Two manuscripts from Jesse Ramsden’s workshop, 1786 and 1788

Two manuscripts from Jesse Ramsden’s workshop, 1786 and 1788

Stock Number: 2406X01


A note to a fellow instrument maker dated 25 February 1786, and a receipt dated October/November 1788; both signed by Ramsden


205 x 144mm; 208 x 87mm




Jesse Ramsden

Country of manufacture

UK and Ireland

Categories: Bookshop, Maritime, Scientific, Scientific Books, Barometers & Meteorology, Opera Glasses


Two manuscripts from the workshop of the celebrated instrument maker Jesse Ramsden (1735–1800).

1. Note addressed to ‘Mr Torre’: “Ramsdens [sic] humble service waits on M. Torre and will beg the favour of 25 Guineas in abt 1/2 an hour and will not be later in sending down his work / Piccadilly 25 Feb 1786”.

Torre must (owing to the date) be the optician Anthony Torre, whose workshop was located just to the south of Ramsden’s Piccadilly workshop, on or near Pall Mall. (Torre moved from Market Lane just off Pall Mall to 132 Pall Mall in 1786, though it is not known when in the year this move took place.)

The note is clearly a matter of some urgency. Ramsden requests payment of 25 Guineas (equivalent to upwards of £2,000 today) and claims he will deliver his ‘work’ within half an hour. This raises a number of points of historical interest. For example, was Ramsden supplying parts or whole instruments for Torre to retail? This is certainly possible but as this is the first known connection between Ramsden and Torre the question has not been explored. Second, why the urgency? Was Torre really expected to pay this huge sum just to receive the work in a timely manner?

The note is one a single sheet, folded in at the corners and sealed to make an impromptu self-envelope. Clearly this was hand delivered by one of Ramsden’s assistants, either to Torre, waiting at his door, or to Torre’s nearby workshop. An incredible glimpse into the hurly-burly of instrument making.

2. Receipt made out to Marsilio Landriani (‘Chev[alie]r Landriani’), for “2 Bellows Fashion’d Boxes / Pearl & Silver with Col[oure]d Glasses” (£1/16/-) and “Repairing a Pocket Compass” (5/-).

A glimpse of Ramsden’s notorious slow workmanship is given here, as the sale of the opera glasses (‘Bellows […] with Col[oure]d Glasses’) took place on 30 October 1788, and the repair was dated 27 November 1788. We know of no Ramsden opera glasses that meet this description, though the type is common enough and he may have been acting as retailer.

Both documents in Ramsden’s hand, bearing his name – #1 with the distinctive ‘R’ found on some of his instruments.

Jesse Ramsden is well known as the premier instrument maker of his generation. He is famed for his astronomical and surveying instruments, and particularly the accuracy of his divided scales, for which he invented a dividing machine in the 1770s. He is one of the few instrument makers subject to full biographical treatment, in Anita McConnell s masterful 2007 work.

As McConnell acknowledges, there are very few extant documents relating directly to Ramsden’s life and work. There are no personal papers or business papers. Instead McConnell’s biography draws on the extensive evidence surviving in his clients’ papers, and on Ramsden’s own published accounts of his inventions. The only Ramsden manuscript we can locate on the market is a letter offered by Tesseract in 2008 (Catalogue 86, Nos 15, $6,500).

Anthony Torre is less well known but was also an important instrument maker of his day. His father was the Italian born printer and pyrotechnician Giovanni Battista Torre (d.1780), and in the mid 1780s he was in the process of forming a partnership with Paul Colnaghi, a name already known in the Ramsden biography, because Colnaghi was the Drst owner of the famous portrait of Ramsden. (Many iterations down the line P. & D. Colnaghi still operates to this day, now as a commercial art dealer.)

Marsilio Landriani (Milan, 1751 – Vienna, 1815) was an Italian chemist, physicist and meteorologist. He became known through his first book, Ricerche fisiche intorno alla salubrità dell’aria (Physical investigations on the salubrity of air), published in 1775. In it he described a new instrument, the eudiometer, which was later improved by Volta with the addition of spark wires. From 1776 he held the chair of experimental physics in the Brera Ginnasio (College). In 1781 he published his second book, Opuscoli fisico-chimici (Physical-chemical pamphlets), which contributed to opening a new way to the theory of acidity.

Both manuscripts in very good condition, on good laid paper: #1 appears to be written on a fragment cut from a larger sheet, but is complete in itself; with original folds making a self-envelope ‘M. Torre’ and ‘1786 / Mr Ramsden’ on the reverse. Remnants of sealing wax to one corner. #2 with some edge wear but also in excellent condition; partial watermark visible; early note on Ramsden to the rear.

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GB Boris Jardine Rare Books

Boris Jardine Rare Books specializes in history of science and technology, and scientific instruments.

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