Category Archives: History of Technology

A masterclass in wide-ranging narrative history

 Long ago in another life, when I first became interested in, involved in, began learning, the history of science, the classic texts one was supposed to have read where all big books. Big theme books, big in scope and big in message. They covered deep periods of time and extensive areas of the evolution of a branch of science. All the big names had at least one big book and often more than one. Over time the big book went out of fashion, too general, too concentrated on big names and big events. They became replaced with close, detailed studies of one aspect of one corner of one discipline. 

Over the years, the Welsh historian of science, Iwan Rhys Morus has written a series of detailed studies of various aspects of nineteenth-century British science, in particular detailing the history of electricity. 2005 saw When Physics Became King (University of Chicago Press), 2011, Shocking Bodies: Life, Death & Electricity in Victorian England (The history Press), 2017, Michael Faraday and the Electrical Century (Icon Books), also 2017, Willian Robert Grove: Victorian Gentleman of Science (University of Wales press, and most recently, 2019, Nikola Tesla and the Electric Future (Icon Books) (reviewed here), with a raft of papers to similar topics both in journals and collected volumes in between. Now he has written and published as big book and what a book it is, How the Victorians Took Us to the MoonThe Story of the 19th-Centuiry Innovators Who Forged Our Future[1], covering as it does a very wide range of science and technology throughout the nineteenth century, it is an absolute master class in how to write wide-ranging, big theme, narrative history. 

Morus weaves internal history of science and technology together with the political, social, and cultural histories of science and technology into a single multidimensional, narrative strand that in not quite three hundred pages gives a densely packed, comprehensive overview of the development of the two disciplines in the nineteenth-century United Kingdom. A narrative that pulls the reader into that century and lets them breathe in the excitement and expectation that sparkles and crackles in the air generated by the future visionaries of Victorian Britain. 

The book is structured chronologically on two different but interrelated levels.  Each of the chapters, which are perhaps better described as sections, deals with a different aspect of the developments in the nineteenth century but taken together they describe an arc beginning in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries science wars between the old guard Baconian naturalists gathered around Sir Joseph Banks, a gentleman’s club that dominated the Royal Society, Britain’s leading scientific institution, on the one side and the younger generation of Cambridge University mathematical scientists led by Charles Babbage and John Herschel, who believed that science should be carried out by those with expertise and not those with social privilege. Travelling topic by topic through the century the arc closes with the advent of powered, heavier than air flight at the end of the nineteenth century, beginning of the twentieth century. However, within each topic there is a second chronological arc tracing the development of that topic from its early gleam in the eyes of its initial innovators through to its final fruition as a successful trendsetting, future defining technology. 

The book opens with a science fiction vignette, describing the launch of the first British moon-landing mission in 1909 and closes with its successful return. Here Morus displays a quality of narrative writing that he maintains throughout the main text of the book, making it a pleasure to read, as well as both an entertaining and highly informative discourse. 

Following the opening chapter with its description of the war between the Banksian gentlemen of science and the Cambridge mathematical men of science, Morus takes to another arena of conflict between the much-heralded engineers such as the Stephensons and Brunels, who shaped the infrastructure of the Victorian future with their railways, ships, bridges and tunnels, and the craftsmen who actually constructed those railway lines, tunnels, and bridges. Morus delivers here a fine demolition of the big names, big events style of historiography. 

The third chapter illustrates the efforts to tame the new technology of electricity by fitting it with a solid quantified scientific corset. Defining the standards for the units of electrical potential, force and resistance and the laboratories and their researchers that grew out of those endeavours. Chapter four takes us into the wonderful world of the Victorian scientific and technological exhibitions in which innovators and inventors competed in their endeavours to persuade the general public and those in power to back their latest concepts designed to shape the future. Here we have everything from shop style exhibition spaces on the high street to the legendary spectacle that was the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations held in the specially constructed Crystal Palace.  

Chapter five is an object lesson in how quickly times change. It leads off with the euphoria that followed the introduction of the railways and how steam power was going to shape and revolutionise the future. A euphoria that was quickly pushed out of the way and replaced with exaltations for a future powered by the newest trend in energy, electricity. Both this and the previous chapter, on exhibitions, bring one of the book’s central themes to the fore, how the Victorians shaped their visions of the future based on emerging technology. 

Chapter six deals with one of the great technological leaps of the nineteenth century, long distance communication. Electrical signals, first through wires, the telegraph and then the telephone and finally through the air with the wireless telegraph. Here another central theme of the book is emphasised the role played by the British Empire, in nineteenth-century Britain, in the production of new technologies, and in the marketing and exploitation. The Empire provided much of the raw materials needed to produce new technologies and a world-wide market where the inventors and innovators could maximise their profits. Technologies such as the telegraph and wireless telegraphy were, of course, useful tools to control and govern the Empire.

Another useful tool for those in control and governance that came into general use in the nineteenth century were the mechanical and later electro-mechanical calculators. Chapter seven, which deals with those development, features one of my personal favourite Victorians, Charles Babbage, who had major vision for his computing machines, vision that would only be truly realised in our own computer age. However, the slightly simpler calculating machines provided the politicians with a tool to develop the realm of social statistics and plan for the future. 

As, stated earlier, the closing chapter deals with the history of manned flight. It was only in 1783 that the world saw the advent of unmanned and manned flights with both hot air and hydrogen balloons. The nineteenth century saw attempts to first power and steer balloons, rather than just letting them drift on the whims of the wind and then latter the development of the heavier than air aeroplane, including early plans to build steam powered flying machines. 

The book closes with an epilogue that opens with the account of the return of the successful British moon landing expedition that opened the book. Morus then poses the question, whether the Victorians really could have staged a Moon landing? The answer is of course no, but is it? As Morus tells us:

In that sense, at least, the Victorians really did take us to the Moon. When Apollo 11 took off from the Kennedy Space Center on 16 July 1969 – just 60 years after the scene imagined after the scene imagined at the beginning of this book – and when the Eagle landed on the lunar surface on 20 July, it really was the culmination of a technological fantasy that began with the Victorians. What this book has tried to describe is the emergence during the course of the nineteenth century of new ways of thinking of thinking about and organising science that were directed at the future in a wholly new and unprecedented way, and some of the consequences of that reorientation. It is, by and large, the way we think about and organise science now, and the book is also an invitation to think what it means that we still do things the Victorian.

Page 287

This paragraph summarises Morus’ book far better than I ever could in fact the entire epilogue is a better review of the book than the one that I’ve written. Maybe I should just have scanned and posted it instead.

The book is well illustrated with the now ubiquitous grayscale picture, which Victorian media delivers lots of. There are extensive end notes listing the sources used but, as has become quite common in recent years, there is no separate bibliography. The book closes with an excellent index. 

The title of this blog post reveals quite clearly what I think about this book but I’m now going to double down on it. Morus is a truly excellent writer and he has obviously invested much effort and thought in producing this jewel of a book. I have grown old and now read very slowly but I have had my nose stuck in a book since I was three years old and have over the decades read literally hundred of tomes. From time to time in my perusal of the world’s literature I have stumbled across a book that has left the deepest of impression on me. Such volumes are rare and with Iwan Morus’ latest publication I have added a new one to that brief list. If you study nineteenth century British history this book should be obligatory. As a case study for historians of science and/or technology it should probably also be obligatory. If you just like reading accessible, good quality, well written history books then you will love this one, so just acquire a copy and enjoy. 

[1] Iwan Rhys Morus, How the Victorians Took Us to the MoonThe Story of the 19th-Centuiry Innovators Who Forged Our Future, Icon Books, London, 2022

1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, History of Technology

Renaissance Science – XLVIII

Using the simplest and widest definition as to what constitutes a scientific instrument, it is literally impossible to say who first created, devised, used a scientific instrument or when and where they did it. My conjecture would be that the first scientific instrument was some sort of measuring device, a rod, or a cord to standardise a unit of measurement, almost certainly taken from the human body: a forearm, the length of a stride or pace, maybe a foot, a unit that we still use today. It is obviously that all the early great civilisation, Indus valley, Yellow River, Yangtze River, Fertile Crescent and so on, definitely used measuring devices, possibly observational devices, instruments to measure or lay out angles, simple compasses to construct circles, all of them probably as much to do with architecture and surveying, as with anything we might now label science.

This is the Royal cubit rod of Amenemope – a 3320-year-old measuring rod which revealed that Egyptians used units of measurement taken from the human body. The basic unit was the cubit – the length from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, about 45cm. Source: British Museum

Did the early astronomers in China, India, Babylon use some sorts of instruments to help them make their observations? We know that later people used sighting tubes, like a telescope without the lenses, to improve the quality of their observations, did those first astronomers already use something similar. Simple answer, we don’t really know, we can only speculate. We do know that Indian astronomers used a quadrant in their observation of solar eclipses around 1000 BCE. 

Turning to the Ancient Greeks we initially have a similar lack of knowledge. The first truly major Greek astronomer Hipparkhos (c. 190–c. 120 BCE) (Latin Hipparchus) definitely used astronomical instruments but we have no direct account of his having done so. Our minimal information of his instruments comes from later astronomers, such as Ptolemaios (c. 100–c. 170 CE). Ptolemaios tells us in his Mathēmatikē Syntaxis aka Almagest that Hipparkhos made observations with an equatorial ring.

The easiest way to understand the use of an equatorial ring is to imagine a ring placed vertically in the east-west plane at the Earth’s equator. At the time of the equinoxes, the Sun will rise precisely in the east, move across the zenith, and set precisely in the west. Throughout the day, the bottom half of the ring will be in the shadow cast by the top half of the ring. On other days of the year, the Sun passes to the north or south of the ring, and will illuminate the bottom half. For latitudes away from the equator, the ring merely needs to be placed at the correct angle in the equatorial plane. At the Earth’s poles, the ring would be horizontal. Source: Wikipedia

At another point in the book Ptolemaios talks of making observations with an armillary sphere and compares his observations with those of Hipparkhos, leading some to think that Hipparkhos also used an armillary sphere. Toomer in his translation of the Almagest say there is no foundation for this speculation and that Hipparkhos probably used a dioptra. [1]

Ptolemaios mentions four astronomical instruments in his book, all of which are for measuring angles: 

1) A double ring device and

Toomer p. 61

2) a quadrant both used to determine the inclination of the ecliptic.

Toomer p. 62

3) The armillary sphere, which he confusingly calls an astrolabe, used to determine sun-moon configurations. 

Toomer p. 218

4) His parallactic rulers, used to determine the moon’s parallax, which was called a triquetrum in the Middle Ages. 

Toomer p. 245

Ptolemaios almost certainly also used a dioptra a simple predecessor to the theodolite used for measuring angles both in astronomy and in surveying. As I outlined in the post on surveying, ancient cultures were also using instruments to carry out land measuring.

Graphic reconstruction of the dioptra, by Venturi, in 1814. (An incorrect interpretation of Heron’s description) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Around the same time as the armillary sphere began to emerge in ancient Greece it also began to emerge in China, with the earliest single ring device probably being used in the first century BCE. By the second century CE the complete armillary sphere had evolved ring by ring. When the armillary sphere first evolved in India is not known, but it was in full used by the time of Āryabhata in the fifth century CE.

Armillary sphere at Beijing Ancient Observatory, replica of an original from the Ming Dynasty

A parallel development to the armillary sphere was the celestial globe, a globe of the heavens marked with the constellations. In Greece celestial globes predate Ptolemaios but none of the early ones have survived.  In his Almagest, Ptolemaios gives instruction on how to produce celestial globes. Chinese celestial globes also developed around the time of their armillary spheres but, once again, none of the early ones have survived. As with everything else astronomical, the earliest surveying evidence for celestial globes in India is much later than Greece or China.

The Farnese Atlas holding a celestial globe is the oldest known surviving celestial globe dating from the second century CE Source: Wikimedia Commons

In late antiquity the astrolabe emerged, its origins are still not really clear. Ptolemaios published a text on the planisphere, the stereographic projection used to create the climata in an astrolabe and still used by astronomers for star charts today. The earliest references to the astrolabe itself are from Theon of Alexandria (c. 335–c. 414 CE). All earlier claims to existence or usage of astrolabes are speculative. No astrolabes from antiquity are known to have survived. The earliest surviving astrolabe is an Islamic instrument dated AH 315 (927-28 CE).

North African, 10th century AD, Planispheric Astrolabe Khalili Collection via Wikimedia Commons

Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages saw a steady decline in the mathematical sciences and with it a decline in the production and use of most scientific instruments in Europe until the disappeared almost completely. 

When the rapidly expanding Arabic Empire began filing their thirst for knowledge across a wide range of subjects by absorbing it from Greek, Indian and Chinese sources, as well as the mathematical disciplines they also took on board the scientific instruments. They developed and perfected the astrolabe, producing hundreds of both beautiful and practical multifunctional instruments. 

As well large-scale astronomical quadrants they produced four different types of handheld instruments. In the ninth century, the sine or sinical quadrant for measuring celestial angles and for doing trigonometrical calculations was developed by Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī. In the fourteenth century, the universal (shakkāzīya) quadrant used for solving astronomical problems for any latitude. Like astrolabes, quadrants are latitude dependent and unlike astrolabes do not have exchangeable climata. Origin unknown, but the oldest known example is from 1300, is the horary quadrant, which enables the uses to determine the time using the sun. An equal hours horary quadrant is latitude dependent, but an unequal hours one can be used anywhere, but its use entails calculations. Again, origin unknown, is the astrolabe quadrant, basically a reduced astrolabe in quadrant form. There are extant examples from twelfth century Egypt and fourteenth century Syria.

Horary quadrant for a latitude of about 51.5° as depicted in an instructional text of 1744: To find the Hour of the Day: Lay the thread just upon the Day of the Month, then hold it till you slip the small Bead or Pin-head [along the thread] to rest on one of the 12 o’Clock Lines; then let the Sun shine from the Sight G to the other at D, the Plummet hanging at liberty, the Bead will rest on the Hour of the Day. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Astrolabic quadrant, made of brass; made for latitude 33 degrees 30 minutes (i.e. Damascus); inscription on the front saying that the quadrant was made for the ‘muwaqqit’ (literally: the timekeeper) of the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus. AH 734 (1333-1334 CE) British Museum

Islamicate astronomers began making celestial globes in the tenth century and it is thought that al-Sufi’s Book of the Constellations was a major source for this development. However, the oldest surviving Islamic celestial globe made by Ibrahim Ibn Saîd al-Sahlì in Valencia in the eleventh century show no awareness of the forty-eight Greek constellations of al-Sufi’s book.

Islamicate mathematical scholars developed and used many scientific instruments and when the developments in the mathematical sciences that they had made began to filter into Europe during the twelfth century scientific renaissance those instruments also began to become known in Europe. For example, the earliest astrolabes to appear in Europe were on the Iberian Peninsula, whilst it was still under Islamic occupation.  

Canterbury Astrolabe Quadrant 1388 Source Wikimedia Commons
Astrolabe of Jean Fusoris, made in Paris, 1400 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The medieval period in Europe saw a gradual increase in the use of scientific instruments, both imported and locally manufactured, but the use was still comparatively low level. There was some innovation, for example the French Jewish scholar, Levi ben Geshon (1288–1344), published the first description of the cross staff or Jacob’s staff, used in astronomy, surveying, and navigation, in his Book of the Wars of the Lord (originally in Hebrew but also translated into Latin). 

…of a staff of 4.5 feet (1.4 m) long and about one inch (2.5 cm) wide, with six or seven perforated tablets which could slide along the staff, each tablet being an integral fraction of the staff length to facilitate calculation, used to measure the distance between stars or planets, and the altitudes and diameters of the Sun, Moon and stars

A Jacob’s staff, from John Sellers’ Practical Navigation (1672) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Also, the magnetic compass came into use in Europe in the twelfth century, first mentioned by Alexander Neckam (1157–1217) in his De naturis rerum at the end of the century.

The sailors, moreover, as they sail over the sea, when in cloudy whether they can no longer profit by the light of the sun, or when the world is wrapped up in the darkness of the shades of night, and they are ignorant to what point of the compass their ship’s course is directed, they touch the magnet with a needle, which (the needle) is whirled round in a circle until, when its motion ceases, its point looks direct to the north.

Petrus Pereginus (fl. 1269) gave detailed descriptions of both the floating compass and the dry compass in his Epistola de magnete

However, it was first in the Renaissance that a widespread and thriving culture of scientific instrument design, manufacture, and usage really developed. The steep increase in scientific instrument culture was driving by the substantial parallel developments in astronomy, navigation, surveying, and cartography that began around fourteen hundred that I have already outlined in previous episodes of this series. Renaissance scientific instrument culture is too large a topic to cover in detail in one blog post, so I’ll only do a sketch of some major points and themes with several links to other earlier related posts.

Already, the first Viennese School of Mathematics, which was heavily involved in the development of both astronomy and cartography was also a source of scientific instrument design and manufacture.Johannes von Gmunden (c. 1380–1442) had a notable collection of instruments including an Albion, a multipurpose instrument conceived by Richard of Wallingford (1292–1336).

Albion front side Source: Seb Falk’s Twitter feed
Albion rear Source: Seb Falk’s Twitter feed

Georg von Peuerbach (1423–1461) produced several instruments most notably the earliest portable sundial marked for magnetic declination.

Folding sundial by Georg von Peuerbach

His pupil Regiomontanus (1436–1476) wrote a tract on the construction and use of the astrolabe and there is an extant instrument from 1462 dedicated to Cardinal Bessarion and signed IOHANNES, which is assumed to have been made by him. At least eleven other Regiomontanus style astrolabes from the fifteenth century are known.

Regiomontanus style astrolabe Source: Wikimedia Commons

Elements of his design were adopted by both Johannes Stöffler (1452–1531), the first professor of astronomy at the University of Tübingen, and by the Nürnberger mathematicus Georg Hartmann (1489–1564).

Stöffler also made celestial globes and an astronomical clock.

Celestial Globe, Johannes Stöffler, 1493; Landesmuseum Württemberg Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mechanical astronomical clocks began to emerge in Europe in the fourteenth century, but it would not be until the end of the sixteenth century that mechanical clocks became accurate enough to be used as scientific instruments. The earliest clockmaker, who reached this level of accuracy being the Swiss instrument maker, Jost Bürgi (1552–1632)

Bürgi made numerous highly elaborate and very decorative mechanical clocks, mechanised globes and mechanised armillary spheres that were more collectors items for rich patrons rather than practical instruments.

Bürgi Quartz Clock 1622-27
Source: Swiss Physical Society

This illustrates another driving force behind the Renaissance scientific instrument culture. The Renaissance mathematicus rated fairly low in the academical hierarchy, actually viewed as a craftsman rather than an academic. This made finding paid work difficult and they were dependent of rich patrons amongst the European aristocracy. It became a standard method of winning the favour of a patron to design a new instrument, usually a modification of an existing one, making an elaborate example of it and presenting it to the potential patron. The birth of the curiosity cabinets, which often also included collections of high-end instruments was also a driving force behind the trend. Many leading instrument makers produced elaborate, high-class instruments for such collections. Imperial courts in Vienna, Prague, and Budapest employed court instrument makers. For example, Erasmus Habermel (c. 1538–1606) was an incredibly prolific instrument maker, who became instrument maker to Rudolf II. A probable relative Josua Habermel (fl. 1570) worked as an instrument maker in southern Germany, eventually moving to Prague, where he probably worked in the workshop of Erasmus.

 1594 armillary sphere by Erasmus Habermel of Prague.

Whereas from Theon onwards, astrolabes were unique, individual, instruments, very often beautiful ornaments as well as functioning instruments, Georg Hartmann was the first instrument maker go into serial production of astrolabes. Also, Hartmann, although he didn’t invent them, was a major producer of printed paper instruments. These could be cut out and mounted on wood to produce cheap, functional instruments for those who couldn’t afford the expensive metal ones. 

Hartmann astrolabe front
Hartmann astrolabe rear
Paper and Wood Astrolabe Hartmann Source: HSM Oxford

Hartmann lived and worked in Nürnberg, which as I have sketched in an earlier post, was for more than a century the scientific instrument capital of Europe with a massive produce of instruments of all sorts.

One of the most beautiful sets on instruments manufactured in Nürnberg late 16th century. Designed by Johannes Pretorius (1537–1616), professor for astronomy at the Nürnberger University of Altdorf and manufactured by the goldsmith Hans Epischofer (c. 1530–1585) Germanische National Museum

As well as astrolabes and his paper instruments Hartmann also produced printed globes, none of which have survived. Another Nürnberger mathematicus, Johannes Schöner (1477–1547) launched the printed pairs of terrestrial and celestial globes onto the market.

Celestial Globe by Johannes Schöner c. 1534 Source

His innovation was copied by Gemma Frisius (1508–1555), whose student Gerard Mercator (1512–1594) took up globe making on a large scale, launching the seventeenth century Dutch globe making industry. 

Gemma Frisius set up a workshop producing a range of scientific instruments together with his nephew (?) Gualterus Arsenius (c. 1530–c. 1580).  

Astronomical ring dial Gualterus Arsenius Source

In France, Oronce Fine (1494–1555), a rough contemporary, who was appointed professor at the Collège Royal, was also influenced by Schöner in his cartography and like the Nürnberger was a major instrument maker. In Italy, Egnatio Danti (1536–1586) the leading cosmographer was also the leading instrument maker. 

Egnation Danti, Astrolabe, ca. 1568, brass and wood. Florence, Museo di Storia della Scienza Source: Fiorani The Marvel of Maps p. 49

A major change during the Renaissance was the emergence, for the first time in Early Modern Europe, of large-scale astronomical observatories, Wilhelm IV (1532–1592) in Hessen-Kassel beginning in about 1560 and Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) on the Island of Hven beginning in 1575. Both men commissioned new instruments, many of which were substantially improved in comparison with their predecessors from antiquity.

Sternwarte im Astronomisch-Physikalischen Kabinett, Foto: MHK, Arno Hensmanns Reconstruction of Wilhelm’s observatory
Tycho Brahe, Armillary Sphere, 1581 Source
Tycho Brahe quadrant

Their lead was followed by others, the first Vatican observatory was established in the Gregorian Tower in 1580.

View on the Tower of Winds (Gregorian tower) in Vatican City (with the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in the background). Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the early seventeenth century, Leiden University in Holland established the first European university observatory and Christian Longomontanus (1562–1647), who had been Tycho’s chief assistant, established a university observatory in Copenhagen 

Drawing of Leiden Observatory in 1670, seen on top of the university building. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Copenhagen University Observatory Source: Wikimedia Commons

As in all things mathematical England lagged behind the continent but partial filled the deficit by importing instrument makers from the continent, the German Nicolas Kratzer (c. 1487–1550) and the Netherlander Thomas Gemini (c. 1510–1562). The first home grown instrument maker was Humfrey Cole (c. 1530­–1591). By the end of the sixteenth century, led by John Dee (1527–c. 1608), who studied in Louven with Frisius and Mercator, and Leonard Digges (c. 1515–c. 1559), a new generation of English instrument makers began to dominate the home market. These include Leonard’s son Thomas Digges (c. 1546–1595), William Bourne (c. 1535–1582), John Blagrave (d. 1611), Thomas Blundeville (c. 1522–c. 1606), Edward Wright (1561–1615), Emery Molyneux (d. 1598), Thomas Hood (1556–1620), Edmund Gunter (1581–1626) Benjamin Cole (1695–1766), William Oughtred (1574–1660), and others.

The Renaissance also saw a large amount of innovation in scientific instruments. The Greek and Chinese armillary spheres were large observational instruments, but the Renaissance armillary sphere was a table top instrument conceived to teach the basic of astronomy.

Armillary Sphere by Carlo Plato, Rome, 1588 Museum of the History of Science

In navigation the Renaissance saw the invention various variations of the backstaff, to determine solar altitudes.

Davis quadrant (backstaff), made in 1765 by Johannes Van Keulen. On display at the Musée national de la Marine in Paris. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Also new for the same purpose was the mariner’s astrolabe.

Mariner’s Astrolabe c. 1600 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Edmund Gunter (1581–1626) invented the Gunter scale or rule a multiple scale (logarithmic, trigonometrical) used to solve navigation calculation just using dividers.

Gunter scale front
Gunter scale back Source

William Oughtred (1574–1660) combined two Gunter scales to produce the slide rule.

New in surveying were the surveyor’s chain,

A Gunter chain photographed at Campus Martius Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons

the plane table,

Surveying with plane table and surveyor’s chain

the theodolite

Theodolite 1590 Source:

and the circumferentor.

18th century circumferentor

All of which were of course also used in cartography. Another Renaissance innovation was sets of drawing instruments for the cartographical, navigational etc draughtsmen.

Drawing instruments Bartholomew Newsum, London c. 1570 Source

The biggest innovation in instruments in the Renaissance, and within its context one of the biggest instrument innovation in history, were of course the telescope and the microscope, the first scientific instruments that not only aided observations but increased human perception enabling researchers to perceive things that were previously hidden from sight. Here is a blog post over the complex story of the origins of the telescope and one over the unclear origins of the microscope.

The Renaissance can be viewed as the period when instrumental science began to come of age. 

[1] The information on Ptolemaios’ instruments and the diagrams are taken from Ptolemy’s Almagest, translated and annotated by G. J. Toomer, Princeton Paperbacks, 1998


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation, History of Technology, Renaissance Science

Renaissance science – XLV

70.8% of the earth’s surface is covered by the world ocean; we normally divide it up–Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, etc.– but they are all interconnected in one giant water mass.

The world ocean Source: Wikimedia Commons

Only 29.2% of the surface is land but, on that land, there are many enclosed seas, lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams so there is even more water. The human body is about 60% water, and humans are sometimes referred to as a water-based life form. The statistics are variable, but a healthy human can exist between one and two months without food but only two to four days without water. Brought to a simple formular, water is life.

When humans first began to settle, they did so on or near sources of water–lake shores, streams, rivers, natural springs. Where there was no obvious water supply people began to dig wells, there are wells dating back to 6500 BCE. As settlements grew the problem of water supply and sewage disposal became important and the profession of water manager or hydraulic engineer came into existence. Channelling of fresh water and sewage disposal, recycling of wastewater etc. Initial all of this was powered by gravity but over time other systems of moving water, such as the bucket water wheel or noria were developed for lifting water from one channel into another, appearing in Egypt around the fourth century BCE.

Close-up of the Noria do Mouchão Portugal Source: Wikimedia Commons

Probably the most spectacular surviving evidence of the water management in antiquity are the massive aqueducts built by Roman engineers to bring an adequate supply of drinking water to the Roman settlements. Alone the city of Rome had eleven aqueducts built between 312 BCE and 226 CE, the shortest of which the Aqua Appia from 312 BCE was 16.5 km long with a capacity of 73,000 m3 per day and the longest the Aqua Anio Novus from 52 CE was 87 km long with a capacity of 189,000 m3 per day. The Aqua Alexandrina from 226 CE was only 22 km long but had a capacity of 120,00 to 320,000 m3 per day.

Panorama view of the Roman Aqueduct of Segovia in 2014 Built first century CE originally 17 kilometres long Source Wikimedia Commons

The simplest water clock or clepsydra, a container with a hole in the bottom where the water was driven out by the force of gravity dates back to at least the sixteenth century BCE.

A reconstruction of the water clock used in ancient Greece (Museum of Ancient Agora/Athens) Figure 5: Water Clock/Clepsydra Source

It evolved over the centuries with complex feedback mechanism to keep the water level and thus the flow constant. Water clocks reach an extraordinary level of sophistication as illustrated by the Astronomical Clock Tower of Su Song (1020–1101 CE) in China

The original diagram of Su’s book showing the inner workings of his clocktower Source: Wikimedia Commons

and the Elephant Clock invented by the Islamic engineer al-Jazari (1136-1206). Al-Jazari invented many water powered devices.  

Al-Jazari’s elephant water clock (1206) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Much earlier the Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria (c. 10–c. 70 CE), as well as numerous devices driven by wind and steam, invented a stand-alone fountain that operates under self-contained hydro-static energy, known as Heron’s Fountain. 

Diagram of a functioning Heron’s fountain Source: Wikimedia Commons

All of the above is out of the realm of engineers. Another engineer Archimedes (c. 287–c. 212 BCE), is the subject of possibly the most well-known story in the history of science, one needs only utter the Greek word εὕρηκα (Eureka) to invoke visions of crowns of gold, bathtubs, and naked bearded man running through the streets shouting the word. In fact, you won’t find this story anywhere in Archimedes not insubstantial writings. The source of the story is in De architectura by Vitruvius (C. 80-70–after c. 15 BCE), so two hundred years after Archimedes lived. You can read the original in translation below:

Vitruvius “Ten Books on Architecture”, Ed. Ingrid D. Rowland & Thomas Noble Howard, (CUP, 1999) p. 108

However, Archimedes did write a book On Floating Bodies, which now only exists partially in Greek but in full in a medieval Latin translation. This book is the earliest known work of the branch of physics known as hydrostatics. It contains clear statement of two fundamental principles of hydrostatics, Firstly Archimedes’ principle:

Any body wholly or partially immersed in a fluid experiences an upward force (buoyancy) equal to the weight of the fluid displaced

Secondly the principle of floatation:

Any floating object displaces its own weight of fluid.

As well these two fundamental principles, he also discovered that a submerged object displaces a volume of water equal to its own volume. This is the discovery that led to the legendary of mythical Eureka incident. A crown of pure gold would have a different displacement volume to one of a gold and silver amalgam. The bath story was, as we will see later, highly implausible because it would be very, very difficult to measure the difference in the displaced volumes of water of the two crowns.

Whilst water management continued to develop through out the Middle Ages, with the invention of every better water mills etc., In the Renaissance the profession hydraulic engineer saw developments in two areas. Firstly, the increase in wealth and the development of residences saw the emergence of the Renaissance Garden. Large ornamental gardens the usually featured extensive and often spectacular water features.

Garden of Villa d’Este Tivoli (1550–1572) Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Renaissance mathematici employed by potentates and aristocrats were often expected to serve as hydraulic engineers alongside their other functions as instrument makers, astrologers etc. Secondly the major increase in mining for precious and semi-precious metals meant ever deeper mines, which brought with it the problem of pumping water out of the mines.

Archimedes’ On Floating Bodies was translated into Latin by William of Moerbeke (c. 1215–1286) in the thirteenth century and no complete Greek manuscript is known to exist. This translation was edited by Nicolò Tartaglia Fontana (c. 1506–1557) and published in print along with other works by Archimedes by Venturino Ruffinelli in Venice in 1543, as Opera Archimedis Syracvsani philosophi et mathematici ingeniosissimi

Opera Archimedis Syracvsani philosophi et mathematici ingeniosissimi1543 Source

The Nürnberger theologian and humanist Thomas Venatorius (1488–1551) edited the first printed edition of the Greek manuscripts of Archimedes, in a bilingual Greek/Latin edition, which was published in Basel by Johann Herwagen in 1544. The Greek manuscript had been brought to Nürnberg by the humanist scholar, Willibald Pirckheimer (1470–1530) from Rome and the Latin translation by Jacopo da Cremona (fl. 1450) was from the manuscript collection of Regiomontanus (1436-1476).


Venatorius claimed, in the foreword to the Archimedes edition to have studied mathematics under Johannes Schöner (1577–1547) but if then as a mature student in Nürnberg and not as a schoolboy. 

A reconstruction of On Floating Bodies was published by Federico Commandino (1509–1575) in Bologna in 1565. 


Tartaglia, who also produced an Italian edition of On floating Bodies, was the first Renaissance scholar to address Archimedes work on hydrostatics. It did not play a major role in his own work, but he was the first to draw attention to the relationship between the laws of fall and Archimedes’ thoughts on flotation. Tartaglia’s work was read by his one-time student, Giambattista Benedetti ((1530–1590), Galileo (1564–1642), and Simon Stevin (1548–1620), amongst other, and was almost certainly the introduction to Archimedes’ text for all three of them. 

Benedetti replaced Aristotle’s concepts of fall in a fluid directly with Archimedes’ ideas in his work on the laws of fall, equating resistance in the fluid with Archimedes’ upward force or buoyancy. This led him to his anticipations of Galileo’s work on the laws of fall. 

Moving onto Simon Stevin, who wrote a major work on hydrostatics, his De Beghinselen des Waterwichts (Principles on the weight of water) in 1586 and a never completed practical Preamble to the Practice of Hydrostatics.


One of Benedetti’s major works, Demonstratio propotionummotuum localiumcontra Aristotilem et omnes philosphos (1554) had been plagiarised by the French mathematician Jean Taisnier (1598–1562) Opusculum perpetua memoria dignissimum, de natura magnetis et ejus effectibus, Item de motu continuo (1562) and it was this that Stevin read rather than Benedetti’s original. Taisnier’s plagiarism was also translated into English by Richard Eden (c. 1520–1576) an alchemist and promotor of overseas exploration. Stevin a practical engineer ignored or rejected the equivalence between the laws of fall and the principle of buoyancy, concentrating instead on the relationship between flotation and the design of ship’s hulls. His major contribution was the so-called hydrostatic paradox often falsely attributed to Pascal. This states that the downward pressure exerted by a fluid in a vessel is only dependent on its depth and not on the width or length of the vessel. 

Of the three, Galileo is most well-known for his adherence to Archimedes. He clearly stated that in his natural philosophy he had replaced Aristotle with Archimedes as his ancient Greek authority, and this can be seen in his work. His very first work was an essay La Bilancetta (The Little Balance) written in 1586, but first published posthumously in 1644, which he presented to both Guidobaldo del Monte (1545–1607) and Christoph Clavius (1538–1612), both leading mathematical authorities, in the hope of winning their patronage. He was successful in both cases.

Galileo Galilei, La bilancetta, in Opere di Galileo Galilei (facsimile) Source:

Realising, that the famous bathtub story couldn’t actually have worked, Galileo tried to recreate how Archimedes might actually have done it. He devised a very accurate hydrostatic balance that would have made the discovery feasible. 

Later in life, when firmly established as court philosopher in Florence, Galileo was called upon by Cosimo II Medici to debate the principles of flotation with the Aristotelian physicist Lodovico delle Columbe (c. 1565–after 1623), as after dinner entertainment. As I have written before one of Galileo’s principal functions at the court in Florence was to provide such entertainment as a sort of intellectual court jester. Galileo was judged to have carried the day and his contribution to the debate was published in Italian, as Discorso intorno alle cose che stanno in su l’acqua, o che in quella si muovono, (Discourse on Bodies that Stay Atop Water, or Move in It) in 1612.


As was his wont, Galileo mocked his Aristotelian opponent is his brief essay, which brought him the enmity of the Northern Italian Aristotelians. Although Galileo’s approach to the topic was Archimedean, he couldn’t explain everything and not all that he said was correct. However, this little work enjoyed a widespread reception and was influential.

Our last Renaissance contribution to hydrostatics was made by Evangelista Torricelli (1608–1647), a student of Benedetto Castelli (1578–1643) himself a student of Galileo, and like Stevin’s work it came from the practical world rather than the world of science.

Evangelista Torricelli by Lorenzo Lippi Source: Wikimedia Commons

Torricelli was looking for a solution as to why a suction pump could only raise water to a hight of ten metres, as recounted in Galileo’s Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche, intorno a due nuove scienze (Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences) (1638), a major problem for the expanding deep mining industry, which needed to pump water out of its mines. Torricelli in his investigations invented the Torricellian tube, later called the barometer, with which he demonstrated that there was a limit to the height of a column of liquid that the weight of the atmosphere, or air pressure, could support.

Torricelli’s experiment Source: Wikimedia Commons

He also incidentally demonstrated the existence of a vacuum, something Aristotle said could not exist. 

Torricelli’s work marks the transition from Renaissance science to what is called modern science. Building on the work of Benedetti, Stevin, Galileo, and Torricelli, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) laid some of the modern foundation of hydrodynamics and hydrostatics, having a unit for pressure named after him and being sometimes falsely credited with discoveries that were actually made in the earlier phase by his predecessors. 

Painting of Pascal made by François II Quesnel for Gérard Edelinck in 1691. Source:Wikimedia Commons


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

Vision, Seeing Better, Seeing Further

In the normal blog post rotation, a book review should be due today. However, instead today’s post is a literature review, listing and describing books on the histories of the theories of vision, spectacles, and telescopes, with the latter coming first as they are the actual main theme of the review. I announced my intention to do this is response to a regular readers request, so long ago I’ve forgotten when, and I was recently reminded of that announcement when someone on Twitter asked me if one of the history of the telescope books, which I own is any good; it is as I will explain later.

The classical standard text on the early history of the telescope is Albert van Helden’s The Invention of the Telescope, which was first published as a paper in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society in 1977 but has long been available as a monograph, the second edition appearing in 2008 to celebrate the 400thanniversary of the invention of the telescope. 

Van Helden presents and analyses all of the early literature related to the emergence of the telescope in the first decade of the seventeenth century, as well as earlier descriptions of instruments similar to the telescope that proceeded it His text contains full quotes from the original literature in their source languages followed by English translations. It is justifiably called a classic and is a must read for anybody seriously studying the history of the telescope.

Van Helden’s text includes the historical references to Zacharias Janssen (1585–before 1632), as one of the candidates for the invention of the telescope. In 2008, there was a big conference in Middelburg, in the Netherlands, where the telescope first emerged, to celebrate that 400th anniversary; I was there! In the conference proceedings, The origins of the telescope (edited by Albert van Helden, Sven Dupré, Rob van Gent, Huib Zuidervaart, and published by KNAW Press, Amsterdam, 2010) there is a paper by Huib J. Zuidervaart, The ‘true inventor’ of the telescopeA survey of 400 years of debatewhich clearly shows that Zacharias Janssen was not an inventor of the telescope.

The entire proceedings contain an amazing collection of papers on all possible aspects of the history of the telescope by an all star cast of the world’s best historians of optics. It is available as a printed book but is also available as an open access e-book online.

The two books I’ve described so far only really deal with the origins of the telescope; we now turn our attention to books that delve further into the history of the telescope. A classic that is substantially older than van Helden’s The Invention of the Telescope is Henry King’s The History of the Telescope, which was originally published by Charles Griffin & Co. Ltd. In 1955 and then republished by Dover in 1979. 

It opens with a short chapter on the beginning of astronomical observation that is followed by an even shorter chapter on the history of lenses and optics that ends with Lipperhey and his invention of the refracting telescope, with the rival claims of Metius and Jansen. There follows chapter for chapter a chronological history of telescopes and their user and uses beginning with Galileo and ending around 1950 with the construction of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope. Despite the fact that it is dated, it is well researched and well written and can still be read with profit.

More up to date is Fred Watson’s Stargazer the life and times of the Telescope (Da Capo Press, 2005).

As with King, Watson opens with the pre-telescopic era and the various reports of things that might have been telescope but probably weren’t prior to 1608 and Lipperhey.

He then takes his reader on an episodic journey through the history of the telescope down to the present day, ending with plans and discussion of a new generation of super telescopes. A well-researched and well written book, which I found a pleasure to read and highly informative. 

I managed an absolute classic in Middelburg in 2008. I got into a conversation with another participant at the conference and during the exchange started to talk about something from Watson’s book blithely unaware that my conversation partner was the man himself! Mildly embarrassing but also somewhat amusing.

For those readers, who are interested but don’t want to plough their way through a dense academic tome on the history of the telescope but would prefer something more digestible, I heartily recommend Richard Dunn’s The Telescope: A Short History (National Maritime Museum, 2009, Conway, 2011).

Dunn was then curator at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, which has its own excellent collection of telescopes, and is now Keeper of Technologies and Engineering at the Science Museum. The chapters of his book are more topic orientated rather than purely chronological. Beautifully illustrated, it is a comparatively light introduction to the history of the telescope, as I said ideal for those interested but not necessarily prepared to take a deep dive into the subject. This was the book I got asked about recently on Twitter. 

Of a somewhat different nature is Marvin Bolt’s Telescopes Though the Looking Glass (Adler Planetarium, 2009).

This is actually a catalogue of an exhibition that Bolt curated at the Adler upon his return from the 2008 conference in Middelburg. I will quote Bolt’s brief description of the exhibition in full because it captures the general concept of all of the history of the telescope texts:

The exhibition and catalogue address four themed zones. The first, the pretelescope zone, addresses ways in which people have looked at the sky and tried to make sense of it, using their surrounding landscapes or relatively simple tools to develop an understanding or model of the Universe. Zone two presents the invention of the telescope, the challenges it brought to the Earth-centered Universe, and the beautiful craftsmanship and ornamentation of some of the earliest surviving examples in the world. In zone three, the technical challenges of improving telescopes led to variations in design and materials; the telescopes also became popular devices with brand-name recognition. Zone four displays the culmination of the refracting telescope and the emergence of spectroscopy, leading to the marvels of modern telescopes: some see wavelengths beyond the optical realm, others detect invisible particles, a few compensate for atmospheric turbulence, while still others travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere into space.

Each exhibit is illustrated with a description on the facing page. If you can find a copy, it’s a great introduction to the history of the telescope. 

The ‘if you can find a copy’, illustrates a major problem with this bibliography. Because they only have a limited appeal and target readership, many of the books I am describing are out of print and you have to hunt around to find second-hand copies. Several of mine were bought second-hand.

Galileo, of course, gets a whole telescope bibliography to himself. I’ll start with Eileen Reeves’ excellent Galileo’s Glassworks (Harvard University Press, 2008).

There was a significant gap between Galileo first hearing about the new invention from the Netherlands and the manufacture of his own first telescope. In her book Reeves argues convincingly that Galileo at first thought that the new instrument was somehow based on mirrors and spent substantial time and effort trying to work out how. Reeves backs this up with a detailed account of the history of (magical) mirrors that allowed their owners to see great distances.

The book also contains much information on the critical period before and during the early period of telescope manufacture. A fascinating, thoroughly researched, and beautifully book.

Galileo’s TelescopesA European Story (Harvard University Press, 2015) by Massimo Bucciantini, Michele Camerota, and Franco Giudice and translated by Catherine Bolton describes in great detail the spread of the influence of Galileo’s publications on his telescopic discoveries and the distribution of the instruments that he manufactured throughout Europe and the influence that he exercised thereby.

An important contribution to the literature on the early telescope and its influence, well researched and excellently presented.

The same phenomenon, Galileo’s telescopes and their influence, is treated from a different angle by Mario Biagioli in his Galileo’s Instruments of CreditTelescopes, Images, Secrecy (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

This can be read alone but is much better read as a sequel, which it was, to Biagioli’s Galileo CourtierThe Practice of Science in The Culture of Absolutism (University of Chicago Press, 1993). 

In the earlier book Biagioli basically presents Galileo as a social climber, who uses his scientific career to win status within the political climate of Northern and Middle Italy at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Hustling for status and favour, Biagioli argues, I think correctly, that Galileo’s downfall was largely a product of the mechanisms of absolutist politics. Having raised Galileo up as a favourite at his papal court, Maffeo Barberini, Pope Urban VIII, then cast him down as a demonstration of his absolute power during a period of political crisis. This treatment of court favourites was quite common in absolutist regimes throughout Europe.

In his second volume, Biagioli shows how Galileo, having become the telescope man throughout Europe, through the publication of his Sidereus Nuncius in 1610, manufactured telescopes together with his instrument maker, who usually gets left out of the story, and distributed them as favours throughout Europe.

However, he did not give them to other mathematicians and astronomers, who could have used them to confirm Galileo’s discoveries or made new ones of their own, but to powerful figures within the Catholic Church and political potentates, in order to raise his own social status. In his defence it should be pointed out Galileo was not alone in doing this. It was common practice for Renaissance mathematici to design and manufacture high class scientific instruments as gifts for potential aristocratic patrons.

Both of Biagioli’s books are excellent and highly recommended for anybody interested in Galileo, his telescopes, his telescopic discoveries, and his use of them within a socio-politic context rather than a scientific one.

Having looked briefly at the social, political, and cultural contexts of the telescope and Galileo’s use of the instrument and his discoveries, it should be obvious that the advent of the telescope and its impact was not just scientific. Two further books by Eileen Reeves investigate the impact of the new culture of visual awareness in two non-scientific areas.

Her Painting the HeavensArt and Science in the Age of Galileo (Princeton University Press, 1997) explores the impact that the new telescopic astronomical discoveries had on the work of a group of leading contemporary artists.

Her Evening NewsOptics, Astronomy, and Journalism in Early Modern Europe(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

The weekly newssheets began to emerge in Early Modern Europe almost simultaneously with the invention of the telescope and the publication of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius. To quote the publishers blurb:

Early modern news writers and consumers often understood journalistic texts in terms of recent developments in optics and astronomy, Reeves demonstrates, even as many of the first discussions of telescopic phenomena such as planetary satellites, lunar craters, sunspots, and comets were conditioned by accounts of current events. She charts how the deployment of particular technologies of vision—the telescope and the camera obscura—were adapted to comply with evolving notions of objectivity, censorship, and civic awareness. Detailing the differences between various types of printed and manuscript news and the importance of regional, national, and religious distinctions, Evening News emphasizes the ways in which information moved between high and low genres and across geographical and confessional boundaries in the first decades of the seventeenth century.

Changing direction, the man who is credited with being the first to publicly present a working telescope Hans Lipperhey (c. 1570–1619) in Middelburg in 1608, was a professional spectacle maker. This is in no way surprising as spectacle makers were the artisans, who worked with lenses. This means if one wants to understand the invention of the telescope, one must also take a look at the history of spectacles. Above all one needs to answer the questions, how did spectacle come to be invented and given that spectacles first emerged in the late thirteenth century, why did it take more than two hundred years before somebody invented the telescope? 

There are two books that answer these questions in great detail of which the first is Rolf Willach’s magisterial Long Route to the Invention of the TelescopeA Life of Influence and Exile (American Philosophical Society, 2008), like van Helden’s The Invention of the Telescope, published in English both as a journal article in the society’s transactions and as a separate monograph.

It also appears in English in the volume The origins of the telescope described above. His essay was originally published in German in Der Meister und die FernrohreDas Wechselspiel zwischen Astronomie und Optik in der GeschichteFestschrift zum 85. Geburtstag von Rolf Riekher[1] herausgeben von Jürgen Hamel und Inge Keil, Acta Historica Astronomia Vol. 33, Verlag Harri Deutsch, 2007. 

For those of my readers who can read German this volume contains a large collection of excellent papers on the history of the telescope. A couple of them are even in English.

The number of different publications of Willach’s essay signify its ground-breaking status in the histories of spectacles and telescopes. Based on his very extensive empirical investigations he hypothesises that the invention of spectacles was made by monks working in medieval cloisters, cutting and polishing gemstones to decorate reliquaries, the containers for holy relics. At the other end of the two hundred years, he showed that the clue to constructing a successful telescope lay in stopping down the eyepiece lens with a mask. This is because early lenses were inaccurately ground, and the outer edges of the lens distorted the image. By masking off the outer edges, the image became comparatively sharp and usable. 

Equally impressive is Vincent Ilardi’s Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes (Memoires of the American Philosophical Society, Band 259, 2007).

This is the definitive account of the Early Modern history of spectacles. Ilardi was a diplomatic historian, who studied a vast convolute of trade documents and correspondence in order to reconstruct the history of spectacles in the first two centuries of their existence. I have read this book twice but do not own a copy as it is prohibitively expensive, thank God for libraries. Iladi should have held a lecture in Middelburg in September 2008 but he was already dying of prostate cancer, which deprived the world of his excellence in January 2009. 

The histories of spectacles and telescopes are, of course, just integral parts of the much wider history of optics. Optics was originally the theory of vision, how do we see? How do our eyes perceive the world around us bringing information of everything within our field of vision into our brain for processing. 

The absolute classic, which outlines the various theories developed from the ancient Greeks down to Johannes Kepler at the beginning of the seventeenth century and the advent of the telescope is David C. Lindberg’s Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler (University of Chicago Press, 1976).

Popular wisdom claims that the ancient Greeks believed that we see with a fire that the eyes emit to touch and illuminate the objects seen. This is in simplistic form the extramission theory of vision of Plato. Lindberg explains that this was only one of several extramission and intromission (rays entering the eyes) theories of vision held by different individuals and schools of philosophy in ancient Greece. He also presents the geometric opticians–Euclid, Ptolemaeus, Heron–who propagated a mathematical extramission theory. 

Moving on he shows how these theories were assimilated by Islamic scholars and how al-Kindi supported a Euclidian extramission theory but also developed his punctiform theory of reflection, which states that light is reflected from every point on an object in every direction. Enter al-Haytham, who produced a synthesis of an intromission theory, geometrical optics, and al-Kindi’s punctiform theory of reflection, which when translated into Latin in the thirteenth century became the so-called perspectivist theory, which led the field in Europe right down to Kepler. Lindberg sees Kepler as the last of the perspectivists. The book is a historical tour de force. If you are really interested, Lindberg has a long list of excellent academic papers investigating individual topics in medieval optics.

Even an absolute classic can be surpassed, and this has happened to Lindberg’s masterpiece. A. Mark Smith was a doctoral student of Lindberg’s and followed in his master’s footsteps becoming a brilliant historian of optics. His synthesis is From Sight to Light (University of Chicago Press, 2015).

His narrative follows that of Lindberg, but in greater detail and including many figure that Lindberg did not feature. The biggest difference come at the end, unlike Lindberg, he does not consider Kepler the last of the perspectivists but rather the first of a new direction in the optics. He argues his case very convincingly and I think he in probably correct.

If I were to recommend just one of the two, then it would have to be Smith and that despite the fact that the Lindberg was one of those turning point books in my own development. Of course, I think you should read both of them! Smith, like his mentor, has a very long list of papers and book on optics, all of which are recommended reading.

Both Lindberg and Smith stop at the beginning of the seventeenth century, although Smith has a short capital at the end sketching the further developments during the century. If you want to follow the story further then I recommend Oliver Darrigol’s A History of OpticsFrom Greek Antiquity to the Nineteenth Century (OUP, 2012).

Darrigol deals with the passage from the Greeks to Kepler in the first thirty-six pages of his books and devotes the rest to developing the story from there down to the end of the nineteenth century with Stoke, Poincare et al. 

As I noted above when talking about Galileo and his telescopic discoveries, the new possibilities revealed by the new instruments and the new theories of optics went well beyond the boundaries of science touching on other areas such as culture, politics and society. They literally changed people’s perceptions of the world in which they lived. I will briefly mention three books which deal with this, a by no means exhaustive list. 

The first one that I read was Svetlana Alpers’ The Art of DescribingDutch Art in the Seventeenth Century(University of Chicago Press, 1984).

As we have already seen with Eileen Revees’ Painting the HeavensArt and Science in the Age ofGalileo art visually reflected the new developments in optics. To quote a review of Alpers’ book: 

“The art historian after Erwin Panofsky and Ernst Gombrich is not only participating in an activity of great intellectual excitement; he is raising and exploring issues which lie very much at the centre of psychology, of the sciences and of history itself. Svetlana Alpers’s study of 17th-century Dutch painting is a splendid example of this excitement and of the centrality of art history among current disciples. Professor Alpers puts forward a vividly argued thesis. There is, she says, a truly fundamental dichotomy between the art of the Italian Renaissance and that of the Dutch masters. . . . Italian art is the primary expression of a ‘textual culture,’ this is to say of a culture which seeks emblematic, allegorical or philosophical meanings in a serious painting. Alberti, Vasari and the many other theoreticians of the Italian Renaissance teach us to ‘read’ a painting, and to read it in depth so as to elicit and construe its several levels of signification. The world of Dutch art, by the contrast, arises from and enacts a truly ‘visual culture.’ It serves and energises a system of values in which meaning is not ‘read’ but ‘seen,’ in which new knowledge is visually recorded.”—George Steiner, Sunday Times

My second book is Stuart Clark’s Vanities of the EyeVision in Early Modern European Culture (OUP, 2007).

Once again to quote the back cover blurb:

Vanities of the Eye investigates the cultural history of the senses in early modern Europe, a time in which the nature and reliability of human vision was the focus of much debate. In medicine, art theory, science, religion, and philosophy, sight came to be characterized as uncertain or paradoxical-mental images no longer resembled the external world. Was seeing really believing? Stuart Clark explores the controversial debates of the time-from the fantasies and hallucinations of melancholia, to the illusions of magic, art, demonic deceptions, and witchcraft. The truth and function of religious images and the authenticity of miracles and visions were also questioned with new vigor, affecting such contemporary works as Macbeth- a play deeply concerned with the dangers of visual illusion. Clark also contends that there was a close connection between these debates and the ways in which philosophers such as Descartes and Hobbes developed new theories on the relationship between the real and virtual. Original, highly accessible, and a major contribution to our understanding of European culture, Vanities of the Eye will be of great interest to a wide range of historians and anyone interested in the true nature of seeing.

The Last of my three is Laura J Snyder’s Eye of the BeholderJohannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing (W. W. Norton, 2015):

Once again resorting to publisher’s blurb:

By the early 17th century the Scientific Revolution was well under way. Philosophers and scientists were throwing off the yoke of ancient authority to peer at nature and the cosmos through microscopes and telescopes. 

In October 1632, in the small town of Delft in the Dutch Republic, two geniuses were born who would bring about a seismic shift in the idea of what it meant to see the world. One was Johannes Vermeer, whose experiments with lenses and a camera obscura taught him how we see under different conditions of light and helped him create the most luminous works of art ever beheld. The other was Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, whose work with microscopes revealed a previously unimagined realm of minuscule creatures. 

By intertwining the biographies of these two men, Laura Snyder tells the story of a historical moment in both art and science that revolutionized how we see the world today.

I’m going to close this overlong literature review with two books that I don’t think you’ll be able to get hold of, but you might get lucky. Peter Louwman is a rich Dutchman, who has a very impressive automobile museum in De Haag. The museum also houses a massive historical collection of telescopes and binoculars.

For the 400th anniversary conference in Middelburg Louwman produced a wonderful annotated edition of the French newsletter reporting on the visit of the Ambassador of Siam to Den Haag in September 1608, which contains a description of Lipperhey’s demonstration of his telescope to the assembled delegates of the peace conference taking place there.

This special edition contains an explanatory introduction, a facsimile of the newsletter,

a French transcription, and an English as well as a Dutch translation.

First every report of a public demonstration of a telescope pp. 9-11

Every participant in the conference received a copy and I think it’s the best goody that I’ve every received at a conference. I think for a time it was on sale in the museum shop but that no longer appears to be the case.

Another Louwman publication is a wonderful catalogue of the Louwman Collection of Historic Telescopes, A Certain Instrument for Seeing Far by P.J.K. Louwman and H. J. Zuidervaart (2013), which definitely used to be sold by the museum, because I bought one, but no longer seems to be available.

One of hundreds of beautiful illustration in the book

I’m not trying to impress my readers with all the books that I’ve read on the history of optics and the telescopic but trying to make clear that if you truly want to understand that history, the road that led up to the invention of the telescope, its impact as a scientific instrument, and its impact outside of the direct field of science then you have to extend your scope and dig deep. 

[1] Rolf Riekher was a leading German optician and historian of optics, who bought me a cup of tea and a piece of cake on a sunny afternoon in Middelburg in 2008.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of Technology

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

Christmas Trilogy 2021 Part 2: He was the author of rambling volumes on every subject under the sun?

The acolytes of Ada Lovelace are big fans of Sydney Padua’s comic book, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Penguin, 2015). One can not deny Padua’s talent as a graphic artist, but her largely warped (she claims mostly true) account of their relationship is based on heavy quote mining and even distortion of quotes to make Lovelace look good and Babbage less than good. Just to give one example, there are many, many more, of her distortion of known facts she writes: 

I believe Lovelace used music as an example not only because she was steeped in music theory, but because she enjoyed yanking Babbage’s chain, and he famously hated music (my emphasis)

There is no evidence whatsoever that Babbage hated music, in fact rather the opposite. What Padua is playing on is Babbage’s infamous war with the street musicians of London and was about noise pollution and not about music per se. In fact, anybody, who has listened to a half-cut busker launching into their out of tune rendition of Wonderwall for the third time in an hour, would have a lot of sympathy with Babbage’s attitude.

I’m not going to analyse all the errors and deliberate distortions in Padua’s work, but I will examine in some detail one of her bizarre statements:

It’s not clear why Babbage himself never published anything other than vague summaries about his own machine. He published volumes of ramblings on every subject under the sun (my emphasis) except that of his life’s work (my emphasis)

Calling the Analytical Engine “his life’s work” shows an ignorance of the man and his activities. This is a product of a sort of presentism that has reduced Charles Babbage in the popular imagination to “the inventor of the first computer” and blended out the rest of his rich and complicated life. A life full of scientific, mathematical, and socio-political activities. The Analytical Engine was a major project in Babbage’s life, but it was far from being his life’s work.

The Illustrated London News (4 November 1871) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Babbage actually only published a total of eight books over a period of forty years, none of which is in anyway rambling. If we look at the list a little more closely, then it actually reduces to three.

  1. (1825) Account of the repetition of M. Arago’s experiments on the magnetism manifested by various substances during the act of rotation, London, William Nicol
  2. Babbage, Charles (1826). A Comparative View of the Various Institutions for the Assurance of Lives. London: J. Mawman.
  3. Babbage, Charles (1830). Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes. London: B. Fellowes.
  4. Babbage, Charles (1832).On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures London: Charles Knight.
  5. Babbage, Charles (1837).The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, a Fragment. London: John Murray.
  6. Babbage, Charles (1841).Table of the Logarithms of the Natural Numbers from 1 to 108000. London: William Clowes and Sons.
  7. Babbage, Charles (1851).The Exposition of 1851. London: John Murray
  8. Babbage, Charles (1864).Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, London, Longman

No: 1 on our list is a thirty-page scientific paper co-authored with John Herschel and like No: 6, a book of log tables, need not bother us here. No: 2 is a sort of consumers guide to life insurance and is not really relevant here. Statistical tables of life expectancy and insurance schemes based on them had become a thing for mathematicians since the early eighteenth century, Edmund Halley had dabbled, for example. The leading English mathematician John Joseph Sylvester (1814–1897) worked for a number of years as an insurance mathematician. No:5 The Ninth Bridgewater Thesis gives Babbage’s views on Natural Theology, which he developed in a separate paper on his rational explanation for miracles based on programming of his Difference Engine, which I have dealt with here. No. 8 is of course his autobiography, a very interesting read. All of Babbage’s literary output has a strong campaigning element.

This leaves just three volumes that we have to consider in terms of the Padua quote, Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, and The Exposition of 1851

Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, and on Some of Its Causes is as it’s title would suggest a socio-political polemic largely directed as the Royal Society. Babbage thought correctly that there had been a decline in mathematics and physics in the UK over the eighteenth century, which was continued into the nineteenth. He began his attacks on the scientific establishment during his time as a student at Cambridge, when together with John Herschel and George Peacock he founded the Analytical Society, which campaigned to replace the teaching of Newton’s dated mathematics and physics with the much more advanced material from the continent. His Reflections on the Decline of Science upped the ante, as the now established Lucasian Professor for mathematics he launched a full broadside against the scientific established and in particular the Royal Society. 

Babbage was not alone in his wish for reform and he and his supporters were labelled the Declinarians. The Declarians failed in their attempt to introduce reform into the Royal Society, but the result of their campaign was the creation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was founded in 1831 by William Harcourt, David Brewster, William Whewell, James Johnston, and Babbage. Babbage’s book was regarded as the spearhead of the campaign. The BAAS was a new public mouthpiece for the scientific establishment that was more open, outward going, and liberal than the moribund Royal Society.

Babbage’s On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures from 1832, might be considered Babbage’s most important publication. Following the death of his first wife in 1827, Babbage went on a several-year tour of the continent visiting all the factories and institutions, which used and/or dependent on automation of some sort, studying and investigating. On his return from the continent, he did the same in the UK, once again examining all of the industrial applications of automation that he could find. This research took up more than ten years and Babbage became, probably, the greatest living authority on the entire subject of automation. This knowledge led him in two different directions. On the one hand it lay behind his decision the abandon his Difference Engine, a special-purpose computer, and instead invest his energy in his planned Analytical Engine, a general-purpose computer. On the other hand, it led to him writing his On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures

When it appeared On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures was a unique publication, nothing quite like it had ever been published before. The book deals with the economic, social, political, and practical aspects of automation, and has been called on influential early work on operational research. It grew out of an earlier essay in the Encyclopædia Metropolitana An essay on the general principles which regulate the application of machinery to manufactures and the mechanical arts (1827). The book was a major success with a fourth edition appearing in 1836. From the second edition onwards, it included an extra section on political economy, a subject not included in the first edition.

The book also contains a description of what is now known a Babbage’s Principle, which emphasises the commercial advantage of more careful division of labour. An idea already anticipated in the work of the Italian economist Melchiorre Gioja (1767–1829). The Babbage’s Principle means dividing up work processes amongst several workers according to the varying skills. Such a division of labour was behind the origin of his Difference Engine. In the eighteenth century the French government had broken-down the calculation of mathematical tables to simple steps with each computer, those doing the calculations, often women, just doing one of two steps before passing the calculation onto the next computer. The Difference Engine was designed to automate this process.

Babbage never the most diplomatic of intellectuals thoroughly annoyed the publishing industry by including a detailed analysis of book production in On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures including revealing the publishing trade’s profitability.

Babbage’s book had a major influence on the development of economics in the nineteenth century and was quoted in the work of John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and John Ruskin. The book was translated into both French and German. It has been argued that the book influenced the layout of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and it to this we turn for Babbage’s last book, his The Exposition of 1851

View from the Knightsbridge Road of The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for Grand International Exhibition of 1851. Dedicated to the Royal Commissioners., London: Read & Co. Engravers & Printers, 1851Source: Wikimedia Commons

The book is Babbage’s analysis of the Great Exhibition of 1851, brought into life by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and for which the original Crystal Palace was created. The Great Exhibition also led to the establishment of the V&A, the Natural History Museum, and the Science Museum to provide permanent homes for many of the exhibits. This was the first world fair and Babbage was personally involved. One of the working modules of his Difference Engine was on display and in the windows of his house, which lay on the route to the exhibition, he demonstrated his optical signally device for ships, inviting visitors to the Crystal Palace to post the signalled number in his letterbox. To a large extent The Exposition of 1851 is a coda to both Reflections on the Decline of Science and On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, which leads us an answer to the question of Babbage’s life’s work.

Padua thinks incorrectly that the Analytical Engine was his life’s work, a fallacy that is certainly shared by those, who only know Babbage as the inventor of the “first computer.” In reality, Babbage’s life’s work was the promotion and advancement of science and technology, his calculating engines representing only one aspect of a much wider vision. From his days as a student fighting for an improvement in the teaching of the mathematical sciences at Cambridge University, through his campaign to modernise the Royal Society, which led instead to the creation of the BAAS, he was also instrumental in founding the Astronomical Society. His research on automation leading to the highly influential On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures and his direct and indirect involvement in the Great Exhibition. All of these served one end the promotion and advancement of science and its applications.  


Filed under History of science, History of Technology, Uncategorized

Renaissance Science – XX

The term the Republic of Letters is one that one can often encounter in the history of Early Modern or Modern Europe, but what does it mean and to whom does it apply? Republic comes from the Latin res publica and means res “affair, matter, thing” publica “public, people.” However, here it is the “people” or “men”, as they mostly were, of letters. So, our Republic of Letters is the affairs of the men of letters or literati, as they are today more often known. Most often the Republic of Letters is used, as for example on Wikipedia, to refer to the long-distance intellectual community in the late 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and the Americas. However, the earliest known appearance of the term in Latin, respublica literaria, appeared in a letter from the Italian politician, diplomat, and humanist Francesco Barbaro (1390–1454)

Chiesa di Santa Maria del Giglio Venezia – Francesco Barbaro Source: Wikimedia Commons

written to his fellow country man the scholar and humanist Poggio Bracciollini (1380–1459)

Riproduzione novecentesca del ritratto di Poggio Bracciolini, inciso da Antonio Luciani nel 1715. Source: Wikimedia Commons

in 1417, so the original Republic of Letters was the Renaissance literary humanist movement of Northern Italy. Here, we also have a second interpretation of the Letters part of the term, meaning literally the letters that the members of the community wrote to each other to communicate their ideas, to announce their discoveries and to comment on the ideas and discoveries of others. In fact, that first use of the term came about when Poggio was off searching through monastery libraries and sent news of one of his discoveries back to Florence. Barbaro replied to his news thanking him for the gift offered to the literaria res publica for the greater progress of humanity and culture.

Initially this community of communication by letter was restricted to the comparatively small group of the literary humanists of Northern Italy, but with time came to embrace an ever-widening community from China to the Americas and including, as we will see, the whole world of science. Such a community didn’t exist in the Middle Ages, so what changed in the Renaissance that made this happen or indeed possible? 

One simple, partial answer was the change of available writing material, when paper replaced parchment and velum. Parchment and velum were much too expensive to be used for large scale letter writing and correspondence. As I sit at my desk writing this post I’m surrounded by an abundance of paper, piles of books printed on paper, delivery notes, invoices and bank statements printed on paper, notebooks and note slips made of paper, a printer/scanner/copier filled with paper waiting to be printed and other bits and bobs made of paper. Paper is ubiquitous in our lives, and we seldom think about its history. 

If we ignore the fact that wasps were making paper millions of years before humans emerged on the Earth, then paper has only existed for about 0.1% (approximately two thousand years) of the approximately two million years that the genus Homo has been around. It has only been present in Europe for about half of that time. Invented in China sometime before the second century BCE,

Woodcuts depicting the five seminal steps in ancient Chinese papermaking. From the 1637 Tiangong Kaiwu of the Ming dynasty. Source: Wikimedia Commons

paper making was transmitted into the Islamic Empire sometime in the eighth century CE. It first appeared in Europe in Spain in the eleventh century CE. This is of course during the High Middle Ages but the knowledge and use of paper remained restricted to Spain, Italy, and Southern France until well into the fourteenth century, when paper making began to slowly spread into Northern France, The Netherlands, and Germany. The first English paper mill wasn’t built until 1588. 

Ulman Stromer’s Paper-mill. First permanent paper-mill north of the Alps 1390 (From Schedel’s Buch der Chroniken of 1493.)

New production technics and new raw materials for paper production vastly increased output and reduced costs, so that by the fifteenth century paper was much more widely available and by many factors cheaper than parchment and a growing letter writing culture could and did develop. However, before that culture could truly develop, another aspect that we take for granted had to be developed, a delivery system. 

Once again, as I sit in front of my computer, I can communicate almost instantly with people all over the world by email or at least a dozen different social media channels. I can also grab my mobile telephone and either telephone with it or send an SMS. Or I can phone them with my landline telephone and if I want to send something tangible, I can resort to the post service or anyone of a dozen international delivery companies. We live in a thoroughly network society. Most of this simply didn’t exist forty years ago but even then, the landline telephones and the postal services connected people worldwide if at much higher costs. Of course, none of this existed in the Middle Ages.

In the High Middle Ages only the rulers and the Church had courier services to deliver their missives, others were dependent on the infrequent long distant traders and travellers. This began to change in the late Middle Ages/Renaissance as long distant trade began to become more and more frequent and the large North Italian and Southern German finance house became established. Traders and financiers built up communications networks throughout Europe, which also functioned as commercial post services. Big trading centres such as Nürnberg, Venice, and the North German Hansa cities had their own major, highly efficient courier services.

Late in the fourteenth century the Dutchy of Milan set up a postal service and in the second half of the fifteenth century Louis XI set up a post service in France. In 1490 the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I gave the von Taxis family a licence to set up a postal service for the whole of the empire. This is claimed to be the start of the modern postal series.

Taxis postal routes 1563 Source: Wikimedia Commons

By fifteen hundred it was possible for scholars throughout Europe to communicate with each other by letter and they did so in increasing numbers, setting up their own informal networks of those interested in a given academic discipline: Natural historians communicated with natural historians, mathematici with mathematici, humanist with humanists and not least artists with artists.

Augsburg Postoffice 1600 Source: Wikimedia Commons

With the advent of the of the so-called age of discovery the whole thing took on a new dimension with missionaries and scholars exchanging information with their colleagues at home in Europe from the Americas, Africa, India, China, and other Asian lands. Here it was the big international trading companies such as the Dutch East India Company and English East India Company, who served as the courier service.

A modern replica of the VOC Duyfken a small ship built in the Dutch Republic. She was a fast, lightly armed ship probably intended for shallow water, small valuable cargoes, bringing messages, sending provisions, or privateering. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is another important aspect to this rising exchange of letters between scholars and that is the open letter meant for sharing. This was an age when the academic journal still didn’t exist, so if a scholar wished to announce a new discovery, theory, speculation, or whatever he could only do so by word of mouth or by letter if what he wished to covey was not far enough developed or extensive enough for a book or even a booklet. A scholar would write his thoughts in a long letter to another scholar in his field. If the recipient thought that the contained news was interesting or important enough, he would copy it and send it on to another scholar in the field or even sometimes several others. 

Through this process ideas gradually spread through a chain of letters within an informal network, throughout Europe.  By the seventeenth century several significant figures became living post offices each at the centre of a network of correspondence in their respective field. I recently wrote about Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), the Minim friar, who served such a function and who left behind about six hundred such letters from seventy-nine different scientific correspondence in his cell when he died.

Marin Mersenne Source: Wikimedia Commons

His younger contemporary the Jesuit professor of mathematics at the Collegio Romano, Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), sat at the centre of a world spanning network of some seven hundred and sixty correspondents, collecting information from Jesuit missionaries throughout the world and redirecting it to other, not just Jesuit, scholars throughout Europe.

Athanasius Kircher portrait by Cornelis Bloemaert Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of his European correspondents, for example, was Leibniz (1646–1716), who himself maintained a network of about four hundred correspondents. 

Leibniz portrait by Christoph Bernhard Francke Source: Wikimedia Commons

Two members of Mersenne network, who had extensive correspondence networks of their own were Ismaël Boulliau (1605–1694), of whose correspondence, about five thousand letters written by correspondents from all over Europe and the Near East still exist although many of his letters are known to have been lost

Ismaël Boulliau portrait by Pieter van Schuppen Source: Wikimedia Commons

and Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580–1637), who certainly holds the record with ten thousand surviving letters covering a wide range of scientific, philosophical, and artistic topics.

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

Later in the century the European mathematical community was served by the very active English mathematics groupie John Collins (1626–1683), collecting and distributing mathematics news. His activities would contribute to the calculus priority dispute and accusations of plagiarism between Newton and Leibniz, he, having supposedly shown Newton’s unpublished work to Leibniz. Another active in England at the same time as Collins was the German, Henry Oldenburg (c. 1618–1677), who maintained a vast network of correspondents throughout Europe.

Henry Oldenburg portrait by Jan van Cleve (III)

Oldenburg became Secretary of the newly founded Royal Society and used his letters to found the society’s journal, one of the first scientific journals, the Philosophical Transactions, the early issues consisting of collections of the letters he had received. Oldenburg’s large number of foreign correspondents attracted the attention of the authorities, and he was for a time arrested and held prisoner in the Tower of London on suspicion of being a spy.

The simple letter, written on comparatively cheap paper and delivered by increasingly reliable private and state postal services, made it possible for scholars throughout Europe to communicate and cooperate with each other, starting in the Early Modern period, in a way and on a level that had not been possible for their medieval predecessors. In future episodes of this series, we will look at how these correspondence networks helped to further the development of various fields of study during the Renaissance. 

1 Comment

Filed under History of Technology, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

I do wish people wouldn’t post things like this

I stumbled across the following image on Facebook, being reposted by people who should know better, and it awoke my inner HISTSCI_HULK:

I shall only be commenting on the first three images, if anybody has any criticism of the other ones, they’re welcome to add them in the comments.

To what extent Galileo developed his own telescope is debateable. He made a Dutch, telescope a model that had first been made public by Hans Lipperhey in September 1608. By using lenses of different focal lengths, he managed to increase the magnification, but then so did several others both at the same time and even before him.

Galileo was not the first to point the telescope skywards! As I have pointed out on several occasions, during that first demonstration by Lipperhey in Den Hague, the telescope was definitely pointed skywards:

The said glasses are very useful at sieges & in similar affairs, because one can distinguish from a mile’s distance & beyond several objects very well, as if they are very near & even the stars which normally are not visible for us, because of the scanty proportion and feeble sight of our eyes, can be seen with this instrument[1]

Even amongst natural philosophers and astronomers, Galileo was not the first. We know that Thomas Harriot preceded him in making astronomical observations. It is not clear, but Simon Marius might have begun his telescopic astronomical observations before Galileo. Also, the astronomers of the Collegio Romano began telescopic observations before Galileo went public with his Sidereus Nuncius and who was earliest they or Galileo is not determinable.

I wrote a whole very detailed article about the fact that Newton definitively did not invent the reflecting telescope that you can read here.

By the standards of the day William Herschel’s 20-foot telescope, built in 1782 seven years before the 40-foot telescope, was already a gigantic telescope, so the 40-footer was not the first. Worse than this is the fact that the image if of one of his normal ‘small’ telescopes and not the 40-footer. 

Herschel’s 40-foot telescope Source: Wikimedia Commons

People spew out these supposedly informative/educational or whatever images/articles, which are sloppily researched or not at all and are full of avoidable error. To put it bluntly it really pisses me off!

[1] Embassies of the King of Siam Sent to His Excellency Prince Maurits Arrived in The Hague on 10 September 1608, Transcribed from the French original, translated into English and Dutch, introduced by Henk Zoomers and edited by Huib Zuidervaart after a copy in the Louwman Collection of Historic Telescopes, Wassenaar, 2008 pp. 48-49 (original pagination: 9-11)


Filed under History of Optics, History of science, History of Technology

The seventeenth-century Chinese civil servant from Cologne 

From its very beginnings the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) was set up as a missionary movement carrying the Catholic Religion to all corners of the world. It also had a very strong educational emphasis in its missions, carrying the knowledge of Europe to foreign lands and cultures and at the same time transmitting the knowledge of those cultures back to Europe. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the seventeenth-century Jesuit mission to China, which famously in the history of science brought the latest European science to that far away and, for Europeans, exotic land. In fact, the Jesuits used their extensive knowledge of the latest European developments in astronomy to gain access to the, for foreigners, closed Chinese culture.

It was, initially, Christoph Clavius (1538–1612), who by introducing his mathematics programme into the Jesuits more general education system, ensured that the Jesuits were the best purveyors of mathematics in Europe in the early seventeenth century and it was Clavius’ student Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), who first breached the Chinese reserve towards strangers with his knowledge of the mathematical sciences.

The big question is what did the Chinese need the help of western astronomers for and why. Here we meet an interesting historical contradiction for the Jesuits. Unlike most people in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century, the Jesuits did not believe in or practice astrology. One should not forget that both Kepler and Galileo amongst many others were practicing astrologers. The Chinese were, however, very much practitioners of astrology at all levels and it was here that they found the assistance of the Jesuits desirable. The Chines calendar fulfilled important ritual and astrological functions, in particular the prediction of solar and lunar eclipses for which the emperor was personally responsible, and it had to be recalculated at the ascension to the throne of every new emperor. There was even an Imperial Astronomical Institute to carry out this task.

Although the Chinese had been practicing astronomy longer than the Europeans and, over the millennia, had developed a very sophisticated astronomy, in the centuries before the arrival of the Jesuits that knowledge had fallen somewhat into decay and had by that point not advanced as far as that of the Europeans. Before the arrival of the Jesuits, the Chinese had employed Muslim astronomers to aid them in this work, so the principle of employing foreigners for astronomical work had already been established. Through his work, Ricci had convinced the Chinese of his superior astronomical knowledge and abilities and thus established a bridgehead into the highest levels of Chinese society.

The man, who, for the Jesuits, made the greatest contribution to calendrical calculation in seventeenth century was the, splendidly named, Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666). Born, probably in Cologne, into a well-established aristocratic family, who trace their roots back to the twelfth century, Johann Adam was the second son of Heinrich Degenhard Schall von Bell zu Lüftelberg and his fourth wife Maria Scheiffart von Merode zu Weilerswist. He was initially educated at the Jesuit Tricoronatum Gymnasium in Cologne and then in 1607 sent to Rome to the Jesuit run seminary Pontificium Collegium Germanicum et Hungaricum de Urbe, where he concentrated on the study of mathematics and astronomy. It is thought that his parents sent him to Rome to complete his studies because of an outbreak of the plague in Cologne. In 1611 he joined the Jesuits and moved to the Collegio Romano, where he became a student of Christoph Grienberger

A portrait of German Jesuit Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1592–1666), Hand-colored engraving, artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

He applied to take part in the Jesuit mission to China and in 1618 set sail for the East from Lisbon. He would almost certainly on his way to Lisbon have spent time at the Jesuit College in Coimbra, where the missionaries heading out to the Far East were prepared for their mission. Here he would probably have received instruction in the grinding of lenses and the construction of telescopes from Giovanni Paolo Lembo (c. 1570–1618), who taught these courses to future missionaries.

Schall von Bell set sail on 17 April 1618 in a group under the supervision of Dutch Jesuit Nicolas Trigault (1577–1628), Procurator of the Order’s Province of Japan and China.

Nicolas Trigault in Chinese costume, by Peter Paul Rubens, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Source: Wikimedia Commons
De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas, by Nicolas Trigault and Matteo Ricci, Augsburg, 1615. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Apart from Schall von Bell the group included the German, polymath Johannes Schreck (1576–1630), friend of Galileo and onetime member of the Accademia dei Lincei, and the Italian Giacomo Rho (1592–1638). They reached the Jesuit station in Goa 4 October 1618 and proceeded from there to Macau where they arrived on 22 July 1619. Here, the group were forced to wait four years, as the Jesuits had just been expelled from China. They spent to time leaning Chinese and literally fighting off an attempt by the Dutch to conquer Macau. 

In 1623 Schall von Bell and the others finally reached Peking. In 1628 Johann Schreck began work on a calendar reform for the Chinese. To aid his efforts Johannes Kepler sent a copy of the Rudolphine Tables to Peking in 1627. From 1627 to 1630 Schall von Bell worked as a pastor but when Schreck died he and Giacomo Rho were called back to Peking to take up the work on the calendar and Schall von Bell began what would become his life’s work.

He must first translate Latin textbooks into Chinese, establish a school for astronomical calculations and modernise astronomical instruments. In 1634 he constructed the first Galilean telescope in China, also writing a book in Chinese on the instrument. In 1635 he published his revised and modernised calendar, which still exists. 

Text on the utilisation and production of the telescope by Tang Ruowang (Chinese name of Johann Adam Schall von Bell) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Galilean telescope from Schall von Bell’s Chinese book Source: Wikimedia Commons

Scall von Bell used his influence to gain permission to build Catholic churches and establish Chinese Christian communities. This was actually the real aim of his work. He used his knowledge of mathematics and astronomy to win the trust of the Chinese authorities in order to be able to propagate his Christian mission.

In 1640 he produced a Chinese translation of Agricola’s De re metallica, which he presented to the Imperial Court. He followed this on a practical level by supervising the manufacture of a hundred cannons for the emperor. In 1644, the emperor appointed him President of the Imperial Astronomical Institute following a series of accurate astronomical prognostication. From 1651 to 1661 he was a personal advisor to the young Manchurian Emperor Shunzhi (1638–1661), who promoted Schall von Bell to Mandarin 1st class and 1st grade, the highest level of civil servant in the Chinese system.

Johann Adam Schall von Bell and Shunzhi Emperor Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following the death of Shunzhi, he initially retained his appointments and titles, which caused problems for him in Rome following a visitation in Peking by the Dominicans. The Vatican ruled that Jesuits should not take on mundane appointments. In 1664 Schall von Bell suffered a stroke, which left him vulnerable to attack from his rivals at court. He was accused of having provoked Shunzhi’s concubine’s death through having falsely calculated the place and time for the funeral of one of Shunzhi’s sons. 

The charges, that included other Jesuits, were high treason, membership of a religious order not compatible with right order and the spread of false astronomical teachings. Schall von Bell was imprisoned over the winter 1665/66 and Jesuits in Peking, who had not been charged were banned to Kanton. He was found guilty on 15 April 1665 and sentenced to be executed by Lingchi, death by a thousand cuts. However, according to legend, there was an earthquake shortly before the execution date and the judge interpreted it as a sign from the gods the Schall von Bell was innocent. On 15 May 1665 Schall von Bell was released from prison on the order of the Emperor Kangxi (1654–1722). He died 15 August 1666 and was rehabilitated by Kangxi, who ensured that he received a prominent gravestone that still exists. 

Jesuit astronomers with Kangxi Emperor by Philippe Behagle French tapestry weaver, 1641 – 1705 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Schall von Bell was represented at his trial by Flemish Jesuit Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688), who would later take up Schall von Bell’s work on the Chinese calendar but that’s a story for another day. Schall von Bell reached the highest ever level for a foreigner in the Chinese system of government but in the history of science it is his contributions to the modernisation of Chinese astronomy and engineering that are most important. 

Jesuit Mission to China, left to right Top: Matteo Ricci, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, Ferdinand Verbiest Artist: Jean-Baptiste Du Halde (1674 – 1743) French Jesuit historian Source: Wikimedia Commons


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Technology, Renaissance Science

Renaissance Science – XV

Vitruvius’ De architectura was by no means the only book rediscovered from antiquity that dealt with the construction and use of machines and the Renaissance artist-engineers were also not the only authors producing new texts on machines. In this episode of our series, we are going to look at another stream of writings that led to some of the most impressive publications on machines ever produced.

Ancient books, in Europe, on machines do not begin with Vitruvius, who actually comes quite late in the development of this type of literature. There are several known authors from ancient Greece, whose works did not survive but who are mentioned and even quoted by later authors such as Vitruvius and Pliny. Polyidus of Thessaly, who is mentioned by Vitruvius, served under Philip II of Macedonia in the fourth century BCE. He is credited with the development of covered battering rams and a giant siege tower (helepolis) by Byzantium in 340 BCE.  His students Diades of Pella and Charias, both also mentioned by Vitruvius, served under Philip’s son Alexander the Great. 

In Alexandria the earliest known author was Ctesibius, who invented a wide range of machines, which he described in his Commentaries, now lost but known to both Vitruvius and Hero of Alexandria. Much better know is a contemporary of Ctesibius, Philo of Byzantium (c. 280–c. 220 BCE), also known as Philo Mechanicus, who lived and worked in Alexandria. He wrote a major work in nine books covering mathematics, general mechanics, harbour building, artillery, pneumatic machines, mechanical toys, siege engines, siege craft, and cryptography. His work on artillery and siege craft survived in Greek as did fragments of his books on mathematics and mechanical toys but were first translated in the 19th century. Parts of his book on pneumatics, however, survived in a Latin translation, De ingeniis spiritualibus, from an Arabic manuscript. It can however be assumed that his works were well known to and influenced other authors later in antiquity.

We have already met Vitruvius the most well-known author on things mechanical during the Roman Empire and had a brief reference to Athenaeus Mechanicus (fl. mid first century BCE). Athenaeus, a Greek living in Rome, wrote a book on siege craft titled On Machines, which cites both Diades of Pella and Philo of Byzantium, as sources. Much of his book parallels that of Vitruvius implying the use of common sources.

In the middle of the first century CE, we meet Hero of Alexandria, whose exact dates are unknown, perhaps the most well-known Greek engineer of Antiquity, who exercised a similar influence in the Renaissance to Vitruvius. Works that are attributed with certainty are Pneumatica (on pneumatics), AutomataMechanica (written for architects and only preserved in Arabic), Metrica (measuring areas and volumes), On the DioptraBelopoeica (war machines), and Catoptrica (the science of reflected lights). His Belopoeica is attributed to Ctesibius. The Metrica first reappeared in the nineteenth century and the Mechanica was unknown in Europe. However, the Pneumatica, the Automata, and the Belopoeica were translated from Greek into Latin and printed and published in the sixteenth century.

The book About automata by Hero of Alexandria (1589 edition) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hero was the last of the technical authors of antiquity but the later authors such as Pliny the Elder (23/24–79 CE) or Pappus of Alexander (c. 290–c. 350 CE) reference authors such as Vitruvius and Hero.

Before moving forward to the Renaissance, we need to take a brief look at the developments in the Islamic Empire. In the ninth century the translators the Bana Musa, three Persian brother, Ahmad, Muhammad, and Hasan bin Musa ibn Shakir, published a large, illustrated work on machines the Book of Ingenious Devices in 850 CE. It drew on the work of Hero of Alexandria and Philo of Byzantium as well Persian, Chinese, and Indian engineering. It was translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona in the thirteenth century.

Original illustration of a self trimming lamp discussed in the treatise on Mechanical Devices of Ahmad ibn Musa ibn Shakir. Drawing can be found in the “Granger Collection” located in New York. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the twelfth century Badīʿ az-Zaman Abu l-ʿIzz ibn Ismāʿīl ibn ar-Razāz al-Jazarī (1136–1206) wrote his The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Truly spectacular, it contains descriptions of fifty complex machines and was the most advanced such book produced up till this time, but it was never translated into Latin and so had no influence in the Renaissance.

Diagram of a hydropowered perpetual flute from The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by Al-Jazari in 1206. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It should be noticed that in antiquity texts on machines had an emphasis on war machines. During the fifteenth century the first texts on machines were also on war machines and were written by physicians and not artisans. Konrad Kyeser (1366–1405) wrote a book on military engineering, Bellifortis, dedicated to the Holy Roman Emperor Ruprecht III, who ruled from 1400–1410.

Konrad Kyeser, illustration on his Bellifortis manuscript (Cod. Ms. philos. 63) Source: Wikimedia Commons
War wagon (Clm 30150 manuscript) Source: Wikimerdia Commons

Giovanni Fontana (c. 1395–c. 1455), who like Kyeser studied medicine at the University of Padua, also wrote a book on military engineering, Bellicorum instrumentorum liber.

Illustration from Bellicorum instrumentorum liber, Venice c. 1420 – 1430 Source: Wikimedia Commons

In Germany in the fifteenth century there were several books on military engineering written in the vernacular as well as a German translation of Kyeser’s Bellifortis. The author of the Feuerwerksbuch from 1420 is not known. Martin Mercz (c. 1425–1501), a gunner, also wrote a Feuerwerksbuch around 1473. Philipp Mönch wrote a Kriegsbuch in 1496

The texts produced by the Renaissance artist-engineers that we looked at in the last episode, whilst distributed in manuscript, were never issued as printed books, as was the case with most of the fifteenth century books of military engineering. The introduction of printing to the genre of machine texts had a major impact. One book on military engineering that was printed and published was the Elenchus et index rerum militarium by the humanist scholar Roberto Valturio (1405–1475), a compendium of ancient authorities with an emphasis on the technological aspects of warfare.

The author’s preface to the treatise „De re militari“ in the manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Lat. 7237, fol. 1r. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was written for and dedicated to Sigismund Malatesta of Rimini (1471-1468), a successful military leader but also a humanist poet, originally between 1455 and 1460 and distributed widely in manuscript but was published in Verona in 1472. It went through many printed editions and translations. Leonardo da Vinci was known to have owned a copy.

Illustration from De re militari by Robertus Valturius Source: Wikimedia Commons

Two printed books in particular set new standards for books on machines and engineering, the Pirotechnia of Vannoccio Biringuccio (1480–died before1539) published posthumously by Curtio Navo in Venice in 1540

and De re metallica by Georgius Agricola (1494–1555) also published posthumously by Froben in Basel in 1556.

Both books deal with mining, the extraction of metallic ores and the working of metal smelted from the ores. Both are lavishly illustrated with the drawings in Agricola’s book being of a much higher standard than those in Biringuccio’s book. 

I have dealt with both books and their authors in earlier posts (see links above) and so won’t go into great detail here but in these two books with have an excellent example of the crossover between the world of the university educated theoretician and the artisan on artisanal topics. Agricola is a university educated physician writing theoretically about a group of related artisanal topics, whereas Biringuccio is an experienced artisan writing a theoretical book about his artisanal trades. 

The late sixteenth century saw the birth of a new book genre, the machine book. These were books of diagrams of machines with brief descriptions, usual presented by the author to a powerful patron. The main ones were very popular and went through several editions or reprints. These books often contained not only machines designed by the authors, but their presentations of machines drawn from other sources. Many of these studies were almost certainly not intended as serious designs to be built but were rather ingenious studies designed to impress rich patrons, in the nature of the futuristic design studies that car companies present at car shows. This also, almost certainly, applies to many of the designs to be found in the manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci.

The earliest of the machine books by the French Protestant, inventor and mathematician, Jacques Besson (1540? – 1573). He said that he was born in Colombières near Briançon in the Alps on the south-eastern border of France, now in Italy. In the 1550s he taught mathematics in Paris and was working as a hydraulic engineer in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1559 he published a book in Zurich and in 1561 he was awarded citizenship in Geneva as a science and mathematics teacher. In 1562 he was a pastor in Villeneuve-de-Berg in France but 1565 finds him back in Paris where he published his La Cosmolabe, a multiple instrument based on the astrolabe designed for use in navigation, surveying, cartography, and astronomy. 

Cosmolabe by Jacques Besson Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1569 in Orléans he presented a draft of his new volume Theatrum Instrumentorum (giving the machine book genre the alternative name of Theatre of Machines) to Charles IX, as a result returning to Paris as Master of the Kings Machines. The Theatrum Instrumentorum, containing sixty plates, was printed and published in 1571-2.

In Besson case his book only contains machines that he claimed to have invented himself. Following the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572 Besson fled to London where he died in the following year. 

In 1572, our next machine book author, Agostino Ramelli (1531–c. 1610) a Catholic military engineer, was involved in the siege of the Protestant stronghold, La Rochelle.

Agostino Ramelli author portrait Source: Wikimedia Commons

Very little is known about Ramelli other than that he was born in Ponte Tresa on Lake Lugano on the border between Switzerland and the Duchy of Milan. He seems to have served most of his early life as a military engineer and comes to prominence at La Rochelle, because he was wounded and taken prisoner. Henry, Duke of Anjou, arranged his release and when Henry became King of France in 1575, he apparently appointed Ramelli royal engineer, as he styled himself in the preface to his book, engineer of the most Christian King of France. 

In 1588 he self-published his Diverse Et Artificiose Machine, the book, the largest of the genre, contains one hundred and ninety-five plates, printed from high quality engraved copper plates.  The majority of the machines are hydraulic engines. Unlike Bresson, who included no war machines in his book, about one third of Ramelli’s book consists of war machines. 

Title: Complex machine using water-wheel, bellows, and turbine action Abstract/medium: 1 print : engraving.Source: Wikimedia Commons
Depiction of sixteenth century cannon placements from Le diverse et artificiose machine del capitano Agostino Ramelli, page 708 of 720 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ramelli is certainly today the most well known of the machine book authors because his book-wheel has become an iconic image on social media. Due to the lavish quality of the illustrations Ramelli’s book became an instant coffee table book, which was probably his intention, and is still in print today.

Ramelli Book-Wheel Source: Wikimedia Commons

We know very little about Bresson and even less about Ramelli, but in the case of the third author of a major machine book, Vittorio Zonca (1568–1603), we know next to nothing. His book, Novo Teatro di Machine et Edificii, was published posthumously by Francesco Bertelli in Padua in 1607. Bertelli appears not to have known Zonca but describes him as a Paduan architect. Like the books of Bresson and Ramelli. Zonca’s volume went through several edition. 

Title page Source: Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly the German, Jesuit polymath, Johann Schreck (1576–1630), one time member of the Accademia dei Lincei and friend of Galileo,  published a book in Chinese in 1627, based on Zonca’s book and incorporating plates from Bresson and Ramelli titled, Diagrams and explanations of the wonderful machines of the Far West (abridged Chinese title, Qí qì túshuō).

a description of a windlass well, in Agostino Ramelli, 1588. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Description of a windlass well, in Diagrams and explanations of the wonderful machines of the Far West, 1627. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Original Pompeo Targone field mill in Zonca’s treatise of 1607. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Chinese adaptation of the field mill in Diagrams and explanations of the wonderful machines of the Far West, 1627. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The German architect and engineer, Heinrich Zeising (died 1610 or earlier) compiled the first German machine book borrowing heavily from the works of Walther Hermann Ryff’s German edition of Vitruvius, Besson, Ramelli, Zonca, Gerolamo Cardano, and others This was published as Theatrum Machinarum in six parts by Henning Grosse in Leipzig between 1607 and 1614. In the foreword to the second part in 1610, Grosse informed the reader that Zeising was deceased .


The Bishop of Czanad in Hungary, Fautus Verantius (c. 1551–1617), in his retirement, published a multilingual machine book, Machinae Novae, in 1616. It had 49 plates containing 55 machines, described in Latin and Italian in one variant and in Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, and German in another. There exists the possibility that Verantius saw and was influenced by Leonardo’s manuscripts.


Portrait of Fausto Veranzio, (Šibenik (Sebenico) circa 1551 – Venice, January 17, 1617) Source: Wikimedia Commons
Drawing of suspension cable-stayed bridge by Fausto Veranzio in his Machinae Novae Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1617 Octavio Strada published an encyclopaedic collection of machine drawings supposedly complied by his grandfather Jacopo Strada (1517–1588)–courtier, painter, architect, goldsmith, and numismatist–under the title La premiere partie des Desseins Artificiaux in Frankfurt, about which very little in known. 

STRADA, Jacobus de (c.1523-1588) and Octavius de STRADA. Desseins Artificiaulx de Toutes Sortes des Moulins a Vent, a l’Eau, a Cheval & a la Main. Frankfurt: Paul Jacobi, 1618. Source:

The Italian engineer and architect, Giovanni Branca (1571–1645) dedicated a collection of illustrations of mechanical inventions to the governor of Loreto Ancona, which he then published as a book Le machine in 1629. The book contains 63 illustrations with descriptions in Latin and Italian, but whereas the books of Bresson and Ramelli are large format volumes with lavish copper plate engravings, Branca’s book is a small octavo volume illustrated with simple woodcuts.

Title page
Branca Le Machine

In the relatively brief period covering the last quarter of the sixteenth century and the first quarter of the seventeenth century, the Renaissance Theatre of Machines books, as they became known after the first one from Jacques Besson, were very popular. Although they continued to be reprinted throughout the seventeenth century their time was over and literature over technology moved on into different formats. This is one of the signs that Renaissance science did indeed peter out in the middle of the seventeenth century.


Filed under History of Technology, Renaissance Science