How I got to know Joseph Moxon: On Asking the right Questions.

Darin at PACHS has recently been posting an excellent series of articles on how to motivate students into taking the right approach to research in the history of science with the most recent posts being on the subject of how to question history of science data that one has acquired in order to obtain interesting new information. Earlier he has posted two interesting posts on Joseph Moxon (1627 – 1691) who is one of my all time favourite obscure mathematicians, so I thought I would tell the story of how I got to know Mr Moxon and how re-questioning data concerning a statement he had made produced a very different answer.


Engraving of Joseph Moxon from his A Tutor to Astronomy (1686)

Some years ago I did some research on Jonathan Swift and his patron Sir William Temple and their involvement in the Quarrel of the Ancient and Moderns. The 15th and 16th centuries in Europe are best known in intellectual terms as the period of the Humanist Renaissance during which new and better editions of many Latin and Greek texts became available and just as many texts became available for the first time. This led to a re-evaluation and veneration of Classical learning. It was the Renaissance scholars themselves who coined the names Renaissance and Middle Ages implying that they were the heirs of the Golden Age of Classicism and that the period in between was qualitatively inferior. However the 16th and 17th century also saw the generation of new knowledge both in literature and science a situation that led people to draw comparisons between the Ancient knowledge of the Greeks and Romans and the Modern knowledge. As this comparison degenerated into a bitter quarrel on the merits of the two it acquired the status of a historical term “The Quarrel of the Ancient and Moderns”.

Swift’s patron and employer, Sir William Temple (1628 – 1699), a minor aristocrat and retired diplomat who fancied himself as a humanist scholar became involved in the Quarrel with the publication of his essay, On Ancient and Modern Learning in which he succeeded in exposing his almost total ignorance of the modern sciences. I wont go into details here but there is one claim by Temple that I have to repeat for obvious reasons. When talking about mathematics he asks, who is the modern Archimedes, John Wilkins? You can almost hear the sneer as he puts the question. There was something of an Archimedes cult in the Renaissance and he was of course most famous for his mechanical genius and John Wilkins was well known as the author of Mathematical Magick (1648) a popular science book on machines. Now Wilkins was of course not on a level with Archimedes and would never have claimed to be. I personally don’t believe in history of science pissing contests, X was the greatest mathematician of all times or Y was the greatest physicist in the 17th century but Galileo Galilei, Simon Stevin, Johannes Kepler, Christian Huygens and Isaac Newton were all 17th century mathematical physicists who were in the same class as Archimedes but none of them receives a mention in Temple’s essay and he wasn’t capable of reading and understanding their work anyway. Now, Richard Bentley (1662 – 1742) and William Wotton (1666 – 1727) took up the cudgels on behalf of the Moderns cruelly pointing out Sir Williams’s ignorance. Wotton, a child prodigy, polyglot, polymath genius produced a book, Reflection on Ancient and Modern Learning, in 1694 with a second expanded edition in 1679 in which he surveys and compares the achievements of the Ancients and Modern across all of the academic disciplines in a fair, balanced and scholarly manner inviting his friend Edmond Halley to supply the section on mathematics and astronomy and came down firmly in favour of the Moderns. For his troubles he got savagely satirised by Swift coming to the defence of his employer in his brilliant Battle of the Books (1704).

During my research on all of this I came across a doctoral thesis on William Temple written by a German student of English literature, whose thesis supervisor is one of the world’s leading Swift experts. In this thesis the author tries to defend Temple’s ignorance of the then modern science by claiming that his views reflect the accepted intellectual opinions of the time, which they don’t. One of his claims concerns heliocentric astronomy, which Temple had claimed in his essay, was by no means accepted by the experts of the day. The writer claims that Temple is correct and produces a series of supposed historical facts to back up his statement. Now heliocentric astronomy had been accepted by the European scientific community by about 1660 so Temple’s claim, written in 1692, was of course rubbish, so how could his modern champion produce evidence to the contrary? Most of his so-called facts were basically instantly dismissible but one statement aroused my interest; he wrote that the London globe maker Joseph Moxon had reported a surge in sales of Ptolemaic astronomical globes in the last quarter of the 17th century. Now why would people be buying Ptolemaic astronomical globes in increasing quantities if they had rejected the geocentric astronomy? This was the question that I then set out to answer. My author had assumed that a belief in geocentric astronomy was the only correct or plausible answer but was this in fact the case?

When I first stumbled across this problem I had no idea who Joseph Moxon was and very little idea about the manufacture of globes whether terrestrial or celestial. Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that among the many and varied themes that I cover certain subject reoccur more often than others such as astronomy/astrology, instrument making and in particular globe making, obscure mathematicians and the history of early printing. Joseph Moxon might be considered as a sort of leading figure for this blog as he represents all of these things and he was my introduction into the worlds of globe making and early scientific printing. I’m not going to expand on him now as he deserves a post all of his own but you can get the basics from Darin’s posts here and here.

Returning to the claim of our dissertation author it’s actually the case that from their inception at the beginning of the 16th century by Johann Schöner until their demise at the end of the 19th century almost all printed pairs (and they are almost always produced in matching pairs) of terrestrial and celestial globes are in fact geocentric for the very simple reason that this is the way that we experience the world. Moxon and a couple of 18th century globe makers are the exception in that they also offered heliocentric globes, Moxon even offering Tychonic geo-heliocentric ones, but they found very few buyers and were abandoned. For contrasting geocentric and heliocentric world views you have to turn to the orrery makers.

There are also practical reasons for the production of geocentric astronomical globes in a period where heliocentrism had become the norm and this lies in the original function of globe pairs. Globe pairs were used to teach astronomy and its applications, which are cartography, navigation and astrology. Terrestrial globes, which are fitted out with the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, the celestial equator and the ecliptic are used to teach the fundamentals of astronomy as well as cartography and navigation. Celestial globes were originally conceived to teach astrology. Even today when teaching the basic of astronomy one starts by teaching geocentric astronomy because that is the way we observe the heavens and the mathematical calculation are simpler and only when the student has mastered the basic does one move onto heliocentric astronomy. In the late 17th century and early 18th century there is adequate written evidence that the heliocentric teachers of astronomy proceeded in exactly this way so the fact that Moxon was selling geocentric globes in no way equates with a belief in a geocentric world view.

However this does not explain why Moxon experienced a surge in the sale of geocentric celestial globes and to find the answer to this we have to turn away from astronomy to astrology. The books that Moxon wrote and sold with his globes explaining how to use them all contain long sections on astrological uses and Moxon was himself a practicing astrologist and it is here that we find an explanation for an increased interest in Ptolemaic celestial globes. From the beginning of the Scientific Renaissance astrology had been regarded as a science and in fact was considered to be the most important of the mathematical sciences. Now the astrologists were fully aware of the problems with their discipline and the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries see concerted efforts on the part of the astrologists to find, create or provide a sound empirical basis for their activities; a subject that I will deal with another time. However by about 1660 it was obvious to most practitioners that their efforts had failed dismally and astrology lost its status as a science. Naturally not all practicing astrologist were prepared to abandon their belief in stellar influence and some sought new explanation for the failure of their discipline. One of the most notable of these was the Italian P. Placido de Titis (1603 – 1668) who led a back to the roots movement with his Physiomathematica sive coelestis philosophia published in 1650 with an improved 2nd edition, 1675. Placido argued that astrologist most return to the ‘original’ astrology as taught in Ptolemaeus’ Tetrabiblos and abandon all of the innovations introduced since its publication. This revival of pure Ptolemaic astrology found active support in England with the first ever English translation of the Tetrabiblos being published by John Partridge in 1704. Partridge is notorious in the history of English literature as the victim of one of Swift’s most vicious satires. In a letter published in January1708, under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff, he predicted astrologically Partridge’s death on the 29th March on which day he published a second letter announcing Partridge’s death. When Partridge in turn published a letter saying that he was still alive, Swift countered with a letter denouncing Partridge’s letter as a hoax. Partridge suffered greatly through Swift’s hoax and became the laughing stock of intellectual society but I digress.

Moxon was at the centre of this astrological reform. In the middle of the 16th century one of the first scientific societies established in England had been the Astrological Society of London, which boasted many prominent members. During the English Revolution (or Civil War if you prefer) astrological pamphlets were used as war propaganda by both the Royalists and the Parliamentarians with the latter being the more successful in their efforts. After the Restoration the Astrological Society was therefore dissolved under suspicion of being a secret puritan organisation. In the 1680s Moxon revived the Astrological Society with himself as president and it is here that we are most likely to find the customers for his surge in sales of Ptolemaic globes. It was a belief in Ptolemaic astrology and not one in geocentric astronomy that accounts for this surge, sometimes the apparently obvious explanation of a historical fact is not the correct one and it always pays as a historian to question your first assumptions and to examine the background of a historical occurrence particularly thoroughly.


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

16 responses to “How I got to know Joseph Moxon: On Asking the right Questions.

  1. Pingback: How I got to know Joserh Moxon | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Rebekah Higgitt

    Thanks for this interesting post Thony. I have a couple of questions. Firstly, you use the term astrologist rather than astrologer, which I have barely ever seen. Does this reflect contemporary usage? Secondly, I know nothing about the 16th-century Astrological Society of London (although I think there was a late 19th-century one). Can you point me to any info on it?

  3. The use of astrologist is purely a personal quirk and not significant.

    You can find references to the Astrological Society of London in Josten, C. H. (editor) (1966). Elias Ashmole (1617–1692). His Autobiographical and Historical Notes, his Correspondence, and Other Contemporary Sources Relating to his Life and Work Oxford: Clarendon Press. It’s from there that I found the information about Moxon having revived the Society of which Ashmole had been a member.

    The above is all written from memory and some years is a euphemism for a long time ago. I have distinct memories of another source for the Astrological Society but I will have to do some digging in order to find it.

    A revival in the 19th century is highly likely given the general rise of astrology and the occult sciences in general at that time.

  4. Will Thomas

    Funnily enough, Moxon was one of the players in a grad school paper I wrote on practical culture in early modern science, or something like that (for Mario Biagioli’s Sci Rev class). I ran into the globe thing at that time, and suppose I assumed the geocentric globes were for customers who were not prepared to deal with “advanced” astronomical concepts.

    Anyway, how does one make a celestial globe geocentric or heliocentric? I am having a hard time imagining how one treats planets and the sun on a celestial globe, let alone how one would distinguish the models.

  5. Thony, thanks for the great follow up and example of wat I’m trying to convey to my students.

    You can also find a bit more about Moxon’s efforts to revive the Astrological Society in Patrick Curry’s Power and Prophecy: Astrology in Early Modern England. As I recall there’s also a brief discussion of Moxon’s efforts in a preface to a later edition of William Lilly’s Christian Astrology. I would love to know more about the society.

    Finally, I found it interesting given Moxon’s own interest in astrology that he said so little about it in his A Tutor to Astronomy, leaving it to others.

    Thanks again.

  6. fusilier

    Interesting, the Joseph Moxon I recognize is the author of Mechanick Exercises or the Doctrine of Handy-Works.

    This is recognized as one of the earliest “How To” books on various trades, such as carpentry, brick-laying, and so on, written in English, for non-specialists.

    My copy of the first volume (published by the Early American Industries Association, a hobbyist/collector group) states that Moxon was a Royal Society fellow, elected in 1678.

    It does give his dates 1627-1700, however.

    James 2:24

    • Will Thomas

      Right — that jogs the memory. This was the Moxon I concentrated on. The how-to books were a subscription series. He had one on how to run a printing shop, as well, which had some interesting discussion not only on the mechanics of printing, but also on how to run a print-shop team.

    • As I mentioned in my post, Moxon stimulated my interest in the history of early (scientific) printing. As far as I know the Mechanick Exercises are the very first Do-It-Yourself or How To Do It books and display a serious shift in concepts of education. Previously apprentices had been taught orally by their masters and the knowledge was keep partially secret, by publishing this information Moxon was part of a major shift in knowledge perception and aquirement.

      This has significance for the history of science as several historians, Edgar Zilsel, Christopher Hill and Deborah Harkness for example, identify the hand crafts in the 16th and 17th centuries as being one of the major sources for the development of the empirical method in science.

      Moxon himself was also an important scientific printer publisher, he was for example an early printer of logarithm tables. However his most important contribution to the history of printing is his Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing. The other Mechanick Exercises are pamphlets sold by subscription to form an encyclopedia of hand work but the Art of Printing is a large thick book explaing all aspects of the art of printing. It was the first published account of printing and as such an important document in the history of printing.

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