The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

From comet tales to bear tails

After watching NASA’s test-launch of the Orion Spacecraft last month, I was inspired to dive into the Folger’s collection of astronomical texts. Quite by accident, I stumbled upon the works of John Bainbridge. I’ve had just enough history of science for that name to ring a bell, so I decided to go digging, into both his texts and life.

Bainbridge was educated at Cambridge and received his MD in 1614, at the age of 32. 1 While he did practice medicine, first in Leicestershire and then later in London, he appears to have spent a good amount of time and energy studying astronomy and mathematics as well. Bainbridge first came to the attention of his contemporaries for his 1619 book, An astronomicall description of the late comet from the 18. of Nouemb. 1618. to the 16. of December following (Folger STC 1208).

Title Page of Bainbridge's An astronomicall description of the late comet
Title page of Bainbridge’s first book, published in 1619

His book includes a full illustrated chart of the comet’s path:

Path of the comet
The comet’s path through the constellations of Virgo, Orion, and Ursa Major

He charted meticulously, making observations nearly every day. (Presumably, the missing dates were due to cloud cover—I’m impressed he was able to get so many days! London in November and December isn’t exactly known for clear skies.)

Detail of the comet's path
Detail of the comet’s path

The book itself is divided into two sections. The first, taking up about two-thirds of the volume, is Bainbridge’s “astronomicall Description of the late Comet, or blazing-star.”

Part 1 opening
Beginning of the first section

The last third of the book is dedicated to the “Morall Prognosticks or Applications of the late Comet or Blazing-Starre,” though Bainbridge seems somewhat dubious about the custom of such prognostications.

Part 2 opening
“a Mercuriall finger”

The comet Bainbridge tracked, now identified as C/1618 W1, was the third of three bright comets to traverse the sky in the second half of 1618. There are records of people observing it around the world, and it was one of the first comets that Johannes Kepler viewed through a telescope. 2

I don’t believe it is known what prompted Bainbridge to write about this particular comet—surely he would have been aware of, and perhaps even observed, the previous two that year—but it was this book that brought him to the attention of Henry Briggs and Henry Savile. Savile, in particular, was instrumental in bringing Bainbridge to Oxford, appointing him the first Savilian professor of astronomy in 1620, though both men helped advance his career.

At Oxford, Bainbridge joined a circle of intellectuals that included James Ussher, the future Archbishop of Armagh (already a friend of Briggs’s for more than a decade), and then later, John Greaves, who would become Bainbridge’s student and friend. It was Ussher and Greaves who brought Bainbridge’s second book, his Canicularia (B472), into publication in 1648, five years after his death.

Title Page
Canicularia title page

Upon his death in 1643, Bainbridge left his papers to Ussher. Greaves, by now a noted scholar of astronomy and mathematics himself, 3 decided to honor his friend and teacher by publishing his treatise on the star Sirius—with a notable addition.

Most of the book is Bainbridge’s work, showing his calculations and conclusions about the star Sirius.

Geometry problem
Is anyone else having flashbacks to their Geometry class?

The part I find the most interesting comes at the end of the volume, in the star chart of Ulug Beg that Greaves included:

Star Chart of Ulug Beg in Persian and Latin
Yes, that is printed Persian.

According to Ian Gadd’s recently published history of the Oxford University Press, “The first book to make use of the Oxford Arabic appeared in 1648 and was originally commissioned by James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh: the Canicularia of the astronomer John Bainbridge, edited and expanded by John Greaves, who added Ulugh Beg’s Persian astronomical tables for which the Arabic type could be used with no further adjustment.” 4

The inclusion of the Persian can really be traced back to Henry Savile: Savile made it a condition of his astronomy professorship that the person holding the chair be “required to supplement his teaching with the discoveries of Copernicus and the Arab astronomers.” 5 Therefore, Bainbridge, in the mid-1620s, took up the study of Arabic, hoping to incorporate the observations of those astronomers into his study and teachings. He instilled that belief in the importance of the Arabic astronomical texts in his protégé and successor, John Greaves.

So from medicine to astronomy, visual star charts to non-Roman typeface, these two works of John Bainbridge seem to typify the breadth and inter-connected-ness of the intellectual communities of the Elizabethan era.

Detail of Cauda Ursa Majoris from Bainbridge's chart
Because every tale needs a (rear) end.
  1. A. J. Apt, ‘Bainbridge, John (1582–1643)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [
  2. Seargent, David A. The Greatest Comets in History: Broom Stars and Celestial Scimitars. New York: Spring, 2009. p. 110-111
  3. Francis Maddison, ‘Greaves, John (1602–1652)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
  4. Ian Gadd, ed. The History of Oxford University Press, Vol. 1: Beginnings to 1780. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. p. 401-402
  5. R. D. Goulding, ‘Savile, Sir Henry (1549–1622)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 []

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