Author: Darin

Pre-Modern High Tech

Last month the Washington Post ran a short article by Erin Blakemore on medieval scientific instruments, “Think smartphones are astonishing? Discover the ‘high tech’ devices of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.” It was a little light on details, but nicely highlighted Epact, an on-line collection of pre-modern scientific instruments. It is easy while away a bit of time browsing the collection.

Erin Blakemore‘s recent article on Epact and pre-modern scientific instruments.

Since the article was illustrated with a Sloane astrolabe from the British Museum, I thought I’d draw attention to another great resource: The Astrolabe: An Online Resource. The website gives you access to every astrolabe in the History of Science Museum’s[1] collection, which is the largest single collection of astrolabes in the world. Astrolabes in the collection range over a millennium and much of the Northern Hemisphere, from the late 9th-century Syria (one of the oldest surviving astrolabes) to the 20th-century England. Most of the instruments date from the pre-modern period. While perhaps not the most flashy of websites, it is probably the single best resource for studying astrolabes.[2]

The Astrolabe: An Online Resource is the best collection of astrolabes available.

Browsing the collection always turns up something new. Just a few highlights:

  • astrolabe 37148, which has amazing engravings of the constellations on the back;
  • astrolabe 48213, which has an ingenious set of gears (the oldest complete gear train) that show the phases of the moon and motion of the sun and moon;
  • astrolabe 45359, which is a so-called “Chaucer astrolabe” because it resembles the illustrations in Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe, especially the cute little dog’s head star pointer at the bottom of the rete;
  • astrolabe 49687, which is the only surviving spherical astrolabe (there are various descriptions of spherical instruments, but only this instrument survives)
The only (known) surviving spherical astrolabe. It’s truly beautiful.

While I don’t agree with the Washington Post’s author’s conclusion—“a visit to Epact is a glimpse into a bygone world — one in which scientists dared to dream and discover”—I do agree with her earlier statement that spending a few minutes browsing the items on Epact or The Astrolabe: An Online Resource will “make you appreciate the artistry and intricacy of now-obsolete scientific tools or leave you starry-eyed over each instruments’ function and a role.”


  1. The museum formerly known as the “Museum of the History of Science”  ↩

  2. If you need a quick introduction to astrolabes, see my “An Introduction to the Astrolabe.”  ↩

Chambers Full of Snakes

Thumbing through a couple early modern collections of secrets always turns up strange and fascinating techniques and recipes. Some seem obviously useful, such as how to make a candle burn under water or make one burn forever. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, recipes to treat wounds and restore health are common. We find numerous recipes about curing various types of tooth aches (which also suggests a rather refined taxonomy of dental pains), or recipes for removing corns and warts., or how to cure a tooth ache. Some recipes seem to treat familiar issues, such as the recipe for an ointment that you comb into your roots to make the hair on your head grow thick and lush, or the recipe for a paste that when applied to your limbs removes hair. Or the paste that prevents pimples.

But other recipes seem of limited or very particular use. For example, at least a handful of books of secrets include a technique for making a chamber appear to be filled with snakes. Far from a temporary fad, we can find these recipes in books from at least the mid-sixteenth century until the mid-seventeenth century.

Most of the techniques are broadly similar, varying only in the details. These two recipes offer typical instructions:

  • From Thomas Hyll’s A Briefe and Pleasant Treatise (1586):

How to make thy Chamber appeare full of Snakes and Adders. TO doo this, kyll a Snake, putting the same into a Panne with Waxe and let it so long boyle: vntyll the same be throughe drye, and of that Waxe make a Candle, lighting the same in the Chamber, and then after shall appeare, as though there were a thousand creeping in thy Chamber.

Title page from Richard Amyas’s An Antidote against Melancholy (1659)
Richard Amyas’ An Antidote against Melancholy and 53 other secrets.
  • From Richard Amyas’s An Antidote Against Melancholy (1659):

A device to make a Chamber to appear full of Adders and Snakes. Kill a dozen Adders and Snakes, and take the oyl of them, and mix it with wax, and make a Candle, light it in a Chamber where rushes are, and the rushes will appear to be Adders and Snakes about the Room.

In what context would this secret be useful or even desirable? Were people in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England inveterate and enthusiastic pranksters? Was this some form of defense, terrifying would be burglars and thereby protecting your belongings? How are we to read and understand these recipes, which seem so different from the more utilitarian and practical recipes?

Astronomy and Printing

The Printing Museum in Tokyo has what looks to be an amazing temporary exhibit right now on astronomy and print, aptly named “Astronomy and Printing. In search of new world vision.”[1]

Astronomy and Printing, a special exhibition at the Printing Museum, Tokyo.

The exhibit brings together nearly 100 printed objects stretching from the 1450s to the 1870s.[2] In addition to showing an impressive range of items, the flyer and brochure are truly beautiful.[3]

The amazing flyer for the “Astronomy and Printing” exhibition.

The museum also hosted some lectures on the history of astronomy, alas now all past.

On the back of the flyer were listed the various lectures that accompanied the exhibit.

The brochure lists the objects, a list that includes all the expected authors and works, e.g., works by Pliny, Ptolemy, Hyginus, Albumasar, Peurbach, Regiomonatus, Dürer, Apian, Fine, Brahe, Kepler, as well as a number of Japanese authors,[4] etc. It also has a nice timeline with authors and references to the books on display as well as cosmological diagrams.

The brochure listed the items on display and provided this nice timeline that keyed to the objects on display.

The exhibition runs until January 20, 2019. If you find yourself in Tokyo with nothing to do, I recommend an afternoon at the Printing Museum.


  1. That is the English title. Since I don’t know Japanese, I can only assume the Japanese title is the same. If you do know Japanese, you can find out more at the Japanese page: 天文学と印刷  ↩

  2. As my Japanese hasn’t improved in the last sentence or so, I should acknowledge that I might have missed some object.  ↩

  3. For reasons I don’t understand, the English page does not have a link to the flyer. A PDF is available from the Japanese page linked in note 1.  ↩

  4. My Japanese is still, regrettably, nonexistent.  ↩

Feynman Relics

A pile of Richard Feynman detritus sold recently at Sotheby’s.1 In total, the 44 lots of Feynman’s stuff fetched $3,796,625, most of it paid for Feynman’s Nobel Prize.2 While I remain puzzled by the desire to own souvenirs from some famous scientist, I am truly baffled by the fact that somebody paid $60,000 for Feynman’s damaged tambourine.

Richard Feynman’s damaged tambourine.

Described as:

An 11 inch diameter Pandeiro, wood, metal, and goat skin. Skin torn from use. Signed by Richard Feynman: “R.P. FEYNMAN. HOTEL MIRAMAR / COPACABANA, RIO.”

This object can have only reverential use or be assumed to confer on the new owner some reflected authority, in the way a saint’s finger or skull or whatever conferred authority on the church or family that possessed it. I imagine Feynman’s tambourine will look lovely sitting on some altar in its own reliquary:

Feyman’s tambourine in a reliquary.

  1. Some Einstein material too was auctioned.  ↩

  2. Feynman’s Nobel sold for a whopping $975,000! The Feynman stuff accounted for more the 75% of the total auction.  ↩

Kanye West & Galileo

Kanye West’s recent interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live took an unexpected turn when West invoked Galileo, implying that they were both misunderstood geniuses who wouldn’t be silenced by bullies telling them what to think. West was responding to Kimmel, who had asked about West’s views on the president.[1] I’m not interested West’s opinions about the president. I am, however, fascinated by his use of history.

In a long, meandering reply that didn’t actually answer Kimmel’s almost question—“Do you like…? Do you think he is a good president?”[2]—West seemed to be saying that he, West, was a free thinker and that he would not be told by anybody what to think. A minute or two into his reply, West enlisted Galileo as predecessor and partner in resisting the thought police and societal oppression:

Kanye West invokes Galileo to justify his free thinking.

[West] Right or wrong or even if I changed my mind about it[3] or thought about it more, which I’m not saying I did, just place a thought out there that everyone’s not thinking sometimes. Galileo, they wanted to chop his head off for saying that…the earth uh that, what did he say?, the the the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa …. So when you have modern, futuristic ….

[Kimmel] But the sun…but…but the sun…

[West] I’m not concerned about specifics sir.

Here’s the audio of that portion, if you want to hear it:

Wow. Let’s pause for a moment and process West’s hesitation. He stumbled over whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun around the earth. That’s not history. That’s not science. That’s just basic life. So basic, in fact, that I can’t excuse West’s uncertainty as a nervous misstep.

Invoking Galileo as some martyr for free and rational thinking who stood up to the dogmatic, oppressive Church that wanted to execute him is nothing new. But usually people who conjure up the ghost of Galileo know that Galileo espoused and argued vigorously for the Copernican, heliocentric system, the model in which the earth revolves around the sun. And while we no longer think the sun is stationary, we still accept today the core features of the Copernican system as valid and verifiable (as Kimmel seemed to be fumbling towards saying). And usually people who invoke Galileo do so because, they typically claim, they are concerned about the specifics. Galileo got it right, as the evidence we have today demonstrates. Those specifics usually matter.

But as West says, the specifics don’t matter to him. History, after all, is holding “us back as a race of beings:”[4]

I think people focus too much on the past and focus too much on regret. Even like when you deal with schools, you take like my slave idea. My my point is I’ve heard of history class. I’ve never heard of a class that breaks down how you, ya know, balance a checkbook or how you control your finances, which uh my father never taught me that, and I’ve never heard of a future class. So they keep us so focused on history that we start to believe that it actually repeats itself and we become overly traditional and we can’t advance as a race of beings. We get too caught up in the past and what everyone’s saying and what everyone’s tweeting ….

I have a different idea here, one I’m going to place out there even if everyone’s not thinking it: History does matter. And paying attention in history class, not just hearing “of history class” but listing in history class, matters.[5] And history classes are not the problem. Focusing on history doesn’t convince us that history “actually repeats itself” and prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.” No, ignoring history, thinking history and historical facts are infinitely malleable or that the specifics don’t matter, that’s the danger that prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.”[6] Such willful ignorance, such open rejection of history empowers factions in society to “become overly traditional,” because once you deny history, society can and will continually make up whatever tradition that suits its immediate needs. Winston’s dystopian future will become our present:

All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

History matters, as West instinctively realizes in his use (and abuse) of it to validate and justify his own position, because of the specifics. Once we lose the details, the historical facts and the evidence, then we’re just making stuff up.

If for some reason you want to watch more of the interview, this search should produce a link to the YouTube video.


  1. Unlike West’s response, Kimmel’s question about the president was anything but unexpected.  ↩

  2. West said he was going to answer the question Kimmel was going to ask but didn’t, the question about liking the president.  ↩

  3. I.e., West’s ideas and opinions about the president.  ↩

  4. The irony of his having just deployed one of the more famous episodes in Western history to support him and his position seems to have been lost on West.  ↩

  5. Yes, other classes matter too. And yes, West is right, classes on basic economics and finances are worthwhile (and offered in many schools and colleges).  ↩

  6. I need to point out that I have no idea what West means by “advance as a race of beings,” especially the retro–1950s, invaders from another planet “race of beings” bit.  ↩