dome to reflect upon the many hopes and disappointments involved in the completion of his mighty undertaking. On his last visit, in his ninety-first year, he caught a chill. His servant found him after his return home apparently asleep in his chair: the great heart of Christopher Wren had ceased to beat. It was a peaceful end for the "loving, gentle, modest" genius whom contemporary testimony leaves spotless. On his tomb in St. Paul's his successor caused an epitaph to be engraved, ending: "Si monumentum requires, circumspice." (If you require a monument, look around.) Contemporary with Wren was Robert Boyle, who has been called the founder of modern chemistry. In the English-speaking world he is credited with discovery of "Boyle's law" that the volume of a gas varies inversely as the pressure exerted on it in a closed chamber at constant temperature. A son of Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork, he and Wren were leaders in founding the Royal Society. Boyle studied the part played by air in the propagation of sound, the expansive power of freezing water, crystals, electricity, and specific gravities and refractions. During the reign of Charles II he helped raise Britain to a foremost place among European nations in experimental science. Though busy with science, Boyle studied enough theology to earn church orders had he elected. He read Scriptures in Hebrew, Greek, and Syriac and bought costly Biblical trans lations. His will provided for the Boyle lec tures to prove Christianity against unbelievers, but forbade mention in them of controversies between Christians.