Blast from the Past: A Glimpse Into Rare Science Book Collection

My dad and I attended the general meeting of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City yesterday evening.  We arrived earlier enough to also attend the Astro 101 class.  The topic happened to be on binoculars, although I vaguely remembered it advertised as astrophotography.  Next month, perhaps, provided the speaker doesn’t postpone for the third time this year.  Nevertheless, we learned quite a bit about binoculars and the handout included a dozen or so winter observing targets.

With just five minutes to spare, Dad and I changed lecture halls in Royall Hall, walking across to the larger one where the general meetings are held.  Jay Manifold and Rick Henderson made several announcements.  Another club member, Bob Sandy, gave a brief ten to fifteen minutes demonstration of his equipment used to videotape the Transit of Venus, including the video from that event and also a separate one of the re-appearance of the asteroid Ceres from behind the Moon.

Jay introduced our guest speaker, Bruce Bradley Librarian for History of Science at the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering and Technology, who spoke about the library’s rare books on astronomy. The Linda Hall Library, located just two hundred yards west of Royall Hall, is the world’s foremost independent research library devoted to science, engineering and technology.

Title Page of Starry Messenger by Gallileo

The collection Mr. Bradley oversees is kept in the Helen Foresman Spencer Rare Book Room in the History of Science Center at the library which is open to the public Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. An appointment is not necessary for individual readers and visitors, but groups are advised to make an appointment in advance of a proposed visit.

In February of 2004, several ASKC members visited and marveled at these well preserved treasures:

  • The oldest book in the place printed by Nicolas Jenson in Venice in 1472, Pliny the Elder’s (23-79 AD) Naturalis Historiae Liber open to a section entitled”CAII PLYNII SECVNDI NATURALIS HISTORIAE LIBER X,” subtitled”De Natura auium Cap. i.” Beginning with a beautifully illuminated capital S in blue, red, green and gold, the colors appeared to have barely faded in 532 years.
  • Tycho Brahe’s Astronomiae Instauratae Progymnasmata from 1602 open to a star map showing the location of the supernova
    of 1572 in Cassiopeia.
  • Galileo’s Dialogo, printed in Florence,”Per Gio: Batista Landini,” 1632., displaying a Copernican diagram of the Solar System showing orbits of the planets, the Moon and the four large moons of Jupiter that Galileo discovered.
  • A handwritten observational journal of William Herschel open to a section containing observations of Saturn with drawings, formulas and figures.
  • A very large format book with a full-color, two-page drawing of Tycho’s observatory, labeled Stellaeburgum (also called Uraniborg) as it appeared in 1558.
On of Galileo’s illustrations/engravings of the Moon

At the October general meeting, Mr. Bradley started with a history of the founding of the library.  He then showed us many images taken of the rare books in the collection.  He also related interesting and intriguing stories about the men who wrote these early science books.  We even got a crash course in the Gutenberg printing process, right down to the materials used for the bindings, the paper and the ink.  Mr. Bradley spent quite a bit of time paging through a couple of Galileo‘s books (see excerpt at right) and explaining the challenges Galileo and his printer faced in publishing his ground-breaking astronomical observations and conclusions confirming Copernicus‘ theory of a sun-centered universe (solar system).

He concluded his talk with a question and answer session and an invitation to the Library to see these treasures first hand. I plan to make a trip during lunch to the Linda Hall library’s current exhibit, called ‘On Time: The Question for Precision‘ featuring revolutions in time keeping within the next week or so.

2 thoughts on “Blast from the Past: A Glimpse Into Rare Science Book Collection”

    1. Thanks for stopping by my blog. Did you see the other post I published on the collector’s edition classic I checked out from the library? Really cool. Jon

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