Copernicus De Revolutionibus 1543 heliocentric diagram

Nicolaus Copernicus,
De Revolutionibus Orbium
diagram of a
heliocentric system

Collecting Rare Astronomy Books


When I first got income from the publication of my text Contemporary Astronomy, I thought that I would put it into obtaining a book or books by authors who I mentioned in my text. Since my texts are largely introductory, only scientists of the highest significance are mentioned in it. Thus my criterion has been a useful sieve in selecting books of fundamental importance.

I had long been interested in books as physical objects, perhaps tracing back to my boyhood memories of the booklined rooms of my uncle, a Cornell professor, and aunt. At Harvard, I was too intimidated to set foot into the Houghton Library, where I have more recently become something of a regular. When I was a postdoc at Caltech in 1970–72, I sometimes visited the renowned rare-book dealer Jake Zeitlin, though I don’t recall how that contact came about. We continued in touch long enough for Naomi and me to have lunch with him years later on a trip from Williamstown to California.

When, in 1982, I decided to purchase some astronomy book, I asked the Chapin Custodian (that is, librarian), Robert Volz, how to buy a rare book. He told me that the library had limited acquisition funds, but that Mr. Chapin had originally bought many of his books from the firm Lathrop C. Harper in New York, and suggested that I call there. When I telephoned, I asked the person who answered the phone how I might buy a book by, for example, Galileo. Felix Oyens, who then owned the firm (and who later was head of rare books at Christie’s), replied that he had a book by Galileo right there, and did I want to consider it? You can read his reminiscences later in this catalogue. Naomi and I went to New York to see this beautiful copy of Galileo’s Dialogo, and we got it.

I have since learned a lot about rare books and about collecting. Though my knowledge was at first about the quality of the author and of the book’s content, I have since learned about binding, trim size, wormholes, annotations, provenance, associations, and other arcana. My Galileo turned out to be of the highest quality, a book that had been in the collection of Robert Honeyman, whose collection of books of the best condition (and with gorgeous red-leather boxes to hold each of them), had been recently dispersed in a major sale.

The next year, I got a few books of interest but of no great value, including a copy of Galileo’s Systema published after his death in 1663, two books about the sun by the 19th-century solar physicist Norman Lockyer, and a book by the physicist Robert Millikan about the relation of science and religion.

The major year of my collection was 1984. I was beginning to follow catalogues, and to talk about books with the Harvard-Smithsonian astronomer and historian of science Owen Gingerich. With Owen’s assistance, I purchased a copy of the Alfonsine Tables, put together by Arab and Jewish scientists working together in Spain and issued in 1483 under Alfonso X.

I decided that it was time for me to get a Copernicus, arguably the most important book in the history of astronomy. Owen is the world’s expert on Copernicus books, and his magnum opus, An Annotated Census of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, finally appeared in 2002, listing almost 300 copies he has seen all over the world of the first edition of this important work. Owen knew of three copies for sale around the world at the time, and arranged a private purchase for me of the one of them that he deemed best. I am glad to have my copy listed as entry I.251 on page 328, with details given such as “Roll-stamped pigskin, blue gauffered edges, XVI. 260 × 188 mm. From f. 189 to the end a wormhole affects the text.” The seller threw in an offprint of Einstein’s 1916 paper on general relativity, though it was in such bad condition that the cost of paper conservation would have exceeded the cost of getting a second copy in better shape, which I have since done.

Also in that year, I discovered that a copy of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, the book from 1610 in which he first announced his use of a telescope on the sky and what he found, was to be auctioned in London. I was in touch with a Williamstown rare-book dealer, William Wyer (who has since gone on to Ursus books in New York), and somehow brought myself to buy him a ticket to London to attend the auction to try to purchase the book for me. And he did so! He came home triumphant with this wonderful and important book. It is hard to believe how much Galileo discovered at that one time: that there are craters on the Moon, that the Milky Way is made up of stars, and that Jupiter has moons. I have since learned that the Sidereus Nuncius is especially rare, and that I am very lucky to have it. I was later, in 1994, able to obtain Galileo’s 1613 book on sunspots, and I will leave it to Owen Gingerich’s piece later in this volume to describe the significance of my three Galileo works. A series of solar-disk images showing sunspots and the solar rotation taken from my volume appeared in the IMAX movie SolarMax, and my name is only slightly misspelled in the credits.

Also in 1984, I began my subcollection of star atlases, beginning with the most famous, that of Johannes Bayer from 1603, with gorgeous engravings showing the constellation figures. I had recently taken over the Peterson Field Guide to the Stars and Planets from my late professor and mentor, Donald H. Menzel, and included several constellation images in the second edition of that book, the first that I prepared.

Though I won’t go through the collection purchase by purchase, let me mention a few highlights. In 1985, a copy of Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum became available from the same collector from whom I had purchased the Copernicus, again an Owen Gingerich connection. This book has the most fabulous plate of all, in which Kepler – in 1596, a dozen years before he published his discovery that the planets orbit the sun in ellipses with the sun at one focus – tried to relate the orbits of the six known planets to the five regular geometrical solids. This fold-out plate is a star of the exhibition. And the following year, I got Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, the 1609 book in which he announced his first two laws of planetary motion, from the same source. It is in an interesting reversed-calf English binding. (More recently, at a Christie’s auction, I got the 1619 book Harmonices Mundi or Harmony of the Universe, in which Kepler first published what would later be called his third law. It has a similar binding.)

In 1988, just as I had determined to buy a Copernicus, I decided it was time to get a first edition of Newton’s Principia. Then I would have the two major books, in my view, in the history of science. I ordered and saw a copy that was being sold by Quaritch, but returned it in favor of a wonderful copy I got from the New York bookseller Jonathan Hill. I have since gotten two issues of Tycho Brahe’s Progymnasmata (1602 and 1610, respectively), and from Mr. Hill, Kepler’s 1606 book (in a contemporary vellum binding) about the supernova we now call by his name.

My interest in star atlases continued, and in 1987 I got the magnificent Bode atlas from 1801 from Arkway, a firm that specializes in maps, and from whom I had gotten the earlier Bayer. My next atlas purchase, that of a little book by Piccolomini, De le stelle fisse, published in Venice in 1540, began a long and happy relationship with the book dealer Seth Fagen of the New York firm Martayan Lan, from whom I got the Galileo sunspot book at the same time. (He later persuaded me to get the 1614 book by Marius that contains the first image of a telescope.) The other major star catalogue I coveted was the one published by Hevelius in 1687, and I was able to get that from Mr. Fagen the following year. In a series of beautiful engravings, it shows the constellations from the outside looking in, God’s view, the opposite point of view from that shown in the Bayer and most other catalogues. I later got, also from Mr. Fagen, Johann Doppelmayr’s educational book of astronomical diagrams, not important in a scientific sense but handsome enough to be front-and-center in the exhibition room – though I had to add its title-leaf from another source.

The only major star atlas for which I don’t have a first edition is, I think, that of Flamsteed, for which I have two versions of the French edition (1776 and 1795). [* In 2011, I was able to get a first edition English Flamsteed (1729) from Owen Gingerich. It lacked two plates, but I was able to obtain them elsewhere, and I had the complete version rebound. – JMP 2015] I am particularly glad to have the star catalogue and notes about Flamsteed’s atlas because they were written by Caroline Herschel, the only female astronomer represented in my collection. She discovered several comets – described in the book on historical comets of which Roberta Olson, now of the New-York Historical Society, and I are co-authors – and ultimately received the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. In 1984–5, the Getty Foundation was kind enough to provide research grants to Professor Olson and me to prepare the research from which our book, Fire in the Sky: Comets and Meteors, the Decisive Centuries in British Art and Science, stemmed. We had earlier received twin Travel to Collection Grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Professor Olson has imbued me with her fascination with comets. We traveled together to Nuremberg to see the proofs of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Somehow when I had the opportunity to buy a copy of this 1493 work, I decided it wasn’t important enough in the history of science compared with the Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and so on that I was collecting. But I am glad to have a single leaf, including a comet image. Olson and I had written an article on the comets in the Nuremberg Chronicle and how several woodblocks were reused, meaning that the images couldn’t be used for scientific evaluation. We had the pleasure of presenting this and other historical comet work at two international symposia following Halley’s Comet’s most recent apparition.

My interest in eclipses is indulged in only a minor way in the collection, in which I overall tried to stay within the main lines of astronomical thought. I am pleased to have an incunable (that is, a book published before 1501) on eclipses, Pflaum’s Calendarium from 1478, another Honeyman copy and purchased from Martayan Lan. It includes images predicting solar eclipses from 1478 to 1555. A 1564 book by Leowitz, obtained from the firm of Zeitlin & Ver Brugge, also has eclipse diagrams. Fr. Secchi’s 19th-century book on the sun has the most interesting illustrations of eclipses in my collection.

To my copies of Einstein’s paper on General Relativity, in 1998 I obtained the volume of the Annalen der Physik for 1905 in which he wrote three famous papers – on Special Relativity, Brownian motion, and the photoelectric effect, the last of which was cited in his eventual Nobel Prize. I had obtained a lovely little volume of lectures by Richard Feynman, called Q.E.D. (for quantum electrodynamics), and I needed a “Feynman diagram” for one of my textbooks. I sent the volume to Prof. Feynman at Caltech, and he kindly drew me a Feynman diagram on the half-title page along with his autograph.

An interesting diversion and project of the last couple of years stemmed from a visit Naomi and I paid to the London book dealer Rick Watson in 2001. He had available an exceedingly rare object, one of apparently a dozen known copies of an unpublished but beautiful star atlas of John Bevis. Apparently, the printer went bankrupt in 1749 from the cost of preparing the plates, and a few copies leaked out then with other copies being assembled from sheets and auctioned in 1786. I got in touch with the sources who knew about the book’s history, including Kevin Kilburn of the Manchester (amateur) Astronomical Society, which had a copy. Naomi and I wound up seeing over a dozen copies, and participating in an article just published in Journal for the History of Astronomy that updated the earlier work on the subject by William Ashworth of the Linda Hall Library. Owen Gingerich participated so much that he is co-author of our new article. We list some twenty copies of this work, not all complete. [Kevin Kilburn and I gave an updated talk about the Bevis atlas, of which we now know about thirty copies, at the ninth meeting on the Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena in London in August 2015, – JMP 2015]

I have benefited for years from the cooperation and assistance of Robert Volz and Wayne Hammond of Williams College’s Chapin Library, where the books have happily resided in their vault. Mr. Hammond’s very substantial efforts for the exhibition and the forthcoming catalogue have shown the depth of his knowledge of the history of scientific books and of book collecting. [Mr. Hammond collaborated with a seminar I led on rare astronomy books in spring 2015, as part of the yearlong “Year of the Book” celebration of the new library at Williams that includes enhanced quarters for the Chapin Library. – JMP 2015]

The only item in my library (and on display) not strictly related to astronomy is a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, clearly the earliest work in my collection. When it came up for auction in 1999, I just couldn’t resist. It is all too much fun.

Jay M. Pasachoff is the Field Memorial Professor of Astronomy at Williams College. He wrote this essay in May 2003.

Next section: The Academic as Collector

Copyright © 2010–2015 by Jay M. Pasachoff
This page was last updated on 22 September 2015