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Instrumental images: the visual rhetoric of self-presentation in Hevelius's Machina Coelestis


This article places the famous images of Johannes Hevelius's instruments in his Machina Coelestis (1673) in the context of Hevelius's contested cometary observations and his debate with Hooke over telescopic sights. Seen thus, the images promote a crafted vision of Hevelius's astronomical practice and skills, constituting a careful self-presentation to his distant professional network and a claim as to which instrumental techniques guarantee accurate observations. Reviewing the reception of the images, the article explores how visual rhetoric may be invoked and challenged in the context of controversy, and suggests renewed analytical attention to the role of laboratory imagery in instrumental cultures in the history of science.

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1 Oldenburg to Bartholin, 20 September 1673, in A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall (eds.), The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg (hereafter CHO), 13 vols., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965–1988, vol. 10, letter 2236.

2 Oldenburg to Cassini, 11 September 1673, CHO, vol. 10, 2320, original emphasis.

3 Johannes Hevelius, Machina Coelestis Pars Prior, Gedani, 1673, reprint Osnabrück: Zeller, 1969. The first volume is also referred to by its alternate title, Organographia.

4 Hevelius to Oldenburg, 13 August 1673, CHO, vol. 10, 2299.

5 Hevelius devotes the entire first chapter of his Selenographia sive Lunae Descriptio, Gedani, 1647, to instrument-making, and in 1665 published a ‘Promise of imparting to the world his invention of making optick glasses’, in which he declared that he had perfected and simplified his method of making conic optical glasses over ten years of practice, and which he intended, ‘for the improvement of natural knowledge, to describe the whole method thereof in my Celestial Machine, and to propose it to the examination and judgement of the Royal Society’, Philosophical Transactions (1665) 1, p. 98. It is unclear who wrote this, as it is published in English, unlike Hevelius's usual Latin contributions. It was most likely relayed by Oldenburg, as the same announcement includes another similar promise from Huygens: both foreign philosophers were members of Oldenburg's correspondence network.

6 Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

7 Mario Biagioli, Galileo's Instruments of Credit: Telescopes, Images, Secrecy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. On long-distance networks see also Harris, Steven J., ‘Long-distance corporations, big sciences, and the geography of knowledge’, Configurations (1998) 6, pp. 269304; David S. Lux and Harold J. Cook, ‘Closed circles or open networks? Communicating at a distance during the scientific revolution’, History of Science (1998) 36, pp. 179–211.

8 Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity, New York: Zone Books, 2007.

9 Lynch, Michael, ‘Discipline and the material form of images’, Social Studies of Science (1985) 15, pp. 3766.

10 On ‘epistemological decorum’ see Shapin, op. cit. (6). On rhetoric in the early Royal Society see Peter Dear, ‘Totius in verba: rhetoric and authority in the early Royal Society’, Isis (1985) 76, pp. 145–161. On sixteenth-century controversy as managed through letter writing see Nicholas Jardine, The Birth of History and Philosophy of Science: Kepler's ‘A Defence of Tycho against Ursus’ with Essays on Its Provenance and Significance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984; see also Nicholas Jardine, Adam Mosley and Karin Tybjerg, ‘Tycho Brahe, epistolary culture, and standards of editorial provity’, Studies in the History of Astronomy (2003) 34, pp. 443–466. On Hevelius's induction into the Royal Society see Biagioli, op. cit. (7), pp. 53–60.

11 See Hevelius, op. cit. (5); Jennifer Downes, ‘The astronomer as artist: Johannes Hevelius (1611–1687) and the problem of accurate representation in seventeenth-century telescopic astronomy’, paper presented at Visual Knowledges, Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, University of Edinburgh, September 2003; Janet Vertesi, ‘Picturing the moon: Hevelius’ and Riccioli's visual debate', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (2007) 38, pp. 401–421; Mary G. Winkler and Albert Van Helden, ‘Johannes Hevelius and the visual language of astronomy’, in J.V. Field and Frank A.J.L. James (eds.), Renaissance and Revolution: Humanists, Scholars, Craftsmen, and Natural Philosophers in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 97–116.

12 Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985. The concept of virtual witnessing as it relates to the plates of the Machina Coelestis is explored in more detail below.

13 Robert Hooke, Micrographia, London, 1665. The visual programme of the Micrographia is discussed in Dennis, Michael A., ‘Graphic understanding: instruments and interpretation in Robert Hooke's Micrographia’, Science in Context (1989) 3, pp. 309364.

14 Biagioli, op. cit. (7).

15 In particular, Hevelius's lens-grinding apparatus intrigued the Royal Society Fellows, who were especially interested in optical instruments at the time: Hooke would publish his Micrographia in 1665, and both microscopic and telescopic observations peppered the pages of the society's journal, Philosophical Transactions.

16 Oldenburg's recently published correspondence remains the best way of assessing Hevelius's relationships with England and the Royal Society: letters from other members were almost exclusively passed through Oldenburg and are reproduced in full. Hevelius's own correspondence remains in the Royal Library in Paris, unpublished.

17 Targosz, Karolina, ‘Johann Hevelius et ses demarches pour trouver des mécènes en France’, Revue d'histoire des sciences et de leurs applications (1977) 30, pp. 2541.

18 Winkler and Van Helden, op. cit. (11).

19 While no competing observations were produced for the same night, Hevelius's coordinates would have the comet deviate radically from its path.

20 The incident is described in detail in Derek Jensen's doctoral thesis (pp. 221–231), wherein the author argues ‘that the comet controversy was truly a turning point in Hevelius's life and that it shaped all of his subsequent work’, including the Machina Coelestis. See Derek Jensen, ‘The science of the stars in Danzig from Rheticus to Hevelius’, Ph.D. thesis, University of California, San Diego, 2006 (UMI 3236816). See also Shapin, op. cit. (6), pp. 273–290; Biagioli, op. cit. (7), pp. 59–60. The Royal Society's verdict, ‘Of the judgement of some of the English astronomers, touching the difference between two learned men, about an observation made of the first of the two late comets’, is available in Philosophical Transactions (1666) 1, pp. 150–151.

21 Oldenburg to Hevelius, 11 May 1668, CHO, vol. 4, 396–397.

22 Voula Saridakis's doctoral thesis identifies this debate as foundational for how it shaped the role, methods and research directions of the emerging institutional astronomer. See Voula Saridakis, ‘Converging elements in the development of late seventeenth-century disciplinary astronomy: instrumentation, education, networks, and the Hevelius–Hooke controversy’, Ph.D. thesis, Virginia Institute of Technology, 2001, OCLC 48543806.

23 Flamsteed to Cassini, in Oldenburg to Cassini, 11 September 1673, CHO, vol. 10, 2320a.

24 Oldenburg, CHO, vol. 10, 2327.

25 Oldenburg to Hevelius, 30 September 1673, CHO, vol. 10, 2350.

26 Jensen, op. cit. (20), pp. 237–241. Note that the Machina Coelestis may also have faced the daunting task of convincing King Louis XIV to continue to fund Hevelius's observatory alongside the new Royal Observatory in Paris; see Targosz, op. cit. (17). While the book sports a royal dedication and an image of coins raining down on astronomical instruments from the fleur-de-lys, the presentation of self as a gentleman and outstanding astronomer, discussed below, could translate easily to a bid for patronage from a distant foreign king as well as to a bid for trust from Hevelius's distant peers.

27 The frontispiece was sent with Hevelius's letter of 13 August 1673 to Oldenburg (CHO, vol. 10, 2299), who showed it to Hooke on 5 September 1673 at Oldenburg's residence (The Diary of Robert Hooke (ed. Henry R. Robinson and Walter Adams), London: Taylor & Francis, 1935, p. 59) and reported it in his letter to Sivers of the same day (CHO, vol. 10, 2319).

28 Hevelius, op. cit. (3), p. 24.

29 Giambattista Riccioli's Almagestum Novum (1651) included several pages of tables of famous astronomers and their contributions to science, and used these names to label features of the Moon's surface.

30 The inscriptions read ‘multa detecta’ and ‘sed quem plurimus Posteris relicta’, which the text elucidates as ‘Multa quidem detecta, sed quamplurima Posteris sunt relicta’. There may also have been another inscription intended to be placed under the astronomer's feet, as the text refers to another one absent from the scene as finally produced. Hevelius, op. cit. (3), p. 26.

31Hi duo … nosque admonent, quam attentisimis animis, quantaque assiduitate tot Stellarum collucentium cursus contemplari, ac perscrutari, Eorum edocti exemplo, debeamus …’, Hevelius, op. cit. (3), p. 25.

32… ex ipsis scilicet Geometriae, & Arithmeticae fontibus, nec non oculari demonstratione, ac plurimis longa temporum serie, debitis Organis acquisitis observationibus deducta, ac deprompta’. Hevelius, op. cit. (3), p. 1.

33… nempe animo’. Hevelius, op. cit. (3), p. 21.

34… perseverantissimus, cursumque consttantissime tenens in suis contemplationibus, Observationibus, studiisque … diu noctuque …’ Hevelius, op. cit. (3), p. 21.

35… acutissimo ingenio, lynceo oculo, indefesso labore, & constantissimo animo …’ Hevelius, op. cit. (3), p. 22.

36 On disinterestedness as a gentlemanly attribute important to assessing testimony see Shapin, op. cit. (6), especially pp. 223–227.

37 Dennis, op. cit. (13).

38 Shapin and Schaffer, op. cit. (12).

39 Daston and Galison, op. cit. (8). See also Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, ‘The image of objectivity’, Representations (1992) 40, pp. 82–128.

40 Hooke may be unique as he treaded the line between craftsman and natural philosopher as keeper of the society's experiments. But he, too, was unforgiving of those who assisted him: on his relationship with the engraver for Micrographia see Dennis, op. cit. (13). See also Shapin on ‘invisible technicians’: Shapin, Steven, ‘The invisible technician’, American Scientist (1989) 77, pp. 554563; and Smith on artisanal knowledge: Pamela H. Smith, The Body of the Artisan: Art and Experience in the Scientific Revolution, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

41 For more on late seventeenth-century court dress in England, France and the German lands see Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eubank, Survey of Historic Costume: A History of Western Dress, 3rd edn, New York: Fairchild Publications, 1998.

42 Shapin, op. cit. (6), p. 52. The wealth of the gentleman is discussed on pp. 48–52.

43 As Biagioli, op. cit. (7), rightly notes, it was not essential to be a gentleman in order to participate in the Royal Society, but distant members often profited by presenting themselves as such or, at least, as acceptable to the perceived requirements of local participation.

44 Daston and Galison, op. cit. (8). This would, however, be an anachronistic application of mechanical objectivity, a term that the authors apply largely to modes of instrumental management in the nineteenth century. Note that Jensen, op. cit. (20), suggests that these plates also lay claim to Hevelius's command over and synthesis of multiple witness accounts to bolster his claim to observational accuracy. I would temper this account by noting the importance of Hevelius's own person in these images as essential to his reception as individually trustworthy, or at least as the corporate face of his observatory's enterprise. Command over a local legion of observers is also claim to Hevelius's authority and status, as will be discussed below.

45 The status of the telescope as generator of mathematical versus physical knowledge was uncertain at this time. On the relationship between mathematical descriptions and an underlying metaphysics see Peter Dear, ‘Mathematical science and the reconstitution of experience’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (1987) 18, pp. 133–175.

46 On lunar maps see Vertesi, op. cit. (11); on the Huygens controversy see Albert Van Helden, ‘Telescopes and authority from Galileo to Cassini’, Osiris (1994) 9, pp. 9–29.

47 See Dennis, op. cit. (13), on Hooke's post-lapsarian observational programme.

48 Oldenburg to Hevelius, CHO, vol. 4, 396–397.

49 Robert Hooke, Animadversions on the first part of the Machina Coelestis …, London, 1674, p. 4.

50 Hevelius, op. cit. (3), Chapter XXI.

51 On the aerial telescope see Bedini, Silvio A., ‘The aerial telescope’, Technology and Culture (1967) 8, pp. 395401.

52 On centres of calculation see Bruno Latour, ‘Drawing things together’, in Michael Lynch and Steve Woolgar (eds.), Representation in Scientific Practice, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1988, pp. 19–68.

53 See Shapin, op. cit. (6), on inheriting gentility (pp. 52–56) and on Robert Boyle's claims to nobility (pp. 130–144).

54 See Biagioli, op. cit. (7), pp. 68–69.

55 Hevelius, op. cit. (3), p. 21.

56 Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. On Tycho's press see Johns's Introduction, pp. 6–40. Hevelius's Machina Coelestis is invoked on p. 40 as an example of seeking imperial privileges to inhibit piracy.

57 Tycho Brahe, Astronomiae Instauratae Mechanica, Hven, 1598, reprint Bruxelles: Culture et Civilisation, 1969.

58 Diary of Robert Hooke, op. cit. (27), p. 72, Friday 28 November 1673.

59Verum enimvero, Benevole Lector, non est, quod Tibi persuadeas, me Tibi adeo Magnificum, Splendidum, Amplissimum, imo Regium Uraniburgum, quale Nobilissimus Tycho possedit, jussu & sumptibus Regiis maxima parte exaedificatumm, sub adsepectum positurum, quod huic aequiparari, multo minus praeferri posit? … Quandoquidem non Regium, sed solummodo Civicum Stellaeburgum …’ Hevelius, op. cit. (3), p. 439.

60 On the varying structures of home laboratories as knowledge-making spaces in the seventeenth century see Hannaway, Owen, ‘Laboratory design and the aim of science: Andreas Libavius versus Tycho Brahe’, Isis (1986) 77, pp. 585610; and Shapin, Steven, ‘The house of experiment in seventeenth-century England,’ Isis (1988) 79, pp. 373404.

61 Translated in Hans Raeder, Elis Strömgren and Bengt Strömgren, Tycho Brahe's Description of His Instruments and Scientific Work, as Given in Astronomiae Instauratae Mechanica, Copenhagen, 1946, p. 123.

62 Hevelius to Oldenburg, 13 August 1673, CHO, vol. 10, 2299. Hooke purchased one of these from Oldenburg for eighteen shillings on 15 January 1673/4, after his first lecture against Hevelius. Diary of Robert Hooke, op. cit. (27), p. 80.

63 The pirate episode, apparently a common problem during the Anglo-Dutch war, is recounted in Wood, Paul B., ‘Hevelius's business: an unpublished letter from Henry Oldenburg to the Earl of Tweeddale’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (1989) 43, pp. 2529.

64 ‘An Account of Some Books …’, Philosophical Transactions (1673) 8, pp. 6166–6178, p. 6172.

65 Hevelius to Oldenburg, 13 August 1673, CHO, vol. 10, 2299.

66 Oldenburg to Hevelius, 9 January 1673/4, CHO, vol. 10, 2416.

67 The dates of the Englishmen's letters and journal entries in this section are in the Julian calendar. Therefore, as 9 January 1673 actually took place after 11 December 1673, I have used the convention of writing 1673/4 to demonstrate the continuity of events.

68 Diary of Robert Hooke, op. cit. (27), p. 73.

69 Diary of Robert Hooke, op. cit. (27), p. 74.

70 Hooke Folio MS/847, GB 117, Archives of the Royal Society, 680 sides, pp. 1671–1693. 15 January 1673/4, Section 58.

71 Diary of Robert Hooke, op. cit. (27), pp. 75 and 83. Between these two lectures, he consulted Wallis about his analytical division of arches, which would become central to the printed version of the Cutler Lecture and would leave Wallis scrambling to maintain his friendship with Hevelius.

72 This was requested on 4 June and discoursed on 3 December 1674, at which time Hooke ‘was desired to have this instrument perfected, and for trying the performance thereof’ with a committee consisting of ‘The BP of Salisbury. Sr. William Petty, Sr. Chr. Wren & Sr. Jonas Moor’. Hooke, op. cit. (70), 3 December 1674.

73 The letter was later printed in Philosophical Transactions (1674) 9, 27–31.

74 Hooke, op. cit. (49), p. 7.

75 Hooke, op. cit. (49), p. 5.

76 Wallis to Oldenburg, 4 January 1674/5, CHO, vol. 11, 2589. Wallis's letter to Hevelius of 31 December 1673 was reprinted in the 22 February 1674/5 volume of Philosophical Transactions on his request; see note 78 below.

77 Wallis to Oldenburg, 11 January 1674/5, CHO, vol. 11, 2591.

78 Wallis to Hevelius via Oldenburg, 11 January 1674/5, CHO, vol. 11, 2591. He also quickly published public congratulations to Hevelius in Philosophical Transactions, along with a repudiation of Hooke's invocation of his theories in Animadversions, but this appears as a technical correction and is not enough to topple the whole of Hooke's argument. See Wallis, J., ‘An extract of a letter of Dr. J. Wallis, to M. Hevelius...’, Philosophical Transactions (1674) 9, pp. 243246. One also notes that Wallis writes most of the remaining reviews of Hevelius's books in Philosophical Transactions, and does so with especial gentility.

79 Oldenburg to Hevelius, 16 April 1675, CHO, vol. 11, 2648. Oldenburg's letter to Huygens of 2 February 1674/5 takes a similar approach, mitigating another of Hooke's blows: ‘There are people who, not having seen much of the world, do not know how to observe that decorum which is necessary among honest folk.’ CHO, vol. 11, 2603.

80 Hooke, op. cit. (70), 25 January 1676/7. While it is beyond the scope of the current paper, a study of Oldenburg's role not just as the secretary of the Royal Society, but in keeping controversy at bay, sustaining genteel relations between foreign astronomers and upholding the status of their testimony would be a fascinating addition to the literature on the relationships between Royal Society Fellows in London and abroad.

81 Hevelius to Oldenburg, 16 August 1675, CHO, vol. 11, 2727.

82 Hevelius to Oldenburg, 16 August 1675, CHO, vol. 11, 2727. Hooke found and read this letter, ‘wholly against me’, on 5 January 1677/8 while going through Oldenburg's papers after the latter's death in September of 1677 (Diary of Robert Hooke, op. cit. (27), p. 338). This may have reignited the old argument to such an extent that Halley was commissioned to pay Hevelius a visit.

83 Hevelius to Oldenburg, 21 August 1675, CHO, vol. 11, 2727.

84 Halley obliged but appeared to play both ends against the middle. He flattered Hevelius by telling him, ‘I revere [you], not without a certain idea of emulation’, and left a letter attesting to the excellence of Hevelius's observations and instruments (Eugene Fairfield MacPike, Hevelius, Flamsteed, and Halley: Three Contemporary Astronomers and Their Mutual Relations, London: Taylor & Francis, 1937, p. 85). But when he returned to England, Halley called Hevelius ‘an old peevish gentleman, who would not have it believed that it is possible to do better than he has done’ (quoted in Winkler and Van Helden, op. cit. (11), p. 97). The matter would soon become a moot point. Shortly after his return to England, on 26 September 1679, Hevelius went out of town for the evening, reportedly on a premonition that something terrible was about to happen and telling his stable hand to be sure to guard against fire in his absence. That night saw Hevelius's house, his brewery, and his observatory – instruments, library, press and all – go up in flames. The only documents saved in time were thirty years' worth of Hevelius's own observations, in the process of compilation for Machina Coelestis Pars Posterior, and his collection of Kepler's manuscripts. Peter Wyche's account of this devastating fire is reprinted in MacPike, op. cit., Appendix I, pp. 108–111; Hevelius himself wrote about it in the preface to his Annus Climactericus, 1685.

85 Patricia Fara, Newton: The Making of Genius, Oxford: Macmillan, 2002; Biagioli, Mario, ‘Galileo the emblem maker,’ Isis (1990) 81, pp. 230258.

86 Shapin exhorts the historian to consider personal identity as ‘constructed out of materials at hand … What materials were available in this culture for making identity? What vocabularies of motive and purpose were present for warranting behavior and rendering it comprehensible as behavior of a certain kind? What roles preexisted against the background of which individual presentations might be understood and evaluated?’ Shapin, op. cit. (6), pp. 129–130.

87 Daston and Galison, op. cit. (8).

88 Shapin and Schaffer, op. cit. (12).

89 Dear, op. cit. (10).

90 On Cassini and Flamsteed's practices at the new national observatories in the wake of the telescopic-sights debate see Saridakis, op. cit. (22). Jensen also tracks Hevelius's self-depiction in later images, especially that of the ‘Judgment Day’ scene in the frontispiece to Uranographia (1690), which he explains as Hevelius's appeal to ‘a higher court’ than the immovable Royal Society. See Jensen, op. cit. (20).

91 Shapin and Schaffer, op. cit. (12), p. 332.

92 The strong programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge requires that the analyst assume symmetry between the sides of a scientific debate, so as not to suggest post hoc that one side failed because it was ‘unscientific’, but rather to focus on the social factors that contributed to one or another group's success. See David Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery, 2nd edn, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

93 Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, p. 36.

94 Baxandall, op. cit. (93), pp. 14–15.

Many thanks to Peter Dear and Simon Schaffer, Jenny Downes, Boris Jardine, Michael Lynch, Chitra Ramalingam, Laurence Totelin, Rachel Weil and the anonymous reviewers for their insight, assistance and helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Special thanks also to the Archives of the Royal Society for their permission to study the invaluable Hooke Folio within a week of its acquisition; thanks also to the Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford, and to Assistant Librarian Janet McMullin, for the possibility of reproducing Hevelius' images.

A version of this paper was presented at the History of Science Society meeting in Vancouver, BC, 2–5 November 2006, in the session At the Edge of Instrument Studies: Alternate Practices and Interpretations in the History of Instruments in Science.

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