Category Archives: Myths of Science

The naming of America – Redux

This is a brief addenda to my previous naming of America post, as my copy of Peter Macdonald’s Cabot & The Naming of America: Dawn of Arrival, Newfoundland, June 1497 has finally arrived; remaindered, it cost all of £0.01! (p&p £4!).

As I suspected the book is self-published by the author, always a bad sign for a history book, and it lives down to expectations. Macdonald’s arguments in favour of the Ap Meric (Amerike) theories are even worse than those of Rodney Broome and are centred on a straightforward lie. On the second, unnumbered, page Macdonald writes:

In 1507 a cartographer by the name of Waldseemuller [sic] (meaning the miller from the forest sea [it’s actually wood lake]) produced a map in which he attributed the name of the place he had heard called America to Amerigo Vespucci. People assumed that he had got his facts right and that from this slender beginning grew the legend. However, it is more than probable that the miller man gave the credit to the wrong person. It is far more likely that the great continent was named after Richard Amerike, the King’s Customs Officer for Bristol in 1497, as will become evident in this book, and that Herr Waldseemuller’s was a shot in the dark that hit the wrong target.

As is very clear from the passages from the Cosmographiae Introductio, that I quoted in my previous post, Ringmann, its author, states that he and Waldseemüller had not attributed the name of the place he had heard called America to Amerigo Vespucci but believing Vespucci to be the discoverer of the new territories and coined the name themselves in his honour. Macdonald repeats this deliberate lie again on page 35:

In 1507 a young geographer who lived in Freiburg [St Dié actually], Martin Waldseemuller by name, drew a map of the new continent and gave it the name ‘America’. Because he knew that Amerigo Vespucci had accompanied Hojeda he assumed the name America, by which the place was beginning to be known, referred to him.

Naturally, Macdonald doesn’t quote a single occurrence of the name ‘America’ before it was coined by Ringmann and Waldseemüller in 1507.

An impression of Macdonald’s abilities as a historian can be gained from the following introductory paragraph on page 3. A warning to all serious medieval historians you might feel offended by Macdonald’s description of the late fifteenth-century. On the other hand you might fall about laughing.

It is difficult, today, to imagine just how ignorant people were five hundred years ago; they knew nothing about almost everything. They had no idea how their bodies worked – no idea why they breathed, urinated, defecated or felt hungry, felt sick or had a temperature – and many made no connection between the sexual act and childbirth. They knew nothing of geography – indeed most people didn’t know or care what went on on the other side of the horizon – and they thought the world was flat [my emphasis]. Nearly everyone was illiterate, even kings; only a few of the clergy knew how to read and write.




Filed under Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Another one bites the dust

This is a sort of footnote to my last post in which I criticised science writer Tim Radford for propagating myths about the reception of heliocentricity in the sixteenth-century. Now a second truly legendary astronomer and science writer, John Gribbin, has turned up in the comments and shown that he also lives in the nineteenth-century, as far as history of science is concerned, when John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White created the myth of an eternal war between science and religion and presented Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei, alongside lesser lights such as Michael Servetus and Marco-Antonio de Dominis, as the scientific victims of Christian persecution.

Rushing in where angels fear to tread Gribbin sought to defend Radford’s honour with the following comment:

As a card-carrying pedant, I would point out that Tim says “ideas like that”, not “that idea”. Which makes Bruno relevant, whether you like it or not.

Now I appreciate Mr Gribbin’s attempt to help his friend and colleague but in doing so he has only displayed his own ignorance of the material. There was a very good reason why I ended my last post with the following tongue in cheek warning:

P.S. If anybody mentions either Giordano Bruno or Galileo Galilei in the comments I will personally hunt them down and beat them to death with a rolled up copy of The Guardian.

No modern historian of science, knowledgeable of the history of astronomy in the Early Modern Period, would follow Draper and White in viewing Bruno as a martyr of science. This is a myth that has been thoroughly debunked and which is, these days, usually only dug up by historically ignorant gnu atheists and others of that ilk, as a weapon with which to beat the Catholic Church around the head. As John Gribbin has walked straight into the trap we will just briefly examine why the Church committed Giordano Bruno to the flames.

A Dominican monk, Bruno came under suspicion of heresy and fled his Southern Italian monastery in 1576. He spent the next sixteen years wandering around Europe blowing his own trumpet, generally annoying people and pissing off the authorities, both civil and religious, wherever he went. Returning to Italy he landed, not unsurprisingly in the clutches of the Roman Inquisition. He was held prisoner and interrogated for seven years before being tried for heresy, found guilty, and executed by burning at the stake in 1600. The proceedings of his trial have disappeared so it is not known what exactly he was found guilty of but summary was discovered in 1940 and a list of the charges against him is known:

  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith and speaking against it and its ministers;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about the Trinity, divinity of Christ and Incarnation;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith pertaining to Jesus as Christ;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith regarding the virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about both Transubstantiation and Mass;
  • claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity;
  • believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into brutes;
  • dealing in magics and divination.

Now this list is not hidden away somewhere, I just borrowed it from the Wikipedia Bruno article, so Mr Gribbin could have consulted it himself. He would of course pounce on the sixth item on the list gleefully crying I told you so, but let us examine if he should be so sure of being right.

Given the fact that Bruno was accused of breaching almost every single central doctrine of the Catholic Church did this one point of highly speculative cosmology really play such a central role in his conviction and subsequent execution, I hardly think so. In fact I don’t think it played much of a role at all compared to his denying the divinity of Christ and the virgin birth. However there is more.

Bruno’s claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity has little or nothing to do with Copernicus’ heliocentric theory the original statement for which Tim Radford claimed one could be condemned to the stake. Copernicus proposed a finite sun centred cosmos, Bruno speculated about an infinite universe filled with homogenously distributed infinite sun each with their own populated planets and no centre. The two proposals don’t have an awful lot in common. Copernicus expressly refused to enter the discussion as to whether the cosmos was finite or infinite, and never speculated about other inhabited planets. He, as a good Catholic cleric, would definitely have rejected an eternal universe as this contradicted the Creation. What about the two leading Copernican of Bruno’s own times? Kepler explicitly rejected Bruno’s infinite universe and infinite suns and in doing so brought the earliest known argument against Olbers’ paradox. Galileo simply ignored him. I think it is safe to say that the cosmological statements that were included in Bruno’s indictment were not ideas like Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, as claimed by Gribbin.

Gribbin’s claim also suffers from another problem. The reason why Bruno’s cosmological speculations were included in his indictment was very clearly theological and not scientific. As already mentioned if, as Bruno claimed, the universe were eternal then there could be no Creation, highly heretical. In fact this was one of the central reasons why the Catholic Church rejected the Greek philosophy of Atomism. Secondly if there were infinite populated worlds there would be serious problems with the doctrine of salvation through Jesus. If he was the only Son of God did he visit all of the infinite populated planets, simultaneously, one after the other? Or were there infinite Jesuses? Did he only save the earth? Then what about the other planets? A really tangled mess for the Catholic theologians! As with Galileo in 1615 if Bruno had had anything remotely like proof for his cosmology he might have had something he could argue with but he didn’t, all he had was pure unscientific, unsubstantiated speculation. As I sated in earlier posts Bruno’s cosmological speculations were anything but scientific and anything but accurate. As far as we know the universe is finite and not infinite, it had a starting point and will almost certainly have an end. There are neither infinite stars (suns) nor infinite planets and those that there are, are not distributed homogenously. To stylise Bruno as a scientific martyr, as Draper/White did in the nineteenth-century and as John Gribbin apparently still wants to do, boarders on the grotesque.







Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

I expected better of Tim Radford

Tim Radford is a science writer who works for The Guardian newspaper. In fact many people consider him the best British science writer of the current crop, not without a certain amount of justification. Because of this I was, as a historian of science, more than disappointed by the opening paragraph of his latest post on the science section of the Guardian’s website, a book review: “The Copernicus Complex by Caleb Scharf review – a cosmic quest”. Radford opens his review with three sentences of which the third caused me to groan inwardly and bang my head in resignation on my computer keyboard.

The Copernican principle changed everything. It was not formulated by Copernicus, who in 1543 proposed only that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, and that the motion of the Earth around the sun could explain the irregularities in the heavens. At the time, ideas like that could get people condemned to the stake. [my emphasis]

I ask myself how much longer historians of science are going to have to keep repeating that this statement is complete and utter rubbish before science writers like Tim Radford finally take their hands off their ears and the blinkers from their eyes and actually accept that it is wrong. No Mr Radford, an astronomer or cosmologist in the sixteenth-century suggesting that we live in a heliocentric cosmos rather than a geocentric one was not in danger of being condemned to the stake and yes there is solid historical evidence, which apparently you choose to ignore in favour of your fantasies, to prove this. Let us briefly review that evidence for those, like Tim Radford, who have obviously not been paying attention.

Already in the fifteenth- century Nicholas Cusanus openly discussed various aspects of the heliocentric hypothesis in his works, presenting them in a favourable light. Was he condemned to the stake for his audacity? No he was treated as an honoured Church scholar and appointed cardinal.

Let us move on to the subject of Radford’s highly inaccurate statement, Copernicus, like Cusanus a cleric and a member of the Church establishment, how did the Church react to his provocative heliocentric claims? In 1533 the papal secretary, Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter held a lecture on Copernicus’ theories to Pope Clemens VII and assembled company in the papal gardens. We assume this was based on Copernicus’ Commentariolus, the manuscript pamphlet of his ideas written around 1510, as De revolutionibus wasn’t published until 1543. Was he condemned to the stake for his rashness? No, Clemens found much favour in his lecture and awarded him a valuable present for his troubles. Two years later Widmannstetter became secretary to Cardinal Nikolaus von Schönberg, an archbishop and papal legate, who had been present at that lecture. In 1536 Schönberg wrote a letter to Copernicus urging him to make his theories public and even offering to pay the costs of having his manuscript copied. Not a lot of condemning to the stake going on there. Copernicus had Schönberg’s letter printed in the front of De revolutionibus.

Dear Tim Radford I am sure that as a topflight science writer you check the scientific facts in the articles that you write very carefully to ensure that you are not misleading your many readers. May I humbly request that in future you pay the same attention to the historical facts that you publish so as not to serve up your readers with pure unadulterated historical hogwash?

P.S. If anybody mentions either Giordano Bruno or Galileo Galilei in the comments I will personally hunt them down and beat them to death with a rolled up copy of The Guardian.




Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

The naming of America

Some weeks ago I stumbled into an exchange amongst historians on Twitter about the origin of the Name of America and was totally stunned to learn that a very successful English popular historian and television personality is convinced that the theory that America is named for the Bristol trader Richard Ap Meric is much more probable than that it is named for Amerigo Vespucci. Don’t worry if one or other or both of these theories are unknown to you, all will be explained in the following. Given that early modern cartography is one of my special areas of study I could not believe that any professional historian could possibly defend this position and stated the factual historical sources for the Vespucci theory and asked for equivalent sources for the Ap Meric theory, knowing full well that they don’t exist. TV pop historian declined stating that one can’t discuss these things on Twitter. A couple of weeks later the whole started again as Mathew Lyons (@MathewJLyons), one of the participants in the original exchange asked me if I could recommend literature on the subject for Lauren Johnson (@History_Lauren) who was researching the topic in the archives of Bristol. This triggered the whole argument a second time with Greg Jenner (@greg_jenner) defending the Ap Meric theory and TV pop historian, “not sure of worth of discussing this on Twitter!“ This being the case I have decided to discuss the issue here for the general amusement and edification of my readers.

From an academic historical point of view this is unfortunately rather a one sided contest, as is made clear by the available literature that I have consulted. On the Amerigo Vespucci side we have John Hessler, “The Naming of America” and “A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox”, John Hessler and Chet van Duzer, “Seeing The World Anew”, Chet van Duzer, “Johann Schöner’s Globe of 1515” and Kenneth Nebenzahl, “Atlas of Columbus and the Great Discoveries”. On the Richard Ap Meric side we have Rodney Broome, “Terra Incognita: The True Story of How America Got Its Name”. Hessler, van Duzer and Nebenzahl are professional historians of cartography internationally acknowledged as leaders in the field. All I can find out about Rodney Broome is that he was born in Bristol and now lives in Seattle. He doesn’t seem to be a historian of any sort as far as I can ascertain. There don’t appear to be any works by professional historians outlining or supporting the Ap Meric claim. There is a second book on the subject by a Peter MacDonald, “Cabot And The Naming Of America: Dawn Of Arrival, Newfoundland, June 1497”, which appears to have been published by the author himself, (PetMac?) and is out of print. I’ve ordered a second-hand copy from England, it doesn’t appear to have been available in Germany, but it hasn’t arrived yet. There is an essay on the subject by MacDonald on the BBC website. Like Broome MacDonald doesn’t appear to be a professional historian.

As it is the accepted academic point of view I will start with the Vespucci theory. At the beginning of the sixteenth-century there was a school of cartographers working in the Vosgean Gymnasium at Saint-Dié-des-Vorges in Lorraine, under the patronage of Duke René II. The two principal members of this group were Martin Waldseemüller (c.1475–1520) and Matthias Ringmann (c.1482–1511). In 1507 they published both a large wall map of the world printed on twelve sheets and a small globe containing the same map.

Waldseemüller World Map 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)

Waldseemüller World Map 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)

Only one single copy of the map still exists and none of the globes although five sets of printed gores are still extant.

Waldseemüller Globe Gores 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)

Waldseemüller Globe Gores 1507 (Wikipedia Commons)


In his diary Johannes Trithemius records buying copies of the map and the globe in the year of publication. As was common practice amongst cartographers of the period the map was accompanied by a so-called cosmographia explaining the basics of cartography and how to use the map, known as the Cosmographiae Introductio. Its full title is “Cosmographiae introductio cum quibusdam geometriae ac astronomiae principiis ad eam rem necessariis. Insuper quatuor Americi Vespucii navigationes. Universalis Cosmographiae descriptio tam in solido quam plano, eis etiam insertis, quae Ptholomaeo ignota a nuperis reperta sunt.”(Translation: Introduction to Cosmography With Certain Necessary Principles of Geometry and Astronomy To which are added The Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci A Representation of the Entire World, both in the Solid and Projected on the Plane, Including also lands which were Unknown to Ptolemy, and have been Recently Discovered).

The map is justifiably regarded as an important historical document because it is the earliest map, which uses the name America for the recently discovered lands on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. North and South America are drawn as two islands that bear little resemblance to the real continents and the southern island bears the name America. In Chapter 8 of the Cosmographiae Introductio, The Climatic Zones that Divide the Earth, Ringmann, the author, writes:

The fourth part of the earth we have decided to call Americe, the land of Amerigo we might even say, or America because it was discovered by Amerigo.

Further on in Chaper 9, Rudiments of Cosmography, he explains why they used this name for the recently discovered territory:

Today these parts of the earth [Europe, Africa and Asia] have been more extensively explored than a fourth part of the world, as will be explained in what follows, and that has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci. Because it is well known that Europe and Asia were named after women, I can see no reason why anyone would have good reason to object to calling this fourth part Amerige, the land of Amerigo, or America, after the man who discovered it. The location of this part and the customs of its people can be clearly understood from the four voyages of Amerigo Vespucci that we have placed after this introduction.

Waldseemüller and Ringmann possessed a French edition of The Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci, a popular bestseller doing the rounds of Europe at the time, sent to Duke René by the King of Portugal, which, translated into Latin by Johannes Basinus Sendarcurius, another of the St Dié scholars, was appended to the Cosmographiae Introductio. It is clear that Waldseemüller and Ringmann, unaware of Columbus, erroneously named the new territory after Vespucci believing him to be its discoverer, giving his name a feminine ending in line with Europe and Asia. Later they would realise their error and on their world map the Carte Marina, a portulan style, sea chart published in 1516, they withdrew the name America but by then the damage had been done.

Waldseemüller Carta Marina 1516 (Library of Congress)

Waldseemüller Carta Marina 1516 (Library of Congress)

Both the 1507 world map and the Cosmographiae Introductio are accepted as genuine historical artefacts with no doubt about their authenticity. This being the case it is very clear that anybody offering an alternative origin for the name, America, has to accuse Waldseemüller and Ringmann of lying. They state very clearly that they have chosen to name this newly discovered land America and why they have done so. The opponents of the Vespucci theory don’t accuse them of lying but try to fudge the issue by suggesting that Waldseemüller heard the name America elsewhere and not knowing its origins attributed it to Vespucci. This explanation contradicts Ringmann’s very clear explanation in the Cosmographiae Introductio and, in my opinion, demonstrates very clearly the shaky ground on which the opponents are manoeuvring.

I will now turn to the Ap Meric theory based on the account presented by Rodney Broome. Whereas the books of Hessler and van Duzer are solid pieces of academic history Broome’s book is a collection of unfounded speculations, conjectures and straightforward false statements, which contains not one single piece of factual evidence that America was named after Richard Ap Meric. So what does it contain? To detail everything that is false in Broome’s book would produce a book length post so I will just sketch the Ap Meric theory and then point out a couple of Broome’s errors or false statements.

Richard Ap Meric, a Welsh name anglicised to Amerike, was a successful Bristol trader who was one of the investors in the voyages to America made by John Cabot from the port of Bristol. The theory is that Cabot named part, or all, of his discovery after Amerike on the map(s) he made and that this map/these maps are the origin of the name America. So far, so good. This theory suffers from a few problems. Firstly, although he may have made maps of his discoveries in North America none of them has survived so we have no idea what they contained. Secondly there exists no other source of any kind suggesting that Cabot named anything at all after Richard Amerike, end of story!

I could end this post here. We have a very clear well established historical fact that Waldseemüller and Ringmann named America in 1507 after Amerigo Vespucci believing erroneously that he was its first discoverer. On the other hand we have an unsubstantiated conjecture that John Cabot named America after Richard Amerike, a Bristol trader, who was one of the backers of his voyages of discovery. I really don’t see how anybody could claim, as did the TV pop historian in my original Twitter encounter, that the Ap Meric theory is much more probable than the Vespucci theory. As stated above I will however look at some of the tactics used by Broome to try and shore up this rather extraordinary claim.

Broome starts his book with the Waldseemüller/Ringmann naming of America on the world map of 1507 and in the Cosmographiae Introductio but invents a totally spurious personal relationship between Vespucci and the two German cartographers with the former sending them his maps of the Americas on which they then base their map. This is all justified with statements such as “some historians believe” without giving any sources for the “some historians”. This is complete rubbish and is made even more bizarre by his then naming the real sources for the American portions of the map the world chart by Nicolo Caveri from 1505 and the written descriptions from Vespucci’s The Four Voyages.

Carta Caveri 1505 (Wikipedia Commons)

Carta Caveri 1505 (Wikipedia Commons)

Throughout the book Broome follows a strategy of misinformation in order to support his central highly speculative theory that I will outline shortly. Before I leave his version of the Vespucci theory Broome delivers a wonderful piece of misinformation on page 6 of his book, he writes: Waldseemüller was unable to account for the origin of the name America! It is very obvious from the passages that I quoted from the Cosmographiae Introductio above that Waldseemüller and Ringmann coined the name themselves so were very able indeed to account for its origins.

Broome’s central argument, which he builds up throughout the book interspersed with general capitals on the port of Bristol, the traders of that city, the voyages of Columbus etc., is based around the three voyages of John Cabot. Having persuaded Henry VII and the traders of Bristol to support him Cabot made three voyages to America in 1497-98. The first voyage, with a single ship, was unsuccessful he being forced to turn back by bad weather. On the second voyage, again with a single ship, he reached and landed somewhere on the North American coast, exactly where is still the subject of heated debate. Finding evidence of habitation and scared of being attacked he re-boarded his ship and spent one month cruising southwards along the coast making a crude map before returning to Europe, first making landfall in France before returning north to Bristol. Flushed with success he now set out in 1498 with a fleet of five ships. One ship, damaged in a storm, returned to Ireland and the other four ships disappeared without trace. One of the accounts of the first two voyages is contained in the so-called Johan Day letter, sent by this Bristolian presumably to Columbus. I say presumably because the letter is addressed to a The Lord Grand Admiral, who is assumed to be Columbus. This letter contained a map of Cabot’s initial discoveries and this information almost certainly flowed into the early charts and maps of America such as the Caveri map and the earlier world chart of Juan de la Cosa, of which more later. None of these earlier maps and charts contains the name America or any variation thereof.

Broome’s theory hinges on the third voyage. There has been much speculation concerning the fate of this voyage but very, very little substantiated fact. Broome wants to have Cabot sailing all the way down the coast of North America, mapping as he goes, right on into middle America were he meets the fleet of Alonso de Ojeda, whose pilot and cartographer was Juan de la Cosa and navigator was Vespucci, in 1499. In Broome’s theory Ojeda fought and defeated the English fleet and Cosa came into possession of Cabot’s map the source of the name America based on the name Amerike. The passage where Broome sets up this meeting is interesting for its nested speculations and I repeat it in full.

A Spanish historian, Martin Fernandez de Navarette, wrote in 1829:

 It is certain that Hojeda in his first voyage encountered certain Englishmen in the vicinity of Coquibacoa. [emphasis in original]

Other than the Cabot expedition, there were no other English expeditions in that area at that time. Navarette’s source is unknown, but he was a widely respected historian in his day.

 If this is what happened Amerigo Vespucci and Juan de la Cosa may have been present at this ghastly deed, and Cabot’s maps could have been taken in the encounter. This would have been the second time that Cabot’s extraordinary efforts to produce a map of the New World would wind up in the hands of the Spanish.

 From Venezuela, Hojeda and de la Cosa sailed north with two of the ships and joined Columbus at the settlement he had established at Hispaniola. The ships had to be laid up to repair damage they had suffered, some say from the battle with Cabot.

What we have here is an unsubstantiated report from a historian writing in the nineteenth-century, more than tree hundred years after the events, of an encounter between Ojeda and some anonymous Englishmen. There is no account of a battle, there is no account of maps taken, there is in fact nothing to back up Broome’s story in anyway what so ever. I like the “some say” at the end. Who says?

Juan de la Cosa produced a map of the Americas in 1500 and this according to Broome is the proof of his theory.

Carta Cosa 1500 (Wikipedia Commons)

Carta Cosa 1500 (Wikipedia Commons)

He writes:

De la Cosa must have used Cabot’s charts to prepare his map. The coastline west of Coquibacoa is drawn with surprising accuracy, in spite of the fact that de la Cosa had not ventured that far west.

Even if Broome were correct about the accuracy and the lack of westward voyaging of de la Cosa there is no evidence that the knowledge used in the construction of this chart comes from a highly hypothetical chart of Cabot’s. However the first two claims are not true. Kenneth Nebenzahl describes the delineation of the chart, as crude not “surprisingly accurate” and de la Cosa had been further west. De la Cosa made a total of five voyages to the Americas before he drew his chart. He took part in the first three Columbus voyages, in fact the Santa Maria was his ship, the voyage with Ojeda described above and a fifth voyage in 1500 during which he mapped Colombia and Panama, i.e. the coastline west of Coquibacoa. It is somewhat superfluous to point out that the de la Cosa Chart does not contain the name America.

One rather desperate attempt made by Broome towards the end of the book, displays either his ignorance of the material or his deliberate selection of the same to create a false impression on pages 111 and 112, referring to now lost 15th and 16th century Kalendars, he writes the following:

A summary of these Kalendars was made in 1565 by Maurice Toby, and in this compilation he uses the name “America”:

“The land of America was found by the merchants of Bristow.”

Under the mayoral year of 1496-1497, Toby recorded [… …]

“This year [1497] on St John the Baptist’s Day [June 24th], the land of America was found by the merchants of Bristow, in a ship of Bristowe called the “Mathew,” the which said ship departed from the port of Bristowe the 2nd May and came home again the 6th August following.”

Broome of course concludes that because Toby uses and is familiar with the term America it must have been contained in the original documents that he is referencing. This is by no means necessarily the case.

The name America was adopted very quickly by all the leading European cosmographers and cartographers. Johannes Schöner used it on his printed terrestrial globe in 1515 and in the accompanying cosmographia, his Luculentissima, where he repeats the Ringmann/Waldseemüller derivation of the term. He would go on to use the name on his manuscript globe from 1520 and his printed globe from 1533. Schöner’s globes were very successful and were sold all over Europe, including London as is shown by their presence in Holbein’s picture The Ambassadors that was painted in London in 1533.

Schöner Globe, Holbein's The Ambassadors 1533 (Wikipedia Commons)

Schöner Globe, Holbein’s The Ambassadors 1533 (Wikipedia Commons)

Peter Apian used the name on his world map of 1520 and in his Cosmographia of 1524. This book, under the editorship of Gemma Frisius from the 2nd edition of 1529, had at least thirty-two editions in many different languages throughout the sixteenth-century and was the most widely disseminated and read textbook on the subject in that century. Frisius used the name on his globes, as did his pupil Mercator on his highly successful terrestrial globe of 1541. Mercator was the first to use the name for both North and South America. Sebastian Munster used the name in his Cosmographia, first published in 1544, a book, which had twenty-four editions throughout the century and was translated into many different languages, including English. Selling over 120 000 copies in total, it was the biggest selling book of the sixteenth century. Many other lesser known cosmographers and cartographers also adopted the name in their published works. By 1550 America had become the accepted name for the new continent throughout Europe, with the exception of Spain, where this name was well known but rejected in favour of the name New India. Writing in 1565 about Cabot’s discovery Toby was almost certainly just using the current widespread name for the new continent.

On the subject of the reliability of nineteenth-century historians I will close with Broome’s comments on the globe of Martin Behaim, which lives just down the road from where I am typing this. The Behaim Globe is the oldest surviving terrestrial globe in the world and was created under the supervision of Martin Behaim in Nürnberg between 1491 and 1493. Broome claims that it is based on the Toscanelli map, the famous map commissioned by the Portuguese that helped convince the Spanish that Columbus’ idea of sailing west to the Spice Islands was viable, and that both Columbus and Cabot consulted it before undertaking their voyages. None of this is true. The Behaim globe is not based on the Toscanelli map and it was not consulted by either Columbus or Cabot. That Columbus consulted the Behaim globe before setting off on his first voyage is a fairy story put in the world by “widely respected” German historians in the nineteenth century to make Behaim seem more important having played a leading role in the discovery of America. This small aspect of his book is all too typical for Broome’s very uncritical use of sources. He repeats myths and wild speculations as historical facts if they fit the story he is desperately trying to construct usually without giving sources or as above with such phrases as “some say”!

We have two theories for the origin of the name America. One is a solidly substantiated theory on which there is nothing to criticise, the other is a piece of pure speculation without the slightest shred of real evidence to support it. I leave it to my readers to decide which one is more probably true.



Filed under History of Cartography, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Galileo, Foscarini, The Catholic Church, and heliocentricity in 1615 Part 2 –the consequences: A Rough Guide.

In part one I outlined the clash, which took place between Galileo and Foscarini on the one side and the Catholic Church on the other in the second decade of the seventeenth-century. I ended by saying that this initial confrontation had very few consequences for Galileo at the time, who continued to be the highly feted darling of the North Italian in-crowd, including the higher echelons of the Catholic Church. Of course the events of 1615/16 would come back to haunt Galileo when he was tried for writing and publishing his Dialogo in the 1630s but that is a very complex topic that require a post of its own sometime in the future. I also wrote that the books of Foscarini and of the Protestant Copernicans, Michael Maestlin and Johannes Kepler were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Interestingly De revolutionibus was only placed on the Index until corrected. It is here that we will pick up the thread and examine the consequences of the Church’s actions on the development of astronomy in the seventeenth-century.

What did it mean when I say that De revolutionibus was only placed on the Index until corrected? This means that De revolutionibus was not forbidden but that only those statements within the book, which claimed that heliocentricity was a proven fact, were to be removed. This mild censorship, only a handful of passages in the whole book were affected, was carried out comparatively quickly and the thus censored version was given free to be used by astronomers already in 1621. The whole of this episode demonstrates that the powers that be within the Church were well aware that De revolutionibus was an important astronomical text and should, despite the judgement of the eleven members of the commission set up to adjudicate on the affair that the idea that the Sun is stationary is “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture…”; while the Earth’s movement “receives the same judgement in philosophy and … in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith”, remain available to Catholic astronomers for their studies.

There is a widespread popular perception that the Church’s theological rejection of the theory of heliocentricity led to a breakdown of astronomical research in Catholic countries in the seventeenth-century. Nothing could be further from the truth. As mentioned in the first part of this post, some historians think that Cardinal Bellarmino’s admission in his letter to Foscarini that … if there were a real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary …, was interpreted by many Jesuit and Jesuit educated astronomers as a challenge to find an empirical proof for heliocentricity. As we shall see there is quite a lot of circumstantial evidence to support this claim.

An important historical fact to be born in mind when considering the development of astronomy in the seventeenth-century was that there existed no empirical proof for the heliocentric hypothesis, whether it be in the original form proposed by Copernicus or the much more sophisticated form developed by Kepler. The astronomers would have to wait until 1725 before James Bradley delivered the first proof of the earth’s annual orbit around the sun with his discovery of stellar aberration and slightly longer before the geodesists demonstrated that the earth is an oblate spheroid thus confirming a prediction made by both Newton and Huygens that diurnal rotation would result in the earth having this form thus proving indirectly the existence of diurnal rotation. This tends to be forgotten or simply ignored by those claiming that the Church should have accepted heliocentricity as a fact in 1615. In reality the heliocentricity became accepted by almost all astronomers whether Catholic or non-Catholic by around 1660, long before any empirical proof existed, on the basis of accumulated circumstantial evidence and the lack of a convincing alternative. A lot of that circumstantial evidence was delivered by Catholic astronomers, who despites the Catholic theological position, continued to work avidly on the development of the modern astronomy.

It is also important to realise that although the Church banned claiming that heliocentricity was a fact, the heliocentric theory, it was still perfectly possible to speculate about heliocentricity, the heliocentric hypothesis. Throughout the seventeenth-century Catholic astronomers in Italy adopted an interesting strategy to deal with the Church’s ban of the heliocentric theory. They would preface their works with a statement of the fact that in its wisdom the Church had shown the heliocentric theory to be contrary to Holy Scripture and thus factually false and then proceed to discuss this interesting mathematical hypothesis without claiming it to be true. This strategy sufficed for the Inquisition’s guardians of the truth and thus the astronomers continued to discuss and disseminate heliocentricity with impunity.

Scientific theories are not only disseminated by their supporters but often also by their opponents. Long before Galileo muddy the waters with his heated challenge to the Church’s exclusive right to interpret the Bible it is certain that more people learnt of the existence of the heliocentric hypothesis and its basic details from the works of Christoph Clavius, a convinced defender of geocentricity, than from De revolutionibus. In his commentary on the Sphere of Sacrobosco, an introductory astronomy textbook, Clavius discussed Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis sympathetically, respecting its mathematical sophistication, whilst firmly rejecting it. This book went through numerous editions and was the most widely disseminated and read, by both Catholic and Protestant students, astronomy textbook throughout most of the seventeenth-century and was for many their first introduction to the ideas of Copernicus. It was also Clavius’ postgraduate students, in his institute for mathematical research at the Collegio Romano, who provided the very necessary empirical confirmation of Galileo’s telescopic discoveries in 1611, shortly before Clavius’ death. This activity by Jesuit astronomers pushing the boundaries of astronomical knowledge did not cease following the decisions of 1616.

There was a slowdown in the development of modern astronomy in the second and third decades of the seventeenth-century that has nothing to do with the Church’s ban but was the result of a lack of technological advance. In the four years between 1609 and 1613 European astronomers had discovered everything that it was possible to discover using a Dutch or Galilean telescope with a convex objective and a concave eyepiece. The only new discoveries were the observations of a transit of Mercury by Gassendi in 1631 and a transit of Venus by Horrocks in 1639 neither of which had an immediate impact because they didn’t become widely known until much later. For various reasons, not least Galileo’s very public rejection of it as inferior, the superior Keplerian or astronomical telescope, with two convex lenses, didn’t start to become established until the 1640s. However once established the new discoveries began to flow again: the moons of Saturn, the rings of Saturn, diurnal rotation of the planets. Many of these new discoveries, which added new circumstantial evidence for heliocentricity, were made by Giovanni Domenico (Jean-Dominique) Cassini (1625–1712) a Jesuit educated Catholic astronomer. It was also Cassini, with the support of his teachers the Jesuits Giovanni Battista Riccioli and Francesco Maria Grimaldi, who proved, using the heliometer constructed for this purpose in the San Petronio church in Bologna, that either the sun’s orbit around the earth or the earth’s orbit around the sun must be an ellipse, as required by Kepler. Although this proved that the orbit is an ellipse it didn’t show which system was correct.

Cassini, who would go on to become the leading observational astronomer in Europe, always avoided committing himself to any systems simply delivering empirical results and leaving the cosmological interpretation to others. Although confirming Cassini’s heliometer results Riccioli stayed committed to semi-Tychonic system, in which the inner planets orbited the Sun, which in turn together with Saturn and Jupiter orbited the Earth. Riccioli presented this rather bizarre mongrel in his Almagestum Novum published in 1651. Riccioli’s Almagestum contained descriptions of all the various possible systems, including the Copernican, and became a very widely disseminated and read technical textbook for astronomers, both Catholic and Protestant. Like Clavius before him, Riccioli introduced many to heliocentricity for the first time. The Almagestum contained 126 arguments concerning the Earth’s motion 49 pro and 77 contra the most extensive discussion of the problem ever. You can read Chris Graney’s English translation of the arguments here. Although Riccioli came out against heliocentricity his analysis was sympathetic enough to the concept that he was actually investigated by the Inquisition.

Having been made available by the Index copies of De revolutionibus appear only to have been actually censored within Italy nearly all the surviving censored copies, including Galileo’s, coming from there. Outside of Italy, with the notable exception of Descartes, nobody seems to have taken very much notice of the Inquisition’s ban. Descartes appears to have withheld publication of his The World, in the 1630s, containing his defence of heliocentricity, out of respect for his Jesuit teachers. Publishing his views, in modified form, first in his Principles of Philosophy in 1644.

Another Frenchman, Pierre Gassendi like Descartes educated by the Jesuits, who became professor of mathematics at the Collège Royal in Paris in 1645 published his views on astronomy in his Institutio astronomica, although formally a supporter of the Tychonic system, Gassendi’s presentation of the Copernican system is so sympathetic that many historians have interpreted him as a secret supporter of heliocentricity. Gassendi also published biographies of Tycho, Peuerbach, Regiomontanus and Copernicus. Like Riccioli, Gassendi’s astronomical writings were very popular and very widely read, again leading to a widespread dissemination of the principles of heliocentricity.

Another leading French Catholic astronomer, Ismael Boulliau was an open and avid supporter of the Keplerian elliptical astronomy and was indeed the first to hypothesise that gravity ought to be an inverse quadrate force, a significant step in the road to acceptance of heliocentricity. It was Boulliau’s dispute with the English astronomer Seth Ward about Kepler’s second law, which nobody liked, both parties offering alternatives, that first made Newton aware of Kepler’s system.

By about 1660 enough circumstantial evidence had been accumulated that most astronomers in Europe both Catholic and Protestant, with the necessary education to do so, had accepted heliocentricity as a fact with a small minority still holding out for a Tychonic system. In the end the Tychonic system had fallen victim of Ockham’s razor being viewed as overly complex in comparison with the Keplerian elliptical system for which more and more evidence had accumulated throughout the preceding fifty years. A significant advance in the development of modern physics in which Galileo’s Discorsi had played an important role also contributed crucially to this acceptance, dealing as it did with the physical problems of terrestrial motion. A detailed analysis of these developments would make this already over long post even longer and must be dealt with separately.

Although by no means an exhaustive presentation of the development of astronomy in the seventeenth-century, I think the above contains enough to demonstrate that the Church’s ban of the heliocentric theory had very little negative influence on that development and that Catholic astronomers played a leading role within it. Returning to my earlier speculation, I feel justified in saying that had Galileo and Foscarini not forced the Church’s theologians into a corner in 1615, then the Catholic astronomers, and in particular the Jesuits and their pupils, would have led the Church to an acceptance of heliocentricity within the seventeenth-century.




Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science

How much can you get wrong in an eight hundred word biographical sketch of a very famous sixteenth and seventeenth-century mathematicus and philosophicus? – One helluva lot it seems?

If someone is doing the Internet equivalent of being a big-mouthed braggart and posting an article with the screaming title, “10 Absurdly Famous People You Probably Don’t Know Enough About” you would expect them to at least get their historical facts right, wouldn’t you? Well you would be wrong at least as far as “absurdly famous” person number seven is concerned, Galileo Galilei. Tim Urban the author of this provocative article on the ‘Wait But Why’ blog appears to think that history of science is something that you make up as you go along based on personal prejudice mixed up with some myths you picked up some night whilst drunk in a bar. Having not had a real go at somebody else’s terrible history of science for sometime now and not having deflated my favourite punching bag, Galileo or rather the hagiographic imbeciles who write about him, for even longer I thought I would kill two birds with one stone and correct Mr Urban’s little piece as it were a high school term paper. The blue text is original Urban the black comments are mine.


Lived: 1564 – 1642

He makes a promising start in that he at least got the years of birth and death right, although with the same amount of effort he could have given us the exact dates – 15 February 1564 – 8 January 1642

In 11 words: Rare giant of scientific advancement fighting against hopelessly-backward Catholic Church

After that reasonably good beginning we go rapidly down hill. As I have commented on a number of occasions Galileo was by no means as rare or as gigantic as he is usually painted. He also spent most of his life getting along very happily with the Catholic Church with whom he was on good terms and which was in a lot of things, including scientific one, anything but hopelessly-backward. Just to quote one example about which I’ve blogged in the past, it was the Jesuit astronomers at the Collegio Romano who delivered the very necessary scientific confirmations of Galileo’s telescopic astronomical discoveries and then invited Galileo to Rome to celebrate them.

His main thing: Einstein called Galileo “the father of modern science,” which sums things up pretty nicely.

Einstein, as a leading historian of Renaissance science is of course highly qualified to make such a judgement. Regular readers of this blog should by now know my opinion of such expressions as “the father of” and in particular their use to describe Galileo. For those that don’t I recommend my post, “Extracting the stopper”, as a good starting-point.

Galileo made major discoveries about the motion of planets and stars, the motion of uniformly accelerated objects (i.e. that two objects would fall at the same rate regardless of their masses), sound frequency, and the basic principle of relativity, among other things

I must admit to being somewhat perplexed by the claim that Galileo made “major discoveries about the motion of planets and stars”; I’m not aware of any achievements by the good man in this direction, perhaps somebody could enlighten me?

—and major advancements in technology, including inventing or improving upon the telescope, microscope, thermometer, pendulum, and the compass.

Galileo made an improved telescope and might have been one inventor of the microscope, although this is clouded in uncertainty. He experimented with a thermoscope, not a thermometer, but probably did not invent it. He neither invented nor improved the pendulum and I don’t think he or anybody else ever claimed that he did so. He did however investigate the properties of the pendulum, although the law he set out for the pendulum is actually wrong.

The last claim is quite funny and turns up time and time again quoted by people who literally don’t know what they are talking about. Galileo had nothing to do with the (magnetic) compass but manufactured and marketed an improved version of the sector, or proportional or military compass. This is a hinged ruler with numerous scales used for making mathematical calculations particularly by artillery officers. This instrument has several independent inventors; the one improved by Galileo was invented by his mentor, Guidobaldo del Monte.

Galileo's military compass

Galileo’s military compass

His work was central to most future developments in science, including those of Newton and Einstein, and most of what he discovered was in contradiction with conventional wisdom—his work was as shocking and revolutionary in the 1600s as Einstein proclaiming that “time is relative” was in the 1900s.

This is typical of the hagiographical hogwash dished up by people writing about Galileo. The only part of Galileo’s work ‘central’ to Newton was the parabolic flight path of projectiles, which was discovered independently by other including Thomas Harriot. His only connection to Einstein is the rejection of Galilean relativity in the theory of the latter. Very little of Galileo’s own work was shocking and the only parts that were in anyway revolutionary were the laws of fall, discovered independently and earlier by Benedetti, and heliocentricity, a field in which Galileo was not the discoverer or inventor but merely the polemicist, who probably did more damage than good through his advocacy.

But the most impressive part about Galileo, other than his ability to make such a cranky facial expression in the above painting, is that he did everything he did in the face of threats and repression by the Catholic Church and their inane loathing of ground breaking scientific advancements.

I begin to get the impression that our author has a personal problem with the Catholic Church, which did not have an “inane loathing of ground breaking scientific advancements”, and except in the one case Galileo did nothing in “the face of threats and repression by the Catholic Church” but actually received much support and encouragement from many leading figure in the Church hierarchy for the vast majority of his life and work.

The main thing the Church kept yelling at Galileo for was his backing and advancement of Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the universe, which puts the sun, instead of the Earth, in the center of the solar system and suggests that the Earth’s spinning is why the sun appears to revolve around the Earth. The Church declared heliocentrism to be “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture”—in particular, the parts of scripture that said things like, “the world is firmly established, it cannot be moved” and “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved”—and ordered Galileo “to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it… to abandon completely… the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing. “That would be like modern-day governments imprisoning geologists who studied ancient rocks because their findings conflicted with the Bible’s accounts of the Great Flood. Or like preventing gay people from getting married because of passages in the Bible about sexual orientation. Thankfully, those times are over.

The above paragraph contains the real reason that Mr Urban is frothing at the mouth about the Catholic Church, Galileo’s clash with the Church on heliocentricity. Once again I’m not going to go into great detail about the whole sad sorry affair but will for the umpteenth time repeat that the central problem had very little to do with science, astronomy, cosmology or whatever but with the fact that in 1615 Galileo tried to tell the Church how to interpret the Bible. If he had not done this and instead bided his time patiently, as suggested by his friends, including Cardinal Maffeo Barberini the later Pope Urban VIII, the Church would in its own time almost certainly have adopted heliocentricity. Instead of which through Galileo’s pig-headedness the acceptance of heliocentricity by the Catholic Church was delayed by about one hundred and fifty years.

So the Church repressed the greatest genius of the century,

There’s no such thing as the greatest!

… finding him “vehemently suspect of heresy,” and placed him under house arrest for the rest of his life. Luckily, Galileo just hung out on his couch and kept doing his thing, publishing some of his most important works while under house arrest.

I know Galileo fans and militant atheists don’t like to hear this but, for the ‘crime’ of which he was found guilty, Galileo was treated very, very gently and his sentence was very mild.

Other things:

  • Galileo never married, having all three of his children out of wedlock with the same woman.
  • We got something right!
  • One of the reasons Galileo started inventing things (like the telescope) in the first place was that he badly needed money to deal with all the money his starving artist little brother kept “borrowing” from him.
  • Like many Renaissance mathematicians Galileo supplemented his income by designing, manufacturing and selling scientific instruments. He didn’t invent the telescope! Galileo was notoriously always short of money not because he supported his little brother financially, which he did, but because he enjoyed the good life and tended to live beyond his means.
  • He was briefly a professor at the University of Pisa, but he was inappropriate with his students and the university didn’t renew his contract.
  • The second part of the above sentence is a pure fabrication. Galileo was professor of mathematics in Pisa from 1589 till 1592 when he applied for and received the more prestigious and better-paid professorship for mathematics in Padua where he remained until 1610.
  • Despite his conflicts with the Church, Galileo was a devout Catholic. He briefly became a priest before his father convinced him to go into medicine, and his two daughters were nuns. But he was critical of the Church’s repression of science, stating, “Holy Writ was intended to teach men how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.”
  • That Galileo was a devout Catholic is a standard claim in the history of science repeated, I think, to make the Church look worse for their persecution of the man. This claim has been strongly challenged by Renaissance historian; David Wootton in his biography “Galileo: Watcher of the Skies” (Yale University Press, 2010), which paints Galileo convincingly as a very lax Catholic and possibly an unbeliever. Galileo was never a priest but did spend a few months in a monastery as a teenage novice, although he never took holy orders. Galileo’s two daughters were placed in a monastery because, being illegitimate, he considered them unmarriageable and also to spare him the cost of their dowries, a standard procedure in that period.
  • One of Galileo’s worst offenses against the Church was creating a character called Simplico in his famous book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, who always presented the old, incorrect, geocentric view. Simplico suggests “simpleton” in Italian just like it does in English, and in the book, Simplico does not come off very well. The issue is that a lot of what Simplico says in the book were well known to be the direct views of the Pope (Urban VIII), indirectly insulting the Pope and hastening Galileo’s path toward house arrest.
  • The character in the Dialogo who presents the case for geocentricity is called Simplicio not Simplico. The insult of the Pope was much more direct than suggested here. When Urban VIII granted Galileo permission to write a book explaining both geocentricity and heliocentricity, in order to prove that Catholics were not ignorant of the latter theory, he specifically instructed Galileo to include his own theological argument against deciding for one system over the other because this would “limit and restrict the Devine power and wisdom to some particular fancy of my own”. A not unreasonable viewpoint given that there were no proofs for the heliocentric system at that time. Galileo did as instructed including exactly those words in the final speech of Simplicio, the simpleton, on the last page of the book, who had had seven kinds of intellectual shit kicked out of him in the preceding four hundred pages (in the edition I own) by the other two characters. This really reduced Urban’s argument to a joke! Not a smart move, Signore Galilei.
  • It wasn’t until 200 years later in 1835 that the Church finally stopped its prohibition of books advocating heliocentrism and not until 1992 that the Vatican officially cleared Galileo’s name of any wrongdoing.
  • The church allowed the publication of an edition of Galileo’s works, excluding the Dialogo, in 1718 just 76 years after his death. In 1741 a complete edition of his works was authorised by Pope Benedict XIV. The general ban on works advocating heliocentricity was lifted in 1758.
  • It should be noted that Galileo’s church difficulties occurred in the heart of the Renaissance. You can only imagine what it was like to be a scientist in the far more repressive Middle Ages (and how much potential scientific advancement was stifled).
  • We’re back in anti-Church bullshit city! Within the history of science Galileo’s difficulties with the Church, which he largely brought down on his own head, remain a largely isolated incident. The Middle Ages were by no means more repressive than the Renaissance and in fact much scientific progress was made during the Middle Ages, following the re-establishment of an urban culture around 1000 CE. Also it should be noted that the majority of that progress was made by members of the Catholic Church. Galileo was very much aware of the work of his medieval predecessors and built his own work on the foundations that they had constructed.
  • Some weirdo cut the middle finger off of Galileo’s corpse a century after his death, and it is currently on display at the Museo Galileo in Florence.
  • He got something right again!
  • Galileo’s dad begrudgingly allowed him to leave medicine in favor of mathematics and died a few years later when Galileo was an amateur math professor—he had no idea his son was anything special, let alone “the Father of Modern Science.”
  • It is true that Vincenzo Galilei was not particularly enthusiastic when his son abandoned his medical studies, however Galileo was never an “amateur math professor” but a fully paid professional. On the “Father of Modern Science”, see above.

2014 equivalent: Elon Musk

I find the concept of Elon Musk being the 2014 equivalent of Galileo Galilei quite simply mindboggling!

Mr Urban your term paper does not meet the required standards. Your research is to put it mildly very sloppy and personal prejudice is not a substitute for scholarly endeavour, therefore I cannot award you anything but an F!


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Published on…

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