Thomas Tuttell's Clever Trade Catalogue: Playing Cards by the Instrument Maker to the King

This set of 52 engraved playing cards is the work of Thomas Tuttell (ca. 1674-1702), a British mathematical instrument maker who was appointed Instrument Maker to the King in 1700. The set was probably issued by Tuttell as a trade catalogue, a clever and entertaining way of broadcasting the high quality of his workmanship and the breadth of his scientific knowledge. Each card in the deck depicts a tradesman at work (millwright, bricklayer, "carpentor," architect, miner, etc.) or a particular instrument or tool, such as the "tryangular quadrant," charts, scales, and the "cross-staffe." Each card bears an appropriate description, as this for "the Compass": "This rarity is Said to be handed to ye World 400 Years agoe to the mighty improvem[en]t of trade & Navigation, also Surveying, Minening Dyaling &a." Tuttell published The Description and Uses of a New Contriv'd Eliptical Double Dial in 1698, and two years later he was appointed "mathematical instrument maker to the King's Most Excellent Majesty." He was drowned on January 22, 1702, while surveying the River Thames.

These "mechanical" playing cards, as well as a companion set using engineering drawings and geometric figures to represent the suits, are part of the collection of works dealing with engineering assembled by William Barclay Parsons and donated upon his death to The New York Public Library. Parsons (1859-1932) served as the chief engineer in the design of the New York City subway system and his interest in the history of engineering is reflected in his seminal work, Engineers and Engineering in the Renaissance, which was published posthumously in 1939. The Parsons Collection includes published works dating from the 15th century to the early 20th century as well as manuscript material. The focus of the collection is on engineering with an emphasis on civil and transportation engineering. In addition to his celebrated work as an engineer, Parsons served on the Board of The New York Public Library from 1911 until his death in 1932 and as Chairman of the Trustees of Columbia University during the same period. The company founded by Parsons is known today as Parsons Brinckerhoff.


Set of 52 engraved "mechanical" playing cards. [London: Thomas Tuttell, 1701].
The New York Public Library, Science, Industry and Business Library, William Barclay Parsons Collection.


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