Wilkins took a secondary role in the greater achievements of others both as an inspirer (his suggestions led to pioneering research on skin grafting and blood transfusion) and a publicizer. He was perhaps the first popular science writer. Exasperated by dense, overly- theoretical presentation styles, he made the promotion of plain language a lifelong cause.
He wrote one book to explain Copernican astronomy to a general audience and another to explain mechanical geometry to people who might want to benefit from its practical applications. All applications of scientific theory were interesting to him; many of his own experiments veered toward the domestic (more efficient methods of embroidery, quicker ways to roast meat.) He took great joy from science, and he knew how to make it accessible. Boyle may have been the true innovator when it came to the principles of air pressure, but it was Wilkins who thought to demonstrate the power of those principles in an experiment where by blowing into a series of connected pipes he levitated “a fat boy of sixteen or seventeen years” a clear two inches off the ground. The Society members were so entertained by his presentation they agreed it should be performed for the King’s proposed visit.
Wilkins didn’t actively court fame for its own sake, but as generous and diplomatic as he was (one colleague said that he never met anyone else that “knew how to manage the freedom of speech so inoffensively”) he could not have been completely unconcerned with his own place in posterity. He did have one project that was exciting, important, and unquestionably his. It was a man-made language free from the ambiguity and imprecision that afflicted natural languages. It would directly represent concepts; it would reveal the truth.
Others had talked about creating such a language, or made preliminary attempts at it. Wilkins had collaborated with some of them and, in characteristic fashion, encouraged their efforts. But no one had put in the work he had. No one but Wilkins had been brave or industrious enough to take on the massive task that the creation of such a language required - a complete and ordered cataloguing of all concepts, of everything in the universe. And now the pages on which he had set down the universe were gone, along with his shot at immortal fame.