The first ever printing house dedicated to the printing and publishing of scientific books was established in Nürnberg in 1471 by the astronomer, astrologer and mathematician Johannes Müller, better known as Regiomontanus who was born in Königsberg in Lower Franconia on June 6th 1436. In what follows I want to say something about Regiomontanus’ motivation and intentions in setting up his printing house.
If you read my recent post on Peuerbach you will know that Regiomontanus entered the University of Vienna in 1450 where he first studied under and later worked together with Peuerbach. In 1461 Regiomontanus left Vienna with his new patron the papal legate Cardinal Bessarion to travel to Italy where he would spend the next four years of his life. During his time as a member of Bessarion’s familia (household) Regiomontanus travelled throughout Northern Italy where his main function was to search out and copy mathematical and astronomical (which includes astrological) manuscripts for his employer’s private library. Bessarion is reputed to have possessed the largest private library in Europe, which when he donated it to the city of Venice in 1468 consisted of over one thousand volumes that constituted the ground stock of the legendary Biblioteca Marciana. Regiomontanus not only copied the manuscripts that he hunted down for his patron but also made copies for himself.
From 1465 onwards we loose track of Regiomontanus completely until he turns up at the court of János Vitéz Archbishop of Esztergom (German, Gran) in Hungary. Like Bessarion Vitéz, an old friend of Peuerbach, was a humanist scholar and bibliophile who employed Regiomontanus as astrologer and librarian. From here Regiomontanus moved to the court of the Hungarian King Martthias Corvinus, in Budapest, like his previous patrons another humanist scholar and bibliophile who also employed the Franconian mathematician as his personal mathematical book expert. Regiomontanus supplied both of his Hungarian patrons with copies of the manuscripts from his Italian collections making copies for himself of other manuscripts from their extensive libraries.
In 1471 Regiomontanus became involved in a dispute at Corvinus’ court as to why astrological predictions are so inaccurate. Regiomontanus said that the problem was that astrological predictions were dependent on astronomical observations and calculations and that these were not accurate enough. If astronomy could be reformed and if astronomy as a science were accurate then the astrological predictions based on the astronomical observations would then also be accurate. He then set himself the task of reforming astronomy. First he obtained Corvinus’ permission and blessing for his enterprise obtaining from his patron a very generous pension to finance his undertaking. Then he moved from Budapest to Nürnberg, which he argued was the best place to carry out his intentions. Firstly Nürnberg manufactured the best astronomical instruments and secondly Nürnberg, placed as it was at the centre of Europe, offered the best possibilities for communication with other astronomers overall in Europe as Regiomontanus was aware that he could not reform the whole of astronomy alone but only in cooperation with others.
Regiomontanus planed a two pronged attacked to realise his aim of reforming astronomy. On the one side he intended making a long-term programme of astronomical observations to replace the inaccurate and corrupt observations that Renaissance Europe had inherited from antiquity. His second prong was his printing house. Regiomontanus was aware that the astronomical texts that had come down to him from antiquity and from the Islamic Golden Age were full of mistakes and errors produced by multiply translations and the numerous copies that each manuscript had gone through. His intention was to produce reliable, corrected, printed editions of the most important astronomical and mathematical texts by a critical philological editing process. From all the texts he wished to publish he had not one but multiple manuscript copies from differing sources and he hoped by careful comparison and analysis he would be able to reconstruct the original texts free of errors.
The first book he published however was a modern one, namely Peuerbach’s cosmology lectures from his time at the university in Vienna. The second production of his press was however somewhat unusual as it was not a book but a publisher’s catalogue listing not the books that he had already published but those that he intended to publish. The list consisted of all the major standard mathematical and astronomical works from Ptolemaeus, Euclid etc as well as a substantial list of his own works. In the end he only succeeded in publishing a total of nine items before his own early death, probably from fever whilst visiting Rome in 1476 to advise the Pope on calendar reform. His most important publication was his ephemerides, i.e. tables from which it is possible to calculate the daily positions of the planets, an indispensable aid for cartographers, navigators and astrologers. Manuscript ephemerides were quite common in the Middle Ages but Regiomontanus produced the first printed ones and they were distinguished by their extensiveness and their accuracy. His ephemerides were very popular and were used by the Spanish and Portuguese explorers who opened up the world at the end of the 15th century. Famously, Columbus used Regiomontanus’ ephemerides to awe the natives in the Americas by predicting a solar eclipse.
Regiomontanus was not able, because of his early death, to fulfil his ambitious publishing programme but he still earned himself a place in the history of the book by establishing the world’s first ever scientific press even if it was only short lived.