Category Archives: History of science

Musical, mathematical Minim, Marin Mersenne 

In the seventeenth century, Marin Mersenne (1588–1648) was a very central and highly influential figure in the European intellectual and scientific communities; a man, who almost literally knew everybody and was known by everybody in those communities. Today, in the big names, big events, popular versions of the history of science he remains only known to specialist historian of science and also mathematicians, who have heard of Mersenne Primes, although most of those mathematicians probably have no idea, who this Mersenne guy actually was. So, who was Marin Mersenne and why does he deserve to be better known than he is?

Marin Mersenne Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mersenne was born 8 September 1588, the son of Julien Mersenne and his wife Jeanne, simple peasants, in Moulière near Oizé, a small commune in the Pays de la Loire in North-Western France. He was first educated at the at the nearby College du Mans and then from 1604 to 1609 at the newly founded Jesuit Collège Henri-IV de La Flèche. The latter is important as in La Flèche he would have received the mathematical programme created by Christoph Clavius for the Jesuit schools and colleges, the best mathematical education available in Europe at the time. A fellow student at La Flèche was René Descartes (1596–1650) with whom he would become later in life close friends.

René Descartes at work Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, it is unlikely that they became friends then as Mersenne was eight years older. Leaving La Flèche he continued his education in Greek, Hebrew, and theology at the Collège Royal and the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1611 he became a Minim friar and a year later was ordained as a priest. The Minims are a mendicant order founded in Italy in the fifteenth century. From 1614 to 1618 he taught philosophy and theology at Nevers but was recalled to Paris in 1619 to the newly established house on the Place Royal (now Place des Vosges), where he remained, apart from travels through France, to Holland, and to Italy, until his death. 

View map of an area of Paris near Place Royale, now Place des Vosges, showing the Minim convent where Mersenne lived and the Rue des Minimes, not far from the Bastille, undated, but before 1789 ( Source: Linda Hall Library

In Paris he was introduced to the intellectual elite by Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Pereisc (1580–1637)–wealthy astronomer, antiquarian, and patron of science–whom he had got to know in 1616. 

Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc by Louis Finson Source: Wikimedia Commons

Settled in Paris, Mersenne began a career as a prolific author, both editing and publishing new editions of classical works and producing original volumes. In the 1620s his emphasis was on promoting and defending the Thomist, Aristotelian philosophy and theology in which he’d been educated. In his first book, Questiones celeberrimae in Genesim (1623), 

he attacked those he saw as opponents of the true Catholic religion, Platonist, cabbalistic and hermetic authors such as Telesio, Pomponazzi, Bruno and Robert Fludd. His second book, L’impiété des déistes, athées, et libertins de ce temps (1624), continued his attacks on the propagators of magic and the occult. His third book, La Vérité des sciences (1625), attacks alchemists and sceptics and includes a compendium of texts over ancient and recent achievements in the mathematical sciences that he saw as in conformity with his Christian belief. The latter drew the attention of Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), who became his closest friend. I shall return to their joint activities in Paris later but now turn to Mersenne’s own direct scientific contributions, which began to replace the earlier concentration on theology and philosophy.

Pierre Gassendi Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mersenne’s scientific interests lay in mathematics and in particular what Aristotle, who was not a fan of mathematics, claiming it did not apply to the real world, called the mixed sciences or mixed mathematics i.e., astronomy, optics, statics, etc. Here he compiled to collections of treatises on mixed mathematics, his Synopsis Mathematica (1626) and Universae geometriae synopsis (1644). In his Traité de l’Harmonie Universelle (1627), to which we will return, Mersenne gives a general introduction to his concept of the mathematical disciplines:

Geometry looks at continuous quantity, pure and deprived from matter and from everything which falls upon the senses; arithmetic contemplates discrete quantities, i.e. numbers; music concerns har- monic numbers, i.e. those numbers which are useful to the sound; cosmography contemplates the continuous quantity of the whole world; optics looks at it jointly with light rays; chronology talks about successive continuous quantity, i.e. past time; and mechanics concerns that quantity which is useful to machines, to the making of instruments and to anything that belongs to our works. Some also adds judiciary astrology. However, proofs of this discipline are borrowed either from astronomy (that I have comprised under cosmology) or from other sciences. 

In optics he addressed the problem of spherical aberration in lenses and mirrors and suggested a series of twin mirror reflecting telescopes, which remained purely hypothetical and were never realised.

Source: Fred Watson, “Stargazer: The Life and Times of the Telescope”, Da Capo Press, 2004, p. 115

This is because they were heavily and falsely criticised by Descartes, who didn’t really understand them. It was Mersenne, who pushed Descartes to his solution of the refraction problem and the discovery of the sine law. He wrote three books on optics, De Natura lucis (1623); Opticae (1644); L’Optique et la catoptrique (1651). Although his theoretical reflecting telescopes were published in his Harmonie universelle (1636), see below.

Mersenne also wrote and published collections of essays on other areas of mixed mathematics, mechanics, pneumatics, hydro- statics, navigation, and weights and measures, Cogitata physico-mathematica (1644); Novarum observationum physico- mathematicarum tomus III (1647). 

Mersenne dabbled a bit in mathematics itself but unlike many of his friends did not contribute much to pure mathematics except from the Mersenne prime numbers those which can be written in the form Mn = 2n − 1 for some integer n. This was his contribution to a long search by mathematicians for some form of law that consistently generates prime numbers. Mersenne’s law whilst generating some primes doesn’t consistently generate primes but it has been developed into its own small branch of mathematics. 

It was, however, in the field of music, as the title quoted above would suggest, which had been considered as a branch of mathematics in the quadrivium since antiquity, and acoustics that Mersenne made his biggest contribution. This has led to him being labelled the “father of acoustics”, a label that long term readers of this blog will know that I reject, but one that does to some extent encapsulate his foundational contributions to the discipline. He wrote and published five books on the subject over a period of twenty years–Traité de l’harmonie universelle (1627); Questions harmoniques (1634); Les preludes de l’harmonie universelle (1634); Harmonie universelle (1636); Harmonicorum libri XII (1648)–of which his monumental (800 page) Harmonie universelle was the most important and most influential.

Title page of Harmonie universelle Source: Wikimedia Commons

In this work Mersenne covers the full spectrum including the nature of sounds, movements, consonance, dissonance, genres, modes of composition, voice, singing, and all kinds of harmonic instruments. Of note is the fact that he looks at the articulation of sound by the human voice and not just the tones produced by instruments. He also twice tried to determine the speed of sound. The first time directly by measuring the elapse of time between observing the muzzle flash of a cannon and hearing the sound of the shot being fired. The value he determined 448 m/s was higher than the actual value of 342 m/s. In the second attempt, recorded in the Harmonie universelle (1636), he measured the time for the sound to echo back off a wall at a predetermined distance and recorded the value of 316 m/s. So, despite the primitive form of his experiment his values were certainly in the right range. 

Mersenne also determined the correct formular for determining the frequency of a vibrating string, something that Galileo’s father Vincenzo (1520–1591) had worked on. This is now known as Mersenne’s Law and states that the frequency is inversely proportional to the length of the string, proportional to the square root of the stretching force, and inversely proportional to the square root of the mass per unit length.

The formula for the lowest frequency is f=\frac{1}{2L}\sqrt{\frac{F}{\mu}},

where f is the frequency [Hz], L is the length [m], F is the force [N] and μ is the mass per unit length [kg/m].

Source: Wikipedia

Vincenzo Galileo was also involved in a major debate about the correct size of the intervals on the musical scale, which was rumbling on in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It was once again Mersenne, who produced the solution that we still use today.

Although Mersenne is certainly credited and honoured by acoustic researchers and music theorists for his discoveries in these areas, perhaps his most important contribution to the development of the sciences in the seventeenth century was as a networker and science communicator in a time when scientific journals didn’t exist yet. 

Together with Gassendi he began to hold weekly meetings in his humble cell with other natural philosophers, mathematicians, and other intellectuals in Paris. Sometime after 1633 these meetings became weekly and took place in rotation in the houses of the participants and acquired the name Academia Parisiensis. The list of participants reads like an intellectual who’s who of seventeenth century Europe and included René Descartes, Étienne Pascal and his son Blaise, Gilles de Roberville, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Pereisc, Pierre de Fermat, Claude Mydorge, the English contigent, Thomas Hobbes, Kenhelm Digby, and the Cavendishes, and for those not living in or near Paris such as Isaac Beeckman, Jan Baptist van Helmont, Constantijn Huygens and his son Christiaan, and not least Galileo Galilei by correspondence. When he died approximately six hundred letters were found in his cell from seventy-nine different correspondents. In total 193 scholars and literati have been identified as participants. Here it should be noted that although he tended to reject the new emerging sciences in his earlier defence of Thomist philosophy, he now embraced it as compatible with his teology and began to promote it.

This academy filled a similar function to the Gresham College group and Hartlib Circle in England, as well as other groups in other lands, as precursors to the more formal scientific academies such as the Académie des sciences in Paris and the Royal Society in London. There is evidence that Jean-Baptist Colbert (1619–1683), the French Minister of State, modelled his Académie des sciences on the Academia Parisiensis. Like its formal successors the Academia Parisiensis served as a forum for scholars to exchange views and theories and discuss each other’s work. Mersenne’s aim in establishing this forum was to stimulate cooperation between the participants believing science to be best followed as a collective enterprise.

Mersenne’s role was not restricted to that of convener, but he functioned as a sort of agent provocateur deliberately stimulating participants to take up research programmes that he inaugurated. For example, he brought Torricelli’s primitive barometer to Paris and introduced it to the Pascals. It is thought that he initiated the idea to send Blaise Pascal’s brother-in-law up the Puy de Dôme to measure the decreasing atmospheric pressure.

Blaise Pascal, unknown; a copy of the painting of François II Quesnel, which was made for Gérard Edelinck in 1691. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although they never met and only corresponded, he introduced Christiaan Huygens to the concept of using a pendulum to measure time, leading to Huygens’ invention of the pendulum clock.

Portrait of Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695) C.Netscher / 1671 Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was Mersenne, who brought the still very young Blaise Pascal together with René Descartes, with the hope that the brilliant mathematicians would cooperate, in this case he failed. In fact, the two later became opponents divided by their conflicting religious views. Mersenne also expended a lot of effort promoting the work of Galileo to others in his group, even offering to translate and publish Galileo’s work in French, an offer that the Tuscan mathematician declined. He did, however, publish an unpublished text by Galileo on mechanics, Les Mechaniques de Galilée.

Although not the author of a big theory or big idea, or the instigators of a big event, Mersenne actually contributed with his activities at least as much, if not more, to the development of science in the seventeenth century as any of the more famous big names. If we really want to understand how science develops then we need to pay more attention to figures like Mersenne and turn down the volume on the big names. 


Filed under History of Mathematics, History of Optics, History of science

Renaissance Science – XIX

The publication of Vesalius’ De fabrica certainly marks a major change in the study and teaching of anatomy at the medieval university, but, as I hope is clear, that change did not come out of thin air but was the result of a couple of centuries of gradual developments in the discipline. It also didn’t trigger an instant revolution in the discipline throughout the university system but spread slowly, as is almost always the case with major innovations in a branch of knowledge. In the case of Vesalius’ anatomy, it was not just the normal inertia inherent in theory change, but also a long-prolonged opposition by neo-Galenists. 

The beginnings of the acceptance of Vesalius anatomy took place, naturally, in his own university of Padua and other North Italian universities resulting in a dynasty of excellent professors at those universities, leading to a major influx of eager students from all over Europe. 

Following Vesalius, the first of the significant Paduan anatomists was Gabriele Falloppio (1523–1562). Born in Modena, the son of an impoverished noble family. Lacking money, he joined the clergy, was appointed a canon of Modena Cathedral, and received an education in medicine at the University of Ferrara, graduating in 1548. In the same year he was appointed professor for anatomy at the university. In 1549 he was appointed professor for anatomy at the University of Pisa and in 1551 he received the same position at the University of Padua. Although, most well know today for his study of the reproductive organs leading to the naming of the Fallopian tubes after him, he made major contributions to our knowledge of bones and muscles. His major area of research was, however, the anatomy of the head where he systematically expanded our knowledge.

Portrait of Gabriele Falloppio artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier that Falloppio was Matteo Realdo Colombo (c. 1515 – 1559), who was a colleague of Vesalius at Padua. The son of apothecary born in Cremona he initially apprenticed to his father but then became apprentice to the surgeon Giovanni Antonio Lonigo for seven years. In 1538 he enrolled as a medical student at Padua, where he quickly acquired a reputation for the study of anatomy. He became friends with Vesalius and was appointed to teach his courses while Vesalius was in Basel overseeing the publication of De fabrica. Vesalius attributes many of the discoveries in De fabrica to Colombo. Their relationship declined, when Colombo pointed out errors in Vesalius’ work, leading to them becoming rivals. 

Matteo Realdo Colombo artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Colombo left Padua in 1544 and went to the University of Pisa and from 1548 he worked at the papal university teaching anatomy until his death in 1459. Colombo was also involved in priority disputes with Falloppio. His only published text, De re anotomica issued posthumously in 1559 contains many discoveries also claimed by Falloppio, most notably the discovery of the clitoris and its sexual function.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Colombo made many contributions to the study of anatomy, perhaps his most important discovery was the rediscovery of the so-called pulmonary circulation, previously discovered by Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288) and Michael Servetus (c. 1511–1553).

Bartolomeo Eustachi (c. 1510–1574), a contemporary of Vesalius, who belonged to the competition, was a dedicated supporter of Galen working at the Sapienza University of Rome. 

Bartolomeo Eustachi artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

 However, he made many important anatomical discoveries. He collated his work in his Tabulae anatomicae in 1552, but unfortunately this work was first published in 1714. 

Bartolomaeus Eustachius, Tabulae Anatomicae. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Julius Caesar Aranzi (1529/30–1589) was born in Bologna and studied surgery under his uncle Bartolomeo Maggi (1477–1552), who lectured on surgery at the University of Bologna.

Portrait of Julius Caesar Arantius (Giulio Cesare Aranzi, 1530–1589). From the Collection Biblioteca Comunale dell’Archiginnasio, Bologna, Italy. Source.

He studied medicine at Padua, where he made his first anatomical discovery at the age of nineteen in 1548. He finished his studies at the University of Bologna graduating in 1556. At the age of twenty-seven he was appointed lecturer for surgery at the university. Like the others he made numerous small contributions to our understanding of human anatomy, of particular importance was his study of foetuses. However, his major contribution was in the status of anatomy as a discipline. As professor for anatomy and surgery in Bologna starting in 1556, he established anatomy as a major discipline in its own right. 

A very central figure in the elevation of anatomy as a discipline at the medieval university was Girolamo Fabrici d’Acquapendente (1533–1619). Fabrici studied medicine in Padua under Falloppio graduating in 1559. He went into private practice in Padua and was very successful, numbering many rich and powerful figures amongst his patients. From 1562 till 1565 he also lectured at the university on anatomy. In 1565 he succeeded Falloppi as professor for anatomy and surgery at the university, a post he retained until 1613. As an anatomist he is considered one of the founders of modern embryology and as also renowned for discovering the valves that prevent blood following backwards in the veins, an important step towards the correct description of blood circulation.

Girolamo Fabrizi d’Acquapendente artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Girolamo Fabrici is also renowned for several of the students, who studied under him in Padua. Giulio Cesare Casseri (1552 – 8 March 1616) not only studied under Fabrici but was also employed as his servant.

Giulio Cesare Casseri artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

The two of them later had a major falling out, but Casseri still succeeded Fabrici as professor in Padua. His biggest contribution was his Tabulae anatomicae, containing 97 copperplate engravings, published posthumously in in Venice 1627, which became one of the most important anatomical texts in the seventeenth century. 

Casseri was succeeded as professor in Padua by another of Fabrici’s students the Netherlander, Adriaan van den Spiegel (1578–1625).

Adriaan van den Spiegel artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Van den Spiegel was born in Brussels but studied initially in Leuven and Leiden, in 1601 he transferred to Padua, where he graduated in 1604. His main text, his De humani corporis fabrica libri decem, which he saw as an updated version of Vesalius’ book of the same title, was also published in Venice in 1627.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

For English readers Girolamo Fabrici’s most well-known student was William Harvey (1578–1657). Born the eldest of nine children to the jurist Thomas Harvey and his wife Joan Halke.

William Harvey, after a painting by Cornelius Jansen Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was educated at King’s School Canterbury and matriculated at Gonville & Caius College Cambridge in 1593. He graduated BA in 1597 and then set off on travels through mainland Europe. He travelled through France and Germany and matriculated as a medical student at Padua in 1599. During his time in Padua, he developed a close relationship with Fabrici graduating in 1602. Upon graduation he returned to England and having obtained a medical degree from Cambridge University, he became a fellow of Gonville & Caius. The start of a very successful career. His major contribution was, of course, his Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus (An Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Living Beings), the first correct account of the blood circulation and the function of the heart published in Frankfurt in 1628.


He also published an important work on the development of chicken embryos in the egg, Exercitationes de generatione animalium (On Animal Generation) published in 1651.

L0010265 W. Harvey, Exercitationes de generatione animalium Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

It could be argued that Girolamo Fabrici’s most important contribution to the history of anatomy was the erection of the university’s anatomical theatre. We saw in the last episode that the universities had been erecting temporary wooden dissecting spaces in winter for a couple of centuries, as described by Alessandro Benedetti (1450?–1512) in his Anatomicesivede historia corporis humani libri quique (AnatomyorFive Books on the History of the Human Body) in 1502:

A temporary theatre should be built at a large and well-ventilated place, with seats arranged in a circle, as in the Colosseum in Rome and the Area in Verona, sufficiently large to accommodate a great number of spectators in such a manner that the teacher would not be inconvenienced by the crowd… The corpse has to be put on a table in the centre of the theatre in an elevated and clear place easily accessible to the dissector. 

During the second half of the sixteenth century several institutions began to assign a permanent room for such spaces, the University of Montpellier in 1556, the Company of Barber Surgeons in London in 1557 and so on. Girolamo Fabrici raised the stakes by having the first ever purpose-built anatomical theatre designed and built in Padua in 1594. The project was the work of the Venetian polymath Paolo Sarpi (1552–1623) and the artist-architect Dario Varotari (c. 1539–1596). A closed elliptical shape with tiers of standing spaces for the observers rising steeply up the sides, giving a clear view of the dissecting table in the centre. 

Anatomical Theatre Padua design Source: Wikimedia Commons
Anatomical Theatre Padua as it is today Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Northern Italy the first to follow suit was the University of Bologna, which one year later opened its Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio now situated in the Archiginnasio Palace the main building of the university.

A general view of the Anatomical theatre reconstructed after WWI when it was destroyed by bombing. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Originally situated elsewhere, it was rebuilt in its current setting between 1636 and 1638. The Bolognese rejected the Paduan Ellipse for a rectangular room claiming it to be superior.

Of greatest interest however was the Theatrum Anatomicum built far away from Northern Italy in 1596 in the still young university of Leiden. The University of Leiden was established in 1575, in the early phases of the Eighty Years’ War, as the first university of the newly founded United Provinces.

The Academy building of Leiden University in 1614. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Leuven, the original alma mater of Vesalius, was located in the remaining Spanish Netherlands. Home to both Rudolph Snel (1546–1613) and his son Willebrord (1580–1626) as well as Simon Stevin (1548–1629), who founded its school of engineering, the university was strong on the sciences for its early days. However, it was its school of medicine that would become most influential in the seventeenth century, and this school of medicine had deep connections to Padua and Girolamo Fabrici. 

The connections start with Johannes Heurnius (Jan van Heurne) (1543–1601), born in Utrecht, he initially studied in Leuven and Paris before going to Padua to study under Fabrici, where he graduated MD in 1566. Returning to the Netherlands he became a town physician in Utrecht before being appointed professor of medicine at the new University of Leiden in 1581. He introduced anatomy in the tradition of Vesalius into the still young Dutch university, as well as the Paduan emphasis on anatomical demonstrations and practical clinical work. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The anatomical theatre was introduced by Pieter Pauw (1564–1617), born in Amsterdam the son of the politician Pieter Pauw and his wife Geertruide Spiegel, he studied medicine at the University of Leiden, under Johannes Heurnius and Gerard Bontius (c. 1537–1599), another Padua graduate, graduating in 1584.

Pieter Pauw Source: Wikimedia Commons

He continued his studies in Rostock graduating MD in 1587. From here, he moved to Padua to study under Fabrici. Forced by his father’s illness he returned to Leiden in 1589, he was appointed assistant to Bontius, taking over responsibility for the medical botany. In 1592 he was appointed professor for anatomy and in 1596 he erected the permanent anatomical theatre in the same year. 

Leiden anatomical theatre in 1610. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Otto Heurnius (otto van Heurne) (1577–1652) was the son of Johannes Heurnius and studied medicine under his father and Pieter Pauw in Leiden. He graduated MD in 1601 and was appointed assistant to his father, whom he succeeded a year later as professor, not without criticism. In 1617 he then succeeded Pieter Pauw as professor for anatomy.

Otto Heurnius Source: Wikimedia Commons

Otto’s most famous student was Franciscus Sylvius (Franz de le Boë) (1614–1672). Born into an affluent family in Hanau he studied medicine at the Protestant Academy of Sedan then from 1632 to 1634 in Leiden, where he studied under Otto Heurius and Adolphus Vorstius (Adolphe Vorst) (1597–1663), who had also studied at Padua under Adriaan van den Spiegel, graduating MD in 1622. Vorstius was appointed an assistant in Leiden in 1624 and full professor in 1625. Sylvius continued his studies in Jena and Wittenberg, graduating MD in Basel in 1637. He initial practice medicine in Hanau but returned to Leiden to lecture in 1639. From 1641 he had a successful private practice in Amsterdam. In 1658 he was appointed professor for medicine at Leiden, with twice the normal salary. 

Franciscus Sylvius and his wife by Frans van Mieris, Sr. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Under Sylvius it became obvious, what had been true for some time, that Leiden had, in the place of Padua, become the leading European medical school, particularly in terms of anatomy. By the middle of the seventeenth century the change that Vesalius had introduced into the study and teaching of anatomy at the medieval university had been completed. Previously a minor aspect of the medical education, anatomy had now become a prominent and central discipline in that course of studies. Sylvius produced a stream of first-class graduates, who would go on to dominate the life sciences in the next decades that included Reinier de Graaf (1641–1673), who made important contributions to the understanding of reproduction,

Reinier de Graaf Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jan Swammerdam (1637–1680), an early microscopist, who made important studies of insects, 

Jan Swammerdam Reproductive organs of the bee drawn with a microscope Credit: Wellcome Library, London. There is no known portrait of Swammerdam

Nicolas Steno (1638–1686), who made important contribution to anatomy and geology,

Portrait of Nicolas Steno (1666–1677). Unsigned but attributed to court painter Justus Sustermans. (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy) Source: Wikimedia Commons

and  Frederik Ruysch (1638–1731), an anatomist best know for his techniques for conserving anatomical specimens. 

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederick Ruysch by Jan van Neck (1683). Amsterdam Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sylvius was also one of those, who introduced chemistry into the study of medicine, which we will look at in the next episode.

For a detailed study of the work on reproduction of Harvey and many of the Leiden anatomist, I recommend Matthew Cobb’s The Egg & Sperm Race: The Seventeenth-Century Scientists Who Unravelled the Secrets of Sex, Life and Growth, The Free Press, London, 2006


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

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

Isaac goes to town

I appear to have become something of a fan of the Cambridge University historian of science, Patricia Fara. The first book of hers that I read, and that some years ago, was Newton: The Making of a Genius (Columbia University Press, 2002), an excellent deconstruction of the myths that grew up around England’s most lauded natural philosopher during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I do not own this volume, but I do own her Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment (Pimlico, 2004), which delivers what the title promises. A detailed look at women, who contributed to enlightenment science and, who usually get ignored in mainstream history of science. I also own her An Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment (Icon Books: 2002), a delightful romp through the first century of the scientific investigation of phenomenon of electricity. Also on my bookshelf is her ScienceA Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), a fresh and provocative one volume overview of the history of science. To round out my Fara collection I also have her Sex, Botany & EmpireThe Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks (Icon Books, 2003) on my to-read-pile; I mean who could resist a title like that from an author with a proven track record for excellent history of science narratives.

Patricia Fara’s latest publication returns to the subject of England’s most iconic natural philosopher, Isaac Newton, but deals not with his science but the last thirty years of his life after he had effectively abandoned the production of new science and mathematics for the life of a gentleman about town, Life after GravityIsaac Newton’s London Career[1].

Before I go into detail, this book maintains the high standards of historical research and literary excellence that Fara has consistently displayed over her previous publication. 

Anybody, who is reasonably acquainted with Newton’s biography will already know that he turned his back on Cambridge and academia in 1696, to move to London to become first Warden and then in 1699 Master of the Royal Mint. This move enabled him to become President of the Royal Society in 1704, an integral part of the socio-political power structure in the capitol during the next thirty years, and also to become immensely wealthy. It is to this part of Newton’s life that Fara turns her sharp and perceptive eye and which she analyses with her acerbic, historical scalpel.

I have over the decades read a lot of Newton biographies, as well as papers and books that deal with specific aspects of his life and work, including aspects of the last thirty years of his life that he spent living in London, such as Tom Levenson’s excellent Money for NothingThe South Sea Bubble and the Invention of Modern Capitalism. Despite this, I learnt a lot of new things from Fara’s excellent small volume.

Fara’s book is actually two interlinked narratives; the contextual biography of Newton’s years in London is interwoven with an analysis of William Hogarth’s 1732 painting, The Indian Emperor. Or the Conquest of Mexico. As performed in the year 1731 in Mr Conduitt’s, Master of the Mint, before the Duke of Cumberland etc. Act 4, Scene 4.

This painting by Hogarth shows a performance of a heroic drama, written by John Dryden (1631–1700) and first performed in 1665, being performed by a group of children in the drawing room of the town house of John Conduitt (1688–1737), the husband of Newton’s niece and one time housekeeper, Catherine Barton; Conduitt was also Newton’s successor as Master of the Mint. This picture depicts several of the main characters of the book’s biographical narrative, including Newton as a bust mounted on the wall. It also reflects some of the main themes of the books such as imperialism. The interweaving of the descriptions of the painting and the various episodes of Newton’s life in London is a very powerful literary device and is representative for the fact that Fara’s book is deeply contextual and not just a simple listing of Newton’s activities during those last thirty years of his life.

The book is divided into three sections, the first of which deals mainly with Newton’s various residences in London and his general domestic life, within the context of early eighteenth-century London. The second section turns the reader’s attention to Newton’s reign at the Royal Society and the reign of the first Hanoverian King, George I, and his family and court with whom Newton was intimately involved. The final section takes the reader to the Royal Mint and also turns the spotlight on English imperialism.

I’m not going to go into much detail, for that you’ll have to read the book and I heartily recommend that you do so, but I want to draw attention to two prominent aspects of the book that I found particularly good.

The first is, surprising perhaps in a Newton biography, a good dose of feminist historiography. As one would expect from the author of Pandora’s Breeches and more recently A LAB of ONE’S OWNScience and Suffrage in the First World War(OUP, 2018)–I love the indirect Virginia Woolf reference–Fara pays detailed attention to the women in her narrative. 

In her description of life in the Tower of London, where the Mint was situated and where Newton initially lived when he moved to London, she introduces the reader to Elizabeth Tollet (1694-1754). Tollet, a poet and translator, was the handicapped daughter of George Tollet a Royal Navy, who lived with her father in the Tower. Unusually for the time, she was highly educated, Fara uses her diaries to describe life in the Tower and also features some of her poems that dealt with Newtonian natural philosophical themes and her elegy, On the Death of Sir Isaac Newton (1727).

Fara also paints a very sympathetic portrait of Queen Anne (1665–1714), who ruled over Britain for slightly more that the first decade of the eighteenth century. She has often been much maligned by her biographers and Fara presents her in a more favourable light. Newton niece and sometime housekeeper, Catherine Barton (1679–1739), naturally, features large and in this context Fara discusses an interesting aspect of male chauvinism from the period, of which I was previously unaware. The habit of older gentlemen having sexual relations with much younger, often closely related, women sometimes within a marital relationship, sometimes not. She details the case of Robert Hooke (1635–1703), who slept with his niece Grace. She speculates, whether Voltaire’s claim that Newton got his job at the Mint, because Charles Montagu (1661–1715) had slept with Catherine Barton is true or not. If he had, she would have been a teenager at the time.

The section on the Hanoverian court concentrates on Caroline of Ansbach (1683–1737), George I daughter-in-law, a fascinating woman, who enjoyed intellectual relations with both Leibniz and Newton. Effectively abandoning the former for the latter, when she moved, with the court, from Hanover to London. Fara’s book is worth the purchase price alone, for her presentation of the women surrounding Newton during his London residency.

The second aspect of the book that I would like to emphasise is Fara’s treatment of British imperialism and the associated exploitation and racism during the first third of the eighteenth century. Recently, there have been major debates about various aspects of these themes. In the general actually debate on racism, historians have pointed out that the modern concept of racism is a product of the eighteenth century. Others have opposed this saying that one should instead emphasise the eighteenth century as the century of the Enlightenment, quoting Newtonian physics and astronomy as one of its great contributions, apparent unsullied by associations with Empire and slavery. Coming from a different direction the debate on the restoration of art works stolen by the colonial powers, Britain leading the pack, has cast another strong spotlight on this period and its evils.

Fara tackles the themes head on. She goes into detail about how the gold that Newton minted in large quantities, the major source of his own private wealth, came from British exploitation of Africa. She also goes into quite a lot of detail concerning the joint stock companies, set up to further Britain’s imperial aims, to establish and exploit its colonies and their active involvement in the slave trade. As well as profiting from the African gold that he minted for the British government, Newton also profited from his extensive investments in the East India Company and initially from his investments in the South Sea Company, both of which were involved in the slave trade. He, of course, famously also lost heavily in the collapse of the South Sea Company’s share price. Fara successfully removes the clean white vest that many attempt to award Newton in this context.

Fara’s book is much more that a portrait of Newton’s final three decades, it is also a wide ranging and illuminating portrait of London in the first third of the eighteenth century, its social life, its economics, its politics, and its imperialism. This is not just the London of Newton, but also of Swift, Defoe, Pope, and many others. Everything is carefully and accurately researched and presented for the reader in an attractive, easy to read, narrative form. The book has endnotes, which are just references to the very extensive bibliography. There is also as very good index.

The book is illustrated with a block of colour illustration, which are repeated in black and white at the relevant points in the text, and here I must make my only negative comment on Fara’s otherwise excellent book. The quality of the reproduction of colour prints is at best mediocre and, in my copy at least the black and white prints are so dark as to render them next to useless. Something went wrong somewhere.

As should be clear, if you have read your way through all of this review,  I think this is an excellent book and I can’t recommend it enough. If I had a five-star system of valuation, I would be tempted to give Fara’s volume six, with perhaps half a star taken off for the poor quality of the illustrations, for which, of course, the author is not responsible. In my opinion it is a must read for anybody interested in Newton and his life but also for those more generally interested in the Augustan Age. If you one of those general interested in reading, well written, accessible, entertaining, and informative history books then you can add Fara’s tome to your reading list without reservations.

[1] Patricia Fara, Life after GravityIsaac Newton’s London Career, OUP, Oxford, 2021


Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Newton

The deviser of the King’s horologes

There can’t be many Renaissance mathematici, whose existence was ennobled by a personal portrait by the master of the Renaissance portraits, Hans Holbein the younger. In fact, I only know of one, the German mathematicus, Nicolas Kratzer.

Nicolas Kratzer Portrait by Hans Holbein the younger

One might be excused for thinking that having received this singular honour that Kratzer had, in his lifetime, achieved something truly spectacular in the world of the Renaissance mathematical disciplines; however, almost the opposite is true. Kratzer appears to have produced nothing of any significance, was merely the designer and maker of sundials, and an elementary maths teacher, who was only portrayed by Holbein, because for a time they shared the same employers and were apparently mates. 

So, who was Kratzer and how did he and Holbein become mates? Here we find a common problem with minor scientific figures in the Renaissance, there are no biographies, no handy archives giving extensive details of his life. All we have are a few, often vague, sometimes contradictory, traces in the proverbial sands of time from which historians have attempted to reconstruct at least a bare outline of his existence. 

Kratzer was born in 1487 in Munich, the son of a saw-smith and it is probably that he learnt his metal working skills, as an instrument maker, from his father. He matriculated at the University of Köln 18 November 1506 and graduated BA 14 June 1509. He moved onto the University of Wittenberg, famous as the university of Martin Luther. However, this was before the Reformation and Wittenberg, a young university first founded in 1502, was then still Catholic. We now lose track of Kratzer, who is presumed to have then worked as an instrument maker. Sometime in the next years, probably in 1517, he copied some astronomical manuscripts at the Carthusian monastery of Maurbach, near Vienna. 

In January 1517, Pieter Gillis (1486–1533) wrote to his erstwhile teacher Erasmus (1466–1536) that the skilled mathematician Kratzer was on his way with astrolabes and spheres, and a Greek book.

HOLBEIN, Hans the Younger (b. 1497, Augsburg, d. 1543, London) Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam 1523 Wood, 76 x 51 cm National Gallery, London

This firmly places Kratzer in the circle of humanist scholars, most famously Erasmus and Thomas More (1478–1535) author of Utopia, who founded the English Renaissance on the court of Henry VIII (1491–1547). Holbein was also a member of this circle. Erasmus and Holbein had earlier both worked for the printer/publisher collective of Petri-Froben-Amerbach in Basel. Erasmus as a copyeditor and Holbein as an illustrator. Holbein produced the illustrations for Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly (written 1509, published by Froben 1511)

Holbein’s witty marginal drawing of Folly (1515), in the first edition, a copy owned by Erasmus himself

Kratzer entered England either at the end of 1517 or the beginning of 1518. His first identifiable employment was in the household of Thomas More as maths teacher for a tutorial group that included More’s children. It can be assumed that it was here that he got to know Holbein, who was also employed by More. 

Thomas More Portrait by Hans Holbein 1527

For his portraits, Holbein produced very accurate complete sketches on paper first, which he then transferred geometrically to his prepared wooden panels to paint them. Around 1527, Holbein painted a group portrait of the More family that is no longer extant, but the sketch is. The figures in the sketch are identified in writing and the handwriting has been identified as Kratzer’s. 

Like Holbein, Kratzer moved from More’s household to the court of Henry VIII, where he listed in the court accounts as the king’s astronomer with an income of £5 a quarter in 1529 and 1531. It is not very clear when he entered the King’s service but in 1520 Cuthbert Tunstall (1474–1559), later Prince-Bishop of Durham, wrote in a letter:

Met at Antwerp with [Nicolas Kratzer], an Almayn [German], devisor of the King’s horologes, who said the King had given him leave to be absent for a time.

Both Tunstall and Kratzer were probably in Antwerp for the coronation of Charles V (1500–1558) as King of Germany, which took place in Aachen. There are hints that Kratzer was there to negotiate with members of the German court on Henry’s behalf. Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) was also in the Netherlands; he was hoping that Charles would continue the pension granted to him by Maximilian I, who had died in 1519. Dürer and Kratzer met in the house of Erasmus and Kratzer was present as Dürer sketched a portrait of Erasmus. He also drew a silver point portrait of Kratzer, which no longer exists. 


Dürer sketch of Erasmus 1520
Dürer engraved portrait of Erasmus based on 1520 sketch finished in 1526. Erasmus reportedly didn’t like the portrait

Back in England Kratzer spent some time lecturing on mathematical topics at Oxford University during the 1520s. Here once again the reports are confused and contradictory. Some sources say he was there at the behest of the King, others that he was there in the service of Cardinal Wolsey. There are later claims that Kratzer was appointed a fellow of Corpus Christi College, but the college records do not confirm this. However, it is from the Oxford records that we know of Kratzer’s studies in Köln and Wittenberg, as he was incepted in Oxford as BA and MA, on the strength of his qualifications from the German institutions, in the spring of 1523. 

During his time in Oxford, he is known to have erected two standing sundials in the college grounds, one of which bore an anti-Lutheran inscription.

Drawing of Kratzer’s sundial made for the garden of Corpus Christi College Oxford

Neither dial exists any longer and the only dial of his still there is a portable brass dial in the Oxford History of Science Museum, which is engraved with a cardinal’s hat on both side, which suggests it was made for Wolsey.

Kratzer polyhedral sundial presumably made for Cardinal Wolsey Museum for the History of Science Oxford

On 24 October 1524 Kratzer wrote the following to Dürer in Nürnberg

Dear Master Albert, I pray you to draw for me a model of the instrument that you saw at Herr Pirckheimer’s by which distances can be measured, and of which you spoke to me at Andarf [Antwerp], or that you will ask Herr Pirckheimer to send me a description of the said instrument… Also I desire to know what you ask for copies of all your prints, and if there is anything new at Nuremberg in my craft. I hear that our Hans, the astronomer, is dead. I wish you to write and tell me what he has left behind him, and about Stabius, what has become of his instruments and his blocks. Greet in my name Herr Pirckheimer. I hope shortly to make a map of England which is a great country, and was not known to Ptolemy; Herr Pirckheimer will be glad to see it. All who have written of it hitherto have only seen a small part of England, no more… I beg of you to send me the likeness of Stabius, fashioned to represent St. Kolman, and cut in wood…

Herr Pirckheimer is Willibald Pirckheimer (1470–1530), who was a lawyer, soldier, politician, and Renaissance humanist, who produced a new translation of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia from Greek into Latin.

Engraved portrait of Willibald Pirckheimer Dürer 1524

He was Dürer’s life-long friend, (they were born in the same house), patron and probably lover.  He was at the centre of the so-called Pirckheimer circle, a group of mostly mathematical humanists that included “Hans the astronomer, who was Johannes Werner (1468–1522), mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer,

Johannes Werner artist unknown

and cartographer and Johannes “Stabius” (c.1468–1522) mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and cartographer.

Johannes Stabius portrait by Dürer

Werner was almost certainly Dürer’s maths teacher and Stabius worked together with Dürer on various projects including his star maps. The two are perhaps best known for the Werner-Stabius heart shaped map projection. 

Dürer replied to Kratzer 5 December 1524 saying that Pirckheimer was having the required instrument made for Kratzer and that the papers and instruments of Werner and Stabius had been dispersed.

Here it should be noted that Dürer, in his maths bookUnderweysung der Messung mit dem Zirkel und Richtscheyt (Instruction in Measurement with Compass and Straightedge), published the first printed instructions in German on how to construct and orientate sundials. The drawing of one sundial in the book bears a very strong resemblance to the polyhedral sundial that Kratzer made for Cardinal Wolsey and presumably Kratzer was the original source of this illustration. 

Dürer drawing of a sundial

Kratzer is certainly the source of the mathematical instruments displayed on the top shelf of Holbein’s most famous painting the Ambassadors, as several of them are also to be seen in Holbein’s portrait of Kratzer.

in’s The AmbassadorsHolbe

Renaissance Mathematicus friend and guest blogger, Karl Galle, recently made me aware of a possible/probable indirect connection between Kratzer and Nicolas Copernicus (1473–1543). Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514–1574) relates that Copernicus’ best friend Tiedemann Giese (1480–1550) possessed his own astronomical instruments including a portable sundial sent to him from England. This was almost certainly sent to him by his brother Georg Giese (1497–1562) a prominent Hanseatic merchant trader, who lived in the Steelyard, the Hansa League depot in London, during the 1520s and 30s.

London’s Steelyard

He was one of a number of Hanseatic merchants, whose portraits were painted by Holbein, so it is more than likely that the sundial was one made by Kratzer. 

Georg Giese portrait by Hans Holbein 1532

Sometime after 1530, Kratzer fades into the background with only occasional references to his activities. After 1550, even these ceased, so it is assumed that he had died around this time. In the first half of the sixteenth century England lagged behind mainland Europe in the mathematical disciplines including instrument making, so it is a natural assumption that Kratzer with his continental knowledge was a welcome guest in the Renaissance humanist circles of the English court, as was his younger contemporary, the Flemish engraver and instrument maker, Thomas Gemini (1510–1562). Lacking homegrown skilled instrument makers, the English welcomed foreign talent and Kratzer was one who benefited from this. 

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Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of science, History of Technology, Renaissance Science

Don’t major publishers use fact checkers or copyeditors anymore?

Trying to write a comprehensive history of science up to the scientific revolution in a single volume is the historian of science’s equivalent to squaring the circle. It can’t actually be done, it must fall short in various areas, but doesn’t prevent them from trying. The latest to attempt squaring the history of science circle is Ofer Gal in his The Origins of Modern Science: From Antiquity to the Scientific Revolution[1].

Gal’s book has approximately 380 pages and given what I regard as the impossibility of his task, I decided, if possible, to cut him some slack in this review. To illustrate the problem, David Lindberg’s The Beginnings of Western Science[2], with which Gal is definitely competing, has approximately 370 pages and only goes up to 1450 and has been criticised for its omissions. The Cambridge History of Science requires three volumes with an approximate total of 2250 pages to cover the same period as Gal and its essays can best be regarded as introductions to further reading. 

CUP are marketing Gal’s book as a textbook for schools and university students, which means, in my opinion, a higher commitment to historical factual accuracy, so where I might be prepared to cut some slack on possible omissions, I’m not prepared to forgive factual errors. If you are teaching beginners, which this book aims to do, then you have an obligation to get your facts right. The intended textbook nature is reflected in the academic apparatus. There is no central bibliography of sources, instead at the end of each section there is a brief list of primary and secondary sources for that section. This is preceded by a list of essay type questions on the section; questions that are more of a philosophical than historical nature. The book has neither foot nor endnotes but gives occasional sources for quotes within the main text in backets. 

Gal’s book opens with a thirty-page section titled, Cathedrals, which left me wondering what to expect, when I began reading. Actually, I think it is possibly the best chapter in the whole book. What he does is to use the story of the origins and construction of the European medieval cathedrals to illustrate an important distinction, in epistemology, between knowing-how and knowing-that. It is also the first indication that in the world of the traditional history and philosophy of science Gal is more of a philosopher than a historian, an impression that is confirmed as the book progresses. At times throughout the book, I found myself missing something, actual science.

Chapter two takes the reader into the world of ancient Greek philosophy and give comparatively short and concise rundowns on the main schools of thought, which I have to admit I found rather opaque at times. However, it is clear that Gal thinks the Greeks invented science and that Aristotle is very much the main man. This sets the tone for the rest of the book, which follows a very conventional script that is, once again in my opinion, limited and dated. 

The following section is the Birth of Astronomy, which Gal attributes entirely to the Greeks, no Egyptians, no Babylonians. He starts with Thomas Kuhn’s two sphere model that is the sphere of the Earth sitting at the centre of the sphere of the heavens and here we get a major factual error. He writes:

For the astronomers of ancient Mesopotamia and the Aegean region, that model was of two spheres: the image of our Earth, a sphere, nestled inside the bigger sphere of the heavens.

Unfortunately, for Gal, the astronomers of ancient Mesopotamia were flat earthers. Later in the section, Gal informs us that Babylonian astronomy was not science. I know an awful lot of historians of astronomy, who would be rather upset by this claim. Rather bizarrely in a section on ancient astronomy, the use of simple observation instruments is illustrated with woodcuts from a book from 1669 showing a cross-staff, first described in the 14th century by Levi den Gerson, and a backstaff, which was invented by John Davis in 1594. In the caption the backstaff is also falsely labelled a sextant. He could have included illustration of the armillary sphere and the dioptra, instruments that Hipparchus and Ptolemy actually used, instead.

Apart from these errors the section is a fairly standard rundown of Greek astronomical models and theories. As, apparently, the Greeks were the only people in antiquity who did science and the only science worth mentioning here is astronomy, we move on to the Middle Ages.

We get presented with a very scant description of the decline of science in late antiquity and then move on to the The Encyclopedic Tradition. Starting with the Romans, Cicero gets a positive nod and Pliny a much more substantial one. Under the medieval encyclopedist, we get Martianus Capella, who gets a couple of pages, whereas Isidore and Bede only manage a couple of lines each. We then get a more substantial take on the medieval Christian Church, although Seb Falk would be disappointed to note the lack of science here, the verge-and-foliot escapement and computus both get a very brief nod. Up next is the medieval university, which gets a comparatively long section, which however contains, in this context, a very strange attack on the university in the twenty first century. Gal also opinions:

They [medieval students] would study in two ways we still use and one which we have regrettably lost.

The three ways he describes are the lectura, the repititio, and the desputatio, so I must assume that Gal wishes to reintroduce the desputatio into the modern university! Following this are two whole pages on The Great Translation Project. This is somewhat naturally followed by Muslim Science. The section on the medieval university is slightly longer than that devoted here to the whole of Muslim science, with a strong emphasis on astronomy. In essence Gal has not written a book on the origins of modern science but one on the origins of modern astronomy with a couple of side notes nodding to other branches of the sciences. He devotes only a short paragraph to al-Haytham’s optics and the medieval scholars, who adopted it. Put another way, the same old same old. 

The next section of the book bears the title The Seeds of Revolution and begins with a six-page philosophical, theological discourse featuring Ibn Rushd, Moshe ben Maimon and Thomas Aquinas. We now move on to the Renaissance. In this section the only nominal science that appears is Brunelleschi’s invention of linear perspective as an example of “the meeting of scholar and artisan.” A term in the title of the next subsection and throughout the section itself left me perplexed, The Movable Press and Its Cultural Impact. Can anybody help me? The history of printing is one of my areas of study and I have never ever come across the movable type printing press simply referred to as “the movable press.” I even spent half an hour searching the Internet and could not find the term anywhere. Does it exist or did Gal create it? The section itself is fairly standard. This is followed by a long section on Global Knowledge covering navigation and discovery, global commerce, practical mathematics driven by commerce, trade companies, and the Jesuits.

We then get a section, which is obviously a favourite area of Gal, given to space that he grants it, magic. Now I’m very much in favour of including what I would prefer to give the general title occult theories and practices rather than magic in a text on the history of science, so Gal wins a couple of plus points for this section. He starts with a philosophical presentation of the usual suspects, Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism, Kabbala et al. He then moves on to what he terms scientific magic, by which he means alchemy and astrology, which he admits are not really the same as magic, excusing himself by claiming that both are based on a form of magical thinking. He then attempts to explain each of them in less than three pages, producing a rather inadequate explanation in each case. In neither case does he address the impact that both alchemy and astrology actually had historically on the development of the sciences. Moving on we have Magic and the New Science. Here we get presented with cameos of the Bacons, both Roger and Francis, Pico della Mirandola, and Giambattista della Porta. 

When dealing with Roger Bacon we get another example of Gal’s historical errors, he writes:

This enabled him to formulate great novelties, especially in optics. Theoretically, he turned Muslim optics into a theory of vision; practically, he is credited with the invention of the spectacles.

Here we have a classic double whammy. He didn’t turn Muslim optics into a theory of vision but rather took over and propagated the theory of vision of Ibn al-Haytham. I have no idea, who credits Roger Bacon with the invention of the spectacles, in all my extensive readings on the history of optics I have never come across such a claim, maybe just maybe, because it isn’t true.

Roughly two thirds of the way through we are now approaching modern science with a section titled, The Moving Earth. I’ll start right off by saying that it is somewhat symbolic of what I see as Gal’s dated approach that the book that he recommends for Copernicus’ ‘revolution’ is Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution, a book that was factually false when it was first publish and hasn’t improved in the sixty years since. But I’m ahead of myself.

The section starts with a very brief sketch of Luther and the reformation, which function as a lead into a section titled, Counter-Reformation and the Calendar Reform. Here he briefly mentions the Jesuits, whom he dealt with earlier under Global Knowledge. He writes:

The Jesuits, as we’ve pointed out, turned from the strict logicism of traditional Church education to disciplines aimed at moving and persuading: rhetoric, theater, and dance. Even mathematics was taught (at least to missionaries-to-be) for its persuasive power.

Ignoring this rather strange presentation of the Jesuit strictly logical Thomist education programme, I will just address the last sentence. Clavius set up the most modern mathematical educational curriculum in Europe and probably the world, which was taught in all Jesuit schools and colleges throughout the world, describing it as “even mathematics was taught” really is historically highly inaccurate. Gal now delivers up something that I can only describe as historical bullshit, he writes: (I apologies for the scans but I couldn’t be arsed to type all of it.)

I could write a whole blog post trying to sort out this rubbish. The bit about pomp and circumstance is complete rubbish, as is, in this context, the section about knowing the exact time that had passed, since the birth of Christ. The only concern here is trying to determine the correct date on which to celebrate the movable feasts associated with Easter. The error in the length of the Julian year, which was eleven minutes not a quarter of an hour, also has nothing to do with the procession of the equinoxes but simply a false value for the length of the solar year. The Julian calendar was also originally Egyptian not Hellenistic. The Church decided vey early on to determine the date of Easter astronomically not by observation in order not to be seen following the Jewish practice. The calendar reform was not part of/inspired by the Reformation/Counter-Reformation but it had been on the Church’s books for centuries. There had been several reforms launched that were never completed, usually because the Pope, who had ordered it, had died and his successor had other things on his agenda when he mounted the Papal Throne. Famously, Regiomontanus died when called to Rome by the Pope to take on the calendar reform. The calendar reform that was authorized by the Council of Trent, had been set in motion several decades before the Council. Ptolemy’s Almagest had reached Europe twice in translations, both from the Greek and from Arabic, in the twelfth century and not first in the fifteenth century. What was published in the fifteenth century and had a major impact, Copernicus learnt his astronomy from it, was Peuerbach’s and Regiomontanus’ Epitoma in Almagestum Ptolemae 

 Just to close although it has nothing to do with the calendar reform, the name Commentariolus for Copernicus’ short manuscript from about 1514 on a heliocentric system, was coined much later by Tyco Brahe.  

We now move on to Copernicus. His section on Copernicus and his astronomy is fairly good but we now meet another problem. For his Early Modern scientists, he includes brief biographical detail, which; as very much a biographical historian, I approve of, but they are unfortunately strewn with errors. He writes for example that Copernicus was “born in Northern Poland then under Prussian rule.” Copernicus was born in Toruń, at the time an autonomous, self-governing city under the protection of the Polish Crown. After briefly sketching Copernicus’ university studies he writes: 

“Yet Copernicus had no interest in vita activa: throughout his life he made his living as a canon in Frombork (then Frauenburg), a medieval privilegium (a personally conferred status) with few obligations…” 

The cathedral canons in Frombork were the government and civil service of the prince-bishopric of Warmia and Copernicus had very much a vita activa as physician to the bishop, as consultant on fiscal affairs, as diplomat, as governor of Allenstein, organizing its defences during a siege by the Teutonic Order, and much more. Copernicus’ life was anything but the quiet contemplative life of the scholar. Later he writes concerning Copernicus’ activities as astronomer, “his activities were supported by the patronage of his uncle, in whose Warmia house he set up his observatory.” Whilst Copernicus on completion of his studies initially lived in the bishop’s palace in Heilsberg from 1503 till 1510 as his uncle’s physician and secretary, following the death of his uncle he moved to Frombork, and it is here that he set up his putative observatory. Gal also writes, “It took him thirty years to turn his Commentariolus into a complete book – On the Revolutions – whose final proofs he reviewed on his death bed, never to see it actually in print.” The legend says the finished published book was laid in his hands on his death bed. He would hardly have been reviewing final proofs, as he was in a coma following a stroke.

This might all seem like nit picking on my part but if an author is going to include biographical details into, what is after all intended as a textbook, then they have an obligation to get the facts right, especially as they are well documented and readily accessible.

Rheticus gets a brief nod and then we get the standard slagging off of Osiander for his ad lectorum. Here once again we get a couple of trivial biographical errors, Gal refers to Osiander as a Lutheran and as a Protestant priest. Osiander was not a Lutheran, he and Luther were rivals. Protestants are not priests but pastors and Osiander was never a pastor but a Protestant preacher. Of course, Gal has to waste space on Bruno, which is interesting as he largely ignores several seventeenth century scientists, who made major contributions to the development of modern science, such as Christiaan Huygens. 

We are now well established on the big names rally towards the grand climax. Up next is Tycho Brahe, who, as usual, is falsely credited with being the first to determine that comets, nova et all were supralunar changing objects, thus contradicting Aristotle’s perfect heavens cosmology. History dictates that Kepler must follow Tycho, with a presentation of his Mysterium Cosmographicum. Gal says that Kepler’s mother “keen on his education” “sent him through the Protestants’ version of a Church education – grammar school, seminary and the University of Tübingen.” No mention of the fact that this education was only possible because Kepler won a scholarship. Gal also tells us:

By 1611, Rudolf’s colorful court brought about his demise, as Rudolf was forced off his throne by his brother Mathias, meaning that Kepler had to leave Prague. The last two decades of his life were sad: his financial and intellectual standing deteriorating, he moved back to the German-speaking lands – first to Linz, then Ulm, then Regensburg, and when his applications to university posts declined, he took increasingly lower positions as a provincial mathematician. … He died in poverty in Regensburg in 1630…

First off, Rudolph’s Prague was German speaking. Although Mathias required Kepler to leave Prague, he retained his position as Imperial Mathematicus (which Gal falsely names Imperial Astronomer), although actually getting paid for this post by the imperial treasury had always been a problem. He became district mathematicus in Linz in 1612 to ensure a regular income, a post he retained until 1626. He moved from Linz to Ulm in 1626 in order to get his Rudolphine Tables printed and published, which he then took to the Book Fair in Frankfurt, to sell in order to recuperate the costs of printing. From 1628 he was court advisor, read astrologer, to Wallenstein in Sagan. He travelled to the Reichstag in Regensburg in 1630, where he fell ill and died. He had never held a university post in his life and hadn’t attempted to get one since 1600. 

Having messed up Kepler’s biography, Gal now messes up his science. Under the title, The New Physical Optics, Gal gets Kepler’s contribution to the science of optics horribly wrong. He writes:

Traditional optics was the mathematical theory of vision. It studied visual rays: straight lines which could only change direction: refracted by changing media or reflected by polished surfaces. Whether these visual rays were physical entities or just mathematical representations of the process of vision, and what this process consisted of, was much debated. (…) But there was no debate that vision is a direct, cognitive relation between the object and the mind, through the eye. Light, in all of these theories, had an important, but secondary role:


Kepler abolished this assumption. Nothing of the object, he claimed, comes to and through the eye. The subject matter of his optics was no longer vision but light:

This transformation in the history of optics was not consummated by Kepler at the beginning of the seventeenth century but by al-Kindi and al-Haytham more than seven hundred years earlier. This was the theory of vision of al-Haytham mentioned above and adopted by Roger Bacon. 

We then get a reasonable account of Kepler’s Astronomia nova, except that he claims that Kepler’s difficulties in finally determining that the orbit of Mars was an ellipse was because he was trapped in the concept that the orbits must be circular, which is rubbish. Else where Gal goes as far as to claim that Kepler guessed that the orbit was an ellipse. I suggest that he reads Astronomia nova or at least James Voelkel’s excellent analysis of it, The Composition of Kepler’s Astronomia Nova (Princeton University Press, 2001) to learn how much solid mathematical analysis was invested in that determination.

As always Galileo must follow Kepler. We get a very brief introduction to the Sidereus Nuncius and then an account of Galileo as a social climber that carries on the series of biographical errors. Gal writes:

Galileo’s father Vincenzo (c. 1520–1591) (…) A lute player of humble origins, he taught himself musical theory and acquired a name and enough fortune to marry into minor (and penniless) nobility with a book on musical theory, in which he relentless and venomously assaulted the canonical theory as detached from real musical practices. 

This is fascinatingly wrong, because Gal gives as his source for Galileo’s biography John Heilbron’s Galileo, where we can read on page 2 the following:

Although Galileo was born in Pisa, the hometown of his recalcitrant mother, he prided himself on being a noble of Florence through his father, Vincenzo Galilei, a musician and musical theorist. Vincenzo’s nobility did not imply wealth but the right to hold civic office and he lived in the straitened circumstances usual in his profession. His marriage to Giulia, whose family dealt in cloth, was a union of art and trade. 

The errors continue:

…he returned to the University of Pisa to study medicine, but stayed in the lower faculties and taught mathematics there from 1589. Two years later, he moved to Padua, his salary rising slightly from 160 Scudi to 160 Ducats a year. In 1599, he invented a military compass and dedicated it to the Venetian Senate to have his salary doubled and his contract extended for six years. When Paolo Sarpi (1552–1623), Galileo’s friend and minor patron, arranged for the spyglass to be presented and dedicated to the Senate in 1609, Galileo’s salary was doubled again and he was tenured for life.

Galileo actually broke off his medical studies and left the university, took private lessons in mathematics and was then on the recommendation of Cardinal del Monte, the Medici Cardinal, appointed to the professorship for mathematics in Pisa. He didn’t invent the military or proportional compass and didn’t dedicate it to the Senate and his salary wasn’t doubled for doing so. Although he did manufacture and sell a superior model together with paid lessons in its use. His salary wasn’t doubled for presenting a telescope to the Senate but was increased to 1000 Scudi.  

Of course, we have a section titled, The Galileo Affair: The Church Divorces Science, the title revealing everything we need to know about Gal’s opinion on the topic. No, the Church did not divorce science, as even a brief survey of seventeenth century science following Galileo’s trial clearly shows. Gal states that, “The investigation of the Galileo affair was charged to Cardinal Roberto Bellarmine…”, which simply isn’t true. He naturally points out that Bellarmine, “condemned Bruno to the stake some fifteen years earlier.” Nothing like a good smear campaign.

At one point Gal discuses Bellarmine’s letter to Foscarini and having quoted “…if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary; and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. 

makes the following interesting statement:

Bellarmine was no wide-eyed champion of humanist values. He was a powerful emissary of a domineering institution, and he wasn’t defending only human reason, but also the Church’s privilege to represent it. He wasn’t only stressing that the Church would abide by “a true demonstration,” but also that it retained the right to decide what the criteria for such a demonstration were, and when they’ are met. [my emphasis]

The emphasised statement is at very best highly questionable and at worst completely false. Bellarmine was a highly intelligent, highly educated scholar, who had earlier in his career taught university courses in astronomy. He was well aware what constituted a sound scientific demonstration and would almost certainly have acknowledged and accepted one if one was delivered, without question. 

On Galileo’s questioning by the Roman Inquisition Gal writes:

After the first interrogation, he [Galileo] reached a deal which didn’t satisfy the pope and was interrogated again.

This is simply factually wrong; no deal was reached after the first interrogation. 

This review is getting far too long, and I think I have already delivered enough evidence to justify what is going to be my conclusion so I will shorten the next sections. 

Gal suddenly seems to discover that there were scientific areas other than astronomy and there follows a comparatively long section on the history of medicine that starts with William Harvey then back tracks to ancient Greece before summarising the history of medicine down to the seventeenth century. This is in general OK, but I don’t understand why he devotes four and a half pages to the Leechbook a relatively obscure medieval English medical text, whereas midwives warrant less than two pages. 

We are on the home stretch and have reached The New Science, where we discoverer that Galileo originated the mechanical philosophy. Really? No, not really. First up we get told that Buridan originated impetus theory. There is no mention of Johann Philoponus, who actually originated it or the various Arabic scholars, who developed it further and from whom Buridan appropriated it, merely supplying the name. We then get Galileo on mechanics, once again with very little prehistory although both Tartaglia and Benedetti get a mention. Guidobaldo del Monte actually gets acknowledged for his share in the discovery of the parabola law. However, Gal suggests that the guessed it! It’s here that he states that Kepler guessed that the orbit of Mars is an ellipse. 

Up next the usual suspects, Descartes and Bacon and I just can’t, although he does, surprisingly, acknowledge that Bacon didn’t really understand how science works. Whoever says Bacon must say scientific societies, with a long discourse on the air pump, which seems to imply that only Boyle and Hooke actually did air pump experiments. 

We now reach the books conclusion Sciences Cathedral, remember that opening chapter? This is, naturally, Newton’s Principia.  Bizarrely, this section is almost entirely devoted to the exchange of letters between Hooke and Newton on the concept of gravity. Or it appears somewhat bizarre until you realise that Gal has written a whole book about it and is just recycling. 

Here we meet our last botched biographical sketch. Having presented Hooke’s biography with the early demise of his father and his resulting financial struggles to obtain an education, Gal turns his attention to Isaac and enlightens his readers with the following:

Isaac Newton: While Hooke was establishing his credentials as an experimenter and instrument builder in Oxford, Isaac Newton (1642–1726) was gaining a name as a mathematical wiz in Cambridge. Like, Hooke, he was an orphan of a provincial clergy man from a little town in Lincolnshire on the east coast of England, and like him he had to work as a servant-student until his talents shone through. 

Hannah Newton-Smith née Ayscough, Newton’s mother, would be very surprised to learn that Isaac was an orphan, as she died in 1679, when Isaac was already 37 years old. She would be equally surprised to learn that Isaac’s father, also named Isaac, who died before he was born, was a provincial clergyman. In reality, he was a yeoman farmer. Hannah’s second husband, Newton’s stepfather, Barnabus Smith was the provincial clergyman. Woolsthorpe where Newton was born and grew up was a very little town indeed, in fact it was merely a hamlet. Unlike Hooke who had to work his way through university, Newton’s family were wealthy, when he inherited the family estate, they generated an annual income of £600, a very large sum in the seventeenth century. Why his mother insisted on him entering Cambridge as a subsizar, that is as a servant to other students is an unsolved puzzle. Gal continues:

Newton was a recluse, yet he seemed to have had an intellectual charisma that Hooke lacked. He became such a prodigy student of the great mathematician Isaac Barrow (1630–1677) that in 1669 Barrow resigned in his favour from Cambridge’ newly established, prestigious Lucasian Professorship pf Mathematics.

Here Gal is recycling old myths. Newton was never a student of Isaac Barrow. Barrow did not resign the Lucasian chair in Newton’s favour. He resigned to become a theologian. However, he did recommend Newton as his successor. Further on Gal informs us that:

Newton waited until Hooke’s death in 1703 to publish his Opticks – the subject of the earlier debate – and became the Secretary of the Royal Society, which he brought back from the disarray into which it had fallen after the death of Oldenburg and most of its early members.

I’m sure that the Royal Society will be mortified to learn that Gal has demoted its most famous President to the rank of mere Secretary. This chapter also includes a discussion of the historical development of the concept of force, which to put it mildly is defective, but I can’t be bothered to go into yet more detail. I will just close my analysis of the contents with what I hope was just a mental lapse. Gal writes:

Newton presents careful tables of the periods of the planets of the planets as well as those of the moons of Jupiter and Mercury [my emphasis].

I assume he meant to write Saturn.

To close I will return to the very beginning of the book the front cover. As one can see it is adorned with something that appears at first glance to be an astrolabe. However, all the astrolabe experts amongst my friends went “what the fuck is that?” on first viewing this image. It turns out that it is a souvenir keyring sold by the British Museum. Given that the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge has some very beautiful astrolabe, I’m certain that the CUP could have done better than this. The publishers compound this monstrosity with the descriptive text:

Cover image: habaril, via Getty Images. Brass astrolabe, a medieval astronomical navigation instrument.

We have already established that it is in fact not an astrolabe. The astrolabe goes back at least to late antiquity if not earlier, the earliest known attribution is to Theon of Alexandria (C. 335–405 CE), and they continued to be manufactured and used well into the nineteenth century, so not just medieval. Finally, as David King, the greatest living expert on the astrolabe, says repeatably, the astrolabe is NOT a navigation instrument.

Gal’s The Origins of Modern Science has the potential to be a reasonable book, but it is not one that I would recommend as an introduction to the history of science for students. Large parts of it reflect an approach and a standard of knowledge that was still valid thirty or forty years ago, but the discipline has moved on since then. Even if this were not the case the long list of substantive errors that I have documented, and there are probably others that I missed, display a shoddy level of workmanship that should not exist in any history book, let alone in an introductory text for students.  

[1] Ofer Gal, The Origins of Modern Science: From Antiquity to the Scientific Revolution, CUP, Cambridge 2021.

[2] David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western ScienceThe European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2nd edition 2007. 


Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Uncategorized