A 16th-Century Astronomy Book Featured “Analog Computers” to Calculate the Shape of the Moon, the Position of the Sun, and More

If you want to learn how the plan­ets move, you’ll almost cer­tain­ly go to one place first: Youtube. Yes, there have been plen­ty of worth­while books writ­ten on the sub­ject, and read­ing them will prove essen­tial to fur­ther deep­en­ing your under­stand­ing. But videos have the capac­i­ty of motion, an unde­ni­able ben­e­fit when motion itself is the con­cept under dis­cus­sion. Less than twen­ty years into the Youtube age, we’ve already seen a good deal of inno­va­tion in the art of audio­vi­su­al expla­na­tion. But we’re also well over half a mil­len­ni­um into the age of the book as we know it, a time that even in its ear­ly phas­es saw impres­sive attempts to go beyond text on a page.

Take, for exam­ple, Peter Api­an’s Cos­mo­graphia, first pub­lished in 1524. A 16th-cen­tu­ry Ger­man poly­math, Api­an (also known as Petrus Api­anus, and born Peter Bienewitz) had a pro­fes­sion­al inter­est in math­e­mat­ics, astron­o­my and car­tog­ra­phy. At their inter­sec­tion stood the sub­ject of “cos­mog­ra­phy” from which this impres­sive book takes its name, and its project of map­ping the then-known uni­verse.

“The trea­tise pro­vid­ed instruc­tion in astron­o­my, geog­ra­phy, car­tog­ra­phy, nav­i­ga­tion, and instru­ment-mak­ing,” writes Frank Swetz at the Math­e­mat­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­ca. “It was one of the first Euro­pean books to depict and dis­cuss North Amer­i­ca and includ­ed mov­able volvelles allow­ing the read­ers to inter­act with and use some of the charts and instru­ment lay­outs pre­sent­ed.”

Pop-up book enthu­si­asts like Ellen Rubin will know what volvelles are; you and I may not, but if you’ve ever moved a paper wheel or slid­er on a page, you’ve used one. The volvelle first emerged in the medieval era, not as an amuse­ment to liv­en up chil­dren’s books but as a kind of “ana­log com­put­er” embed­ded in seri­ous sci­en­tif­ic works. “The volvelles make the prac­ti­cal nature of cos­mog­ra­phy clear,” writes Katie Tay­lor at Cam­bridge’s Whip­ple Library, which holds a copy of Cos­mo­graphia. “Read­ers could manip­u­late these devices to solve prob­lems: find­ing the time at dif­fer­ent places and or one’s lat­i­tude, giv­en the height of the Sun above the hori­zon.”

Api­an orig­i­nal­ly includ­ed three such volvelles in Cos­mo­graphia. Lat­er, his dis­ci­ple Gem­ma Fri­sius, a Dutch physi­cian, instru­ment mak­er and math­e­mati­cian, pro­duced expand­ed edi­tions that includ­ed anoth­er. “In all its forms,” writes Swetz, “the book was extreme­ly pop­u­lar in the 16th cen­tu­ry, going through 30 print­ings in 14 lan­guages.” Despite the book’s suc­cess, it’s not so easy to come by a copy in good (indeed work­ing) con­di­tion near­ly 500 years lat­er. If these descrip­tions of its pages and their volvelles have piqued your curios­i­ty, you can see these inge­nious paper devices in action in these videos tweet­ed out by Atlas Obscu­ra. As with plan­ets them­selves, you can’t ful­ly appre­ci­ate them until you see them move for your­self.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Atlas of Space: Behold Bril­liant Maps of Con­stel­la­tions, Aster­oids, Plan­ets & “Every­thing in the Solar Sys­tem Big­ger Than 10km”

An Illus­trat­ed Map of Every Known Object in Space: Aster­oids, Dwarf Plan­ets, Black Holes & Much More

When Astronomer Johannes Kepler Wrote the First Work of Sci­ence Fic­tion, The Dream (1609)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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