Category Archives: Early Scientific Publishing

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Today I have been mildly irritated by numerous tweets announcing the 5th July 1687, as the day on which Isaac Newton’s Principia was published, why? Partially because the claim is not strictly true and partially because it evokes a false set of images generated by the expression, published on, in the current age.

In the last couple of decades we have become used to images of hoards of teens dressed in fantasy costumes as witches queuing up in front of large bookstores before midnight to participate in the launch of the latest volume of a series of children’s books on a juvenile wizard and his adventures. These dates were the days on which the respective volumes were published and although the works of other authors do not enjoy quite the same level of turbulence, they do also have an official publication date, usually celebrated in some suitable way by author and publisher. Historically this has not always been the case.

In earlier times books, particularly ones of a scientific nature, tended to dribble out into public awareness over a vague period of time rather than to be published on a specific date. There were no organised launches, no publisher’s parties populated by the glitterati of the age and no official publication date. Such books were indeed published in the sense of being made available to the reading public but the process was much more of a slapdash affair than that which the term evokes today.

One reason for this drawn out process of release was the fact that in the early centuries of the printed book they were often not bound for sale by the publisher. Expensive works of science were sold as an unbound pile of printed sheets, allowing the purchaser to have his copy bound to match the other volumes in his library. This meant that there were not palettes of finished bound copies that could be shipped off to the booksellers. Rather a potential purchaser would order the book and its bindings and wait for it to be finished for delivery.

Naturally historians of science love to be able to nail the appearance of some game changing historical masterpiece to a specific date, however this is not always possible. In the case of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, for example, we are fairly certain of the month in 1543 that Petreius started shipping finished copies of the work but there is no specific date of publication. With other equally famous works, such as Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, the historian uses the date of signing of the dedication as a substitute date of publication.

So what is with Newton’s Principia does it have an official date of publication and if not why are so many people announcing today to be the anniversary of its publication. Principia was originally printed written in manuscript in three separate volumes and Edmond Halley, who acted both as editor and publisher, had to struggle with the cantankerous author to get those volumes out of his rooms in Cambridge and into the printing shop. In fact due to the interference of Robert Hooke, demanding credit for the discovery of the law of gravity, Newton contemplated not delivering the third volume at all. Due to Halley’s skilful diplomacy this crisis was mastered and the final volume was delivered up by the author and put into print. July 5th 1687 is not the date of publication as it is understood today, but the date of a letter that Halley sent to Newton announcing that the task of putting his immortal masterpiece onto the printed page had finally been completed and that he was sending him twenty copies for his own disposition. I reproduce the text of Halley’s letter below.


Honoured Sr

I have at length brought you Book to an end, and hope it will please you. the last errata came just in time to be inserted. I will present from you the books you desire to the R. Society, Mr Boyle, Mr Pagit, Mr Flamsteed and if there be any elce in town that you design to gratifie that way; and I have sent you to bestow on your friends in the University 20 Copies, which I entreat you to accept.[1]



[1] Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge etc., 1980, p. 468.


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of Physics, Myths of Science, Newton

Did Edmond tells Robert to, “sling his hooke!”?

The circumstances surrounding the genesis and publication of Newton’s magnum opus, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, and the priority dispute concerning the origins of the concept of universal gravity are amongst the best documented in the history of science. Two of the main protagonists wrote down their version of the story in a series of letters that they exchanged, as the whole nasty affair was taking place. Their explanations are of necessity biased and unfortunately we don’t have equivalent written evidence from the third protagonist Robert Hooke, although we do have the earlier exchange of letters between Hooke and Newton that led Hooke to making his claims to being the author of the idea. All of this is documented, analysed and discussed in detail by Richard S. Westfall in his authoritative biography of Newton, Never at Rest. Lisa Jardine sketches the whole sorry episode in the introduction to her Hooke biography The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London. Beyond this there is a whole raft full of academic papers and monographs on Hooke, Newton, Halley, Principia and the Royal Society that discus the whole or various aspects of the story. Any first year history of science student should be able to write an accurate and informed essay or term paper on this important moment in the history of seventeenth-century scientific publishing. In fact it would make a very useful exercise for such students. The scriptwriters of Cosmos would however get a fat F for their efforts to present the story. Maybe they should have turned to one of those first year students for help?

Thanks to the services of a beautiful fairy princess I was finally able to watch the third episode of the much hyped American television series Cosmos and, as predicted by numerous commentators on Twitter, I was more than underwhelmed by the animation telling the story of the publication of Principia Mathematica and its significance in the history of science.

Our tale starts with an introductions to the hero of the day, Edmond Halley, an interesting choice of which I actually approve but the first error come up with the tale of the young Halley’s journey to St Helena to map the southern skies. We get told that this is the first such map. This is simply not true Dutch seamen had already started mapping the southern hemisphere at the end of the sixteenth-century. Halley’s government sponsored voyage was the English attempt to catch up. Having established Halley as a scientific hero we get presented with Robert Hooke who is to play the villain of the piece.

At the beginning we get a very positive portrait of Hooke outlining the very wide range of his scientific activities. Unfortunately this presentation is spoilt by a series of bad history of science blunders. Introducing Hooke’s microscopic investigations we get told that Hooke invented the compound microscope. Given that compound microscopes were in use twenty years before Hooke was born, I hardly think so. We then get told that Hooke improved the telescope. Whilst it is true that Hooke proposed several schemes to improve the telescope, some of them positively Heath-Robinson, none of them really proved practical and there are no real improvements to the telescope that can be laid at Hooke’s door. Next up we are informed that Hooke perfected the air pump. Hooke did indeed construct the air pump that he and Robert Boyle used for their experiments, their model was in fact ‘perfected’, although improved would be a better term as it was anything but perfect, by Denis Papin.

Moving on, we are introduced to the London coffee houses, without doubt centres of scientific communication in the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-centuries. However Tyson claims them to be laboratories of democracy. Sorry but all I can say to this piece of hogwash is bullshit. We come to the coffee house because of a legendary conversation between Halley, Hooke and Christopher Wren that took place in one of them in January 1684, concerning the law of gravity. This conversation is indisputably a key moment in the history of science and that is the reason why it is featured in this episode of Cosmos. Given this one would expect that the scriptwriters would get the story right, however ones expectations would be dashed. According to Cosmos the three speculated as to whether there was a mathematical law governing celestial motion and then Newton, to whom I will come in a minute, produced the inverse squared law of gravity like a conjuror pulling his rabbit out of his hat. In fact all three participants were aware of speculations concerning an inverse squared law of gravity and Hooke claimed that he could deduce the motions of the heavens from it. Wren doubted this claim and offered a prize for the first to do so. Hooke persisted that he already had the solution but would first reveal it when the others had admitted defeat.

Cosmos has Halley, unable to solve the problem rushing off the Cambridge to ask Newton if he could solve it. In fact Halley being in Cambridge in August of the same year met Newton and in the course of their conversation asked Newton, “what he thought the Curve would be that would be described by the Planets supposing the force of attraction towards the Sun to be reciprocal to the square of their distance from it, Sr Isaac replied immediately that it would be an Ellipsis…”[1] The description of Newton given by Cosmos introducing this fateful meeting also owes more to fantasy than reality. We get told that Newton went to pieces over his dispute with Hooke concerning his theory of light, that he had become a recluse and that he was in hiding in Cambridge. Although Newton declined to have anything more to do with the Royal Society following the numerous disputes, not just with Hooke, following the publication of his theory of light in 1672 he certainly did not go to pieces, giving as good as he got and he was not hiding in Cambridge but working there as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Also far from being a recluse he was corresponding with a wide range of other scholars, including Hooke with whom he had sealed an uneasy truce. Blatant misrepresentations might be all right in a historical novel but not in a supposedly serious television documentary claiming to present history of science.

We now move on to the writings that Newton’s meeting with Halley provoked. First we get shown Du motu corporum in gyrum (On the Motion of Bodies in Orbit) a nine page pamphlet demonstrating the truth of Newton’s statement and quite a lot more, although Tyson doesn’t think it necessary to give us either the title or a description of the contents calling it instead, “the opening pages of modern science”, a truly crap statement. If De motu represents the opening pages of modern science what was all the stuff that Kepler, Stevin, Galileo, Pascal, Descartes, Mersenne, Huygens et al. did? Most of it before Newton was even born! There is worse to come.  In the Cosmos version of the story Halley now urges Newton to turn De motu into a book, in reality Halley wanted to enter De motu officially in the Royal Society’s register “to secure his [Newton’s] invention to himself” and it was Newton who insisted on rewriting it. It was this rewritten version that became Principia Mathematica. When almost complete the council of the Royal Society agreed that it should be published by the Society. At this point the proverbial shit hit the fan. As related in Cosmos, Hooke raised a claim to the theory of gravity and demanded that Newton give him credit for it in his book. Newton’s prickly response was to threaten to withhold volume three of the Principia, which is actually the part in which he applies his theories of motion and the law of gravity to the celestial motions i.e. the heart of the whole thing. Tyson now said, “The scientific revolution hung in the balance”! I said worse was to come.

According to convention wisdom the scientific revolution began in 1543 with the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus. I’m a gradualist who doesn’t accept the term scientific revolution and for me the evolution of modern science begins around fourteen hundred although it builds on earlier medieval science. For most historians Newton’s Principia is the culmination not the beginning of the scientific revolution. It was even fashionable for a time to play down Newton’s achievement claiming that he only synthesised the result won by his predecessors. However it is now acknowledged that that synthesis was pretty awesome. However let us play a little bit of what if. If Newton had only published the first two volumes of Principia I doubt that it would have been very long before somebody applied the abstract results derived in volume one to the solar system and completed what Newton had begun. Put another way nothing hung in the balance.

In fact Halley was able to mollify Newton and the letters that the two of them exchanged at this time are the main historical source for the whole story. Cosmos paints Hooke as an unmitigated villain at this point in the story, which is again a distortion of the true facts. Hooke had indeed suggested, in print, a universal theory of gravity based on the inverse squared law and the letters he exchanged with Newton, during the uneasy truce mention above, had played a significant role in pushing Newton towards his own theories of motion and gravity. Hooke’s claim was not totally unfounded. It is true, however, that his claim was exaggerated because he did not possess the mathematical skills to turn those hypotheses into the formal mathematical structure that is the glory that is Newton’s Principia. There was blame on both sides and not just on Hooke’s. Cosmos now introduces a strange scene in which Wren and Halley meet up with Hooke and confront him on the gravity priority issues, Halley even telling Hooke to “put up or shut up”! Numerous people on Twitter commented on this sound bite, most of them betting that Halley never said it. Not only did Halley never say it, the whole scene is a product of the scriptwriter’s fantasy; in reality it never took place. Remember this is supposed to be history of science and not historical fiction.

With then get treated to the infamous History of Fish episode. In 1685 the Society had published Francis Willughby’s De historia piscium, which had been finished and edited posthumously by John Ray. The book having many lavish illustrations was costly and sold badly putting a serious strain on the Society’s, in the seventeenth-century always dodgy, finances leaving no money to fulfil the commitment to publish Newton’s Principia. This is a well-known and oft repeated story and mostly told at the cost of Willughby and his book. Cosmos did not deviate from this unfortunate pattern telling the story in a heavy handed mocking style. For the record Willughby’s book is an important publication in the history of natural history and deserves better than the treatment it got here.

Before we leave Newton and his masterwork we get presented with yet another historical clangour of mindboggling dimensions. Tyson informs us in his authoritative manner that Principia also contains Newton’s invention of the calculus. Given the amount of printer’s ink that had been used up in the academic discussion as to why Newton wrote the Principia in Euclidian geometry and not calculus this is an unforgivable gaff. I repeat for those who have not been paying attention there is no calculus in Newton’s Principia.

We now leave Newton and turn our attention to his sidekick Edmond Halley. We get a brief presentation of some of the non-astronomical aspects of the good Edmond’s life, which also contain several minor historical errors that I can’t be bothered to deal with here, before turning to the central theme of the programme, comets. There is however one major astronomical subject that I cannot ignore, the Transit of Venus. It was not, as claimed, Halley who first proposed using the Transit of Venus to determine the astronomical unit, the distance of the sun from the earth, but James Gregory in his Optica Promota published in 1663. We then get presented with the rather strange spectacle of James Cook sailing off to Tahiti in 1769 to observe the Transit. This is strange not because it’s wrong, it isn’t, Cook did indeed observe the Transit on Tahiti in 1769 but because the programme created the impression that he was the first and only person to do so. In reality Cook’s expedition was only one of many international expeditions that took place in 1769 for this purpose also there had been almost as many expeditions that had set out for the same purpose in 1761. We do not owe our knowledge of the size of the astronomical unit to some sort of solo heroic efforts of Cook in 1769 as implied by Cosmos.

The opening section of the episode was actually very well scripted with a sympathetic and understanding explanation as to how humanity came to view comets as harbingers of doom. Unfortunately this good beginning was ruined by the claim that was repeated several times throughout the script that it was Newton and Halley who were the first to view comets as astronomical objects and thus free humanity from its superstitious fear. This is just plain wrong.

In the Early Modern Period Paolo dal Pozzo Toscannelli was the first to make astronomical observations, as opposed to superstitious wonderings, of two comets in 1433 and 1456. He did not publish those observations but he did befriend Georg Peuerbach on his study journey through Renaissance Italy. Peuerbach and his pupil Regiomontanus made similar observations in Vienna in the middle of the fifteenth-century and Regiomontanus wrote an important text on the mathematical problem of measuring the parallax of a moving comet, which wasn’t published in his own lifetime.

In the 1530s several European astronomers carried out astronomical observations of a series of spectacular comets. This period led to Johannes Schöner publishing Regiomontanus’ comet text. Peter Apian published a pamphlet on his observations describing, what is incorrectly known as Apian’s Law because it was already long known to the Chinese, that the comet’s tail always points away from the sun. This series of comets and the observations of them led to an intense scientific discussion amongst European astronomers as to the physical nature of comets and their position in the heavens, above or below the moon, sub- or supra-lunar? Fracastoro, Frisius, Cardano, Jean Pena and Copernicus took part in this discussion.

In 1577 astronomers throughout Europe again observed a spectacular comet to test the theories proposed by those who had taken part in the 1530s discussions. Famously Tycho Brahe and Michael Maestlin, amongst others, determined that this comet was definitely supra-lunar. In the same period Brahe and John Dee corresponded on the subject of Regiomontanus’ comet text, the determination of cometary parallax.

Cometary observation again hit a high point in astronomical circles in 1618. The comets of this year famously led to the dispute between Galileo and the Jesuit astronomer Orazio Grassi that culminated in Galileo’s Il Saggiatore, one of the most often quoted scientific publications of all times. They also saw the publication of a much more low-key text, Kepler’s book on comets published in 1619. Kepler summarised in his work all of the astronomical knowledge on comets that had been gained in the Early Modern Period, concluding himself that comets are supralunar and travel in straight lines. Ironical someone else had suggested that comets follow Keplerian elliptical orbits eight years earlier. Thomas Harriot and his pupil William Lower had observed the comet of 1607, Halley’s comet, and were amongst the first to read Kepler’s Astronomia nova when it appeared in 1609 and to become convinced Keplerians. In a letter to Harriot, Lower suggested that comets, like the planets, have elliptical orbits. Lower’s suggestion did not become generally known until the nineteenth century but it shows that the discussion on the flight path of comets was already in full swing at the beginning of the seventeenth-century.

With the comets of the 1660’s the debate on the nature of comets and their flight paths again broke out amongst the astronomers of Europe with Kepler’s comet book at the centre of the debate, so when Newton and Halley entered the fray in the 1680s they were not initiating anything, as claimed by Cosmos, but joining a discussion that had been going on for more than two hundred years. A final omission in the Cosmos account concerns another man with whom both Halley and Newton would become embroiled in bitter disputes, the Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed. The early 1680s saw a series of spectacular comets that Flamsteed observed from Greenwich and Halley from Paris.  Flamsteed concluded that two of these were in fact one and the same comet first observed on its way to the sun and then again on its way away from the sun having passed behind it. He reported this theory to Newton who at first rejected it but then on further consideration accepted and adopted it, making comets a central theme for his research for the Principia, utilising Halley as his assistant for this work. That comets follow flight paths described by the various conic sections depending on their velocities, some of them elliptical, under the influence of the law of gravity is a central element of volume three of Principia and not something first determined by Halley in his 1705 paper as claimed by Cosmos. Halley undertook his research into the historical records of comets to see if he could find a reoccurring comet to confirm the theory already presented in Principia, as everybody knows he was spectacularly successful.

Having completely messed up the history of astronomical cometary observation Cosmos closed by returning to the Newton Hooke dogfight. We get told Hooke died in 1703 as a result of his unhealthy habits of doctoring himself with all sorts of substances. Given that Hooke lived to the age of 67, not at all bad for the seventeenth-century I found this to be an unnecessary slander on the poor man. Tyson then went on to say that Newton replaced him as President of the Royal Society. Robert Hooke was an employee of the Royal Society and never its President. Newton in fact followed Lord Somers in this august position. Although hedged with maybes, we then got the old myth of Newton burning Hooke’s portrait dished up once again. On this hoary old myth I recommend this post by good friend Felicity Henderson (@felicityhen) on her Hooke’s London Blog (always well worth reading). Given the vast amount of real history of science that they could have brought I don’t understand why Cosmos insists on repeating myths that were discredited long ago.

The history of science presented in this episode of Cosmos was shoddy, sloppy, badly researched, factually inaccurate and generally of a disgustingly low level. On Twitter the history of science hashtag is #histsci, historian of biology Adam Shapiro (@TryingBiology) suggested that the hashtag for Cosmos history of science should be #HistSigh, I concur.


[1] Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, Cambridge Paperback Library, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 403. Quoting Abraham DeMoirve’ s account of the meeting as related to him by Newton.


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

It was 500 years ago today…

On 3 October 1513 Aton Koberger, “the greatest entrepreneur of the printed-book, trade in the fifteenth century”[1], met life’s final deadline. Born around 1440 into a family of bakers in Nürnberg almost nothing is known about Koberger’s youth or upbringing. Sources claim that he was a goldsmith before he became a printer but there is no real evidence to support this claim. He set up his printing office in Nürnberg in about 1470 and the first known products of his workshop date from 1472. Koberger was a conventional printer publisher printing books for the university market, for the law, theology and medicine faculties. What distinguishes Koberger from his contemporaries in the book trade was his business sense and his entrepreneurial drive. Although the products of his printing presses were first class he was not really interested in producing beautiful books but in being a successful businessman and he became a very successful businessman indeed.

Whereas most fifteenth century printing businesses were small craftsmen’s workshops with maybe one or two presses and a handful of workers according to the Nürnberger writing master Johann Neudörffer, who was himself manager of Petreius’ publishing house in the next generation, Koberger ran twenty-four printing presses and had around one hundred employees. In an age where there were no wholesalers and no distribution network in the book trade, Koberger created his own distribution network spanning a large part of Europe.

In order to reduce the problem of transporting bulky books around Europe, Koberger licenced other printer publishers to print and distribute his title in their area, for example the Amerbach-Froben-Petri publishing cooperative in Basel or Jean Grüninger in Strasbourg. Koberger not only sold his own books but those of other printer publishers making him a major book dealer. He had agents buying and selling books for him in Frankfurt, Leipzig, Vienna, Cologne, Basel, Strasbourg, Budapest, Warsaw, Venice, Florence, Antwerp, Bruges, Leyden and Paris. He controlled his empire through correspondence and accurate and thorough double entry bookkeeping, still something of a novelty at the time. Koberger’s dominance is reflected in his print run figures. Whereas the average print run for the first edition of a book before 1500 was between 400 and 600 copies Koberger was printing 1600 copies of his books. Koberger is known to have published more than 250 books in his lifetime. One could describe Koberger as the Jeff Bezos of the incunabula period.

It is one of the great ironies of publishing history that Koberger didn’t publish the most famous book that was printed in his workshop, the Liber Chronicarum. Better know as the Nuremberg Chronicle in English and Die Schedel’sche Weltchronik in German, this splendid 656-page folio volume (596 pages in the German translation) with its 1804 woodcut illustrations is generally regarded as the first printed encyclopaedia.

Nürnberg was a Free Imperial City, which meant it was an independent city-state that only owed feudal allegiance to the German Emperor. Sitting on a cross roads of major European trading routes and granted special tax privileges by the Emperor the Nurnberg traders became very rich. Buying the feudal rights to rule the city they set up a republic governed by an oligarchy of the richest trading families. With their large trading warehouses in the Northern Italian cities it became fashionable for them to send their sons to be educated at the Italian universities, who when they returned to Nürnberg brought the new humanist learning with them along with the exotic spices that they traded. Fifteenth century Nürnberg prided itself on being a Northern European centre of humanist art and culture and the patrician traders undertook a series of project to reflex this situation, the Liber Chronicarum was one of them.


City of Nürnberg Nuremberg Chronicles Workshop of Michael Wohlgemut

City of Nürnberg
Nuremberg Chronicles
Workshop of Michael Wohlgemut

A company was set up by Sebald Schreyer (1446 – 1520) and Sebastian Kammermeister (1446 – 1503), both university educated traders, to produce and publish the book.  They commissioned Hartmann Schedel (1440 – 1514) to write the Latin text and George Alt to translate it into German. Schedel was a physician, a humanist scholar and a bibliophile with an extensive private library. Schedel can perhaps better be described as compiler rather than author as the vast majority of the text is copied from other books or provided by other authors such as the so-called arch humanist Conrad Celtis (1459 –1408). Michael Wohlgemut (1434 – 1519) and his stepson Wilhelm Pleydenwurff (c. 1450 – 1494) were commissioned, on 29 December 1491, to provide the illustrations and were also responsible for the layout. Wohlgemut was one of Germany’s leading printmakers and included Koberger’s godson Albrecht Dürer amongst his apprentices at the time. There has been much speculation as to which of the illustration might possibly be attributable to the young Dürer, who would go on to become one of the greatest print makers of all time. Koberger was commissioned, on 16 March 1492, to print the work and to provide working space for Wohlgemut and Pleydenwurff. The Latin edition of about 1400 copies is dated 12 June 1493 and the German one of about 700 copies is dated 23 December 1493. In 1500 according to the accounts 595 copies (535 Latin, 60 German) remained unsold. A pirate edition of the book of about 250 copies, printed by Johann Schönsperger, appeared in Augsburg in 1496 followed by a second edition in 1500.

The book is based on the chronicles of the Middle Ages and divided into the seven ages of the earth.

First Age: Creation to the Flood

Second Age: Up to the birth of Abraham

Third Age: Up to the reign of King David

Fourth Age: Up to the Babylonia Exile

Fifth Age: Up to the birth of Christ

Sixth Age: (The most extensive) Birth of Christ to the present

Seventh Age: The Apocalypse

The Nuremberg Chronicle distinguishes itself from its medieval predecessors through the inclusion of the complete humanist natural philosophical, natural historical and philosophical knowledge as well as detailed descriptions of the principle German and European cities. A milestone in the history of early book production the Nuremberg Chronicle is one of the most studied and commentated of all books.

To mark the 500th anniversary of Koberger’s demise the town library of Nürnberg has an exhibition of his books, which includes Hartmann Schedel’s original manuscript of the Nuremberg Chronicle. The exhibition runs from 20 September to 28 December 2013 and is well worth a look if you happen to be in the area.


[1] Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The printing press as an agent of change: Communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe, Volumes I and II, Cambridge University Press, Pb. 1980 p. 248


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing

The corresponding accountant, the man who invented π and the Earls of Macclesfield.

I recently stumbled over an exciting piece of news for all historians of the mathematics of the seventeenth century, Jackie Stedall and Philip Beeley have received a grant from the AHRC to edit and publish the correspondence of the English mathematician John Collins (1625 – 1683). Now anybody who is not up on the obscure aspects of seventeenth century mathematics is probably thinking who is John Collins and why should the publication of his correspondence be a reason to celebrate?

In the Early Modern Period before the advent of academic journals European scholars did not live in splendid isolation but spread, discussed and criticised each others newest thoughts by post. There existed a vast interlocking web of correspondence networks linking up the scholars in much the same way as the Internet does today but at a somewhat more leisurely pace.

The letters that scholars exchanged were often long detailed texts on their current research, resembling more a scientific paper than a conventional letter. These were also not private letters but were often conceived to be copied by the recipient and sent on by him to other interested parties in his own network. An early modern form of re-blogging or re-tweeting. Some scholar’s networks were so extensive that they are now referred to as ‘post offices’.  The most well known example of an early modern ‘post office’ is the French Minim Friar Marin Mersenne who appeared to be the hub around which the European scientific community revolved. He is particularly renowned for having championed Galileo’s physics. When he died letters from 79 different scientific correspondents were found in his monk’s cell in Paris. Even Mersenne’s prolific letter writing activities were over shadowed by another acolyte of Galileo, Mersenne’s countryman, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc. We still have 10 000 of Peiresc’s letters.

Another European ‘post office’ was the German Jesuit professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, Athanasius Kircher. Kircher collected astronomical observations and other scientific information from all over the world and redistributed it to all of the leading astronomers of Europe, both Jesuit and non-Jesuit.

In England the first secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, also maintained a continent wide network of correspondents. In fact the contents of the early editions of the Philosophical Transactions, which Oldenburg started as a private enterprise to supplement his salary, consisted largely of letters of , often dubious, scientific merit from Oldenburg’s correspondents. His extensive foreign correspondence led to him, a German, being arrested and incarcerated on suspicion of being a spy for a time during the second Anglo-Dutch War in 1667. As we shall see John Collins came to serve as an assistant to Oldenburg dealing with the mathematical correspondence.

Collins, the son of an impoverished nonconformist minister, was born in Wood Eaton near Oxford in 1626. Unable to afford an advanced education he was apprenticed to the bookseller Thomas Allam. After Allam went bankrupt he became junior clerk under John Marr, clerk to the kitchens of the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II. Marr was an excellent mathematician and sundial maker and it was from him that Collin’s almost certainly received his mathematical education. During the civil war (1642 – 1649) he went to sea serving on an English merchantman engaged as a man-of-war in Venetian service. During this time he learnt navigation and taught himself accounting, mathematics and Latin.

Upon his return to England he earned his living in various positions as an accountant and began to develop a network of correspondents to acquire books and mathematical news. In 1667 Collins was elected to the Royal Society and for the next ten years he served the society as an unofficial secretary for matters mathematical. In this role he corresponded with most of the eminent mathematicians of Europe including Isaac Barrow (who christened him Mersennus Anglus), James Gregory, Christiaan Huygens, Gottfried Leibniz, John Pell, René de Sluze, Ehrenfried Tschirnhaus and possibly most important of all Isaac Newton. In fact it was Collins who outted, the then unknown, young Newton and dragged him out of his Cambridge seclusion into the seventeenth century mathematical community.

In 1669 Collins sent a new publication on analysis by Mercator (that’s Nicolaus the seventeenth century German mathematician and engineer not to be confused with Gerard the sixteenth century Dutch cartographer) to Isaac Barrow, then still the Lucasian professor of mathematics in Cambridge. Barrow responded by saying that he had a young colleague whose own work on the subject was far superior to Mercator’s. Collins thus obtained from Barrow a manuscript of Newton’s De analysi per aequationes numero terminorum infinitas (On Analysis by Infinite Series), which he proceeded to copy and distribute to a large number of European mathematicians including Leibniz. Thus making the world aware of the fact that there was a world-class mathematician in Cambridge and inadvertently igniting a slow fuse to the most notorious priority and plagiarism dispute in the history of mathematics.

Collins was also involved in the publishing business seeing several important mathematical and scientific works through the press: Thomas Salusbury’s Mathematical Collection (1661 – 1665), (including his translations of Galileo into English, which were also used by Newton), Isaac Barrow’s Lectiones opticae (1669) (prepared for publication by Newton), Lectiones geometricae (1670) and Archimedes (1675); John Wallis’ Mechanica (1669 –1671) and Algebra (1685); Jeremiah Horrocks’ Opera posthuma (1672 – 8); and others.

Collins was not a particularly skilled mathematician being more of a mathematical practitioner than a mathematician in the modern sense. He wrote and published works on accounting, surveying, navigating and dialling (the design and construction of sundials). He also wrote on the subject of trade.

Collins, who can best be described as a maths groupie, collected an extensive library of mathematical books and papers alongside his widespread correspondence. In the seventeenth century there was not the interest in papers and libraries of the deceased that exists today and there was a risk that Collins’ collection might have been dispersed after his death in 1683, enter William Jones.

William Jones, who was born on Anglesey in about 1675; was like Collins the son of an impoverished family with no prospects of an advanced education. However a local landowner recognised his mathematical talents and arranged a position for him at a London merchant’s counting house. He was sent by his employers to the West Indies and thus acquired a liking for the sea. From 1695 to 1702 he served as mathematics master on a man-of-war. Settling in London he became a private mathematics tutor publishing a book on navigation in 1702. In 1706 he published a textbook on the new calculus Synopsis palmarioum matheseos, or, A New Introduction to the Mathematics, which was the first book to include π as the ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle; an honour often falsely attributed to Euler. William Oughtred had earlier used π to designate just the circumference. This publication probably first brought Jones into Newton’s inner circle.

In 1708 Jones bought up Collins’ collection of mathematical books, papers and letters. In 1711 he was elected to the Royal Society and appointed to the committee set up at the request of Leibniz to investigate the charges of plagiarism that had been made against him with respect to the invention of the calculus by Newton’s acolyte John Keill. Together with Newton, who should not have been involved at all being one of the disputing parties, Jones put together the Commercium  epistolicum (1712), which largely consisted of letters and papers from Collins’ collection and which, not unsurprisingly, found for Newton and against Leibniz. It did in fact contain a genuine smoking gun, the proof that Leibniz had received a copy of De analysi per aequationes numero terminorum infinitas from Collins, whereas Leibniz had always claimed to have had no knowledge of Newton’s early work.

Jones continued to work closely with Newton, acting as go between when relations became strained between Newton and Roger Cotes, when they were working on the second edition of Principia, and editing and publishing various of Newton’s other works.

Jones continued to earn his living as a private tutor and served for a time as mathematics teacher to Philip Yorke who would go on to become Lord Chancellor and the Earl of Hardwick. Through Yorke he was introduced to Lord Chief Justice Parker, who would become the first Earl of Macclesfield, and become tutor to his son George.

Involved in a political scandal Thomas Parker, who incidentally was one of Newton’s pallbearers, withdrew from public life and retired to his countryseat Shirburn Castle where Jones effectively became a member of the household. Parker was a great collector of books and built up a very impressive library. Meanwhile Jones continued to increase the Collins collection of mathematical books and papers.

Jones’ pupil George Parker, the second Earl of Macclesfield, was an avid amateur natural philosopher and astronomer, who added an observatory and a chemical laboratory to Shirburn Castle. In his role as a member of parliament he was instrumental in dragging Britain out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world by introducing the Gregorian calendar in 1752, two centuries after its adoption by Catholic Europe.

When he died Jones bequeathed the Collins-Jones mathematical collection to George Parker and it resided in the Shirburn Castle library for more than two hundred years largely inaccessible to historians. The astronomer and historian of mathematics Stephen Rigaud was granted access to Collins’ collection of letters and published some of them in his Correspondence of scientific men of the seventeenth century: including letters of Barrow, Flamsteed, Wallis, and Newton, printed from the originals in the collection of the Right Honourable the Earl of Macclesfield in 1841. The Macclesfield’s dissolved their priceless library at the beginning of the last decade, selling the scientific papers and letters to Cambridge University and the books by public auction. The three substantial volumes of the sales catalogue dealing with the mathematics books are themselves an invaluable history of mathematics resource (I know because a friend of mine owns them and I’m allowed to use them). That Collins’ letters collection is now going to receive the scholarly treatment it deserves is good news indeed for all historians of the seventeenth century and not just those of science or mathematics.



Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Mathematics, History of science, Newton

Making the indiscernible visible: Robert Hooke’s Micrographia

The seventeenth century polymath Robert Hooke, who was born 17th  18th July 1635, is a complex and problematic figure in the history of science. Undoubtedly immensely talented and endlessly ingenious he did fascinating work in a vast number of different directions. However in spreading his interest and abilities over so many different fields he seems never to have produced any real major developments in any of them and so remained a minor figure in the pantheon of scientific gods. There are those of his fan club who argue that he was a victim of Newton’s enmity and had he not been sabotaged by his evil and all-powerful rival, he would have got the recognition he deserves. This argument suffers from two problems. Firstly it was Hooke who attacked Newton, not once but twice, and not the other way round. Secondly his scientific work is known to us and whilst it contains many an ingenious idea there is really nothing to compare with Kepler’s laws of planetary motion or Galileo’s laws of fall that would promote Hooke into the premier league of seventeenth century scientific investigators. There is however one piece of Hooke’s work that deserves much more recognition than it usually receives and which although it contains no real scientific breakthroughs in the sense of new laws, theories etc. does represent a major advance in the history of science, his Micrographia published in 1665. Hooke’s Micrographia is to microscopy what Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius is to astronomical telescopy. The publication of Micrographia was the big bang in microscopic studies!

Micrographia Title Page

Micrographia Title Page

Science is our attempt to describe and to understand our world, our cosmos. This description is fundamentally empirical, that is we examine the world in which we exist with our senses. What does it look like, sound like, feel like, smell like and taste like. With respect to the last I’m often surprised that earlier medical and chemical investigators didn’t do themselves more harm with all the things they examined with their taste buds. At the beginning of the seventeenth century this empirical investigation changed radically with the twin invention of the telescope and the microscope. For the first time investigators had instruments available to extend, strengthen, make more powerful one of those senses, their sense of vision.

Although we are relatively well informed about the origins of the telescope, the origins of the microscope remain largely unknown. Many texts repeat the claim that the microscope was invented by Zacharias Jansen who is also credited with being an inventor of the telescope. This claim is based on a highly questionable posthumous report and modern historical research has shown that Jansen could not have been a co-inventor of the telescope and is thus also not the inventor of the microscope. The invention of the microscope is also credited to Galileo and although he never claimed to be the inventor he was probably an inventor. He describes how he discovered the magnification effect when he accidentally put his telescope to his eye the wrong way round. He then proceeded to specifically build microscopes using different lenses to those used in his telescopes. His story suggests that the microscope probably had several inventors who all made the same mistake as Galileo. We do know that the first person to build a Keplerian microscope, that is with two convex lenses, as opposed to the Galilean microscope, one convex and one concave lens, was the Dutch inventor and instrument maker Cornelis Drebbel in 1621.

The first known mention of a functioning telescope was of Hans Lippershey in September 1608 and already in 1609 Thomas Harriot, Simon Marius and Galileo Galilei were all undertaking fairly systematic telescopic astronomical observations. Harriot made the first telescopic drawing of the moon and of sunspots, Marius and Galileo discovered the largest moons of Jupiter almost simultaneously, their discoveries separated only by one day. Galileo stole a march on his competitors when he published his Sidereus Nuncius in March 1610. Although more a of popular than a scientific publication Sidereus Nuncius with its spectacular washes of the moon and its announcement of the Jupiter moon was an overnight sensation, elevating its author from an unknown insignificant professor of mathematics to the leading researcher in Europe and establishing the telescope as the scientific instrument of the day. Nothing similar happened with the microscope.

The first illustrations made with a microscope are attributed to Francesco Stelluti on a pamphlet published by the Acccademia dei Lincei to celebrate the election of Maffeo Barberini as Pope in 1623. The bees were the Barberini family emblem.

Stelutii Melissographia

Stelutii Melissographia

Stelluti published further microscopic studies of bees in a Tuscan translation of an obscure Latin poem in 1630.

Stelluti Bees1630

Stelluti Bees1630

Both publications were only distributed to a very small circle and had little or no impact. In 1644 Giovanni Battista Odierna published a pamphlet of his microscopic studies of the fly’s eye, his L’Occhio della mosca.

Odierna L’Occhio della mosca

Odierna L’Occhio della mosca

In 1656 Pierre Borel published a collection a collection of a hundred miscellaneous microscope observations, his Observationum microscopicarum canturia.

Borel Illustration

Borel Illustration

Both publications failed to make any real impact. Both only had minimal distribution and Odierna’s pamphlet is thought to have been too specialised, whereas Borel’s drawings are almost childish in their primitiveness. The originals are actually much smaller than the scan shown above.

Public demonstrations of the microscope by Drebbel and other instrument makers were very popular throughout the seventeenth century but these also failed to launch the microscope in the way Sidereus Nuncius had launched the telescope, why? Interested participants would acquire an, anything but cheap, instrument, set it up in their living room, look through the eyepiece and see absolutely nothing! Anybody who can remember their first childhood experience of looking through a modern, optically good quality microscope should remember their initial difficulty in discerning anything at all. Visual perception through a microscope is very different to unaided visual perception and has to be learnt. Lenses in the seventeenth century were notoriously very, very bad quality making telescopic observations difficult enough. The problem was considerably worse for early microscopes. Faced with these optical problems most purchases simply gave up. In 1660, fifty years after Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius had launched the telescope on its scientific journey the microscope had made next to no impact on the scientific world. This would change dramatically just five years later with the publication of Hooke’s Micrographia.

Various seventeenth century natural philosophers had experimented with the microscope and one of these was Christopher Wren who had made various microscopic studies, which he had not attempted to publish. Charles II got to see Wren’s drawings and requested his newly founded Royal Society to follow up on Wren’s investigations. For whatever reason Wren had no interest in the project and so the Royal Society commissioned their curator of experiments, Robert Hooke, to take up the Royal request. Having first determined that Wren, who had been Hooke’s earlier employer, had no objections Hooke took up the challenge. Each week he would investigate a new object with his microscope making excellent drawings of his efforts and then present the results to the Society at their weekly meetings. Some of the investigations were his own and some where suggested by the Society’s members. Over the months Hooke thus accumulated a large collection of such studies.

In its early years the Royal Society suffered under a problem of public perception. Who were these funny men who met once a week to discuss science and what was the sense of their discussions? Many of the answers to these questions were anything but complimentary. To improve their public image the society went on the offensive. One result of this was Thomas Sprat’s The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge (1667), which was more a work of justification than history. As a concrete example of their endeavours to improve natural knowledge the Society decided to publish Hooke’s collection of microscopic studies. This work, the Micrographia, was actually published in 1665 two years ahead of Sprat’s history.

The Micrographia is a masterpiece, a magnificent scientific coffee table book, which contains many of Hooke’s thoughts on science, scientific method and nature but what really makes the book and made it into the scientific bestseller which launched the microscope is Hooke’s stunning illustrations.

Hooke's Flea Micrographia

Hooke’s Flea Micrographia

Hooke's Louse Micrographia

Hooke’s Louse Micrographia

The book hit the scientific book market like a bomb, to quote Matthew Cobb from his excellent The Egg & Sperm Race:[1]

Micrographia or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Classes with Observations and Inquiries thereupon, to give Hooke’s book its full title, was an instant and hugely influential success. Pepys saw the unbound sheets in a bookshop and immediately decided to buy a copy. When he eventually got his hands on it, on 21 January 1665, he wrote in his diary: ‘Before I went to bed, I sat in my chamber, reading of Mr Hooke’s Microscopical Observations, the most ingenious book that ever Iread in my life’. The Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens had to tear himself away from reading in order to write a letter to London congratulating the Royal Society on the amazing quality of the observations. Pepys and Huygens were right. Hooke’s book is simply astonishing.

Matthew is right. Hooke’s book is truly astonishing and it certainly helped to improve the Royal Society’s public image. The book also signalled an astonishing period of microscopic activity by Macello Malpighi in Italy, Jan Swammerdam and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in the Netherlands and Nehemiah Grew in London all of whom, interestingly, published all or some of their results through the Royal Society. The microscope had truly arrived as a scientific instrument.

[1] Matthew Cobb, The Egg & Sperm Race: The Seventeenth Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth, The Free Press, 2006.


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of science

Pep up your sex life with a pinch of salt.

Is your sex life not up to scratch? Is your partner failing to deliver the goods? Are you not getting the satisfaction that you feel you deserve then follow the advice of the good Doctor Moffet and put your partner on a salt rich diet.

Experience teacheth, that Mice lying in Holes laden…with Salt, breed thrice faster there, than if they are laden with other Merchandize. Huntsmen likewise and shepherds seeing a slowness of lust in their Dogs and Cattle, feed then with Salt means to hasten coupling; and what maketh Doves and Goats so lusty and lascivious that they desire to feed upon salt things. Finally remember that lechery (in Latin) is not idlely or at adventure termed Salaritus, Saltishness, or every man knows that the salter our humours be, the more prone and inclinable we are to lechery. Wherefore whosoever coveteth to be freed of that fire … let them altogether abstaine from Salt.

So now you know, if you want more action pile on the salt. If how ever your partner is too demanding put them on a salt free diet.

The above quote is from Thomas Moffet’s Health’s Improvements or Rules Comprising and Discovering the Nature, Method, and Manner of Preparing all Sorts of Food Used, Thomas Newcomb, London, 1655, p. 247. I came across this wonderful piece of early modern sexual therapy in Anna Marie Roos’ (@roos_annamarie) excellent The Salt of the Earth[1] a must read for all those interested in the history of alchemy in the Early Modern Period especially if interested in the transition from alchemy to chemistry. A thanks is due to Ted Hand (@t3dy) who first drew my attention to this wonderful tome.


By a strange coincidence whilst reading Dr Roos’ book I was also doing background reading for a lecture on the history of microscopy in the 17th century that I’m holding later in the year when I stumbled across the Good Doctor Moffet a second time curiosity awakened I thought I would try and find out a little bit more about our erstwhile sexual therapist.

Thomas Moffet (or Muffet or Moufet) was probably born in Shoreditch as the second son of a haberdasher, also called Thomas, in 1553. He was educated at the Merchant Taylors’ School before going up to Cambridge in 1569. He graduated BA in 1573 studying, amongst other things, medicine under John Caius. He graduated MA in 1576 and like many other Englishmen of the period went abroad to further his studies. He studied medicine at Basel under the care of Felix Platter in whose house he also boarded. It was Platter’s book De corporis humani structura et usu … libri III, which supplied the medical background to Kepler’s new theory of vision in his Ad Vitellionem paralipomena from 1604. Whilst in Basel Moffet acquired a passion for the medical theories of Paracelsus; a passion that caused him problem with his doctorate and also with the medical establishment when he later returned to England. He finally graduated MD in 1579 after rewriting his initially rejected Paracelsian thesis and set up a medical practice in Frankfurt.

He travelled extensively in Europe and became very interested in the silkworm culture in Italy about which he would later publish a thesis in the form of a poem.  On his travels he became acquainted with several prominent academics including Joachim Camerarius jun in Nürnberg also a doctor of medicine and a leading natural historian. On a later trip to Europe Moffet met Peter Severinus and Tycho Brahe in Copenhagen. Severinus was one of the leading European Paracelsians, court medicus to the Danish King and one of Brahe’s patrons. Brahe was also a Paracelsian medical practitioner. Back in England in 1583 Moffet wrote and published a book on Paracelsian chemical medicine De jure et praestantia chemicorum medicamentorum dedicated to Severinus. The book established him a good reputation in continental Europe.

Despite initial opposition to his medical views from the English establishment Moffet became a very successful medical practitioner with many wealthy and influential clients. He was even on the committee that compiled the College of Physicians’ Pharmacopoeia Londinensis the physicians’ prescription bible that was famously translated into English by the apothecary Nicholas Culpepper in order to make it accessible to those too poor to afford a qualified physician.

Moffet died in 1604 a successful and respected medicus who had contributed much in his medical writings to the establishment of the Paracelsian chemical medicine in England but he is more remembered for two posthumous publications. The first is his Health’s Improvements, with which I started this post, which is a compendium of thoughts on diets and eating habits first published in 1655, which seems to have enjoyed a certain popularity.

It was Moffet’s other posthumous publication that turned up in my reading on the history of microscopy. In 1634 Sir Thomas Mayerne published Insectorum sive, Minimorum animalium theartrum, which was republished in English translation by J Rowland as The Theater of Insects or Lesser Living Creatures in 1658.


This compendium of entomological studies had completed a rather long and devious journey before it was finally published. Originally written by Thomas Penny (1532 – 1589) a friend and medical colleague of Moffet’s it incorporated an unpublished manuscript of the great Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner’s, with whom Penny had worked at the time of his death, as well as investigation made by Edward Wotton (1492 – 1555) another physician and mutual friend. Incomplete at Penny’s death the manuscript passed into Moffet’s hands. Moffet revised and extended the manuscript but was unable to find a publisher for the long text (over 500 pages) with more than 650 illustrations. By the time Moffet died the manuscript was still unpublished and passed through several hands before Mayere acquired and published it.


The book is one of the most important pre-microscope works on entomology. Unfortunately it’s not possible to say which of the four authors contributed what to the book but it seems relatively clear that Penny was the main author and Moffet largely just the editor.

One final strange fact about Moffet is the unsubstantiated contention that the Little Miss Muffet of nursery rhyme fame was Moffet’s daughter based on his reputation as an early arachnologist.

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet

Eating her curds and whey

When down came a spider

Which sat down beside her

And frightened Miss Muffet away

[1] Anna Marie Roos, The Salt of the Earth: Natural Philosophy, Medicine, and Chymistry in England 1650-1750, Brill, Leiden & Boston, 2007, p. 23


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of science, Renaissance Science

The pocket diary: A great Renaissance invention

The other day Kate Morant, author of the interesting Halley’s Log Blog, tweeted the following question on my twitter stream:

Help! My iPhone diary’s become corrupted. By month ok, but by list all the apptmts randomly reassigned to diff dates. Any tips?

Being the friendly and helpful chap that I am, I tweeted back:

Buy a pocket diary (a great Renaissance invention) and a pencil.

Now I have already written about the origins of the pencil, another great Renaissance invention, in an earlier post so I thought it would be nice to write something about the scientific origins of the pocket diary.

Most people know that the printing of books with moveable type was (re)invented by Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg in Germany in the middle of the fifteenth century. (Moveable type printing had been invented twice before in China, eleventh century, and in Korea, thirteenth century) What most people don’t know is that one of Gutenberg’s first pieces of commercial printing was a single sheet wall calendar, which also counts as the earliest known printed scientific publication. Those not in the know are probably thinking why is a calendar a scientific publication?

In the Renaissance one of the dominant forms of medicine was astro-medicine, that is medical diagnosis and treatment based on astrological phenomena. Calendars contained the phases of the moon and other astronomical information, such as planetary conjunctions, to help physicians determine the auspicious and inauspicious days for treatments such as bloodletting and cupping. The importance attached to this information can be judged by the fact that many towns and districts employed a mathematician as an official calendar maker, whose function was to deliver this astronomical data for the physicians, barbers and surgeons of the town.

Astronomers and astrologers also produced and used ephemerides, which are more complex tables giving the daily positions of all the heavenly bodies. In the 1470s Regiomontanus set up the first scientific publishing house in Nürnberg and amongst other astronomical and astrological texts published the first printed ephemerides and astronomical/astrological calendars in book form. The calendars were simplified versions of the ephemerides with a reduce amount of data. Both publications proved immensely popular and were quickly copied by many other printer publishers.

We have several well-attested examples of astronomers and astrologers using their ephemerides to note important occurrences in the margins at the relevant date. For example the Nürnberger astronomer/astrologer Johannes Schöner recorded the birth of his children in the margins of his ephemerides.

At some point an enterprising printer publisher came up with the idea of binding empty pages into their book form astrological medical calendars between the printed pages providing a space were the users could make their notes instead of having to use the margins. This simple novelty caught on and the pocket diary was born. A vestigial reminder of the origins of the pocket diary can be seen in the phases of the moon that are still included in almost all diaries. These are not there so you remember to go out and marvel at the full moon but to help you to determine the correct day to indulge in a bit of bloodletting to cure the fever that accompanied that dose of flu you picked up at the office party.


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, Renaissance Science