Leibniz's Observations on Hydrology: An Unpublished Letter on the Great Lombardy Flood of 1705

Annals of Science 72 (4):517-532 (2015)
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Although the historical reputation of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) largely rests on his philosophical and mathematical work, it is widely known that he made important contributions to many of the emerging but still inchoate branches of natural science of his day. Among the many scientific papers Leibniz published during his lifetime are ones on the nascent science we now know as hydrology. While Leibniz’s other scientific work has become of increasing interest to scholars in recent years, his thinking about hydrology has been neglected, despite being relatively broad in extent, including as it does papers on the ‘raising of vapours’ and the formation of ice, as well as the separation of salt and fresh water. That list can now be extended still further following the discovery of a previously unpublished letter of Leibniz’s on the causes of the devastating Lombardy flood of October and November 1705. This letter, which will be the focus of our paper, reveals the depth of Leibniz’s understanding of key hydrological processes. In it, he considers various mechanisms for the flood, such as heavy rains on high ground, underwater earthquakes, and a mountain collapse. Over the course of the paper we examine each of these mechanisms in depth, and show that Leibniz was in the vanguard of hydrological thinking. We also show that the letter contains one of the first scholarly attempts to apply aspects of the still-forming notion of the hydrological cycle to account for a flood event.

Author's Profile

Lloyd Strickland
Manchester Metropolitan University


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