A few days ago I was taking some colleagues on a tour around our library and archive collections. This is a popular option for staff (both old and new), as they get to see into bits of the building which are usually off-limits, and we never turn down an opportunity to show off the collections! In the rare books room, I reached up for one of my favourite items – Regiomontanus’ almanac.
Having taken several tours recently during which I found myself unable to answer not-actually-very-difficult questions, I’ve decided I need to do a bit more research into a number of things, and Regiomontanus seemed as good a place to start as any as although this is something I regularly show visitors, I know embarrassingly little about the book.
It is one of the earliest items in our book collection as we think it was printed in or around 1474 – exciting for a bibliohistorical geek like me as this is very early stuff (Gutenberg began printing with moveable type around 1450) – and came to the Royal Society as part of the Norfolk donation. More excitingly for the casual observer, it has some lovely hand-drawn pictures of zodiac symbols and phases of the moon, and a (still operational!) moveable paper dial for performing your own calculations:
As is so often the way when you start to think about a particular thing, Regiomontanus suddenly seemed to be cropping up everywhere! Although I don’t think he appears in our new exhibition, he would certainly have been familiar with some of its astronomical content. He even popped up on Twitter, via a link to a fascinating blog post about his role in founding the “first ever printing house dedicated to the printing and publishing of scientific books … in Nürnberg in 1471”.
This detail was particularly interesting as the almanac in our collection was printed in Nuremberg approximately three years after Regiomontanus founded his press there – it hadn’t occurred to me before that he might have printed his own work (though looking at the catalogue record it seems that an earlier Royal Society librarian had realised this).
In addition to a handful of other early printed works, we also have a modern facing-page facsimile and translation of Regiomontanus’ work On Triangles – really helpful for those of us whose Latin doesn’t stretch to trigonometry, and the edition also provides some really interesting textual and biographical information too (and some great reproductions of woodcuts).
As is also often the way when I set out to research something, I ended up going off on all sorts of tangents. For example, did you know that the first significant biographical account of Regiomontanus was published by Peter Gassendus in 1651 (we have a copy of the 2nd edition of 1655)? Or that there is a Regiomontanus crater on the moon? Or that Columbus wowed the native Americans by predicting a solar eclipse based on Regiomontanus’ work? Furthermore, he was born on 6 June 1436, so he even qualifies as an addition to our ongoing series of birthday posts! And in spite of my repeatedly referring to him as such, Regiomontanus was not even his name, but was apparently coined some years after his death – in his lifetime he would have answered to Johannes Müller von Königsberg, Johannes der Königsberger, or Joannes de Monte Regio.
Come my next tour, I wonder how much of this I’ll actually remember?