Monday, July 12, 2010

Making Science Fun: Joseph Moxon’s Astronomical Playing Cards

Posted by Darin Hayton on 07/12 at 10:43 PM

Convincing students to learn science has occupied educators for centuries. In the fifteenth and sixteenth century professors at English universities relied on a board game, the Ludus astronomorum, to teach the basic principles used in astrology. Editions of the game were still being printed as late as 1571, when William Fulke published his Ouranomachia.1 In the late seventeenth century, popularizers and pedagogues were still trying to devise more effective ways to teach astronomy. Joseph Moxon was one such popularizer. He had built a business around writing popular scientific works, making globes and other paper instruments, and printing scientific texts. On 10 January 1661/2 he successfully petitioned King Charles II to be appointed the royal Hydrographer—his petition was supported by a number of people associated with Gresham College and the nascent Royal Society, including L. Rooke, Walter Pope, and Elias Ashmole. In 1678 he was elected to the Royal Society, the first tradesman elected to the society.2

Engraving of Joseph Moxon from his A Tutor to Astronomy (1686)

Moxon considered playing cards to be a useful way to teach astronomy and geography. He was not the only person to print playing cards—the geographer John Adair and the mathematician Thomas Tuttell both made playing cards. Moxon produced three different sets of playing cards:

  • Astronomical Playing Cards, which cost 6d
  • Astronomical Cards, which cost 1s for plain ones up to 5s for a colored and gilded set
  • Geographical Playing Cards, which cost 1s for plain ones up to 5s for a colored and gilded set

These cards often were simply playing cards with additional information added to them. For example, Thomas Tuttell produced a set of playing cards for mathematical instruments. The face of the card was divided between a large engraving of the instrument with a description of its use, and then upper corner contained a small image of the suit and the value of the card:

Thomas Tuttell’s “Astronomical Quadrant” Queen of Spades playing card (Source: Winterthur Library here)

Moxon also produced a manual to go with his cards: The Use of the Astronomical Playing Cards, Teaching any Ordinary Capacity by them to be acquainted with all the Stars in the Heaven, Colour, Nature, and Bigness (1676), which was reprinted in 1692.

Title page from Joseph Moxon’s The Use of the Astronomical Playing Cards (1692)

His guide was largely just an opportunity to describe the cards and to explain the point of grouping the stars into constellations. The cards were divided into four suits of standard value, ace through king. On the face of each card was a constellation, the stars of which were represented by asterisks of varying size: “The stars are divided into six sorts or sizes called Magnitudes, (which are you may see) distinguished with six several sizes of Asterisks made like Stars.” He then describes how astronomers calculate magnitude and the volume a star of each magnitude should, relating both to the size and volume of the earth. He felt it necessary to combat the objection that the stars don’t look that big:

I confess all this may seem matter of incredulity to those whose understanding is swayed by their visual sence, because they cannot perhaps conceive it possible that the Heaven which appears so small to the bare eye should be able to contain so great a number of such great bodies as is here spoken of, yet if those be capable to consider the vast distance of this Heaven, and consequently of the Stars placed in it from the face of the Earth, and also the Diminutive quality of distance, their reason will be rectified.

He considers all the fixed stars to be equidistant, on a single sphere. Quoting John Dee, Moxon calculates that this sphere and its stars are 69,006,540 miles from the Earth’s surface. In case the enormous distance wasn’t clear, he adds: “were there a path for a Footman to walk in of that length, he must have set forth 9,452 years 347 days ago, and have travelled 20 miles a day every day to have been just now at his Journey’s end.”

These fixed stars have been arranged into constellations by astronomers according to similar properties of the stars, because they generally represent the figure named, and so that people can more easily learn astronomy, “to make men fall in love with Astronomy” because “they [the astronomers and poets] saw that Astronomy being for its commodity singular in the life of man, was almost of all men utterly neglected: Hereupon they began to set forth that Art under Fictions, that thereby such as could not be perswaded by commodity might by the pleasure be induced to take a view of these matters; and thereby at length fall in love with them.”

Finally, Moxon’s cards also contained the day of the month that each constellation rises at sunset and the compass point of its rising. His book concludes by describing 21 northern constellations, 15 southern, the 12 zodiacal constellations, and the Milky Way. Regrettably, Moxon’s playing cards are hard to find. Nevertheless, the importance of playing cards either in pedagogical situations or as forms of popularizing science seems like an interesting topic that merits further work.

Playing cards must have been effective pedagogical tools. They were quite popular at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries, and were still being printed a century later. The Museum of the History of Science and the National Maritime Museum both have a packet of “The Elements of Astronomy and Geography Explained” by Abbé Paris and printed by John Wallis in 1795, see the MHS example and the NMM example.3 Such playing cards remain popular even today, or at least they are still available today: Astronomy Playing Cards.

1See Ann Moyer, “The Astronomers’ Game: Astrology and University Culture in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries” Medieval and Early Modern Science 4(1999): 228–50 (JSTOR URL).
2For a biography of Moxon, see G. Jagger, “Joseph Moxon, F.R.S. and the Royal Society” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 49(1995): 193–208 (JSTOR URL).
3Thanks to Rebekah Higgitt for pointing out the example at the National Maritime Museum, as well as an astronomy board game there.

Tags: astronomy, joseph moxon, popularizing science