Midshipmen: the arrival of science in Spain

By Naval Museum

Museo Naval de Madrid

How the Company of Midshipmen helped drive science forward in Spain through disciplines linked to navigation - including modern calculus, scientific instruments, and developments in medicine and astronomy.

José Patiño y Rosales (1828) by Rafael TejeoOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid

The Academy and Company of Midshipmen was created in 1717 by the Governor General of the Spanish Navy, José Patiño y Rosales.

It was key to the progress of Spanish science in the 18th century, not only in the fields of navigation and cartography, but also with the arrival of new waves of research that could be applied to many areas.

The Academy introduced a model of teaching that was based on the study and application of both national and international scientific developments.

Summary of Geography... (1530) by Martín Fernández de EncisoOriginal Source: Museo Naval, Madrid. Biblioteca.


The company's work has its roots in institutions such as the "Casa de Contratación" (House of Commerce) in Seville, which was founded in 1503.

This was where the captains of the Spanish treasure fleets were given scientific training.

Other important institutions include the Royal Seminary College of San Telmo, founded in 1681, which aimed to train seafarers in safer and more effective navigation, bringing together theoretical studies with observations and new discoveries in the field.

The Art of Navigation... (1545) by Pedro de MedinaOriginal Source: Museo Naval, Madrid. Biblioteca.

These studies were part of the so-called "art of navigation" and allowed the route, distance, and latitude required for navigation to be determined.

Technological and scientific advances were needed in order to avoid possible errors.

Astronomical Compendium (1596) by Thobias VolckmerOriginal Source: Museo Naval, Madrid

Scientific artifacts were also to be found in personal collections during the 16th century.

Spanish monarch Philip II was one of the keenest collectors of scientific works and objects, such as this astronomical compendium.

It shows the map of the northern land hemisphere and the southern hemisphere, as well as the maritime regions.

It also includes a sundial, a compass showing the 4 cardinal points, an astrolabe, and 2 calendars.

The Cosmography of Pedro Apiano... (1575) by Pedro ApianoOriginal Source: Museo Naval, Madrid. Biblioteca.

Great Universal Scientific Advances

The publication of Nicolaus Copernicus' work on his heliocentric theory, "De revolutionibus orbium caelestium" (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) in 1543, Galileo Galilei's studies on the Earth's movement, and Isaac Newton's unified theories of universal gravitation led to significant advances in modern scientific methods.

These works enabled astronomy to develop as a science, leading to the creation of astronomical observatories in Paris in 1667 and in Greenwich in 1675.

Ptolemaic armillary sphere (XVII century) by AnonymousOriginal Source: Museo Naval, Madrid

The Spanish Inquisition's outright opposition to new scientific ideas meant that Spain did not evolve at the same pace as other countries such as France and England.

Despite this, Spanish scientists and writers created a discourse that was fundamental to scientific progress.

Brief Compendium of the Earth and the Art of Navigation... (1551) by Martín Cortés y AlbácarOriginal Source: Museo Naval, Madrid. Biblioteca.

Among them was Martín Cortés and his work, "Brief Compendium on the Sphere and the Art of Navigation," which made advances in various scientific fields.

It brought together the discovery of magnetic declination and the need to widen the parallels near the poles, paving the way for the cylindrical projection attributed to Gerardus Mercator.

Rules of Navigation... (1606) by Andrés García de CéspedesOriginal Source: Museo Naval, Madrid. Biblioteca.

The work by Andrés García de Céspedes was also relevant, and it became one of the most important nautical treatises of its time.

It included a study of astronomical observations and a compendium of hydrography to design navigational maps.

Zenón de Somodevilla y Bengoechea (1702-1781), marqués de la Ensenada (XVIII century) by Italian anonymousOriginal Source: Museo Naval Madrid.

Changes in the 18th Century

The arrival of the Bourbons in Spain saw these Enlightenment ideas used to advance scientific knowledge.

The "Reales Academias" (Royal Academies) were created and various institutions were founded. Secretary of State José Patiño; Zenón de Somodevilla, Marquis of Ensenada; and Antonio Valdés, Captain General of the Spanish Royal Navy, promoted a whole program of studies to improve how navigation was taught.

This led to the creation of the Academy of Midshipmen in 1717, the Naval College of Surgery in 1748, the Astronomical Observatory in 1758, and the School of Marine Engineers in 1772.

Circular surgical saw (XVIII century) by AnonymousOriginal Source: Museo Naval Madrid.

The Cádiz Royal College of Surgeons of the Navy, originally founded as the Juan Lacomba College of Practitioners, was the first institution in Europe to grant the title of "Medical Surgeon," uniting two disciplines that had remained separate until then.

This helped to improve the quality of Spanish medicine and surgery during the 18th century.

In this image, we can see one of the instruments used in surgery: the hacksaw.

Tourniquet (XVIII century) by AnonymousOriginal Source: Museo Naval Madrid.

Tourniquets were used to control bleeding caused by amputations, wounds, and other limb operations.

Surgery Drill Bit (XVIII century) by AnonymousOriginal Source: Museo Naval Madrid.

Trepanning instruments, such as the one in this image, allowed an entry hole to be made in the cranial cavity.

Their use in surgery was quite dangerous, so it was restricted to particular conditions.

Octant (1734) by Spencer, Browning & RustOriginal Source: Museo Naval Madrid.

The Royal Observatory of the Spanish Navy, founded by Jorge Juan in 1749, had an extraordinary library, a leading team of scientists, and cutting-edge instruments that were vital for navigation, such as octants and chronometers.

Octants, like the one in the picture, are observation instruments that allow ships to determine their latitude.

Their invention was a significant development, because it eliminated the problem of having to focus on the horizon with one eye and a star with the other.

Antonio de Ulloa y de la Torre-Guiral (1716-1795) (XIX century) by José Roldán y MartínezOriginal Source: Museo Naval Madrid.

Royal Company of Midshipmen

In 1717 the decision was made to create an academy to train midshipmen.

A curriculum was designed that brought together the theoretical training of the French model with practical instruction similar to that in England and Holland, where training was based on experience acquired on board.

Luis Dormay (?-1737), first captain of the Royal Company of Guardiamarinas (XVIII century) by AnonymousOriginal Source: Museo Naval, Madrid

The 2-year study program consisted of 2 semesters of theoretical training in geometry, trigonometry, cosmography, naval construction, ship maneuvering, and other scientific subjects, as well as additional classes such as music, fencing, dancing, and languages.

This image is a portrait of Luis Dormay, the first captain of the Company of Midshipmen.

Retrato de Frey Antonio Valdés y Fernández Bazán (1744-1816) (1828) by Rafael Tejeo (attributed)Original Source: Museo Naval Madrid.

Once this academic stage had been successfully completed, students practiced steering and hydrography.

The aim was to introduce all the international scientific advances to Spain.

In 1793 Antonio Valdés and Fernández Bazán, whose portrait appears in this picture, published the Naval Ordinances, which were fundamental to the navy's organization and incorporated these developments.

Vicente Tofiño de San Miguel (1732-1795) (1853) by AnonymousOriginal Source: Museo Naval Madrid.

In 1768 Vicente Tofiño was appointed director of the Royal Company and the Royal Astronomical Observatory.

He designed a study program called "Advanced Studies for the Academy of Midshipmen," which allowed outstanding students to study more abstract mathematical sciences.

Compendium of the Elemental Geometry and Rectilinear Trigonometry... (1771) by Vicente Tofiño de San MiguelOriginal Source: Museo Naval, Madrid. Biblioteca

Until the Royal Company was founded, mathematics and geometry were only studied in certain institutions due to a lack of teachers and resources.

This changed with the training of midshipmen, in which it was given great importance.

This shift can be seen in Vicente Tofiño's work "Compendium of Geometry," which compiles knowledge of the characteristics of lines, surface areas, and solid borders.

Compendio de navegacion (...) (1757) by Jorge JuanOriginal Source: Museo Naval Madrid. Biblioteca

The Midshipmen's Contribution

The Company of Midshipmen produced not only some of the leading scientific works of the time, but also some members of the scientific expeditions that Spain participated in during the 18th century, including Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa.

Juan also wrote one of the reference works for the training of midshipmen: the "Compendium of Navigation."

Trigonometry applied to navigation... (1718) by Pedro Manuel CedilloOriginal Source: Museo Naval, Madrid. Biblioteca

One of the country's biggest scientific libraries was assembled at the Academy.

The production of manuals written by the teachers, the use of 16th- and 17th-century works by Spanish authors, and the acquisition of specialist foreign works were all encouraged.

One example of this is the work by Pedro Manuel Cedillo, which deals with the foundations of trigonometry and the use of plane triangles for navigation.

Gnomonics treatise... (1715) by Tomás Vicente ToscaOriginal Source: Museo Naval, Madrid. Biblioteca

Another is the work of Vicente Tosca, which deals with various subjects such as arithmetic, geometry, optics, and astronomy, among other things.

The latter includes gnomonics (the art of measuring time with sundials), the organization of time, and astrology.

Mathematic compendium... (1727) by Tomás Vicente ToscaOriginal Source: Museo Naval, Madrid. Biblioteca

Vicente Tosca's work follows the model of the encyclopedic volumes published in Europe in the 17th century.

The author brings together information from various Spanish writers such as Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz and Vicente Mut Armengol, and international writers such as Frenchman Claude Dechales, in the form of a compendium, as reflected in the title.

This is the third volume, which covers trigonometry, conic sections, and machinery.

It is remarkable for its geometrical study of conic sections—already included in Dechales' work—as it was the first work in Spanish to deal with the topic.

Portrait of Jorge Juan de Santacilia (1713–73), Squadron Leader of the Spanish Royal Navy (1828) by UnknownOriginal Source: Museo Naval de Madrid

The Geodesic Mission

Two of the most significant Spanish voyagers and scientists, Antonio de Ulloa and Jorge Juan, came out of the Academy of Midshipmen.

Both took part, under the direction of the Spanish monarch Philip V, in what was to be called the French Geodesic Mission.

The expedition aimed to measure the degree of longitude at the equator in order to verify the shape of the Earth.

Observaciones astronomicas y phisicas (...) (1748) by Jorge Juan y Antonio de UlloaOriginal Source: Museo Naval, Madrid. Biblioteca

During the 18th century there were a great number of disagreements over the Earth's shape.

The mission proved that Newton's theory that the Earth was flattened at its poles was correct. It also established the true length of the meter on which the decimal metric system is based.

This work was written in the form of a compilation of the experiences and knowledge acquired by its authors, Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa, after they took part in the famous mission.

Felipe Bauzá's drawing instruments (XVIII century) by Baradelle L’ainéOriginal Source: Museo Naval Madrid.

The Malaspina Expedition

As well as those that participated in the Geodesic Mission, the Company of Midshipmen produced other explorers.

These included Felipe Bauzá y Cañas, a Spanish voyager and cartographer who participated in the Malaspina Expedition, also described as a "Scientific and Political Voyage Around the World."

It traveled along all the coasts of the Americas, the Philippines, New Zealand, and Australia. It led to improved knowledge in the fields of natural history, cartography, ethnography, astronomy, and medicine.

José de Córdova y Rojas (1774-1810) in his Guardiamarina uniform (XVIII century) by AnonymousOriginal Source: Museo Naval, Madrid

Ultimately, the Company of Midshipmen ensured that navigation was recognized as a science by combining its teaching with astronomical studies or differential and integral calculus.

Its efforts to introduce scientific works, use modern calculus and navigation instruments, and support developments in medicine and astronomical observation made it one of the biggest benchmarks in the development of science in Spain.

Credits: Story

Museo Naval de Madrid (Naval Museum of Madrid)

Vilma Oil
Fundación Museo Naval (Naval Museum Foundation)

Curated By
José Manuel Sevilla López, Carmen López Calderón, Santiago Raffaelli

Online Adaptation
Naval Museum's Communications Department
Xián Rodríguez, Alicia Suárez

Based on the "Midshipmen 1717–2017: 300 years of the Royal Company at the Naval School" exhibition held at the Naval Museum in Madrid.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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