Epistolarum Astronomicarum Libri. Quorum primus hic Illustriss. et Laudatiss. Principis Gulielmi Hassiae Landtgravij ac ipsius Mathematici Literas, unaque Responsa ad singulas complectitur.

Uraniborg: Ex officina Typographica Authoris, 1596.

First edition, the very rare first issue. Printed on paper made at Tycho’s own mill on the island of Hven, this work contains correspondence between Brahe and the Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hesse and his astronomer Christopher Rothmann, mostly concerning astronomical observations and the construction of astronomical instruments. “This correspondence covered all aspects of contemporary astronomy: instruments and methods of observing, the Copernican system (which Rothmann supported against Tycho’s system), comets, and auroras” (DSB, under Rothmann). Brahe’s description of Uraniborg contained here is one of the first such descriptions of an astronomical observatory and its instruments. “Instead of dividing his correspondence chronologically, with the first volume to include all letters up to about 1589, Tycho now decided to extract all the correspondence with the Landgrave and Rothmann and print it as a memorial to the Landgrave” (Thoren, p. 363). This is the only volume of correspondence published, in spite of the promise of the title. Tycho Brahe’s contributions to astronomy were enormous … He revolutionized astronomical instrumentation. He also changed observational practice profoundly. Whereas earlier astronomers had been content to observe the positions of planets and the Moon at certain important points of their orbits, Tycho and his cast of assistants observed these bodies throughout their orbits. Without these complete series of observations of unprecedented accuracy, Kepler could not have discovered that planets move in elliptical orbits … Tycho’s observations of the new star [now recognized to have been a supernova] of 1572 and comet of 1577, and his publications on these phenomena, were instrumental in establishing the fact that these bodies were above the Moon and that therefore the heavens were not immutable as Aristotle had argued and philosophers still believed … Further, if comets were in the heavens, they moved through the heavens. Up to now it had been believed that planets were carried on material spheres that fit tightly around each other. Tycho’s observations showed that this arrangement was impossible because comets moved through these spheres” (Galileo Project). This work is the precursor and indispensible companion to the Astronomia instauratae mechanicae, 1598. “Here the last of the pre-telescope observations were made, which enabled Kepler to discover the laws of planetary motion. Printed at Brahe's private press in a few copies” (Dibner). In fact, around 1500 copies were printed, with a few distributed as presentations copies, but most were not sold. Loss of favour at the Danish Court, following the death of Frederick II, and the allure of Rudolph II's Prague, caused Brahe to leave Hven in 1597, taking with him all his belongings including his printing press and the unsold sheets of the present work. After his death in 1601 his heirs sold the sheets to the Nuremberg bookseller Levin Hülsius, who printed a new title-page and re-published it in 1601. When Hülsius died the remaining sheets were turned over to the bookseller Gottfried Tampach. Once more, a new title-page was printed and the book was issued in Frankfurt in 1610. These later issues are not the commonest of books, but this first issue is very rare in private hands. The Thesaurus librorum danicorum locates 47 copies worldwide, but ABPC/RBH list only 4 copies in the last 40 years, one of which was significantly defective.

“Tyge (Latinized as Tycho) Brahe was born on 14 December 1546 in Skane, then in Denmark, now in Sweden … He attended the universities of Copenhagen and Leipzig, and then traveled through the German region, studying further at the universities of Wittenberg, Rostock, and Basel. During this period his interest in alchemy and astronomy was aroused, and he bought several astronomical instruments … In 1572 Tycho observed the new star in Cassiopeia and published a brief tract about it the following year. In 1574 he gave a course of lectures on astronomy at the University of Copenhagen. He was now convinced that the improvement of astronomy hinged on accurate observations. After another tour of Germany, where he visited astronomers, Tycho accepted an offer from the King Frederick II to fund an observatory. He was given the little island of Hven in the Sont near Copenhagen, and there he built his observatory, Uraniburg, which became the finest observatory in Europe. Tycho designed and built new instruments, calibrated them, and instituted nightly observations. He also ran his own printing press. The observatory was visited by many scholars, and Tycho trained a generation of young astronomers there in the art of observing. After a falling out with King Christian IV, Tycho packed up his instruments and books in 1597 and left Denmark. After traveling several years, he settled in Prague in 1599 as the Imperial Mathematician at the court of Emperor Rudolph II. He died there in 1601” (Galileo Project). In 1600, Tycho met Kepler and asked him to be his assistant. This placed Kepler in a position not only to publish some of Brahe’s works after his death, but also, after many trials and tribulations, to acquire Tycho’s actual observations, from which he would deduce his laws of planetary motion.

A lasting memorial of his activity and of the respect with which he was treated by anyone able to value his work was the collection of letters exchanged between him, the late Landgrave of Hess, and Rothmann. Rantzov [i.e., Heinrich Rantzov, governor of the Duchy of Holstein, and a close friend of Tycho] had long ago suggested the publication of this series of scientific essays, and copies of some of them had been sent to Hagecius and Peucer, who had expressed a similar wish” (Dreyer, p. 228).

“Before 1591, Tycho had begun printing his astronomical correspondence. At that stage, his plan was to publish all of his professional letters, in roughly chronological order, grouped according to their degree of astronomical interest. Already in January•1590, he was hoping to have the first volume published by the following summer. But by August, he could report only that a lack of paper was holding up the printing.•It was a five-year-old problem, and he had already started work on a solution to it, his own paper mill.

“A diary entry for July 1589 and a letter to Rothmann five months later suggest that Tycho already had the mill running in 1589. Either Tycho was exaggerating, however, or it was only the mode for grinding grain that was then in operation, for it was not until March 1590 that the crown gave Steen Bille’s widow permission to let Tycho cut a large oak from the royal forest at Herrevad for the main beam of his paper mill, and Tycho’s dedication plaque for the mill stated that it was begun in 1590 and completed in 1591. Meanwhile, because the two papermakers he sent to Germany to buy paper did not return, the printing did not progress.•It turned out to be just as well, for the death of the landgrave in August 1592 suggested to Tycho an alternative way of organizing the correspondence for publication.

“Instead of dividing his correspondence chronologically, with the first volume to include all letters up to about 1589, Tycho now decided to extract all the correspondence with the landgrave and Rothmann and print it as a memorial to the landgrave. When Tycho had originally broached the project to Rothmann, the latter had expressed the conviction that the correspondence should be edited so that a writer did not have to see in print ideas that he had subsequently modified or abandoned. Tycho responded that it was too late for that, as the letters were already being printed (probably a bit of an exaggeration) but that he did not see anyway why the readers should not be made aware of the difficulties that had to be overcome in the quest for truth.•Having promised in this context that Rothmann’s prestige would not suffer, Tycho followed up on it in a way that Rothmann could not have envisioned: In a letter (unknown to Rothmann) in which the landgrave had referred to Rothmann’s suffering from ‘Morbum Gallicum’ (syphilis), Tycho altered the phrase to the less indelicate ‘a serious and harmful disease’” (Thoren, pp. 362-3).•

“[The letters] were printed in Tycho’s own office, and form a quarto volume of 310 pp. and 38pp. of laudatory poems, dedication and preface. The title shows that Tycho intended afterwards to publish letters to and from other astronomers, an intention which he did not live to carry out … None of Tycho’s other letters can, however, compare in importance with the lengthy essays exchanged between Hveen and Cassel, which give a most instructive picture of the revolution in practical astronomy effected by Tycho. The dedication to Langrave Maurice alludes to the origin of Tycho’s acquaintance with Landgrave Wilhelm, the renewal of it through Rantzov in 1585, praises the Landgrave for not having studied astronomy in books but in the heavens and quotes from a funeral oration in which the hope had been expressed that the correspondence of the deceased with Tycho Brahe might be published, as it would show the world the merits of the Landgrave’s scientific work. In the preface Tycho refers to the length of time necessary to form a complete series of observations by which the restoration of astronomy might be accomplished. Though the solar orbit may be sufficiently investigated in four years, the intricate lunar course requires the study of many years, while it takes twelve years to follow the oppositions of Mars and Jupiter round the zodiac, and even thirty years to see Saturn move around the heavens. He had commenced his own observations at the age of sixteen, though the results of the first ten years’ work were less accurate than the later ones. Ptolemy and Copernicus had not observed for such a length of time, and consequently the numerical values of astronomical constants had not been well determined by them … There is towards the end of the volume a description of the instruments and buildings at Hveen, with woodcuts of the latter. Of the instruments, seven were already figured in Tycho’s other books” (Dreyer, pp. 228-230).

Adams B2653; Dibner 4; Nielsen 430; Thesaurus librorum danicorum 256 (“it is my estimate that only some three copies are still on the open market [i.e. in private hands]”); Wightman 95; Zinner 3878. Dreyer, Tycho Brahe, 1890. Thoren, The Lord of Uraniborg, 1990.

4to (215 x 160 mm), pp. [xl], 309, [3], with woodcut colophon device and six woodcuts in the text (3 full-page) illustrating the observatory at Hven. Eighteenth-century half-calf and speckled boards, red lettering-piece on spine (a little rubbed).

Item #5777

Price: $125,000.00

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