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.
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.