Friday, September 10, 2010

Joseph Moxon Popularizes Astronomy

Posted by Darin Hayton on 09/10 at 11:37 AM

Joseph Moxon’s efforts to popularize astronomy extended well beyond his astronomical playing cards (see Moxon’s Astronomical Playing Cards). He also wrote a number of English-language instruction manuals to help people learn astronomy and learn how to use the astronomical instruments Moxon himself made and sold.1 His efforts to bring astronomy to a broader audience were motivated, at least in part, by his instrument business, especially globes.

In 1654 he first published his A Tutor to Astronomy and Geography, Or an Easie and Speedy way to Know the Use of both the Globes, Coelestial and Terrestrial. This edition was, as the title makes clear, not his own composition but rather a translation of the first part of Gulielmus Bleau’s Institutio astronomica de usu globarum & sphaerarum caelestium ac terrestium. Moxon’s text must have sold reasonably well for he soon published a second, enlarged edition. He continued to expand his text until at least 1686, when he published the fourth edition.

Joseph Moxon’s A Tutor to Astronomy and Geography (London, 1686) (Source: Special and Quaker Collections, Haverford College)

By this fourth edition, Moxon had surpassed Bleau’s text, or at least he claimed to have surpassed it, along with a handful of other authorities. Moxon’s latest edition explains how to use globes for astronomy, geography, navigation, astrology, gnomonical and trigonometric problems. He brags that his work explains these uses

More fully and amply than hath yet been set forth, either by Gemma Frisius, Metius, Hues, Wright, Bleaw [sic], or any others that have taught the Use of the GLOBES: And that so Plainly and Methodically; that the meanest Capacity may at first Reading apprehend it, and with a little Practice grow expert in these Divine Sciences.

Moxon apparently thought rather highly of his ability to educate his audience if even those of “meanest Capacity may at first Reading apprehend” the use of his globes. In the letter to the reader he defends his book and his numerous examples, claiming: “Therefore my aim in this Book hath been to make the Use of them very plain, and easie to the meanest Capacities. … I write not to expert Practitioners, but to Learners; to whom Examples may prove more Instructive than Precepts.”

Moxon’s Letter “To the Reader” (Source: Special and Quaker Collections, Haverford College)

In that same letter, Moxon boasts about the quality and detail of his globes. Not only are his the latest, he drew on previous maps and globes as well as the expertise of “able Mathematicians both in England and Holland for Tables and Calculations.” Further, to bring his celestial globe up to date, he

placed every Star that was observed by Tycho Brahe and other Observers, one degree of Longitude farther in the Ecliptick than they are on any other Globes: so that whereas on other Globes the places of the Stars were correspondent with their places in Heaven 69 Years ago, when Tycho observed them, and therefore according to his Rule want almost a degree of their ture places in Heaven a this time: I have set every Star one degree farther in the Ecliptick, and rectified them on the Globe according to the true place they had in Heaven in the Year 1671.

On his terrestrial globes he has incorporated all the latest discoveries, including new islands, a more accurate coastline for China and Japan, and corrected California, which “is found to be an Island, though formerly supposed to be part of the main Continent.”

Moxon’s book is pleasantly illustrated, perhaps to capture and hold the attention of those of “meanest Capacity,” often with little angelic figures holding astronomical instruments.

An angel illustrates how to determine the altitude of the sun or star (Source: Special and Quaker Collections, Haverford College)

Interestingly, Moxon had not yet given up the geo-centric system. The one illustration of the world places the earth at the center, surrounded by the planetary spheres, the firmament and crystalline heaven. His illustration didn’t merely take up space. The text uses it to explain the motions of the stars and planets. In other words, the figure illustrated Moxon’s argument.

Moxon’s figure of the world (Source: Special and Quaker Collections, Haverford College)

Finally, book four focused on the astrological uses for Moxon’s globes. Moxon begins by laying out the basics, including how to construct the figure itself and how to divide the houses. For dividing the houses, Moxon mentions methods associated with Regiomontanus and Campanus. His discussion of these two methods reveals much about the knowledge he assumed in those of “meanest Capacity:”

Prob. II. To erect a Figure of Heaven according to Campanus
Regiomontanus (as aforesaid) makes the beginning of every House to be the Semi-Circle drawn by the side of the Semi-Circle of Position according to the succession of every 30th Deg. of the Equator from the Horizon. But Campanus makes it to be the Semi-Circle drawn by the side of the Semi-Circle of Position according to the Succession of every 30th Degree of the Prime Verticle or East Azimuth, which is represented by the Quadrant of Altitude placed at the East Point.

The remainder of the problem is equally easy to follow.

An angel illustrates how to determine the altitude of the sun or star (Source: Special and Quaker Collections, Haverford College)

Moxon avoids offering any interpretive canons, referring his reader to the many printed manuals. He claimed he could do no better than those already available.

Moxon’s career—printer, translator, instrument maker, fellow of the Royal Society, Royal Hydrographer, popularizer—raise a number of interesting questions about the nature and the place of astronomy and astronomical knowledge in late 17th-century England. To what extent was Moxon part of a broader, popularizing movement that perhaps began in the sixteenth century with people like Robert Recorde, who was surely trying to bring mathematics to a broader audience? To what extent were his globes popular instruments? What is the relationship between Moxon the tradesman and the Royal Society, that elected him and the a short time later threw him out? Were his efforts to popularize astronomy driven merely by economics—he wanted to sell more globes? And what about that lingering Ptolemaic system of the world? Did Moxon, whose other works show a clear familiarity with both the Tychonic and Copernican system, think that those of “meanest Capacity” would only understand the Ptolemaic system? Did he explicitly or implicitly reject the other systems? Not unrelated are his efforts to teach his reader about astrology? Moxon was associated with the Society of Astrologers, which experienced something of a revival in 1682.2 Astrology was increasingly being excluded from more intellectually elite circles at this time, though it certainly continued to flourish in the popular press. How does Moxon’s inclusion and characterization of astrology help illuminate the history of astrology, particular vis-à-vis astronomy?


1In addition to his popularizations of astronomy, Moxon was also a printer. In 1683-4 he wrote and published the earliest account of a London printing house: Mechanick Exercises … Applied to the Art of Printing. Here again he hoped to explain the craft of printing in “Workmens Phrases.” See the excellent analysis in A. Johns, The Nature of the Book, esp. 79–92, 106–08.
2See P. Curry, Prophecy and Power. Astrology in Early Modern England, 43.

Tags: astrology, astronomy, joseph moxon, popularizing astronomy