Samuel Hartlib Papers

Scope and Content

The papers and correspondence of Samuel Hartlib, educationalist, natural philosopher and polymath of the seventeenth century

Administrative / Biographical History

The collection comprises the papers and correspondence of Samuel Hartlib (?1600-1662), known as 'the Great Intelligencer of Europe', educationalist, natural philosopher and polymath, who dedicated himself to maintaining regular and extensive correspondence with like-minded thinkers around the world, to creating a documentary archive of knowledge and information on many aspects of contemporary life and to communicating that knowledge to others - in effect an encyclopedist of the seventeenth century. He was assisted in his work by close associates and a staff of copyists. The archive, which includes copies of his own letters as well as those sent to him by others, represents the greater part of extant Hartlib material. The seventeenth century was a period of rapid scientific and philosophical development, as well as of social, religious and political crisis, and the Hartlib Papers, as well as providing important insights into the state and the transmission of knowledge of the period also illustrate how intellectual people reacted to the events of the time.

Hartlib was born around 1600 in Elbing in East Prussia, but his mother was English, and his family was involved in an English merchant company in Danzig and Elbing. He was educated at least partly in England, and because of the disruption caused by the Thirty Years War moved permanently to England around 1628. After settling in England he became acquainted with religious leaders (on the reformed side), leading members of universities, men of science, literature, politics, education, agriculture, horticulture, technology and many other areas of knowledge. There is for example an important section of documents relating to the Moravian educationalist and reformer Comenius (Jan Amos Komensk), some of whose works Hartlib published in England before Comenius visited London in 1641 prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. Other notable people with whom he corresponded include John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Robert Boyle, Oliver Cromwell, John Dury, Christopher Wren, Ren Descartes and Blaise Pascal. In addition he corresponded with the English colonies in America. Sadly, despite his eminent connections, Hartlib was always short of money, though his association with the Parliamentary side resulted in a small pension from Cromwell's government, but at the Restoration he fell out of favour, dying in penury two years later in 1662.

The history of the documents after Hartlib's death is obscure, but in more recent times Professor George Turnbull, Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield from 1922 to 1954, was responsible for their rediscovery and transfer to Sheffield, where he carried out transcription and other work on educational papers within the collection, and for their deposit in the University Library.

In late 1987, as a result of British Academy and Leverhulme Trust support, the Hartlib Papers Project was established at the University of Sheffield, and work on the transcription and data-capture of the entire corpus of some 20,000 pages of manuscript, together with a further 5,000 pages of printed ephemera, commenced. The result was the publication in 1995 in cooperation with UMI of a CD-ROM set which enables full searching of the text database together with access to digitised images of all the original documents. New understanding of the advancement of learning in the seventeenth century has been one important outcome of the Project.

A copy of the Hartlib Papers CD-ROM may be consulted in the Main Library at this University or on the campus network, and copies have been acquired by a number of other research libraries world-wide.


Based on a catalogue of John Worthington (1618-1671)

Access Information

Access to CD-ROM version only

Acquisition Information

Deposited by Professor Turnbull in 1964


Description prepared by Lawrence Aspden

Other Finding Aids

CD-ROM version available

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright: University of Sheffield Library

Related Material

George Henry Turnbull Manuscripts