Astronomy, 1777

A number of years ago I was helping a friend clean out his father’s house when I came across, among stacks and stacks of old books, a book that was falling apart, with pages tan with age. It was obviously old, but it was hard to tell how old it was. It was missing the title page, and the book was written in German. To make matters worse, it was printed using the difficult-to-decipher Gothic characters known as “Fraktur.” Here was a puzzle!

But was it a puzzle worth spending time against? In the back of the book are a number of star charts. They are "tipped in,” meaning, they are fold-out charts that are bound with the regular pages. Twelve of the charts show the constellations in the sky for each month of the year. The illustration of each constellation is a fanciful pen-and-ink drawing of how that constellation is represented. A larger chart shows the solar system (as it was known at the time) with the position of the planets at various times of the year. A final chart shows the surface of the moon.

So, it is an astronomy book. But how old is it? The answer comes at the end of the foreword to the book: “Berlin, den 25ten Marz, 1777.” The book was published in Berlin in 1777!

After the table of contents, the first page is titled “Anleitung zur Kenntniss des gestirnten Himmels.” (Translated: “Instruction for the Knowledge of the Starry Heavens.”) This was written by the eminent German astronomer Johann Elert Bode. The 1777 printing was the third edition of this work, a work of sufficient importance to be released in several more editions into the early 1800s.

Bode was known for his reformulation and popularization of a mathematical model, originally proposed by Johann Daniel Titius, that purported to predict the distance of then-unknown planets from the sun. This law, known as the Titius-Bode Law, originally met with success but as further knowledge of the outer planets was gained, the predictions of the law broke down. Nevertheless, Bode played a part in the discovery and naming of the planet Uranus.

Scientific genealogies relate scientists to their graduate school advisors, and their advisors’ advisors, as well as their students, and their students’ students. Bode is not as well known as his “grand-student,” the eminent mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, or his “great-grand-student,” the famous mathematician Bernhard Riemann.

Book collectors would describe my copy of Bode’s Anleitung as having bumped corners, chipped boards, worn ribs on the spine, and a deteriorating binding (not to mention the missing title page). Judging by prices asked for this book by dealers of antiquarian books in Germany, a complete restoration of the book would not be worth the expense. I opted to have the book professionally rebound. It now sits on my shelf, smug in its old age, taunting me, challenging me to renew my limited understanding of German from college language classes and translate it. Alas, I suspect that disassembling the book and removing the charts so they can be framed and displayed would make the book more valuable, but I don’t think I can bring myself to do surgery on the old man.