Category Archives: Renaissance Science

Hans Holbein and the Nürnberg–Ingolstadt–Vienna Renaissance mathematical nexus.

There is a strong tendency, particularly in the popular history of science, to write about or present scientists as individuals. This leads to a serious distortion of the way that science develops and in particular propagates the lone genius myth. In reality science has always been a collective endeavour with its practitioners interacting in many different ways and on many different levels. In the Renaissance, when travelling from one end of Europe to the other would take weeks and letters often even longer, one might be excused for thinking that such cooperation was very low level but in fact the opposite was the truth, with scholars in the mathematical sciences exchanging information and ideas throughout Europe. A particularly strong mathematical nexus existed in the Southern German speaking area between the cities of Nürnberg, Ingolstadt and Vienna in the century between 1450 and 1550. Interestingly two of the paintings of the Northern Renaissance artist Hans Holbein the Younger open a door into this nexus.

Holbein (c. 1497–1543) was born in Augsburg the son of the painter and draughtsman Hans Holbein the Elder. As a young artist he lived and worked for a time in Basel where he became acquainted with Erasmus and worked for the printer publisher Johann Froben amongst others. Between 1526 and 1528 he spent some time in England in the household of Thomas More and it is here that he painted the second portrait I shall be discussing. The next four years find him living in Basel again before he returned to England in 1532 where he became associated with the court of Henry VIII, More having fallen out of favour. It was at the court that he painted, what is probably his most well know portrait, The Ambassadors in 1533.

Hans Holbein The Ambassadors Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hans Holbein The Ambassadors
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The painting shows two courtiers, usually identified as the French Ambassador Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur standing on either side of a set of shelves laden with various books and instruments. There is much discussion was to what the instruments are supposed to represent but it is certain that, whatever else they stand for, they represent the quadrivium, arithmetic, geometry music and astronomy, the four mathematical sciences taught at European medieval universities. There are two globes, on the lower shelf a terrestrial and on the upper a celestial one. The celestial globe has been positively identified, as a Schöner globe and the terrestrial globe also displays characteristics of Schöner’s handwork.

Terrestrial Globe The Ambassadors Source Wikimedia Commons

Terrestrial Globe The Ambassadors
Source Wikimedia Commons

Celestial Globe The Ambassadors Source Wikimedia Commons

Celestial Globe The Ambassadors
Source Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Schöner (1477–1547) was professor for mathematics at the Egidienöberschule in Nürnberg, the addressee of Rheticus’ Narratio Prima, the founder of the tradition of printed globe pairs, an editor of mathematical texts for publication (especially for Johannes Petreius the sixteenth centuries most important scientific publisher) and one of the most influential astrologers in Europe. Schöner is a central and highly influential figure in Renaissance mathematics.

On the left hand side of the lower shelf is a copy of Peter Apian’s Ein newe und wolgegründete underweisung aller Kauffmanns Rechnung in dreyen Büchern, mit schönen Regeln und fragstücken begriffen (published in Ingolstadt in 1527) held open by a ruler. This is a popular book of commercial arithmetic, written in German, typical of the period. Peter Apian (1495–1552) professor of mathematics at the University of Ingolstadt, cartographer, printer-publisher and astronomer was a third generation representative of the so-called Second Viennese School of Mathematics. A pupil of Georg Tannstetter (1482–1535) a graduate of the University of Ingolstadt who had followed his teachers Johannes Stabius and Andreas Stiborious to teach at Conrad Celtis’ Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum, of which more later. Together Apian and Tannstetter produced the first printed edition of the Optic of Witelo, one of the most important medieval optic texts, which was printed by Petreius in Nürnberg in 1535. The Tannstetter/Apian/Petreius Witelo was one of the books that Rheticus took with him as a present for Copernicus when he visited him in 1539. Already, a brief description of the activities of Schöner and Apian is beginning to illustrate the connection between our three cities.

Apian's Arithmetic Book The Ambassadors Source: Wikimedia Commons

Apian’s Arithmetic Book The Ambassadors
Source: Wikimedia Commons

When Sebastian Münster (1488–1552), the cosmographer, sent out a circular requesting the cartographers of Germany to supply him with data and maps for his Cosmographia, he specifically addressed both Schöner and Apian by name as the leading cartographers of the age. Münster’s Cosmographia, which became the biggest selling book of the sixteenth century, was first published by Heinrich Petri in Basel in 1544. Münster was Petri’s stepfather and Petri was the cousin of Johannes Petreius, who learnt his trade as printer publisher in Heinrich’s printing shop in Basel. The Petri publishing house was also part of a consortium with Johann Amerbach and Johann Froben who had employed Hans Holbein in his time in Basel. Wheels within wheels.

The, mostly astronomical, instruments on the upper shelf are almost certainly the property of the German mathematician Nicolaus Kratzer (1487–1550), who is the subject of the second Holbein portrait who will be looking at.

Nicolas Kratzer by Hans Holbein Source: Wikimedia Commona

Nicolas Kratzer by Hans Holbein
Source: Wikimedia Commona

Born in Munich and educated at the universities of Cologne and Wittenberg Kratzer, originally came to England, like Holbein, to become part of the Thomas More household, where he was employed as a tutor for More’s children. Also like Holbein, Kratzer moved over to Henry VIII’s court as court horologist or clock maker, although the clocks he was responsible for making were more probably sundials than mechanical ones. During his time as a courtier Kratzer also lectured at Oxford and is said to have erected a monumental stone sundial in the grounds of Corpus Christi College. One polyhedral sundial attributed to Kratzer is in the Oxford Museum for the History of Science.

Polyhedral Sundial attributed to Nicolas Kratzer Source: MHS Oxford

Polyhedral Sundial attributed to Nicolas Kratzer
Source: MHS Oxford

In 1520 Kratzer travelled to Antwerp to visit Erasmus and here he met up with Nürnberg’s most famous painter Albrecht Dürer, who regular readers of this blog will know was also the author of a book on mathematics. Dürer’s book contains the first printed instructions, in German, on how to design, construct and install sundials, so the two men will have had a common topic of interest to liven there conversations. Kratzer witnessed Dürer, who was in Antwerp to negotiate with the German Emperor, painting Erasmus’ portrait and Dürer is said to have also drawn a portrait of Kratzer that is now missing. After Kratzer returned to England and Dürer to Nürnberg the two of them exchanged, at least once, letters and it is Kratzer’s letter that reveals some new connections in out nexus.

Albrecht Dürer selfportrait Source: Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer selfportrait
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In his letter, from 1524, Kratzer makes inquires about Willibald Pirckheimer and also asks if Dürer knows what has happened to the mathematical papers of Johannes Werner and Johannes Stabius who had both died two years earlier.

Willibald Pirckheimer (1470–1530) a close friend and patron of Dürer’s was a rich merchant, a politician, a soldier and a humanist scholar. In the last capacity he was the hub of a group of largely mathematical humanist scholars now known as the Pirckheimer circle. Although not a mathematician himself Pirckheimer was a fervent supporter of the mathematical sciences and produced a Latin translation from the Greek of Ptolemaeus’ Geōgraphikḕ or Geographia, Pirckheimer’s translation provided the basis for Sebastian Münster’s edition, which was regarded as the definitive text in the sixteenth century. Stabius and Werner were both prominent members of the Pirckheimer circle.

Willibald Pirckheimer by Albrecht Dürer Source: Wikimedia Commons

Willibald Pirckheimer by Albrecht Dürer
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The two Johanneses, Stabius (1450–1522) and Werner (1468–1522), had become friends at the University of Ingolstadt where the both studied mathematics. Ingolstadt was the first German university to have a dedicated chair for mathematics. Werner returned to his hometown of Nürnberg where he became a priest but the Austrian Stabius remained in Ingolstadt, where he became professor of mathematics. The two of them continued to correspond and work together and Werner is said to have instigated the highly complex sundial on the wall of the Saint Lorenz Church in Nürnberg, which was designed by Stabius and constructed in 1502.

St Lorenz Church Nürnberg Sundial 1502 Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

St Lorenz Church Nürnberg Sundial 1502
Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

It was also Werner who first published Stabius’ heart shaped or cordiform map projection leading to it being labelled the Werner-Stabius Projection. This projection was used for world maps by Peter Apian as well as Oronce Fine, France’s leading mathematicus of the sixteenth century and Gerard Mercator, of whom more, later. The network expands.

Mercator cordiform world map 1538 Source: American Geographical Society Library

Mercator cordiform world map 1538
Source: American Geographical Society Library

In his own right Werner produced a partial Latin translation from the Greek of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia, was the first to write about prosthaphaeresis (a trigonometrical method of simplifying calculation prior to the invention of logarithms), was the first to suggest the lunar distance method of determining longitude and was in all probability Albrecht Dürer’s maths teacher. He also was the subject of an astronomical dispute with Copernicus.

Johannes Werner Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Werner
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Regular readers of this blog will know that Stabius co-operated with Albrecht Dürer on a series of projects, including his famous star maps, which you can read about in an earlier post here.

Johannes Statius Portrait by Albrecht Dürer Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Statius Portrait by Albrecht Dürer
Source: Wikimedia Commons

An important non-Nürnberger member of the Pirckheimer Circle was Conrad Celtis (1459–1508), who is known in Germany as the arch-humanist. Like his friend Pirckheimer, Celtis was not a mathematician but believed in the importance of the mathematical sciences. Although already graduated he spent time in 1489 on the University of Kraków in order to get the education in mathematics and astronomy that he couldn’t get at a German university. Celtis had spent time at the humanist universities of Northern Italy and his mission in life was to demonstrate that Germany was just as civilised and educated as Italy and not a land of barbarians as the Italians claimed. His contributions to the Nuremberg Chronicle can be viewed as part of this demonstration. He believed he could achieve his aim by writing a comprehensive history of Germany including, as was common at the time its geography. In 1491/92 he received a teaching post in Ingolstadt, where he seduced the professors of mathematics Johannes Stabius and Andreas Stiborius (1464–1515) into turning their attention from astrology for medicine student, their official assignment, to mathematical cartography in order to help him with his historical geography.

Conrad Celtis Source: Wikimedia Commons

Conrad Celtis
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unable to achieve his ends in Ingolstadt Celtis decamped to Vienna, taking Stabius and Stiborius with him, to found his Collegium poetarum et mathematicorum as mentioned above and with it the so-called Second Viennese School of Mathematics; the first had been Peuerbach and Regiomontanus in the middle of the fifteenth century. Regiomontanus spent the last five years of his life living in Nürnberg, where he set up the world’s first scientific publishing house. Stiborius’ pupil Georg Tannstetter proved to be a gifted teacher and Peter Apian was by no means his only famous pupil.

The influence of the Nürnberg–Ingolstadt–Vienna mathematicians reached far beyond their own relatively small Southern German corridor. As already stated Münster in Basel stood in contact with both Apian and Schöner and Stabius’ cordiform projection found favour with cartographers throughout Northern Europe. Both Apian and Schöner exercised a major influence on Gemma Frisius in Louvain and through him on his pupils Gerard Mercator and John Dee. As outlined in my blog post on Frisius, he took over editing the second and all subsequent editions of Apian’s Cosmographia, one of the most important textbooks for all things astronomical, cartographical and to do with surveying in the sixteenth century. Frisius also learnt his globe making, a skill he passed on to Mercator, through the works of Schöner. Dee and Mercator also had connections to Pedro Nunes (1502–1578) the most important mathematicus on the Iberian peninsular. Frisius had several other important pupils who spread the skills in cosmography, and globe and instrument making that he had acquired from Apian and Schöner all over Europe.

Famously Rheticus came to Nürnberg to study astrology at the feet of Johannes Schöner, who maintained close contacts to Philipp Melanchthon Rheticus patron. Schöner was the first professor of mathematics at a school designed by Melanchthon. Melanchthon had learnt his mathematics and astrology at the University of Tübingen from Johannes Stöffler (1452–1531) another mathematical graduate from Ingolstadt.

Kupferstich aus der Werkstatt Theodor de Brys, erschienen 1598 im 2. Bd. der Bibliotheca chalcographica Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kupferstich aus der Werkstatt Theodor de Brys, erschienen 1598 im 2. Bd. der Bibliotheca chalcographica
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Another of Stöffler’s pupils was Sebastian Münster. During his time in Nürnberg Rheticus became acquainted with the other Nürnberger mathematicians and above all with the printer-publisher Johannes Petreius and it was famously Rheticus who brought the manuscript of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus to Nürnberg for Petreius to publish. Rheticus says that he first learnt of Copernicus’s existence during his travels on his sabbatical and historians think that it was probably in Nürnberg that he acquired this knowledge. One of the few pieces of astronomical writing from Copernicus that we have is the so-called Letter to Werner. In this manuscript Copernicus criticises Werner’s theory of trepidation. Trepidation was a mistaken belief based on faulty data that the rate of the precession of the equinoxes is not constant but varies with time. Because of this highly technical dispute amongst astronomers Copernicus would have been known in Nürnberg and thus the assumption that Rheticus first heard of him there. Interestingly Copernicus includes observations of Mercury made by Bernhard Walther (1430–1504), Regiomontanus partner, in Nürnberg; falsely attributing some of them to Schöner, so a connection between Copernicus and Nürnberg seems to have existed.

In this brief outline we have covered a lot of ground but I hope I have made clear just how interconnected the mathematical practitioners of Germany and indeed Europe were in the second half of the fifteenth century and the first half of the sixteenth. Science is very much a collective endeavour and historians of science should not just concentrate on individuals but look at the networks within which those individual operate bringing to light the influences and exchanges that take place within those networks.


Filed under History of Astrology, History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation, History of science, Renaissance Science

The Renaissance Mathematicus “Live & Uming”

Those of you with nothing better to do can listen to a podcast of the Renaissance Mathematicus (that’s me folks!) searching for words, desperately trying to remember names, uming & ahing, thinking on his feet (I was actually sitting down the whole time) and generally stumbling his way through an eighty minute spontaneous, unrehearsed, live interview with Scott Gosnell of Bottle Rocket Science on such scintillated topics, as why the Pope got his knickers in a twist over Galileo or that notorious seventeenth century religious fanatic Isaac Newton. In fact the same boring load of old codswallop that you can read at you leisure here on this blog. As I say if you have nothing more exciting to do, such as watching paint dry or listening to the grass grow, then go listen.

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Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astronomy, History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

Der Erdapfel

Erdapfel is the word for potato in my local Franconia dialect, in fact in most of Southern Germany and Austria. In High Germany a potato is ein Kartoffel. Don’t worry this is not a post about root vegetables or variations in German regional dialects. Der Erdapfel is also the name given to the so-called Behaim Globe, the oldest known surviving terrestrial globe, Nürnberg’s most famous historical artefact. The name, which literally translates as Earth Apple, is thought to be derived from the medieval term Reichsapfel (Empire Apple), which was the name of the Globus Cruciger, or orb, as in orb and sceptre, the symbols of power of the Holy Roman Emperor; the orb symbolising the earth. The Behaim globe, which was conceived but not constructed by Martin Behaim, is together with Behaim, the subject of many historical myths.


Martin Behaim was born in Nürnberg in 1459 and lived with his parent on the market place next door to the businessman Bernhard Walther (1430–1504) who was the partner to Regiomontanus in his printing and astronomical activities during the last five years of his life living in Nürnberg. Martin’s father was one of the rich traders, who dominated Nürnberg culture. In 1576 he was sent away to Flanders to apprentice as a cloth trader. In 1484 he journeyed to Portugal, which is where to mythological part of his life begins. According to the traditional version of his life story he took part in two sea voyages down the west coast of Africa with Diogo Cão. He was knighted by the Portuguese king and appointed to the Portuguese Board of Navigation. All of this took place because he was supposedly a student of Regiomontanus, whose ephemerides, the first ever printed ones and highly accurate, were well known and respected on the Iberian Peninsula. All of this information comes from Behaim himself and some of it can be read in the texts on the Behaim Globe.


Artist's impression of Martin Behaim with his globe. Artist unknown

Artist’s impression of Martin Behaim with his globe. Artist unknown

Between 1490 and 1493 Behaim returned to Nürnberg to sort out his mother’s testament and it was during this period that he persuaded to city council to commission him to produce a globe and a large-scale wall map of the world. It is not certain if the wall map was ever produced and if it was it has not survived but the globe certainly was and it is now, as already said, the oldest known surviving terrestrial globe. It is not however, as is often falsely claimed the oldest or first terrestrial globe. The earliest recorded terrestrial globe was constructed by Crates of Mallus in the second century BCE. Also Ptolemaeus in his Geographia, in his discussion of different methods of cartographical projection, acknowledges that a globe in the only way to accurately represent to earth. The Behaim Globe is not even the earliest European medieval globe as the Pope in known to have commissioned earlier terrestrial globes, which have not survived. Given their method of construction and the materials out of which they are made the survival rate of globes is relatively low.

The globe remained the property of the city council of Nürnberg until the middle of the sixteenth century when it was returned to the Behaim family who basically threw it into the corner of an attic and forgot about it. In the nineteenth century it was rediscovered and studied by various historians of cartography and a copy was made for a museum in Paris. Unfortunately it was also ‘restored’ several times through processes that did far more damage than good. In the early twentieth century it was lent to the Germanische Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg. In the 1930s the Behaim family considered selling the globe, most probably in America, and to prevent this Adolf Hitler bought the globe with his own private money and presented it to the German nations. It still resides in the Germanische Nationalmuseum.

I said that the globe is veiled in myths and we will start to sort them out. Firstly Behaim only conceived the globe he didn’t construct it as many people believe. The globe was made by pasting strips of linen onto a fired clay ball. The ball produced by Hans Glockengiesser (a family name that translates as bell founder) and the globe constructed by Ruprecht Kolberger. After the paste had set the globe was cut free from the clay form by a single cut around its equator and the two halves we then pasted together on a wooded frame. The actually map was painted onto the linen ball by the painter and woodblock cutter Georg Glockendon and the lettering was carried out by Petrus Gegenhart. Behaim only seems to have directed and coordinated these activities.


Another popular myth is that because of Behaim’s activities in Portugal the cartography of the globe is cutting edge up to the minute modern; nothing could be further from the truth. The basis of the cartography is Ptolemaeus with obvious additions from other ancient Greek sources as well as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville and The Travels of Marco Polo. Much of the cartographical work is inaccurate even by the standards of the time, including surprisingly the west coast of Africa that Behaim supposedly had explored himself, which brings us to Behaim’s personal claims.


His claim to have sailed with Diogo Cão is almost certainly a lie. At the time of Cão’s first voyage along the African coast Behaim is known to have been in Antwerp. On his second voyage Cão erected pillars at all of his landing places naming all of the important members of the crew, who were on the voyage, Martin Behaim is not amongst them. They is no confirmatory evidence that Behaim was actually a member of Portuguese Board of Navigation and if he was his membership almost certainly owed nothing to Regiomontanus, as there is absolutely no evidence that he ever studied under him. The historian of navigation, David Waters, suggests that if Behaim was actually a member of this august body then it was because the Portuguese hoped to persuade the rich Nürnberger traders to invest money in their expeditionary endeavours, Behaim thus functioning as a sort of informal ambassador for the Republic of Nürnberg.

The picture that emerges is that Martin Behaim was con artist probably deceiving both the Portuguese court and the Nürnberg city council. The Behaim Globe is an interesting artefact but its historical or scientific significance is minimal. If you are in Nürnberg, I can recommend going to the Germanische Nationalmuseum to see it but when you are there also take a look at the Schöner 1520 terrestrial manuscript globe in the neighbouring room. It’s cartographically much more interesting and Schöner, as opposed to Behaim, plays a very important role in the history of globe making.


Johannes Söner's 1520 terrestrial Globe. Germanische Nationalmuseum

Johannes Söner’s 1520 terrestrial Globe.
Germanische Nationalmuseum




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

Made in Nürnberg

In the period from roughly 1550 and 1650 Nürnberg was the leading centre in Europe, and thus probably the world, for the manufacture of scientific instruments. It is historically interesting to look at how this town in the middle of Europe came to acquire this status and also to take a brief look at some of the more famous of the Nürnberger instrument makers from this ‘golden’ period.

Like many European towns and cities, Nürnberg, as an entity, began to emerge at the beginning of the High Middle Ages, probably around the year 1000 CE. Like many such settlements it was initially not much more than a fortified hill top at a crossroads. The first record of the name is 1050 CE as nuorenberc, which later evolved into Nuremberg, the name by which it is still known in English. This name is the subject of a rare German bad pun; the Germans don’t really go in for puns. According to folk etymology the name was originally ‘Nur einem Berg’, which translates as ‘just a hill’. The geographical position of Nürnberg played an important role in its development. If you take an outline map of Europe and draw a straight line from Kiel, in Northern Germany, to Northern Italy and a second one from Paris to Prague, the point where they cross is Nürnberg. This led to Nürnberg becoming a major European trading hub in the medieval period; importing wares from the Northern Italian trading cities and then distributing them throughout Europe.

Germany didn’t exist as a country in the Middle Ages but was a loose conglomerate of large and small states interconnected through a network of feudal obligations and vaguely held together in the so-called Holy Roman Empire, which as somebody once quipped was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire. Within this patchwork of large and small Germanic states Nürnberg was one of the so-called Free Imperial Cities, small independent city-states, which only owed feudal allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor. From 1105 CE Nürnberg was ruled by a hereditary Burggraf, a title that translates as Lord of the castle. From 1192 till 1427 the Burggrafen of Nürnberg came from the Hohenzollern family, who would go on to play a significant role in German history. In 1427 the rich traders of Nürnberg, of whom more shortly, bought the Burggraf rights from the Hohenzollern and from then on until 1806, when Nürnberg became part of Bavaria, the city was ruled by the town council. Although dominated by the rich trader families the town council was surprisingly democratic with three groups of councillors being appointed/elected from the three tiers of citizenry at regular intervals. During the Renaissance Nürnberg, like one of its major trading partners Venice, called itself a republic.

The Holy Roman Emperor granted the city of Nürnberg special tax privileges, which combined with its favourable geographical position and the large Europe wide demand for the spices that came into Europe through the Northern Italian trading cities meant that the Nürnberg traders became very, very wealthy. This led to them looking for new opportunities to invest their surplus profits. The High Middle Ages saw a steeply rising demand for metals (gold, silver, copper, lead, iron) and with it an expansion of the metal ore mining industry. The major ore deposits, and thus the mines, were situated in the eastern part of Middle Europe, Eastern Germany, Hungary, Rumania, Austria etc. Realising that it was an expanding business with a future the Nürnberg traders began investing in the metal ore mines and soon controlled a large part of this industry. At first content just to sell the ore they soon realised that they could make more profit if they smelted the ore themselves and so built their own smelters and began selling refined metal. It did not take long before the artisans of Nürnberg began to work the metal themselves producing finished metal objects for sale. By the fifteenth century Nürnberg had become one of the major metal working centres of Europe producing quite literally everything that could be made from metal from pins and needles to suits of armour. A sign of this development is that the first mechanical wire drawing machine was developed in Nürnberg. The Nürnberg guilds were incredibly well organised with single families responsible for the production of one object or group of objects. When Karl V (Holly Roman Emperor 1519–1556) ordered 5000 suits of armour from Nürnberg, one group of families was responsible for the leg plates, another for the breast plates and so on. Highly organised piecework.

Nürnberg as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicles 1493

Nürnberg as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicles 1493

Of course many scientific instruments are made of metal, mostly brass, and so Nürnberg in its all inclusiveness became a major centre for the manufacture of all types of scientific instruments. In fact it became the leading European centre for this work and thus, most probably, the leading world centre in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. We have two important historical attestations of Nürnberg’s supremacy in this area. The philosopher Nicholas of Cusa (Cusanus) (1401–1464) was very interested in astronomy and he purchased a celestial globe and other astronomical instruments from Nürnberg and this can still be viewed in the Cusanus Museum in his birthplace Kues. In 1470 when Johannes Regiomontanus set out to reform and modernise astronomy he moved from Budapest to Nürnberg because, as he tells us in a letter, Nürnberg had a good communications network through which he could communicate with other astronomers and because the best astronomical instruments were manufactured in Nürnberg. The communications network was an essential element of any Renaissance trading city and Nürnberg’s was second only to that of Venice.

By 1500 Nürnberg was the second biggest German city with a population of around 40 000, half of which lived inside the city walls and the other half in the surrounding villages, which belonged to the city. It was one of the richest cities in the whole of Europe and enjoyed a high level of culture, investing both in representative architecture and the arts, with many of the leading German Renaissance artists fulfilling commissions for the rich Nürnberg traders, known locally as the Patrizier; most famously Albrecht Dürer. Interesting in our context, Dürer’s maths book contained the first printed instructions in German of how to design and construct sundials. The first half of the sixteenth century was the golden age of scientific instrument production in Nürnberg with many of the leading instrument makers selling their wares throughout Europe, where they can still be found in museums in many different countries. In what follows I shall give brief sketches of a couple of the more well known of these craftsmen.

Nürnberg was famous for it’s portable sundials with family dynasties producing high quality products over three, four or even five generations. At the beginning of the sixteenth century the most significant sundial maker was Erhard Etzlaub (ca. 1460–1532) who like many other Nürnberger instrument makers was as much as a scholar as an artisan. As a cartographer he produced the first map of the Nürnberg region. He followed this with the so-called Rome pilgrimage map displaying the routes to Rome for the Holy Year of 1500, which famously Copernicus also attended. This map plays an important role in the history of modern cartography because it’s the first map with a scale, enabling the pilgrim to plan his daily journeys.

Etzlaub's Rome Pilgrim Map Source: Wikimedia Commons

Etzlaub’s Rome Pilgrim Map
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Etzlaub also constructed a map on the cover of one of his compasses in 1511 that is drawn in a projection that comes close to the Mercator projection. Etzlaub was a member of the so-called Pirckheimer Circle. A group of like minded proponents of the mathematical sciences centred around Willbald Pirckheimer, soldier, politician humanist scholar and translator from Greek into Latin of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia; a translation that became a standard work.

Willibald Pirckheimer, porträtiert von Albrecht Dürer (1503) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Willibald Pirckheimer, porträtiert von Albrecht Dürer (1503)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This group of mathematical scholars demonstrated their interest in the mathematical sciences and in the construction of complex instruments in the highly complex sundial that they painted on the side of the Lorenzkirche in 1502, which also displays the time according to the Great Nürnberger Clock:

Lorenzkirche Sundial Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

Lorenzkirche Sundial
Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

And the clock on the Frauenkirche constructed in 1506:

Frauenkirche Clock

Frauenkirche Clock

The gold and blue ball above the clock dial displays the phases of the moon and is still accurate today.

Another member of the Pirckheimer Circle was Johannes Schöner(1477–1547), addressee of Rheticus’ Naratio Prima, the first published account of Copernicus’ heliocentrism.

Johannes Schöner Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Schöner
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Schöner was the first producer of serial production printed globes both terrestrial and celestial. He also wrote, printed and published pamphlets on the design and manufacture of various scientific instruments. Schöner was Europe’s leading globe maker whose globes set standards for globe making, which influenced the manufacture of globes down to the nineteenth century.

Schöner Celestial Globe 1535 Source: Science Museum London

Schöner Celestial Globe 1535
Source: Science Museum London

Also a member of the Pirckheimer Circle and a close friend of Schöner’s was Georg Hartman (1489–1564).

Georg Hartmann Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

Georg Hartmann
Source: Astronomie in Nürnberg

Hartmann like Schöner was a globe maker although none of his globes have survived. He was also one of the leading sundial makers of his generation and his complex and beautiful dials can still be found in many museums.

Hartmann Bowl Sundial Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hartmann Bowl Sundial
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the early sixteenth century Nürnberg was the main European centre for the production of astrolabes and here Hartmann played a leading role. As far as can be ascertained Hartmann was the first person to produce astrolabes in series.

Hartmann Astrolabe Yale Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hartmann Astrolabe Yale
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Previously all astrolabes were produced as single pieces, Hartmann, however, produced series of identical astrolabes, probably employing other craftsmen to produce the individual parts according to a pre-described plan and them assembling them in his workshop. As a young man Hartmann had spent several years living in Italy where he was friends with Copernicus’ brother Andreas. As a scholar Hartmann was the first to investigate magnetic inclination or dip. However his studies were never published and so the credit for this discovery went to the English mariner Robert Norman.

Handmade metal instruments were, of course, very expensive and could in reality only be purchased by the wealthy, who often bought them as ornaments of status symbols rather than to be used. To make scientific instruments available to those with less money both Schöner and Hartmann produced paper instruments. These consisted of the scales and tables, normally found engraved on the metal instruments, printed accurately on paper, which the user could then paste onto a wooden background and so construct a cheap but functioning instrument.

Paper and Wood Astrolabe Hartmann Source: MHS Oxford

Paper and Wood Astrolabe Hartmann
Source: MHS Oxford

A later instrument maker was Christian Heiden (1526–1576) who like Schöner was professor for mathematics on the Egidiengymnasium in Nürnberg, Germany’s first gymnasium (similar to a grammar school). He made a wide range of instruments but was especially well known for his elaborate and elegant sundials, as much works of art as scientific instruments these were much prized amongst the rich and powerful and could be found on many a German court.

Column Sundial by Christian Heyden Source: Museumslandschaft Hessen-Kassel

Column Sundial by Christian Heyden
Source: Museumslandschaft Hessen-Kassel

This is of course only a very, very small sample of the Nürnberger instrument makers, the history pages of the Astronomie in Nürnberg website, created and maintained by Dr Hans Gaab, lists 44 globe makers, 38 astronomical instrument makers and more than 100 sundial makers between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries; with the greatest concentration in the sixteenth century. Nürnberg was known throughout Europe for the quality and the accuracy of its scientific instruments and examples of the Nürnberger handwork can be found in museums in many countries, even outside of Europe.


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

Abraham Ortelius and the 16th century information age.

The sixteenth century saw the evolution of modern cartography emerge out of a renaissance in Ptolemaic cartography. In the second half of the century the Netherlands played a leading role in this process. I have already blogged twice about Gerard Mercator the man most closely associated with the modern cartography, here and here, and also about his teacher Gemma Frisius, so today I want to turn my attention to Mercator’s friend and rival Abraham Ortelius.


Abraham Ortelius by Peter Paul Rubens Source: Wikimedia Commons

Abraham Ortelius by Peter Paul Rubens
Source: Wikimedia Commons

He was born Abraham Ortel (as we most Renaissance scholars there are numerous variant spellings of the family name) in Antwerp on 14 April 1527, to where his grandfather William had moved the family from Augsburg in Southern Germany in 1460, supposedly because of religious persecution. The son of a merchant who died whilst he was still young, in about 1535. Ortelius studied mathematics, Latin and Greek as a youth and apprenticed as an engraver of maps and entered the Antwerp guild of map illuminators in 1547. He set a shop trading in books, prints and maps with his sister and became an engraver for the highly influential Plantin publishing house. Through his various activities as a trader Ortelius came to travel extensively throughout Europe, visiting all the regions of Germany, Italy, France, England and Ireland.

He met and became friends with Gerard Mercator at the Frankfurt book Fair in 1554. In 1559-1560 he accompanied Mercator on his cartographical expedition through Trier, Lorraine and Poitiers. It was during this trip that Mercator is supposed to have persuaded his friend to not just engrave and colour other people’s maps but to become a cartographer in his own right.

Following the example of his mentor, Ortelius started out producing single maps sold as prints. His first effort was an eight-sheet world map produced in 1564. This was followed by a two-sheet map of Egypt (1565), a single-sheet map of the Holy Land in 1566, a two-sheet map of Asia (1567) and a six-sheet map of Spain (1570). Ortelius’ entry into the map business was a success. Gemma Frisius, Mercator and Ortelius were all cartographers and businessmen. However, whereas it is safe to say that Gemma Frisius and Mercator were cartographers first and businessmen second in the case of Ortelius it was the other way round; he was very much a businessman first and a cartographer second.


Ortelius' World Map 1564 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ortelius’ World Map 1564
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Given the massive increase in international trade and the travel involved in it, there was a strong increase in the demand for good maps. To save themselves the trouble of carrying around large bundles of loose maps various people had started collecting together maps from various sources and binding them together in a book. However, the maps in such collections were of different styles, varying qualities and highly varying usefulness. Ortelius and his business partners came up with the idea of printing and publishing a comprehensive collection of maps of uniform size all in the same style and containing the most up to date geographical data available. Published by Ortelius and printed by Egidius Coppens van Diest the first edition of Ortelius’ Theatrum orbis terrum (the first modern atlas!?) containing fifty-three maps appeared in 1570.


Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Title Page Source: Wikimedia Commons

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Title Page
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ortelius didn’t produced the maps from scratch himself but relied on the maps of other cartographers, modifying and improving them as he reproduced them in his uniform style oft incorporating elements of several maps into his finished product. This method of working was not new but had been employed by the leading cartographers throughout the sixteenth century, where Ortelius differed was in that he included a Catlogus cartographorum, a list of eighty-seven cartographers whose work he had used to compose his Theatrum. The Theatrum was a major success going through forty editions between 1570 and 1624. As well as numerous Latin editions there were also several editions each in German, French, Italian, Spanish and English. The Theatrum was very definitely a sixteenth-century bestseller.


Map of the Persian Empire from the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Source: Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Persian Empire from the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum
Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of the most important features of the Theatrum was its evolution. Each new edition would be modified and updated with as much new information as Ortelius could obtain.

Starting with 53 maps in 1570, it grew to 70 maps in 1573, 93 maps in 1579, 122 maps in 1584 and in the final edition prepared by Ortelius and published in 1590, one year after his death, 134 maps. Plantin had been involved in marketing and selling the Theatrum from the very beginning and took over printing it in 1579 uptil his own death in 1589.

Of interest is a pocket sized version, or epitome, of the Theatrum that was published by Philips Galle and printed by Plantin beginning in 1577. Like the original this too went through many editions in several different languages, the first edition having been in Dutch.

The evolution of the Theatrum between its birth in 1570 and Ortelius’ death in 1589 is a wonderful example of the so-called Republic of Letters in operation in the Early Modern Period. Ortelius had connections all over Europe and even further afield amongst the scholars of his day. Through correspondence they supplied him with the information he needed to update and modernise his maps. Also supplying the geographical and historical information with which he annotated later editions of his magnum opus. This information network worked in both directions with Ortelius passing on information he had received from one member of the network to others he thought might be interested. This correspondence did not only deal in matters geographical and cartographical but also included much information from all the various branches of natural history. An impression of Ortelius’ correspondence network can be gained from his Album Amicorum (friendship book), which he maintained from 1574 to 1596. It has 130 entries that read like a who’s who of the European intellectual elite of the period.


Maris Pacifici, 1589, the first dedicated map of the Pacific to be printed Source: Wikimedia Commons

Maris Pacifici, 1589, the first dedicated map of the Pacific to be printed
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ortelius’ second major geographical work was his Synonymia Geographica sive Popularum, Regionum, Insularum, Urbium… Appelationes et Nomina, originally an appendix in the Theatrum but then published in expanded form as a separate volume beginning in 1578. This is a list of classical place names identifying their modern locations based on Ortelius’ own historical research, an important research tool for anybody studying classical works.

Another minor claim to fame possessed by Ortelius is that he appears to be the first person to have suggested a theory of continental drift based on his recognition that the continents surrounding the Atlantic basin seemed to fit together. He suggested that the Americas had been torn away from Europe and Africa by earthquakes and floods. His theory fell on deaf ears in his own times.

We still have one rather important linguistic question to clear up. If the ‘first modern atlas’, was entitled the Theatrum orbis terrum by Ortelius, its creator, then why do we call a collection of maps an atlas?

Almost at the same time as Ortelius, his friend Mercator embarked on a very similar project if his motivation was somewhat different. I have blogged about Mercator’s map collection, which he called an atlas already here so I won’t repeat the story now. Mercator’s book only appeared in full, bearing for the first time the title Atlas, posthumously in 1595, twenty-five years after the first appearance of the Theatrum. Although Mercator’s work was without doubt superior to Ortelius’, the later was already a well-established best seller and the larger more complex work of Mercator failed to seriously challenge the market leader. Had the situation remained as it was, we would probably still refer to a bound collection of maps as a theatre. In case you are wondering Ortelius’ original title translates as something like view of the earthly globe. However at the end of the 1590s things changed. Ortelius died and although his Theatrum continued to appear until 1624 nobody took the trouble to update it. On the other hand Mercator’s son died in 1599 and Jodocus Hondius a cartographical publisher and globe maker from Amsterdam bought up the rights to Mercator’s Atlas. Hondius did update and modify Mercator’s work and so took over dominance in the market. In 1624 Hondius’ biggest rival Willem Janszoon Blaeu bought the rights to Ortelius’ Theatrum incorporating it into his own map book that he titled an atlas in imitation of Hondius. And so it is that we now call a bound collection of maps an atlas and not a theatre.









Filed under History of Cartography, Renaissance Science

A Swiss Clockmaker

We all have clichéd images in our heads when we hear the names of countries other than our own. For many people the name Switzerland evokes a muddled collection of snow-covered mountains, delicious superior chocolates and high precision clocks and watches. Jost Bürgi who was born in the small town of Lichtensteig, in the  Toggenburg region of the canton of St. Gallen on 28 February 1552 fills this cliché as the most expert clockmaker in the sixteenth century. However Bürgi was much more that just a Swiss clockmaker, he was also an instrument maker, an astronomer, a mathematician and in his private life a successful property owner and private banker, the last of course serving yet another Swiss cliché.

As we all too many figures, who made significant contributions to science and technology in the Renaissance we know next to nothing about Bürgi’s origins or background. There is no known registration of his birth or his baptism; his date of birth is known from the engraving shown below from 1592, in which the portrait was added in 1619 but which was first published in 1648. That the included date is his birthday was confirmed by Bürgi’s brother in law.


His father was probably the locksmith Lienz Bürgi but that is not known for certain. About his education or lack of it nothing is known at all and just as little is known about where he learnt his trade as clockmaker. Various speculations have been made by historians over the years but they remain just speculations. The earliest documentary proof that we have of Bürgi’s existence is his employment contract when he entered the service of the Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hessen-Kassel as court clockmaker, already twenty-seven years old, on 25 July 1579. Wilhelm was unique amongst the German rulers of the Renaissance in that he was not only a fan or supporter of astronomy but was himself an active practicing astronomer. In his castle in Kassel he constructed, what is recognised as, the first observatory in Early Modern Europe.

Wilhelm IV. von Hessen-Kassel Source: Wikimedia Commons

Wilhelm IV. von Hessen-Kassel
Source: Wikimedia Commons

He also played a major role in persuading the Danish King Frederick II, a cousin, to supply Tycho Brahe with the necessary land and money to establish an observatory in Denmark. In the 1560s Wilhelm was supported in his astronomical activities by Andreas Schöner, the son of the famous Nürnberger cartographer, globe and instrument maker, astronomer, astrologer and mathematician Johannes Schöner. He also commissioned the clockmaker Eberhard Baldewein (1525-1593) to construct two planet clocks and a mechanical globe.


Eberhart Baldewein Planet clock 1661 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Eberhart Baldewein Planet clock 1661
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The planet clock shows the positions of the sun, moon and the planets, based on Peter Apian’s Astronomicom Caessareum, on its various dials.


Eberhard Baldewein Mechanical Celestial Globe circa 1573

Eberhard Baldewein Mechanical Celestial Globe circa 1573 The globe, finished by Heinrich Lennep in 1693, was used to record the position of the stars mapped by Wilhelm and his team in their observations.

These mechanical objects were serviced and maintained by Baldewein’s ex-apprentice, Hans Bucher, who had helped to build them and who had been employed by Wilhelm, for this purpose, since 1560. When Bucher died in 1578-1579 Bürgi was employed to replace him, charged with the maintenance of the existing objects on a fixed, but very generous salary, and commissioned to produce new mechanical instruments for which he would be paid extra. Over the next fifty years Bürgi produced many beautiful and highly efficient clocks and mechanical globes both for Wilhelm and for others.

Bürgi Quartz Clock 1622-27 Source: Swiss Physical Society

Bürgi Quartz Clock 1622-27
Source: Swiss Physical Society






Bürgi Mechanical Celestial Globe 1594 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Bürgi Mechanical Celestial Globe 1594
Source: Wikimedia Commons



Jost Bürgi and Antonius Eisenhoit: Armillary sphere with astronomical clock made 1585 in Kassel, now at Nordiska Museet in Stockholm. Source Wikimedia Commons

Jost Bürgi and Antonius Eisenhoit: Armillary sphere with astronomical clock made 1585 in Kassel, now at Nordiska Museet in Stockholm.
Source Wikimedia Commons

Bürgi was also a highly inventive clockmaker, who is credited with the invention of both the cross-beat escapement and the remontoire, two highly important improvements in clock mechanics. In the late sixteenth century the average clocks were accurate to about thirty minutes a day, Bürgi’s clock were said to be accurate to less than one minute a day. This amazing increase in accuracy allowed mechanical clocks to be used, for the first time ever, for timing astronomical observations. Bürgi also supplied clocks for this purpose for Tycho’s observatory on Hven. In 1592 Wilhelm presented his nephew Rudolph II, the German Emperor, with one of Bürgi’s mechanical globes and Bürgi was sent to Prague with the globe to demonstrate it to Rudolph. This was his first contact with what would later become his workplace. Whilst away from Kassel Bürgi’s employer, Wilhelm died. Before continuing the story we need to go back and look at some of Bürgi’s other activities.

As stated at the beginning Bürgi was not just a clockmaker. In 1584 Wilhelm appointed the Wittenberg University graduate Christoph Rothmann as court astronomer. From this point on the three, Wilhelm, Rothmann and Bürgi, were engaged in a major programme to map the heavens, similar to and just as accurate, as that of Tycho on Hven. The two observatories exchanged much information on instruments, observations and astronomical and cosmological theories. However all was not harmonious in this three-man team. Although Wilhelm treated Bürgi, whom he held in high regard, with great respect Rothmann, who appears to have been a bit of a snob, treated Bürgi with contempt because he was uneducated and couldn’t read or write Latin, that Bürgi was the better mathematician of the two might have been one reason for Rothmann’s attitude.

In the 1580s the itinerant mathematician and astronomer Paul Wittich came to Kassel from Hven and taught Bürgi prosthaphaeresis, a method using trigonometric formulas, of turning multiplication into addition, thus simplifying complex astronomical calculations. The method was first discovered by Johannes Werner in Nürnberg at the beginning of the sixteenth century but he never published it and so his discovery remained unknown. It is not known whether Wittich rediscovered the method or learnt of it from Werner’s manuscripts whilst visiting Nürnberg. The method was first published by Nicolaus Reimers Baer, who was then accused by Tycho of having plagiarised the method, Tycho claiming falsely that he had discovered it. In fact Tycho had also learnt it from Wittich. Bürgi had expanded and improved the method and when Baer also came to Kassel in 1588, Bürgi taught him the method and how to use it, in exchange for which Baer translated Copernicus’ De revolutionibus into German for Bürgi. This was the first such translation and a copy of Baer’s manuscript is still in existence in Graz. Whilst Baer was in Kassel Bürgi created a brass model of the Tychonic geocentric-heliocentric model of the cosmos, which Baer claimed to have discovered himself. When Tycho got wind of this he was apoplectic with rage.

In 1590 Rothmann disappeared off the face of the earth following a visit to Hven and for the last two years of Wilhelm’s life Bürgi took over as chief astronomical observer in Kassel, proving to be just as good in this work as in his clock making.

Following Wilhelm’s death his son Maurice who inherited the title renewed Bürgi’s contract with the court.


Kupferstich mit dem Porträt Moritz von Hessen-Kassel aus dem Werk Theatrum Europaeum von 1662 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kupferstich mit dem Porträt Moritz von Hessen-Kassel aus dem Werk Theatrum Europaeum von 1662
Source: Wikimedia Commons

However Maurice did not share his father’s love of astronomy investing his spare time instead in the study of alchemy. Bürgi however continued to serve the court as clock and instrument maker. Over the next eight years Bürgi made several visits to the Emperor’s court in Prague and in 1604 Rudolph requested Maurice to allow him to retain Bürgi’s services on a permanent basis. Maurice acquiesced and Bürgi moved permanently to Prague although still remaining formally in service to Maurice in Kassel. Rudolph gave Bürgi a very generous contract paying him 60 gulden a month as well as full board and lodging. As in Kassel all clocks and globes were paid extra. To put that into perspective 60 gulden was a yearly wage for a young academic starting out on his career!

In Prague Bürgi worked closely with the Imperial Mathematicus, Johannes Kepler. Kepler, unlike Rothmann, respected Bürgi immensely and encouraged him to publish his mathematical works. Bürgi was the author of an original Cos, an algebra textbook, from which Kepler says he learnt much and which only saw the light of day through Kepler’s efforts. Kepler was also responsible for the publication of Bürgi’s logarithmic tables in 1620.


Bürgi's Logarithmic Tables Source: University of Graz

Bürgi’s Logarithmic Tables
Source: University of Graz

This is probably Bürgi’s greatest mathematical achievement and he is considered along side of John Napier as the inventor of logarithms. In many earlier historical works Bürgi is credited with having invented logarithms before Napier. Napier published his tables in 1614 six years before Bürgi and is known to have been working on them for twenty years, that is since 1594. Bürgi’s fan club claim that he had invented his logarithms in 1588 that is six years earlier than Napier. However modern experts on the history of logarithms think that references to 1588 are to Bürgi’s use of prosthaphaeresis and that he didn’t start work on his logarithms before 1604. However it is clear that the two men developed the concept independently of each other and both deserve the laurels for their invention. It should however be pointed out that the concept on which logarithms are based was known to Archimedes and had already been investigated by Michael Stifel earlier in the sixteenth century in a work that was probably known to Bürgi.

Through his work as clock maker Bürgi became a very wealthy man and invested his wealth with profit in property deals and as a private banker lending quite substantial sums to his customers. In 1631 Bürgi, now 80 years old, retired and returned ‘home’ to Kassel where he died in January of the following year shortly before his 81st birthday. His death was registered in the Church of St Martin’s on the 31 January 1632. Although now only known to historians of science and horology, in his own time Bürgi was a well-known and highly respected, astronomer, mathematician and clock maker who made significant and important contributions to all three disciplines.




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

Do you believe in magic?

I’m in a bit of a quandary about this post for two different reasons. Firstly I didn’t really want to write yet another negative post at the moment and was considering various positive options when somebody drew my attention to the article that is going to be the subject of this one. However having once read through it I just couldn’t let it go. On the other hand having always been a powerful advocate of seriously investigating the so-called occult science activities of the scholars in the Early Modern period I find it slightly bizarre to now be giving the Hist-Sci Hulk treatment to an article that appears to do just that. The article in question is posted on the Vox website and is entitled, These 5 men were scientific geniuses. They also thought magic is real.

Before dealing with the ‘5 men’ there are a couple of general points of criticism that have to be levelled at this article. To begin with the whole thing is written in a supercilious tone of superiority. Despite the authors disclaimer, “We have the benefit of hindsight today, which gives us an unfair advantage over these geniuses” he creates the impression the whole time of ‘I’m just a simple Joe’ but I’m way more enlightened than these ‘geniuses’. Not a good way to approach any historical topic. The other major failure that weaves its way through the whole article is the equating of astrology, alchemy and magic, as one and the same thing. This is of course historically a serious mistake and disqualifies the entire article from the start. The grounds for justification, academic status and the levels of acceptance of the three disciplines differ from each other, as well as over time and place. Each one of them has to be dealt with separately within the given context and they cannot and should not be lumped together. This of course relates to the authors supercilious tone of superiority and is typical of the woolly thinking of all too many gnu atheists and adherents of scientism. Anything that doesn’t conform with their, often badly articulated, concept of science is dismissed as ‘magical thinking’ and as worthless. Let us now turn to the ‘5 men’.

First up we have Tuscany’s favourite son, Galileo Galilei who apparently believed “astrology changed everything”:

Today, Galileo (1564-1642) is held up as a paragon of rationality. He advocated heliocentrism — the idea that the sun, not the Earth, was at the center of the solar system — fought an anti-heliocentric church at great risk, and greatly advanced astronomy throughout Europe.

He also was something like a fortune teller.

Galileo didn’t just believe in astrology: he practiced it, conducted it for wealthy clients, and taught it to medical school students. If students at the University of Padua had taken MCATs, Galileo would have included a question about whether a Leo should date a Gemini.

Galileo wasn’t alone in keeping up on his signs. His contemporary, Johannes Kepler conducted his own astrological studies, though more reluctantly (he called people who believed in astrology “fatheads”).

Ignoring the opening paragraph and cutting to the chase a Renaissance astrologer, particularly an academic one, would object intensely to being referred to as ‘a fortune teller’. In the Renaissance astrology was generally accepted as a reputable academic disciple, a science i.e. a system of knowledge, whereas most other forms of divination i.e. fortune telling were frowned on as charlatanry. Here we have historical context, blithely ignored by our author, poking its nose in. Medical astrology, or iatro-mathematics, was a mainstream academic discipline taught at all Renaissance universities in the medical faculty, usually by the professor of mathematics. So if Galileo did indeed teach iatro-mathematics he would have been merely fulfilling the terms of his contract. I say if because it is to be assumed that Galileo did indeed teach such courses, however the proof that he did so doesn’t exists. The comment about ‘whether a Leo should date a Gemini’ is just plain stupid, as iatro-mathematics has nothing to do with judicial astrology, that is the everyday horoscope astrology, a completely different branch of the discipline.

Of course Galileo, who really did accept the truth of astrology, did practice judicial astrology famously casting and interpreting his own horoscope and those of his daughters. He also cast and interpreted the horoscopes not of ‘rich clients’ but wealthy patrons; there is a substantial difference. Rich clients would imply that Galileo’s services as an astrologer were for hire like any other street vendor, this was not the case. Rich patrons sought out Galileo’s company to share in his intellectual talents. Here his abilities to cast and interpret horoscopes became instruments of credit. Galileo entertained his patrons by supplying witty and stimulating after dinner discourses or debates or by providing the required horoscope. In exchange Galileo received favours from his patrons, a case of good wine, help with the cost of publishing his books or introductions to important and influential people such as the Pope.

On the good Johannes Kepler our author walks right into one of the most persistent myths of all in the history of science based on a classic case of quote mining, the claim that he was reluctant about astrology. Kepler was much more concerned about astrology, which he definitely believed in, than Galileo and wrote several books about it. However he totally rejected conventional horoscope astrology believing that the stars signs were artificial constructs with no significance whatsoever. He developed his own system based on planetary alignments, astrological aspects, and directio (directions, which I’m not going to explain!). Not unsurprisingly he didn’t find any takers for his reformed astrology. However his vitriolic diatribes against the conventional horoscope astrology and its practitioners, when quote mined, leads many people to the mistaken belief that he was in some way anti-astrology.

Our author next reveals, oh my god, that Newton was an alchemist. This is probably the most often ‘revealed secret’ about Grantham’s most famous son. This is titled “Isaac Newton thought alchemy was the future”, as we will see Newton was actually much more interested in alchemy’s past.

John Maynard Keynes called Isaac Newton (1642-1726) “the last of the magicians” with good reason. Newton spent half his life obsessed with alchemy, the transformative magic most frequently associated with turning different metals into gold. To make things even more complicated, in 1696, Newton became Warden of the Mint, and he became master of the Mint in 1700. The Royal Mint, of course, makes the coins for the entire United Kingdom. To be clear: an alchemist was the person in charge of making all the money.

Newton wasn’t the only respected mind who had visions of diving into gold coins. Robert Boyle is considered the father of chemistry, but he dabbled in alchemy as well. In fact, he was so committed to the alchemical cause that he fought to make alchemy legal, since Henry IV had banned it (because alchemy wasn’t good for the monetary supply). Needless to say, the repeal wasn’t necessary.

The philosopher’s stone Newton chased after wasn’t only able to “cure” metals that weren’t gold. It also had medical powers that fascinated Newton and his peers. Unfortunately, today you can only find the philosopher’s stone in the British subtitle of the first Harry Potter book.

Alchemy is not magic and any medieval or renaissance alchemist would have been deeply insulted if anybody had accused him of practicing magic. Alchemy as practiced by Newton or Boyle considered itself to be a well-founded knowledge system and it was this that attracted Newton. Newton certainly never had vision of diving into gold coins and neither did Boyle. Newton’s beliefs were in fact even weirder than our author thinks. Newton was an adherent of a widespread Renaissance philosophy known as prisca sapientia.

This theory thought that humanity had been in possession of perfect knowledge of the world shortly after the creation. This knowledge had become lost over time and Newton believed that his scientific discoveries were not discoveries but rediscoveries. He also believed that alchemy was the oldest form of knowledge and that if he could discover the secrets of alchemy he could tap into that ancient source of all knowledge. Pretty bizarre, I know, but it all formed a coherent whole in Newton’s worldview. On a scientific level the Newton experts are now convinced that his belief in alchemy enabled him to develop his theory of universal gravity, which, with its action at a distance, heavily contradicted the prevailing mechanical philosophy. The Cartesian and Leibnizian mechanical philosophers criticised his theory of gravity for exactly this reason.

Our author seems to think that there is something wrong with an alchemist becoming Warden or Master of the Mint. In fact Newton’s extensive chemical knowledge, won through his alchemical experimentation over many years, enabled him to develop and to put into practice new much improved methods of assaying metals to test the purity of coins. A major win for the Royal Mint.

The closing comment about alchemy and Harry Potter is a perfect example of the author’s childish attitude, supercilious superiority. This attitude is displayed to the full in his paragraphs about Tycho Brahe, entitled “Tycho Brahe made everyone believe he was a sorcerer”.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) created his own model of the universe and, though he didn’t get things quite right, helped advance astronomy and catalogued more than 1,000 stars. He also convinced everyone he was a sorcerer.

He did so from the unique perch of his private sorcerer’s island, Hveen (today known in English as Ven). Fantastically wealthy, Brahe built multiple observatories there, had a squad of astronomical assistants, and he used tiny automata (robots) to convince the locals he had magic powers. It didn’t hurt that he partied hard, had his nose partly sliced off in a duel and got his pet moose drunk at parties.

But Tycho didn’t just hoodwink the public into believing he was magical — he believed it too. He publically lectured against anyone who believed astrology was fake, and he also believed alchemy was the future for mystical discoveries. Brahe even became so synonymous with magic that an entire calendar of magical days was made in his honor (and his name was slapped on to give it magical credibility).

This is a bizarre mixture of half true facts and fairy stories. Tycho only catalogued 700 stars but added 300 more from the Ptolemaic star catalogue to bring his own up to 1000. He did nothing at all to convince anyone that he was a sorcerer. The island of Hven was his fief, awarded to him by the Danish King as his birth right as a highborn aristocrat and to call it a sorcerer’s island is not only wrong but also childish. He only built two observatories, one in his mansion house Uraniborg and the other a sunken observatory in the grounds called Stjerneborg. The story about the automata is a myth created by Pierre Gassendi in his biography of Tycho. The nose and moose stories are actually irrelevancies to the subject under discussion along the lines of, if I show that Tycho was weird then people are more likely to believe the rest of the shit that I’m dishing up.

Once again we have a very fundamental category error. Tycho was a practicing astrologer and a Paracelsian pharmacist neither of which activities is magic. Tycho held an oration at the beginning of a guest lecture course on astronomy that he held at the University of Copenhagen defending the validity of astrology, a not unusual presentation in that age. Rheticus’ public oration on being appointed professor for mathematics in Wittenberg was on the same subject. Tycho an adherent of the Renaissance microcosmos/macrocosmos philosophy, as above so below, also believed that alchemy served the same function on earth as astrology in the heavens but both were in his opinion ‘scientific’ and not mystical. Tycho’s interest in alchemy centred on his belief in and practice of Paracelsian medicine, a leading medical theory in some circles in Europe at the time and consisted mainly of research into and production of medicines.

The Magical Calendar is an engraving not a book and the author, Adam McLean, of the modern book on this object that our author links to writes the following:

“Although his name appears at the bottom right hand corner of the plate, the Magical Calendar probably has no direct connection with Tycho Brahe […] It seems most likely that the well known name of Tycho Brahe was associated with the Magical Calendar in order to gain a degree of publicity and supposed authority for the work. Certainly there is nothing in Brahe’s accepted corpus of writings of a similar nature.” [my emphasis]

Doesn’t quite say what our author wants it to say, does it?

Our author’s next selection is a truly bad example of low fruit. He presents us with Carl Linnaeus with the title “Carl Linnaeus classified magical animals like the hydra and believed in mermaids”.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) imposed taxonomical order on animal and plant life. In his era, scientists were discovering all sorts of new species at a rapid clip (Linnaeus himself thought that pelicans might be a myth). That rapid pace of discovery led Linnaeus to believe, perhaps reasonably enough, that humans would soon find a host of mythological animals.

Linnaeus devoted a whole section of his landmark Systema Naturae to these strange beasts. It was called Animalia Paradoxa and included:

  • the hydra
  • the satyrus (a monkey-like man, similar to Pan in Greek mythology)
  • the phoenix (the bird that rose from the ashes)

Did Linnaeus believe in these animals? It’s hard to know, and some of Linnaeus’s defenders say he only included the animals to point out how absurd they were. In the 1730s, he became famous for debunking a hydra in Hamburg. However, we can reasonably claim that Linnaeus believed he’d found a troglodyte, was pretty confident he’d seen a unicorn horn, and was very excited at the chance to find a mermaid.

Whatever the motivation, Linnaeus wasn’t alone in believing in bizarre, vaguely magical animals. Gottfried Leibniz managed to help found calculus, yet he still wanted to fill a museum with weird (and imaginary) animals like the myrmecoleon (some sort of ant-lion).

The tone of this whole section is concerned with how superior our author is in comparison with the poor benighted Linnaeus; the heavy sent of mockery cannot be overlooked. He gives no consideration to the time in which Linnaeus was working and writing. He also appears to have left his own theme, as there is nothing ‘magical’ about the things he lists Linnaeus as having done.

Linnaeus lived and worked in the eighteenth century there was no Internet, no telephones, no telegraph, not even a reliable let alone universal postal system; a letter to South America, for example, would probably take months to arrive at its destination and quite possibly might not arrive at all. Linnaeus lived all of his life in Northern Europe and was dependent on the reports of others for descriptions of non-European species of plants and animals. If he got no chance to view one personally then a tiger was just as much a mythical animal as a manticore and he had no chance of proving the real existence of the one or the other. What we have here is an eighteenth century natural historian carefully classifying all the plants and animals that are known to him through multiple written sources. It’s worth noting that Linnaeus places those mythical creatures that he classifies into a separate category that he names Paradoxa the Greek pardoxon meaning contrary to accepted opinion, i.e. dodgy. Systema Naturae went through many editions and in the later ones this category was left out. Only one real animal was included in Paradoxa, the pelican, which given the fact that travellers tales described the pelican as cutting its own breast to feed its children was not an irrational decision. None of the mythical animals was included in a category with real animals. What we have here is careful rational scientific behaviour not magical thinking.

Linnaeus included humans as primates, which of course caused a controversy in the eighteenth century. He also included two other species in the genus homo, Homo troglodytes based on the accounts of Jacob Bontius and Homo lar based on other reports. He asked the Swedish East India Company to look for confirming evidence of the existence of Homo troglodytes, which they couldn’t deliver and Homo lar was later categorised as a gibbon, again a good natural historian doing his work. Belief in unicorns, some form of single horned horse, based on the existence of narwhal tusks was still very widespread in the eighteenth century, so to try and ridicule Linnaeus or this is pathetic. The same applies to mermaids.

The author’s attempt to besmirch Leibniz is really clutching at straws. What the hell is ‘managed to help invent calculus’ supposed to mean? That’s not exactly the usual way of talking about one of the greatest mathematical achievements of the seventeenth century. Curiosity cabinets and natural history collections played a central role in scientific activities throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one of the largest, that of Hans Sloane, forming the basis of the British museum after Sloane’s death. Leibniz’ Drôle de Pensée, amusing thought, was to extend the curiosity cabinet into a much larger public exhibition space with active displays and machines alongside the passive objects displaying the full spectrum of science, technology and medicine, Science Museum anyone? That his long list of potential exhibits contains one mythical animal hardly makes this something to deride.

Our author’s fifth genius is, as would be expected, Paracelsus who apparently “loved natural magic and himself”.

Paracelsus (1493-1541) did a lot when he was alive, including basically inventing toxicology and naming zinc. But when he wasn’t revolutionizing scientific methods and naming metals, he was a big fan of magical things.

Born as Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, he renamed himself Paracelsus, both because it was shorter and it literally meant he was “better than Celsus,” a first century Roman medical researcher (in Paracelsus’s defense, he may have been renamed by his biggest fans). Paracelsus wrote that from an early age the “transmutation of metals” was his obsession, and he pursued it with vigor as an adult.

When he wasn’t traveling the world performing surgeries, he tried to utilize “natural magic” to help patients. He was quoted as saying “magic is a great secret wisdom,” and while his understanding of natural magic occasionally lent itself to scientific inquiry, he also believed that “the soul strongly desires sulphur.” As the scientist on this list closest in time to Aristotle, it makes sense that Paracelsus would indulge in magic and the occult.

In his defense, that belief in magic was grounded in a commitment to inquiry: Paracelsus thought magic was just science that wasn’t understood yet. In a way, that unites all the scientists on this list, who pursued new knowledge even when it meant looking in some very unusual places.

The claim that Paracelsus basically invented toxicology, although not original to our author (who I doubt has any original thoughts), is historically highly dubious as poisons have been studied extensively since antiquity and it is rather strangely based on the legendary Paracelsus quote Dosis sola venenum facit, the dose makes the poison. Paracelsus was not born Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, I refer the reader to my earlier post on the subject of his name.

The rest of the paragraphs on Paracelsus are a confused mess of unrelated claims picked at random from other peoples writings and doesn’t earn the right to be analysed so I won’t. I would ask the author why, having suddenly introduced the term, he doesn’t actually explain what natural magic is or was. Possibly the worst single sentence in the whole sorry mess that is this article is, As the scientist on this list closest in time to Aristotle, it makes sense that Paracelsus would indulge in magic and the occult. Anybody who actually knew anything about either Paracelsus or Aristotle could not conceive of writing this sentence, even as a parody.

Returning to my initial criticism of this apology for a historical article, astrology and alchemy are not magic if dealing academically and historically with these disciplines and because he introduces it at the end ‘natural magic’ is not magic as it is generally understood either. As often the case I find it fascinating that people who quite literally don’t know what they’re talking about think that it’s OK to write an article about the history of science on a widely read popular website. If they were to write about something popular, such as football or cars, on the same level no editor in the world would allow them to publish it, so why do they treat the history of science with such disrespect?





Filed under History of Alchemy, History of Astrology, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science