Category Archives: History of science

Renaissance Science – XLIX

The mathematisation of science is considered to be one of the principle defining characteristics of the so-called scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. Knowledge presentation on the European, medieval universities was predominantly Aristotelian in nature and Aristotle was dismissive of mathematics. He argued that the objects of mathematics were not real and therefore mathematics could not produce knowledge (episteme/scientia). He made an exception for the so-called mixed disciplines: astronomy, geometrical optics, and statics. These were, however, merely functionally descriptive, and not knowledge. So, mathematical astronomy described how to determine the positions of celestial bodies at a given point in time, but it was non-mathematical cosmology that described the true nature of those celestial bodies. Knowledge production and knowledge acquisition was, for Aristotle and those who adopted his philosophy, non-mathematical.

With just a relatively superficial examination, it is very clear that the new knowledge delivered up in astronomy, physics etc in the seventeenth century was very mathematical, just consider the title of Newton’s magnum opus, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), something major had changed and two central questions for the historian of science are what and why? 

When I first started learning the history and philosophy of science several decades ago, there was a standard pat answer to this brace of questions. It was stated that there had been a change in philosophical systems underlying knowledge acquisition, Aristotelian philosophy and been replaced by a mathematical neo-Platonic philosophy; Plato had, according to the legend, famously the dictum, May no one ignorant of Geometry enter here Inscribed above the entrance to his school, The Academy. The belief that the mathematisation of science was driven by a Platonic renaissance was probably strengthened by the fact that the title page of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, the book that supposedly signalled the start of the scientific revolution, carried the same dictum. In fact, there is no evidence in Greek literature from the entire time that The Academy was open that the dictum existed. It was first mentioned by John Philoponus (c. 490­–c. 570) after Justinian had ordered The Academy closed in 529. De Revolutionibus is also not in anyway Platonic. 

To be fair to the proposers of the Plato replaced Aristotle thesis, Plato’s philosophy was definitively more mathematical than Aristotle’s and there was a neo-Platonic revival during the Renaissance, but it was more the esoteric and mystical Plato rather than the mathematical Plato, as I’ve already outlined in an earlier episode in this series.

So, what did drive the mathematisation? As already explained in explained in earlier episodes there were major expansions and developments in astronomy, cartography, surveying, and navigation starting in the fifteenth century during the Renaissance. All four disciplines demanded an intensive use of geometry and especially trigonometry. This can be seen in the publication of the first printed edition of Euclid by Erhard Ratdolt (1442–1528) in 1482, which was followed by significant printed translations in the vernacular throughout Europe.

A page with marginalia from the first printed edition of Euclid’s Elements, printed by Erhard Ratdolt in 1482
Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In trigonometry, Johannes Petreius (c. 1497–1550) published Regiomontanus’ De triangulis omnimodis (On Triangles of All Kinds), edited by Johannes Schöner, in 1533. This was the first almost complete account of trigonometry published in Europe, the only thing that was missing was the tangent, but Regiomontanus had included the tangent in his earlier Tabula directionum, written in 1467 but first published in print in 1490. Regiomontanus’ trigonometry was followed by several important volumes on the topic during the sixteenth century. 


These areas of mathematical development were however for the Aristotelian academics at the universities not scientia and the mathematical practitioners, who did the mathematics were not considered to be academics but mere craftsmen. However, the widening reliance on mathematics in what had become important political areas of Renaissance society did much to raise the general status of mathematics.

Another area where a mathematical subdiscipline was on the advance was algebra, the basis for the analytical mathematics that would become so important in the seventeenth century. Already introduced in the twelfth century, with the translation of al-Khwarizmi’s text on the Hindu-Arabic number system into Latin, Algoritmi de numero Indorum along with the book that gave algebra its name, al-Kitāb al-Mukhtaṣar fī Ḥisāb al-Jabr wal-Muqābalah. It initially had minimal impact. However, reintroduced in the next century by Leonardo Pisano, with his Liber Abbaci, and although the acceptance was slow, only beginning to accelerate with the introduction of double entry bookkeeping at the end of the thirteenth century and beginning of the fourteenth. By the sixteenth century many abbaco schools (scuole d’abbaco or botteghe d’abbco) had been established throughout Europe teaching the Hindu-Arabic number system and algebra to apprentices using Libri d’abbaco, (abbacus books). In fact, the first ever printed mathematics book was an abbacus book, the so-called Treviso Arithmetic or Arte dell’Abbaco written in vernacular Venetian and published in Treviso in 1478. 

Once again, however, what was being taught here was not an academic discipline, which could generate scientia, but commercial arithmetic, very useful for an increasing commercial Europe dependent on extensive trade but not for the acquisition of academic knowledge. This began to change slowly in the sixteenth century beginning with the Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita of Luca Pacioli (c. 1447–1517) published in 1496, still a book of practical mathematics and so not academic, but one which contained the false claim that there could not be a general solution of the cubic equation. This led on to Scipione del Ferro (1465–1526) discovering such a solution, Tartaglia (c. 1499–1557) rediscovering it and Gerolamo Cardano (1501–1576) seducing Tartaglia into revealing his solution and then publishing it in his Ars Magna. All of which I have outlined in more detail here. Cardano’s Ars magna, published in Nürnberg in 1545 by Johannes Petreius, has been called the first modern mathematics book, a term I don’t particularly like, but it did bring algebra into the world of academia, although it still wasn’t considered to be knowledge producing.


So, how did the change in status of mathematics on the universities come about and who was responsible for it if it wasn’t Plato? The change was brought about by Italian, humanist scholars in the sixteenth century and the responsibility lies not with a philosopher but with a mathematician, Archimedes. 

Bronze statue of Archimedes in Syracuse Source: Wikimedia Commons

Archimedes of Syracuse (c.287–c. 212 BCE) mathematician, physicist, engineer, and inventor is one of the most well-known figures in the entire history of science. Truly brilliant in a range of fields of study and immersed in a cloud of myths and legends. He is famous for the machines he invented and a legend for alleged machines he constructed to defend his hometown of Syracuse against the Romans. It is these war machines and the myth of his death at the hands of a Roman soldier that dominate the accounts of his life all written posthumously in antiquity. His mathematical work, which is what interest us here, remained largely unknown in antiquity. There only began to become known in the Early Middle Ages but, although translated into Arabic by Thābit ibn Qurra (836–901) and from there into Latin by Gerard of Cremona (c. 1114–1187) and again directly from Geek into Latin by William of Moerbeke (c. 1215–1286) and once more by Iacobus Cremonnensis (c. 1400–c. 1454), his work received very little attention in the Middle Ages.

Beginning, already in the fifteenth century, Renaissance humanist began to seriously re-evaluate the leading Greek mathematicians, in particular Euclid and Archimedes. Euclidian geometry was playing a much greater role in the evolving optics, in particular linear perspective, than it had ever played on the medieval universities. This led, as already noted above, to the publication of the first printed edition of The Elements, by Erhard Ratdolt, in 1482. Interestingly, the manuscript that Ratdolt used for edition was one that Regiomontanus (1436–1476) had brought with him to Nürnberg, where he established the world’s first scientific published endeavour, intending to publish it himself, as he announced in his published catalogue of intended publications. Unfortunately, he died before he could print most of this extensive catalogue of scientific and mathematical texts. 

This catalogue also included a manuscript of the works of Archimedes in the Latin translation of Iacobus Cremonnensis, which also fell foul of the Franconian mathematician’s early death. This manuscript would eventually be published in Basel, together with a Greek original brought from Rome by Willibald Pirckheimer (1470–1530), in a bilingual edition of the works edited by the Nürnberger theologian, humanist, and mathematician, Thomas Venatorius (1488–1551), in 1544. 

Venatorius’ edition of the works of Archimedes Source

The Italian astrologer, astronomer, and mathematician, Luca Gaurico (1475–1558), had published Archimedes’ works On the Parabola and On the Circle in the Latin translation by William of Moerbeke in 1503. Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia, who had published an Italian translation of The Elements in 1543, also published On the ParabolaOn the CircleCentres of Gravity, and On Floating Bodies in the Moerbeke translation in 1543. Later he would publish translation into Italian of these works, some of which appeared posthumously. Unlike, other later, Italian mathematicians, Tartaglia did not incorporate much of Archimedes’ work into his own highly influential, original Nova Scientia (1537), a mathematical work that did deliver, as the title says, scientia or knowledge. It is difficult to say how much Tartaglia was influenced by Archimedes in his approach to physics. 

Opera Archimedis Syracusani philosophi et mathematici ingeniosissimi per Nicolaum Tartaleam … (facsimile) Source

We have already seen in the episode on hydrostatics how Archimedes work On Floating Bodies, informed and influenced the work of both Tartaglia’s one time student, Giambattista Benedetti (1530–1590), and the engineer, Simon Stevin (1448–1620) in the Netherlands in their work on hydrostatics and on the laws of fall. As I have also outlined in great detail, Archimedes work on statics had a major influence on the Italian mathematicians of the so-called Urbino School. Federico Commandino (1509 – 1575), Guidobaldo dal Monte (1545 – 1607), and Bernardino Baldi (1553–1617), the first two also producing and publishing new improved translations of various of Archimedes work. Once again Simon Stevin also produced a major, Archimedes inspired work on statics. 

These mathematicians had, directly inspired, and heavily influenced by the work of Archimedes, now produced, in several fields, work that was indisputably scientia or knowledge by the use of mathematics and thus instigated the turn from Aristotelian philosophical knowledge to the mathematisation of knowledge production and this movement began to spread in the seventeenth century.

The Urbino School, in particular dal Monte, who was his patron, influenced Galileo, who openly declared that he had in his natural philosophy replaced Aristotle with Archimedes. Galileo’s pupils Vincenzo Viviani (1622–1703) and Evangelista Torricelli (1608–1647) followed his lead on this. Stevin’s work, written in Dutch was translated into Latin by Willebrord Snel (1580–1626) and heavily influenced the French natural philosophers such as, Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), who together with Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655) led the informal academic society, the Academia Parisiensis, a weekly gathering from 1633 onwards, which included the most important French, English and Dutch natural philosophers of the period. This group was of course also influenced by the work of Galileo. 

It was not the thoughts of a philosopher, Plato, that pushed Aristotelian philosophy from its throne on the medieval university as the purveyor of factual knowledge of the real world and replaced it with a mathematics-based system, but the work of a mathematician, Archimedes. As the century progressed Euclid and Archimedes would in turn be replaced by the algebra-based analytical mathematics that would eventually develop into calculus, although also here the method of exhaustion first developed by Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 408–c. 355 BCE), but popularised by Archimedes was the basis of the integral calculus half of the new mathematics.


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

God made all things by measure, number and weight[1]

God made all things by measure, number and weight[1]

The first history of science, history of mathematics book I ever read was Lancelot Hogben’s Man Must Measure: The Wonderful World of Mathematics, when I was about six years old.

It almost certainly belonged to my older brother, who was six years older than I. This didn’t matter, everybody in our house had books and everybody could and did read everybody’s books. We were a household of readers. I got my first library card at three; there were weekly family excursions to the village library. But I digress.

It is seldom, when people discuss the history of mathematics for them to think about how or where it all begins. It begins with questions like how much? How many? How big? How small? How long? How short? How far? How near? All of these questions imply counting, comparison, and measurement. The need to quantify, to measure lies at the beginning of all systems of mathematics. The histories of mathematics, science, and technology all have a strong stream of mensuration, i.e., the act or process of measuring, running through them. Basically, without measurement they wouldn’t exist. 

Throughout history measuring and measurement have also played a significant role in politics, often leading to political disputes. In modern history there have been at least three well known cases. The original introduction of the metric system during the French revolution, the battle of the systems, metric contra imperialism, during the nineteenth century, and most recently the bizarre wish of the supporters of Brexit to reintroduce the imperial system into the UK in their desire to distance themselves as far as possible from the evil EU. 

It was with some anticipation that I greeted the news that James Vincent had written and published Beyond MeasureThe Hidden History of Measurement.[2] Vincent’s book is not actually a history of measurement on a nuts and bolts level i.e., systems of measurement, units of measurement and so on, but what I would call a social history of the uses of measurement. This is not a negative judgement; some parts of the book are excellent exactly because it is about the use and abuse of methods of measurement rather than the systems of measurement themselves.

Although roughly chronological, the book is not a systematic treatment of the use of measurement from the first group of hunter gatherers, who tried to work out an equitable method of dividing the spoils down to the recent redefinition of the kilogram in the metric system. The latter being apparently the episode that stimulated Vincent into writing his book. Such a volume would have to be encyclopaedic in scope, but is rather an episodic examination of various passages in the history of mensuration. 

The first episode or chapter takes a rather sweeping look at what the author sees as the origins of measurement in the early civilisations of Egypt and Babylon. Whilst OK in and of itself, what about other cultures, civilisations, such as China or India just to mention the most obvious. This emphasises something that was already clear from the introduction this is the usual predominantly Eurocentric take on history. 

The second chapter moves into the realm of politics and the role that measurement has always played in social order, with examples from all over the historical landscape. Measurement as a tool of political control. This demonstrates one of the strengths of Vincent’s socio-political approach. Particularly, his detailed analysis of how farmers, millers, and tax collectors all used different tricks to their advantage when measuring grain and the regulation that as a result were introduced is fascinating.

Vincent is, however, a journalist and not a historian and is working from secondary sources and in the introduction, we get the first of a series of really bad takes on the history of science that show Vincent relying on myths and clichés rather than doing proper research. He delivers up the following mess:

Consider, for example, the unlikely patron saint of patient measurement that is the sixteenth-century Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe. By most accounts Brahe was an eccentric, possessed of a huge fortune (his uncle Jørgen Brahe was one of the wealthiest men in the country), a metal nose (he lost the original in a duel), and a pet elk (which allegedly died after drinking too much beer and falling down the stairs of one of his castles). After witnessing the appearance of a new star in the night sky in 1572, one of the handful of supernovae ever seen in our galaxy, Brahe devoted himself to astronomy.

Tycho’s astronomical work was financed with his apanage from the Danish Crown, as a member of the aristocratical oligarchy that ruled Denmark. His uncle Jørgen, Vice-Admiral of the Danish navy, was not wealthier than Tycho’s father or his independently wealthy mother. Tycho had been actively interested in astronomy since 1560 and a serious astronomer since 1563, not first after observing the 1572 supernova.

After describing Tycho’s observational activities, Vincent writes:

It was the data collected here that would allow Brahe’s apprentice, the visionary German astronomer Johannes Kepler, to derive the first mathematical laws of planetary motion which correctly described the elliptical orbits of the planets…

I don’t know why people can’t get Kepler’s status in Prague right. He was not Tycho’s apprentice. He was thirty years old, a university graduate, who had studied under Michael Mästlin one of the leading astronomers in Europe. He was the author of a complex book on mathematical astronomy, which is why Tycho wanted to employ him. He was Tycho’s colleague, who succeeded him in his office as Imperial Mathematicus. 

It might seem that I’m nit picking but if Vincent can’t get simple history of science facts right that he could look up on Wikipedia, then why should the reader place any faith in the rest of what he writes?

The third chapter launches its way into the so-called scientific revolution under the title, The Proper Subject of Measurement. Here Vincent selectively presents the Middle Ages in the worst possible anti-science light, although he does give a nod to the Oxford Calculatores but of course criticises them for being purely theoretical and not experimental. In Vincent’s version they have no predecessors, Philoponus or the Arabic scholars, and no successors, the Paris physicists. He then moves into the Renaissance in a section titled Measuring art, music, and time. First, we get a brief section on the introduction of linear perspective. Here Vincent, first, quoting Alberti, tells us:

I set this up between the eye and the object to be represented, so that the visual pyramid passes through the loose weave of the veil.

The ‘visual pyramid’ described by Alberti refers to medieval theories of optics. Prior to the thirteenth century, Western thinkers believed that vision worked via ‘extramission,’ with the eye emitting rays that interacted with the world like a ‘visual finger reaching out to palpated things’ (a mechanism captured by the Shakespearean imperative to ‘see feelingly’). Thanks largely to the work of the eleventh-century Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham, known in the West as Alhacen, this was succeeded by an ‘intromisionist’ explanation, which reverses the causality so that it is the eye that receives impressions from reality. It’s believed that these theories informed the work of artists like Alberti, encouraging the geometrical techniques of the perspective grids and creating a new incentive to divide the world into spatially abstract units.

Here, once again, we have Vincent perpetuating myths because he hasn’t done his homework. The visual pyramid is, of course, from Euclid and like the work of the other Greek promoters of geometrical optics was indeed based on an extramission theory of vision. As I have pointed out on numerous occasions the Greeks actually had both extramission and intromission theories of vision, as well as mixed models. Al-Haytham’s great achievement was not the introduction of an intromission theory, but was in showing that an intromission theory was compatible with the geometrical optics, inclusive visual pyramid, of Euclid et al. The geometrical optics of Alberti and other perspective theorists is pure Euclidian and does not reference al-Haytham. In fact, Alberti explicitly states that it is irrelevant whether the user of his system of linear perspective believes in an extramission or an intromission theory of vision. 

Linear perspective is followed by a two page romp through the medieval invention of musical notation before turning to the invention of the mechanical clock. Here, Vincent makes the standard error of over emphasising the influence of the mechanical clock in the early centuries after its invention and introduction. 

Without mentioning Thomas Kuhn, we now get a Kuhnian explanation of the so-called astronomical revolution, which is wonderfully or should that be horrifyingly anachronistic:

This model [the Aristotelian geocentric one] sustained its authority for centuries, but close observation of the night skies using increasingly accurate telescopes [my emphasis] revealed discrepancies. These were changes that belied its immutable status and movements that didn’t fit the predictions of a simple geocentric universe. A lot of work was done to make the older models account for such eccentricities, but as they accrued mathematical like sticky notes, [apparently sticky notes are the 21st century version of Kuhnian ‘circles upon circles’] doubts about their veracity became unavoidable. 

Where to begin with what can only be described as a clusterfuck. The attempts to reform the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic geocentric model began at the latest with the first Viennese School of Mathematics in the middle of the fifteenth century, about one hundred and fifty years before the invention of the telescope. Those reform attempts began not because of any planetary problems with the model but because the data that it delivered was inaccurate. Major contributions to the development of a heliocentric model such as the work of Copernicus and Tycho Brahe, as well as Kepler’s first two laws of planetary motion also all predate the invention of the telescope. Kepler’s third law is also derived from pre-telescope data. The implication that the geocentric model collapsed under the weight of ad hoc explanation (the sticky notes) was Kuhn’s explanation for his infamous paradigm change and is quite simply wrong. I wrote 52 blog posts explaining what really happened, I’m not going to repeat myself here.

We now get the usual Galileo hagiography for example Vincent tells us: 

It was Galileo who truly mathematised motion following the early attempts of the Oxford Calculators, using practical experiments to demonstrate flaws in Aristotelian wisdom.

Vincent ignores the fact that Aristotle’s concepts of motion had been thrown overboard long before and completely ignores the work of sixteenth century mathematicians, such as Tartaglia and Benedetti. 

He then writes:

In one famous experiment he dropped cannonballs and musket balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa (an exercise that likely never took place in the way Galileo claims [my emphasis]) and showed that, contra to Aristotle, objects accelerate at a uniform rate, not proportionally to their mass.

Galileo never claimed to have dropped anything from the Leaning Tower, somebody else said that he had and if it ‘never took place’, why fucking mention it?

Now the telescope:

From 1609, Galileo’s work moved to a new plane itself. Using home-made telescopes he’d constructed solely by reading descriptions of the device…

The myth, created by himself, that Galileo had never seen a telescope before he constructed one has been effectively debunked by Mario Biagioli. This is followed by the usually one man circus claims about the telescopic discoveries, completely ignoring the other early telescope observers. Copernicus and Kepler now each get a couple of lines before we head off to Isaac Newton. Vincent tells us that Newton devised the three laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation. He didn’t he took them from others and combined them to create his synthesis.

The fourth chapter of the book is concerned with the invention of the thermometer and the problems of creating accurate temperature scales. This chapter is OK, however, Vincent is a journalist and not a historian and relies on secondary sources written by historians. There is nothing wrong with this, it’s how I write my blog posts. In this chapter his source is the excellent work of Hasok Chang, which I’ve read myself and if any reader in really interested in this topic, I recommend that they read Chang rather than Chang filtered by Vincent. Once again, we have some very sloppy pieces of history of science, Vincent writes: 

Writing in 1693, the English astronomer Edmond Halley, discoverer of the eponymous comet…”

Just for the record, Halley was much more than just an astronomer, he could for example have been featured along with Graunt in chapter seven, see below. It is wrong to credit Halley with the discovery of Comet Halley. The discoverer is the first person to observe a comet and record that observation. Comet Halley had been observed and recorded many times throughout history and Halley’s achievement was to recognise that those observations were all of one and the same comet.

 A few pages further on Vincent writes: 

Unlike caloric, phlogiston had mass, but Lavoisier disproved this theory, in part by showing how some substances gain weight when burned. (This would eventually lead to the discovery of oxygen as the key element in combustion.) [my emphasis]

I can hear both Carl Scheele and Joseph Priestley turning in their graves. Both of them discovered oxygen, independently of each other; Scheele discovered it first bur Priestly published first, and both were very much aware of its role in combustion and all of this well before Lavoisier became involved. 

Chapter five is dedicated to the introduction of the metric system in France correctly giving more attention to the political aspects than the numerical ones. Once again, an excellent chapter.

Chapter six which deals primarily with land surveying had a grandiose title, A Grid Laid Across the World, but is in fact largely limited to the US. Having said that it is a very good and informative chapter, which explains how it came about that the majority of US towns and properties are laid out of a unified rectangular grid system. Most importantly it explains how the land grant systems with its mathematical surveying was utilised to deprive the indigenous population of their traditional territories. The chapter closes with a brief more general look at how mathematical surveying and mapping played a significant role in imperialist expansion, with a very trenchant quote from map historian, Matthew Edney, “The empire exists because it can be mapped; the meaning of empire is inscribed into each map.”

Unfortunately, this chapter also contains some more sloppy history of science, Vincent tells us:

In such a world, measurement of the land was of the utmost importance. As a result, sixteenth-century England gave rise to one of the most widely used measuring tools in the world: the surveyor’s chain, or Gunter’s chain, named after its inventor the seventeenth-century English priest and mathematician Edmund Gunter. 

Sixteenth or seventeenth century? Which copy editor missed that one? It’s actually a bit of a problem because Gunter’s life starts in the one century and ends in the other, 1581–1626. However, we can safely say that he produced his chain in the seventeenth century. Vincent makes the classic error of attributing the invention of the surveyors’ chain to Gunter, to quote myself from my blog post on Renaissance surveying:

In English the surveyor’s chain is usually referred to as Gunter’s chain after the English practical mathematician Edmund Gunter (1581–1626) and he is also often referred to erroneously as the inventor of the surveyor’s chain but there are references to the use of the surveyor’s chain in 1579, before Gunter was born. 

Even worse he writes:

Political theorist Hannah Arendt described the work of surveying and mapping that began with the colonisation of America as one of three great events that ‘stand at the threshold of the modern age and determine its character’ (the other two being the Reformation of the Catholic Church and the cosmological revolution begun by Galileo) [my emphasis]

I don’t know whether to attribute this arrant nonsense to Arendt or to Vincent. Whether he is quoting her or made this up himself he should know better, it’s complete bullshit. Whatever Galileo contributed to the ‘cosmological revolution,’ and it’s much, much less than is often claimed, he did not in anyway begin it. Never heard of Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler, Mr Vincent? Oh yes, you talk about them in chapter three!

Chapter seven turns to population statistics starting with the Royal Society and John Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality. Having dealt quite extensively with Graunt, with a nod to William Petty, but completely ignoring the work of Caspar Neumann and Edmond Halley, Vincent now gives a brief account of the origins of the new statistics. Strangely attributing this entirely to the astronomers, completely ignoring the work on probability in games of chance by Cardano, Fermat, Pascal, and Christian Huygens. He briefly mentions the work of Abraham de Moivre but ignores the equally important, if not more important work of Jacob Bernoulli. He now gives an extensive analysis of Quetelet’s application of statistics to the social sciences. Quetelet, being an astronomer, is Vincent’s reason d’être for claiming that it was astronomers, who initial developed statistics and not the gamblers. Quetelet’s the man who gave us the ubiquitous body mass index. The chapter then closes with a good section on the abuses of statistics in the social sciences, first in Galton’s eugenics and secondly in the misuse of IQ tests by Henry Goddard. All in all, one of the good essays in the book

Continuing the somewhat erratic course from theme to theme, the eighth chapter addresses what Vincent calls The Battle of the Standards: Metric vs Imperial and metrology’s culture war. A very thin chapter, more of a sketch that an in-depth analysis, which gives as much space to the post Brexit anti-metric loonies, as to the major debates of the nineteenth century. This is mainly so that Vincent can tell the tale of his excursion with said loonies to deface street signs as an act of rebellion. 

In the ninth chapter, Vincent turns his attention to replacement of arbitrary definitions of units of measurement with definitions based on constants of nature, with an emphasis on the recent new definition of the kilogram. At various point in the book, Vincent steps out from his role of playing historian and presents himself in the first person as an investigative journalist, a device that I personally found irritating. In this chapter this is most pronounced. He opens with, “On a damp but cheerful Friday in November 2018, I travelled to the outskirts of Paris to witness the overthrow of a king.” He carries on in the same overblown style finally revealing that he, as a journalist was attending the conference officially launching the redefining of the kilogram, going on to explain in equally overblown terms how the kilogram was originally defined. The purple prose continues with the introduction of another attendee, his acquaintance, the German physicist, Stephan Schlamminger:

Schlamminger is something of a genius loci of metrology: an animating spirit full of cheer and knowledge, as comfortable in the weights and measures as a fire in a heath. He is also a key player in the American team that helped create the kilogram’s new definition. I’d spoken to him before, but always delighted in his enthusiasm and generosity. ‘James, James, James,’ he says in a rapid-fire German accent as he beckoned me to join his group. ‘Welcome to the party.’

We then get a long, overblown speech by Schlamminger about the history of the definitions in the metric system ending with an explanation, as to why the kilogram must be redefined.

This is followed by a long discourse over Charles Sanders Peirce and his attempts to define the metre using the speed of light, which failed. Vincent claims that Peirce was the first to attempt to attempt to define units of measurement using constants of nature, a claim that I find dubious, but it might be right. This leads on to Michelson and Morley defining the metre using the wavelength of sodium light, a definition that in modified form is still used today. The chapter closes with a long, very technical, and rather opaque explanation of the new definition of the kilogram based on Planck’s constant, h

The final chapter of Vincent’s book is a sociological or anthropological mixed basket of wares under the title The Managed Life: Measurements place in modern society in our understanding of ourselves, which is far too short to in anyway fulfil its grandiose title.

The book closes with an epilogue that left me simply baffled. He tells a personal story about how he came to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony only when he had a personal success in his life and through this came to ruin his enjoyment of the piece. Despite his explanation I fail to see what the fuck this has to do with measurement.

The book has a rather small, random collection of colour prints, related to various bits of the text, in the middle. There are extensive endnotes relating bits of the text to there bibliographical sources, but no separate bibliography, and an extensive index.

I came away feeling that there is a good book contained in Vincent’s tome, struggling to get out. However, there is somehow too much in the way for it to emerge. Some of the individual essays are excellent and I particularly liked his strong emphasis on some of the negative results of applying systems of measurement. People reading this review might think that I, as a historian of science, have placed too much emphasis on his truly shoddy treatment of that discipline; ‘the cosmological revolution begun by Galileo,’ I ask you? However, as I have already stated if we can’t trust his research in this area, how much can we trust the rest of his work?

[1] Wisdom of Solomon 11:20

[2] James Vincent, Beyond MeasureThe Hidden History of Measurement, Faber & Faber, London, 2022


Filed under Book Reviews, History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of science

The turning point

The obligatory Winter Solstice at Stonehenge image

In 1965 the LA folk rock band, The Byrds, had a major international hit with a song written by folk singer Pete Seeger. Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season):

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose
Under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose
Under heaven

A time to build up
A time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose
Under heaven

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace
A time to refrain from embracing

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose
Under heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rain, a time of sow
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace
I swear it′s not too late

Text by Pete Seeger

It is based on the Bible text Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, as rendered in the King James Bible:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain that which is to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time of love, and a time of hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Seasons define our year and are the result of the fact that the ecliptic, the Sun’s apparent path around the Earth, is not parallel to the celestial equator but tilted by 23.4°. Viewed from the Earth in the northern hemisphere, during the year the Sun appears to travel from a point in the north in the middle of summer southwards to turn in the middle of winter, and travel back to the north. Those two turning points are the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south. Tropic comes to us from the Latin tropicus, which comes from the Greek tropicos both words meaning pertaining to a turn. Those points where the Sun turns on its annual journey are known as the summer and winter solstices. Solstice is a combination of sol(the sun) and the past participle stem of sistere meaning stand still. So, solstice means the sun stands still. The Sun never stands still but if you track the annual path of the Sun along a ridge, then when it reaches the turning point, it appears to stay in the same place on the horizon for a couple of days. 

A Renaissance armillary sphere, an instrument for teaching the parts of the celestial sphere. The celestial equator is the band with the Roman numbers. At an angle to it running between e and f is the ecliptic. At e it meets the Tropic of Cancer, the point of the northern hemisphere summer solstice. At f it meets the Tropic of Capricorn, the point of the northern hemisphere winter solstice.

The winter solstice 2022, the turning point, will take place at 21:48 UT (that’s GMT in astronomical talk) today. As I have said in the past I regard the winter solstice, where the old year comes to die, and the new year is born as a much better day to celebrate than the totally arbitrary 31 December-1 January. This being so, I wish all my readers a happy solstice and hope the ending solar cycle was a good one for them and the one now beginning will prove to be a good one. I thank you all for taking the time to read my scribblings and for all the comments and criticism over the last 365 days. 

This year I would particularly like to say thank you for all of the kind and encouraging words both here on the blog and out on social media during my very recent and far too long bout of illness. As I was highly contagious, I was isolated in the real world and my Internet family came up trumps. Thank you!


Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astronomy, History of science

Renaissance Science – XLVII

In a previous post we have seen how hydrostatic, an area of physics first developed by Archimedes in the third century CE, underwent a modernisation and development during the Renaissance. Today we are going to look at another area of physics examined by Archimedes, which was also revived, and developed during the Renaissance, statics. To give a modern definition:

Statics is the branch of classical mechanics that is concerned with the analysis of force and torque (also called moment) acting on physical systems that do not experience an acceleration (a=0), but rather, are in static equilibrium with their environment. Wikipedia

In antiquity and the Middle Ages, the concept of force did not exist, so we here find the discipline developed around the concept of weight. Statics is one half of the discipline of mechanics from the ancient Greek μηχανική mēkhanikḗ, lit. “of machines” and in antiquity it is literally the discipline of the so-called simple machines: lever, wheel and axel, pulley, balance, inclined plane, wedge, and screw. 

Archimedes (c. 287–c. 212 BCE), whose work on the topic was his On the Equilibrium of Planes (Ancient Greek: Περὶ ἐπιπέδων ἱσορροπιῶν, Romanised: perí epipédōn isorropiôn) was not the first to tackle the subject. His work was preceded by a text known in Latin as the Questiones Mechanicae (Mechanical Problems), which in the Middle Ages was attributed to Aristotle (384­–322 BCE) but is now considered to actually be by one of his followers or by some to be based on the earlier work of the Pythagorean Archytas (c.420–350 BCE). There was also a On the Balance attributed, almost certainly falsely to Euclid (fl. 300 BCE), which won’t play a further role here. Later than Archimedes there was the Mechanica of Hero of Alexandria (c. 10–c. 70 CE), unknown in the phase of the Renaissance we shall be reviewing but discussed along with the work of Archimedes in Book VII of the Synagoge or Collection of Pappus (c. 290–c. 350 CE).

The two major texts are the pseudo-Aristotelian Questiones Mechanicae and Archimedes’ On the Equilibrium of Planes, which approach the topic very differently. The Questiones Mechanicae is a philosophical work, which derives everything from a first principle that all machines are reducible to circular motion. It gives an informal proof of the law of the lever without reference to the centre of gravity. The pseudo-Euclidian on the Balance contains a mathematical proof of the law of the lever, again without reference to the centre of gravity.

In Archimedes’ On the Equilibrium of Planes the centre of gravity plays a very prominent role. In the first volume Archimedes presents seven postulates and fifteen propositions to mathematically using the centre of gravity to mathematical demonstrate the law of the lever. The volume closes with demonstrations of the centres of gravity of the parallelogram, the triangle, and the trapezoid. Centres of gravity are a part of statics because they are the point from which, when a figure is suspended it remains in equilibrium, that is unmoving. In volume two of his text Archimedes presents ten propositions relating to the centres of gravity of parabolic sections. This is achieved by substituting rectangles of equal area, a process made possible by his work Quadrature of the Parabola (Greek: Τετραγωνισμὸς παραβολῆς).

Although already translated from Greek into Latin in the thirteenth century by William of Moerbeke (c. 1220 – c. 1286), On the Equilibrium of Planes remained largely unknown in medieval Europe. Thābit ibn Qurra (c.830 –901) had translated it into Arabic and he wrote two related works, his Kitab fi ‘l-qarastun (Book of the Steelyard)­–a steelyard is a single armed balance– and his Kitab fi sifat alwazn (Book on the Description of Weight) on the equal armed balance. 

Thābit ibn Qurra 

The pseudo-Aristotelian Questiones Mechanicae was well known in the Middle Ages and Jordanus de Nemore (fl. 13th century) developed a scholastic theory of statics in his science of weights (scientia de ponderibus) presented in three texts, the first Elementa super demonstrationem ponderum, which presents the conclusions of Thābit ibn Qurra’s text on the steelyard deriving them from seven axioms and nine propositions. This is the earliest of the three and the only one definitely ascribable to Jordanus. The two later texts are usually attributed to the school of. The second text Liber de ponderibus is a reworking of the Elementa super demonstrationem ponderum. The third De ratione ponderis is a corrected and expanded version of the Elementa. In his work he proves the law of the lever by the principle of work using virtual displacements. Using the same method, the De ratione ponderis also proves the conditions of equilibrium of unequal weights on planes inclined at different angles.

FIRST EDITION of Jordanus’s De ratione ponderis, published by Curtio Troiano from a manuscript copy owned by Tartaglia, who had died in 1557. 

The Questiones Mechanicae went through more than a dozen editions between the end of the fifteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth. The first Greek edition was in the Aldine edition of the works of Aristotle published in Venice in 1497, which was often reprinted. There were various Latin translations published in Paris, Venice, Rome. The engineers Antonio Guarino and Vannoccio Biringuccio (c. 1480 – c. 1539) both produced Italian translations, published respectively in Moderna 1573, and Rome 1582. The Questiones Mechanicae were also known to the authors of the Renaissance Theatre of Machines books, such as Agostino Ramelli (1531–c. 1610) and there was a strong correlation between the theoretical works on machines such as the Questiones Mechanicae and the works of Jordanus de Nemore and the strong interest in projected new machine designs.  

When we turn to the Renaissance mathematici were meet many of the same names as by the Renaissance revival of hydrostatics. In 1546, Niccolò Tartaglia (c.1500 – 1557) published his Quesiti ed invention diverse (Various Questions and Inventions) in Venice, which referenced some of the contents of the Questiones Mechanicae and the works of Jordanus. As did his student Giambattista Benedetti (1530 – 1590) in his Diversarum speculationum mathematicarum et physicarum liber published in Turin in 1585. 

Tartaglia also published Moerbeke’s Latin translations of both books of Archimedes’ On the Equilibrium of Planes together with his Quadrature of the Parabola and Book I of On Floating Bodies in 1543. 

However, it was the so-called Urbino School, who truly reintroduced and began to modernise Archimedes’ work on statics. Federico Commandino (1509 – 1575) found the Moerbeke translations of Archimedes defective and produced new Latin translations of them as well as a new Latin translation of Pappus’ Synagoge containing parts of Hero’s Mechanica. Convinced that some of Archimedes’ proofs in On Floating Bodies were not well grounded he wrote and published his own Liber de centro gravitatis solidorum (Book on the Centres of Gravity of Solid Bodies) in 1565.

Commandino laid the foundations of the revival in Archimedean mathematical statics in the sixteenth century, but it was his student Guidobaldo dal Monte (1545 – 1607), who using Commandino’s new translations, both published and unpublished, who erected the structure.

Guidobaldo dal Monte Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dal Monte reconstructed the statics of Questiones Mechanicae using an Archimedean mathematical approach with postulates and propositions in his Mechanicorum Liber published in Pesaro in 1577. Under dal Monte’s supervision, the mathematician and explorer, Filippo Pigafetta (1533 – 1604) published an Italian translation Le mechniche in Venice in 1581, indicating the interest in dal Monte’s work. New editions of both were published in 1615 and a German translation appeared in 1629. Dal Monte rejected the earlier concept that all machines could be reduced to circular motion, concentrating in the first instance on the lever and then describing other machines in terms of the lever. He presents detailed analyses of the both the balance and pully systems. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

It should be noted that for dal Monte the theoretical discipline of mechanics cannot be separated from the study and construction of real machines, in his Mechanicorum Liber, he wrote:

Mechanics can no longer be called mechanics when it is abstracted and separated from machines.

Although he thought that the theoretical study of mechanics should be kept separate from the actual construction of machines. The primary source for dal Monte’s approach is Pappus’ Synagoge, of which he had access to both a Greek manuscript and the manuscript of Commandino’s Latin translation, which Commandino had been unable to publish before his death. In 1588, dal Monte edited and published that Latin translation, bringing Pappus’s synopses of Hero’s Mechanica and Archimedes’ On the Equilibrium of Planes to public attention for the first time in print. In the same year he published his own In duos Archimedis Aequeponderantium Libros Paraphrasis scholiss illustrata, a paraphrase of On the Equilibrium of Planes, both books were published in Pesaro by Hieronymus Concordia, who had also published the Mechanicorum Liber.

 In duos Archimedis Aequeponderantium Libros Paraphrasis scholiss illustrata

A third member of the Urbino School, dal Monte’s student, the mathematician and historian of mathematics, Bernardino Baldi (1553–1617), referenced and amplified the works of Commandino and dal Monte on statics in his own writings, in particular his In mechanica Aristotelis problemata exercitationes published posthumously in 1621.

The man, who broke the connection in statics with the Middle Ages was the Netherland’s engineer and mathematician, Simon Stevin (1548–1620). Stevin had read the Questiones Mechanicae and was aware of the medieval work on statics, but we don’t know how, he had read the relevant works of Archimedes, and Commandino’s Liber de centro gravitas solidorum, but does not seem to have read Papus’ Synagoge, and so was not aware of  Hero’s Mechanica.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1586 he published three books in one volume: De Beghinselen der Weegconst (The Principles of the Art of Weighing), De Weegdaet (The Practice of Weighing), and De Beghinselen des Waterwichts (The Principles of the Weight of Water).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

De Beghinselen der Weegconst consists of two books. Book I has two parts of which the first deals with vertical weights with the law of the balance as central result. The second part deals with oblique weights with the law of the inclined plane as central result.  Book II is devoted to centres of gravity taking Commandino’s work as its starting point. Stevin rejected both circular motion and virtual displacement, the key arguments of the medieval discussion of weights. Regarding the latter he argued that when discussing equilibrium, it was nonsense to start with a discussion of motion, which is what virtual displacement entailed.

Stevin’s proof of the law of the inclined plane involves his famous Clootcrans, wreath of weights:

He derived the condition for the balance of forces on inclined planes using a diagram with a “wreath” containing evenly spaced round masses resting on the planes of a triangular prism (see the illustration on the side). He concluded that the weights required were proportional to the lengths of the sides on which they rested assuming the third side was horizontal and that the effect of a weight was reduced in a similar manner. It’s implicit that the reduction factor is the height of the triangle divided by the side (the sine of the angle of the side with respect to the horizontal). The proof diagram of this concept is known as the “Epitaph of Stevinus”. Wikipedia

From this Stevin derives the parallelogram of forces well before its existence is acknowledge by the mathematician.

Simon Stevin’s illustration [47] of the vector character of a force that is due to the weight G of a mass on a hillside with inclination. As indicated, a force can be decomposed into components. One can add vectors such as D, E, and B as their sum componentwise along Cartesian horizontal and vertical axes or, alternatively, use the parallelogram rule for the D and E (arrows) to obtain B. Because Stevin’s plot is in a twodimensional plane, B can be decomposed into, for instance, the two vectors D and E Source

Although Stevin insisted on writing and publishing in Dutch, his work was translated into Latin by Willebrord Snell (1580–1626) and was well known to the French natural philosophers of the middle of the seventeenth century, who went on to develop the science of mechanics

The work on statics of the Urbino School was well known, widely read and highly influential. In particular dal Monte was Galileo’s first patron and his work influenced the young natural philosopher. In c. 1600 Galileo wrote a manuscript Le manchaniche, which was heavily influenced by dal Monte’s work, but which was first published posthumously. Guidobaldo dal Monte only dealt with statics, keeping it separate from dynamics. Galileo brought statics and dynamics together as mechanics in his Discorsi e dimostrazioni matematiche intorno a due nuove scienze (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences), published in 1638, combining the previous works of others with his own experiments and discoveries, opening acknowledging dal Monte’s influence.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Galileo’s Discorsi was, together with other works such as those of Stevin and Beeckman, one of the foundation stones of modern mechanics.

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Filed under History of Physics, History of science, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XLII

As with much in European thought, it was Aristotle, who first made a strong distinction between, what was considered, the two different realms of thought, theoretical thought epistêmê, most often translated as knowledge, and technê, translated as either art or craft. As already explained in an earlier post in this series, during the Middle Ages the two areas were kept well separated, with only the realm of epistêmê considered worthy of study by scholars. Technê being held to be inferior. As also explained in that earlier post the distinguishing feature of Renaissance science was the gradual dissolution of the boundary between the two areas and the melding of them into a new form of knowledge that would go on to become the empirically based science of the so-called scientific revolution. 

A second defining characteristic of the developing Renaissance science was the creation of new spaces for the conception, acquisition, and dissemination of the newly emerging forms of knowledge. We have followed the emergence of libraries outside of the monasteries, the establishment of botanical gardens as centres of learning, and cabinets of curiosity and the museums that evolved out of them, as centres for accumulating knowledge in its material forms. 

Another, space that emerged in the late Renaissance for the generation and acquisition of knowledge was the laboratory. The very etymology of the term indicates very clearly that this form of knowledge belonged to the technê side of the divide. The modern word laboratory is derived from the Latin laboratorium, which in turn comes from laboratus the past participle of laboare meaning to work. This origin is, of course, clearly reflected in the modern English verb to labour meaning to work hard using one’s hands, and all of the associated words, the nouns labour and labourer etc. It was only around 1600 that the word laboratorium came to signify a room for conducting scientific experiments, whereby the word scientific is used very loosely here. 

Of course, laboratories, to use the modern term, existed before the late sixteenth century and are mostly associated with the discipline of alchemy. Much of the Arabic Jabirian corpus, the vast convolute of ninth century alchemical manuscripts associated with the name Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Ḥayyān is concerned with what we would term laboratory work. It would appear that medieval Islamic culture did not share the Aristotelian disdain for manual labour. However, in Europe, the practical alchemist in his workshop or laboratory actually working with chemicals was regarded as a menial hand worker. Although, it should be remembered that medieval alchemy incorporated much that we would now term applied or industrial chemistry, the manufacture of pigments or gunpowder, just to give two examples. Many alchemists considered themselves philosophical alchemists, often styling themselves philosopher or natural philosopher to avoid the stigma of being considered a menial labourer. 

The status of artisan had already been rising steadily since the expansion in European trade in the High Middle Ages and the formation of the guilds, which gave the skilled workers a raised profile. After all, they manufacture many of the goods traded. It should also be remembered that the universities were founded as guilds of learning, the word universitas meaning a society or corporation. 

So, what changed in the sixteenth century to raise the status of the laboratorium, making it, so to speak, acceptable in polite society? The biggest single change was the posthumous interest in the medical theories of Theophrastus of Hohenheim (c. 1493–1541), or as he is better known Paracelsus (c. 1493–1541), based on his medical alchemy, known as chymiatria or iatrochemistry, a process that began around 1560. 

Aureoli Theophrasti ab Hohenheim. Reproduction, 1927, of etching by A. Hirschvogel, 1538. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The new Paracelsian iatrochemistry trend did not initially enter the Renaissance university but found much favour on the courts of the European royalty and aristocracy and it was here that the new laboratoria were established by many of the same potentates, who had founded new libraries, botanical garden, and cabinets of curiosity. The Medici, Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs, and Hohenzollerns all established laboratoria staffing them with their own Paracelsian alchemical physicians. Many of these regal loboratoria resembled the workshops of apothecaries, artisans, and instrument makers. Techné had become an integral part of the European aristocratic court. 

It was in the Holy Roman Empire that the Renaissance laboratory celebrated its greatest success. The most well documented Renaissance laboratory was that of Wolfgang II, Graf von Hohenlohe und Herr zu Langenburg (1546–1610). In 1587, having constructed a new Renaissance residence, he constructed a two-story alchemical laboratory equipped with a forge, numerous furnaces, a so-called Faule Heinz or Lazy Henry which made multiple simultaneous distillations possible, and a vast array of chemical glass ware.

Graf Wolfgang II. zu Hohenlohe-Weikersheim, Portrait by Peter Franz Tassaert in the great hall of the castle in Weikersheim Source: Wikimedia Commons

His library contained more than five hundred books, of which fifteen were about practical chemistry, for example from Georg Agricola (1494–1555), author of De re metallica, Lazarus Ecker (c. 1529–1594), a metallurgist, and books on distillation from Heironymous Brunschwig (c. 1450–c. 1512), thirty-three about alchemy including books from Pseudo-Geber (late 13th early 14th centuries), Ramon Llull (c.1232–1316), Berhard von Trevesian (14th century), and Heinrich Khunrath (c. 1560–1605), sixty-nine books by Paracelsus, and twelve about chemiatria including works by Leonhard Thurneysser (1531–1596), Alexander von Suchten (c.1520–1575) , both of them Paracelsian physicians, and Johann Isaac Hollandus (16th & 17th centuries!), a Paracelsian alchemist and author of very detailed practical chemistry books. The laboratory had a large staff of general and specialised workers but was run by a single laborant for sixteen years.

Wolfgang’s fellow alchemist and correspondent, Friedrich I, Duke of Württemberg (1557–1608) employed ten Laboranten in the year 1608 and a total of thirty-three between 1593 and 1608.

Friedrich I, Duke of Württemberg artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friedrich had a fully equipped laboratory constructed in the old Lusthaus of a menagerie and pleasure garden. A Lusthaus was a large building erected in aristocratic parks during the Renaissance and Baroque used for fests, receptions, and social occasions.

New Lusthaus in Stuttgart (1584–1593) Engraving by Matthäus Merian 1616 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He also had laboratories in Stuttgarter Neue Spital and in the Freihof in Kirchheim unter Teckabout 25 kilometres south of Stuttgart, where he moved his court during an outbreak of the plague in 1594. Friedrich was interested in both chymiatria and the production of gold and gave a fortune out in pursuit of his alchemical aim. However, he also used his laboratories for metallurgical research.

Heinrich Khunrath (c. 1560–1605) was a Paracelsian physician, hermetic philosopher, and alchemist. In 159, he published his Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (Amphitheatre of Eternal Wisdom) in Hamburg, which contains the engraving by Paullus van der Doort of the drawing credited to Hans Vredeman de Vries (1527–1604) entitled The First Stage of the Great Work better known as the Alchemist’s Laboratory.

Heinrich Khunrath Source. Wikimedia Commons
Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae title page Source: Wikimedia Commons
The First Stage of the Great Work better known as the Alchemist’s Laboratory. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Khunrath was one of the alchemists, who spent time on the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, also serving as his personal physician.

Rudolf II portrait by  Joseph Heintz the Elder, 1594. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rudolf ran several laboratories and attracted alchemists from over all in Europe.

Underground alchemical laboratory Prague Source

John Dee and Edward Kelly visited Rudolf in Prague during their European wanderings. Oswald Croll (c. 1563–1609) another Paracelsian physician, who visited Prague from 1597 to 1599 and then again from 1602 until his death, dedicated his Basilica Chymica (1608) to Rudolf.

Title page Basilica Chymica, Frankfurt 1629 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Polish alchemist and physician Michael Sendivogius (1566–1623), who in his alchemical studies made important contributions to chemistry, is another who gravitated to Rudolf in Prague in 1593.

19th century representation of the alchemist Michael Sendivogius painted by Jan Matejko Art Museum  Łódź via Wikimedia Commons

His De Lapide Philosophorum Tractatus duodecim e naturae fonte et manuali experientia depromti also known as Novum Lumen Chymicum (New Chemical Light) was published simultaneously in Prague and Frankfurt in 1604 and was dedicated to Rudolf.

Michael Sendivogius Novum Lumen Chymicum 

The German alchemist and physician Michael Maier (1568–1622), author of numerous hermetic texts, served as Rudolf’s court physician beginning in 1609. 

Engraving by Matthäus Merian of Michael Maier on the 12th page of Symbola avreae mensae dvodecim nationvm Source: Wikimedia Commons

Along with Rudolf’s Prague the other major German centre for Paracelsian alchemical research was the landgrave’s court in Kassel. Under Landgrave Wilhelm IV (1532–1592), the court in Kassel was a major centre for astronomical research. His son Moritz (1572–1632) turned his attention to the Paracelsian chymiatria, establishing a laboratory at his court.

Landgrave Moritz engraving by Matthäus Merian from Theatrum Europaeum Source: Wikimedia Commons

Like Rudolf, Moritz employed a number of alchemical practitioners. Hermann Wolf (c. 1565­ 1620), who obtained his MD at the University of Marburg in 1585 and was appointed as professor for medicine there in 1587, served as Moritz’s personal physician from 1597. Another of Moritz’s personal physicians was Jacob Mosanus (1564–1616, who obtained his doctorate in medicine in Köln in 1591. A Paracelsian, he initially practiced in London but came into conflict with the English authorities. He moved to the court in Kassel in 1599. He functioned as Moritz’s alchemical diplomat, building connection to other alchemists throughout Europe. Another of the Kasseler alchemists was Johannes Daniel Mylius (1585–after 1628). When he studied medicine is not known but from 1612 in Gießen he, as a chymiatriae studiosus, carried out chemical experiments with the support and permission of the landgrave. In 1613/14 and 1616 he had a stipend for medicine on the University of Marburg. He was definitely at Moritz’s court in Kassel in 1622/23 and carried out a series of alchemical experiment there for him. How long he remained in Kassel is not known. He published a three volume Opus medico-chymicum in 1618 that was largely copied from Libavius’ Alchemia (see below)

Astrological symbol from Opus medico-chymicum Source: Wikimedia Commons

The most important of Moritz’s alchemist was Johannes Hartmann (1568–1631), Mylius’ brother-in-law.

Johannes Hartmann engraving by Wilhelm Scheffer Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hartmann originally studied mathematics at various Germany universities and was initially employed as court mathematicus in Kassel in 1591. In the following year he was appoint professor for mathematics at the University of Marburg by Moritz’s father, Wilhelm. In the 1590s, together with Wolf and Mosanus he began to study alchemy and medicine in the landgraves’ laboratory. In 1609, Moritz appointed Hartmann head of the newly founded Collegium Chymicum on the University of Marburg and professor of chymetria. Hartmann established a laboratory at the university and held lecture courses on laboratory practice. 

Collected works of Johannes Hartmann Source

The four German chymetria laboratory centres that I have sketched were by no means isolated. They were interconnected with each other both by correspondence and personal visits, as well as with other Paracelsian alchemists all over Europe. Both Croll and Maier although primarily associated with Rudolf in Prague spent time with Moritz in Kassel.

I now turn to Denmark, which in some senses was an extension of Germany. Denmark was Lutheran Protestant, German was spoken at the Danish court and many young Danes studied at German universities. Peder Sørensen (1542–1602), better known as Petrus Severinus, was one of the leading proponents of Paracelsian iatromedicine in Europe. It is not known where Severinus acquired his medical qualifications. In 1571, he became personal physician to King Frederick II until his death in 1588 and retained his position under Christian IV. In 1571, he published his Idea medicinæ philosophicæ, which was basically a simplified and clear presentation of the iatromedical theories of Paracelsus and was highly influential. 


Severinus moved in the same social circles as Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) and the two were friends and colleagues. Severinus’ medical theories had a strong influence on the astronomer and Tycho also became an advocate and practitioner of Paracelsian alchemical medicine.

Portrait of Tycho Brahe at age 50, c. 1596, artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

When Tycho began to construct his Uraniborg on the island of Hven in 1576, he envisaged it as temple dedicated to the muses of arts and sciences. The finished complex was not just a simple observatory but a research institute with two of the most advanced observatories in Europe, a papermill, a printing works and in the basement an alchemical laboratory with sixteen furnaces for conduction distillations and other chemical experiments.

An illustration of Uraniborg. The Tycho Brahe Museum Alchemical laboratory on the left at the bottom

Tycho took his medical research very seriously developing medicines with which he treated colleagues and his family.

In the south of Germany Andreas Libavius (c. 1550–1616) took the opposite path to Severinus, he totally rejected the philosophies of Paracelsus, which he regarded as mystical rubbish, whilst at the same time embracing chymetria. Having received his MA in 1581, somewhat late in life in 1588, he began to study medicine at the University of Basel. In 1591, he was appointed city physician in Rothenburg ob der Taube, later being appointed superintendent of schools. 

Andreas Libavius artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1597, Libavius published his Alchemia, an alchemical textbook, a rarity in a discipline that lived from secrecy. It was written in four sections: what to have in a laboratory, chemical procedures, chemical analysis, and transmutation. Although, Libavius believed in transmutation he firmly rejected the concept of an elixir of life. In the laboratory section of his Alchemia, he contrasted Tycho’s laboratory on Hven, which, being Paracelsian, he viewed as defective with his own vision of an ideal alchemical laboratory.

Source:Wikimedia Commons

Roughly contemporaneous with Libavius, the German physician and alchemist Daniel Sennert (1572­–1637), who played a significant role in the propagation of atomic theory in chemistry, introduced practical laboratory research into his work in the medical faculty of the University of Wittenberg. Sennert represents the beginning of the transition of the laboratory away from the courts of the rulers and aristocrats into the medical faculties of the universities. 

Portrait of Daniel Sennert engraved by Matthäus Merian Source: Wikimedia Commons

During the seventeenth century the medical, alchemical laboratory gradually evolved into a chemical laboratory, whilst remaining a part of the university medical faculty, a transmutation[1] that was largely complete by the early eighteenth century. Herman Boerhaave (1668 – 1738), regarded as one of the founders of modern chemistry in the eighteenth century, his Elementa Chemiae (1732) was one of the earliest chemistry textbooks, was professor of medicine at Leiden University. A generation earlier, Robert Boyle (1627–1691), who ran his own private laboratory, and whose The Sceptical Chymist (1661) was a transitional text between alchemy and chemistry, was still a practicing alchemist, although he rejected the theories of Paracelsus.  

[1] Pun intended

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Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Chemistry, History of medicine, History of science, Renaissance Science

The Wizard Earl’s mathematici 

In my recent post on the Oxford mathematician and astrologer Thomas Allen, I mentioned his association with Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, who because of his strong interest in the sciences was known as the Wizard Earl.

HENRY PERCY, 9TH EARL OF NORTHUMBERLAND (1564-1632) by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). The ‘Wizard Earl’ was painted posthumously as a philosopher, hung in Square Room at Petworth. This is NT owned. via Wikimedia Commons

As already explained there Percy actively supported four mathematici, or to use the English term mathematical practitioners, Thomas Harriot (c. 1560–1621), Robert Hues (1553–1632), Walter Warner (1563–1643), and Nathaniel Torporley (1564–1632). Today, I’m going to take a closer look at them.

Thomas Harriot is, of course, the most well-known of the four; I have already written a post about him in the past, so I will only brief account of the salient point here.

Portrait often claimed to be Thomas Harriot (1602), which hangs in Oriel College, Oxford. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He graduatied from Oxford in 1580 and entered the service of Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618) in 1583. At Raleigh’s instigation he set up a school to teach Raleigh’s marine captains the newest methods of navigation and cartography, writing a manual on mathematical navigation, which contained the correct mathematical method for the construction of the Mercator projection. This manual was never published but we can assume he used it in his teaching. He was also directly involved in Raleigh’s voyages to establish the colony of Roanoke Island.

Sir Walter Ralegh in 1588 artist unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1590, he left Raleigh’s service and became a pensioner of Henry Percy, with a very generous pension, the title to some land in the North of England, and a house on Percy’s estate, Syon House, in Middlesex.[1] Here, Harriot lived out his years as a research scientist with no obligations.

Syon House Attributed to Robert Griffier

After Harriot, the most significant of the Wizard Earl’s mathematici was Robert Hues. Like Harriot, Hues attended St Mary’s Hall in Oxford, graduating a couple of years ahead of him in 1578. Being interested in geography and mathematics, he was one of those who studied navigation under Harriot in the school set up by Raleigh, having been introduced to Raleigh by Richard Hakluyt (1553–1616), another student of Thomas Allen and a big promoter of English colonisation of North America.  

Hakluyt depicted in stained glass in the west window of the south transept of Bristol Cathedral – Charles Eamer Kempe, c. 1905. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hues went on to become an experienced mariner. During a trip to Newfoundland, he came to doubt the published values for magnetic declination, the difference between magnetic north and true north, which varies from place to place.

In 1586, he joined with Thomas Cavendish (1560–1592), a privateer and another graduate of the Harriot school of navigation, who set out to raid Spanish shipping and undertake a circumnavigation of the globe, leaving Plymouth with three ships on 21 July. After the usual collection of adventures, they returned to Plymouth with just one ship on 9 September 1588, as the third ever ship to complete the circumnavigation after Magellan and Drake. Like Drake, Cavendish was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his endeavours.

Thomas Cavendish An engraving from Henry Holland’s Herōologia Anglica (1620). Animum fortuna sequatur is Latin for “May fortune follow courage.” Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hues undertook astronomical observations throughout the journey and determined the latitudes of the places they visited. In 1589, he served with the mathematicus Edward Wright (1561–1615), who like Harriot worked out the correct mathematical method for the construction of the Mercator projection, but unlike Harriot published it in his Certaine Errors in Navigation in 1599.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In August 1591, he set out once again with Cavendish on another attempted circumnavigation, also accompanied by the navigator John Davis (c. 1550–1605), another associate of Raleigh’s, known for his attempts to discover the North-West passage and his discovery of the Falkland Islands.

Miniature engraved portrait of navigator John Davis (c. 1550-1605), detail from the title page of Samuel Purchas’s Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes (1624). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cavendish died on route in 1592 and Hues returned to England with Davis in 1683. On this voyage Hues continued his astronomical observations in the South Atlantic and made determinations of compass declinations at various latitudes and the equator. 

Back in England, Hues published the results of his astronomical and navigational research in his Tractatus de globis et eorum usu (Treatise on Globes and Their Use, 1594), which was dedicated to Raleigh.

The book was a guide to the use of the terrestrial and celestial globes that Emery Molyneux (died 1598) had published in 1592 or 1593.

Molyneux CEltial Globe Middle Temple Library
A terrestrial globe by Emery Molyneux (d.1598-1599) is dated 1592 and is the earliest such English globe in existence. It is weighted with sand and made from layers of paper with a surface coat of plaster engraved with elaborate cartouches, fanciful sea-monsters and other nautical decoration by the Fleming Jodocus Hondius (1563-1611). There is a wooden horizon circle and brass meridian rings.

Molyneux belong to the same circle of mariners and mathematici, counting Hues, Wright, Cavendish, Davis, Raleigh, and Francis Drake (c. 1540–1596) amongst his acquaintances. In fact, he took part in Drake’s circumnavigation 1577–1580. These were the first globes made in England apparently at the suggestion of John Davis to his patron the wealthy London merchant William Sanderson (?1548–1638), who financed the construction of Molyneux’s globes to the tune of £1,000. Sanderson had sponsored Davis’ voyages and for a time was Raleigh’s financial manager. He named his first three sons Raleigh, Cavendish, and Drake.

Molyneux’s terrestrial globe was his own work incorporating information from his mariner friends and with the assistance of Edward Wright in plotting the coast lines. The circumnavigations of Drake and Cavendish were marked on the globe in red and blue line respectively. His celestial globe was a copy of the 1571 globe of Gerard Mercator (1512–1594), which itself was based on the 1537 globe of Gemma Frisius (1508–1555), on which Mercator had served his apprenticeship as globe maker. Molyneux’s globes were engraved by Jodocus Hondius (1563–1612), who lived in London between 1584 and 1593, and who would upon his return to the Netherlands would found one of the two biggest cartographical publishing houses of the seventeenth century.

Hues’ Tractatus de globis et eorum usu was one of four publications on the use of the globes. Molyneux wrote one himself, The Globes Celestial and Terrestrial Set Forth in Plano, published by Sanderson in 1592, of which none have survived. The London public lecturer on mathematics Thomas Hood published his The Vse of Both the Globes, Celestiall and Terrestriall in 1592, and finally Thomas Blundeville (c. 1522–c. 1606) in his Exercises containing six treatises including Cosmography, Astronomy, Geography and Navigation in 1594.

Hues’ Tractatus de globis has five sections the first of which deals with a basic description of and use of Molyneux’s globes. The second is concerned with matters celestial, plants, stars, and constellations. The third describes the lands, and seas displayed on the terrestrial globe, the circumference of the earth and degrees of a great circle. Part four contains the meat of the book and explains how mariners can use the globes to determine the sun’s position, latitude, course and distance, amplitudes and azimuths, and time and declination. The final section is a treatise, inspired by Harriot’s work on rhumb lines, on the use of the nautical triangle for dead reckoning. Difference of latitude and departure (or longitude) are two legs of a right triangle, the distance travelled is the hypotenuse, and the angle between difference of latitude and distance is the course. If any two elements are known, the other two can be determined by plotting or calculation using trigonometry.

The book was a success going through numerous editions in various languages. The original in Latin in 1593, Dutch in 1597, an enlarged and corrected Latin edition in 1611, Dutch again in 1613, enlarged once again in Latin in 1617, French in 1618, another Dutch edition in 1622, Latin again in 1627, English in 1638, Latin in 1659, another English edition also in 1659, and finally the third enlarged Latin edition reprinted in 1663. There were others.

The title page of Robert Hues (1634) Tractatvs de Globis Coelesti et Terrestri eorvmqve vsv in the collection of the Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal via Wikimedia Commons

Hues continued his acquaintance with Raleigh in the 1590s and was one of the executors of Raleigh’s will. He became a servant of Thomas Grey, 15th Baron Gray de Wilton (died 1614) and when Grey was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his involvement in a Catholic plot against James I & VI in 1604, Hues was granted permission to visit and even to stay with him in the Tower. From 1605 to 1621, Northumberland was also incarcerated in the Tower because of his family’s involvement in the Gunpowder Plot. Following Grey’s death Hues transferred his Tower visits to Northumberland, who paid him a yearly pension of £40 until his death in 1632.

He withdrew to Oxford University and tutored Henry Percy’s oldest son Algernon, the future 10th Earl of Northumberland, in mathematics when he matriculated at Christ’s Church in 1617.

Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland, as Lord High Admiral of England, by Anthony van Dyck. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1622-23 he would also tutor the younger son Henry.

Oil painting on canvas, Henry Percy, Baron Percy of Alnwick (1605-1659) by Anthony Van Dyck Source: Wikimedia Commons

During this period, he probably visited both Petworth and Syon, Northumberland’s southern estates. He in known to have had discussion with Walter Warner on reflection. He remained in Oxford discussing mathematics with like minded fellows until his death.

Compared to the nautical adventures of Harriot and Hues, both Warner and Torporley led quiet lives. Walter Warner was born in Leicestershire and educated at Merton College Oxford graduating BA in 1579, the year between Hues and Harriot. According to John Aubrey in his Brief Lives, Warner was born with only one hand. It is almost certain that Hues, Warner, and Harriot met each other attending the mathematics lectures of Thomas Allen at Oxford. Originally a protégé of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, (1532–1588), he entered Northumberland’s household as a gentleman servitor in 1590 and became a pensioner in 1617. Although a servant, Warner dined with the family and was treated as a companion by the Earl. In Syon house, he was responsible for purchasing the Earl’s books, Northumberland had one of the largest libraries in England, and scientific instruments. He accompanied the Earl on his military mission to the Netherlands in 1600-01, acting as his confidential courier.       

Like Harriot, Warner was a true polymath, researching and writing on a very wide range of topics–logic, psychology, animal locomotion, atomism, time and space, the nature of heat and light, bullion and exchange, hydrostatics, chemistry, and the circulation of the blood, which he claimed to have discovered before William Harvey. However, like Harriot he published almost nothing, although, like Harriot, he was well-known in scholarly circles. Some of his work on optics was published posthumously by Marin Mersenne (1588–1648) in his Universæ geometriæ (1646).

Source: Google Books

It seems that following Harriot’s death Warner left Syon house, living in Charing Cross and at Cranbourne Lodge in Windsor the home of Sir Thomas Aylesbury, 1st Baronet (!576–1657), who had also been a student of Thomas Allen, and who had served both as Surveyor of the Navy and Master of the Mint. Aylesbury became Warner’s patron.

This painting by William Dobson probably represents Sir Thomas Aylesbury, 1st Baronet. 
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Aylesbury had inherited Harriot’s papers and encouraged Warner in the work of editing them for publication (of which more later), together with the young mathematician John Pell (1611–1685), asking Northumberland for financial assistance in the endeavour.

Northumberland died in 1632 and Algernon Percy the 10th Earl discontinued Warner’s pension. In 1635, Warner tried to win the patronage of Sir Charles Cavendish and his brother William Cavendish, enthusiastic supporters of the new scientific developments, in particular Keplerian astronomy. Charles Cavendish’s wife was the notorious female philosopher, Margaret Cavendish. Warner sent Cavendish a tract on the construction of telescopes and lenses for which he was rewarded with £20. However, Thomas Hobbes, another member of the Cavendish circle, managed to get Warner expelled from Cavendish’s patronage. Despite Aylesbury’s support Warner died in poverty. 

Nathaniel Torporley was born in Shropshire of unknow parentage and educated at Shrewsbury Grammar Scholl before matriculating at Christ Church Oxford in 1581. He graduated BA in 1584 and then travelled to France where he served as amanuensis to the French mathematician François Viète (1540–1603).

François Viète Source: Wikimedia Commons

He is thought to have supplied Harriot with a copy of Viète’s Isagoge, making Harriot the first English mathematician to have read it.


Torporley returned to Oxford in 1587 or 1588 and graduated MA from Brasenose College in 1591. 

He entered holy orders and was appointed rector of Salwarpe in Worcestershire, a living he retained until 1622. From 1611 he was also rector of Liddington in Wiltshire. His interest in mathematics, astronomy and astrology attracted the attention of Northumberland and he probably received a pension from him but there is only evidence of one payment in 1627. He was investigated in 1605, shortly before the Gunpowder Plot for having cast a nativity of the king. At some point he published a pamphlet, under the name Poulterey, attacking Viète. In 1632, he died at Sion College, on London Wall and in a will written in the year of his death he left all of his books, papers, and scientific instrument to the Sion College library.

Although his papers in the Sion College library contain several unpublished mathematical texts, still extant today, he only published one book his Diclides Coelometricae; seu Valuae Astronomicae universales, omnia artis totius munera Psephophoretica in sat modicis Finibus Duarum Tabularum methodo Nova, generali et facillima continentes, (containing a preface, Directionis accuratae consummata Doctrina, Astrologis hactenus plurimum desiderata and the Tabula praemissilis ad Declinationes et coeli meditations) in London in 1602.


This is a book on how to calculate astrological directions, a method for determining the time of major incidents in the life of a subject including their point of death, which was a very popular astrological method in the Renaissance. This requires spherical trigonometry, and the book is interesting for containing new simplified methods of solving right spherical triangles of any sort, methods that are normally attributed to John Napier (1550–1617) in a later publication. The book is, however, extremely cryptic and obscure, and almost unreadable. Despite this the surviving copies would suggest that it was widely distributed in Europe.

Our three mathematici came together as executors of Harriot’s will. Hues was charged with pricing Harriot’s books and other items for sale to the Bodleian Library. Hues and Torporley were charged with assisting Warner with the publication of Harriot’s mathematical manuscripts, a task that the three of them managed to bungle. In the end they only managed to publish one single book, Harriot’s algebra Artis Analyticae Praxis in 1631 and this text they castrated.


Harriot’s manuscript was the most advanced text on the topic written at the time and included full solutions of algebraic equations including negative and complex solutions. Either Warner et al did not understand Harriot’s work or they got cold feet in the face of his revolutionary new methods, whichever, they removed all of the innovative parts of the book making it basically irrelevant and depriving Harriot of the glory that was due to him.

For myself the main lesson to be learned from taking a closer look at the lives of this group of mathematici is that it shows that those interested in mathematics, astronomy, cartography, and navigation in England the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were intricately linked in a complex network of relationships, which contains hubs one of which was initially Harriot and Raleigh and then later Harriot and Northumberland. 

[1] For those who don’t know, Middlesex was a small English county bordering London, in the South-West corner of Essex, squeezed between Hertfordshire to the north and Surry in the South, which now no longer exists having been largely absorbed into Greater London. 


Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation, History of Optics, History of science, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXX

As we have seen in previous episodes, Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605) was one of the leading natural historians of the sixteenth century. The first ever professor for natural history at the University of Bologna.

Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522 – 1605). attributed to Ludovico Carracci. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He created the university’s botanical garden, one of the oldest still in existence. Collected about 4760 specimens in his herbarium on 4117 sheets in sixteen volumes, which are still preserved in the university and wrote extensively on almost all aspects of natural history, although much of his writing remained unpublished at his death. However, despite all these other achievements in the discipline of natural history, visitors to Bologna during his lifetime came to see his teatro di natura (theatre of nature), also known as his natural historical collection or museum.  This was housed in the palatial country villa that he built with the money he received from the dowry of Francesca Fontana, his wife, when he married her. His theatre contained some 18,000 specimens of the diversità di cose naturali (diverse objects of nature). These included flora and fauna, as well as mineral and geological specimens. He wrote a description or catalogue of his collection in 1595. 

In 1603, after negotiation with the Senate, Aldrovandi arranged for his teatro di natura to be donated to the city of Bologna after his death in exchange for the promise that they would continue to edit and publish his vast convolute of unpublished papers. This duly took place, and his collection became a public museum in the Palazzo Poggi, the headquarters of the university, opening in 1617, as the first public science museum.

Palazzo Poggi Bologna c.1750 Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with all of his natural history undertakings, Aldrovandi’s natural history museum was not the first, there being already ones in the botanical gardens of the universities of Pisa, Padua, and Florence but none of them approached the scope of Aldrovand’s magnificent collection. Also, later, the University of Montpelier had its own natural history collection. However, it wasn’t just institutions that created these early natural history museums. Individual apothecaries and physicians also set about collecting flora and fauna. 

The apothecary Francesco Calzolari (1522–1609) had an impressive Theatrum Naturae in Verona with 450 species on display. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Francesco Calzolari’s Cabinet of curiosities. From “Musaeum Calceolarium” (Verona, 1622) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, the papal physician, Michele Mercati (1541–1593), who was superintendent of the Vatican Botanical Garden, had a notable collection concentrating on minerology, geology, and palaeontology in Rome 

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Engraving made by Antonio Eisenhot between 1572 and 1581, but published in 1717, representing the Vatican mineral collection as organized by Michele Mercati Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Neapolitan apothecary Ferrante Imperato (1523–1620?)  published Dell’Historia Naturale in Naples in 1599, which was based on his own extensive natural history collection and containing the first printed illustration of such a collection. 

Portrait of Ferrante Imperato by Tanzio da Varallo  Source: Wikimedia Commons
Title page of Dell’ historia naturale, Napoli, 1599, by Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625). Source: Houghton Library, Harvard University via Wikimedia Commons
Engraving from Dell’ historia naturale, Napoli, 1599, by Ferrante Imperato (1550-1625). Source: Houghton Library, Harvard University via Wikimedia Commons

In the sixteenth century it became very fashionable for rulers to create cabinets of curiosities also know by the German terms as Kunstkammer or Wunderkammer. These were not new and had existed in the two previous centuries but in the Renaissance took on a whole new dimension. These contained not only natural history objects but also sculptures and paintings, as well curious items from home and abroad, with those from abroad taking on a special emphasis as Europe began to make contact with the rest of the world. 

The curiosity cabinet is a vast topic, and I don’t intend to attempt to cover it in this blog post, also it is only tangentially relevant to the central topic of this blog post series. I will, however, sketch some aspect that are relevant. Although they covered much material that wasn’t scientific, they were fairly obviously inspired by various aspects of the increasingly empirical view of the world that scholars had been developing throughout the Renaissance. We don’t just go out and actually observe the world for ourselves, we also bring the world into our dwellings so that all can observe it there. They represent a world view created by the merging of history, art, nature, and science. Although principally the province of the rich and powerful, for whom they became a status symbol, some notable Wunderkammer were created by scholars and scholars from the various scientific disciplines were often employed to search out, collect, and then curate the object preserved in the cabinets. 

Some of these cabinets created by the Renaissance rulers also had sections for scientific instruments and their owner commissioned instruments from the leading instrument makers of the era. These are not the average instruments created for everyday use but top of the range instruments designed to demonstrate the instrument makers skill and not just instruments but also works of art. As such they were never really intended to be used and many survive in pristine condition down to the present day. One such collection is that which was initially created by Elector August of Saxony (1526–1586), can be viewed in the Mathematish-Physikalischer Salon in the Zwinger in Dresden. 

Portrait of the Elector August of Saxony by Lucas Cranach Source: Wikimedia Commons
Planetenlaufuhr, 1563-1568 Eberhard Baldewein et al., Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon

Equally impressive is the collection initially created by Wilhelm IV, Landgrave of Hessen-Kassel, (1532-1592), who ran a major observational astronomy programme, which can be viewed today in the Astronomisch-Physikalische Kabinett

Portrait of Wilhelm IV. von Hessen-Kassel by Kaspar van der Borcht († 1610) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Equation clock, made for Landgrave William IV of Hesse-Kassel by Jost Burgi and Hans Jacob Emck, Germany, Kassel, 1591, gilt brass, silver, iron Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City via Wikimedia Commons

Not surprisingly Cosimo I de’ Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany (1519–1574)

Agnolo Bronzino, Porträt von Cosimo I de’ Medici in Rüstung, 1545, Source: Uffizien via Wikimedia Commons

had his cabinet of curiosities, the Guardoroba Nuova, in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, designed by the artist and historian of Renaissance art Giorgi Vasari (1511–1574), who, as I have documented in an earlier post, in turn commissioned the artist, mathematician, astronomer and cartographer, Egnatio Danti (1536–1586), to decorate the doors of the carved walnut cabinets, containing the collected treasures, with mural maps depicting the whole world. Danti also designed the rooms centre piece, a large terrestrial globe. 

Source: Fiorani The Marvel of Maps p. 57

The alternative name Wunderkammer became common parlance because various German emperors and other rulers somewhat dominated the field of curiosity cabinet construction. Probably the largest and most spectacular Wunderkammer was that of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II (1552–1612).

Rudolf II portrait by  Joseph Heintz the Elder 1594 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was an avid art collector and patron, but he also collected mechanical automata, ceremonial swords, musical instruments, clocks, water works, compasses, telescopes, and other scientific instruments. His Kunstkammer incorporated the three kingdoms of nature and the works of man. Unusually, Rudolf’s cabinet was systematically arranged in encyclopaedic fashion, and he employed his court physician Anselmus de Boodt (1550–1632), a Flemish humanist, minerologist, physician, and naturalist to catalogue it. De Boodt had succeeded Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) as superintendent of Rudolf’s botanical garden.

Rudolf II Kunstkammer

Although it was a private institution, Rudolph allowed selected professional scholars to study his Wunderkammer. In fact, as well as inanimate objects Rudolf also studiously collected some of Europe’s leading scholars. The astronomers Nicolaua Reimers Baer (1551–1600), Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) all served as imperial mathematicus. The instrument maker, Jost Bürgi came from Kassel to Prague. As already mentioned, Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) and Anselmus de Boodt (1550–1632) both served as superintendent of the imperial botanical gardens. The later also served as personal physician to Rudolf, as did the Czech naturalist, astronomer, and physician Thaddaeus Hagecius ab Hayek (1525–1600). The notorious occultist Edward Kelly (1555-1597) worked for a time in Rudolf’s alchemy laboratory.

When Rudolf died his Wunderkammer was mostly transferred to Vienna by his brother and successor as Holy Roman Emperor, Matthias, where it was gradually dissipated over the years. Although, his was by far the most spectacular Rudolf’s was only one of many cabinets of curiosity created during the Renaissance by the rich and powerful as a status symbol. However, there were also private people who also created them; the most well-known being the Danish, naturalist, antiquary, and physician Ole Worm (1588­–1654).

Ole Worm and Dorothea Worm, née Fincke artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Son of Willum Worm a mayor of Aarhus, he inherited substantial wealth from his father. After attending grammar school, he studied theology Marburg and graduated Doctor of Medicine at the University of Basel in 1611. He also graduated MA at the University of Copenhagen in 1618. He spent the rest of his life in Copenhagen, where he taught Latin Greek, physics, and medicine, whilst serving as personal physician to the Danish King, Christian IV (1577–1648). He died of the bubonic plague after staying in the city to treat the sick during an epidemic.

As a physician he contributed to the study of embryology. Other than medicine he took a great interest in Scandinavian ethnography and archaeology. As a naturalist he determined that the unicorn was a mythical beast and that the unicorn horns in circulation were actually narwhal tusks. He produced the first detail drawing of a bird-of-paradise, proving that they, contrary to popular belief, did in fact have feet. He also drew from life the only known illustration of the now extinct great auk.

OLe Worm’s Great Auk Source: Wikimedia Commons

Worm is best known today for his extensive cabinet of curiosity the Museum Wormianum a great collection of curiosities ranging from native artifacts from the New World, to stuffed animals and fossils in which he specialised.

1655 – Frontispiece of Museum Wormiani Historia Source: Wikimedia Commons

As with other cabinets, Worm’s collection consisted of minerals, plants, animals, and man-made objects. Worm complied a catalogue of his collection with engravings and detailed descriptions, which was published posthumously in four books, as Museum Wormianum. The first three books deal respectively with minerals, plants, and animals. The fourth is archaeological and ethnographical items. 

Title page 
Museum Wormianum. Seu historia rerum rariorum, tam naturalium, quam artificialium, tam domesticarum, quam exoticarum, quæ Hafniæ Danorum in œdibus authoris servantur. Adornata ab Olao Worm … Variis & accuratis iconibus illustrata. Source

A private cabinet of curiosity that then became an institutional one was that of the Jesuit polymath, Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). Kircher referred to variously as the Master of a Hundred Arts and The Last man Who Knew Everything belonged very much to the Renaissance rather than the scientific revolution during which he lived and was active.

Athanasius Kircher engraving by Cornelis Bloemaert Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was author of about forty major works that covered a bewildering range of topics, which ranged from the genuinely scientific to the truly bizarre. Immensely popular and widely read in his own time, he quickly faded into obscurity following his death. Born in Fulda in Germany, one of nine children, he attended a Jesuit college from 1614 till 1618 when he entered the Jesuit Order. Following a very mixed education and career he eventually landed in the Collegio Romano in 1634, where he became professor for mathematics. Here he fulfilled an important function in that he collected astronomical data from Jesuit missionaries throughout the world, which he collated and redistributed to astronomers throughout Europe on both sides of the religious divide. 

Given he encyclopaedic interests it was perfectly natural for Kircher to begin to assemble his own private cabinet of curiosities. In 1651, the Roman Senator Alfonso Donnini (d.1651) donated his own substantial cabinet of curiosities to the Collegio, and the authorities decided that it was best placed in the care of Father Kircher. Combining it with his own collection, Kircher established, what became known as the Musæum Kircherianum, which he continued to expand throughout his lifetime.

Musæum Kircherianum, 1679 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The museum became very popular and attracted many visitors. Giorgio de Sepibus published a first catalogue in 1678, the only surviving evidence of the original layout. Following Kircher’s death the museum fell into neglect but was revived, following the appointment of Filippo Bonanni (1638–1725), Kercher’s successor as professor of mathematics, as curator in 1698. Bonnani published a new catalogue of the museum in 1709. The museum prospered till 1773 till the suppression of the Jesuit Order led to its gradual dissipation, reestablishment in 1824, and final dispersion in 1913.

Filippo Bonanni, Musaeum Kircherianum, 1709 Source: Wikimedia Commons

As we have seen cabinets of curiosities often evolved into public museums and I will close with brief sketches of two that became famous museums in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

John Tradescant the Elder (c. 1570–1638) was an English, naturalist, gardener, and collector. He was gardener for a succession of leading English aristocrats culminating in service to George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. In his duties he travelled widely, particularly with and for Buckingham, visiting the Netherlands, Artic Russia, the Levant, Algiers, and France. Following Buckingham’s assassination in 1628, he was appointed Keeper of the King’s Gardens, Vines and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace in Surrey.

John Tradescant the Elder (portrait attributed to Cornelis de Neve) Source: Wikimedia Commons

On his journeys he collected seeds, plants, bulbs, as well as natural historical and ethnological curiosities. He housed this collection, his cabinet of curiosities, in a large house in Lambeth, The Ark.

Tradescant’s house in Lambeth: The Ark Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was opened to the public as a museum. The collection also included specimens from North America acquired from colonists, including his personal friend John Smith (1580–1631), soldier, explorer, colonial governor, and Admiral of New England.

His son, John Tradescant the Younger (1608–1662) followed his father in becoming a naturalist and a gardener.

John Tradescant the Younger, attributed to Thomas de Critz Source: Wikmedia Commons

Like his father he travelled widely including two trips to Virginia between 1628 and 1637. He added both botanical and other objects extensively to the family collection in The Ark. When his father died, he inherited his position as head gardener to Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France working in the gardens of Queens House in Greenwich. Following the flight of Henrietta Maria in the Civil War, he compiled a catalogue of the family cabinet of curiosities, as Museum Tradescantianum, dedicated to the Royal College of Physicians with whom he was negotiating to transfer the family botanical garden. A second edition of the catalogue was dedicated to Charles II after the restoration.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Around 1650, John Tradescant the Younger became acquainted with the antiquarian, politician, astrologer and alchemist, Elias Ashmole (1617–1692), who might be described as a social climber.

Elias Ashmole by John Riley, c. 1683

Born into a prominent but impoverished family, he managed to qualify as a solicitor with the help of a prominent maternal relative. He married but his wife died in pregnancy, just three years later in 1641. In 1646-47, he began searching for a rich widow to marry. In 1649, he married Mary, Lady Mainwaring, a wealthy thrice widowed woman twenty years older than him. The marriage was not a success and Lady Manwaring filed suit for separation and alimony, but the suit was dismissed by the courts in 1657 and having inherited her first husband’s estate, Ashmole was set up for life to pursue his interests in alchemy and astrology, without having to work. 

Ashmole helped Tradescant to catalogue the family collection and financed the publication of the catalogue in 1652 and again in 1656. Ashmole persuaded John Tradescant to deed the collection to him, going over into his possessing upon Tradescant’s death in 1662. Tradescant’s widow, Hester, challenged the deed but the court ruled in Ashmole’s favour. Hester held the collection in trust for Ashmole until her death.

In 1677, Ashmole made a gift of the Tradescant collection together with his own collection to the University of Oxford on the condition that they build a building to house them and make them available to the general public. So, the Ashmolean Museum, the world’s second university museum and Britain’s first public museum, came into existence on 24 May 1683.

The original Ashmolean Museum building on Board Street Oxford now the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford Source: Wikimedia Commons

My second British example is the cabinet of curiosities of Hans Sloane (1660–1753), physician, naturalist, and collector.

Slaughter, Stephen; Sir Hans Sloane, Bt; Source: National Portrait Gallery, London via Wikipedia Commons

Sloane was born into an Anglo-Irish family in Killyleagh a village in County Down, Ulster. Already as a child Sloane began collecting natural history items and curiosities, which led him to the study of medicine. In London, he studied botany, materia medica, surgery, and pharmacy. In 1687, he travelled to Jamaica as personal physician to the new Governor Christopher Monck, 2nd Duke of Albemarle. Albemarle died in the following year, so Sloane was only in Jamaica for eighteen months, however, in this time he collected more than a thousand plant specimens and recorded eight hundred new species of plants, starting a lifetime of collecting.

Sloane married the widow Elizabeth Langley Rose a wealthy owner of Jamaican sugar plantation worked by slaves, making Sloane independently wealthy. There followed a successful career as physician, Secretary of the Royal Society, editor of the Philosophical Transactions, President of the Royal College of Physicians, and finally President of the Royal Society. Throughout his life, Sloane continued to collect. He used his wealth to acquire the natural history collections of Barbadian merchant William Courten (1572–1636), papal nuncio Cardinal Filippo Antonio Gualterio (1660–1728), apothecary James Petiver (c.1665–1718), plant anatomist Nehemiah Grew, botanist Leonard Plukenet (1641–1706), gardener and botanist the Duchess of Beaufort (1630–1715), botanist Adam Buddle (1662–1715), physician and botanist Paul Hermann (1646–1695), botanist and apothecary Franz Kiggelaer  (1648–1722), and botanist, chemist, and physician Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738).

 When he died Sloane’s collection of over seventy-one thousand items– books manuscripts, drawings, coins and medals, plant specimens and more–was sold to the nation for £20,000, well below its true value. It formed to founding stock of the British Museum and British Library, which opened in 1759.

Montagu House, c. 1715 the original home of the British museum

The natural history collection was split off to found the Natural History Museum, which opened in South Kensington in 1881.

The Natural History Museum. This is a panorama of approximately 5 segments. Taken with a Canon 5D and 17-40mm f/4L. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Renaissance practice of creating cabinets of curiosities played a significant role in the creation of modern museums in Europe. It also provided scientists with collections of materials on which to conduct their research, an important element in the development of empirical science in the Early Modern Period. 





Filed under History of botany, History of medicine, History of science, History of Technology, History of Zoology, Natural history, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XXXVII

Over a series of posts, we have followed the emergence of the science of botany out of the Renaissance humanist physicians’ endeavours to integrate materia medica, the study of simples or medical herbs, into the Renaissance university teaching curriculum. By the end of the sixteenth century the books on plants that were being published were definitely works of botany and no longer works of medicine. However, one of the books that helped launch the gradual rise of botany during the century, Pliny’s more than somewhat disputed[1]Naturalis historia was actually encyclopaedic in its scope covering much more than just the flora of antiquity, which only made up sixteen of the thirty-seven books. Four of the other books were devoted to the fauna of antiquity, covering mammals, snakes, marine animals, birds, and insects. Aristotle had also written two books on the fauna his De Partibus Animalium and his Historia Animalium as well as the De Generatione Animalium, which is attributed to him. All three books were well known and published in the Renaissance. Albertus Magnus (c.1200–1280), who digested, interpreted, and systematized the whole of Aristotle’s works in the thirteenth century, also wrote a De animalibus, which was known and read in the Renaissance.

Albertus Magnus De animalibus (c. 1450–1500, cod. fiesolano 67, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana) via Wikimedia Commons

All of this raises the question, was there development of zoology as a discipline during the sixteenth century similar to that of botany? The answer is both yes and no. A much smaller number of authors wrote books on the fauna and the development, at that time, progressed by no means as far as that of botany. However, as we will see two authors in particular stand out and they can and have been labelled the founders of modern zoology, they are the Swiss polymath Conrad Gesner (1516–1565) and the equally polymathic Italian natural historian Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605). However, before we look at the work of these two intellectual giants, and it is not an exaggeration to call them that, we will first take a look at the others, who published on fauna in the period and, to begin, briefly discuss why the development of zoology lagged behind that of botany.  

When you spell out the reasons why the development of zoology in the Renaissance lagged behind that of botany, they seem pretty obvious, but you first have to think about the problem.  Whereas the ongoing botanist could and did send each other, seeds, bulbs, dried plants in the form of herbarium sheets, and even living plants carefully packaged in letters and packages with the post you can’t pop a rhinoceros in an envelope and send it to someone. 

My example may seem more than somewhat ridiculous, but it refers to a real, notorious, historical occurrence. Perhaps the most well known of all Renaissance prints is Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros, which we will meet again later. Dürer’s print is based on verbal descriptions of an Indian rhinoceros that was sent, by ship, as a gift to King Manuel I of Portugal in 1515. Manuel actually staged a combat between his rhinoceros and a young elephant to test Pliny’s account that elephants and rhinoceroses were enemies. The young elephant fled, and the rhinoceros was declared the winner. Manual decided to give his rhinoceros to the Medici Pope Leo X, and it embarked one again on a ship across the Mediterranean, but this time did not survive the journey dying in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy. Dürer’s print was based on a letter and sketch of the beast sent from Lisbon to Nürnberg. As we shall see, many of the early printed accounts of animals were based on verbal descriptions and sketches rather than actual encounters with the animals themselves. The animal studies of Renaissance artists like Dürer or Leonardo also played a role in stimulating interest in animals amongst the humanist scholars. 

Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros woodcut Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another major problem is that if you go out on excursions or field trips to empirically study plants, the plants remain quietly where they are whilst you examine, sketch, or even dig them up to take them home with you. Most animals aren’t as accommodating. In fact, most wild animals will take to their heels and disappear when they hear humans approaching. Proto-zoologists were dependent on the second hand reports of hunters, field workers, or foresters of animals they didn’t get to observe themselves. Putting this all together, it is simply much more difficult to conduct empirical research on animals than on plants. It therefore comes as no surprise that the first zoological publications in the Renaissance were about fishes and birds, animals that humans eat and are thus more accessible to the researcher. It should be noted that in the Early Modern period people ate a much wider range of birds than we do today and that whales were also extensively eaten throughout Europe. In fact, the European whaling industry began in the Middle Ages because the Church classified them as fish, meaning they could be eaten on a Friday, a fast day when eating meat was forbidden. 

Before turning to the early Renaissance zoologists, we will take a brief look at the medieval manuscripts of animals, the bestiaries. Unlike the medieval herbals, which served a practical medical function, the bestiaries served a philosophical or religious function. The natural histories and illustrations of the individual beasts were usually accompanied by a moral lesson. The animals served a symbolic function rather than a practical one. The illustrations were mostly copied from earlier ancient Greek sources, the earliest known example is the second century Greek work, the Physiologus, which draws on earlier authors such as Aristotle, Herodotus, Pliny, and others.

Panther, Bern Physiologus, 9th century Source: Wikimedia Commons

The genre was further developed by Isidore of Seville and Saint Ambroise, who added a religious dimension. Bestiaries were very popular in the High Middle Ages, but had little or no influence on the beginnings of zoology in the Renaissance, unlike the influence herbals had with plants. 

Detail from the 12th century Aberdeen Bestiary Source: Wikimedia Commons

The earliest zoological text from the sixteenth century was published by the English naturalist William Turner (1509/10–1568), who, as we saw in the episode on herbals, was motivated by his travels and studies in Northern Italy. Before he began publishing his more famous herbal in 1551, he had already published Avium praecipuarum, quarum apud Plinium et Aristotelem mentio est, brevis et succincta historia (The Principal Birds of Aristotle and Pliny…), which not only discussed the birds to be found in the two authors from antiquity but contained descriptions of birds based on his own empirical observations.

Title page of Avium Praecipuarum, 1544, by William Turner. This was the first ever printed book devoted wholly to ornithology. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Much more extensive are the zoological works by the French traveller and naturalist, Pierre Belon (1517–1564).

Pierre Belon artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Little is known of his origins, but in the early 1530s he was apprenticed to the apothecary René des Prey. He entered the service of René du Bellay Bishop of Le Man (c. 1500–1546) in the second half of the 1530s, who permitted him to study medicine at the University of Wittenberg under Valerius Cordus (1515–1544).[2] He travelled through Germany with Cordus in 1542, continuing on through Flanders and England alone. He continued his studies in Paris, and then became apothecary to Cardinal François de Tournon (1489–1562) in whose service he undertook diplomatic journeys to Greece, Crete, Asia Minor, Egypt, Arabia, and Palestine between 1546 and 1549. An avid polymath he recorded everything he saw and experienced on his travels. During a Papal conclave, 1549–1550, he met up with Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1566), who would be appointed professor for medicine in Montpellier, and the Italian physician Hippolyte Salviani (1514–1572). Returning to Paris he began to sort his notes and publish his zoology texts. In 1557 he undertook another journey to Northern Italy, Savoy, the Dauphiné, and Auvergne. In 1558 he obtained his medical licence and began to practice medicine. He became a favourite of the Kings Henry II (1519–1559) and Charles IX (1550–1574). The latter providing him with lodgings in Château de Madrid in the Bois de Boulogne. His promising career was cut short when he was murdered in 1564.

Between 1551 and 1557 he wrote and published a series of books based on his travel observations. His first book was his L’histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins, avec la vraie peincture & description du Daulphin, & de plusieurs autres de son espece. Observee par Pierre Belon du Mans published in Paris in 1551.

L’histoire naturelle des estranges poissons marins A Paris :De l’imprimerie de Regnaud Chaudiere,1551. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This is a description of the fish and cetaceans, such as dolphins and porpoises, that he had observed and dissected on his travels. Aristotelean in nature the work contained a classification system for marine fish, including both cetaceans and hippopotami under fishes, although he recognised that cetaceans had mammalian milk glands and were air breathing. Two years later he published a more general book on fish, his De aquatilibus. Libri duo Cum eiconibus ad vivam ipsorum effigiem, Quoad eius fieri potuit, expressis, also in Paris. This contained descriptions of 110 fish species and is a founding text of the discipline of ichthyology. A French edition De aquatilibus. Libri duo Cum eiconibus ad vivam ipsorum effigiem, Quoad eius fieri potuit, expressis was published in Paris in 1555.

In 1553 he also contributed to the botanical literature with his De arboribus Coniferis, Resiniferis aliisque semper virentibus…, a book on confers, pines and evergreen trees. It was published in both Latin and French in the same year. The same year saw the publication of his more general Les obsevations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie et autres pays étrangèrsas well as a three-volume work on funerary customs in Antiquity. A revised edition of his Observations was published in 1555 and Clusius translated them into Latin for an international readership in 1559.

In 1555 he turned his attention to birds publishing his Histoire de la nature des oyseaux in Paris. It describes about 200, mostly European, birds. This book is particular notable for its comparison of the skeletons of a bird and a human, one of the earliest examples of comparative anatomy.

A comparison of the skeleton of birds and man in Natural History of Birds, 1555 Source: Wikimedia Commons

He rounded off this burst of publications with his Portraits d’oyseaux, animaux, serpens, herbes, arbres, hommes et femmes, d’Arabie et Egypte, in Paris in 1557.

Portraits d’oyseaux, animaux, serpens, herbes, arbres, hommes et femmes, d’Arabie et Egypte, 1557 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Much of the information in his books on both fishes and birds was obtained by investigating those that came to market in the towns that he visited. On his trip to England, he also met the Venetian humanist scholar and architect, Daniel Barbaro (1514–1570), Palladio’s patron, who had made many drawings of Adriatic fish. 

Etching of Daniele Barbaro by Wenzel Hollar Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Italian physician, humanist scholar, and naturalist Hippolyte Salviani (1514–1572), who as we saw above met Belon at the Papal conclave in 1549–1550, was the personal physician to the House of Farnese from 1550 till 1555 and taught at the University of Rome until 1568.

Frontispiece of Hippolyte Salviani’s Aquatilium animalium historiae  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Like Belon he wrote and published a work on fish Aquatilium animalium historiae (1554-1558), which depicted about one hundred Mediterranean fish species and some molluscs. He was aware of the difference between cephalopods and fish. This work was based on his own empirical observations, and he was supported financially in his work by Cardinal Marcello Cervini (1501–1555), later Pope Marcellus II. The work was dedicated to Cervini’s successor Gian Carafa (1476–1559), Pope Paul IV. Like Belon most of his fish research was done with fish from the markets.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Guillaume Rondelet (1507–1566), who was also at that Papal conclave, went on to become professor for medicine at the University of Montpellier, where he taught several important natural historians including Charles de l’Écluse (Carolus Clusius) (1526–1609), Matthias de l’Obel (Matthias Lobelius) (1538–1616), Pierre Pena (c. 1530–c. 1600), Jacques Daléchamps (1513–1588), Jean Bauhin (1511–1582), and Felix Platter (1536–1614).

Guillaume Rondelet Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although he was one of the greatest teachers of medicine and natural history in the sixteenth century, he published very little himself. However, like Belon and Salvini, he published a work on marine life, his Libri de piscibus marinis in quibus verae piscium effigies expressae sunt (Lyon, 1554).

Libri de piscibus marinis, 1554 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the title refers to fish (piscibus), the book actually deals with all aquatic animals. Rondelet makes no distinction between fish, marine animals such as seals and whales, crustaceans, and other invertebrates. He investigated the difference between fresh water and saltwater fish. His approach was Aristotelean emphasising function. He dissected and illustrated many of his specimens and his anatomical drawings off a sea urchin is the earliest know drawing of an invertebrate. He made anatomical comparisons and found similarities between dolphins, pigs, and humans. The book became a standard reference work for many years and was translated into French in 1558 as L’histoire entière des poissons (The complete history of fish). 

Extract from Rondelet’s 1554 work De piscibus Source: Wikimedia Commons

Without doubt the most influential text on the road to the discipline of zoology published in the sixteenth century was the more than four-thousand-and-five-hundred-page, five-volume Historia animalia issued by the Swiss polymath Conrad Gessner (1516–1565) between 1551–1558 and 1587 posthumously in Zurich.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I have written about Gessner in the past, but the short version is, he was the polymath’s polymath. A humanist, encyclopaedist, philologist, bibliographer, zoologist, botanist, alpinist, linguist, and professional physician. He was not only an encyclopaedist but a completist. His Bibliotheca universalis (1554–) was an attempt to list alphabetically all of the books printed and published in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew since the invention of printing with movable type. He followed this with a thematic index to the Bibliotheca universalis, the Pandectarum sive Partitionum universalium Conradi Gesneri Tigurini, medici & philosophiae professoris, libri xxi with thirty thousand entries in 1548. 

His approach to the Historia animalia was the same, it was an attempt to provide descriptions of all known animals. The animals were listed alphabetically but divided up in divisions in the style of Aristotle. Volume I Quadrupedes vivipares. 1551 (Live-bearing four-footed animals), Volume II Quadrupedes ovipares. 1554 (Egg-laying quadrupeds, reptiles and amphibia), Volume III Avium natura. (Birds) 1555, Volume IV Piscium & aquatilium animantium natura 1558 (Fish and aquatic animals), Volume V De serpentium natura (Snakes and scorpions).

Tiger and leopard, Book 1:Viviparous Quadrupeds Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1638 a further volume on insects was published from his Nachlass. To write his book, Gessner drew on multiple sources giving credit to their authors. As well as an illustration of each animal, here he famously used Dürer’s rhinoceros, he included vast amounts of information–the animal’s name in all the languages know to him, habitat, description, physiology, diseases, habits, utility, diet, curiosities, all crossed referenced to ancient and modern authorities. Gessner, in has attempt at completeness, also included some mythical creatures, in some cases stating that he didn’t know if they existed or not.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Historia animalia was immensely successful and an abbreviated version, the Thierbuch, appeared in German in 1565. 

Fantastical creatures in a copy of Historia Animalium in The Portico Library in Manchester, England. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Just as encyclopaedic as Gessner’s work were the volumes on animals put together by the Italian natural historian Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522–1605), whose five hundredth birthday we will be celebrating on 11 September.

Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522 – 1605). Ornithologiae, hoc est de avibus historiae libri XII. (De avibus), Bologna, 1599. Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was born in Bologna into a noble family, a nephew of Pope Gregory XII. He father, a lawyer, died when he was seven. In his youth he studied first mathematics and then Latin under prominent private tutors. Following his mother’s wish he studied law but shortly before graduating he switched to philosophy. To complete his philosophy studies, he switched to the University of Padua, where he began to study medicine in 1545. In 1549 he was accused of heresy and had to go to Rome to clear his name. In 1550, he met Guillaume Rondelet, whom he accompanied on his visits to the local fish markets to study fish, which awakened Aldrovandi’s interest in zoology. Returning to Bologna he met Luca Ghini (1490–1556), who played such a central role in the early study of plants, and this awakened his interest in botany. When Ghini returned to Pisa, Aldrovandi followed him to attend his lectures on medical simples. In 1552 he graduated in philosophy at Bologna and a year later in medicine. In 1554 he was appointed lecturer for logic at the university and in 1559 professor for philosophy. 

In 1561 he became the first professor of natural history at Bologna, Lectura philosophiae naturalis ordinaria de fossilibus, plantis et animalibus. Aldrovandi devoted the rest of his life to the study and propagation of natural history. He set up the university botanical garden in 1568 and a museum for natural history, which I will look at more closely in a later post. Like Gessner, he spent years collecting material for a Historia Animalia, but didn’t start writing it until he was seventy-seven-years-old. He only managed to publish three of the eventual eleven volumes before he died aged eighty-two. The other eight volumes were published posthumously by Johannes Cornelius Uterverius (1592–1619), Thomas Dempster (1579–1625), and Bartholomäus Ambrosinus. Ornithologiae, hoc est, de avibus historiae libri XII. Agent de avibus rapacibus (1600); 

Aldrovandi Owl Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ornithologiae tomus alter de avibus terrestribus, mensae inservientibus et canoris (1600); De aninialibus insectis libri VII (1602); 

De animalibus insectis libri septem, cum singulorum iconibus ad vivum expressis, Bologna, 1602. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ornithologiae tomus tertius ei ultimus de avibus aquaticis et circa quas degentibus (1603); De reliquis animalibus exanguibus, utpote de mollibus, crustaceis, testaceis et zoophytis, libri IV (1606); Quadrupedum omnium bisulcorum historia (1613); 

Aldrovandi Red Hartebeest and Blackbuck Source: Wikimedia Commons

De piscibus libri V et de cetis liber unus (1613); De quadrupedibus digitatis viviparis libri III, et de quadrupedibus oviparis libri II(1637); Historiae serpentum et draconum libri duo (1640);

Basilisk from Serpentum, et draconum historiae libri duo (1640) Source: Wikimedia Commons

 Monstruorum historia(1642)

Harpy. Ulisse Aldrovandi, Monstrorum historia, Bologna, 1642. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There were also some smaller individual studies published in the sixteenth century. The Cambridge scholar and physician John Caius (1510–1573)

John Caius, Master (1559-1573); Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge; artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

was a correspondent of Gessner’s and produced a study of British dogs for him, which Gessner didn’t publish, so he published it himself in 1570, De Canibus Britannicis.


In the same year he also published De Rariorum animalium atque stirpium historia, libellus (Of Some Rare Plants and Animals).

The Bologna senator, Carlo Ruini (1530–1598) wrote a very accurate and comprehensive Anatomia del cavallo, infermità, et suoi rimedii (On the Anatomy and Diseases of the Horse), which was published posthumously in Venice, in 1598.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, the English student of Felix Platter, Thomas Moffet (1533–1604) compiled the Insectorum sive Minimorum Animalium Theatrum (Theatre of Insects) based on his own work and that of Gessner, Edward Wotten (1492–1555) and the physician Thomas Perry (1532–1589).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Edward Wotten, a graduate of Padua, had earlier published his Aristotelian research on animals De differentiis animalium libri decem, in Paris in 1552. 

Edward Wotton an engraving by William Rogers c. 1600 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although the developments in zoology in the sixteenth century were not as widespread or as progressive as those in botany as we have seen they were not insubstantial and laid foundations that were developed further in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 

[1] For details of that dispute see Episode XXXII of this series

[2] For more on Valerius Cordus see Episode XXXV of this series


Filed under History of science, History of Zoology, Natural history, Renaissance Science

The swashbuckling, philosophical alchemist

If you go beyond the big names, big events version of the history of science and start looking at the fine detail, you can discover many figures both male and female, who also made, sometime significant contribution to the gradual evolution of science. On such figure is the man who inspired the title of this blog post, the splendidly named Sir Kenelm Digby (1603–1665), who made contributions to a wide field of activities in the seventeenth century.

Kenelm Digby (1603-1665) Anthony van Dyck Source: Wikimedia Commons

To show just how wide his interests were, I first came across him not through my interest in the history of science, but through my interest in the history of food and cooking, as the author of an early printed cookbook, The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened (H. Brome, London, 1669).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Born 11 June in Gayhurst, Buckinghamshire, in 1603 into a family of landed gentry noted for their nonconformity, he, as we will see, lived up to the family reputation. His grandfather Everard Digby (born c. 1550) was a Neoplatonist philosopher in the style of Ficino, and fellow of St John’s College Cambridge, (Fellow 1573, MA 1574, expelled 1587), who authored a book that suggested a systematic classification of the sciences in a treatise against Petrus Ramus, De Duplici methodo libri duo, unicam P. Rami methodum refutantes, (Henry Bynneman, London, 1580, and what is considered the first English book on swimming, De arte natandi, (Thomas Dawson, London, 1587). The latter was published in Latin but translated into English by Christopher Middleton eight years later. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

His father Sir Everard Digby (c. 1578–1606) and his mother Mary Mulsho of Gayhurst were both born Protestant but converted to Catholicism.

Sir Everad Digby artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

His father was executed in 1606 for his part in the Gunpowder Plot and Kenelm was taken from his mother and made a ward first of Archbishop Laud (1573–1645) and later of his uncle Sir John Digby (1508-1653), who took him on a sixth month trip (August 1617–April 1618) to Madrid in Spain, where he was serving as ambassador.

Sir John Digby portrait by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen Source: Wikimedia Commons

Returning from Spain, the fifteen-year-old Kenelm entered Gloucester Hall Oxford, where he came under the influence of Thomas Allen (1542–1632).

Thomas Allen by James Bretherton, etching, late 18th century Source: wikimedia Commons

 Thomas Allen was a noted mathematician, astrologer, geographer, antiquary, historian, and book collector. He was connected to the circle of scholars around Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland (1564–1632), the so-called Wizard Earl, through whom he became a close associate of Thomas Harriot (c. 1560–1621). Through another of his patrons Robert Dudley, Early of Leicester, (1532–1588) Allen also became an associate of John Dee (1527–c. 1608). Allen had a major influence on Digby, and they became close friends. When he died, Allen left his book collection to Digby in his will: 

… to Sir Kenelm Digby, knight, my noble friend, all my manuscripts and what other of my books he … may take a liking unto, excepting some such of my books that I shall dispose of to some of my friends at the direction of my executor.

Digby donated this very important collection of at least 250 items, which contained manuscripts by Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Richard Wallinford, amongst many others to the Bodleian Library.

Digby left Oxford without a degree in 1620, not unusual for a member of the gentry, and took off on a three-year Grand Tour of the continental. In France Maria de Medici (1575–1642) is said to have cast an eye on the handsome young Englishman, who faked his own death and fled France to escape her clutches. In Italy he became accomplished in the art of fencing. In 1623 he re-joined his uncle in Madrid, this time for a nearly a year and became embroiled in the unsuccessful negotiations to arrange a marriage between Prince Charles and the Infanta Maria. Despite the failure of this mission, when he returned to England in 1623, the twenty-year-old Kenelm was knighted by James the VI &I and appointed a Gentleman to Prince Charles Privy Chamber at the time converting to Anglicanism. In 1625 he secretly married his childhood sweetheart Venetia Stanley (1600–1633). They had two sons Kenelm (1626) and John (1627) before the marriage was made public. 

Venetia, Lady Digby by Anthony van Dyck Source: Wikimedia Commons

Out of favour with Buckingham, Digby now became the swashbuckler of the title. Fitting out two ships, the 400-ton Eagle under his command and the 250-ton Barque under the command of Sir Edward Stradling (1600–1644), he set off for the Mediterranean to tackle the problem of French and Venetian pirates, as a privateer, a pirate sanctioned by the crown.

Arbella, previously the Eagle Digby’s flagship

Capturing several Flemish and Dutch prize on route, on 11 June 1628 they attacked the French and Egyptian ships in the bay of Scanerdoon, the English name for the Turkish port of Iskender. Successful in the hard-fought battle, Digby returned to England with both ships loaded down with the spoils, in February 1629, where he was greeted by both the King and the general public as a hero. He was appointed a naval administrator and later Governor of Trinity House. 

The next few years were spent in England as a family man surrounded by a circle of friends that included the poet and playwright Ben Johnson (1572–1637), the artist Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), the jurist and antiquary John Seldon (1584–1654), and the historian Edward Hyde (1609–1674) amongst many others. Digby’s circle of friends emphasises his own scholarly polymathic interests. His wife Venetia, a notable society beauty, died unexpectedly in 1633 and Digby commissioned a deathbed portrait and from van Dyck and a eulogy by Ben Johnson, now partially lost. 

Venetia Stanley on her Death Bed by Anthony van Dyck, 1633, Dulwich Picture Gallery Source: Wikimedia Commons

Digby stricken by grief entered a period of deep mourning, secluding himself in Gresham College, where he constructed a chemical laboratory together with the Hungarian alchemist and metallurgist János Bánfihunyadi (Latin, Johannes Banfi Hunyades) (1576–1646), where they conducted botanical experiments. 

In 1634, having converted back to Catholicism he moved to France, where he became a close associate of René Descartes (1596–1650). He returned to England in 1639 and became a confidant of Queen Henrietta Maria (1609–1669) and becoming embroiled in her pro-Catholic politics made it advisable for him to return to France.

Henrietta Maria portrait by Anthony van Dyck Source: Wikimedia Commons

Here he fought a duel against the French noble man Mont le Ros, who had insulted King Charles, and killed him. The French King pardoned him, but he was forced to flee back to England via Flanders in 1642. Here he was thrown into goal, however his popularity meant that he was released again in 1643 and banished, so he returned to France, where he remained for the duration of the Civil War.

Henrietta Maria established a court in exile in Paris in 1644 and Digby was appointed her chancellor. In this capacity he undertook diplomatic missions on her behalf to the Pope. Henrietta Maria’s court was a major centre for philosophical debates with William Cavendish, the Earl of Newcastle, his brother Charles both enthusiastic supporters of the new sciences, William’s second wife Margaret Lucas, who had been one of Henrietta Maria’s chamber maids and would go on to great notoriety as Margaret Cavendish prominent female philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, and from the French side, Descartes, Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), Pierre Fermat (1607–1665), and Marin Mersenne. Digby was in his element in this society.

Margaret Cavendish and her husband, William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne portrait by Gonzales Coques Source: Wikimedia Commons

After unsuccessfully trying to return to England in 1649, in 1653, he was granted leave to return, perhaps surprisingly he became an associate of Cromwell, whom he tried, unsuccessfully, to win for the Catholic cause. He spent 1657 in Montpellier to recuperate, but returned to England in 1658, where he remained until his death. 

He now became friends with John Wallis (1616–1703), Robert Hooke (1635–1703), and Robert Boyle (1627–1691) and was heavily involved in the moves to form a scientific society, which would lead to the establishment of the Royal Society of which he was a founder member. On 23 January 1660/61 he read his paper A discourse concerning the vegetation of plants before the founding members of the Royal Society at Gresham College, which was the first formal publication to be authorised by that still unnamed body. The Discourse would prove to be his last publications, as his health declined, and he died in 1665.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Up till now the Discourse is the only publication that I’ve mentioned, but it was by no means his only one. Digby was a true polymath publishing works on religion, A Conference with a Lady about choice of a Religion(1638), Letters… Concerning Religion (1651), A Discourse, Concerning Infallibility in Religion (1652). Autobiographical writings including, Articles of Agreement Made Betweene the French King and those of Rochell… Also a Relation of a brave and resolute Sea Fight, made by Sr. Kenelam Digby (1628), and Sr. Kenelme Digbyes honour maintained (1641). Critical writings on Sir Thomas Browne, Observations upon Religio Medici (1642), and on Edmund Spencer, Observations on the 22. Stanza in the 9th Canto of the 2d. Book of Spencers Faery Queen (1643). 

What, however, interests us here are his “scientific” writings. The most extensive of these is his Two Treatises, in One of which, the Nature of Bodies; in the Other, the Nature of Mans Soule, is looked into: in way of discovery, of the Immortality of Reasonable Soules originally published in Paris in 1644 but with further editions published in London in 1645, 1658, 1665, and 1669. Although basically still Aristotelian, this work shows the strong influence of Descartes and contains a positive assessment of Galileo’s Two New Sciences, which was still relatively unknown in England at the time. It also contains a form of mechanical atomism, which, however, is different to those of Epicure or Descartes.


Digby’s most controversial work was his A late discourse made in solemne assembly … touching the cure of wounds by the powder of sympathy, originally published in French in 1658 and then translated into English in the same year. This was a discourse that Digby had held publicly in Montpellier during his recuperation there.


This was a variation on Weapon Salve, an ointment that was applied to the weapon that caused a wound rather than to the wound itself. Digby was by no means the first to write positively about this supposed cure. It has its origins in the theories of Paracelsus and the Paracelsian physician Rudolph Goclenius the Younger (1572–1621), professor at the University of Marburg, first published on it in his Oratio Qua defenditur Vulnus Non Applicato Etiam Remedio, in 1608. In England the divine William Forster (born 1591), the physician and alchemist Robert Fludd (1574–1637), and the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626) all wrote about it before Digby, but it was Digby’s account that attracted the most attention and ridicule. In 1687, an anonymous pamphlet suggested using it to determine longitude. A dog would be wounded with a blade and placed aboard a ship before it sailed. Then every day at noon the weapon salve would be applied to the blade causing the dog to react, thus tell those on board that it was noon at their point of departure. 

Also in 1658, John Wallis dedicated his Commercium epistolicum to Digby who was also author of some of the letters it contained.

John Wallis by Sir Godfrey Kneller Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1657, Wallis had published his Arithmetica Infinitorum, an important contribution to the development of calculus.


Digby brought the book to the attention of Pierre Fermat and Bernard Frénicle de Bessy (c. 1604 – 1674) in France, Fermat wrote a letter to the English mathematician, posing a series of problems to be solved. Wallis and William Brouncker (1620–1684), who would later become the first president of the Royal Society, took up the challenge and an enthusiastic exchange of views developed between the French and English mathematicians, with Digby acting as conduit for the correspondence. Wallis collected the letter together and published them as his Commercium epistolicum

As already stated, A discourse concerning the vegetation of plants was Digby’s final publication and was to some extent his most interesting. Digby was interested in the question of how to revive dying plants and his approach was basically alchemical. He argued that saltpetre was necessary to the process of revival and that it attracted vital air, which is the food of the lungs. He is very obviously here close to discovering oxygen and in fact he supports his argument with the information that Cornelius Drebbel had used saltpetre to refresh the air in his submarine. In the paper he also hypothesises something very close to photosynthesis. Others such as Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580–1644) were conducting similar investigations at the time. These early investigations would lead on in the eighteenth century to the work of Stephen Hales (1677–1761) and the pneumatic chemists of the eighteenth century. 

Digby made no major contributions to the advancement of science, but he played a central role as facilitator and mediator between groups of philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists promoting and stimulating discussions in both France and England in the first half of the seventeenth century. He also played an important role in raising the awareness in England of the works of Descartes and Galileo. Although largely forgotten today, he was in his own time a respected member of the scientific community.

Digby is best remembered, today, for two things, his paper on the powder of sympathy, which I dealt with above, and his cookbook, to which I will now return. The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened was first published posthumously by one of his servants in 1669 and has gone through numerous editions down to the present day, where it is regarded as a very important text on Early Modern food history. However, this was only one part of his voluminous recipe collection. Two other parts were also published posthumously. Choice and experimental receipts in physick and chirugery was first published in 1668 and went through numerous editions and translation by 1700, and A choice collection of rare chymical secrets and experiments in philosophy first published in 1682, which also saw many editions. What we have here is not three separate recipe collections covering respectively nutrition, medicine, and alchemy but three elements of a related recipe spectrum. We find a similar convolute in the work of Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh (1615–1691), Robert Boyle’s sister, an alchemist/chemist in her own right and an acquaintance of Digby’s. 

There is little doubt in my mind that Sir Kenelm Digby Kt. was one of the most fascinating figures of the seventeenth century, a century rich in fascinating figures. 

As was also believed when he died on his birthday in 1665, his epitaph read

‘Under this Tomb the Matchless Digby lies;

Digby the Great, the Valiant, and the Wise:

The Ages Wonder for His Nobel Parts;

Skill’d in Six Tongues, and Learn’d in All the Arts.

Born on the Day He Dy’d, Th’Eleventh of June,

And that Day Bravely Fought at Scanderoun.

‘Tis Rare, that one and the same Day should be

His Day of Birth, of Death, and Victory.’


Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Chemistry, History of Mathematics, History of science


Oh dear! The HISTSCI_HULK has been woken from his post festive slumbers and is once again on the rampage. What has provoked this outbreak so early in the new year? He chanced to see a post, that one of my followers on Facebook had linked to, celebrating Newton’s new-style birthday on 4 January. As is well-known, we here at the Renaissance Mathematicus celebrate Newton’s old-style birthday, but that’s another story. 

The post is on a website called Wonders of Physics, is the work of an Indian physicist, Vedang Sati, and is titled:

10 Discoveries By Newton That Changed The World

I have reproduced the whole horror show below. Let us examine it.

Isaac Newton is one of the few names that will forever be enshrined in physics history and that too with a lot of glamour associated. Contributions of none other physicist match, his, well, Einstein’s, or not even his!? The following are Newton’s ten most well-known works that changed the world later on. 

A strong hagiographical vibe going down here, which doesn’t bode well.

Laws of motion

1. An object will remain at rest or move in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force.

2. F=ma.

3. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

Newton’s three laws of motion, along with thermodynamics, stimulated the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Much of the society built today owes to these laws.

Remember these are supposedly the things that Newton discovered. His first law of motion, the law of inertia, was first formulated by Galileo, who, however, thought it only applied to circular motion. For linear motion it was first formulated by Isaac Beeckman and taken over from him by both René Descartes and Pierre Gassendi. Newton took it from Descartes. The second law, which was actually slightly different in the original form in which Newton used it, was taken from Christiaan Huygens. The third law was probably developed out of the studies of elastic and inelastic collision, which again originates by Descartes, who got much wrong which was corrected by both Huygens and Newton. Newton’s contribution was to combine them as axioms from which to deduce his mechanics, again probably inspired by Huygens. He tried out various combinations of a range of laws before settling on these three. Sati’s following statement is quite frankly bizarre, whilst not totally false. What about the Principia, where they occur, as the foundation of classical mechanics and perhaps more importantly celestial mechanics.

Binomial Theorem

Around 1665, Isaac Newton discovered the Binomial Theorem, a method to expand the powers of sum of two terms. He generalized the same in 1676. The binomial theorem is used in probability theory and in the computing sciences.

The binomial theorem has a very long history stretching back a couple of thousand years before Newton was born. The famous presentation of the binomial coefficients, known as Pascal’s Triangle, which we all learnt in school (didn’t we?), was known both to Indian and Chinese mathematicians in the Middle Ages. Newton contribution was to expand the binomial theorm to the so-called general form, valid for any rational exponent. 

Inverse square law

By using Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, Newton derived the inverse square law of gravity. This means that the force of gravity between two objects is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centers. This law is used to launch satellites into space.

I covered this so many times, it’s getting boring. Let’s just say the inverse square law of gravity was derived/hypothesized by quite a few people in the seventeenth century, of whom Newton was one. His achievement was to show that the inverse square law of gravity and Kepler’s third law of planetary motion are mathematically equivalent, which as the latter in derived empirically means that the former is true. Newton didn’t discover the inverse square law of gravity he proved it.

Newton’s cannon

Newton was a strong supporter of Copernican Heliocentrism. This was a thought experiment by Newton to illustrate orbit or revolution of moon around earth (and hence, earth around the Sun)

He imagined a very tall mountain at the top of the world on which a cannon is loaded. If too much gunpowder is used, then the cannon ball will fly into space. If too little is used, then the ball wouldn’t travel far. Just the right amount of powder will make the ball orbit the Earth. 

This thought experiment was in Newton’s De mundi systemate, a manuscript that was an originally more popular draft of what became the third book of the Principia. The rewritten and expanded published version was considerably more technical and mathematical. Of course, it has nothing to do with gunpowder, but with velocities and forces. Newton is asking when do the inertial force and the force of gravity balance out, leading to the projectile going into orbit. It has nothing to do directly with heliocentricity, as it would equally apply to a geocentric model, as indeed the Moon’s orbit around the Earth is. De mundi systemate was first published in Latin and in an English translation, entitled A Treatise of the System of the World posthumously in 1728, so fifty years after the Principia, making it at best an object of curiosity and not in any way world changing. 


Newton invented the differential calculus when he was trying to figure out the problem of accelerating body. Whereas Leibniz is best-known for the creation of integral calculus. The calculus is at the foundation of higher level mathematics. Calculus is used in physics and engineering, such as to improve the architecture of buildings and bridges.

This really hurts. Newton and Leibniz both collated and codified systems of calculus that included both differential and integral calculus. Neither of them invented it. Both of them built on a two-thousand-year development of the discipline, which I have sketch in a blog post here. On the applications of calculus, I recommend Steven Strogatz’s “Infinite Powers”


Newton was the first to understand the formation of rainbow. He also figured out that white light was a combination of 7 colors. This he demonstrated by using a disc, which is painted in the colors, fixed on an axis. When rotated, the colors mix, leading to a whitish hue.

In the fourteenth century both the German Theodoric of Freiberg and the Persian Kamal al-Din al-Farsi gave correct theoretical explanations of the rainbow, independently of one another. They deliver an interesting example of multiple discovery, and that scientific discoveries can get lost and have to be made again. In the seventeenth century the correct explanation was rediscovered by Marco Antonio de Dominis, whose explanation of the secondary rainbow was not quite right. A fully correct explanation was then delivered by René Descartes. 

That white light is in fact a mixture of the colours of the spectrum was indeed a genuine Newton discovery, made with a long series of experiments using prisms and then demonstrated the same way. Newton’s paper on his experiments was his first significant publication and, although hotly contested, established his reputation. It was indeed Newton, who first named seven colours in the spectrum, there are in fact infinitely many, which had to do with his arcane theories on harmony. As far as can be ascertained the Newton Disc was first demonstrated by Pieter van Musschenbroek in 1762. 

Reflecting Telescope

In 1666, Newton imagined a telescope with mirrors which he finished making two years later in 1668. It has many advantages over refracting telescope such as clearer image, cheap cost, etc.

Once again, the reflecting telescope has a long and complicated history and Newton was by no means the first to try and construct one. However, he was the first to succeed in constructing one that worked. I have an article that explains that history here.

Law of cooling

His law states that the rate of heat loss in a body is proportional to the difference in the temperatures between the body and its surroundings. The more the difference, the sooner the cup of tea will cool down.

Whilst historically interesting, Newton’s law of cooling holds only for very small temperature differences. It didn’t change the world

Classification of cubics

Newton found 72 of the 78 “species” of cubic curves and categorized them into four types. In 1717, Scottish mathematician James Stirling proved that every cubic was one of these four types.

Of all the vast amount of mathematics that Newton produced, and mostly didn’t publish, to choose his classification of cubics as one of his 10 discoveries that changed the world is beyond bizarre. 


At that time, alchemy was the equivalent of chemistry. Newton was very interested in this field apart from his works in physics. He conducted many experiments in chemistry and made notes on creating a philosopher’s stone.

Newton could not succeed in this attempt but he did manage to invent many types of alloys including a purple copper alloy and a fusible alloy (Bi, Pb, Sn). The alloy has medical applications (radiotherapy).

Here we have a classic example of the Newton was really doing chemistry defence, although he does admit that Newton made notes on creating a philosopher’s stone. If one is going to call any of his alloys, world changing, then surely it should be speculum, an alloy of copper and tin with a dash of arsenic, which Newton created to make the mirror for his reflecting telescope, and which was used by others for this purpose for the next couple of centuries.

Of course, the whole concept of a greatest discovery hit list for any scientist is totally grotesque and can only lead to misconceptions about how science actually develops. However, if one is going to be stupid enough to produce one, then one should at least get one’s facts rights. Even worse is that things like the classification of the cubics or Newton’s Law of Cooling are anything but greatest discoveries and in no way “changed the world.” 

You might wonder why I take the trouble to criticise this website, but the author has nearly 190,000 followers on Facebook and he is by no means the only popular peddler of crap in place of real history of science on the Internet. I often get the feeling that I and my buddy the HISTSCI_HULK are a latter-day King Cnut trying to stem the tide of #histSTM bullshit. 


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science, Newton