The world’s first scientific press

The first ever printing house dedicated to the printing and publishing of scientific books was established in Nürnberg in 1471 by the astronomer, astrologer and mathematician Johannes Müller, better known as Regiomontanus who was born in Königsberg in Lower Franconia on June 6th 1436.  In what follows I want to say something about Regiomontanus’ motivation and intentions in setting up his printing house.


Johannes Regiomontanus, Woodcut Source: Wikimedia Commons

If you read my recent post on Peuerbach you will know that Regiomontanus entered the University of Vienna in 1450 where he first studied under and later worked together with Peuerbach. In 1461 Regiomontanus left Vienna with his new patron the papal legate Cardinal Bessarion to travel to Italy where he would spend the next four years of his life. During his time as a member of Bessarion’s familia (household) Regiomontanus travelled throughout Northern Italy where his main function was to search out and copy mathematical and astronomical (which includes astrological) manuscripts for his employer’s private library. Bessarion is reputed to have possessed the largest private library in Europe, which when he donated it to the city of Venice in 1468 consisted of over one thousand volumes that constituted the ground stock of the legendary Biblioteca Marciana. Regiomontanus not only copied the manuscripts that he hunted down for his patron but also made copies for himself.

From 1465 onwards we loose track of Regiomontanus completely until he turns up at the court of János Vitéz Archbishop of Esztergom (German, Gran) in Hungary. Like Bessarion Vitéz, an old friend of Peuerbach, was a humanist scholar and bibliophile who employed Regiomontanus as astrologer and librarian. From here Regiomontanus moved to the court of the Hungarian King Martthias Corvinus, in Budapest, like his previous patrons another humanist scholar and bibliophile who also employed the Franconian mathematician as his personal mathematical book expert. Regiomontanus supplied both of his Hungarian patrons with copies of the manuscripts from his Italian collections making copies for himself of other manuscripts from their extensive libraries.

In 1471 Regiomontanus became involved in a dispute at Corvinus’ court as to why astrological predictions are so inaccurate.  Regiomontanus said that the problem was that astrological predictions were dependent on astronomical observations and calculations and that these were not accurate enough. If astronomy could be reformed and if astronomy as a science were accurate then the astrological predictions based on the astronomical observations would then also be accurate. He then set himself the task of reforming astronomy. First he obtained Corvinus’ permission and blessing for his enterprise obtaining from his patron a very generous pension to finance his undertaking. Then he moved from Budapest to Nürnberg, which he argued was the best place to carry out his intentions. Firstly Nürnberg manufactured the best astronomical instruments and secondly Nürnberg, placed as it was at the centre of Europe, offered the best possibilities for communication with other astronomers overall in Europe as Regiomontanus was aware that he could not reform the whole of astronomy alone but only in cooperation with others.

Regiomontanus planed a two pronged attacked to realise his aim of reforming astronomy. On the one side he intended making a long-term programme of astronomical observations to replace the inaccurate and corrupt observations that Renaissance Europe had inherited from antiquity. His second prong was his printing house. Regiomontanus was aware that the astronomical texts that had come down to him from antiquity and from the Islamic Golden Age were full of mistakes and errors produced by multiply translations and the numerous copies that each manuscript had gone through. His intention was to produce reliable, corrected, printed editions of the most important astronomical and mathematical texts by a critical philological editing process. From all the texts he wished to publish he had not one but multiple manuscript copies from differing sources and he hoped by careful comparison and analysis he would be able to reconstruct the original texts free of errors.

The first book he published however was a modern one, namely Peuerbach’s cosmology lectures from his time at the university in Vienna. The second production of his press was however somewhat unusual as it was not a book but a publisher’s catalogue listing not the books that he had already published but those that he intended to publish. The list consisted of all the major standard mathematical and astronomical works from Ptolemaeus, Euclid etc as well as a substantial list of his own works. In the end he only succeeded in publishing a total of nine items before his own early death, probably from fever whilst visiting Rome in 1476 to advise the Pope on calendar reform. His most important publication was his ephemerides, i.e. tables from which it is possible to calculate the daily positions of the planets, an indispensable aid for cartographers, navigators and astrologers. Manuscript ephemerides were quite common in the Middle Ages but Regiomontanus produced the first printed ones and they were distinguished by their extensiveness and their accuracy. His ephemerides were very popular and were used by the Spanish and Portuguese explorers who opened up the world at the end of the 15th century. Famously, Columbus used Regiomontanus’ ephemerides to awe the natives in the Americas by predicting a solar eclipse.


Regiomontanus – Kalendarium – Eclipses

Regiomontanus was not able, because of his early death, to fulfil his ambitious publishing programme but he still earned himself a place in the history of the book by establishing the world’s first ever scientific press even if it was only short lived.


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

20 responses to “The world’s first scientific press

  1. I guess Elizabeth Eisenstein’s work on the role of printing in the Scientific Revolution is now thought to be a bit long in the tooth since so much has been published on the topic of the book since 1979 when she published The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Still, your post inspired me to look back at her coverage of Regiomontanus, and I found a couple of interesting things along with some marginalia of my own, which were perhaps less embarrassing than usual.

    1. Apparently there has been a scholarly dispute about the significance of the Peurbach/Regiomontanus version of Ptolemy, with some claiming it was “little more than an epitome with few alterations of substance” while others called it “the finest textbook of Ptolemaic astronomy ever written.” Eisenstein inclined to the later view: “It pointed to unresolved problems in Ptolemaic astronomy and also contained post-Alexandrian data, which Copernicus later put to good use.” You’ve probably read the Epytoma in Almagestum Ptolemei. Care to give us the world’s most belated Amazon dot com reader review?

    2. For Sisyphus, the hell of it isn’t the effort of pushing the stone up the hill but the futility of watching it slide back down. Whatever the innovations promoted by the first generation of scientific publications, the great thing about their efforts was that after the advent of printing science became cumulative. Ideas and information would stick around. And this benefit was especially great in astronomy because observational data is bulky and difficult to copy accurately. Of course, printing didn’t provide a magic solution to the problem of preserving data and we’re still struggling with the issue half a millennium later. (What I wrote in the margin about this were words to the effect that the hardest thing is not to reproduce texts accurately but to reproduce the ability to read and use them.)

    3. Eisenstein warns against over estimating the practical impact of the scientific publications of Regiomontanus. She suggests, for example, that the famous story about Columbus and the eclipse is ‘Si non e vero e ben trovato.’ i.e. a little too good to be true. Columbus had a copy of the ephemerides on board his ship. Whether he or other mariners actually used such works is a debated question. More generally, while lots of 16th and 17th Century scientists and mathematicians promoted the utility of their inventions, the evidence suggests that the Scientific Revolution affected technological practice very slowly even where innovations seems obviously relevant and beneficial. (I wrote in the margin, everybody with a degree in business has been taught linear programming, which is very likely the most important and widely used quantitative method of them all; but I know from experience that it’s a rare businessman indeed who has the foggiest idea what it is. The nerds handle that if it gets handled at all, and anyhow the relevant algorithms are hidden in software packages.)

    • Jim I have not been ignoring your comments but waiting till I have the time to adequately answer them. As usual your comments are very thought provoking and as always reading them justifies, for me, the effort of writing this blog.

      Eisenstein may be somewhat long in the tooth but I would still whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone wishing to learn about the early history of the printed book and its impact. But then again I would also recommend Febvre & Martin The Coming of the Book, which is even longer in the tooth with, however, the advice to cross check any of the facts one might whish to use. Advice that I would append in general to all academic books no mater how old or young. The in book these days is Adrian Johns The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (1998). Johns is an avowed critic of Eisenstein and I think it pays to read both books. Eisenstein published a second improved edition of her book in 2005 that contains an after-word that is an answer to her critics, which almost certainly includes Johns but I haven’t read it yet. It’s on the infinite list!

      1) No I haven’t read The Epitome and at the moment have no intention of doing so. I’m a synthesist and leave things like that to the experts. I have read both the Syntaxis Mathematiké and De revolutionibus in translation and that’s quite enough dry, boring, obtuse and obscure mathematical astronomy for one lifetime! Both sets of your critics are right about The Epitome, it is as its name implies not the Syntaxis Mathematiké but merely an abridgement of same. However Peuerbach and Regiomontanus simplified and modernised the mathematics and as the intention of the book is to enable the calculation of orbits and planetary positions this gives it a great advantage over the original and led to it becoming the textbook of choice in Europe for the next 150 years. Also Regiomontanus included a lot of Arabic material and data that was not available to Ptolemaeus, which also served to make the book valuable. Copernicus includes discussions of Arabic material and data in his De revolutionibus and it has been shown that it is almost all taken from The Epitome and not from original sources. Summa summarum don’t judge a book by its quality but by its influence!

      2) Yes.

      3) Here Eisenstein is wrong and as a synthesist is guilty of not having cross checked her facts. We know that Columbus took a copy of the Regiomontanus Ephemerides (a pirate edition printed in Spain!) with him on his voyages and used it because we still have it complete with his marginalia. It should be pointed out that ephemerides were not used for navigation but for determining longitude on land when one had arrived in order to determine position and for cartographical purposes. The story of the solar eclipse is taken from a first hand account in the diary of one of the Spanish seamen present, Columbus’ brother if I remember correctly. There was indeed a solar eclipse at the time and place so the whole story is more than plausible. The potential use of Regiomontanus’ Ephemerides is, in my opinion, shown by the large number of pirate editions of the work plus the fact that when it ran out, it had only been calculated for thirty years, somebody went to the trouble of calculating the tables for the next thirty years and publishing the book under Regiomontanus’ name and not their own, which suggests that the book enjoyed a more than normal popularity. As this is a working tool and not something to read in ones leisure hours it would suggest that it was being used extensively. The dispute that Eisenstein mentions in her footnote refers to a difference of opinion between the Columbus biographer Morison on the one side and E. G. R. Taylor and D. W. Waters on the other. Although Morison was an award winning maritime historian, Taylor and Waters were among the foremost authorities on Renaissance mathematics and the history of navigation and I would tend to side with them rather than Morison.

      • Minor point: To be super fair, although Morison was skeptical of the extent to which practical mariners used the Ephemerides, he apparently credited the eclipse story, or so Eisenstein says–the silverfish apparently ate my copy of his biography of Columbus so I couldn’t check.

        As my commnents suggest, I’m inclined to doubt the immediate utility of technical developments because of my experience with how slowly innovations are adopted in the present day and how much work is involved. A lot of what I do in my day job deals with, to put it grandly, technology transfer. A real historian like yourself is in a better position to judge what actually happened–the info about the pirate editions and Columbus’ marginalia is much appreciated.

        A more general point: I look at issues involving the practical application of the results of the scientific revolution a bit differently than some others because of my particular if not peculiar perspective on what was going on. I tend to think of what happened over the last several centuries not so much as a revolution in how “we” think as the emergence of a important new group of people who think differently than the vast majority. To speak like a Presocratic, the process has been more a separating out than an overturning. Common sense does gradually change–heliocentrism has been winning the popular as well as the electoral vote in recent elections–but it is extraordinarily difficult and expensive to convey scientific ideas even to the famous educated laymen and it is probably a practical impossibility to teach complex ideas to individuals of statistically normal intelligence. Fortunately it doesn’t necessarily matter a great deal if only a relatively small proportion of the population understands science so long as the belief in its value is strong enough among political elites and the population at large. The situation is somewhat similar with technology. Everybody didn’t become a computer programmer. Instead, we got geeks. Again, less a revolution in thinking than a proliferation of new social roles.

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