Hackers of the Renaissance? I don’t really think so.

Yesterday on Twitter Laura Snyder (@LauraJSnyder) drew my attention to a blog post by Pablo Garcia (@prgarc) with the intriguing title Hackers of the Renaissance. I read the article and tweeted the fact that the post contains serious historical accuracies inaccuracies. I would have left it at that however Pablo Garcia tweeted back, “I’m all ears…” and so I feel obliged to make my criticism of his post into a post of my own.

Garcia introduces his historical examples thus:

We need to reinvent our cultural imagination of the hacker. Being a student of history, I propose we start looking further into the annals of the past, all the way back to the Renaissance, to find our hacker forebears. Four centuries ago, information was as tightly guarded by intellectuals and their wealthy patrons as it is today. But a few episodes around 1600 confirm that the Hacker Ethic and its attendant emphasis on open-source information and a “hands-on imperative” was around long before computers hit the scene. First, there was Galileo.

I find it quite amusing that a man who fought tooth and nail to defend his priority to his discoveries even going as far as to claim things that weren’t his and accusing their true discoverers of plagiarism should be presented as a defender of open source information but let us look at Garcia’s example.

OK, so Galileo didn’t invent the telescope. That honor goes to Dutch spectacle maker Hans Lippershey. In 1608, Lippershey applied for a patent for a device “for seeing things far away as if they were nearby.” Although denied based on other concurrent patent claims, the application was notable enough to warrant brief mention in a diplomatic publication announcing new relations between The Netherlands and the Kingdom of Siam. Inspired, scientists tested their own telescope inventions based solely on the description of a “Dutch Perspective Glass.”

 In 1610, Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), describing his telescope and observations of the Moon. Simultaneously, other continental astronomers hurried to make telescopes and point them at the heavens. If Lippershey’s patent had been granted, or if the Dutch had decided to omit this tiny announcement of the application, the history of science might have been different. Perhaps Galileo would have been a minor figure in science; another heretic with crazy ideas. Or the Dutch might have had a head-start on astronomy, physics, and warfare. The public disclosure of the telescope, however vague, literally moved the Earth, yielding proof of the heliocentric model of the heavens.

Let us examine the historical errors in this brief description:

Although denied based on other concurrent patent claims, the application was notable enough to warrant brief mention in a diplomatic publication announcing new relations between The Netherlands and the Kingdom of Siam.

The publication in question was not a diplomatic publication. Lippershey demonstrated his new invention, the telescope, to Maurice of Nassau the Stadtholder of Holland and Zeeland in Den Haag during the peace negotiations between Spain and The United Provinces at which the Ambassador of the King of Siam was present. This demonstration was actually witnessed by a very large number of people. The document in which this demonstration is mentioned is a French newsletter, a forerunner of the modern newspaper, retailing the entire visit of the Ambassador to Den Haag. So the mention is not a tiny Dutch one but a widespread public announcement.

Now we turn to Lippershey’s patent, which was denied with the justification that one couldn’t patent an instrument that was freely available on every street corner. If the States-General had granted him a patent this would only have had validity within the United Provinces (only a part of the modern Netherlands). Outside of the United Provinces anybody who wished could have built their own telescopes with no fear of repression and with Maurice sending telescopes all over Europe as gifts to the heads of states, inventors would have had no problem discovering the secret of this instrument. It is a know fact that the astronomers of the Jesuit Collegio Romano in Rome, who made astronomical discoveries parallel to Galileo and also confirmed Galileo’s discoveries, had their knowledge of the telescope from the one sent by Maurice to the Pope.

It should also be pointed out that Simon Marius obtained his knowledge of the telescope from his friend and patron Johann Philipp Fuchs von Bimbach who was offered a telescope to purchase at the autumn Frankfurt Fair in 1608 two weeks before Lippershey applied for his patent. It would have been very difficult indeed to keep the knowledge of this new invention secret.

This paragraph also implies that Galileo’s fame as a scientist is based on his telescopic discoveries, which did not yield any proof of the heliocentric model of the heavens, whereas as I have pointed out on a number of occasions Galileo’s greatest contribution was his Discorsi on two new sciences, the research for which he had actually conducted long before the telescope was invented.

Our intrepid champion of the hacker now turns his attention to Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler and the Rudolphine Tables.

In the mid 1500s, stellar and planetary data were woefully inaccurate. When Tycho Brahe undertook a serious, from-scratch measurement of the nighttime sky, he was the first to do so in almost 300 years. So it was understandable he was incredibly protective of his data. However, Brahe entrusted his student, Johannes Kepler, with the completion of new star charts for publication–and twenty-six years after Brahe’s death, Kepler published them, calling them the Rudolphine Tables. Instead of a sequence of dates with corresponding planetary positions, Kepler’s tables performed more like a computer. Using the provided formulas and instructive examples, users could calculate future planetary positions.

Actually Tycho’s survey of the heavens was the first one (ignoring for the moment Wilhelm IV of Kassel who was a few years ahead of him) since the ancient Greeks. Kepler, who was not Tycho’s student but his colleague, did not publish Tycho’s star charts but calculated and published the planetary tables based on Tycho’s observations, a completely different thing.

These tables are an open source tool, perhaps the very first. The data–and formulas required to convert it into astronomical information—empowered scientists to pursue their own research and observations. Pierre Gassendi used the tables to predict a transit of Mars in 1631, and in 1639, Jeremiah Horrox predicted a transit of Venus. Kepler’s data was for the benefit of science, not personal profit.

All planetary tables dating back to those of Ptolemaeus in the second century CE include their means of calculation because that’s the way they work. Planetary tables list planetary positions at regular intervals leaving the user to interpolate the actual position for the date required. Other from the incredible level of accuracy there is nothing special or unique about the Rudolphine Tables.  Planetary tables are open source by definition.

We now turn our attention to linear perspective and anamorphosis.

You’ve probably seen those street-art illusions where a sidewalk chalk drawing looks three-dimensional when viewed from a specific angle. The technique is called anamorphosis, and it dates back to the Renaissance. Hans Holbein famously used the effect in his painting, The Ambassadors (1533), where the enigmatic blob in the foreground is revealed as a skull only to viewers standing in the correct position.

The illusion was used to amaze, but it was also a useful technique for concealing sensitive material. For over 150 years, anamorphosis was used as a secret code to protect dissenting political messages, unpopular religious ideas, and even taboo sexual imagery. Until Jean François Niceron gave it all away.

A talented mathematician and artist, Niceron revealed for the first time the geometry behind the illusion. Already renowned for his illusions of sacred figures in churches, Niceron published La Perspective Curieuse (The Curious Perspective) in 1638. On top of explaining the technique, Niceron actually illustrated himself in the act of making his most famous illusions. He was a magician who revealed his own tricks–so that we could all do magic.

Now it is true that Niceron was the first to publish a book devoted to the construction of anomorphosis pictures but he wasn’t actually revealing any secrets. Any competent draughtsman with a working knowledge of the mathematical rules of linear perspective and a certain amount of ingenuity can create an anamorphosis picture. Those rules were first published by Alberti in his Della Pittura (On Painting) in 1435 and there were scores of publications elaborating on and extending those rules over the two hundred years before Niceron published his book. No great revelations here.

Our last example involves Mercator his projection and Edward Wright a topic on which I have already posted in the past.

Ever wonder why the Mercator World Map hangs in every classroom despite its egregious distortions of scale? Well, its significance isn’t about land area. It’s about navigation. The cylindrical projection method that Gerardus Mercator introduced in 1569 flattened the earth into parallel meridians, giving sailors regular and measurable reference markers for straight-line routes across the oceans. The map saved lives. Not surprisingly, its importance—and monetary value—motivated Mercator to keep his projection formula secret.

 Until Edward Wright hacked it. And improved it. And, like a true hacker, published the formula. His 1599 publication of Certaine Errors in Navigation broke Mercator’s cartographic monopoly.

Traveling to the Azores in 1589 under orders from Elizabeth I, Wright broke Mercator’s code with practical, hands-on experience at sea. Combined with his mathematical training, he produced tables with data and instructions for constructing a more accurate cylindrical projection. More than a new, more accurate map, Certaine Errors in Navigation was—like Kepler’s Rudolphine Tables—a computer for producing your own map. Wright’s hack gifted sailors with abilities beyond sea-borne experience. Instead of Mercator’s consumers, they were now self-sufficient cartographers at sea.

Wright understood the Hacker Ethic’s hands-on imperative, to the benefit of all who used his tools. He reminisces in the preface to Certaine Errors that through the expedition he “was first moved… to divert my mathematical studies from theoretical speculation in the Universitie [sic], to the practical demonstration of the use of navigation.” To wit, Wright went from thinker to hacker.

 Edward Wright reverse engineered, improved, and shared a secret code. You may not have heard of him before, but he is one of history’s great hackers; a perfect embodiment of the Hacker Ethic.

Garcia’s telling of the story is all well and good but it starts with a false premise. Mercator did indeed publish his original chart with his projection in 1569 without the necessary explanation of how to mathematically construct such a chart but he never tried to exploit this knowledge. It is one of the strange facts of the history of cartography that once having made this major breakthrough Mercator basically ignored it. For reasons that remain a total mystery he completely ignored what is now considered to be his greatest innovation. Mercator was a highly successful commercial cartographer but he does not appear to have kept his projection secret to exploit it, as he didn’t do so.

The accusation aimed here at Mercator by Garcia could possibly be aimed at Thomas Harriot and John Dee both of whom discovered the mathematics of the Mercator projection before Wright but neither of whom published it.


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Filed under Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

6 responses to “Hackers of the Renaissance? I don’t really think so.

  1. laura

    Also, wasn’t it Longomontanus and not Kepler who first published tables based on the Tychonic data?

    • Longomontanus did indeed publish Tycho’s star catalogue but Kepler published the planetary tables.

      • laura

        I thought the Astronomia Danica (1622) contained tables based on Longomontanus’ own semi-Tychonic model and based on the Tychnonic data. Is that not correct?

      • I must admit that I know very little about Longomontanus’ activities after Tycho’s death and the Astronomia Danica but it would appear that you are right. Another piece of knowledge I need to acquire. Thank you for the information.

      • laura

        As I understand it, Longomontanus’ tables were hotly anticipated in Europe but were a big disappointment, since they were even more inaccurate than the Prutenic tables. They quickly got supplanted by Kepler’s and van Landsbergen’s tables. Horrocks shits on them in Venus in Sole Visa.

        But I’m not really sure. I find it kind of frustrating how vague the history is on who had access/control over the Tychonic data and when.

  2. There is a lot to think about when trying to understand Renaissance positions of knowledge and ownership. I recommend two books on a related theme that offer a more nuanced understanding of the “Hackers in the Renaissance” concept as a good place to start. “The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art”, Joseph Leo Koerner and “Piracy” by Adrian Johns.

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