Cider Musings

Christopher Merrett Physician and founding member of Royal Society

Christopher Merrett was one of a group of 17th century gentleman scientists, nobleman and polymaths who established the Royal Society. Merrett was born in 1614 in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, then read papers at Oxford from 1631, initially a BA1635 then went on to medicine initially at Gloucester Hall and then at Oriel, gaining his B Med degree in June 1636 and MD in 1643. He settled in London around 1640 and began to practise as a physician. In 1651, he became a fellow of the RCP and in 1654 was the invited Goulstonian lecturer. Whilst in London he attended meeting of the "Invisible College" from 1645. The wide ranging topics reflected the interests and specialisms of many of the members e.g. Robert Moray, Robert Boyle, John Evelyn, Benjamin Worsley, Christopher Wren, Jonathan Goddard and William Petty and a number of medical doctors, topics included Physick, Anatomy, Geometry, Astronomy, Navigation, Staticks, Mechanicks, and Natural Experiments. Meetings were held at a variety of locations including initially Goddard’s house in Cheapside, the Mitre Tavern near Wood Street. Later they met at the Bull Head Tavern and at and Gresham College from 1597 in Bishopsgate. The Invisible College split during the Commonwealth due to members safety from political differences and the plague. Boyle on particular went to Oxford and returned with the Restoration in 1660. In 1654 Merrett became the Keeper of the Library of the College of Physicians at Amen Corner near St Pauls, a live in, rent free position with a yearly stipend.

He was at the meeting of 12 which formed the Royal Society, after a lecture at Gresham College by Wren in 1660, aged 46. They drew up a list of 40 potential founding members who were elected over the next few years including Sir Kenelm Digby.

Merrett although a practicing physician quickly became an active member of the new Society. The papers he wrote – including on subjects as diverse as Lincolnshire, tin mining in Cornwall and the art of refining – reflect the Royal Society’s original extensive remit of gathering information on all knowledge, not just what we would today think of as ‘science’. He is mentioned in the notes of the Society at least 80 times in the first 4 years. He held many positions in the Society

Merrett was then one of several fellows who were busy adding to ‘knowledge’ by documenting histories of trades and industries: in June 1664, his work was recognised by his appointment as chairman of the Royal Society’s new official committee for the history of trades. He was one of the few that wrote books documenting this work. In Merrett's case a translation from Latin of Neri's book on Glass Making.

One of his key talks to the Society recorded in the notes of the Proceedings of the Society was a paper presented in 1662 on the ordering of wines where he mentions the adding of sugar for a secondary fermentation and sparkling wine. The first time wines were described as such.

After a stellar beginning, Merrett’s own career fell flat. During the plague which hit London in 1665, he escaped to the country, deserting the Royal College of Physicians’ building at Amen Corner. While he was away, thieves broke into the building and the College’s treasure chest, containing cash and other valuables, was emptied. Merrett returned, but shortly after another disaster occurred – the  Great Fire of London in 1666.

He managed to save some of the most valuable books, but the College’s building (and library) was lost. With no library to oversee, the College decided it did not need a keeper and the decision was made to abolish Merrett’s post. This he vehemently disputed. After several court cases, in 1681 the College decided to take away his fellowship, ostensibly on the grounds that he had failed to attend a meeting to which he had been summoned. Four years later, the Royal Society also expelled Merrett, this time for being in arrears with his subscriptions. He died in 1695.

However this article on Merrett is not so much that observation regarding sparkling wine but his important work on glass making by translating a book into English. A Florentine priest named Antonio Neri wrote a guide for glassmakers in Latin. Titled L’Arte vetraria (The art of glass), Neri’s book was published by the Giunti printing house of Florence in 1612.

However oddly it received only modest recognition in its first few decades, despite being the first practical guide to making glass which had been such a closely guarded secret of the Venetians. So secret that death was a penalty for Venetian glass makers caught selling their secrets. Antonio luckily lived in Florence but from his practical knowledge came from working alongside Venetian craftsmen who had relocated to Pisa and Antwerp. He also worked in Florence under the patronage of Don Antonio de’ Medici, to whom he dedicated L’Arte vetraria. That all changed in 1662 when Christopher Merrett, produced a translation to which he added a substantive commentary. Further translations of the original and of Merrett's work swept across Europe. There were translations into German, Latin, French, and Spanish, and L’Arte vetraria became the manual for a pan-European glassmaking world.

His original Italian edition  has the look and feel of a personal notebook, with recipes Neri developed from hands-on experience and experimentation in making glass. In the book’s preface, Neri expresses his love of glass, calling it a noble thing and a “fruit of the art of fire". Clear instructions make this a no-nonsense handbook for craftsmen aspiring to create glass of the finest quality, both physically and aesthetically, in a wide range of varieties and for many purposes.

Merrett's translation and expansion and editorial cuts of repetitions made it an even better and more practical book. Oddly his name does not appear on the title page. His authorship is not in doubt. There are also two occurrences of 'C M' in the text referring to Merrett of course. Why he did not add his name is unclear. Several writers at that time did not. John Worlidge who wrote a Treatise on Cider just used his initials.

Merrett must have also visited glass makers to make his observations. The Royal Society only mentions glassworks in London at Woolwich, Minorities, Rosemary Lane, and Radcliffe.

Merrett mentions 3 distinct types of glass, bottle glass green, window glass and drinking glasses (also scientific). It is the first which is of interest here and Merrett's descriptions clearly shows Digby's invention of strong green bottle glass was now widespread. Merrett is not  known to have travelled out of London after becoming a physician. He may have travelled to Italy after qualifying and before 1640 as many physicians did and learnt his excellent grasp of Latin then.

Notes in his expansion include:

Sand for Bottle glass sand to be sourced from Woolwich, as it is harder than the white sands of Maidstone used for clear glass.

Vendors of ash for green glass journeyed around country and to be careful as the potash may be of variable quality

He mentions 3 types of furnaces, but only one for green glass. The furnace had a higher temperature.  Hard stone was required for higher temperatures and  Newcastle sandy from Penshaw sandstone from near Newcastle was suggested , outside this; bricks were to be used to retain heat. Merrett states the heat of a green glass furnace was twice as strong as other glass furnaces. Also the pots needed to be made of a higher quality clay to withstand the temperature. Clay for green glass needed to be sourced from Worcester Stourbridge clay and mixed with clay from Nonsuch in nearer Sussex, rather than the lower temperature pots made from Purbeck clay from the Isle of White. The pots for green glass were left open. Merrett does not mention Cone chimneys or subterranean flues that Digby might have invented or used. However in the apendix is a wonderful suprise. Merrett is listing the tools used in a greenglass furnance and mentions "Ferrets are the irons wherewith they try whether the Metall be fit to work, as also those irons which to make the Ring at the mouth of Glass Bottles ( my italics). Ie the string lip used to tie the cork in with thread on sparkling wine and cider bottles!

Of interest Merrett does not mention Digby, nor visa versa, as both would be well known to each other. Oddly given that in 1662 when Digby joined the Royal Society Merrett was 49 years old and very active in the Society, and both interested in glass amongst many other interests, Digby having been proclaimed the inventor of the strong glass bottle by the attorney general awarding him the patent, also in 1662, stating his invention dates from around 1630. This case came to be well documented as John Colnett, a Huguenot glass maker applied for a patent in 1661. Colnett had worked for Digby, but during the turmoil of the Commonwealth, he as well as others set up glass making outside the previous Royal patent restrictions. English glass bottles ( presumably Digby's) were recorded to be exported from London in London Port Books which list ‘English’ bottle exports in 1634. A possible reason Merrett did not name Digby could be that glass bottle manufacture although our main area of interest, it was not of Merrett at the time. He was more interested in crystal glass, and other topics entirely such as the medicine. He wrote a book to settle the dispute and make divisions between Physicians and Apothecaries. A hot topic at the time. And equally so Digby did not mention his invention of the glass bottle his life was full of much more exciting things!