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Technology and Culture 44.2 (2003) 379-381

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Un inventor navarro: Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont, 1553-1613. By Nicolás García Tapia. Pamplona: Gobierno de Navarra, Departamento de Educación y Cultura, 2001. Pp. 285.

As the title indicates, this book is a biography of an inventor. Jerónimo de Ayanz was a Spanish nobleman involved in everything from administration to warfare who still found time to patent about fifty inventions and was deeply involved in trying to make his inventions profitable despite his ample income from other sources. The book provides a fascinating window on the culture of invention in early modern Europe. While its main points will not surprise those familiar with Nicolás García Tapia's earlier work, especially his 1992 article on Ayanz in History of Technology, this book allows him to go into more detail about the individual inventions and their contexts of usage.

The first half of Un inventor Navarro, though a fascinating read, will be of least direct interest to readers of Technology and Culture. Here García Tapia describes Ayanz's life outside his inventions: his background, renown as a warrior, administrative skills, and family scandals. We learn that he was [End Page 379] known as a painter and musician, that at a young age he was appointed to one of the prestigious military orders, and that he had ambitions in the Indies and family ties to the valuable silver mines there. García Tapia makes it clear that Ayanz was neither socially unimportant nor narrowly technical in his interests.

The heart of the book, however, is its second half: Ayanz the inventor. Here García Tapia illustrates the links between Ayanz's experience as an administrator and the problems that caught his interest and discusses his individual inventions. Out of his experience as overseer of mines came not only new assaying techniques but a precision balance, designs for more efficient furnaces, a steam injector to ventilate mines (a priority after his assistant was poisoned by toxic gases), and pumps using pressurized steam to drain flooded mines. He also developed a diving bell and suit for retrieving underwater treasure, shipboard pumps, a submarine, windmills, and sundry other useful machines.

Although diagrams survive, and many are reproduced in the book, these were not simply paper designs. Whenever Ayanz applied for a patent, the king assigned two experts to inspect his work. Both reported seeing not only drawings but working models, some small, some full scale, including the air-conditioning system he had set up in his house. A demonstration of his diving apparatus even became something of a public spectacle, and he did not lack for entrepreneurial spirit. After his experience as administrator of mines he formed a small company to reopen a long-abandoned silver mine, using inventions that García Tapia argues convincingly were probably his steam pumps. The project was abandoned, however, because of a lack of cooperation from the local bureaucracy. Ayanz was also involved in lawsuits with another inventor over the use of diving equipment for harvesting pearls, and he complained bitterly about people copying his inventions. There seems ample evidence that he wanted to use his inventions for practical purposes and that many passed initial trials. Yet he remained unable to find a way to render them profitable. When he died, after an extended illness, his nephew inherited the patents but made no effort to exploit them.

While fascinating, the book is oddly unsatisfying. García Tapia focuses his attention on the machines themselves, providing a fair bit of detail about how they worked and how they compared to similar devices, but tells little about how Ayanz tried to exploit them or even how he developed his ideas. While perhaps out of place in a biography, and perhaps impossible because of gaps in the surviving sources, I would like to have seen more on the culture of invention in Spain, and on the reasons why Ayanz's inventions had so little impact. While he was undeniably an atypical nobleman and a...