September 29, 2010

The intelligencer

17th century London

Henry Robinson opened a very interesting office in London on this date in 1650.  Some history sites refer to it as the first dating bureau, but in fact it was a kind of employment agency.

It was called the Office of Addresses and Encounters and for sixpence you could find out about jobs available – or conversely workers – or real estate currently on the market.  If you were poor, the service was free.

Henry Robinson, a writer and theologian, had no doubt gotten the idea from his friend Samuel Hartlib, who had been trying to get the government to fund such an enterprise for three years.  Hartlib had much bigger plans for the Office than Robinson.

Hartlib, German-born, had moved to Britain as a young man, married and begun his career.  He was truly a renaissance man, interested in politics, education, theology, agriculture and science.  And, he went directly to the source, to the men who were experts, who were on the cutting edge of their disciplines.  He kept up an enormous correspondence and circulated designs for calculators. siege engines and agricultural machinery.

Axe Yard

He was an ‘intelligencer.’  It’s not exactly a job title, but maybe it should be. Sam Hartlib wanted everyone to know about everything, starting with himself.  And his idea for the Office of Addresses and Encounters was that, in addition to its practical function, it should also be a central location for the dissemination of iinformation.  He wanted experts and academics to contribute their knowledge and create a living encyclopedia.

In short, in 1650, Samuel Hartlib was dreaming of Wikipedia.

I know he would have been an early internet-adopter, the first to tweet and would have had ten thousand friends on Facebook.  Samuel Hartlib was a man of our time.  I think we would all be delighted to know him.

After he died, his correspondence and personal papers were collected, but disappeared sometime in the 19th century.  Happily, they were rediscovered in 1945 and are available on CD – 25,000 documents.

Unable to locate a picture of Sam Hartlib, I have settled for a drawing of where he lived – Axe Yard, right near Samuel Pepys.



  1. very exciting stuff thanks a gain for another great story.


    Comment by avery zia — September 29, 2010 @ 2:09 pm | Reply

  2. Amazing! That you should bring Sam Hartlib to life in 2010.This is better, more exciting, then going to college. Thanx!


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — September 29, 2010 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

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