Sometime back I revealed on Twitter that I am having serious problems walking. I have had back problems, which have got steadily worse, for more than twenty years that make walking unpleasant but, as long as I don’t overdo it, can be mostly ignored. However, since about five or six months, whenever I start to walk my legs feel tired and heavy, a feeling which gets progressively worse as I continue to walk. A kilometre is about the limit of my mobility at the moment and at the end of that kilometre I’m fucked!

After various visits to doctors, my orthopaedist x-rayed my spine and thought he had detected a spinal stenosis in my lumbar vertebrae, which was confirmed by an MRI. In fact, I have a double stenosis. A stenosis is when a vertebra touches or puts pressure on the spinal column, causing problems with the nerves affected and the parts of the body those nerves serve. He referred me to the specialist spinal unit of a local hospital for conservative treatment, which consists of epidural injections and physiotherapy. 

MRI of a lumbar spinal stenosis L4-L5. L4-L5 antherolisthesis of grade I Source: Wikimedia Commons My double stenosis is between L3 and L5

The clinic’s spinal specialist after examining and questioning me decided that my double stenosis didn’t explain my symptoms, and sent me for more tests and MRIs of different parts of my spine. The end result was that they still don’t know what is causing my symptoms, so they have decided to take me into hospital for more tests and for the conservative treatment initially suggested by my orthopaedist. 

I go into hospital at eight o’clock tomorrow morning, initially for three to five days for a series of epidural injections and further examination by orthopaedists, neurologists, internal medicine specialists, Old Uncle Thom Cobley and all. I have scheduled my normal weekly blog post for 10:00 am CEST on Wednesday; I have never done this before, so I hope it works. Theoretically I should be out of the clinic in time to write next weeks blog, but if I’m not I shall announce that here. 


Filed under Autobiographical

The social, cultural, and political dimensions of time

Long time readers of this blog will know that I conduct history of astronomy tours of the city of Nürnberg. This tour always starts at the main railway station at 10:30 am. This is so that having wound our way through the city, we arrive at the marketplace at the latest at 11:30, in time to drink a cup of coffee before 12:00. At twelve a crowd will have gathered on the marketplace gazing up at the impressive looking clock of the Frauenkirche, anticipating the Männlienlaufen, in English “the little men walking.   

Frauenkirche Nürnberg Clock Source: Wikimedia Commons

Beneath the impressive blue and gold clock dial sits an even more impressive Holy Roman Emperor on his throne holding the symbols of his office the orb and sceptre in his hands. He is flanked by two trumpeters holding floor length trumpets. Above the trumpeter on the right is a drummer and above the one to the left a flute player. Next to the drummer above the Emperor is a town-crier with a bell and next to the flautist a man holding up a sundial (he lost his sundial down the years). Above the clock dial is a blue and gold ball which shows the phases of the moon, still accurate today. Above the moon ball is an open bell tower flanked by two bellringers wielding hammers.

As noon arrives the mechanical clock begins its display. As the clock chimes the hour the two trumpeters raise their trumpets to play a fanfare. Then the drummer and the flute player both play. The town crier next to the drummer and the man holding up his sundial on the other side do their thing. At the end of this initial display, the two bell ringers above the clock being ringing their bells with their hammers. As these bells chime, A door to the right of the seated Emperor opens and seven, ornately clothed worthies troop out, circling the Emperor turning to view him as they pass; he in turn blesses them with his sceptre. They disappear through a door on the left only to appear once again on through the door on the right. The worthies circle the Emperor three times and then the display is over for another day.

When the display is over, I then explain the origins of the clock and its significance to my, mostly suitably impressed, guests. In 1356, the then Holy Roman Emperor, Karl IV, issued the so-called Golden Bull whilst holding court in the Imperial City of Nürnberg. This document became the constitution of the Holy Roman Empire and amongst many other laws it contains the rules for the election of the emperor and names the seven Kurfürsten (English Electors), who are appointed to carry out this task, the Archbishops of Mainz, Köln, and Trier, the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine, the Duke of Saxony, and the Margrave of Brandenburg. 

In 1506, the city council of Nürnberg ordered the construction of the clock to celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the issuing of the Golden Bull and it continues to do so until today. The seven figures circling the emperor and paying him obeisance are the seven Kurfürsten and their ornate clothing is their robes of office. 

All of this means that this spectacular clock and its display symbolises quite a lot. It symbolises the central position of power of the Holy Roman Emperor and because it celebrates the Golden Bull it also represents the laws by which he exercises that power. It symbolises the orderly process by which, at least theoretically, the seven Kurfürsten choose and appoint the emperor, to rule over the patch work of nations and states that constituted the Holy Roman Empire. I say theoretically because the process was very often anything but orderly, sometimes even descending into war. Built in the façade of one on Nürnberg’s most prominent churches it symbolises the bond between Church and state; the Holy Roman Emperor was traditionally crowned by the pope. The issuing of the Golden Bull and this monument to it symbolises Nürnberg’s significance as an imperial city within the empire. Lastly, the clock itself and the man holding the sundial symbolise Nürnberg’s status as Europe’s premium manufacturer of scientific instruments. 

Analysed thus, this clock appears to carry a very heavy symbolic burden. One could perhaps argue that this is a unique timepiece, which indeed it is, and that the symbolism that it carries is thus also unique. Whilst this is true for some aspects, the Golden Bull for example, it is actually so that there is nothing really unique in the Nürnberger Frauenkirche clock’s political, social, religious, and commercial symbolism. Timepieces have almost always fulfilled these varied symbolic roles and historian of time David Rooney has written an excellent book detailing the symbolic functions of clocks down the ages from antiquity to the present, his About TimeA History of Civilisation in Twelve Clocks.[1]

The first thing to say about Rooney’s book is that the title contains a fib. There are not just twelve clocks in his book but lots more, in fact altogether not twelve but dozens of timepieces. So, why does he say twelve? This has to do with the structure of the book. The book has twelve chapters each one of which deals with a social, cultural, commercial, or political aspect of human existence that is effected or influenced or controlled or dictated or dominated by the measuring of the passage of time, described by a single word title. The theme of each chapter is introduced by one specific clock, whereby the word clock is used fairly elastically, and the word timepiece might be more appropriate. Having introduced his exemplary timepiece and explained how it produces the social effect described by the chapter’s title word, he then goes on to described other similar timepieces that fulfil the same function. 

To take one example. The second chapter of Rooney’s book is simply entitled Faith. It starts with a detailed description of al-Jazarī’s truly magnificent, water driven Castle clock from 1206.

Automatic castle clock of al-Jazari, 14th century copy. Source: Wikipedia Commons The book illustration is very poor quality

And believe you me, it was truly mind blowing in its complexity and took twenty-five years to construct. Although, built to impress the king Nāsir al-Dīn, his patron, its main was function was to demonstrate al-Dīn’s devotion to the worship of Allah. Having set up the concept of a clock as a symbol of religious devotion Rooney takes us on a tour of other Islamic devotional clocks, then moving on to timepieces used to mark the passage of time in Jewish, Sikh and Buddhist religious practice. Arriving on our journey in Europe and the story of the great medieval mechanical clocks found in churches and cathedrals celebrating God the creator of the universe.

My Nürnberg clock is a direct descendent of these awe-inspiring creations. We then trace the development of the modern mechanical clock out of these medieval marvels and the concept of time controlling the lives of upstanding people. The chapter closes with the author’s visit to the Museum of Science and Technology Museum in Islam in Saudi Arabia, which included a visit to the imposing Makkah Royal Clock Tower. 

The last is a strong feature of the book. Rooney, a master storyteller, doesn’t just talk about clocks, but also relates his own personal pilgrimages to view, admire, study, and learn about remarkable timepieces throughout the world. This is not just a book about time and timekeeping but also about the author’s lifelong journey to an understanding of time and the role that it has played in human existence. An understanding that he communicates to his readers in a flowing, easily accessible, and highly readable style. Rooney’s book relates how he became a time lord and invites his readers to undertake a journey through time and space in his time machine narrative. 

So where does time lord Rooney take us in his time machine narrative?  We set off in chapter one, Order, in ancient Rome in 263 BC and the introduction of the sundial into Roman culture and the dictate of order that measured time brought to that culture. Then, we follow that same dictate through other ancient cultures. Chapter two, Faith, as we have already seen shows the concept of time as imbodied in religions. Chapter three, Virtue, explains, amongst other things, how the hourglass became a symbol for virtue in the Middle Ages.

In chapter four, Markets, we spring into the seventeenth century and the birth of the stock exchanges closely followed by the stock exchange clock, to regulate the periods when share dealing was permitted. This leads us on the standardised time and those who created and sold it to those who needed it. Astronomical Knowledge is the theme of chapter five, and the observatories that were built to obtain that knowledge. Astronomical knowledge is, of course, the fundament of time measurement. Chapter six takes into the world of Empires and the elaborate time signals–time balls, midday cannons etc.–that the rulars of empire installed all over the globe, in the nineteenth century to give accurate time to their marine fleets, so that they could navigate on the high seas.

We enter the world of Manufacture in chapter seven and in particular the world of clock manufacture in the modern period. Here Rooney traces how and why the market dominance changed from European country to European country over time. Chapter eight tackles Morality starting with the introduction of an electric time system in Brno at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is an introduction to the beginnings of rigorous time standardisation throughout the world. Chapter nine, Resistance, deals with the pushbacks against the dictates of time that have flared up from time to time throughout history. He starts with the fascinating, suffragette attempted bombings of those centres of time, the Royal Observatories in Edinburgh and Greenwich.

Chapter ten, Identity, tells the story of TIM, the British talking clock, and the fascinating story of how TIM’s voice was selected in a nationwide casting competition, and you thought casting shows were a recent invention. What identity should the voice of time have? This chapter evoked strong memories of having often dialled TIM and hearing those crisp English tones, at the third stroke…

The original voice of TIM

This expands to the general, perhaps central, question, what are clocks or rather what are clocks to us, the people who live with and by them? Chapter eleven, War, brings a very central theme of human existence or perhaps those attempts to end that existence and a very modern application of time the invention of GPS. You use GPS to help you navigate the traffic jams on the way home from you well-earned summer holidays, but you shouldn’t forget that GPS was developed to help the military land its guided missiles on target. GPS is in essence nothing more and nothing less that a network of very accurate clocks. Here, Rooney wakes the spectre of a doomsday disaster. Over the decades an incredible amount of earth-bound infrastructure has become totally depended on GPS and related systems; Rooney dares to pose the question, what would occur if the systems all failed?

Chapter twelve, Peace, takes the reader into the future and into the realm of clocks designed and built to still function millennia from now, as time capsules, a message to our descendants, should we actually still have any.

Rooney’s book is a masterpiece in telling us how our lives, our very existence, became subservient to the dictates of time and its measuring devices, the clock in all its myriad forms. As already stated, Rooney is a master storyteller, and his narrative is a deceptively simple read. It’s interpretation and the digestion of its message are perhaps not so simple. There are endnotes that are simple short references to the selected bibliographies presented for each individual chapter. The apparatus is rounded out with a comprehensive index. The book is illustrated with the now ubiquitous greyscale prints, several of which leave much to be desired in terms of quality, my only complaint in an otherwise excellent volume.

This is not a book for specialist historians of science and technology, who however can read this book and gain much in doing so, but a book for everyone, who in interested in the relationship between the human species and time and how it got to where it is, and that should actually be everyone.  

[1] David Rooney, About TimeA History of Civilisation in Twelve Clocks, Viking an imprint of Penguin Books, London, 2021


Filed under Uncategorized

Renaissance Science – XVIII

One area of knowledge that changed substantially during the Renaissance was the study of medicine and the branch of medicine that probably changed the most was anatomy. This change has produced two notable myths that need to be quickly dealt with before we tackle the real history. 

The myths concern Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) and Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564), the two most well-known anatomical practitioners of the period. According to the first myth that applies to both of them, although most often associated with Leonardo, is that they had to carry out their anatomical studies of the human body secretly, because dissection was forbidden by the Church. The second applies to Vesalius and is the oft repeated claim, in one form or another, that he singlehandedly launched a revolution in the study of anatomy out of the blue. I will deal with the Leonardo did it all in secret myth first and the Vesalius myth in due course.

To start with there was no Church ban on dissections. Like most apprentice artists in the Renaissance, Leonardo began his study of human anatomy during his apprenticeship. His master, Andrea del Verrochio (1435–1488), insisted that his apprentices gain a thorough grounding in anatomy.

Half-length portrait of Andrea del Verrocchio, Italian painter and sculptor, engraved on a copperplate by Nicolas de Larmessin and printed in a book “Académie des Sciences et des Arts” written by Isaac Bullart and published in Amsterdam by Elzevier in 1682.

Leonardo would probably have attended the public dissections carried out in winter at the local university. Leonardo being Leonardo took a greater interest in the topic than that required by an artist, and he was granted permission to carry out dissections in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence.

Old facade of the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florencebefore the completion of the porch (painting by Fabio Borbottoni, 1820-1902)

Later he carried out dissections in hospitals in Milan and Rome. From 1510 to 1511, he collaborated with Marcantonio della Torre (1481–1511) lecturer on anatomy at the universities of Pavia and Padua.

Marcantonio della Torre Source:

There is evidence that they intended to publish a book together, but the endeavour was torpedoed by della Torre’s death in 1511. Leonardo never published his extensive collection of anatomical drawings, and although there is some evidence that they were viewed by other Renaissance artists, they only became generally known in the nineteenth century and had no real influence on the development of medicine.

Leonardo Anatomical study of the arm (c. 1510) Source: Wikimedia Commons

I said above that Leonardo might well have attended public dissections at the local university, this was a well-established practice by the time Leonardo was learning anatomy. The most prominent anatomist in antiquity was Galen of Pergamon (129–c. 216 CE), whose work, however, suffered from the problem that it was largely based on the dissection of animals rather than humans.  His medical text had arrived in medieval Europe via the Arabic world in the twelfth century, but his major anatomy texts were somehow not translated at this time. In the early period of the medieval university anatomy was taught from authoritative texts rather than from dissection. This changed in the fourteenth century with the work of Mondino de Luzzi (c. 1270­–1326), professor in Bologna, who carried out the first public dissection on a human corpse in 1315. He was possibly inspired by animal dissections carried out in Salerno in the previous century. He published the results of his anatomical work, Anthomia corporis humani in 1316. This became a standard textbook. 

Titelpage ofAnathomia Mundini Emèdata p doctoré melerstat (“Anatomy of Mundinus. Published byDoktor Mellrichstadt”, 1493. Source: Erlangen University Library via Wikimedia Commons

It soon became obligatory for all medical students to attend at least one or sometimes two public dissections during their studies. These dissections were always conducted in winter, to keep the corpse fresher longer, usually in a specially constructed, temporary wooden building in the grounds of the university. By 1400 regular anatomical dissections were an established part of the curriculum in most medical schools. The corpse was dissected on a table in the middle of the room, usually by a barber-surgeon, surrounded by the students and other observers, whilst the professor on a raised lecture platform read the prescribed text (see image above), usually Mondino, sometimes supplemented by Galen’s De Juvamentis. This although Niccoò da Reggio (1280-?) had produced the first full Latin translation of Galen’s anatomical text On the Use of the Parts in 1322. The first printed edition of Anthomia corporis humani appeared in 1476 and more than 40 editions had appeared altogether by the end of the sixteenth century. A tradition of published commentaries on Modino also became established by the professors who lectured on anatomy. 

In the early years of the sixteenth century the Humanist Renaissance made its appearance in the study of anatomy with new translations of Galen directly from the Greek and a growing disdain for the earlier translations from Arabic. In 1528 a series of four handy texts in pocket size was published for students including Galen’s On the Use of Parts, in the da Reggio translation, a new translation of On the Motion of Muscles, and the translation by Thomas Linacre (c. 1460–1524) of On the Natural Faculties from 1523. Paris had now risen to be a major centre for the study of medicine and the professor for anatomy, Johannes Winter von Andernach (1505–1574) produced the first Latin translation of Galen’s newly discovered and most important De Anatomicis Administrationibus (On Anatomical Procedures) 9 vols. Paris in 1531.

Bibliotheca chalcographica, hoc est Virtute et eruditione clarorum Virorum Imagines, Jean-Jacques Boissard (1528-1602), Teodoro de Bry (1528-1598)SOurce: Wikimedia Commons

Equally important was his own textbook, Anatomicarum institutionum, secundum Galeni sententiam (Anatomical Institutions according to the opinions of Galen) 4 vols, Paris and Basel, 1536; Venice, 1538; Padua, 1558.


Earlier than this Berengario da Capri (c. 1460–c. 1530) was the first to include anatomical illustrations into his work, a commentary on Mondino published in 1521 and his Isagogae breves in anatomiam humani corporis (A Short but very Clear and Fruitful Introduction to the Anatomy of the Human Body, Published by Request of his Students) a year later. From the 1520s onwards there was an increasing stream of anatomy books entering the market. 

Berengario da Capri Isagogae breves in anatomiam humani corporis 1523
Anatomical plate by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi depicting a pregnant woman with opened uterus Source: Wikimedia Commons

It should by now be clear that when Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) appeared on the scene that both anatomy and dissection were well establish areas of study in the European schools of medicine, albeit the oft highly inaccurate anatomy of Galen. Of interest here is that when dissectors discovered things in their work that contradicted the contents of Galen’s work, they tended to believe the written text rather than their own eyes.

Vesalius was born Andries van Wesel in Brussels, then part of the Spanish Netherlands, in 1514, the son of Andries van Wesel (1479–1544) and Isabel Crabbe. He was born into a well-connected medical family, his father was apothecary to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian (1459–1519) and then valet de chambre to his son Charles V (1500­–1558), His grandfather Everard van Wessel was Royal Physician to Maximillian and His great grandfather Jan van Wesel received his medical degree from the University of Parvia and was professor for medicine at the University of Leuven.

A portrait of Vesalius from his De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Vesalius studied Greek and Latin with the Brethren of the Common Life a pietist religious community before entering the University of Leuven in 1528. In 1533 he transferred to the University of Paris where he came under the Galenic influence of Johannes Winter von Andernach and in fact assisted him in preparing his Anatomicarum institutionum for the press. In 1536 he was forced to leave Paris due to hostilities between France and the Holy Roman Empire. He returned to the University of Leuven to complete his studied graduating in 1537. His doctoral thesis was a commentary on the ninth book of the ten century, twenty-three volume Al-Hawi or Kitāb al-Ḥāwī fī al-ṭibb by the Persian physician Abū Bakr Muhammad Zakariyyā Rāzī (854–925) known in medieval Europe as Rhazes. This was translated, in the fourteenth century as The Comprehensive Book on Medicine and was a central textbook on the medieval European universities.

During his time in Leuven his was friends with Gemma Frisius (1508–1555), who became professor of medicine at the university, but is more famous for his work as a mathematician, cartographer, astronomer, astrologer, and instrument maker. According to one story the two of them, whilst out walking one day, stole parts of a corpse from a gallows to study.

Vesalius and Gemma Frisius remove a dead man from the gallows (Artist unknown).

On the day of his graduation, he was offered the position of professor for surgery and anatomy (explicator chirurgiae) at the University of Padua. With the assistance of the artist Johan van Calcar (c. 1499–1546), a student of Titian, he produced six large posters of anatomical illustrations for his students. When he realised that they were being pirated, he published them himself as Tabulae anatomicae sex in 1538. He followed this in 1539 with an updated edition of Winter von Andernach’s Anatomicarum institutionum.

Tabulae II of Vesalius’s ” Tabulae Anatomicae Sex ” (1538). Note the 5-lobed liver, which is reminiscent of simian anatomy. The original text surrounding the figure has been removed. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London, UK.  

Vesalius’s great change was that rather than regurgitating Galen and/or Mondino he devoted himself to doing his own basic research on the dissection table. Well trained by Winter von Andernach he approached his task with an open mind and wide open eyes. The result was a new catalogue of human anatomy that corrected many of the errors and mistaken beliefs contained in the works of Galen. Mistakes produced because Galen’s work was, as Vesalius was keen to point out, carried out on animals and not humans, under the assumption that a liver is a liver, whether in a dog or a human. It is also important to note that Vesalius did not think that he had overthrown Galen, as is often claimed, but that he had corrected Galen.

Vesalius took the results of his investigations to Basel, where he assisted the printer/publisher Johannes Oporinus (1507–1568) to prepare his monumental, and, its fair to say, revolutionary work, De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem, published in 1543.

Portrait of Johannes Oporinus by Hans Bock Source: Wikimedia Commons

He simultaneously published an abridged edition for students, his Andrea Vesalii suorum de humani corporis fabrica librorum epitome (which only contained six images)

The book contains 273 highly impressive and informative illustration that are usually attributed to Johan van Calcar, but there are doubts about this attribution.

Vesalius Fabrica frontispiece Source: Wikimedia Commons

Each of the seven books is devoted to a different aspect of the body: Book 1: The Bones and Cartilages,

Book 2: The Ligaments and Muscles,

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Book 3: The Veins and Arteries,

Book 4: The Nerves, Book 5: The Organs of Nutrition and Generation,

Book 6: The Heart and Associated Organs,

Figure of the heart rolled toward the right side but also showing the recurrent laryngeal nerves. Woodcut illustration from the Fabrica (Vesalii, 1543), Liber VI, p. 564 (due to a mistake in the page numbering, this should be p. 664). Courtesy of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.  

Book 7: The Brain. 

From the 1543 book in the collection in National Institute of Medicine. Andreas Vesalius’ Fabrica, showing the Base Of The Brain, including the cerebellum, olfactory bulbs, optic nerve.

(All De Fabrica images via Wikimedia Commons

Vesalius almost singlehandedly raised the study of anatomy to new levels and the book was a financial success despite the very high printing costs. A second edition was published in 1555 and there is evidence that Vesalius was preparing a third edition, which, however, never appeared. The fame that De fabrica brought him led to him being appointed imperial physician to Charles V. When he announced his intention to leave the University of Padua, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici offered him a position at the University of Pisa, which he declined. He remained at the imperial court becoming physician to Philipp II, following Charles V’s abdication. In 1559 when Philipp moved his court to Madrid, Vesalius remained at the court in the Netherland. In 1564 he went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem from which he never returned, dying on the journey home. There are numerous speculations as to why he undertook this pilgrimage, but the final answer is that we don’t know why.

Vesalius revolutionised the study of anatomy and was followed by many prominent successors in Padua and other North Italian universities, which we will look at in the next episode of this series. However, his own work was not without error, and he left much still to be discovered by those successors. Also, he was much attacked by the neo-Galenists, that is those whose work was based on the new translations direct from the Greek originals and who rejected the earlier ‘corrupt translations’ from Arabic. Jacobus Sylvius (1478–1555), one of his earlier teachers from Paris, even went so far as to claim that the human body had changed since Galen had studied it.  


Filed under Book History, History of medicine, History of science, Renaissance Science

I do wish people wouldn’t post things like this

I stumbled across the following image on Facebook, being reposted by people who should know better, and it awoke my inner HISTSCI_HULK:

I shall only be commenting on the first three images, if anybody has any criticism of the other ones, they’re welcome to add them in the comments.

To what extent Galileo developed his own telescope is debateable. He made a Dutch, telescope a model that had first been made public by Hans Lipperhey in September 1608. By using lenses of different focal lengths, he managed to increase the magnification, but then so did several others both at the same time and even before him.

Galileo was not the first to point the telescope skywards! As I have pointed out on several occasions, during that first demonstration by Lipperhey in Den Hague, the telescope was definitely pointed skywards:

The said glasses are very useful at sieges & in similar affairs, because one can distinguish from a mile’s distance & beyond several objects very well, as if they are very near & even the stars which normally are not visible for us, because of the scanty proportion and feeble sight of our eyes, can be seen with this instrument[1]

Even amongst natural philosophers and astronomers, Galileo was not the first. We know that Thomas Harriot preceded him in making astronomical observations. It is not clear, but Simon Marius might have begun his telescopic astronomical observations before Galileo. Also, the astronomers of the Collegio Romano began telescopic observations before Galileo went public with his Sidereus Nuncius and who was earliest they or Galileo is not determinable.

I wrote a whole very detailed article about the fact that Newton definitively did not invent the reflecting telescope that you can read here.

By the standards of the day William Herschel’s 20-foot telescope, built in 1782 seven years before the 40-foot telescope, was already a gigantic telescope, so the 40-footer was not the first. Worse than this is the fact that the image if of one of his normal ‘small’ telescopes and not the 40-footer. 

Herschel’s 40-foot telescope Source: Wikimedia Commons

People spew out these supposedly informative/educational or whatever images/articles, which are sloppily researched or not at all and are full of avoidable error. To put it bluntly it really pisses me off!

[1] Embassies of the King of Siam Sent to His Excellency Prince Maurits Arrived in The Hague on 10 September 1608, Transcribed from the French original, translated into English and Dutch, introduced by Henk Zoomers and edited by Huib Zuidervaart after a copy in the Louwman Collection of Historic Telescopes, Wassenaar, 2008 pp. 48-49 (original pagination: 9-11)


Filed under History of Optics, History of science, History of Technology

A seventeenth century Jesuit, who constructed his own monument and designed the first(?) ‘auto-mobile’.

One of the world’s great tourist attractions is the Imperial Observatory in Beijing.

Source: Top 12 Best Places to go visiting Beijing

The man, who rebuilt it in its current impressive form was the seventeenth century Jesuit mathematician, astronomer, and engineer Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688).

Ferdinand Verbiest artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

I have no idea how many Jesuits took part in the Chines mission in the seventeenth century[1]. A mission that is historically important because of the amount of cultural, scientific, and technological information that flowed between Europe and China in both directions. But Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s print of the Jesuit Mission to China only shows the three most important missionaries, Matteo Ricci Johann Adam Schall von Bell and Ferdinand Verbiest.

Jesuit Mission to China, left to right  Matteo Ricci, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, Ferdinand Verbiest Source: Wikimedia

I have already written blog posts about Ricci and Schall von Bell and here, I complete the trilogy with a sketch of the life story of Ferdinand Verbiest and how, as the title states, he came to build his own monument in the form of one of the most splendid, surviving, seventeenth-century observatories. 

Ferdinand Verbiest was born 9 October 1623 in Pittem, a village about 25 km south of Bruges in the Spanish Netherlands, the fourth of seven children of the bailiff and tax collector, Judocus Verbiest and his wife Ann van Hecke. Initially educated in the village school, in 1635 was sent to school in Bruges. In 1636 he moved onto the Jesuit College in Kortrijk. In 1641 he matriculated in Lily College of the University of Leuven, the liberal arts faculty of the university. He entered the Society of Jesus 2 September 1641 and transferred to Mechelen for the next two years. In 1643 he returned to the University of Leuven for two years, where he had the luck to study mathematics under Andrea Tacquet (1612–1660) an excellent Jesuit mathematics pedagogue. 


In 1645, Verbiest became a mathematics teacher at the Jesuit College in Kortrijk, In the same year he applied to be sent to the Americas as a missionary, but his request was turned down.

One time Jesuit College now the Church of Saint Michael Kortrijk Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1647 his third request was granted, and he was assigned to go to Mexico. However, in Spain the authorities refused him passage and he went instead to Brussels where he taught Greek and Latin from 1648 to 1652. He was now sent to the Gregorian University in Rome where he studied under Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) and Gaspar Schott (1608–1666). In 1653, he was granted permission to become a missionary in the New Kingdom of Granada (now Columbia) but was first sent to Seville to complete his theological studies, which he did in 1655. Once again, the Spanish authorities refused him passage to the Americas, so he decided to go to China instead.

Whilst waiting for a passage to China he continued his studies of mathematics in Genoa. In 1656 he travelled to Lisbon; however, his plans were once again foiled when pirates hijacked the ship, he was due to sail on, whilst waiting for a new ship he taught mathematics at the Jesuit College in Coimbra. In 1657, he finally sailed from Lisbon eastwards with 37 missionaries of whom 17 were heading for China under the leadership of Martino Martini (1614–1661), a historian and cartographer of China, who provided the atlas of China for Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, his Novus Atlas Sinensis.

Martino Martini Source: Wikimedia Commons
Frontpage of Novus Atlas sinensis, by Martino Martini, Amsterdam, 1655. Source: Wikimedia Commons

They arrived in Goa 30 January 1658 and sailed to Macao, which they reached 17 June. In the spring of 1659, now 37 years old, he finally entered China.

Verbiest was initially assigned to be a preacher in the Shaanxi province but in 1660 Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666), who was President of the Imperial Astronomical Institute and personal adviser to the Emperor Shunzhi (1638–1661), called him to Beijing to become his personal assistant. However, in 1664, following Shunzhi’s death in 1661, Schall von Bell fell foul of his political opponents at court and both he and Verbiest were thrown into jail. Because Schall von Bell had suffered a stroke, Verbiest functioned as his representative during the subsequent trial. Initially sentenced to death, they were pardoned and rehabilitated by the new young Kangxi Emperor Xuanye (1654–1722), Schall von Bell dying in 1666.  

Johann Adam Schall von Bell artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yang Guangxian (1597–1669), Schall von Bell’s Chinese rival, took over the Directorship of the Imperial Observatory and the Presidency of the Imperial Astronomical Institute and although now free Verbiest had little influence at the court. However, he was able to demonstrate that Yang Guangxian’s calendar contained serious errors. Constructing an astronomical calendar, which was used for astrological and ritual purposes, was the principal function of the Imperial Astronomical Institute, so this was a serious problem. A contest was set up between Verbiest and Yang Guangxian to test their astronomical acumen, which Verbiest won with ease. Verbiest was appointed to replace Yang Guangxian in both of his positions and also became a personal advisor to the still young emperor.

Kangxi Emperor Xuanye (1654–1722) unknown artist Source: Wikimedia Commons

Verbiest tutored the Kangxi Emperor in geometry and a skilled linguist (he spoke Manchu, Latin, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, and Tartar) he translated the first six books of the Element of Euclid in Manchu for the Emperor. Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) together with Xu Guangqi (1562–1633) had translated them into Classical Chinese, the literal language of the educated elite, in 1607.

Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqui (from Athanasius Kircher, China Illustrata, 1670). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Verbiest, like Schall von Bell before him, used his skills as an engineer to cast cannons for the imperial army,

A cannon made with technical guidance by Ferdinand Verbiest(Nan Huairen), in Hakozaki Shrine, Higashi Ward, Fukuoka City, Fukuoka, Japan. Source: Wikimedia Commons

but it was for the Imperial Observatory that he left his greatest mark as an engineer, when in 1673 he received the commission to rebuild it. 

Imperial Observatory Beijing Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Beijing Imperial Observatory was originally constructed in 1442 during the Ming dynasty. It was substantially reorganised by the Jesuits in 1644 but underwent its biggest restoration at the hands of Verbiest.

The emperor requested the priest to construct instruments like those of Europe, and in May, 1674, Verbiest was able to present him with six, made under his direction: a quadrant, six feet in radius; an azimuth compass, six feet in diameter; a sextant, eight feet in radius; a celestial globe, six feet in diameter; and two armillary spheres, zodiacal and equinoctial, each six feet in diameter. These large instruments, all of brass and with decorations which made them notable works of art, were, despite their weight, very easy to manipulate, and a credit to Verbiest’s mechanical skill as well as to his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. They are still in a perfect state of preservation … Joseph Brucker, Ferdinand Verbiest, Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)

Childe, Thomas: Sternwarte, Peking. Observatory, Peking, c.1875. Terrace view. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Many secondary sources attribute the instrument designs to Verbiest

L0020841 Illustrations of astronomical instruments, Beijing, China Credit: Wellcome Library, London. via Wikimedia Commons

but they are, in fact, basically copies of the instruments that Tycho Brahe designed for his observatory on the island of Hven.

Tycho Brahe’s astronomical instruments from his Astronomiae instauratae progymnasmata 1572 Source:

The Jesuits were supporters of the Tychonic helio-geocentric model of the cosmos in the seventeenth century. Verbiest recreated Hven in Beijing.  

Ricci had already realised the utility of geography and cartography in gaining the interest and trust of the Chinese and using woodblocks had printed a world map with China in the centre, Kunyu Wanguo Quantu, at the request of the Wanli Emperor, Zhu Yijun, in 1602. He was assisted by the Mandarin Zhong Wentao and the technical translator Li Zhizao. It was the first western style Chinese map. 

Kunyu Wanguo Quantu Left panel Source Wikimedia Commons
Kunyu Wanguo Quantu Right panel Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1674, Verbiest once again followed Ricci’s example and printed, using woodblocks, his own world map the Kunya Quantu, this time in the form of two hemispheres, with the Americas in the right-hand hemisphere and Asia, Africa, and Europe in the left-hand one, once again with China roughly at the centre where the two meet.

Kunyu Quantu Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was part of a larger geographical work the Kunyu tushuo as Joseph Brucker describes it in his Catholic Encyclopedia article (1907):

the map was part of a larger geographical work called ‘Kunyu tushuo’ (Illustrated Discussion of the Geography of the World), which included information on different lands as well as the physical map itself. Cartouches provide information on the size, climate, land-forms, customs and history of various parts of the world and details of natural phenomena such as eclipses and earthquakes.  Columbus’ discovery of America is also discussed.  Images of ships, real and imaginary animals and sea creatures pepper both hemispheres, creating a visually stunning as well as historically important object.

Due to his success at gaining access to the imperial court and the emperor, in 1677, Verbiest was appointed vice principle that is head of the Jesuit missions to China, a position that he held until his death.

Perhaps the most fascinating of all of Verbiest creations was his ‘auto-mobile’, which he built for Kangxi sometime tin the 1670s.

The steam ‘car’ designed by Verbiest in 1672 – from an 18th-century print Source: Wikimedia Commons

L. H. Weeks in his Automobile Biographies. An Account of the Lives and the Work of Those Who Have Been Identified with the Invention and Development of Self-Propelled Vehicles on the Common Roads (The Monograph Press, NY, 1904) describes it thus:

The Verbiest model was for a four-wheeled carriage, on which an aeolipile was mounted with a pan of burning coals beneath it. A jet of steam from the aeolipile impinged upon the vanes of a wheel on a vertical axle, the lower end of the spindle being geared to the front axle. An additional wheel, larger than the supporting wheels, was mounted on an adjustable arm in a manner to adapt the vehicle to moving in a circular path. Another orifice in the aeolipile was fitted with a reed, so that the steam going through it imitated the song of a bird.

The aeolipile was steam driving toy described in the Pneumatica of Hero of Alexandria and the De architectura of Vitruvius, both of which enjoyed great popularity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe. 

A modern replica of Hero’s aeolipile. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Having suffered a fall while out horse riding a year before, Verbiest died on 28 January 1688 and was buried with great ceremony in the same graveyard as Ricci and Schall von Bell. A man of great learning and talent he forged, for a time, a strong link between Europe and China. For example, Verbiest correspondence and publications were the source of much of Leibniz’s fascination with China. He was succeeded in his various positions by the Belgian Jesuits, mathematician and astronomer Antoine Thomas (1644–1709), whom he had called to Beijing to be his assistant in old age as Schall von Bell had called him three decades earlier. 

[1] According to research by David E. Mungello from 1552 (i.e., the death of St. Francis Xavier) to 1800, a total of 920 Jesuits participated in the China mission, of whom 314 were Portuguese, and 130 were French. Source: Wikipedia


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

Renaissance Science – XVII

As we saw in the last episode, Ptolemaeus’ Geographia enjoyed a strong popularity following its rediscovery and translation into Latin from Greek at the beginning of fifteenth century, going through at least five printed editions before the end of the century. The following century saw several important new translation and revised editions both in Latin and in the vernacular. This initial popularity can at least be partially explained by the fact that Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxis and his Tetrabiblos, whilst not without rivals, were the dominant books in medieval astronomy and astrology respectively. But the Geographia, although, as explained in the previous episode, in some senses related to the other two books, was a book about mapmaking. So how did affect European mapmaking in the centuries after its re-emergence? To answer this question, we first need to look at medieval European, terrestrial mapmaking.

Mapmaking was relatively low level during the medieval period before the fifteenth century and although there were certainly more, only a very small number of maps have survived. These can be divided into three largely distinct categories, regional and local maps, Mappa Mundi, and portolan charts. There are very few surviving regional or local maps from the medieval period and of those the majority are from 1350 or later, mapmaking was obviously not very widespread in the early part of the Middle Ages. There are almost no maps of entire countries, the exceptions being maps of Palestine,

Map of Palestine according to Burchard of Mount Sion Manuscript c. 1300 entitled: “De more vivendi diversarum gentium, secundum Hieronymum in libro II contra Iovinianum, quae illis cibariis vesci solent, quibus abundant” Source: Wikimedia Commons

the Matthew Paris and Gough maps of Britain,

The most developed of Matthew Paris’s four maps of Britain 13th century (Cotton MS Claudius D VI, fol. 12v). The work is organised around a central north-south itinerary from Dover to Newcastle. The crenellations of both the Antonine Wall and Hadrian’s Wall can be seen in the upper half of the drawing. British Library, London. via Wikimedia Commons

and Nicolas of Cusa’s maps of Germany and central Europe. 

Nicolas of Cusa map of central Europe printed edition 1491 Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg via Wikimedia Commons

The Mappa Mundi are the medieval maps of the known world. These range from very simple schematic diagrams to the full-blown presentations of the oikoumenikos, the entire world as known to European antiquity, consisting of the three continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa. The sketch maps are mostly of two different types, the zonal maps, and the T-O maps. 

The zonal maps show just the eastern hemisphere divided by lines into the five climata or climate zones, as defined by Aristotle. These are the northern frigid zone, the northern temperate zone, the equatorial tropical zone, the southern temperate zone, and the southern frigid zone, of which the Greek believed only the two temperate zones were habitable. In the medieval period, zonal maps are mostly found in copies of Macrobius’ Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis (Commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio).

Macrobius zonal world map c. 1050 Source: British Library

T-O sketch maps show a diagrammatic presentation of the three know continents, Asia, Europe, and Africa enclosed within a double circle representing the ocean surrounding oikoumenikos. The oikoumenikos is orientated, that is with east at the top and is divided into three parts by a T consisting of the Mediterranean, the Nile, and the Danube, with the top half consisting of Asia and the bottom half with Europe on the left and Africa on the right. T-O maps have their origin in the works of Isidore, his De Natura Rerum and Etymologiae. He writes in De Natura Rerum

So the earth may be divided into three sides (trifarie), of which one part is Europe, another Asia, and the third is called Africa. Europe is divided from Africa by a sea from the end of the ocean and the Pillars of Hercules. And Asia is divided from Libya with Egypt by the Nile… Moreover, Asia – as the most blessed Augustine said – runs from the southeast to the north … Thus we see the earth is divided into two to comprise, on the one hand, Europe and Africa, and on the other only Asia

This T and O map, from the first printed version of Isidore’s Etymologiae, identifies the three known continents as populated by descendants of Sem, Iafeth and Cham. Source: Wikimedia Commons

For most people the term Mappa Mundi evokes the large circular, highly coloured maps of the oikoumenikos, packed with symbols and text such as the Hereford and Ebstorf maps, rather that the small schematic ones.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi, about 1300, Hereford Cathedral, England Source: Wikimedia Commons

These are basically T-O maps but appear to be geographically very inaccurate. This is because although they give an approximate map of the oikoumenikos, they are not intended to be geographical maps, as we understand them today. So, what are they? The clue can be found in the comparatively large number of regional maps of Palestine, the High Middle Ages is a period where the Catholic Church and Christianity dominated Europe and the Mappa Mundi are philosophical maps depicting the world of Christianity. 

Recreation of the Ebstorf Map of about 1235; the original was destroyed by wartime bombing Source: Wikimedia Commons

These maps are literally orientated, that is East at the top and have Jerusalem, the hub of the Christian world, at their centre. The Hereford map has the Garden of Eden at the top in the east, whereas the Ebstrof map, has Christ’s head at the top in the east, his hands on the sides north and south and his feet at the bottom in the south, so that he is literally holding the world. The much smaller Psalter map has Christ above the map in the east blessing the world.

Psalter world map, ca. 1260 British Library via Wikimedia Commons

These are not maps of the world but maps of the Christian world. The illustrations and cartouches scattered all over the maps elucidate a motley collection of history, legends and myths that were common in medieval Europe. These Mappa Mundi are repositories of an extensive collection of information, but not the type of geographical knowledge we expect when we hear the word map.

The third area of medieval mapping is the portolan charts, which pose some problems. These are nautical charts that first appeared in the late thirteenth century in the Mediterranean and then over the centuries were extended to other sea areas. They display a detailed and surprising accurate stretch of coastline and are covered with networks of rhumb lines showing compass bearings.

The oldest original cartographic artifact in the Library of Congress: a portolan nautical chart of the Mediterranean. Second quarter of the 14th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Portolan charts have no coordinates. The major problem with portolan charts is their origin. They display an accuracy, at the time, unknown in other forms of mapping but the oldest known charts are fully developed. There is no known development leading to this type of mapping i.e., there are no known antecedent charts. The second problem is the question, are they based on a projection? There is some discussion on this topic, but the generally accepted view is that they are plate carrée or plane chart projection, which means that the mapmakers assumes that the area to be map is flat. This false assumption is OK if the area being mapped is comparatively small but leads to serios problems of distortion, when applied to larger areas.

Maps, mapping, and map making began to change radically during the Renaissance and one of the principle driving factors of that change was the rediscovery of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia. It is important to note that the Geographia was only one factor and there were several others, also this process of change was gradual and drawn out. 

What did the Geographia bring to medieval mapmaking that was new? It reintroduced the concept of coordinates, longitude and latitude, as well as map projection. As Ptolemaeus points out the Earth is a sphere, and it is mathematically impossible to flatten out the surface of a sphere onto a flat sheet without producing some sort of distortion. Map projections are literally what they say they are, they are ways of projecting the surface of the sphere onto a flat surface. There are thousands of different projections, and the mapmaker has to choose, which one is best suited to the map that he is drawing. As Ptolemaeus points out for a map of the world, it is actually better not the draw it on a flat sheet but instead to draw it on a globe. 

The Geographia contains instructions for drawing a map of the Earth i.e., the oikoumenikos, and for regional maps. For his regional maps Ptolemaeus uses the plate carrée or plane chart projection, the invention of which he attributes to his contemporary Marinus of Tyre. In this projection, the lines of longitude (meridians) and latitude (parallels) are parallel sets of equally spaced lines. For maps of the world, he describes three other projections. The first of these was a simple conic projection in which the surface of the globe is projected onto a cone, tangent to the Earth at the 36th parallel. Here the meridians are straight lines that tend to close towards the poles, while the parallels are concentric arcs. The second was a modified cone projection where the parallels are concentric arcs and the meridians curve inward towards the poles.

Ptolemaeus’ projection I above and II below Source: Marjo T Nurminen, “The Mapmakers’ World”, Pool of London Press, 2014

His third projection, a perspective projection, needn’t interest us here as it was hardly used, however the art historian Samuel Y Edgerton, who died this year, argued that the rediscovery of Ptolemaeus’ third projection at the beginning of the fifteenth century was the impulse that led to Brunelleschi’s invention of linear perspective.

A mid-15th century Florentine Ptolemaic map of the world Ptolemy’s 1st projection.
A printed Ptolemaic world map using his 2nd projection Johannes Schnitzer (1482). Source: Wikimedia Commons

From very early on Renaissance cosmographers began to devise and introduce new map projections, at the beginning based on Ptolemaeus’ projections. For example, in his In Hoc Opere Haec Continentur Nova Translatio Primi Libri Geographicae Cl Ptolomaei, from 1514, Johannes Werner (1468–1522) introduced the heart shaped or cordiform projection devised by his friend and colleague Johannes Stabius (1540–1522), now know as the Werner-Stabius projection. This was used by several mapmakers in the sixteenth century, perhaps most famously by Oronce Fine (1494–1555) in 1536.

Oronce Fine World Map 1536 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Francesco Rosselli (1455–died before 1513) introduced an oval projection with his world map of 1508

World Map oval by Francesco Rosselli, copper plate engraving on vellum 1508, National Maritime Museum via Wikimedia Commons

It should be noted that prior to the rediscovery of the Geographia, map projection was not unknown in medieval Europe, as the celestial sphere engraved on the tympans or climata of astrolabes are created using a stereographic projection.

Animation showing how celestial and geographic coordinates are mapped on an astrolabe’s tympan through a stereographic projection. Hypothetical tympan (40° north latitude) of a 16th-century European planispheric astrolabe. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first wave of Renaissance mapmaking concerned the Geographia itself. As already noted, in the previous episode, the first printed edition with maps appeared in Bologna in 1477. This was closely followed by one produced with copper plate engravings, which appeared in Rome in 1478. An edition with maps printed with woodblocks in Ulm in 1482. Another edition, using the same plates as the 1478 edition appeared in Rome in 1490. Whereas the other fifteenth century edition only contained the twenty-seven maps described by Ptolemaeus in his text, the Ulm edition started a trend, that would continue in later editions, of adding new contemporary maps to the Geographia. These editions of the Geographia represent the advent of the modern atlas, to use an anachronistic term, an, at least nominally, uniform collection of maps with text bound together in book. It would be approximately a century before the first real modern atlas, that of Abraham Ortelius, would be published, but as Elizabeth Eisenstein observed, the European mapmakers first had to catch up with Ptolemaeus. 

These printed edition of the Geographia also illustrate another driving force behind the radical increase in mapmaking during the Renaissance, the invention of the printing press. The invention of the printing press and the development of cooper plate engraving, as well as woodblock printing meant that the multiple reproduction of maps and plans became much easier and also much cheaper. 

Another factor behind the increase in mapmaking was the so-called age of discovery. The Portuguese had been working their way down the coast of Africa throughout the fifteenth century and Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450–1500) rounded the southern tip of Africa, for the first time in 1488, paving the way for the first trip by a European by an ocean route to India by Vasco da Gama (c. 1460s–1524) in 1497–99. Of course, as every school kid knows “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” or put for formally the Genoese seaman Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) undertook his first voyage to Asia in service of the Spanish Crown in 1492 and accidentally discovered the so-called forth continent, which Martin Waldseemüller (c. 1475–1520) and Matthias Ringmann (c. 1482–1511) incorrectly christened America in 1507, in honour of Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512), whom they falsely believed to be the discoverer of the new, to Europeans, continent. 

The initial maps produced by the European discovery expedition carried the portolan chart tradition out from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic Ocean, down the coast of Africa and eventually across the Atlantic to the coasts of the newly discovered Americas.

Kunstmann II or Four Finger Map. Dating from the period circa 1502‒6 Source: World Digital Library

Although not really suitable for maps of large areas the tradition of the portolan charts survived well into the seventeenth century. In 1500, Juan de la Cosa (c. 1450–1510) produced a world portolan chart. This is the earliest known map to include a representation of the New World.

Juan de la Cosa world map 1500

The 1508 edition of the Geographia published in Rome was the first edition to include the European voyages of exploration to the New World. The world map drawn by the Flemish mapmaker Johan Ruysch (c. 1460–1533), who had himself sailed to America, includes the north coast of South America and some of the West Indian islands. On the other side it also includes eastern Asia with China indicated by a city marked as Cathaya, however, Japan (Zinpangu) is not included.

Ruysch’s 1507 map of the world. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ruysch’s map bears a strong resemblance to the Cantarini-Rosselli world map published in Venice or Florence in 1506. Drawn by Giovanni Matteo Conarini (died 1507) and engraved by Francesco Rosselli (1455–died before 1513), which was the earliest known printed map containing the New World. The Ruysch map and the Cantarini-Rosselli probably shared a common source. 

The most famous map showing the newly discovered fourth continent is, of course, the Waldseemüller world map of 1507, which gave America its name.

Universalis Cosmographia, the Waldseemüller wall map dated 1507, depicts America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Oceanus Orientalis Indicus separating Asia from the Americas. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Of interest here is the fact that Waldseemüller apparently also published a small, printed globe of his wall map, which is the earliest known printed globe.

Waldseemüller globe gores of 1507 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The age of the modern terrestrial globe was ushered in by the earliest known, surviving manuscript globe produced by Martin Behaim (1549-1507) in 1493. Because he had supposedly taken part on Portuguese expedition along the African coast, he was commissioned, by the city council of Nürnberg, during a visit to the city of his birth,  to produce a globe and a large wall map of the world for the council chamber. The map no longer exists. Behaim’s main source for his maps was Ptolemaeus’ Geographia.

Behaim Globe Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg

Waldseemüller’s globe had apparently little impact and only four sets of globe gores still exist but none of the finished globes. The person who really set the production of printed globes in motion was the Nürnberger mathematicus Johannes Schöner (1477–1547), who produced his first printed terrestrial globe in 1515, which did much to cement the name America given to the fourth continent by Waldseemüller and Ringmann. Schöner was the owner of the only surviving copy of the Waldseemüller map.

Schöner Terrestrial Globe 1515, Historisches Museum Frankfurt

Like Behaim and Waldseemüller, Schöner’s main source of information was Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, of which he owned a heavily annotated copy, and which like them he supplemented with information from various other sources. In 1517, he also produced a matching, printed celestial globe, establishing the tradition of matching globe pairs that persisted down to the nineteenth century.

Schöner was not the only Nürnberger mathematicus, who produced globes. We know that Georg Hartmann (1489–1564), who acted as Schöner’s globe salesman in Nürnberg, when Schöner was still living in Kirchehrenbach, also manufactured globes, but none of his have survived. Although they weren’t cheap, it seems that Schöner’s globes sold very well, well enough to motivate others to copy them. Both Waldseemüller, with his map, and Schöner, with his globes, published an accompanying cosmographia, a booklet, consisting of instructions for use as well as further geographical and historical information. An innovative printer/publisher in Louvain reprinted Schöner’s cosmographia, Lucullentissima quaedam terrae totius descriptio, and commissioned Gemma Frisius (1508–1555) to make a copy of Schöner’s globe to accompany it. Frisius became a globe maker, as did his one-time student and assistant Gerard Mercator (1512-1594), who went on to become the most successful globe maker in Europe.

Gemma Frisius globe 1536

Both Willem Janszoon Blaeu (1571–1638) and Jodocus Hondius (1563–1612) emulated Mercator’s work establishing the Netherlands as the major European map and globe making centre in the seventeenth century.

Another factor that contributed to the spread of map making in the sixteenth century was the Renaissance development of realism in painting. This was a combination of the invention of linear perspective during the fifteenth century on the one hand and on the other, the development of Naturalism beginning in the late fourteenth century in the Netherlands. During the sixteenth century many notable artists were also map makers and several map makers were also artists. 

Dürer-Stabius world map a rare example of Ptolemaeus’ 3rd projection

It became fashionable during the Renaissance for those in power to sponsor and employ those working in the sciences. This patronage also included map makers. On the one hand this meant employing map makes to make maps as status symbols for potentates to display their magnificence. A good example is the map galleries that Egnatio Danti (1536–1586) was commissioned to create in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence for Cosimo I de’ Medici and in the Vatican for Pope Gregory XIII.

Source: Fiorani The Marvel of Maps p. 110 Note that the map is up side down!

Similarly, Peter Apian ((1495–1552) was commissioned to produce maps for the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V

Peter Apian cordiform world map 1530 Source: British Library

His son Philipp (1531–1589) did the same for Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria.

Overview of the 24 woodblock prints of Apian’s map of Bavaria

Another example is Oronce Fine (1494–1555), who made maps for Francis I. The first English atlas created by Christopher Saxton (c. 1540–c. 1610) was commissioned by Thomas Seckford, Master of Ordinary on the instructions of William Cecil, 1stBaron Burghley (1520–1598), Queen Elizabeth’s chief advisor.

Saxton England and Wales proof map Source: British Library

These maps came more and more to serve as aids to administration. The latter usage also led to European rulers commissioning maps of their new overseas possessions. 

Another area that required map making was the changes in this period in the pursuit of warfare. Larger armies, the increased use of artillery, and a quasi-professionalisation of the infantry led to demand for maps for manoeuvres during military campaigns. 

Starting around 1500 mapping took off in Renaissance Europe driven by the various factors that I’ve sketched above, a full account would be much more complex and require a book rather than a blog post. The amount of mapmaking increased steadily over the decades and with it the skill of the mapmakers reaching a first high point towards the end of the century in the atlases of Ortelius, De Jode, and Mercator. The seventeenth century saw the establishment of a major European commercial map and globe making industry dominated by the Dutch map makers, particularly the Houses of Blaeu and Hondius.


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

Martin who?

Anna Marie Roos is one of those scholars, who make this historian of Early Modern science feel totally inadequate. Her depth and breadth of knowledge are awe inspiring and her attention to detail lets the reader know that what she is saying is with a probability bordering on certainty accurate and correct. Over the years she has churned out an imposing series of books covering a wide spectrum of the history of science in Britain during the Early Modern Period, each of them an impressive monument to her scholarship. Her latest addition to this series is a biography of Martin Folkes. I can already hear a significant number of readers of this blog muttering Martin who? Hence the title of this review. The fog lifts somewhat if one reads the full title of the volume, Martin Folkes (1690–1754)Newtonian, Antiquary, Connoisseur.[1]

Folkes is in fact a victim of a strange little hiccup in the popular history of science and also of the big names, big events approach to the discipline. The hiccup is the fact that the spotlight is shone very bright on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the so-called scientific revolution, and on the nineteenth century, oft called the second scientific revolution, but the eighteenth century gets passed over with hardly a mention. Pass along folks nothing of interest to see here. This is, of course, not true a lot of important science was created in the eighteenth century, and this is one of the themes that Roos deals with, in her account of Folkes life, which encompassed the first half of the eighteenth century. 

On the problem of the big names, big events approach to the history of science, Folkes falls through the net because there are no theories, major discoveries or inventions that can be attributed to him. However, science does not just progress through the big events in fact most scientific progress comes from those, who, so to speak, dot the ‘I’s and cross the ‘T’s. What Thomas Kuhn in one of his most useful contributions called ‘normal science’. 

Martin Folkes was a mathematician, a Newtonian physicist, an antiquarian, a metrologist, a science administrator, an organiser, a science communicator, a science promotor, and a patron, and in all of these roles he made significant contributions to the progress of science not just in Britain but in the whole of Europe during the first half of the eighteenth century. Roos’ biography of this man with many hats brings all of these aspects of his personality and his activities vividly to light.

How did Martin Folkes become so significant and influential? One could say with more than somewhat justification that he was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. His family were wealthy, well connected, influential, landowning members of the London high society at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries. He received an excellent private education receiving tuition in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and conversational French from the Huguenot refugee, James Cappel (1639–1722), and, perhaps more significantly, mathematics from another Huguenot refugee Abraham De Moivre (1667–1754), who was one of the leading mathematicians of the age and a member of the Newtonian inner circle. 

Folkes’ contact with De Moivre serves as an early introduction to what was probably Folkes’ greatest strength, he was, in modern parlance, a master networker. This aspect of Folkes’ life and personality is described in great detail throughout Roos’ narrative. Through De Moivre Folkes came into contact with De Moirve’s other private students a significant cross-section of the early eighteenth century scientific and social elite. Through De Moivre he also gained access to Newton and the Newtonians, becoming a life-long highly active Newtonian himself.

Through Newton, Folkes was elected to the Royal Society, the start of a career that would see him become president of that august organisation, as well as president of the equally august Society of Antiquities; he was the only man ever to hold both presidencies. Here we meet another aspect of Folkes personality that certainly played an important role in his networking activities, he was immensely clubbable. For those, who don’t know this somewhat archaic, wonderful English word, it means somebody that others like to have as members of their social clubs and groupings. It seems that if someone set up a new club or society for the intellectual and/or social elite in the first half of the eighteenth century then Folkes was member, oft a founding member, organiser, and driving force. 

Roos’ detailed description of the clubs, societies, and groups of which Folkes became an always-active member means that her biography is a historical guide to the social and cultural life of the social and intellectual upper echelons during Folkes lifetime. This not only includes the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquities, but also the then newly emerging English Freemasonry movement, in which Folkes played a leading role, the short lived but influential Egyptian Society, as well as various drinking and dinner clubs, in which members of the academic societies met more informally following sessions of those societies. Roos’ volume is also a guide to the eating and drinking habits of the well-heeled gentlemen of the period. 

Although very much a member of the English establishment, Folkes was anything but a Little Englander. He maintained active contact with natural philosophers, mathematicians, and other propagators of the new sciences throughout Europe. He encouraged foreigners to come to Britain, also to buy British scientific instruments, and to publish the results of their researchers in British journals. He also patronised and supported foreign scholars he thought worthy of promotion. 

Folkes extensive connections with the European mainland were also strengthened by his almost religious adherence to Newtonianism. Anybody who casts even a brief look at a modern English translation of Newton’s Principia quickly realises that it is not a work for the faint hearted or the ill prepared. The situation was not any different in the first half of the eighteenth century and Newton took no interest in popularising his work or making it available to the masses. Added to this was the fact that large parts of those in the know in Europe initially rejected much of Newton’s work on scientific and philosophical grounds, but also, with particular respect to his work in optics, because of their failure to reproduce many of his experiments. Various of Newton’s disciples jumped into the breach, left by the master’s silence, and presented popularisations of his major works, as books, lecture tours and demonstrations. Most notable, here, are another Huguenot refugee, John Theophilus Desaguliers (1683–1744) and the Dutchman, Willem ’s Gravesand (1688–1742). 

Folkes was also an eager missionary in the cause of Newtonianism. Folkes went on a grand tour of Europe between 1732 and 1735 preaching the gospel of Newton to learned societies and individual savants, in particular demonstrating those of Newton’s optical experiments that others had had difficulty replicating. During this tour Folkes made many friendships within the European intellectual milieu; friendships that he maintained through extensive correspondence when he returned to England.

One aspect of Roos’ biography that I found particularly interesting was her descriptions of Folkes’ activities as a metrologist. For those that don’t know this is not a typo for meteorologist, as my Word correction programme seemed to think, until I added metrologist to its dictionary. Metrology is the scientific study of measurement or as another dictionary defines it, the science of weights and measures; the study of units of measurements. Folkes interests was antiquarian, and he spent significant time and effort, on his grand tour, in trying to determine the correct length of a Roman foot. Why should I be interested in what seems, superficially at least, to be an arcane hobby on Folkes’ part? 

In reality there was nothing arcane about Folkes’ interest in metrology. The turn to quantitative, empirical, experimental science and the resultant mathematisation that we call the scientific revolution led to a widespread discussion within the scientific community on systems and units of measurement towards unification, standardisation, and accuracy in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Historical investigations searching for supposed natural units of measurement were an integral part of that discussion. All of this peaked in the introduction of the metric system in France in 1799 and the Imperial system of measurement in the UK and British Empire in 1826. This important episode tends to get ignored in the mainstream history of science, so it was good that it gets handled here by Roos.

Oxford University Press have done Anna Marie Roos and Martin Folkes proud in the presentation of this biography. The front cover has a full colour portrait of the books subject and the book itself is extensively illustrated with grayscale and colour photos. The book is printed on bright white paper with an attractive typeface. Roos maintains her usual high scholarly standards, the book bursts at the seams with extensive, highly informative footnotes, which in turn reference a very extensive bibliography. All is rounded out by an equally extensive index.

All of the above is a mere sketch of all the context that Roos has packed into this model example of a biography of an eighteenth-century polymath, who definitely earns the attention that Roos has given to his life, work, and influence. This is an all-round, first-class piece of scholarship that not only introduces the reader to the little known but important figure of Martin Folkes, but because of the extensive contextual embedding provides a solid introduction to the social and cultural context in which science was practiced not only in England but throughout Europe in the first half of the eighteenth century. Highly recommended and not just for historians of science 

[1] Anna Marie Roos, Martin Folkes (1690–1754)Newtonian, Antiquary, Connoisseur, OUP, Oxford, 2021


Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Newton

Renaissance Science – XVI

In terms of the books rediscovered from antiquity during the Renaissance one of those that had the biggest impact was Ptolemaeus’ Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis, which became known in Latin as either the Geographia or Cosmographia. Claudius Ptolemaeus or (Klaúdios Ptolemaîos in Greek) is a scholar, who had a major impart on the development of the mathematical sciences in the second century CE and then again when his writings were rediscovered in the High Middle Ages during the twelfth century translation movement. He wrote important texts on astronomy, astrology, cosmology, harmony (music), and optics, amongst others. However, we know next to nothing about the man himself, neither his date of birth nor his date of death, nor very much else. He lived and worked in the city of Alexandria and people in the Middle Ages made the mistake of thinking he was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt from 323–30 BCE. There is a possibility that he acquired the name because he came from the town of Ptolemaîos Hermaiou in Upper Egypt.

Three of his books the Mathēmatikē Syntaxis (better known in English as the Almagest) on astronomy, the Tetrabiblos or Apotelesmatiká on astrology and the Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis on geography form a sort of trilogy. He says in the introduction of the Tetrabiblos that the study of the science of the stars is divided into two parts. The first, his Mathēmatikē Syntaxis, describes where to find the celestial objects and the second, his Tetrabiblos, explains their influence. The Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis is in different ways directly related to both books. It is related to the Mathēmatikē Syntaxis in that both works use a latitude/longitude coordinate system to map their respective realms, the sphere of the earth and the sphere of the heavens. This interconnectedness in reflected in the fact that in Early Modern Europe a cosmographer was somebody, who mapped both the celestial and terrestrial spheres. The Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis is in three parts, a theoretical introduction on mapping, a gazetteer of the coordinates of a long list of places and, geographical features, and a collection of maps. Like the Mathēmatikē Syntaxis, the Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis built on earlier works in the disciple, most notably that of Marinus of Tyre (c. 70–130 CE). To cast a horoscope in Greek astrology, one needs the coordinates of the place for which the horoscope in being cast, the Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsisdelivered those coordinates. In antiquity the last known reference to the Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis was in the work of Cassiodorus (c. 485–c. 585). 

All three of these books by Ptolemaeus were translated into Arabic by the ninth century. Both the Mathēmatikē Syntaxisand the Tetrabiblos had a major impact in Islamic culture, although both were criticised, changed, improved on in wide ranging commentaries by Islamic scholars. It was here that the Mathēmatikē Syntaxis acquired the name Almagestmeaning the greatest to distinguish it from a shorter, less important astronomical text from Ptolemaeus. Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis, however had very little impact on Islamic map making being used almost exclusively in an astrological context.

The Mathēmatikē Syntaxis was translated into Latin three times in the twelfth century. Twice from Arabic once by Abd al-Masīḥ of Winchester and once by Gerard of Cremona (1114–1187) and once directly from Greek in Sicily by an unknown translator. These translations establish Ptolemaic astronomy as the de facto medieval European astronomy. In the twelfth century the Tetrabiblos was also translated from Arabic into Latin by Plato of Trivoli in 1138 and directly from Greek into Latin by William of Moerbeke (c. 1220–c. 1286). Integrated into Christian theology by Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas it dominated European astrology right up to the end of the seventeenth century. 

Unlike the Mathēmatikē Syntaxis and the Tetrabiblos the Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis was apparently not translated either from Arabic or Greek during the twelfth century. Giacomo or Jacopo d’Angelo of Scarperia better known in Latin as Jacobus Angelus obtained a Greek manuscript, found in Constantinople that he translated, into Latin in about 1406.

Jacobus Angelus’ Latin translation of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia Early 15th century Source via Wikimedia Commons

Here it obtained the title of Geographia or Cosmographia. There is some discussion or even doubt about how genuine the book is, as the oldest known Greek manuscript only dates back to the thirteenth century.

A Byzantine Greek world map according to Ptolemy’s first (conic) projection. From Codex Vaticanus Urbinas Graecus 82, Constantinople c. 1300. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite criticism of the quality of Jacobus Angelus’ translation it proved very popular, and the first printed edition appeared in Venice in 1475. However, it contained no maps. A second edition was printed in Rome in 1478, which contained maps printed from copper engravings. The engravings were begun by Konrad Sweynheym (who together with Arnold Pannartz set up the first printing press in Italy) and were completed by Arnold Buckinck after Sweynheym’s death in 1476. The first edition of Geographia with maps printed using woodcuts was published in Ulm in 1482. Three major printed editions in les than a decade indicate the popularity of the book. 

First page of the 1482 Ulm edition go Gepgraphis Source: Wikimedia Commons

The quality, or rather supposed lack of it, of Jacobus Angelus’ translation led to a series of new translations from the Greek. The Nürnberger mathematicus Johannes Werner (1468–1522)

Artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

published a new translation of the theoretical first section, his In Hoc Opere Haec Continentur Nova Translatio Primi Libri Geographicae Cl Ptolomaei, in Nürnberg in 1514.


This in turn was heavily criticised by Willibald Pirckheimer (1470–1530) Nürnberger politician, soldier, humanist scholar and friend and patron of Albrecht Dürer.

Willibald Pirckheimer portrait by Dürer Souce: Wikimedia Commons

Pirckheimer, an excellent classist, published his own translation of the entire text in Nürnberg in 1525.

Claudius Ptolemaeus (Greek, Alexandria (?) A.D. 100?–?170 Alexandria (?)) In Claudii Ptolemaei Geographiacae Enarrationis Libri octo., March 30, 1525 German, Willibald Pirckheimer The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1920 (20.83-) Source
Claudius Ptolemaeus (Greek, Alexandria (?) A.D. 100?–?170 Alexandria (?)) In Claudii Ptolemaei Geographiacae Enarrationis Libri octo., March 30, 1525 German, Willibald Pirckheimer The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1920 (20.83-) Source

Earlier in the fifteenth century another Nürnberger, Regiomontanus (1436–1476), had heavily criticised the Angelus translation. In the catalogue that he published when he set up his scientific printing press in Nürnberg. he announced that he intended to produce and print a new edition of the text, but he died too early to fulfil his intention. Pirckheimer included Regiomonatanus’ criticisms in the introduction to his own new translation of the text.

Pirckheimer’s edition formed the basis for the revised and edited edition published by the cosmographer, Sebastian Münster (1488–1552), in 1540 in Basel. Münster published an updated edition with extra illustrations in 1550. Münster’s Geographia was generally regarded as the standard Latin reference text of the work.

Geographiae Claudii Ptolemaei Alexandrini, Philosophi ac Mathematici praestantissimi, Libri VIII, partim à Bilbaldo Pirckheymero . MÜNSTER, Sebastian (1488-1552), ed. Edité par Basel: Heinrich Petri, March 1552 [colophon], 1552
Geographiae Claudii Ptolemaei Alexandrini, Philosophi ac Mathematici praestantissimi, Libri VIII, partim à Bilbaldo Pirckheymero . MÜNSTER, Sebastian (1488-1552), ed. Edité par Basel: Heinrich Petri, March 1552 [colophon], 1552

The Portuguese mathematicus Pedro Nunes (1502–1578), noted for his contributions to the history of navigation, who was appointed Royal Cosmographer in 1529 and Chief Royal Cosmographer in 1547 by King Joāo III o Piedoso,

Image of Portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes in Panorama magazine (1843); Lisbon, Portugal. Source: Wikimedia Commons

published his Tratado da sphera com a Theorica do Sol e da Lua in Lisbon in 1537. This was a based on a collection of texts and included the first, theoretical, section of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia. To make it more accessible Nunes published it in Latin, Spanish and Portuguese.

There were, naturally, also other vernacular translations of the work published in the sixteenth century, as for example this description of an Italian translation (borrowed from amateur astronomer and book collector, David Kolb, on Facebook):

Here is another one of the gems from my collection. I proudly present Claudius Ptolemy’s “La Geografia di Claudio Tolomeo Alessandrino” that was published in 1574. This volume is an expanded edition of his treatise on geography. Claudius Ptolemy lived in Alexandria during the 2nd century and is better known by astronomers for his astronomical treatise “The Almagest”. This is the third edition of the Italian translation by Girolamo Ruscelli, which was first printed by Vincenzo Valgrisi in Venice, in 1561. This edition is revised and corrected by Giovanni Malombra. The engraved maps, which are enlarged copies of Giacomo Gastaldi’s maps in his Italian edition of Venice, 1548, are generally the same in the Venice 1561, 1562 (Latin), and 1564 editions printed in Venice. Sixty-three of the maps are printed from the same plates as the 1561 edition. The exceptions are the Ptolemaic world map, “Tavola prima universale antica, di tutta la terra conosciura fin’ a’ tempi di Tolomeo,” which is on a revised conical projection, and the additional map “Territorio di Roma duodecima tavola nuova d’Europa” which is new to this edition. The atlas contains 27 Ptolemaic maps and 38 new maps.

The cosmographer Gerard Mercator (1512–1594), famous for introducing the name atlas for a collection of maps, initially intended to publish a large multi-volume work, which he never completed before he died.

Mercator the Frans Hogenberg portrait of 1574 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first volume was intended to be his Geographia. In 1578 he published his Tabulae geographicae Cl. Ptolemaei ad mentem auctoris restitutis ac emendatis. (Geographic maps according to Claudius Ptolemy, drawn in the spirit of the author and expanded by Gerard Mercator). This was followed by a second edition in 1584 his Geographiae Libri Octo: recogniti iam et diligenter emendati, containing his revised version of Ptolemaeus’ text.

Geographiae Libri Octo :recogniti iam et diligenter emendati cum tabulis geographicis ad mentem auctoris restitutis ac emendatis ; Cum gratia & Priuilegio Sac Caes. Maiestat. Source:

 I hope I have made clear just how important the rediscovery of the Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries given the number of editions, of which I have only named a few, and the status of the authors, who produced those editions. In the next episode we will examine its impact on the map making in Europe during this period. 


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

The seventeenth-century Chinese civil servant from Cologne 

From its very beginnings the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) was set up as a missionary movement carrying the Catholic Religion to all corners of the world. It also had a very strong educational emphasis in its missions, carrying the knowledge of Europe to foreign lands and cultures and at the same time transmitting the knowledge of those cultures back to Europe. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the seventeenth-century Jesuit mission to China, which famously in the history of science brought the latest European science to that far away and, for Europeans, exotic land. In fact, the Jesuits used their extensive knowledge of the latest European developments in astronomy to gain access to the, for foreigners, closed Chinese culture.

It was, initially, Christoph Clavius (1538–1612), who by introducing his mathematics programme into the Jesuits more general education system, ensured that the Jesuits were the best purveyors of mathematics in Europe in the early seventeenth century and it was Clavius’ student Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), who first breached the Chinese reserve towards strangers with his knowledge of the mathematical sciences.

The big question is what did the Chinese need the help of western astronomers for and why. Here we meet an interesting historical contradiction for the Jesuits. Unlike most people in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, the Jesuits did not believe in or practice astrology. One should not forget that both Kepler and Galileo amongst many others were practicing astrologers. The Chinese were, however, very much practitioners of astrology at all levels and it was here that they found the assistance of the Jesuits desirable. The Chines calendar fulfilled important ritual and astrological functions, in particular the prediction of solar and lunar eclipses for which the emperor was personally responsible, and it had to be recalculated at the ascension to the throne of every new emperor. There was even an Imperial Astronomical Institute to carry out this task.

Although the Chinese had been practicing astronomy longer than the Europeans and, over the millennia, had developed a very sophisticated astronomy, in the centuries before the arrival of the Jesuits that knowledge had fallen somewhat into decay and had by that point not advanced as far as that of the Europeans. Before the arrival of the Jesuits, the Chinese had employed Muslim astronomers to aid them in this work, so the principle of employing foreigners for astronomical work had already been established. Through his work, Ricci had convinced the Chinese of his superior astronomical knowledge and abilities and thus established a bridgehead into the highest levels of Chinese society.

The man, who, for the Jesuits, made the greatest contribution to calendrical calculation in seventeenth century was the, splendidly named, Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666). Born, probably in Cologne, into a well-established aristocratic family, who trace their roots back to the twelfth century, Johann Adam was the second son of Heinrich Degenhard Schall von Bell zu Lüftelberg and his fourth wife Maria Scheiffart von Merode zu Weilerswist. He was initially educated at the Jesuit Tricoronatum Gymnasium in Cologne and then in 1607 sent to Rome to the Jesuit run seminary Pontificium Collegium Germanicum et Hungaricum de Urbe, where he concentrated on the study of mathematics and astronomy. It is thought that his parents sent him to Rome to complete his studies because of an outbreak of the plague in Cologne. In 1611 he joined the Jesuits and moved to the Collegio Romano, where he became a student of Christoph Grienberger

A portrait of German Jesuit Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1666), Hand-colored engraving, artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

He applied to take part in the Jesuit mission to China and in 1618 set sail for the East from Lisbon. He would almost certainly on his way to Lisbon have spent time at the Jesuit College in Coimbra, where the missionaries heading out to the Far East were prepared for their mission. Here he would probably have received instruction in the grinding of lenses and the construction of telescopes from Giovanni Paolo Lembo (c. 1570–1618), who taught these courses to future missionaries.

Schall von Bell set sail on 17 April 1618 in a group under the supervision of Dutch Jesuit Nicolas Trigault (1577–1628), Procurator of the Order’s Province of Japan and China.

Nicolas Trigault in Chinese costume, by Peter Paul Rubens, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Source: Wikimedia Commons
De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas, by Nicolas Trigault and Matteo Ricci, Augsburg, 1615. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Apart from Schall von Bell the group included the German, polymath Johannes Schreck (1576–1630), friend of Galileo and onetime member of the Accademia dei Lincei, and the Italian Giacomo Rho (1592–1638). They reached the Jesuit station in Goa 4 October 1618 and proceeded from there to Macau where they arrived on 22 July 1619. Here, the group were forced to wait four years, as the Jesuits had just been expelled from China. They spent to time leaning Chinese and literally fighting off an attempt by the Dutch to conquer Macau. 

In 1623 Schall von Bell and the others finally reached Peking. In 1628 Johann Schreck began work on a calendar reform for the Chinese. To aid his efforts Johannes Kepler sent a copy of the Rudolphine Tables to Peking in 1627. From 1627 to 1630 Schall von Bell worked as a pastor but when Schreck died he and Giacomo Rho were called back to Peking to take up the work on the calendar and Schall von Bell began what would become his life’s work.

He must first translate Latin textbooks into Chinese, establish a school for astronomical calculations and modernise astronomical instruments. In 1634 he constructed the first Galilean telescope in China, also writing a book in Chinese on the instrument. In 1635 he published his revised and modernised calendar, which still exists. 

Text on the utilisation and production of the telescope by Tang Ruowang (Chinese name of Johann Adam Schall von Bell) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Galilean telescope from Schall von Bell’s Chinese book Source: Wikimedia Commons

Scall von Bell used his influence to gain permission to build Catholic churches and establish Chinese Christian communities. This was actually the real aim of his work. He used his knowledge of mathematics and astronomy to win the trust of the Chinese authorities in order to be able to propagate his Christian mission.

In 1640 he produced a Chinese translation of Agricola’s De re metallica, which he presented to the Imperial Court. He followed this on a practical level by supervising the manufacture of a hundred cannons for the emperor. In 1644, the emperor appointed him President of the Imperial Astronomical Institute following a series of accurate astronomical prognostication. From 1651 to 1661 he was a personal advisor to the young Manchurian Emperor Shunzhi (1638–1661), who promoted Schall von Bell to Mandarin 1st class and 1st grade, the highest level of civil servant in the Chinese system.

Johann Adam Schall von Bell and Shunzhi Emperor Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following the death of Shunzhi, he initially retained his appointments and titles, which caused problems for him in Rome following a visitation in Peking by the Dominicans. The Vatican ruled that Jesuits should not take on mundane appointments. In 1664 Schall von Bell suffered a stroke, which left him vulnerable to attack from his rivals at court. He was accused of having provoked Shunzhi’s concubine’s death through having falsely calculated the place and time for the funeral of one of Shunzhi’s sons. 

The charges, that included other Jesuits, were high treason, membership of a religious order not compatible with right order and the spread of false astronomical teachings. Schall von Bell was imprisoned over the winter 1665/66 and Jesuits in Peking, who had not been charged were banned to Kanton. He was found guilty on 15 April 1665 and sentenced to be executed by Lingchi, death by a thousand cuts. However, according to legend, there was an earthquake shortly before the execution date and the judge interpreted it as a sign from the gods the Schall von Bell was innocent. On 15 May 1665 Schall von Bell was released from prison on the order of the Emperor Kangxi (1654–1722). He died 15 August 1666 and was rehabilitated by Kangxi, who ensured that he received a prominent gravestone that still exists. 

Jesuit astronomers with Kangxi Emperor by Philippe Behagle French tapestry weaver, 1641 – 1705 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Schall von Bell was represented at his trial by Flemish Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688), who would later take up Schall von Bell’s work on the Chinese calendar but that’s a story for another day. Schall von Bell reached the highest ever level for a foreigner in the Chinese system of government but in the history of science it is his contributions to the modernisation of Chinese astronomy and engineering that are most important. 

Jesuit Mission to China, left to right Top: Matteo Ricci, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, Ferdinand Verbiest Artist: Jean-Baptiste Du Halde (1674 – 1743) French Jesuit historian Source: Wikimedia Commons


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Technology, Renaissance Science

The Renaissance Mathematicus tries his luck as YouTube Influencer

Some time back I had a late-night chat with medieval historian Tim O’Neill about all things Galileo Galilei; late night for me that is, early morning for him. Unbeknown to me the sneaky Aussie bugger recorded my ruminations on the Tuscan mathematicus; they’re like that those antipodeans, duplicitous. Now he’s gone and posted the whole affair on YouTube, for all the world to see.

 I may have to have plastic surgery and move to an unknown destination in South America.

However, if you have a strong stomach and like to watch train wrecks or are just curious what the Renaissance Mathematicus looks like in real life, then you can find the whole horrible mess on Tim’s History for Atheists YouTube channel in three obscenely long parts:

The Galileo Affair Part 1 

The Galileo Affair Part 2 

The Galileo Affair Part 3  

 Who knows, if enough people can be fooled into watching it, I might become the next Paris Hilton! 

WARNING: Not suitable for children or viewers with high moral standards: Expletives not deleted!


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