Galileo, Engineer

Exhibit GuideGalileo’s World at a Glance
Gallery at the Exhibit Website
Location: Bizzell Memorial Library, 5th floor Exhibit Hall.

What is it like to be an engineer in an era of mathematical discovery?

In the Republic of Venice, Galileo’s day-to-day work as a Professor of Mathematics was that of a scientist-engineer. City officials and notable individuals called upon his expertise to solve civic, military and nautical problems in engineering. He addressed practical problems in light of their general significance for physics. His work as a scientist-engineer resulted in new mathematical and scientific instruments, including the military compass, thermoscope and telescope.

Introductory video: Letter from Galileo’s Daughter

Section 1: Scientist-Engineers

Scientist-engineers were mathematicians who grasped the principles of mechanics, the use of mathematical instruments, and the operation of complex machines well enough to apply them to the complex tasks of city life. Their expertise applied to optics, architecture, metallurgy, pneumatics, hydraulics, transport, surveying, ship-building, fortification and the arts of war.

  1. Vannoccio Biringuccio, De la Pirotechnia (Venice, 1540), “On the Art of Fire”
  2. Georg Agricola, De re metallica (Basel, 1556), “On the Nature of Metals”
  3. Giambattista della Porta, De Spiritali (Naples, 1606), “On Pneumatics”
  4. Agostino Ramelli, Le Diverse et Artificiose Machine (Perugia, 1588), “Various and Ingenious Machines”
  5. Buonaiuto Lorini, Delle Fortificationi (Venice, 1597), “On Fortifications”
  6. Vittorio Zonca, Novo Teatro di Machine (Padua, 1621), “New Theater of Machines”
  7. Niccolo Tartaglia, Nova scientia (Venice, 1558), “New Science”
  8. Latino Orsini, Trattato del Radio Latino (Rome, 1583), ed. Ignazio Danti, “Treatise on the Measuring Stick”
  9. Carlo Antonio Manzini, L’Occhiale all’Occhio, Dioptrica Practica (Bologna, 1660), “The Spectacle according to the Eye: Practical Optics”

Section 2: Calculation and Measurement

Scientists and engineers thrive upon mathematical innovations in calculation and measurement, as shown in several vignettes from the abacus to the slide rule to the analytical computer.

  1. Pietro Borgi, Libro de Abacho (Venice, 1517), “Book on Calculation” (Abacus model)
  2. William Schickard, Astroscopium (Stuttgart, 1698), “Star Viewer”
  3. Gaspar Schott, Organum mathematicum (Würzburg, 1668), “On Mathematics”
  4. John Napier, Mirifici logarithmorum canonis descriptio (Edinburgh, 1614), “A Description of the Marvelous Rule of Logarithms”
  5. Seth Partridge, Description and Use of an Instrument, Called the Double Scale of Proportion (London, 1692)
  6. Frederick Post Company, Demonstration Slide Rule (Chicago)
  7. Ada Lovelace, “Notes” to a “Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, by L.F. Menabrea,” in Scientific Memoirs (London, 1843), vol. 3
  8. Apple Computer, Macintosh (1984)

Section 3: Galileo’s Instruments

Galileo’s engineering compass, thermoscope, microscope and telescope reflect his work as a mathematician, astronomer and scientist-engineer.

  1. Galileo, Le Operazioni del Compasso Geometrico e Militare (Padua, 1606), “The Operations of the Geometrical and Military Compass”
  2. Galileo Compass replica (Museo Galileo)
  3. Baldessar Capra, Tyrocinia Astronomica (Padua, 1606), “School of the Stars”
  4. Galileo, Difesa Contro alle Calunnie & Imposture di Baldessar Capra (Venice, 1607), “Defense Against the Calumnies and Impostures of Baldessar Capra!”
  5. Galileo, Tractatus de proportionum instrumento (Strassburg, 1635), 2d ed., “The Operations of the Geometrical and Military Compass”
  6. Galileo Thermoscope replica (Museo Galileo)
Further reading:
  • Matteo Valeriani, Galileo Engineer (Springer, 2010; Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, no. 269)
  • Paolo Galluzzi, Renaissance Engineers: From Brunelleschi to Leonardo da Vinci (Giunti Editore, 1997).
  • Ross King, Brunelleschi’s Dome (Penguin, 2002).
Curators: Kerry Magruder and Brent Purkaple.
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