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

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

  1. akracher

    My favorite of the lot is Johannes Schreck (1576-1630), who took a Galilean telescope and supposedly 4000 books (maybe an exaggeration) with him to China.

  2. Adam Apt

    There is a facsimile of the Verbiest celestial globe in a courtyard of the University of Leuven. I came across it by chance a little more than 20 years ago, when I worked for a company based in Leuven, and one evening, with nothing to do, I was wandering around the city. https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g188669-d20367954-Reviews-De_Kangxi_Verbiest_Hemelglobe-Leuven_Flemish_Brabant_Province.html

  3. I wonder if anyone’s tried building one of his “steam cars”.

  4. Carmelo Terranova

    I thought Hero’s aeliopile couldn’t be used for practical purposes… Was Verbiest’s aeliopile made with more advanced metallurgical practices to avoid explosions or such mishaps?

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