About twenty years ago Cotsen purchased this little manuscript bound in blue sugar paper boards from John Lawson, an English antiquarian bookseller and great collector in the history of education. The neatly lettered title page dated 1752 credits sixteen-year-old Robert Brightwell junior as the manuscript’s “author.” It might have been possible to identify him had he noted the name of the town or house where he was living at the time. Another clue, the line ” Mrs. Allen My Dear Madame D,” is too cryptic to lead anywhere and seems to be in a second hand.
He must have been a rather serious lad to have compiled and illustrated a “Useful Companion, containing Short & Necessary Instructions for Youth.” The section on astronomy is one of the longer ones in the first part. In this opening, Robert carefully wrote out tables of the diameters of the planets and of their distance in millions of miles from the sun.
He also drew a diagram of the solar system as far out as Saturn with its rings and five moons (Uranus would not be discovered until 1781). In the lower left-hand corner, he attempted a picture of an armillary or artificial sphere, which the Encyclopedia Britannica on-line defines as “an early astronomical device for representing the great circles of the heavens, including in the most elaborate instruments the horizon, meridian, Equator, tropics, polar circles, and an ecliptic hoop.” A pudgy cherub holds up one hand and looks away from the fearsomely complicated machine.This more detailed representation from a plate in a 1748 issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine, shows that Robert didn’t try to identify the concentric metal bands. Trying to squeeze the information into such small spaces probably seemed rather daunting.Robert seems to have been capable of finer work when motivated. The section on geography was illustrated with tiny hand-colored maps of the continents, where he went to the trouble of designating longitude and latitude and drawing in rivers, seas, countries, and major cities. He did run into some trouble in the map of Asia rendering the horn of Africa and New Holland (aka Australia) to scale.Neat rows of shaded diagrams decorate the margins of the section on geometry. They are placed opposite the corresponding definitions of solid figures–cube, cylinder, cone, pyramid, sphere, prism, scaleneous cone, etc.It seemed likely that Master Robert was transcribing passages from printed books into his manuscript, I searched distinctive phrases at random in the Eighteenth Century Collections Online. The phrase “Scientifick Amusement” turned up once, in an Irish volume of periodical essays published in 1758, but no match: “There are some concerns of greater importance to a human being than the most luminous conception of the full force of the thirteen cards in the scientific amusement of whist…” The phrase “Platonic body” in the definition of a tetrahedron returned ten results, none passages remotely similar to Robert’s text. The prose In the history of England was too bland to offer good bits for searching as in this thoroughly uninspiring account of the reign of Richard III.So why might Richard have compiled this manuscript? It’s possible that he was transcribing a text he wanted to own, but could not afford to buy. Perhaps he was copying material for presentation to someone else. A third possibility is that Robert was consulting several texts and composing an abstract his own words, like the mad narrator of Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub. Or perhaps he was in the same spot as the hero of Jeffrey Taylor’s Harry’s Holiday (1818), who needed something to do during the summer break and hit upon the idea of making a copy of Joseph Priestley’s enormous New Chart of History . At least Robert’s project was manageable in comparison!