Journalists getting the facts wrong in the 19th century

One of the joys of having an extensive twitter stream is the unexpected titbits that it throws up from time to time. Recently Lee Jackson[1] (@VictorianLondon) posted this small newspaper cutting from The Times for the 2nd May 1862.

This is an excerpt from an account of the 1862 Great London Exposition not to be confused with the more famous Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. This Exposition was held in a building especially constructed for the purpose in South Kensington, where the Natural History Museum now stands.

Panoramic view of the International Exhibition of 1862 in South Kensington, London
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A twenty-one acre construction designed by Captain Francis Fowke (1823–1865) of the Royal Engineers, it was supposed to be a permanent structure but when parliament refused to buy the building after the Exposition closed it was demolished and the materials used to build Alexandra Palace. The building cost £300,000 paid for out the profits of the 1851 Exhibition. Fowke also produced the original plans for the Natural History Museum but died before they could be realised. His plans were modified by Alfred Waterhouse, the new architect, when the museum was finally constructed in 1870.

Francis Fowke (1823-1865)
Source: Victoria & Albert Museum

The main aim of the Exposition, which ran from 1 May to 15 November attracting over six million visitors, was to present the latest technological advances of the industrial revolution, hence the presence an engine of Charles Babbage as described in the cutting. However the author of the piece has got his facts wonderfully mixed up.

The author introduces Charles Babbage by way of his notorious disputes with the street musicians of London for which he was better known than for his mathematical and technical achievements and which I blogged about several years ago. We then get told that the Exposition is displaying “Mr Babbage’s great calculating machine, which will work quadrations and calculate logarithms up to seven places of decimals.” All well and good so far but then he goes on, “It was the account of this invention written by the late Lady Lovelace – Lord Byron’s daughter –…” Anybody cognisant with the calculating engines designed by Charles Babbage will have immediately realised that the reporter can’t tell his Difference Engines from his Analytical Engines.

The calculating machine capable of calculating logarithms to seven places of decimals, of which a demonstration module was indeed displayed at the 1862 Exposition, was Babbage’s Difference Engine. The computer described by Lady Lovelace in her notorious memoire from 1842 was Babbage’s Analytical Engine of which he only constructed a model in 1871, nine years after the Exposition. This brings us to Messrs Scheutz of Stockholm.

Difference Engine No. 1, portion,1832
Source: Science Museum London

Analytical Engine, experimental model, 1871
Source: Science Museum London

Per Georg Scheutz (1785-1873) was a Swedish lawyer and inventor, who invented the Scheutzian calculation engine in 1837 based on the design of Babbage’s Difference Engine.

Per Georg Schutz
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This was constructed by his son Edvard and finished in 1843. An improved model was created in 1853 and displayed at the World Fair in Paris in 1855. This machine was bought by the British Government in 1859 and was in fact displayed at the 1862 Exposition but had apparently been removed by the time the Time’s reporter paid his visit to South Kensington. Scheutz’s machine gives a lie to those who claim that Babbage’s Difference Engine was never realised. Scheutz constructed a third machine in 1860, which was sold to the American Government.

The third Difference engine (Scheutz No. 2) built by Per Georg Scheutz, Edvard Scheutz and Bryan Donkin
Source: Science Museum London

It would seem that journalist screwing up their accounts of scientific and technological advances has a long history.




[1] You should read his excellent Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, Yale University Press, Reprint 2015



Filed under History of Computing, Uncategorized

The House of Blaeu vs.The House of Hondius – The Battle of the Globes and Atlases

There is a South to North trajectory in the evolution of the modern mathematical cartography in Europe over the two hundred years between fourteen hundred and sixteen hundred. Ptolemaic mathematical cartography re-entered Europe in Northern Italy with the first translation into Latin of his Geographia by Jacobus Angulus in 1406. Following this the first modern first modern cartographers, including Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, were also situated in Northern Italy. By the middle of the fifteenth century the main centre of cartographical activity had moved north to Vienna and was centred around Kloster-Neuburg and the University with its First Viennese School of Mathematics, Georg von Peuerbach and Johannes Regiomontanus. Towards the end of the century printed editions of Ptolemaeus’ work began to appear both north and south of the Alps. The beginning of the sixteenth century saw the main centres of cartographic development in the Southern German sphere. Two principle schools are identifiable, the Nürnberg-Vienna school, whose main figures are Johannes Stabius, Peter Apian and Johannes Schöner, and the South-Western school with Waldseemüller and Ringmann in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges and Sebastian Münster in Basel. Again by the middle of the century the centre had once again moved northwards to Leuven and the Flemish school founded by Gemma Frisius and including the two great atlas makers Abraham Ortelius and Gerard Mercator. At the start of the seventeenth century the final step northwards had been taken and the new state of The United Provinces (The Netherlands) had taken the lead in modern cartography. This final step is the subject of this post.

Willem Janszoon Blaeu was born into a prosperous herring trading family in Alkmaar or Uitgeest in 1471. As would have been expected he was sent at an early age to Amsterdam to learn the family trade but it did not appeal to him and he worked instead as a carpenter and clerk in the office of his cousin. In late 1595 his life took a radical turn when he travelled to Hven to study astronomy under Tycho Brahe. It is not known what level of foreknowledge Blaeu took to Hven with him but he spent six months there studiously learning astronomy, instrument making, geodesy and cartography with Tycho and his staff. When he started his observing marathon Tycho had had a large brass globe constructed on which he, over the years, engraved the positions of all the stars that he had measured. Blaeu was given permission to transfer this data to a globe of his own. In 1596 he returned to Alkmaar and his wife Maertgen Cornilisdochter who bore his eldest son Joan on 21 September. On 21 February 1598 Blaeu in Alkmaar and Tycho in Hamburg both observed a lunar eclipse to determine the relative longitude of the two cities.

Portrait of Willem Janszoon Blaeu Artist unknown

Sometime in 1598/9 Blaeu took his family to Amsterdam and set up shop as a printer, instrument maker, globe maker and cartographer; making his first celestial globe, 34 cm diameter, for Adriaan Anthoniszoon, using Tycho’s data; this was the first publication of that data. However Blaeu’s new career was not going to be simple as he had an established competitor, Jocodus Hondius.

Jocodus Hondius was born Joost de Hondt in Wakken and grew up in Ghent, both now in Belgium, on 14 October 1563. He received an education in mathematics and learnt engraving, drawing and calligraphy. He had already established himself as a successful engraver when he was forced by the Spanish, as a Calvinist, to flee to London in 1584. In London he worked for and with Richard Hakluyt and Edward Wright and expanded his knowledge of geography and cartography through contact with the English explorers Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish and Walter Raleigh. Around 1589 he published a wall map in London showing Drake’s voyage around the world. In 1593 he moved back to The Netherlands, establishing himself in Amsterdam.

Self-portrait of Jodocus Hondas taken from one of his maps

Portrait of Francis Drake by Jodocus Hondas from his Drake world map

He formed an alliance with the Plantin printing house in Leiden for who he made several globes. In 1602 he matriculated at the University of Leiden to study mathematics. In 1604 he made the most important decision of his career in that he bought the copper printing plates of the of both Mercator’s edition of Ptolemaeus’ Geographia and Mercator’s Atlas from his heirs.He published a new edition of Mercator’s Ptolemaeus, Claudïï Ptolemaeï Alexandrini geographicae libri octo graecog latini, in the same year. He set up his own publishing house in Amsterdam in December 1604. In the sixteenth century Mercator’s Atlas had failed to establish itself in a market dominated by Ortelius’ Theatum Orbis Terrarum, however Hondius republished it in 1606 with 36 new maps and it became a best seller.

Atlas sive Cosmographiae Meditationes de Fabrica Mundi et Frabicati Figura
Mercator (left) and Hondius (right) shown working together on tittle page of 1630 Atlas
Slightly ironical as they never met and both were dead by then.

Meanwhile Blaeu had established himself as a globe maker and astronomer. Following the tradition established by Johannes Schöner and continued by Mercator Blaeu issued a pair of 23.5 cm globes, terrestrial and celestial, in 1602. His rival Hondius introduced the southern constellation on a celestial globe produced in cooperation with the astronomer-cartographer Petrus Plancius in 1598. Blaeu followed suite in 1603. Hondius produced a pair of 53.5 cm globes in 1613; Blaeu countered with a pair of 68 cm globes in 1616, which remained the largest globes in production for over 70 years.

Hondas celestial globe 1600
Source: Linda Hall Library

A matching pair of Blaeu globes

As an astronomer Blaeu discovered the star P Cygni, only the third variable star to be discovered. In 1617 Willebrord Snellius published his Eratosthenes Batavus (The Dutch Eratosthenes) in which he described his measurement of a meridian arc between Alkmaar and Bergen op Zoom. This was done in consultation with Blaeu, who had learnt the art of triangulation from Tycho, using a quadrant, with a radius of more than 2 metres, constructed by Blaeu. Blaeu specialised in publishing books on navigation beginning in 1605 with his Nieuw graetbouck and established himself as the leading Dutch publisher of such literature.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Title page
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Quadrant constructed by Blaeu for Snellius now in Museum Boerhaave in Leiden
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jodocus Hondius died in 1612 and his sons Jodocus II and Henricus took over the publish house later going into partnership with Jan Janszoon their brother in law. They continued to publish new improved version of the Mercator-Hondius Atlas. Blaeu had already established himself as the successful publisher of wall maps when he began planning a major atlas to rival that of the house of Hondius. That rivalry is also reflected in a name change that Blaeu undertook in 1617. Up till then he had signed his work either Guilielmus Janssonius or Willem Janszoon, now he started add the name Blaeu to his signature probably to avoid confusion with Jan Janszoon (Janssonius), his rival.

Jan Janszoon Original copperplate from his Atlas Novus 1647

In 1630 the strangest episode in the battle of the globes and atlases took place when Jodocus II’s widow sold 37 of the copper plates of the Mercator-Hondius Atlas to Willem Blaeu. He published them together with maps of his own in his Atlantic Appendix in 1631. In 1636 Blaeu published the first two volumes of his own planned world atlas as Atlas Novus or Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, thus reviving the old Ortelius name.

In 1633 the States General (the government of the United Provinces) appointed Blaeu mapmaker of the Republic. In the same year he was appointed cartographer and hydrographer of the Vereenighde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) – The Dutch East India Company. His son Joan inherited the VOC position, as did his grandson Joan II; The Blaeu family held this prestigious position from 1633 till 1712.

Willem Blaeu had great plans to publish several more volumes of his world atlas but he didn’t live to see them realised, dying 21 October 1638. The publishing house passed to his two sons Joan (1596-1673) and Cornelis (c.1610-1644). The last two volumes prepared by Willem appeared in 1640 and 1645. Joan completed his father’s atlas with a sixth volume in 1655.

Along with all his other achievements Willem Janszoon Blaeu made a substantial improvement to the mechanical printing press by adding a counter weight to the pressure bar in order to make the platen rise automatically. This ‘Blaeu’ or ‘Dutch’ press became standard throughout the low countries and was also introduced into England. The first printing press introduced into America in 1639 was a Blaeu press.

Although he held a doctorate in law, Joan devoted his life to the family cartographic publishing business. In 1662 he set the high point of the atlas battle with the House of Hondius with the publication of the Atlas Maior; containing 600 double page maps and 3,000 pages of text it was the most spectacular atlas of all time. Along with its lavish maps the Atlas Maior contained a map of Hven and pictures of the house and stellar observatory on the island where Willem Janszoon Blaeu first learnt his trade. Whereas Willem was careful not to take sides in the dispute between the different systems for the cosmos – geocentric, heliocentric, geo-heliocentric – in the Atlas Maior, Joan committed to heliocentricity.

Joan Blaeu. By J.van Rossum
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Blaeu Atlas Maior 1662-5, Volume 1
Nova Et Accvratissima Totius Terrarvm Orbis Tabvla
Source: National Library of Scotland

The rivalry between the Houses of Hondius and Blaeu, pushing each other to new heights of quality and accuracy in their maps and globes led to them totally dominating the European market in the first half of the sixteenth century, particularly in the production of globes where they almost had a monopoly. Globes in the period, which weren’t from one of the Amsterdam producers, were almost always pirated copies of their products.

As an interesting footnote, as with all things mathematical England lagged behind the continent in cartography and globe making. Although there had been earlier single globes made in on the island, England’s first commercial producer of terrestrial and celestial globes, Joseph Moxon, learnt his trade from Willem Janszoon Blaeu in Amsterdam. In 1634 Blaeu had published a manual on how to use globes, Tweevoudigh onderwijs van de Hemelsche en Aerdsche globen (Twofold instruction in the use of the celestial and terrestrial globes). In the 1660s, Moxon published his highly successful A Tutor to Astronomie and Geographie. Or an Easie and speedy way to know the Use of both the Globes, Cœlestial and Terrestrial : in six Books, which went through many editions, however the first edition was just an English translation of Blaeu’s earlier manual.

The Dutch painter Jan Vermeer often featured globes and maps in his paintings and it has been shown that these are all reproductions of products from the Blaeu publishing house.

Vermeer’s Art of Painting or The Allegory of Painting (c. 1666–68)
With Blaeu Wall Map
Google Art Project Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jan Vermeer The Astronomer with Blaeu celestial globe and right on the wall a Blaeu wall map
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jan Vermeer The Geographer with Blaeu terrestrial globe and again right a Blaeu wall map
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Blaeu wall map used in Vermeers’ The Astronomer and The Geographer

We tend to emphasise politicians, artists and big name scientists, as the people who shape culture in any given age but the cartographic publishing houses of Hondius and Blaeu made significant contributions to shaping the culture of The United Provinces in the so-called Dutch Golden Age and deserve to be much better known than they are.






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

A very special book

In 1543 the printer/publisher Johannes Petreius published Nicolaus Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, the first mathematical description of a heliocentric system for the then known cosmos, in Nürnberg. Initially appearing with little resonance, more than two hundred years later the great, German, enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant thought that its publication signalled the greatest ever change in humanities perception of its own place in the cosmos. Today many historians of science regard it as the most important scientific publication ever. Although I object to the use of superlatives in the history of science, I do think that it is one of the most significant scientific publication of the Early Modern Period.

Title page of the first edition of De revolutionibus
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is not actually known how many copies Petreius printed of that first edition but Owen Gingerich[1], the greatest authority on the subject, estimates that the first edition was probably about five hundred copies of which about three hundred still exist. A small number of the surviving copies of the first edition were given by Petreius to selected people as presents with a hand written dedication from himself. One of these resides in the University of Leipzig library. The Leipzig De revolutionibus has the following dedication:

Hieronymo Schr[ei]ber Petreus dedit 1543

Hieronymus Schreiber was born in Nürnberg; his date of birth is unknown. He is thought to have attended the Egidien Gymnasium in Nürnberg, where he would have been taught mathematics by Johannes Schöner. Schöner later dedicated an edition of Peuerbach’s Tractatus super propositiones Ptolemaei, that he edited and Petreius published in 1541, to him. In 1532 Schreiber matriculated at the University of Wittenberg, in the same year as Georg Joachim Rheticus. When Rheticus took his sabbatical in 1539, which lead him to go off to Frombork and bring back the manuscript of De revolutionibus to Nürnberg, it was Schreiber who took over his teaching duties in Wittenberg, teaching mathematics to the undergraduates there. It was almost certainly for this work that Petreius rewarded him with a personally dedicated copy of De revolutionibus.

When Rheticus left Wittenberg in 1542, to take up the post of mathematics professor in Leipzig, his chair was not awarded to Schreiber but to the Nürnberger mathematician Erasmus Flock (1514–1568), another of Schöner’s pupils. Schreiber left Wittenberg for Italy and died in 1547 during a period of study in Paris.

In 1598 Schreiber’s copy of De revolutionibus came into the possession of the young Johannes Kepler, together with two other astronomy books that had belonged to Schreiber. Quite how Kepler acquired these books is not known.

The book nowadays known as the Kepler De revolutionibus contains some very interesting marginalia. Schreiber added one of the most complete collections of corrections to the text, not only the errata contained on the official errata sheet but also many others. Schreiber’s most interesting annotation is the addition of the name Andreas Osiander above the Ad lectorum, which prefaces the book. Kepler draws attention to this on the back of the flyleaf and it was Kepler who first made Osiander’s authorship of the Ad lectorum general knowledge, thereby sealing his fate as ‘the greatest villain in the history of science.’ Kepler added comparatively few comments in the margins after he acquired the book but those that he did add show his progress as he worked his way through Copernicus’ opus.

The value of collectable works from the history of science depends not only on the works themselves but also on their provenances, who were the owners and what did they write in the margins? First editions of De revolutionibus rarely appear for sale but when one that had belonged to John Greaves (1602–1652) the Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford was auctioned some years back it sold for almost 2.5 million dollars. Should Kepler’s De revolutionibus, with its rare handwritten Petreius dedication, ever come on to the open market, which I doubt it will, I suspect the sky’s the limit, as they say.

Last Sunday I took a trip to Nürnberg to the Germanisches National Museum to see their new exhibition celebrating The Luther Year (it’s five hundred years since Luther made his 95 Theses public), Luther, Kolumbus und die Folgen: Welt im Wandle 1500 – 1600. This exhibition had lots of very nice stuff from the histories of astronomy, cartography and exploration and is highly recommended if you are in the area before the beginning of November when it ends. I was happily trundling round the exhibition giving detailed background information to my companion, as is my wont, when I rounded a corner and espied a glass cabinet with copies of De revolutionibus. One of the ironies of history is that although the book was printed in the city, Nürnberg does not possess a first edition of De revolutionibus, so imagine my surprise and delight when I realised that the first edition sitting in the cabinet, next to the museum’s own second edition (Basel 1561), was in fact the Kepler De revolutionibus, on loan from the University of Leipzig library – a very special book indeed.

[1] Much of the information in this post is taken from Owen Gingerich’s excellent An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus (Nuremberg, 1543 en Basel, 1566), Brill, Leiden-Boston-Koln, 2002

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Filed under Uncategorized

The West’s intellectual birthright!

The American cultural magazine, The Atlantic recently published an article by Daniel Foster entitled, In Defense of ‘The West’. This was a political article questioning the speech that Donald Trump had made in Warsaw and what the author sees, as what The Trump White means when they talk of ‘The West’. Amongst many other things the article contains the following paragraph encapsulating the authors view of what he sees as The West’s intellectual birthright in the history of science:

Likewise, Egypt hosted the first great repository of Western knowledge—the library at Alexandria—and for a millennium or so following that library’s destruction, it was Muslim metaphysicians who kept lit the flame of Greek ideas. The West’s intellectual birthright, then, was reborn in Latin and French and German and English because it was vouchsafed in Arabic, in the dark interregnum between Charlemagne and the Renaissance.

These sixty-six words made my hair stand on end, or would have done if I had any, for several different reasons that I shall attempt to explicate in what follows.

We will start off with the expression The West’s intellectual birthright. What is meant here is of course Greek science, which doesn’t actually exist and never did. However, how is Greek science The West’s intellectual birthright? The article’s author is trying to argue against a view of the West as being white and bordering the North Atlantic and he could start right here. Even the Greek’s were quite happy to admit that their scientific endeavours were based on those of their predecessors in Egyptian and Babylon, whereby Babylon is shorthand for the various cultures that occupied the so-called fertile crescent in antiquity. So why is Greek science not the intellectual birthright of North Africa or the Middle East, the areas that laid its foundations? Greek science is nobody’s intellectual birthright; the various schools of intellectual thought who developed scientific and proto-scientific ideas within Greek culture in the period between roughly 600 BCE and 600 CE sowed seeds in various cultures throughout the world some of which blossomed and some of which withered and the cumulative developments out of those seeds belong to the whole of humanity.

The author tries to argue against a white North Atlantic West by pointing out that it is geographically and culturally intertwined with much outside of this narrow concept viewed historically and so the opening sentence of the paragraph is supposed to imply a non European source for that intellectual birthright. This ignores the fact that although Alexandria lies in Egypt it was a Greek city and the library was a Greek institution and not an Egyptian one. The next problem is that the library in Alexandria was not the first, and by no means the only, great repository of Western knowledge and was not in any meaningful sense destroyed but declined over several centuries probably disappearing from the world stage around 300 CE. For full details of this story I direct you to Tim O’Neill’s recent excellent essay on the subject.

We now stumble over the next problem; Muhammad first fled from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE, this being the formal date of the establishment of Islam. The establishment of Islam as an intellectual culture begins first in the 8th century CE, so more than 400 years after the final collapse of the library of Alexandria. The Muslims, Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians who established the intellectual culture within the Islamic Empire collected their science and philosophy not only from various Greek sources but also from Persian, Indian and Chinese ones, so they are not just keeping the flame of Greek ideas lit but a melange of ideas from numerous sources. Even more important, they didn’t just keep a flame lit but analysed, criticised, commented upon and improved and expanded the knowledge that they had collected from those other cultures. They were not simply guardians of the flame but added fuel of their own to make it burn brighter.

This knowledge came back into Europe through the boundaries between the Islamic Empire and Christian Europe in Spain and Sicily in the 12th and 13th centuries through the efforts of the so-called translators. These were Christian scholars who worked together with Arabs and Jews to translate the Greek, Latin and Arabic works from Arabic into Latin. This means that the Islamic Empire had only had ‘exclusive’ access to this conglomeration of knowledge for five hundred years and not a millennium as claimed above. Note that this knowledge returned to Europe only in Latin and not also in French German and English as claimed. The introduction of the use of the vernacular for scientific texts only really began in the seventeenth century long after this knowledge had become established in Europe.

We now turn to the final and by far and away the worst piece of shoddy history in this strange paragraph, its final clause: in the dark interregnum between Charlemagne and the Renaissance. When I read this the first time I did more than a double take. I seriously couldn’t believe what I had just read. Let us be clear. We are not talking here about the Early Middle Ages, long known as The Dark Ages, a term that historians now shun but about the period that represents the emergence from the Early Middle Ages into what is generally known as the High Middle Ages and this is according to our author a ‘dark interregnum’. Sorry but this is just simple wrong.

There was a definable intellectual decline within the Roman Empire that begins gradually in the middle of the 2nd century CE and can be regarded as complete by around 400 CE with the collapse of the Western Empire. Over the next approximately 400 years there is little of no intellectual activity in Europe and it is first with Karl der Große (that’s Charlemagne) and the so-called Carolinian Renaissance that this situation begins to change. Far from being the start of a dark interregnum Charlemagne marks the end of one and the gradual climb out of the intellectual darkness into the sunshine of knowledge. Starting with Charlemagne’s own intellectual reformer, Alcuin of York, there is a long chain of medieval scholars including the translators mentioned above, the Oxford Calculatores, the Paris Physicists and many others who laid the foundations for the Renaissance and the so-called Scientific Revolution.

The rich world of medieval science and technology has been well documented beginning with the work of Pierre Duhem in the 19th and early 20th centuries over the substantial contributions of Alistair Crombie, Marshall Clagett, Edward Grant, John Murdoch, Toby Huff and David Lindberg amongst others. With the work of James Hannam and John Freely there are even two good popular books on the subject available for those who don’t want to plough through heavy academic texts, so there is really no excuse for the piece of arrant bullshit presented by Daniel Foster.

The scant paragraph that I have eviscerated above is unfortunately typical for the type of history of science, although to even call it history is a misnomer, that gets presented all too often by journalists, a collection of random myths, legends, clichés and ignorance that they have picked up somewhere down the line. Checking their facts or even consulting an expert on the subject seems to be too much trouble for these people, what does it matter, it’s just history of science seems to be their creed and that really pisses me off.


Filed under Myths of Science

A very innovative early scientific printer/publisher

It is a commonplace amongst historians that the invention of movable type, and through it the advent of the printed book, in the middle of the fifteenth century, was one of the principal driving forces behind the emergence of modern science in the Early Modern Period. However, although historians of science pay lip service to this supposedly established fact very few of them give any consideration to the printer/publishers who produced those apparently so important early books on science, medicine and technology. Like the technicians and instrument makers, the printer/publishers, not being scientist, are pushed to the margins of the historical accounts, left to the book historians.

Here at the Renaissance Mathematicus I have in the past featured Regiomontanus, considered to be the very first printer/publisher of science, Johannes Petreius the publisher of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus amongst numerous other scientific works and Anton Koberger around 1500 the world’s biggest printer/publisher and the man who produced the first printed encyclopaedia, The Nuremberg Chronicle. Today I want to turn my attention to a less well-known but equally important printer/publisher of scientific texts, who was responsible for several significant innovations in book production, Erhard Ratdolt.

Erhard Ratdolt was born in Aichach in Bavaria in 1459 or 60 the son of the carpenter Erhard Ratdolt and wife Anna. Erhard apprenticed as a carpenter and a maker of plaster figures. At the age of fifteen, according to his own account, he travelled to Venice, where he set up a printer/publisher office together with Bernhart Pictor a painter from Augsburg and Peter Loslein from Langenzenn, a small town near Nürnberg, in 1476.[1] The printing house was one of the earliest in Venice, where Johannes de Spira had set up the first one in 1469. By 1480 Venice had become to main centre for book production in Europe It seems that Ratdolt ran the business, whilst Pictor was responsible for the book decoration and Loslein for the text and copyediting. Both Pictor and Loslein had left the publishing house by 1478 leaving Ratdolt as the sole proprietor. Ratdolt’s two partners were probably victims of the plague, which wiped out eleven of the twenty-two printer/publishing establisments existing in Venice in 1478.

Their first publication was Regiomontanus’ Calendar, published in Latin and Italian in 1476 and in German in 1478. This book already contained several innovations. Ratdolt and his partners introduced the concept of printed ornamental borders for the pages of their books, a style that became typical for Renaissance books. They also introduced the first modern title page! It almost certainly seems strange to the modern book reader but the volumes printed in the first twenty or so years of book printing didn’t have title pages, as we know them. Ratdolt’s Regiomontanus Calendar was the first book to have a separate page at the beginning of the volume giving place, date and name of the printer. It was also the first book to have its publication date printed in Hindu-Arabic numerals and not in Roman ones. It would be some time before title pages of the type introduced by Ratdolt became common.

Calendarius by Regiomontanus, printed by Erhard Ratdolt, Venice 1478, title page with printers’ names
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In terms of the sciences Ratdolt’s most important work was the first printed edition of Euclid’s Elements, which he published in 1482. Here the innovation, a very major one was the inclusion of illustrations in the text. I say within the text but in fact the book was printed with very wide margins and the geometrical diagrams were printed next to the relevant text passage in these margins.

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

Another of Ratdolt’s innovations was the introduction of first two-coloured printing and then over time building up to books printed in as many as five colours and also printing with gold leaf.

Diagram, showing eclipse of the moon; woodcut, printed in three colours, from Sphaericum opusculum by Johannes de Sacro Bosco, printed by Erhard Ratdolt, Venice 1485
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1486 Ratdolt returned to Bavaria and set up a new publishing house in Augsburg at the invitation of the bishop and it was here that he introduced his next innovation. He is the earliest known printer/publisher to issue a printer’s type specimen book, in his case a broadsheet, displaying the fonts that he had available to print his wares. Upon his return to Augsburg Ratdolt was the first to introduce the Italian Rotunda font into Germany. He was also one of the earliest printers to offer Greek fonts for printing. Another of his innovations was the dust jacket. Like most other printer/publishers in the first half-century of book printing Ratdolt’s output in Augsburg was mostly religious works, although he did print some astrological/astronomical volumes. Ratdolt’s output declined from 1500 onwards but between 1487 and his death in 1522 his publishing house issued some 220 volumes.

Wappen des Bischofs Johann von Werdenberg, in der Widmung des Augsburger Breviers, 1485
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Given his youth when he left Bavaria for Venice Ratdolt’s contributions to the development of early book printing were truly remarkable. Even if his original partners were older and had started this chain of innovation, Ratdolt was still a teenager when they both disappeared from the business (died?) and the innovations continued when he was running the business alone.

Two interesting historical questions remain open concerning Ratdolt’s activities as a printer/publisher. We actually have no idea when, where or how he learnt the black art, as printing was known in that early period. The second problem concerns another early printer of scientific texts, Regiomontanus, and his connection to Ratdolt. The first book that Ratdolt published was Regiomontanus’ Calendar an important astrological/astronomical text that was something of a fifteenth-century best seller. The manuscript of the Euclid that Ratdolt published was one of the ones that Regiomontanus had discovered in Northern Italy when he was in the service of Cardinal Bessarion, as his book collector between 1461 and 1467. This raises the question, how did Ratdolt come into possession of Regiomontanus’ manuscripts?

Some earlier writers solved both questions by making Ratdolt into Regiomontanus’ apprentice in his publishing house in Nürnberg. The theory is not so far fetched, as Aichach is not so far away from Nürnberg and Ratdolt moved to Venice at about the same time as Regiomontanus disappeared and is presumed to have died. Unfortunately there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to support this theory. Also given Regiomontanus’s renown at the time of his death, not just as a mathematical scholar but also as a printer/publisher, if Ratdolt had been his apprentice he would surely have advertised the fact in his own printing endeavours. I suspect that we will never know the answers to these questions.






[1] On a personal note I spent my first four years in Germany living just down the road from Langenzenn, where I spent most of my free time.

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Filed under Early Scientific Publishing, Uncategorized

All at sea

As I’ve said more than once in the past, mathematics as a discipline as we know it today didn’t exist in the Early Modern Period. Mathematics, astronomy, astrology, geography, cartography, navigation, hydrography, surveying, instrument design and construction, and horology were all facets or sub-disciplines of a sort of mega-discipline that was the stomping ground of the working mathematicus, whether inside or outside the university. The making of sea charts – or to give it its technical name, hydrography – combines mathematics, geography, cartography, astronomy, surveying, and the use of instruments so I am always happy to add a new volume on the history of sea charts to my collection of books on cartography and hydrography.

I recently acquired the “revised and updated” reissue of Peter Whitfield’s Charting the Oceans, a British Library publication.

The original edition from 1996 carried the subtitle Ten Centuries of Maritime Maps (missing from the new edition) and this is what Whitfield delivers in his superb tome. The book has four sections: Navigation before Charts, The Sea-Chart and the Age of Exploration, Sea-Charts in Europe’s Maritime Age and War, Empire and Technology: The Last 200 years. As can be seen from these section titles Whitfield not only deals with the details of the hydrography and the charts produced but defines the driving forces behind the cartographic developments: explorations, trade, war and colonisation. This makes the book to a valuable all round introduction of the subject highly recommended to anybody looking for a general overview of the topic.

However, what really makes this book very special is the illustrations.

The Nile Delta, c. 1540, from Piri Re’is Kitab-i Bahriye
Charting the Oceans page 90

A large format volume, more than fifty per cent of the pages are adorned with amazing reproductions of the historical charts that Whitfield describes in his text.

Willem van de Velde II, Dutch Ships in a Calm, c. 1665
Charting the Oceans page 132

Beautifully photographed and expertly printed the illustrations make this a book to treasure. Although not an academic text, in the strict sense, there is a short bibliography for those, whose appetites wetted, wish to delve deeper into the subject and an excellent index. Given the quality of the presentation the official British Library shop price of £14.99 is ridiculously low and a real bargain. If you love maps all I can say is buy this book.

Title page to the English edition of Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer’s Spiegheel der Zeevaert, 1588
Charting the Oceans page 109

The A Very Short Introduction series of books published by the Oxford University Press is a really excellent undertaking. Very small format 11×17 and a bit cm, they are somewhere between 100 and 150 pages long and provide a concise introduction to a single topic. One thing that distinguishes them is the quality of the authors that OUP commissions to write them; they really are experts in their field. The Galileo volume, for example, is authored by Stillman Drake, one of the great Galileo experts, and The Periodic Table: A Very Short Introduction was written by Mr Periodic Table himself, Eric Scerri. So when Navigation: A Very Short Introduction appeared recently I couldn’t resist. Especially, as it is authored by Jim Bennett a man who probably knows more about the topic then almost anybody else on the surface of the planet.

Mr Bennett does not disappoint, in a scant 135-small-format-pages he delivers a very comprehensive introduction to the history of navigation. He carefully explains all of the principal developments down the centuries and does not shy away from explaining the intricate mathematical and astronomical details of various forms of navigation.

Navigation: A Very Short Introduction page 50

The book contains a very useful seven page Glossary of Terms, a short but very useful annotated bibliography, which includes the first edition of Whitfield’s excellent tome, and a comprehensive index. One aspect of the annotated bibliography that particularly appealed to me was his comments on Dava Sobel’s Longitude; he writes:

“[It] …has the disadvantage of being very one-sided despite the more scrupulous work found in in earlier books such as Rupert T. Gould, The Marine Chronometer: Its History and Development (London, Holland Press, 1960); and Humphrey Quill, John Harrison: The Man Who Found Longitude (London, John Baker, 1966)”

I have read both of these books earlier and can warmly recommend them. He then recommends Derek Howse, Greenwich Time and the Discovery of Longitude (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980), which sits on my bookshelf, and Derek Howse, Nevil Maskelyne: The Seaman’s Astronomer, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989), which I haven’t read. However it was his closing comment that I found most interesting:

“A welcome recent corrective is Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt, Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude (Collins: Glasgow, 2014)”. A judgement with which, regular readers of this blog will already know, I heartily concur.

The flyleaf of the Navigation volume contains the following quote:

‘a thoroughly good idea. Snappy, small-format…stylish design…perfect to pop into your pocket for spare moments’ – Lisa Jardine, The Times

Another judgement with which I heartily concur. Although square centimetre for square centimetre considerably more expensive than Whitfield’s book the Bennett navigation volume is still cheap enough (official OUP price £7.99) not to break the household budget. For those wishing to learn more about the history of navigation and the closely related mapping of the seas I can only recommend that they acquire both of these excellent publications.




Filed under History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation

Did Eratosthenes really measure the size of the earth?

Last Thursday was Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and The Guardian chose to mark the occasion with an article by astrophysicist turned journalist and novelist, Stuart Clark, who chose to regale his readers with a bit of history of science. The big question was would he get it right? He has form for not doing so and in fact, he succeeded in living up to that form. His article entitled Summer solstice: the perfect day to bask in a dazzling scientific feat, recounted the well know history of geodesy tale of how Eratosthenes used the summer solstice to determine the size of the earth.

Eratosthenes of Cyrene was the chief librarian at the great library of Alexandria in the third century BC. So the story goes, he read in one of the library’s many manuscripts an account of the sun being directly overhead on the summer solstice as seen from Syene (now Aswan, Egypt). This was known because the shadows disappeared at noon, when the sun was directly overhead. This sparked his curiosity and he set out to make the same observation in Alexandria. On the next solstice, he watched as the shadows grew small – but did not disappear, even at noon.

The length of the shadows in Alexandria indicated that the sun was seven degrees away from being directly overhead. Eratosthenes realised that the only way for the shadow to disappear at Syene but not at Alexandria was if the Earth’s surface was curved. Since a full circle contains 360 degrees, it meant that Syene and Alexandria were roughly one fiftieth of the Earth’s circumference away from each other.

Knowing that Syene is roughly 5000 stadia away from Alexandria, Eratosthenes calculated that the circumference of the Earth was about 250,000 stadia. In modern distance measurements, that’s about 44,000km – which is remarkably close to today’s measurement of 40,075km.

Eratosthenes also calculated that the tilt of the Earth’s polar axis (23.5 degrees) is why we have the solstice in the first place.

Illustration showing a portion of the globe showing a part of the African continent. The sunbeams shown as two rays hitting the ground at Syene and Alexandria. Angle of sunbeam and the gnomons (vertical pole) is shown at Alexandria, which allowed Eratosthenes’ estimates of radius and circumference of Earth.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Whilst it is correct that Eratosthenes was chief librarian of the Alexandrian library one should be aware that the Mouseion (Shrine of the Muses, the origin of the modern word, museum), which housed the library was more akin to a modern academic research institute than what one envisages under the word library. Eratosthenes was according to the legends a polymath, astronomer, cartographer, geographer, mathematician, poet and music theorist.

From the information that during the summer solstice the sun was directly overhead in Syene at noon, and cast no shadows and that a gnomon in Alexandria 5000 stadia north of Syene did cast a shadow, Eratosthenes did not, and I repeat did not, realise that the Earth’s surface was curved. Eratosthenes knew that the Earth’s surface was curved, as did every educated Greek scholar in the third century BCE. Sometimes I get tired of repeating this but the first to realise that the Earth was a sphere were the Pythagoreans in the sixth century BCE. Aristotle had summarised the empirical evidence that showed that the Earth is a sphere in the fourth century BCE, in writings that Eratosthenes, as chief librarian in Alexandria, would have been well acquainted with. Put simply, Eratosthenes knew that he could, using trigonometry, calculate the diameter of the Earth’s sphere with the data he had accumulated, because he already knew that it was a sphere.

The next problem with the account given here is one that almost always turns up in popular version of the Eratosthenes story; there wasn’t just one measure of length in the ancient Greek world known as a stadium but quite a collection of different ones, all differing in length, and we have absolutely no idea which one is meant here. It is in the end not so important as all of them give a final figure with 17% or less error compared to the true value, which is for the method used quite a reasonable ball park figure for the size of the Earth. However this point is one that should be mentioned when recounting the Eratosthenes story. Eratosthenes may or may not have calculated the tilt of the Earth’s axis but this is of no real historical significance, as the obliquity of the ecliptic, as it is also known, was, like the spherical shape of the Earth, known well before his times.

An astute reader might have noticed that above I used the expression, according to the legends, when describing Eratosthenes’ supposed talents. The problem is that everything we know about Eratosthenes is hearsay. None of his alleged many writings have survived. We only have second hand reports of his supposed achievements, most of them centuries after he lived. This raises the question, how reliable are these reports? A comparable situation is the so-called theorem of Pythagoras, well known to other cultures well before Pythagoras lived and only attributed to him long after he had died.

The most extreme stance is elucidated by historian of astronomy, John North, in his one volume history of astronomy, Cosmos:

None of Eratosthenes’ writings survive, however, and some have questioned whether he ever found either the circumference of the Earth, or – as is often stated – the obliquity of the ecliptic, on the basis of measurements.

So what is our source for this story? The only account of Eratosthenes’ measurement comes from the book On the Circular Motions of the Celestial Bodies by the Greek astronomer Cleomedes and with that the next problems start. It is not actually known when Cleomodes lived. On the basis of his writings Thomas Heath, the historian of Greek mathematics, thought that text was written in the middle of the first century BCE. However, Otto Neugebauer, historian of ancient science, thought that On the Circular Motions of the Celestial Bodies was written around 370 CE. Amongst historians of science the debate rumbles on. North favours the Neugebauer date, placing the account six centuries after Eratosthenes’ death. What exactly did Cleomodes say?

The method of Eratosthenes depends on a geometrical argument and gives the impression of being slightly more difficult to follow. But his statement will be made clear if we premise the following. Let us suppose, in this case too, first, that Syene and Alexandria he under the same meridian circle, secondly, that the distance between the two cities is 5,000 stades; 1 and thirdly, that the rays sent down from different parts of the sun on different parts of the earth are parallel; for this is the hypothesis on which geometers proceed Fourthly, let us assume that, as proved by the geometers, straight lines falling on parallel straight lines make the alternate angles equal, and fifthly, that the arcs standing on (i e., subtended by) equal angles are similar, that is, have the same proportion and the same ratio to their proper circles—this, too, being a fact proved by the geometers. Whenever, therefore, arcs of circles stand on equal angles, if any one of these is (say) one-tenth of its proper circle, all the other arcs will be tenth parts of their proper circles.

Any one who has grasped these facts will have no difficulty in understanding the method of Eratosthenes, which is this Syene and Alexandria lie, he says, under the same mendian circle. Since meridian circles are great circles in the universe, the circles of the earth which lie under them are necessarily also great circles. Thus, of whatever size this method shows the circle on the earth passing through Syene and Alexandria to be, this will be the size of the great circle of the earth Now Eratosthenes asserts, and it is the fact, that Syene lies under the summer tropic. Whenever, therefore, the sun, beingin the Crab at the summer solstice, is exactly in the middle of the heaven, the gnomons (pointers) of sundials necessarily throw no shadows, the position of the sun above them being exactly vertical; and it is said that this is true throughout a space three hundred stades in diameter. But in Alexandria, at the same hour, the pointers of sundials throw shadows, because Alexandria lies further to the north than Syene. The two cities lying under the same meridian great circle, if we draw an arc from the extremity of the shadow to the base of the pointer of the sundial in Alexandria, the arc will be a segment of a great circle in the (hemispherical) bowl of the sundial, since the bowl of the sundial lies under the great circle (of the meridian). If now we conceive straight lines produced from each of the pointers through the earth, they will meet at the centre of the earth. Since then the sundial at Syene is vertically under the sun, if we conceive a straight line coming from the sun to the top of the pointer of the sundial, the line reaching from the sun to the centre of the earth will be one straight line. If now we conceive another straight line drawn upwards from the extremity of the shadow of the pointer of the sundial in Alexandria, through the top of the pointer to the sun, this straight line and the aforesaid straight line will be parallel, since they are straight lines coming through from different parts of the sun to different parts of the earth. On these straight lines, therefore, which are parallel, there falls the straight line drawn from the centre of the earth to the pointer at Alexandria, so that the alternate angles which it makes arc equal. One of these angles is that formed at the centre of the earth, at the intersection of the straight lines which were drawn from the sundials to the centre of the earth; the other is at the point of intersection of the top of the pointer at Alexandria and the straight line drawn from the extremity of its shadow to the sun through the point (the top) where it meets the pointer. Now on this latter angle stands the arc carried round from the extremity of the shadow of the pointer to its base, while on the angle at the centre of the earth stands the arc reaching from Syene to Alexandria. But the arcs are similar, since they stand on equal angles. Whatever ratio, therefore, the arc in the bowl of the sundial has to its proper circle, the arc reaching from Syene to Alexandria has that ratio to its proper circle. But the arc in the bowl is found to be one-fiftieth of its proper circle.’ Therefore the distance from Syene to Alexandria must necessarily be one-fiftieth part of the great circle of the earth. And the said distance is 5,000 stades; therefore the complete great circle measures 250,000 stades. Such is Eratosthenes’ method. (This is Thomas Heath’s translation) 

You will note that Cleomedes makes no mention of Eratosthenes determining the spherical shape of the Earth through his observations but writes very clearly of great circles on the globe, an assumption of spherical form. So where does Stuart Clark get this part of his story? In his article he tells us his source:

I first heard the story when it was told by Carl Sagan in his masterpiece TV series, Cosmos.

The article has a video of the relevant section of Sagan’s Cosmos and he does indeed devote a large part of his version of the story to explaining how Eratosthenes used his observations to determine that the Earth is curved. In other words Stuart Clark is just repeating verbatim a story, which Carl Sagan, and or his scriptwriters, made up in 1980 without taken the trouble to verify the accuracies or even the truth of what he saw more than thirty years ago. Carl Sagan said it, so it must be true. I have got into trouble on numerous occasions by pointing out to Carl Sagan acolytes that whatever his talents as a science communicator/populariser, his history of science was to put it mildly totally crap. Every week he pumped his souped-up versions of crappy history of science myths into millions of homes throughout the world. In one sense it is only right that Neil deGasse Tyson presented the modern remake of Cosmos, as he does exactly the same.



Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, Myths of Science