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Denis Papin's digester and its eighteenth-century European circulation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 October 2021

Marco Storni*
Institute of History, University of Neuchâtel
*Corresponding author: Marco Storni, Email:


The digester, invented by Denis Papin in the 1680s, was a rudimentary pressure cooker used to soften hard bodies by boiling them at high pressure. In this paper, I propose a reassessment of Papin's work on the digester, arguing that his research was located at the intersection of the chemical laboratory and cooking practice. I then examine cases from the eighteenth-century European circulation of the instrument in Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands in order to showcase the different practices in which the digester was embedded, including chemical research, philanthropic projects to feed the destitute, and proposals for the improvement of home cooking. The digester's history represents a key episode for demonstrating the intertwined nature of natural-philosophical research and the practice of economy or ‘thrift’. All users of the digester engaged in a rationalization of its functions through quantification, not only to fulfil a concern for precision but also to display the device's potential to reform practical daily life. The digester could save time and fuel, reduce material waste, make cooking easier and foster collective meal preparation for the needy.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of British Society for the History of Science

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1 Shapin, Steven, ‘The invisible technician’, American Scientist (1989) 77(6), pp. 554–63, 559Google Scholar. See also Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994, pp. 355–61.

2 Robert Boyle, A Continuation of New Experiments Physico-mechanical Touching the Spring and Weight of the Air, and Their Effects. The Second Part (1682), in The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols., London: Pickering & Chatto, 2000, vol. 9, pp. 99–231, 100.

3 Boyle, op. cit. (2), p. 101.

4 Boyle, op. cit. (2), p. 100.

5 Wootton, David, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, New York: HarperCollins, 2015, p. 233Google Scholar.

6 Wootton, op. cit. (5), p. 233.

7 Wootton, op. cit. (5), p. 233.

8 Spary, Emma C., Feeding France: New Sciences of Food, 1760–1815, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 205–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Spary, op. cit. (8), p. 206–7.

10 Spary, op. cit. (8), p. 204. The historiographical tradition to which I refer includes Davidson, Alan, ‘The natural history of British cookery books’, American Scholar (1983) 52(1), pp. 98106Google Scholar; Cowell, Norman D., ‘The contributions of Robert Boyle and Denis Papin to food preservation’, Transactions of the Newcomen Society (1998) 70(1), pp. 123–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Smith, Alan, ‘A new way of raising water by fire: Denis Papin's treatise of 1707 and its reception by contemporaries’, History of Technology (1998) 20, pp. 139–81Google Scholar.

11 Spary, op. cit. (8), p. 205.

12 Rather than ‘economy’, many scholars privilege the spelling ‘oeconomy’ when referring to the early modern notion of virtuous household management. See Tribe, Keith, ‘Oeconomic history: an essay review’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science (2005) 36, pp. 586597CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Werrett, Simon, ‘Household oeconomy and chemical inquiry’, in Roberts, Lissa and Werrett, Simon (eds.), Compound Histories: Materials, Governance and Production, 1760–1840, Leiden: Brill, 2018, pp. 3556Google Scholar. In this essay I will use the term ‘economy’ as encompassing the meaning of both ‘oeconomy’ and ‘economy’ in the modern sense (including the idea of financial profit associated with the production of goods).

13 On ‘thrifty science’ see Werrett, Simon, Thrifty Science: Making the Most of Materials in the History of Experiment, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2019CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the role of dearth in the elaboration of early modern knowledge see Mukherjee, Ayesha, Penury into Plenty: Dearth and the Making of Knowledge in Early Modern England, New York: Routledge, 2015Google Scholar. Amongst the essential readings on the intertwined nature of natural-philosophical and practical knowledge, and on the house as a site of experimentation, see Lissa Roberts, Simon Schaffer and Peter Dear (eds.), The Mindful Hand: Inquiry and Invention from the Late Renaissance to Early Industrialisation, Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2007; Klein, Ursula, ‘Blending technical innovation and learned natural knowledge: the making of ethers’, in Klein, Ursula and Spary, Emma C., Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe: Between Market and Laboratory, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 125–57Google Scholar; Guerrini, Anita, ‘The ghastly kitchen’, History of Science (2016) 54, pp. 7197CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Leong, Elaine, Recipes and Everyday Knowledge: Medicine, Science and the Household in Early Modern England, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 On the idea of a ‘quantifying spirit’ characterizing early modern scientific culture see Tore Frängsmyr, John L. Heilbron and Robin E. Rider (eds.), The Quantifying Spirit in the Eighteenth Century, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. On the codification of cooking knowledge through measurement and quantification (particularly of time) see Bernasconi, Gianenrico, ‘Temps et cuisine, XVIIe–XVIIIe siècles: Remarques sur les pratiques de transformation alimentaire’, in Bernasconi, Gianenrico and Thürigen, Susanne (eds.), Material Histories of Time: Objects and Practices, 14th–19th Centuries, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2021, pp. 173–86Google Scholar.

15 On early modern ‘charitable knowledge’ see Catherine Duprat, ‘Pour l'amour de l'humanité’. Le temps des philanthropes: La philanthropie parisienne des Lumières à la monarchie de Juillet, 2 vols., Paris: Editions du Comité des Travaux historiques et scientifiques, vol. 1, 1993; Susan C. Lawrence, Charitable Knowledge: Hospital Pupils and Practitioners in Eighteenth-Century London, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996; Christine Lehman, ‘Between commerce and philanthropy: chemistry courses in eighteenth-century Paris’, in Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Christine Blondel (eds.), Science and Spectacle in the European Enlightenment, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007, pp. 103–16; Bruno Belhoste, Paris Savant: Capital of Science in the Age of Enlightenment, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019, pp. 169–94.

16 For a perspective on the ‘science of food’ and the question of philanthropic cooking in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the best extant account is Spary, op. cit. (8).

17 Birch, Thomas, The History of the Royal Society of London, for Improving Natural Knowledge, 4 vols., London: Millar, 1757, vol. 3, p. 486Google Scholar.

18 Hartshorn is a chemical leaven in use before baking soda became available.

19 Birch, op. cit. (17), p. 486.

20 Birch, op. cit. (17), p. 489.

21 Denis Papin to Christiaan Huygens, 25 May 1679, in Christiaan Huygens, Oeuvres complètes, 22 vols., The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1888–1950, vol. 8, p. 173.

22 Papin to Huygens, op. cit. (21), p. 173.

23 Denis Papin to William Croon, 1 March 1681, in Papin, Denis, La vie et les ouvrages, 8 vols., Blois: Migault, 1894, vol. 7, p. 51Google Scholar.

24 Papin, Denis, A New Digester or Engine for Softning Bones, London: Bonwicke, 1681, preface, n.pGoogle Scholar.

25 Papin, op. cit. (24), preface, n.p.

26 Papin, op. cit. (24), preface, n.p.

27 Papin, op. cit. (24), pp. 1–2.

28 Papin, op. cit. (24), p. 2.

29 Papin, op. cit. (24), p. 2.

30 Papin, op. cit. (24), p. 3.

31 Papin, op. cit. (24), p. 4.

32 Papin, op. cit. (24), p. 4.

33 Papin, op. cit. (24), p. 6.

34 Papin, op. cit. (24), p. 39.

35 Papin, op. cit. (24), p. 8.

36 See Jandot, Olivier, Les délices du feu: L'homme, le chaud et le froid à l’époque moderne, Ceyzérieu: Champ Vallon, 2017, pp. 151–81Google Scholar.

37 Papin, op. cit. (24), p. 52.

38 Papin, op. cit. (24), p. 53. Papin refers to the fact that King ‘caused a brick furnace to be built on purpose’ to experiment with the digester.

39 Classified papers of the Royal Society, Volume 18i (‘Papin and Hauksbee papers’), CLP/18i/18, fol. 3r. Conventions adopted in the transcription: (1) text deleted by the author has been put between angle brackets (<…>), (2) text between the lines is put between slashes (\…/), (3) my additions are put between square brackets ([…]). Papin's original spelling has been respected.

40 Papin, Denis, A Continuation of the New Digester of Bones, London: Streater, 1687, pp. 78Google Scholar.

41 A good example of the early Continental diffusion of the digester is provided by letters written at the end of the seventeenth century by Denis's cousin Isaac Papin to several French political figures. Isaac tried to promote the use of the digester in the kitchens of French hospitals and hôtels-Dieu. These letters are reprinted in Papin, La vie et les ouvrages, op. cit. (23), vol. 3, pp. 279–90, 339–47. On Isaac Papin see Thomas Guillemin, ‘Isaac Papin (1657–1709): Itinéraire d'un humaniste réformé, de l'Ecole de Saumur au jansénisme’, PhD thesis (unpublished), Université d'Angers, 2015.

42 The texts I refer to are the following: Teichmeyer, Hermann Friedrich, Elementa philosophiae naturalis experimentalis, Jena: Bielckii, 1717Google Scholar; Petrus van Musschenbroek, Elementa physicae conscripta in usus academicos, Leiden: Luchtmans, 1734; John Clayton, ‘To prove that water, when agitated by fire, is vastly more elastic than air in the same circumstances’, Philosophical Transactions (1739) 41, pp. 335–6; Jean-Antoine Nollet, Leçons de physique expérimentale, 6 vols., Paris: Guérin, 1743–64; Andreas Leopoldus Haan, Libellus, in quo demonstrator quod non solum vegetabilia, animalia, et mineralia menstruo simplici paucis horis possint solvi, verum etiam extracta purissima, et salia essentialia educi, Vienna: Thomae de Trattnern, 1766.

43 An elatrometer is an instrument used to measure the degree of rarefaction of air.

44 Ziegler, Johann Heinrich, Specimen physico-chemicum inaugurale de digestore papini eius structura, effectu et usu, Basel: Schweighauseri, 1769, p. 43Google Scholar.

45 Gazette salutaire, 22 November 1770, n.p.

46 Johan Carl Wilcke, ‘Försök till en ny inrättning af Papini digestor, til Oeconomiska behof’, Vetenskaps Academiens Handlingar (1773) 34, pp. 3–22, 6.

47 Wilcke, op. cit. (46), p. 6.

48 Wilcke, op. cit. (46), p. 6.

49 Wilcke, op. cit. (46), p. 6.

50 Knutberg, Carl, Upmantran till allahanda, vid lands och stads- hushållningen; nyttiga ämnens samlande, Stockholm: Salvius, 1762, p. 23Google Scholar. On the figure of the capitaine-mechanicus see Kristine Bruland, Technology Transfer and Scandinavian Industrialisation, Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1991, p. 29.

51 Wilcke, op. cit. (46), p. 7.

52 Wilcke, op. cit. (46), p. 8.

53 Wilcke, op. cit. (46), p. 8.

54 Wilcke, op. cit. (46), p. 11.

55 Wilcke, op. cit. (46), pp. 17–18.

56 Wilcke, op. cit. (46), p. 22.

57 This might be because, as Oseen claims in his biography of Wilcke, ‘what interested Wilcke was the direct use of the pot in households. He considered that the pot had to be spread in Stockholm kitchens’. Oseen, C.W., Johan Carl Wilcke: Experimental-Fysiker, Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1939, p. 182Google Scholar.

58 Wilcke papers, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, no. 174, ‘Grytor dem jag beställt och låtit förfärdiga’ (Pots I have ordered and had made), and no. 175, ‘Digestorer som jag låtit förfärdiga’ (Digesters I have had made). See Gunnar Pipping, The Chamber of Physics, Uppsala and Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1977, pp. 92–3.

59 Elias Pfeiffer to Johan Carl Wilcke, 25 September 1773, Wilcke papers, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, no. 176.

60 See Pecchiai, Pio, ‘La Società Patriottica istituita in Milano dall'imperatrice Maria Teresa’, Archivio Storico Lombardo: Giornale della società storica lombarda (1917) 5(1), pp. 25152Google Scholar.

61 ‘Empyreumatic taste’ means the taste of charred organic matter.

62 Giann'Ambrogio Sangiorgio, ‘La macchina di Papinio riformata all'uso economico, e farmaceutico’, in Opuscoli scelti sulle scienze e sulle arti, 21 vols., Milan: Marelli, 1778–9, vol. 1, pp. 313–18, 314.

63 Sangiorgio, op. cit. (62), p. 314.

64 Sangiorgio, op. cit. (62), p. 315.

65 Sangiorgio, op. cit. (62), p. 316.

66 Sangiorgio, op. cit. (62), p. 317.

67 Ottolini, Girolamo, Il digestore di Papino ridotto ad uso di cucina, Milan: Marelli, 1783, n.pGoogle Scholar.

68 Ottolini, op. cit. (67), n.p.

69 Ottolini, op. cit. (67), n.p.

70 Ottolini, op. cit. (67), n.p.

71 Ottolini, op. cit. (67), n.p.

72 Ottolini, op. cit. (67), n.p.

73 Martinus van Marum, ‘Bericht omtrent zyne proefneemingen ter bereiding van meer versterkende Soupe voor behoeftigen, op de minst kostbare wyze, door middle van eene digtgeslotene of Papiniaansche pot’, Nieuwe Algemene Konst- en Letterbode (1800) 14, pp. 194a–196b; English translation in Robert J. Forbes (ed.), Martinus van Marum: Life and Work, 6 vols., Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink, 1969–76, vol. 3, p. 292.

74 For a description of the exemplar of Van Marum's digester preserved at the Teylers Museum see Forbes, op. cit. (73), vol. 4, p. 272. In the catalogue of the Teylers Museum collection, Van Marum's digester is catalogued as ‘Hogedrukpan’, FK 0196.

75 Forbes, op. cit. (73), vol. 3, p. 292.

76 Martinus van Marum, ‘Beschryving der verbeeterde papiniaansche pot’, Algemene Konst- en Letterbode (1801) 1, pp. 24–30, 27.

77 Martinus van Marum, Beschrijving van den Papiniaanschen Pot of Dampketel, Haarlem, 1818 (an extended version of the 1801 paper, printed at the state's expense), pp. 13–15.

78 Van Marum, op. cit. (76), p. 27.

79 Forbes, op. cit. (73), vol. 3, p. 290.

80 Van Marum, op. cit. (77), p. 16.

81 Briefwisseling van Martinus van Marum, Noord-Hollands Archief, Haarlem, 5–29: Wenckebach (secretary general of the Ministry of the Interior) to Martinus van Marum, 6 December 1817; Van Marum to Wenckebach, 23 December 1817; Wenckebach to Van Marum, 31 December 1817; Van Marum to Groen van Prinsterer, 28 April 1818. See Forbes, op. cit. (73), vol. 3, pp. 296–8.

82 In the eighteenth-century texts analysed here, fuel is not quantified with the same accuracy as by Papin. The digester's capacity of ‘saving fire’, however, is often mentioned by the authors as a central advantage of the device.

83 On ‘time economy’ in the modern era and the social implications of this concept see Thompson, E.P., ‘Time, work-discipline, and industrial capitalism’, Past and Present (1967) 38(1), pp. 5697CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Smith, Thomas C., ‘Peasant time and factory time in Japan’, Past and Present (1986) 111, pp. 165–97CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift, ‘Revolutions in the times: clocks and the temporal structures of everyday life’, in David N. Livingstone and Charles W.J. Withers (eds.), Geography and Revolutions, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 160–98; Fabio Pruneri, ‘Time management at school from the late Middle Ages to the industrial age: a few cases in point’, in Bernasconi and Thürigen, op. cit. (14), pp. 157–72.

84 A use of the digester in science teaching, for instance, is attested at the Theological School of Halki Island in the late nineteenth century. See Panagiotis Lazos, ‘Greek secondary school science collections in Istanbul’, Bulletin of the Science Instrument Society (2017) 134, pp. 16–23. A digester used as an autoclave for sterilization, dating from the 1920s or 1930s, is preserved at the Museu da Farmácia in Lisbon (inventory no. 000109).

85 Junichen [first name unknown], ‘Der Papinische Topf und seine Anwendung in der Hauswirthschaft’, Polytechnische Journal (1872) 205, pp. 412–17.

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