Category Archives: Renaissance Science

Two Greek scholars butting heads in the Renaissance and the consequences for astronomy

The adversaries of the title were Georg of Trebizond (1395–1472) and Basilios Bessarion (1403–1472). There is an ironic twist to their names. George of Trebizond derived his name from his ancestors, who originated in the Empire of Trebizond but he was born in Crete. His later antagonist Basilios Bessarion, however, was born in Trebizond.

At sometime unknown point, whilst he was still relatively young, George of Trebizond moved to Italy, where he learnt Latin and acted as amanuensis to the politician Francesco Barbaro (1390–1454) in Venice. A brilliant Aristotelian scholar he entered the entourage of Pope Nicholas V (1397–1455) a convinced Aristotelian.


George of Trebizond Source: Wikimedia commons

Basilios Bessarion was educated in Constantinople then went in 1423 to study Plato under Georgius Gemistus (c.1355–c. 1452), known as Plethon, a highly influential revivalist and teacher of Neo-Platonism. He became an orthodox monk, advancing to abbot in 1436 and metropolitan of Nicaea in 1437. In 1439 he travelled with the Orthodox delegation to Italy to try to persuade the Catholic Church to join the Orthodox Church in a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. Bessarion’s political position led to him being heavily criticised in Byzantium and so he stayed in Italy where Pope Eugene IV (1383–1447) appointed him a cardinal of the Catholic Church. A convinced humanist he devoted his life to spreading support for humanism and to amassing a large private library, containing an extensive collection of Greek manuscripts. He presented his library to the Senate of Venice in 1468 and the 482 Greek manuscripts and 264 Latin manuscripts today still form the core of the St. Mark’s Biblioteca Marciana.


Basilios Bessarion Justus van Gent and Pedro Berruguete Source: Wikimedia Commons

Initially Bessarion and George of Trebizond were friends and Bessarion did much to support his colleague. However in the early 1450s their friendship began to unravel. In that year George undertook a translation from Greek into Latin of Ptolemaeus’ Mathēmatikē Syntaxis or as it is better known the Almagest, as a replacement for Gerard of Cremona’s twelfth-century translation from Arabic.  Bessarion lent him his best Greek manuscript for the purpose and suggested that he used Theon of Alexandria’s Commentary, as a guide. He duly produced his translation and an extensive commentary in nine months finishing in December 1451. His work was hurried, sloppy and strewn with errors and the Pope’s evaluator Jacopo di San Cassiano (ca.1400–ca.1454) judged the work deficient and the Pope, Nicholas V, rejected the dedication. Bessarion took issue with George’s treatment of Theon. The incident ruined George’s reputation and he was forced to flee from Rome.

The situation between the two Greek immigrants escalated when in 1458 George published a vicious attack on Plato in his Comparatio Aristotelis et Platonis, which historian James Hankins has described as “one of the most remarkable mixtures of learning and lunacy ever penned.” In this work he accused Plato of being a traitor to Athens, a besmircher of rhetoric, an advocate of paedophilia, and a pagan who lent aid and comfort to Greek Christians. Bessarion, a Platonist, could not let this stand and issued a powerful response, In calumnatorem Platonis, which was printed in 1469. The situation became even more heated when George offered to dedicate his Commentary on the Almagest to Mehmet II, the Ottoman Turk Sultan, who had conquered Constantinople and ended the Byzantine Empire. George entreated Mehmet to convert to Christianity, to conquer Rome and thus to unite Islam and Christianity under his sovereignty. Bessarion got hold of George’s correspondence with Mehmet and appealled to the Pope, Pius II (for whom George might have been working as an agent!), accusing George of treachery and George was imprisoned for four months in 1466-67. Released from prison, George now offered to dedicate both translation and commentary to Matthias Corvinus (1443–1490), the king of Hungary.

We now need to back peddle to 1460. In that year, Bessarion, who was a Papal legate, visited Vienna to negotiate with Frederick III and made the acquaintance of Georg von Peuerbach (1423–1461), who was at the time the leading astronomical scholar in Europe. Bessarion, still deeply upset by George’s abortive Almagest efforts, asked Peuerbach to produce a new commentary on Ptolemaeus’ work. Peuerbach acquiesced and began immediately to produce an epitome or digest of the Almagest. This was an updated, modernised, shortened, mathematically improved version of the Almagest. Peuerbach died in 1461, having only completed the first six of thirteen book of his epitome. He did, however, extract the deathbed promise from his star pupil, Regiomontanus, to finish the work. In the same year Regiomontanus left Vienna for Italy as a member Bessarion’s entourage, where he spent the next four years learning Greek, finishing the epitome and acting as Bessarion’s manuscript collector and librarian. The Epitome of the Almagestis a masterpiece:

The Epitome is neither a translation (an oft repeated error) nor a commentary but a detailed sometimes updated, overview of the Almagest. Swerdlow once called it “the finest textbook of Ptolemaic astronomy ever written.”[1]

I’ve already written an earlier blog post on Regiomontanus so we don’t need to outline the rest of his life but Shank does have an interesting hypothesis. He suggests that Regiomontanus went to Hungary at Bessarion’s behest in order to counter any influence that George might win at the Court of Corvinus through his second attempt to rededicate his Almagest and Commentary.


Johannes Regiomontanus, Woodcut Source: Wikimedia Commons

When he set up his printing business in Nürnberg, Regiomontanus published Peuerbach’s lectures on astronomy, Theoricae Novae Planetarum, as his first book.


Georg von Peuerbach: Theoricarum novarum planetarum testus, Paris 1515 Source: Wikimedia Commons


Peuerbach Theoricae novae planetarum 1473 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although he included the Epitome in his publisher’s prospect he didn’t succeed in publishing it before his untimely death in 1476. The Epitoma in Almagestum Ptolemae was first published in 1496 in Venice by Johannes Hamman. Together with Peuerbach’s lectures the Epitome became the standard textbooks for teaching astronomy at the European universities for much of the next century. The influence of the Epitome goes much deeper than this in the history of astronomy.


Title page Epitoma in Almagestum Ptolemae Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is well known that Copernicus modelled his De revolutionibus on Ptolemaeus’ Almagest. In fact text analysis has shown that he actually modelled his magnum opus on the Peuerbach-Regiomontanus Epitome, for example taking most of his knowledge of Arabic astronomy from Regiomontanus’ work. This is, however, rather minor compared to what several expert think is the most important influence that Regiomontanus had on Copernicus.


Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Toruń – 1580 Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to ancient Greek cosmology the planets orbit the earth with uniform circular motion. Any extended observation of the planets show that this is not the case and it was the job of the astronomers to construct geometrical model, which corrected the visible deviation from the cosmological norm; these deviations are known as the anomalies. Ptolemaeus had basically two geometrical tools to describe planetary orbits. With the eccentric deferent the centre of the circle that describes the orbit, the deferent, is not in the same position as the earth, i.e. the earth is not at the centre of the planets orbit. The alternative is the epicycle-deferent model in which the planet is carried around an epicycle, which is itself carried around the deferent. The mathematician Apollonius (late 3rdcentury–early 2ndcentury BCE) had shown that the two models were in fact mathematically equivalent; meaning any motion that could be described with the one model could equally well be described with the other.

Ptolemaeus, however, argued in the Almagest that whereas the retrograde motion (the so-called second anomaly, when the planet appears to reverse its orbital direction for a period of time) of the outer planets could be described with either model that of the inner planets (Venus and Mercury) could only be described with the epicycle-deferent model. In Book XII of the Epitome, Regiomontanus proved that the second anomaly of the inner planets could also be described with the eccentric deferent model. Without going into detail this seems to have led Copernicus directly to his heliocentric system for the inner planets, which he then extended to the outer ones.

Thinking hypothetically, if George had not written his translation of and commentary on the Almagest, then Bessarion would not has asked Peuerbach to write the Epitomeand Regiomontanus might never have provided Copernicus with that vital clue.

Regiomontanus wrote a second book inspired by George’s work. His Defensio Theonis contra Georgium Trapezuntium is a vast rambling mathematical work centred on a defence of Theon of Alexandria against what he saw as George’s unfair treatment of him. He accused George as having both misrepresenting Theon and plagiarising him. This work has never been published but Regiomontanus’ antagonism against George was known at the time. The Defensio was announced in Regiomontanus’ prospect and also in works published by Erhard Ratdolt. This situation led to a rather strange claim made by Pierre Gassendi. In the 1650s Gassendi published a collective biography of the great astronomers Brahe, Copernicus, Regiomontanus etc. in which he claimed that Regiomontanus was murdered in Rome by two of George’s sons in 1476. George had many vocal critics, none of whom were murdered and sensible historians think that Regiomontanus died in one of the epidemics that regularly swept Rome.


[1]Michael H. Shank, Regiomontanus and Astronomical Controversy in the Background of Copernicus, pp. 79-109 in Rivka Feldhay and F. Jamil Ragep eds., Before Copernicus: The Cultures and Contexts of Scientific Learning in the Fifteenth Century, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal& Kingston, London, Chicago, 2017, p. 90

This blog post owes much to the above paper and to Michael H. Shank, The Almagest, Politics, and Apocalypticism in the Conflict between George of Trebizond and Cardinal Bessarion, in Almagest International Journal for the History of Scientific Ideas, Volume 8, Issue 2, 2017, pp. 49-83



Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, History of Astronomy, History of science, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

The Galileo Circus is in town

The ‘sensational’ #histSTM news of last week was that a new ‘lost’/‘hidden’ Galileo letter has been discovered in the Royal Society archives. As some people have pointed out, as it was archived and catalogued it wasn’t exactly ‘lost’ or ‘hidden’, but that is not what I am going to write about here. As the Internet’s resident Galileo deflator, I have been asked numerous times in the last few days what I think is the significance of this find and my answer has been, not a lot. I have decided to explain why I think this but before I do so we need a bit of background for those not informed about the intricate details of Galileo’s biography.


Galileo Galilei portrait by Domenico Tintoretto Source: Wikimedia Commons

After the publication of his Sidereus Nuncius, Galileo was not only appointed court philosophicus and mathematicus the Cosimo De’ Medici but became almost over night the most notorious mathematical scholar in Europe. He was feted by the Northern Italian high society both secular and clerical and was definitely a celebrity. His role in the Medici household was not that dissimilar to that of a court jester. He was required to entertain the Grand Duke and his guests after dinner with his erudition and his wit. Oft opponents would be invited to dine and Galileo was expected to dispute with them over philosophical or scientific topics. In this role he acquitted himself extremely well but his growing fame and notoriety meant that he was collecting a solid body of enemies. On the subject of science contra religion his newly won high-powered friends and admirers advised him to tread carefully and to proceed with caution. Amongst those, who thus advised him, was Cardinal Maffeo Barberini an admirer and the future Pope Urban VIII.


C. 1598 painting of Maffeo Barberini at age 30 by Caravaggio Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1613, in Galileo’s absence, at an evening round at the Medicean table the philosopher Cosimo Boscaglia stated that he thought that the telescopic discoveries were valid, however the Copernican hypothesis contradicted Holy Scripture. Galileo’s former student Benedetto Castelli, now a professor for mathematics and a Benedictine Abbott, defended Galileo’s standpoint under intensive questioning from Grand Duchess Christina, Cosimo’s mother and Galileo’s first patron in the Medici family. Castelli reported all of this to Galileo in a letter and in reply Galileo wrote a long essay, now known as the Letter to Castelli, in which he attacked the Church’s interpretation of the various Bible passages that stood in contradiction to the heliocentric hypothesis and generally pleaded for freedom of expression for science, or rather for Galileo.


Benedetto Castelli artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Before I go on I think it is necessary to restate something that people discussing the situation tend to forget or ignore. In the early seventeenth century the concepts of freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of expression simply did not exist anywhere in Europe neither under secular or religious jurisdiction, no matter which church was involved. This was something that Galileo was well aware of but apparently in his hubris he thought his newly found fame would protect him from censure, he was wrong. A second point that also tends to get ignored is that when Galileo decided to go into full frontal attack with the Church on scriptural interpretation it was the middle of the Counter Reformation. The Reformation and the Counter Reformation centred on the question, who is allowed to interpret Holy Scripture. The Lutherans said anybody who could read, although they later changed their minds on that, whereas the Catholic Church said only the Church theologian were entitled to. Here was Galileo a mere mathematicus, the lowest of the low in the Renaissance intellectual hierarchy, telling the theologians, the pinnacle of the Renaissance intellectual pyramid, how to interpret the Bible, not a wise move. Not only did Galileo go out on a limb but he did so with his very best polemic and invective and if there was something in which Galileo was unrivalled at it was writing polemic and invective.

As was the custom in those days, and as Galileo certainly intended, copies were made of his letter and passed around for other to read and admire. It was almost inevitable that copies would land in the hands of his enemies and they were not in any way thrilled by Galileo’s attack on the Church.  In 1615 Niccolò Lorini, a Dominican, submitted a copy of Galileo’s letter to the Inquisition in Rome:

All our Fathers of the devout Convent of St. Mark feel that the letter contains many statements which seem presumptuous or suspect, as when it states that the words of Holy Scripture do not mean what they say; that in discussions about natural phenomena the authority of Scripture should rank last… [the followers of Galileo] were taking it upon themselves to expound the Holy Scripture according to their private lights and in a manner different from the common interpretation of the Fathers of the Church…

— Letter from Lorini to Cardinal Sfrondato, Inquisitor in Rome, 1615. Quoted in Jerome Langford, Galileo, Science and the Church1998, pp. 56-57 (Borrowed from Wikipedia)

Galileo, now realising that he might have not made the most intelligent move in his life, began to back peddle and claimed that the submitted document was not the letter that he had written but had been manipulated by his enemies to make it look worse than it really was. He also issued a new version of the letter that was indeed much milder than the version submitted to the Inquisition by Lorini. Things took their inevitable course. Galileo’s letter was lumped together with the Epistle concerning the mobility of the earth by Paolo Antonio Foscarini, which provoked the famous Foscarini Letter from Robert Bellarmino, which was also addressed to Galileo. The Inquisition decided that Copernicus’ theory was both scientifically and theologically unacceptable and Galileo had his famous meeting with Bellarmino, who explained that heliocentricity could not be taught as factual.

In this situation many, in fact the majority, see Galileo, as a champion for free speech and for the ascendency of science over religion, launching a brave attack on the bastions of the Church. I think it would be more honest to regard his actions as foolhardy, driven by hubris. One the one hand he thought that his celebrity was so great that he could successfully challenge the Church; he was severely mistaken. On the other he wanted to be the one feted for having ‘proved’ the heliocentric hypothesis. This is amply shown by the fact that as things started to turn pear-shaped he rushed off to Rome and tried to convince his admirers amongst the Church hierarchy of the validity of his theory of the tides, which would form the fourth and concluding day of his Dialogo. His hubris prevented him recognising just how flawed that infamous theory was. In 1615 he found no takers. It is interesting to note in terms of Galileo’s personality that at best he developed the theory of tides together with Paolo Sarpi and at worst it was actually Sarpi’s theory and he ‘borrowed’ it without in either case giving Sarpi any credit for the theory.

What the historian has to decide is was Galileo telling the truth and had his enemies in the Church manipulated his original letter or was he lying and was the letter submitted by Lorini the original document? Those who have written the numerous Galileo hagiographies believe that their hero was telling the truth. Others who are more sceptical about the Tuscan mathematicus don’t see him as a paragon of virtue but in this instance think that he was telling the truth and his Church enemies were out to get him. I, however, and I know that I am not alone in this opinion, think that he was lying and that the Lorini letter is in fact the original. Up till now there has been no proof either way, so you pays your money and you makes your choice.

The newly ‘discovered’ document is the proverbial smoking gun. It appears that it is the Letter to Castelli in the Lorini version with the ‘corrections’ to the later milder version all written in Galileo’s own hand. If the document is genuine, and I assume it is, then Galileo was without a shadow of a doubt lying. This of course provokes the question as to why I thought, without evidence, that he was indeed lying. The answer is very simple. As the old sergeant says in cheesy English criminal stories, “the lad had form, didn’t he?”


The original letter in which Galileo argued against the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church has been rediscovered in London. Credit: The Royal Society

We start with Galileo’s claim that he constructed a telescope purely having heard of one based on his knowledge of optics. Modern research suggests very strongly that he had in fact both seen and handled a telescope before he constructed his own one. He also sold ‘his telescope’ to the Senate of Venice for a very high price, knowing full well that within a short time the city would be flooded with telescopes from other sources. Galileo had something of the character of the proverbial used car salesman. In his dispute with Christoph Scheiner about the nature of sunspots, Galileo kept changing the date he claimed to have first observed sunspots to guarantee his priority. Of course, both Galileo and Scheiner were unaware that Harriot had observed sunspots before both of them and Johannes Fabricius had already published on them. In 1607, charged Baldessar Capra with having plagiarised the instruction manual for his sector. At the time he exonerated Simon Marius who had been Capra’s mathematics teacher. However in 1623 in his Il Saggiatore he now falsely accused Marius of being responsible for the plagiarism along with accusing him again falsely of having plagiarised the Sidereus Nuncius in his Mundus Iovialis. In Il Saggiatore he also accused Scheiner falsely of having plagiarised his work on sunspots. To make the situation worse he quoted Scheiner’s work on sunspots as his own in the Dialogo. The main text of Il Saggiatore concerns his dispute with Grassi on the nature of comets. Here he brings his famous ‘the book of nature is written in the language of geometry’ quote implying that his point of view is mathematical/scientific whereas that of Grassi, a Jesuit, is not. Exactly the opposite is true. Grassi’s view that comets are supralunar was formed on the basis of empirical observations and mathematical calculations, whereas Galileo’s basically Aristotelian view was nothing but unsubstantiated and false speculation. In the Dialogo, the two world systems that Galileo compares are the geocentric system of Ptolemaeus and the heliocentric system of Copernicus. However when Galileo wrote his book the Ptolemaic system had already been refuted, as Galileo well knew having contributed to that refutation, and the Copernican system had long been superseded by the elliptical system of Kepler, which was regarded as a competing model. The world system being discussed as rivals at the time were a Tychonic model with diurnal rotation and Kepler’s elliptical heliocentric model both of which Galileo simply ignores. These are just some of the crassest examples of Galileo conscious dishonesty in his work. So believing that he lied about the Castelli letter is not an unreasonable assumption.

However, all in all, whether he lied or didn’t lie at this point in time doesn’t actually make that much difference. Whether his attack on Catholic theology was more or less vitriolic doesn’t actually play an important role is what happened. The important point is that he had the gall to launch that attack at all in such an undiplomatic manner. All that Galileo achieved by his ill thought out, impulsive actions was to delay quite substantially the Church’s inevitable acceptance of heliocentricity. Before somebody turns up in the comments saying it took them two hundred years to accept it, that acceptance already existed informally before the end of the seventeenth century and formally in 1758.







Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

The telescope – claims and counterclaims

Sometime between the 25thand 29thof September 410 years ago Hans Lipperhey, a spectacle maker from Middelburg in Zeeland, gave the earliest known public demonstration of the telescope to Maurits of Nausau and assembled company at a peace conference in Den Hague.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

His demonstration was recorded in a French newsletter, AMBASSADES DV ROY DE SIAM ENVOYE’ A L’ECELence du Prince Maurice, arriué à la Haye le 10. Septemb. 1608., recording the visit of the ambassador of the King of Siam (Thailand), who was also present at the demonstration.

A few days before the departure of Spinola from The Hague a spectacle-maker from Middelburg, a humble man, very religious & pious, offered His Excellency certain glasses as a present, by which one is able to trace & observe clearly objects at a distance of three or four miles, as if there is a distance as little as one hundred footsteps. From the tower of The Hague with the said glasses one can observe clearly the clock on the tower of Delft, & the windows of the Church of Leiden, despite the fact that one of the said towns is at a distance of one & a half hours and the other one at three and a half hours walking distance. The States-General were already well informed about this and sent them to His Excellency to show, adding that with these glasses one could observe the impostures of the enemy. Spinola also saw them with great astonishment & told Prince Hendrik; from this moment on I will not be safe anymore, because you can observe me from afar. Whereupon the said Prince answered: we will prohibit our people to shoot at you. The craftsman who has manufactured the said glasses has received three hundred écu & he will receive more on condition that he will tell nobody about the said proficiency, which he promised with most pleasure as he doesn’t want the enemy will be able to use this, 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]

This was not however the first written account of Lipperhey’s new invention. The Councillors of Zeeland had given him a letter of introduction, dated 25 September, to the States-General in Den Hague, it begins:

The bearer of this, who claims to have a certain device, by means of which all things at a great distance can be seen as if they were nearby, by looking through glasses which he claims to be a new invention, would like to communicate the same to His Excellency [Prince Maurits]. Your Honour will please recommend him to His Excellency, and, as the occasion arises, be helpful to him according to what you think of the device…[2]

On 2 October 1608, Lipperhey submitted an application for a patent for his device to the States-General, from here on things, which had looked so promising for our humble spectacle-maker from Middelburg started to turn decidedly pear shaped.


Hans Lipperhey’s unsuccessfully patent request Source: Wikimedia Commons

On 14 October 1608, an, until now, unidentified young man offered to sell a telescope to the Councillors of Zeeland, who dutifully informed the States-General of this new development. On 15 October the States-General received a letter from Jacob Adriaenszoon (after 1571–1628) called Metius, a spectacle-maker from Alkmaar also requesting a patent for his instrument on which he had been working for two years and which, so he claimed, was a least as good as the instrument from Middelburg. Given these developments, telescopes were apparently available on every street corner, the States-General denied Lipperhey his desired patent but they did commission him to make six pairs of binoculars for a total of 900 guilders, a very large sum. Interestingly they demanded that the lenses be made of rock crystal rather than glass, because of the poor quality of the glass lenses, something that would remain a problem for telescope makers throughout the seventeenth century.

The problem with who actually invented the telescope does not end there. In his Mundus Jovialis, published in 1614, Simon Marius, one of the earliest telescopic astronomers, recounts how his patron Johan Philip Fuchs von Bimbach was offered a telescope at the Autumn Frankfurt Fair in 1608.


Engraved image of Simon Marius (1573-1624), from his book Mundus Iovialis, 1614 Source: Houghton Library via Wikimedia Commons

He didn’t purchase the proffered instrument because one of the lenses was cracked and the asking price was apparently too high. In many accounts of the invention of the telescope, this story is used as an illustration of how fast the new invention spread after Lipperhey’s unveiling in Den Hague. However, there is a major problem here; the Autumn Fair in Frankfurt in 1608 took place before Lipperhey’s demonstration. We have yet another unclear source for the ‘first telescope’.


Hans Philipp Fuchs von Bimbach Source: Wikimedia Commons

Up till 2008 it had become common practice to claim that the seller in Frankfurt and the unknown young man in Middelburg were one and the same and identified as Zacharias Janssen (1585-pre. 1632) and that he and not Lipperhey was the true inventor of the telescope and for good measure also the microscope.  How this all came about is almost Byzantine.


Zacharias Janssen Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1655, the French scholar Pierre Borel (c. 1620–1671) published the first full history of the invention of the telescope, De vero telescopii inventore.


De vero telescopii inventore 1665 Title page Source

In his book he followed the account of the Dutch Ambassador to France, Willem Boreel (1591–1668). Born in Middelburg, Boreel had memories of having met the inventor of the telescope in 1610. Not sure of his memory forty-five years later he wrote to a local magistrate in Middelburg to investigate the matter. The magistrate interviewed a then unknown spectacle-maker Johannes Zachariassen, the son of Zacharias Janssen. Johannes claimed that his father and his grandfather had invented the microscope and telescope in 1590. Johannes would also tell a similar story to Isaac Beeckman, when he was teaching him lens grinding, also claiming that he and his father had also invented the long, i.e. astronomical, telescope in 1618. Boreel confirmed Johannes account as agreeing with his memories and Borel’s account that Zacharias Janssen and not Hans Lipperhey was the true inventor of the telescope.


Portrait of Pierre Borel by Jacques Pauthe Source: Wikimedia Commons

The last of Johannes’ claims is easily disposed of because it was Johannes Kepler, who first described the astronomical telescope in his Dioptrice in 1611. As to the other claim in 1590 Johannes’ grandfather was already dead and his father Zacharias was a mere four or five years old. These objections were simply swept aside over the years and Janssen’s invention simply moved forward to 1604 another date claimed by Johannes. However modern research by Huib Zuidervaart into the life of Zacharias Janssen have shown the first contact that he had with lens grinding or spectacle-making was when he became guardian the children of another spectacle-maker ‘Lowys Lowyssen, geseyt Henricxen brilmakers’. There is no other evidence that Zacharias was ever a spectacle-maker.[3]

The unknown youth in Middelburg and the telescope seller in Frankfurt remain unknown and probably forever unknowable.

News of the wonderful new invention spread really fast throughout Europe with telescopes on sale as novelties in Paris by the early summer 1609. The enthusiasm with which the new invention was greeted and the speed with which it spread throughout Europe rather puts the lie to all the competing theories that the telescope was already invented by (insert your favourite candidate) at some date before Lipperhey’s first demonstration. If it had been, we would certainly have heard about it. As far as we know, the first astronomer to make observations with the new instrument was Thomas Harriot, who drew a sketch of the moon observed with a six-power telescope dated 26 July 1609 os (5 August ns).


Harriot’s sketch of the moon 1609

Following on to his encounter with a telescope at the Frankfurt Fair, Fuchs von Bimbach together with Simon Marius obtained, with some difficulty, suitable lenses and the two of them constructed their own telescope. Simon Marius began his own astronomical observations sometime also in 1609. Galileo Galilei heard of the telescope through his friend Paolo Sarpi and it is now thought that his claim that he devised the construction of his telescope purely on the basis of having heard of it is not true and that he had in fact seen and handled a telescope before he began his own efforts at construction.


Galileo Galilei. Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Marucelliana Source: Wikimedia Commons

Galilei/ Fernrohre / Aufnahme

Galileo’s telescopes Source: Wikimedia Commons

Galileo, ever on the look out to make a quick buck and further his career, first marketed ‘his invention’ to the civil authorities, demonstrating a six-power telescope to the aristocrats of Venice 21 August 1609. On the 24thof the month he presented said telescope formally to the Doge and Senate of Venice. The following day the authorities granted him a lifetime contract as professor of mathematics at the university with the extraordinary salary of 1,000 florins p.a. with however the condition that he would never receive another pay rise. The Senate was apparently more than somewhat miffed when they discovered that the telescope was not the invention of their talented mathematics professor but was readily available on every street corner in Europe to knockdown prices. Galileo repaid their generosity by beginning plans to leave Venice and return to Florence.

We don’t know for certain when Galileo began his astronomical observations but we do know that he was an exceptionally talented observer and was soon viewing the skies on clear nights with a twenty-power instrument of his own construction. On 7 January 1610 he knew he had hit the jackpot when he first observed three of the moons of Jupiter. Simon Marius made the same discovery one day later on 8 January. More accurately he realised he had hit the jackpot only a couple of days later when it became clear that what he had discovered were satellites and not fixed stars. Marius waited four years before he published his discovery, Galileo didn’t! He immediately changed from Italian to Latin in his observing blog log and began making plans to publish his telescopic observation before he could be beaten to the gun by some unknown rival.

He decided to dedicate his planned publication to Cosimo II De’ Medici Fourth Grand Duke of Tuscany and started negotiations with the Tuscan Court over which names/names they would prefer for the newly discovered moons. In the end the term Medicean Stars was decided upon and Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius was published with a preface dated forth day before the Ides of March 1610, that’s 12 March in modern money.


Title page of Sidereus nuncius, 1610, by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). *IC6.G1333.610s, Houghton Library, Harvard University Source: Wikimedia Commons

Seldom has a book hit the streets with such an impact. It truly marks the beginning of a new epoch in the history of astronomy and a new phase in the life of its author. Galileo got what he was angling for, he was appointed court mathematicus and philosophicus to the court in Florence and given a professorship at the university without teaching obligations but with a salary of 1,000 florins p.a.

The very poor quality of the glass available to make lenses and the errors in grinding and polishing made it very difficult for observers to see anything at all through the early telescopes, a problem that would continue to plague telescope users throughout the seventeenth century. There were as many claims made for discoveries that didn’t exist as for real ones.  All of this made it difficult for others to confirm Galileo’s spectacular claims. In the end the Jesuit astronomers of the Collegio Romano in Rome were able with much effort and many setbacks to confirm all of his discoveries. In 1611 he made a triumphant tour of Rome, which included a celebration banquet put on by the Jesuits at the Collegio. At a second banquet put on by Prince Frederico Cesi, founder and President of the Accademia dei Lincae of which Galileo would become a member, the telescope first received its name, in Greek teleskopos.

Another central problem in the first months of telescopic astronomical observation was that there existed no scientific explanation of how or why the telescope functions. This allowed critics to reject the discoveries as imaginary artefacts produced by the instrument itself. The man who came to the rescue was Johannes Kepler. Already in 1604 in his Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena Astronomiae pars optica, Kepler had published the first explanation of how lenses focus light rays and how eyeglasses work to compensate for short and long sightedness so he already had a head start on explaining how the telescope functions.

Francesco Maurolico (1494–1575) had covered much of the same ground in his Theoremata de lumine et umbra earlier than Kepler but this work was only published posthumously in 1611, so the priority goes to Kepler.


Source: Wikimedia Common


In 1611 Kepler published his very quickly written Diotrice, in which he covered the path of light rays through single lenses and then through lens combinations. In this extraordinary work he covers the Dutch or Galilean telescope, convex objective–concave eyepiece, the astronomical or Keplerian telescope, convex objective–convex eyepiece, the terrestrial telescope, convex objective–convex eyepiece–convex–field–lens to invert image, and finally for good measure the telephoto lens! Galileo’s response to this masterpiece in the history of geometrical optics was that it was unreadable!


Source: Wikimedia Commons

One small footnote to the whole who–invented–what story is that Kepler attributed the invention of the telescope to Giambattista della Porta (1535?–1615).


Giambattista della Porta Source: Wikimedia Commons

Della Porta did indeed describe the magnifying effect of the lens combination of the Dutch telescope in his Magiae Naturalis(various editions 1558 to 1589).

With a concave you shall see small things afar off, very clearly; with a convex, things neerer to be greater, but more obscurely: if you know how to fit them both together, you shall see both things afar off, and things neer hand, both greater and clearly.

He provided a primitive sketch in a letter to Prince Cesi in 1609.

Della Porta Telescope Sketch

Kepler assumed that the Dutch spectacle-maker, he didn’t know Lipperhey’s name, had somehow learnt of della Porta’s idea and put it into practice. It is more probable that della Porta was actually describing some sort of compound magnifying glass rather than a telescope and that Lipperhey had no idea of della Porta’s work.

Despite the confusion that surrounds the origins of the telescope, today most historians attribute the honours to Hans Lipperhey, whose demonstration set the ball rolling. We have come a long way since Lipperhey demonstrated his simple invention to Prince Maurits in Den Hague. I don’t suppose the humble spectacle–maker from Middelburg could have conceived the revolution in astronomy he set in motion on that day four hundred and ten years ago.

[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 intoEnglish 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)

[2]Taken from Fred Watson, Stargazer: the life and times of the Telescope, Da Capo Press, Cambridge MA, 2005

[3]For more details of the Dutch story of the invention of the telescope see Huib J. Zuidervaart, The ‘true inventor’ of the telescope. A survey of 400 years of debate, in The origins of the telescope, ed. Albert van Helden, Sven Dupré, Rob van Gent, Huib Zuidervaart, KNAW Press, Amsterdam, 2010


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of science, History of Technology, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

The first calculating machine


Even in the world of polymath, Renaissance mathematici Wilhelm Schickard (1592–1635) sticks out for the sheer breadth of his activities. Professor of both Hebrew and mathematics at the University of Tübingen he was a multi-lingual philologist, mathematician, astronomer, optician, surveyor, geodesist, cartographer, graphic artist, woodblock cutter, copperplate engraver, printer and inventor. Born 22 April 1592 the son of the carpenter Lucas Schickard and the pastor’s daughter Margarete Gmelin he was probably destined for a life as a craftsman. However, his father died when he was only ten years old and his education was taken over by various pastor and schoolteacher uncles. Following the death of his father he was, like Kepler, from an impoverished background, like Kepler he received a stipend from the Duke of Württemburg from a scheme set up to provided pastors and teachers for the Protestant land. Like Kepler he was a student of the Tübinger Stift (hall of residence for protestant stipendiaries), where he graduated BA in 1609 and MA in 1611. He remained at the university studying theology until a suitable vacancy could be found for him. In 1613 he was considered for a church post together with another student but although he proved intellectually the superior was not chosen on grounds of his youth. In the following period he was appointed to two positions as a trainee priest. However in 1614 he returned to the Tübinger Stift as a tutor for Hebrew.


Wilhelm Schickard, artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Here we come across the duality in Schickard’s personality and abilities. Like Kepler he had already found favour, as an undergraduate, with the professor for mathematics, Michael Maestlin, who obviously recognised his mathematical talent. However, another professor recognised his talent for Hebrew and encouraged him to follow this course of studies. On his return to Tübingen he became part of the circle of scholars who would start the whole Rosicrucian movement, most notably Johann Valentin Andreae, the author of the Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, who also shared Schickard’s interest in astronomy and mathematics.


Johann Valentin Andreae Source: Wikimedia Commons

Although Schickard appear not to have been involved in the Rosicrucian movement, the two stayed friends and correspondents for life. Another member of the group was the lawyer Christian Besold, who would later introduce Schickard to Kepler.


Christopher Besold etching by Schickard 1618

This group was made up of the brightest scholars in Tübingen and it says a lot that they took up Schickard into their company.

In late 1614 Schickard was appointed as a deacon to the parish of Nürtingen; in the Lutheran Church a deacon is a sort of second or assistant parish pastor. His church duties left him enough time to follow his other interests and he initially produced and printed with woodblocks a manuscript on optics. In the same period he began the study of Syriac. In 1617 Kepler came to Württtemburg to defend his mother against the charge of witchcraft, in which he was ably assisted by Christian Besold, who as already mentioned introduced Schickard to the Imperial Mathematicus. Kepler was much impressed and wrote, “I came again and again to Mästlin and discussed with him all aspects of the [Rudolphine] Tables. I also met an exceptional talent in Nürtingen, a young enthusiast for mathematics, Wilhelm Schickard, an extremely diligent mechanicus and also lover of the oriental languages.” Kepler was impressed with Schickard’s abilities as an artist and printer and employed him to provide illustrations for both the Epitome Astronomiae Copernicanae and the Harmonice Mundi. The two would remain friends and correspondents for life.


3D geometrical figures from Kepler’s Hamonice Mundi by Schickard

In 1608 Schickard was offered the professorship for Hebrew at the University of Tübingen; an offer he initially rejected because it paid less than his position as deacon and a university professor had a lower social status than an on going pastor. The university decided to appoint another candidate but the Duke, whose astronomical advisor Schickard had become, insisted that the university appoint Schickard at a higher salary and also appoint him to a position as student rector, to raise his income. On these conditions Schickard accepted and on 6 August 1619 he became a university professor. Schickard subsidised his income by offering private tuition in Chaldean, Rabbinic, mathematic, mechanic, perspective drawing, architecture, fortification construction, hydraulics and optics.


Page from a manuscript on the comets of 1618 written and illustrated by Schickard for the Duke of Württemberg

The Chaldean indicates his widening range of languages, which over the years would grow to include Ethiopian, Turkish, Arabic and Persian and he even took a stab at Malay and Chinese later in life. Schickard’s language acquisition was aimed at reading and translating text and not in acquiring the languages to communicate. Over the years Schickard acquired status and offices becoming a member of the university senate in 1628 and a school supervisor for the land of Württemberg a year later.  In 1631 he succeeded his teacher Michael Mästlin as professor of mathematics retaining his chair in Hebrew. He had been offered this succession in 1618 to make the chair of Hebrew chair more attractive but nobody had thought that Mästlin, then almost 70, would live for another 12 years after Schickard’s initial appointment.


Michael Mästlin portrait 1619 the year Schickard became professor for Hebrew (artist unknown)

In 1624 Schickard set himself the task of producing a new, more accurate map of the land of Württemberg. Well read, he used the latest methods as described by Willebrord Snell in his Eratosthenes Batavus (1617).


This project took Schickard many more years than he originally conceived. In 1629 he published a pamphlet in German describing how to carry out simple geodetic surveys in the hope that others would assist him in his work. Like Sebastian Münster’s similar appeal his overture fell on deaf ears. Later he used his annual school supervision trips to carry out the necessary work.


Part of Schickard’s map of Württemberg

Schickard established himself as a mathematician-astronomer and linguist with a Europe wide reputation. As well as Kepler and Andreae he stood in regular correspondence with such leading European scholars as Hugo Grotius, Pierre Gassendi, Élie Diodati, Ismaël Boulliau, Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, Jean-Baptiste Morin, Willem Janszoon Blaeu and many others.

The last years of Schickard’s life were filled with tragedy. Following the death of Gustav Adolf in the Thirty Years War in 1632, the Protestant land of Württemberg was invaded by Catholic troops. Along with chaos and destruction, the invading army also brought the plague. Schickard’s wife had born nine children of which four, three girls and a boy, were still living in 1634. Within a sort time the plague claimed his wife and his three daughters leaving just Schickard and his son alive. The invading troops treated Schickard with respect because they wished to exploit his cartographical knowledge and abilities. In 1635 his sister became homeless and she and her three daughters moved into his home. Shortly thereafter they too became ill and one after another died. Initially Schickard fled with his son to escape the plague but unable to abandon his work he soon returned home and he also died on 23 October 1635, just 43 years old, followed one day later by his son.

One of the great ironies of history is that although Schickard was well known and successful throughout his life, today if he is known at all, it is for something that never became public in his own lifetime. Schickard is considered to be the inventor of the first mechanical calculator, an honour that for many years was accorded to Blaise Pascal. The supporters of Schickard and Pascal still dispute who should actually be accorded this honour, as Schickard’s calculator never really saw the light of day before the 20thcentury. The story of this invention is a fascinating one.

Inspired by Kepler’s construction of his logarithm tables to simplify his astronomical calculation Schickard conceived and constructed his Rechenuhr (calculating clock) for the same purpose in 1623.

The machine could add or subtract six figure numbers and included a set of Napier’s Bones on revolving cylinders to carry out multiplications and divisions. We know from a letter that a second machine he was constructing for Kepler was destroyed in a workshop fire in 1624 and here the project seems to have died. Knowledge of this fascinating invention disappeared with the deaths of Kepler and Schickard and Pascal became credited with having invented the earliest known mechanical calculator, the Pascaline.


A Pascaline signed by Pascal in 1652 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first mention of the Rechenuhr was in Michael Gottlieb Hansch’s Kepler biography from 1718, which contained two letters from Schickard in Latin describing his invention. The first was just an announcement that he had made his calculating machine:

Further, I have therefore recently in a mechanical way done what you have done with calculation and constructed a machine out of eleven complete and six truncated wheels, which automatically reckons together given numbers instantly: adds, subtracts, multiplies and divides. You would laugh out loud if you were here and would experience, how the position to the left, if it goes past ten or a hundred, turns entirely by itself or by subtraction takes something away.

The second is a much more detailed description, which however obviously refers to an illustration or diagram and without which is difficult or even impossible to understand.

Schickard’s priority was also noted in the Stuttgarter Zeitschrift für Vermessungswesen in 1899. In the twentieth century Franz Hammer found a sketch amongst Kepler’s papers in the Pulkowo Observatory in St Petersburg that he realised was the missing diagram to the second Schickard letter.


The Rechenuhr sketch from Pulkowow from a letter to Kepler from 24 February 1624

Returning to Württemberg he found a second sketch with explanatory notes in German amongst Schickard’s papers in the Würtemmberger State Library in Stuttgart.


Hammer made his discoveries public at a maths conference in 1957 and said that Schickard’s drawings predated Pascal’s work by twenty years. In the following years Hammer and Bruno von Freytag-Löringhoff built a replica of Schickard’s Rechenuhr based on his diagrams and notes, proving that it could have functioned as Schickard had claimed.

Schickards Rechenmaschine

Schickard’s Rechenuhr. Reconstruction by Bruno Baron von Freytag-Löringhoff and Franz Hammer

Bruno von Freytag-Löringhoff travelled around over the years holding lectures on and demonstrations of his reconstructed Schickard Rechenuhr and thus with time Schickard became acknowledged as the first to invent a mechanical calculator, recognition only coming almost 450 years after his tragic plague death.



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

Today in something is wrong on the Internet

When I was growing up one of the most widespread #histSTM myths, along with the claim that people in the Middle Ages believed the world was flat and Stone Age people lived in holes in the ground, was that Galileo Galilei invented the telescope. This myth actually has an interesting history that goes all the way back to the publication of the Sidereus Nuncius. Some of Galileo’s critics misinterpreting what he had written asserted that he was claiming to have invented the telescope, an assertion that Galileo strongly denied in a latter publication. Whatever, as I said when I was growing up it was common knowledge that Galileo had invented the telescope. During the 1960s and 1970s as history of science slowly crept out of its niche and became more public and more popular this myth was at some point put out of its misery and buried discretely, where, I thought, nobody would find it again. I was wrong.

When I wrote my essay on the origins of the reflecting telescope for the online journal AEON, my editor, Corey Powell, who is himself a first class science writer and an excellent editor, asked me to provide a list of reference books to help speed up the process of fact checking my essay. I was more than happy to oblige, as even more embarrassing than a fact checker finding a factual error in what I had written, and yes even I make mistakes, would be a reader finding a real clangour after my essay had been published. As it turned out I hadn’t made any mistakes or if I did nobody has noticed yet. Imagine my surprise when I read an essay published two days ago on AEON that stated Galileo had invented the telescope. Hadn’t it been fact checked? Or if so, didn’t the fact checker know that this was a myth?

The essay in question is titled Forging Islamic Science and was written by Nir Shafir and edited by Sally Davies. The offending claim was at the beginning of the second paragraph:

Besides the colours being a bit too vivid, and the brushstrokes a little too clean, what perturbed me were the telescopes. The telescope was known in the Middle East after Galileo invented it in the 17th century, but almost no illustrations or miniatures ever depicted such an object.

I tweeted the following to both the author’s and AEON’s Twitter accounts:

If the author is complaining about forgers getting historical details wrong he really shouldn’t write, “The telescope was known in the Middle East after Galileo invented it in the 17th century…”

The author obviously didn’t understand my criticism and tweeted back:

There are references to the use of telescopes for terrestrial observations, mainly military, in the Ottoman Empire, such as in evliya çelebi.

I replied:

Galileo did not invent the telescope! He wasn’t even the first astronomer to use one for astronomical observations!

Whereupon Sally Davies chimed in with the following:

Thank you for drawing this to our attention! A bit of ambiguity here; we have tweaked the wording to say he ‘developed’ the telescope.

Sorry but no ambiguity whatsoever, Galileo did not in anyway invent the telescope and as I will explain shortly ‘developed’ is just as bad.

Today the author re-entered the fray with the following:

Thank you for bringing this up. It’s always good to get the minor details right.

The invention of the telescope is one of the most significant moments in the whole history of science and technology, so attributing its invention to the completely false person is hardly a minor detail!

About that ‘developed’. A more recent myth, which has grown up around Galileo and his use of the telescope, is that he did something special in some sort of way to turn this relatively new invention into a scientific instrument usable for astronomical observations. He didn’t. The telescope that Galileo used to discover the Moons of Jupiter differed in no way either scientifically or technologically from the one that Hans Lipperhey demonstrated to the assembled prominence at the peace conference in Den Hague sometime between the 25thand 29thof September 1608. Lipperhey’s invention was even pointed at the night sky, “and 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]

Both instruments consisted of a tube with a biconvex or plano-convex objective lens at one end and a bi-concave or plano-concave eyepiece lens at the other end. The eyepiece lens also had a mask or stop to cut down the distortion caused around the edges of the lens. The only difference was in the focal lengths of the lenses used producing different magnitudes of magnification. Galileo’s use of other lenses to increase magnification was nothing special; it had been done earlier than Galileo by Thomas Harriot and at least contemporaneous if not earlier by Simon Marius. It was also done by numerous others, who constructed telescopes independently in those first few years of telescopic astronomical observation. The claims that Galileo had developed, improved, specialised, etc., etc., the telescope are merely mythological elements of the more general Galileo hagiography. Modern research has even revealed that contrary to his own claims Galileo probably did not (re)-construct the telescope purely from having heard reports about it but had almost certainly seen and handled one before he attempted to construct one himself.

Going back to the offending AEON essay, Sally Davies could have saved herself and Nir Sharfir if she had simply changed the sentence to:

The telescope was known in the Middle East after it was invented  in the late 16th early 17th century…(even I make mistakes)

What I intended to write before my brain threw a wobbly was:

The telescope was known in the Middle East after it was invented in late 1608…

 She doesn’t even need to mention Lipperhey’s name if she wants to avoid the on going debates about who really did invent the telescope.








[1]Embassies of the King of Siam Sent to His Excellency Prince Maurits, Arrived in The Hague on 10 September 1608


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of science, History of Technology, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

Saxton and Speed two early Elizabethan cartographers and the Flemish influence

It is possible to date the start of the gradual emergence of modern cartography to the first decade of the fifteenth century when Jacopo d’Angelo produced the first Latin translation of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia(Geōgraphikḕ Hyphḗgēsis); this important Greek work had not been translated in the great wave of scientific translations in the High Middle Ages. This new knowledge of Ptolemaeus’ cartography with its projections and its longitude and latitude grids first took hold in Northern Italy, where its most famous early exponent was physician and mathematicus Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1379–1482) author of the so-called Columbus map.


Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli Source: Wikimedia Commons

From Northern Italy the new cartographer spread fairly rapidly to Austria and by 1450 Vienna was a major centre for cartography. Not long after the invention of movable metal type printing editions of the Geographia began to appear, initially without maps but very soon with, and by 1500 various editions were making their way around Europe. From Vienna the knowledge of the new cartographer moved north into Germany, with two schools of cartography developing. The so-called historical school was centred on the St. Dié mapmakers in Lorraine and includes Sebastian Münster in Basel. Whereas the so-called mathematical school, also known as the Vienna-Nürnberg school, has Johannes Schöner and Peter Apian as its two most significant exponents. Both schools include both aspects of the Ptolemaic cartography, the historical and the mathematical, in their maps and the difference is rather more one of emphasis.

From Southern Germany the new cartography spread throughout Europe. Notable cartographers, for example, are Pedro Nunes in Portugal and Oronce Fine in France. However the major centre for the new cartography became the so-called Flemish school centred on Gemma Frisius at the University of Louvain. Its two most notable associates are Gerhard Mercator and Abraham Ortelius, the two most influential cartographers in the second half of the sixteenth century.

But what of England? As with the mathematical sciences in general, England lagged well behind the continent in terms of cartography. The first Britain to become acquainted with the new developments in cartography was probably John Dee, who following his graduation at Cambridge university travelled extensively on the continent and spent two years in Louvain studying and working together with both Gemma Frisius and Gerard Mercator.


John Dee artist unknown Source: Wikimedia Commons

During his travels he also formed close friendships with both Abraham Ortelius and Pedro Nunes. When he returned to Britain Dee brought the latest developments in the Ptolemaic cartography, Frisius’ new methods of surveying through triangulation and the latest astronomical, cartographical and surveying instruments with him from Louvain. The Flemish/Dutch influence is clearly visible in the early English atlases.

It is probably no coincidence that the two ministers at Elizabeth’s court in London who pushed hard for the introduction of the new cartography into England were Sir Francis Walsingham, principle secretary to Elizabeth, and William Cecil, 1stBaron Burghley, Elizabeth’s chief advisor, both of whom were Dee’s, somewhat unreliable, patrons at court.


Engraving of Queen Elizabeth I, William Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, by William Faithorne, 1655 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Their motivations for supporting the development of cartography were political and derived from military and commercial considerations and not academic or scientific ones. The same applies, of course to the general developments in cartography in the Early Modern Period throughout Europe. Burghley, the main driving force behind a new English cartography, possessed a self made atlas of manuscript maps from various sources that he is said to have always carried with him. Burghley’s atlas has survived and is now in the British Library.


William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley from NPG artist unkown Source: Wikimedia Commons

Burghley saw the necessity, on political grounds, of organising and financing a new, modern map of the British Isles. The first cartographer, who appears to have received a commission to map Britain from Burghley, was John Rudd (c. 1498–1597). In 1561 Rudd, a graduate of Clare College and a fellow of St. John’s Cambridge, was granted a two-year paid leave of absence from his various positions in the Church of England in order to travel the country with the objective of mapping England. It is not know if Rudd fulfilled his objective, as no map of England can with certainty be assigned to him. However, it has been speculated that his work was a source for the new map of Britain published by Mercator in his atlas. Several of the maps in Burghley’s handmade atlas are attributed to Rudd.


This is a manuscript map of County Durham. It forms part of an atlas that belonged to William Cecil Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State. Burghley used this atlas to illustrate domestic matters. The map dates from 1569 and is by John Rudd, the man to whom Christopher Saxton was an apprentice to in 1570. Source: British Library

In his work Rudd employed Christopher Saxon (c. 1540–c.1610) as an assistant and taught him the art of surveying. Born in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1542 or 1544 very little is known about Saxton’s childhood, although his employment by Rudd is confirmed by documents. On Burghley’s instructions Thomas Seckford, Master in Ordinary of the Court of Request at Elizabeth’s Court,


Thomas Seckford Source: East Anglian Times

commissioned Christopher Saxton in 1573 to survey all the English counties and produce an atlas of the realm. It is not certain what motivated Burghley to act at this time but it might have been the publication of Ortelius’ Theatrum orbis terrarumin 1570, which was much admired in England, and/or Philipp Apian’s Bairischen Landtafeln from 1566

The survey of England began in 1574 and of Wales in 1577; it was completed in 1578. The individual maps were engraved as soon as finished and the proofs sent to Burghley.

Saxton1 map England Royal MS 18 D lll no 5

Saxton England and Wales proof map Source: British Library

In 1579 the maps were bound together and publish as a book for which Saxton received ten-year exclusive publication rights from the crown.


Frontispiece Saxton The Counties of England and Wales Source: My facsimile copy

Although we now refer to Saxton’s book as an atlas at the time Mercator’s coining of the term still lay sixteen years in the future. It is not known how Saxton did his surveying work but the speed with which he completed the task and the general level of accuracy of his maps would suggest two things. Firstly that he had access to previous data, possibly from Rudd’s work amongst others, and secondly that he used triangulation in some form. The nationwide chain of beacons set up by the government to warn of a Spanish invasion from the Netherlands in 1567 would have provided him with a useful set of predetermined triangulation points. The pass issued by the Privey Council on 10 July 1576 for his survey of Wales also strongly suggests triangulation as his survey method.

An open Lettre to all Justices of peace mayours & others etc within the severall Shieres of Wales. That where the bearer hereof Christofer Saxton is appointed by her Maiestie vnder her signe and signet to set forth and describe Coates [Cartes] in particulerlie all the shieres in Wales. That the said Justices shalbe aiding and assisting vnto him to see him conducted vnto any towre Castle highe place or hill to view that country, and that he maybe accompanied with ij or iij honest men such as do best know the cuntrey for the best accomplishment of that service, and that at his departure from any towne or place that he hath taken the view of said towne do set forth a horseman that speak both welshe and englishe to safe conduct to the next market Towne, etc

“…any towre Castle highe place or hill to view that country…” strongly suggests triangulation.

There are 35 maps, each bearing the arms of the Queen and Thomas Seckford. Drawn by Saxton the maps were engraved by Augustine Ryther (5 maps) the only engraver who clearly identifies as English, Remigius Hogenberg (9 maps),Leonard Terwoort of Antwerp (5 maps), Cornelius Hogius (1 map), Johannes Rutlinger (1 map) all four of whom were Flemish, Francis Scatter (2 maps), Nicholas Reynold (1 maps) are both of uncertain origin. Of the remaining unsigned maps five are definitely engraved in the Flemish style. In general there are clearly Flemish elements in the style of all the maps.

It is not known for certain when John Dee and Christopher Saxton became acquainted and whether Dee had an influence on Saxton, but when Dee, as Warden of Christ’s College, Manchester (1595–1605), became involved in a boundary dispute he employed Saxton as his surveyor to settle the argument.

Although it sold well, Saxton’s atlas was not without its critics. Although some counties are presented on separate maps others are grouped together on one map. For example the 13 Welsh counties are presented on 7 maps or Kent, Sussex, Surry, Middlesex and London are all on one map. Because of the pages are uniform in size the map scales vary considerably. Also although the maps initially appear homogeneous the symbols used vary considerably from map to map, even between maps engraved by the same engraver.  None of Saxton’s maps have roads. All of these imperfections led to various attempts to improve on Saxton’s work.

The first of these was John Norden (c. 1547–1625), who started a series of county histories, each accompanied by a map, entitled Speculum Britanniae.


John Norden Source

The first volume Speculum Britanniae: the First Parte: an Historicall, & Chorographicall Discription of Middlesexwas published in 1593. The manuscript is in the British Library with corrections in Burghley’s handwriting, which points to Burghley being Norden’s sponsor. 1595 he wrote a manuscript “Chorographical Description” of Middlesex, Essex,Surry,Sussex,Hampshire, Wight, Guernsey andJersey, dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. In 1596 he published his Preparative to the Speculum Britanniae, dedicated to Burghley. The only other volume published by Norden was Speculi Britaniae Pars: the Description of Hartfordshirein 1598. He completed accounts of five other counties in manuscript of which three were published posthumously in 1720, 1728 and 1840. It was probably Burghley’s death in 1598 that put an end to Norden’s project.


John Norden’s map of Essex 1595 Source: British Library

The next attempt was undertaken by a friend and colleague of Norden’s, William Smith (c.1550–1618), antiquarian and Rouge Dragon at the College of Heralds. Unlike Norden, who had never left England, Smith spent five years living in Nürnberg, a major cartographical centre. In 1588 Smith completed The Particuler Description of England With The Portratures of Certaine the Chieffest Citties and Townes. Between 1602 and 1603 Smith anonymously published maps of Chester, Essex, Hertfordshire, Lancashire, Leicester, Norfolk Northamptonshire, Staffordshire, Suffolk, Surry, Warwickshire and Worcester probably engraved in Amsterdam and intended as sheets for a new atlas. Smith’s maps contain the roads missing from Saxton’s maps. It is thought that Smith abandoned his atlas project because of competition from John Speed (1551 or 52–1629)


William Smith map of Lancashire 1598 Source: British Library

Speed born in Farndon, Cheshire followed his father into the tailoring business. Moving to London he became a Freeman of the Merchant Taylor’s Guild, who devoted his free time to cartography.


John Speed Source: My facsimile copy

This activity attracted the attention of Sir Fulke Greville, 1stBaron Brooke (1554–1628) a leading Elizabethan statesman, who secured him a position at the Customs and with the support of the Queen, subsidized his map making.


Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke Portrait by Edmund Lodge Source: Wikimedia Commons

A member of the society of Antiquities he became friends with such people as the historian William Camden (1551–1623) and the cartographer William Smith, who assisted him with his research. Speed published his atlas, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, which was dated 1611 in 1612. He regarded it as a supplement to his Historie of Great Britainepublished in 1611. The use of the word theatre in the title reflects the influence of Ortelius, whose own The Theatre of the World was published in English in 1606. The Empire of Great Britain is a term introduced by John Dee.


Speed title page Source: My facsimile copy

Whereas Christopher Saxton was a trained surveyor, who went out surveyed and drew his own maps, John Speed was a compiler who took his maps from various sources, including Saxton, and merely redrew them to a homogenous standard. Apart from Saxton (5 maps), Speed credits maps from John Norden (5), William Smith (2) and individual maps from Philip Symonson, John Harrington, William White, Thomas Durham and James Burrell. His maps of Wales are obviously based on Saxton’s although he doesn’t credit him. His of Ireland, which Saxton did not include in his atlas, are based on the work of Robert Lythe and Robert Jobson. However although not by him he doesn’t credit the majority of his maps. All of Speed’s maps were engraved by the Dutch engraver, Jodocus Hondius (1563–1612), who was himself one of the leading European cartographers and globe makers.

Obviously inspired by Saxton’s work Speed’s Theatre differs in that he includes Ireland and Scotland, both missing by Saxton. He gives each county a separate map and although he cannot reproduce them all to the same scale, due to page size, Like Saxton he includes a scale bar on each map. However, it is not known what length for the mile Speed used. His symbols are uniform through the entire book and on the back of each map sheet he includes topographical, administrative and historical comments. The margins of the maps often include the arms of the leading families or other informative historical drawings and following William Smith he includes plans and maps of the principle towns and cities. Speed’s Theatre is altogether a much more attractive and informative work than Saxton’s atlas even though it very clearly owes it existence to the earlier pioneering work, so it is fair to speak of a Saxon/Speed presentation of the counties of Britain.



The Eastern half of Saxton’s map of Essex (above) Speed’s version of the same (below ) to illustrate the similarities and the differences. The place where I spent the first fifteen years of my life, Thorp (now Thorpe-le-Soken) is roughly in the middle of the Tendering Hundred in the North-East corner of the county. Going south from there Little Clacton and Great Clacton are both marked but my birthplace on the coast, Clacton-on-Sea, obviously didn’t exist yet when the maps were drawn. Speed’s map contains a plan of the town of Colchester, “Britain’s oldest town”, where I went to school.

Unlike the Netherlands, where the fierce competition between the houses of Blaeu and Hondius led to ever better, ever more spectacular atlases and globes throughout the seventeenth century, following the publication of Speed’s Theatre, cartography on that scale ceased almost entirely in Britain. This meant that Speed’s Theatreremained the standard cartographical work in Britain for more than one hundred years. The burst of cartographical activity between Rudd and Speed remained a bubble rather than the start of tradition, as Gemma Frisius’, Abraham Ortelius’ and Gerard Mercator’s work had become in the Netherlands.











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A sixteenth century bestseller by an amateur cosmographer

Sebastian Münster, who with his Cosmographia wrote and published what was probably the biggestselling book in the sixteenth century, was actually a professor for Hebrew by profession and only a passionate cosmographer in his free time. Born in Ingelheim am Rhein 20 January 1488 as the son of Endres Münster a churchwarden and master of the church hospital.


Sebastian Münster portrait by Christoph Amberger c. 1550 Source: Wikimedia Commons


Münster’s birthplace Ingelheim from the Cosmographia Source: Wikimedia Commons

He studied at a Franciscan school and entered the Order in 1505. In 1507 he was sent to Löwen and then Freiburg im Breisgau, where he studied under Gregor Reisch (c. 1467–1525), author of the well known encyclopaedic student textbook the Margarita Philosophica, in particular geography and Hebrew.


Ptolemeus and Astronomia from Gregor Reisch’s Margarita Philosophica Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1509 he became a pupil of the humanist scholar Konrad Pelikan (1478–1556), who over the next five years taught him Hebrew, Greek, mathematics, and cosmography. In 1512 he was anointed a priest. Pelikan and Münster expanded their studies to include other Semitic languages, in particular Aramaic and Ethiopian.


Konrad Pelikan Source: Wikimedia Commons

From 1514 to 1518 he taught at the Franciscan high school in Tübingen. Parallel to his teaching he studied astrology, mathematics and cosmography under Johannes Stöffler. From 1518 he taught at the Franciscan high school in Basel and from 1521 to 1529 at the University of Heidelberg. In 1529 he left the Franciscan Order and became professor for Hebrew at the University of Basel as Pelikan’s successor, converting to Protestantism. In 1530 he married Anna Selber the widow of the printer/publisher Adam Petri, the cousin and printing teacher of Johannes Petreius. As a Hebraist he published extensively on language, theology and the Bible but it is his work as a cosmographer that interest us here. All of his books were published by his stepson Heinrich Petri.

In 1528 he published a pamphlet entitled Erklärung des neuen Instruments der Sunnen(Explanation of a new instrument of the Sun) in which he issued the following request, Let everyone lend a hand to complete a work in which shall be reflected…the entire land of Germany with all its territories, cities, towns, villages, distinguished castles and monasteries, its mountains, forests, rivers, lakes, and its products, as well as the characteristics and customs of its people, the noteworthy events that have happened and the antiquities which are still found in many places. He gave his readers instructions on how to record an area cartographically from a given point. This is the earliest indication of Münster’s intension to create a full geographical description of the German Empire. This first appeal proved in vain; it would be another sixteen years before he realised this high ambition. Münster satisfied himself with the publication of a small pamphlet Germaniae descriptioin 1530 based on a revised edition of a map of Middle Europe from Nicolaus Cusanus.

Turning his attention to ancient Greek geography Münster published Latin editions of Solinus’ Polyhistorand Pomponius Mela’s De situ orbis. In 1532 Münster drew a world map for Simon Grynaeus’ and Johann Huttich’s popular travel book Novus Orbis Regionum(“New World Regions”, which described the journeys of famous explorers. The map in not particular innovative and does not go much further in its information than the 1507 Waldseemüller world map. However it does contain a border of fascinating illustrations thought to have been created by Hans Holbein, who in his youth had worked for the Petri publishing house.


Münster’s 1532 World Map

In 1540 Münster issued his edition of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, which was based on the Latin translation by Willibald Pirckheimer. His edition entitled, Geographia universalis, vetus et nova(“Universal Geography, Old and New”) was the first work to contain separate maps for each of the then four continents. In total the work contain forty-six maps drawn by Münster. The world map in this work differs substantially from the one from 1532.


Münster’s map of America Source: Wikimedia Commons

Münster’s  magnum opus his Cosmographiaor to give it its full title:

Cosmographia. Beschreibung aller Lender durch Sebastianum Münsterum: in welcher begriffen aller Voelker, Herrschaften, Stetten, und namhafftiger Flecken, herkommen: Sitten, Gebreüch, Ordnung, Glauben, Secten und Hantierung durch die gantze Welt und fürnemlich Teütscher Nation (Getruckt zu Basel: durch Henrichum Petri 1544)


Cosmographia title page

finally appeared in 1544 with contributions from over one hundred scholars from all over Europe, who provided maps and texts on various topics for inclusion in what was effectively an encyclopaedia. Over the next eighty years the work was published in thirty-seven editions, in German (21), Latin (5), French (6), Italian (3), Czech (1) and English (1) (although the English edition is an incomplete translation). The work was continually revised and expanded, the 1544 original had 600 pages and the final edition from 1628 1800. The work was published in six volumes, which in the 1598 edition were as follows:

Book I: Astronomy, Mathematics, Physical Geography, Cartography

Book II: England, Scotland, Ireland, Spain, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Savoy, Trier, Italy

Book III: Germany, Alsace, Switzerland, Austria, Carniola, Istria, Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Pomerania, Prussia, Livland

Book IV: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Walachia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Turkey

Book V: Asia Minor, Cyprus, Armenia, Palestine, Arabia, Persia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Scythia, Tartary India, Ceylon, Burma, China, East Indies, Madagascar, Zanzibar, America

Book VI: Mauritania, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Senegal, Gambia, Mali, South Africa, East Africa


Town plan of Bordeaux from the Cosmographia Source: Wikimedia Commons

As indicated in his original call for cooperation, Münster’s Cosmographia was much more than a simple atlas mapping the world but was an integrated description combining geography, cartography, history and ethnography to create an encyclopaedic depiction of the known world.


Chartre under attack from the Cosmographia Source: Wikimedia Commons

In total at least 50,000 German copies and 10,000 Latin ones left the Petri printing house in Basel over the eight-four years the book was in print, making it probably the biggest selling book, with the exception of the Bible, in the sixteenth century. The Cosmographiaset new standards in ‘modern’ geography and cartography and paved the way for the Civitates Orbis Terrarumof Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg in 1572, the TheatrumOrbis Terrarum from Abraham Ortelius from 1570 and Mercator’s Atlas from 1595. Despite the competition from the superior atlases of Ortelius and Mercator, the Cosmographiasold well up to the final edition of 1628.

Münster’s Cosmographiais without a doubt a milestone in the evolution of modern cartography and geography and he deserves to be better known than he is. Bizarrely, although they mostly aren’t aware of it, Germans of a certain age are well aware of what Münster looks like, as his portrait was used for the 100 DM banknote from 1961 to 1995, when he was replaced by Clara Schumann.


Source: Wikimedia Commons



Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of science, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized