The Old Library at Queens’ College is fortunate in possessing a large number of first editions of some very important scientific works of the early 17th century. Many of these are among those which may have been donated by the former fellow of Queens’, John Smith (1618-1652), who was a member of the important group of philosophers active in Cambridge who were known as the “Cambridge Platonists”.  The Donors’ Book at Queens’ which records brief titles of books donated to the Old Library by alumni from 1562 to the end of the 18th century lists 683 books which were donated by Smith, of which a large number relate to science.


Signature of John Smith, Cambridge Platonist [C.14.32]

Johannes Kepler, the German astronomer, is well represented with ten works recorded in the Donors’ Book under the brief titles: De motibus stellae, Mysterium Cosmographicarum, Harmonice Mundi, Dioptrice, Somnium Astronomicum, Eclogae Chronicae, De Nive Sexangula, Paralipomena ad Vitellionem, Nuncius Sydereus, and Epitome Astronomiae. From these brief titles we can assume that up to nine of the Kepler works in Queens’ Old Library originate from the Smith bequest.

Several are first editions:

  • C-014-032-004

    Illustrations of the structure of the eye [C.14.32]

    Ad Vitellionem paralipomena. Frankfurt am Main, 1604 [C.14.32].
    This was Kepler’s first important work on optics, of great significance in the history of ophthalmology, with descriptions of human vision and the functions of the eye. This is apparently the only work by Kepler at Queens’ which does contain the signature of John Smith.
  • Dissertatio cum nuncio sidereo. Prague, 1610 (“Nuncius sydereus” in Donors’ Book) [D.20.41(1)].
    Kepler’s letter to Galileo in which he warmly approves of Galileo’s new observations with the telescope, as described in Sidereus Nuncius.
  • Dioptrice. Augsburg, 1611 (“Dioptrice seu demonstratio” in Donors’ Book) [D.20.59].
    Kepler’s response to Galileo’s discovery of four satellites orbiting Jupiter, with the use of a powerful new telescope. Kepler began a theoretical and experimental investigation of telescopic optics and within a few months he had successfully worked out all the laws governing the passage of light through different lenses. He also described an improved telescope with two convex lenses which would produce greater magnification than Galileo’s uses of a combination of convex and concave lenses.
  • Eclogae chronicae. Frankfurt am Main, 1615 (“Eclogae chronicae” in Donors’ Book) [D.20.49].
    One of several books written by Kepler on the subject of Christian chronology.
  • Harmonices mundi libri V. Linz, 1619 (“Harmonice mundi” in Donors’ Book) [D.1.35].
    Kepler’s discourse on harmony and congruence in geometrical forms and physical phenomena, perhaps motivated by his tireless search for harmony in the universe. Regarded by many as Kepler’s hymn to the universe, and “A mathematical Song of Songs”, according to author and journalist Arthur Koestler.
  • Somnium seu Opus posthumum de astronomia lunari. Frankfurt am Main, 1634 (“Somnium astronomicum” in Donors’ Book) [D.20.35(1)].
    A novel which was written by Kepler and published posthumously by his son Ludwig in 1634, with an imaginary description of how the earth would look when viewed from the moon. The work is considered to be the first serious treatise of lunar astronomy, as well as being called the first work of science fiction by astrophysicist Carl Sagan and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.

Also listed in the Donors’ Book as “De motibus stellae” is possibly another Kepler first edition in the Old Library: Astronomia nova aitologetos  seu physica coelestis, tradita commentariis de motibus stellae martis ex observationibus G. V. Tychonis Brahe. [Heidelberg], 1609 [D.2.9].

This is the first edition of Kepler’s most important work, which contains his first two laws of planetary motion, the first law showing that the orbits of planets are elliptical rather than circular, and the second law, of equal areas, shows that planets move faster when they are closer to the sun. The work had immense influence on other astronomers including Galileo and Newton.

Other works:

D-001-009-002 - Copy

The five Platonic solids to demonstrate the relationship of distances between the six known planets [D.1.9]

  • Prodromus dissertationum cosmographicarum , continens mysterium cosmographicum de admirabili proportione. Frankfurt am Main, 1621 (“Mysterium cosmographicum” in Donors’ Book) [D.1.9].
    Second edition of Kepler’s first work, first published in 1596. Written with the approval of the authorities of Tübingen University, although it was a militantly pro-Copernican treatise. Scholars such as Galileo and Tycho Brahe were lukewarm, but it thrust Kepler into the front rank of astronomers.
  • Epitome astronomiae Copernicanae. Frankfurt am Main, 1635 (“Epitome astronomiae” in Donors’ Book) [S.2.23]. Second edition.
    A review of Kepler’s cosmological ideas and his support for the theories of Copernicus.

In addition, the Old Library has two other first editions of works by Kepler:

  • Chilias logarithmorum. Marburg, 1624-5 [D.20.36(2)].
    Very important work which includes examples of the uses of logarithms and how they were constructed. The work enabled Kepler to compete the Rudolphine Tables (see below) and discover his third law of planetary motion.
  • Tabulae Rudophinae. Ulm, 1627 [D.2.11].
    Perhaps Kepler’s ground-breaking publication which he had worked on with his teacher Tycho Brahe. “These tables remained the foundation of all planetary calculations for over a century. Also of importance is the table of logistic logarithms, Kepler’s invention, and that of refraction.”–Ruth Sparrow, Milestones of Science, 116.

Engraved title page of Tabulae Rudolphinae [D.2.11]

Johannes Kepler was born in Weil der Stadt in Germany in 1571 and it was he, above all other astronomers, who revitalised interest in the revolutionary theories of Copernicus, but it was by pure chance that he pursued this path.  He had the intention of becoming a priest, but it was while he was at the University of Tübingen that he was introduced to Michael Maestlin, the professor of astronomy. Although Maestlin taught the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, he clearly believed in the heliocentric system of Copernicus and had bought a copy of De Revolutionibus in 1570 while a student, and is thought to have taught the theories of Copernicus to his more advanced students. Kepler was still intending to be a clergyman as he neared the end of his time at Tübingen. However his life changed when he was reluctantly appointed as the professor of mathematics, following the sudden death of the previous one.

Kepler’s great teacher Tycho Brahe died suddenly ostensibly from a bladder ailment in 1601, and there have been claims that he was murdered through mercury poisoning.  Kepler became one of the main suspects, with the motive of gaining access to his master’s extensive astronomical data, which Tycho Brahe had jealously guarded. There is no doubt that, after Brahe’s death, Kepler took possession of the data and was able to move the study of astronomy further forward than anyone before him, becoming, in the words of Carl Sagan “the first astrophysicist and the last scientific astrologer”.

Investigations in the 1990’s had suggested that Brahe died from mercury poisoning, thus leading to the speculation that he had been poisoned. However, after the remains had been exhumed in 2010 and samples of bones, hair and clothing had been analysed, no lethal levels of any poison were discovered, and although traces of mercury were found (perhaps as a result of Brahe’s alchemical experiments), there was not enough to suggest poisoning.

Tycho Brahe was a remarkable figure, one of the wealthiest men in Denmark, the leading astronomer of his day whose painstaking research led to exciting new discoveries after his death. He had seen the benefits of the Copernican system but he erroneously considered the sun to be orbiting the earth. Yet his very precise measurements showed that new stars (the Supernovae) were not tailless comets as previously thought, also that comets were not atmospheric phenomena but must pass through supposedly immutable celestial spheres.

His reputation became so high that the king of Denmark offered him the island of Hven for the construction of a modern observatory, as well as a printing press and a paper mill, where he was able to publish his works.


Uraniborg Castle, Brahe’s astronomical observatory [C.14.19(1)]

Brahe was a most colourful figure and is the subject of several bizarre stories. When he was only 20 he lost part of his nose in a duel with a Danish nobleman and fellow student, Manderup Parsbjerg over a fierce disagreement about a mathematical formula. He is often portrayed with a prosthetic nose, either of copper or gold.

He is also said to have a kept a pet elk or moose which lived on the first floor of his house but which is said to have died after falling down the stairs after drinking too much beer. He also kept a dwarf called Jepp as a manservant who he liked to keep under the table where he ate his meals while his master was dining.

By Paul Harcourt, Library Volunteer