JF Ptak Science Books Post 1365
"'Tis all in pieces, all cohaerennce gone"--John Donne1
I wonder why it was that the telescope didn't get trained at the sky in Great Britain. Its one of those "things/non-events" when everything is in place for something very big to happen, when the pieces are there and sorted, when the theory has been thought out, when the practical applied work has been done--and then, a turn-away is made, a drifting occurs, and the big thing doesn't happen. A deep reluctance sets in--and since it is the anniversary of Darwin's (and Lincoln's) birthday, it seems natural to include Darwin in a history of anticipation category, since it took him so very long to come to enough of a comfort level to actually publish his Big Idea, and that seems to have been done on the intersession of an editor and thought leader (Huxley) and the fact that someone else was going to beat him to publication (Wallace).
But what I'm talking about here is John Dee's work with "perspective glasses"--the telescope--in the 1560's and 1570's and the idea of which he writes about in his Description of Caelestiall Orbes, thirty full years before Galileo's epochal Sidereus Nuncius of 1611.
The promise of the telescope is also seen in the work of Dee's pupil Thomas Digges (half of the Digges' brother scientific team, the other brother being Leonard), who writes of it in his Alae sue Scalae MAthematicae, 1573; and again in the Treatise on the A treatise on the properties and qualities of glasses for optical purposes, according to the making, polishing, and grinding of them by WIlliam Bourne (see here) where among other things claims to have uised his instrument to see things seven miles away (beautifully put so "not only discovered things farre off, read letters, numbered pieces of money...but also seven myles of declared what hath been doon at that instante in private places", meaning that he was able to discern print at some distant and to also see what would have been private things from an unthinkably distant distance)2.
And as Marjorie Nicholson observes in Science and Imagination (Cornell, 1956), this point is again made by yet another Englishman, Thomas Hariot, who is best remembered today for his beautiful and early work on the American southeastern coast, published in 1691 (A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia), in which he describes his own telescope, "a perspectiue glasse whereby was shewed manie strange sightes". 3
It seems though that among all of this accomplishment that the telescope--as had been the early case with Galileo, and who had also overcome the instrument's horizontal hold--was used laterally, more an instrument for navigation and the field commanders of armies. Why it was not pointed to the sky, I do not know, but it does seem as though Donne's words were waiting more for Galileo than for anyone else.
1. This is from Donne's AN ANATOMY OF THE WORLD, Wherein,by occasion of the untimely death of Mistress Elizabeth Drury, the frailty and the decay of this whole world is represented THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY:
"And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation...
2. Bourne did come very close, but his work was to stay in manuscript and not published, even though he was a known scientific quantity in his day (and found in the Philosophical Magazine, 1839):
3. A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia : of the Commodities and of the Nature and Manners of the Naturall Inhabitants : Discouered bÿ the English Colonÿ There Seated by Sir Richard Greinuile Knight In the ÿeere 1585 : Which Remained Vnder the Gouerenment of Twelue Monethes, At the Speciall Charge and Direction of the Honourable Sir Walter Raleigh Knight Lord Warden of the Stanneries Who therein Hath Beene Fauoured and Authorised bÿ Her Maiestie and Her Letters Patents / This Fore Booke Is Made in English by Thomas Hariot seruant to the Aboue-Named Sir Walter, a Member of the Colonÿ, and There Imploÿed in Discouering ; CVM GRATIA ET PRIVILEGIO CÆS. MATIS SPECIALIi. Francoforti ad Moenvm, Typis Loannis Wecheli, Svmtibvs Vero Theodori de Bry anno CIC IC XC. Venales Reperivntvr in Officina Sigismvndi Feirabendiii
he entire text, with the tremendous John WHite illustrations, is located here.
On page 27 we see:
"Most thinges they sawe with vs, as Mathematicall instruments, sea compasses, the vertue of the loadstone in drawing yron, a perspectiue glasse whereby was shewed manie strange sightes, burning glasses, wildefire woorkes, gunnes, bookes, writing and reading, spring clocks that seeme to goe of themselues, and manie other thinges that wee had, were so straunge vnto them, and so farre exceeded their capacities to comprehend the reason and meanes how they should be made and done, that they thought they were rather the works of gods then of men, or at the leastwise they had bin giuen and taught vs of the gods. Which made manie of them to haue such opinion of vs, as that if they knew not the trueth of god and religion already, it was rather to be had from vs, whom God so specially loued then from a people that were so simple, as they found themselues to be in comparison of vs. Whereupon greater credite was giuen vnto that we spake of concerning such matters."