John Chamberlayne wrote Letter L-386 to Leeuwenhoek to ask about the taste of water and whether razors are spoiled by extreme heat and cold

April 24, 1701

This letter is known only by reference in Leeuwenhoek’s reply. The date is New Style, which was eleven days ahead of the Old Style date of 13 April 1701 used by Chamberlayne in London.

In this letter, Chamberlayne asked Leeuwenhoek to explain why, when he was in Holland, the taste of water changed depending on how long it was boiled. He also asked whether Leeuwenhoek had studied razors microscopically to explain why steel razors are spoiled by extreme heat and cold.

Translator John Chamberlayne (1666-1723) studied at Leiden University in 1688 and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1702.

This letter begins the exchange between L. and Chamberlayne. Seven letters from L. to Chamberlayne are in idem, vol. 13-16.

Chamberlayne addressed five known letters to L., the present letter of 24 April 1701 as well as Letter L-406 of 12 September 1702 about a friend’s dental problems as well as his dental hygiene practices, Letter L-430 of 2 December 1704 about an odd piece of ash from a burned haystack, Letter L-450 of 31 March 1707 inquiring after Leeuwenhoek’s health, and Letter L-469 of 13 August 1709, in which Chamberlayne again inquired about razors.

In addition, the Royal Society archives have record of several letters written by Chamberlayne to Hans Sloane as editor of Philosophical Transactions about difficulties translating Leeuwenhoek’s Dutch. For discussions of Chamberlayne’s difficulties, see Henderson, “Making ‘the good old man’ speak English: the reception of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek’s letters at the Royal Society, 1673–1723” and Vermij and Palm, “John Chamberlayne als vertaler van Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek”.


Letter L-389 of 21 June 1701 to John Chamberlayne

I received your welcome letter of the 13th of April 1701, which was enclosed with the letter of Mr. Hans Sloane in which you request me to let you know

whether you have remarked the same thing as I did about the boiled water, the taste of which changes very much according as it is boiled longer or shorter, and that you observed this for the first time when you were in Holland, where they often use rain-water, in particular for drinking tea. It is impossible to tell (you say) what difference I have found between this water when it has been boiled (for instance) for a quarter of an hour or half an hour, which is no doubt due to the spirit or salt (as you rightly call it) of the water; and the change of the taste is caused by the change of the form of the crystals of the said salt, which is the origin of every taste, for otherwise all kinds of water would taste the same. ...

You were also pleased to ask me whether I have ever paid attention to the edge of a razor, and whether its construction must be very special, for although it is made of pure steel (you say), still in great cold and in great heat it is spoiled, so that it does not cut at all; and no natural reasons can be given for this.