John Westwyk – the genius who invented a computer 627 years ago
Detail of an astrolabe made in East Anglia, c1340 - Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Cambridge
This is the story of a man who, 627 years ago, designed a machine (computer) six feet in diameter, made of polished wood and brass, that could find or predict the position of the planets for each year. The explanation of his life's work makes a bigger point: Edward Gibbon's phrase "darkness of the Middle Ages" was misunderstood even in terms of experimental science.
It seems to me that Gibbon's attitude still prevails and most people think that the medieval worldview is foolishly messed up. Before delving into Seb Falk's counter-narrative, which focuses on astronomy, it might be worth trying this short thought experiment. We talk about the rising and setting of the sun, but we say that it looks like the sun is going around the earth. We really say the earth goes around the sun. However, the explanation for the apparent rise and set of the sun is not, as many rashly say, that the earth goes around the sun. It takes a year. The explanation is that the earth rotates on its axis.
I propose that in order to understand the scientific theories of the Middle Ages, we must throw overboard a snobbish assumption of today's superiority of the intellect. I was a little disappointed that Seb Falk that the High Middle Ages, the 14th century, as his period rather than earlier centuries, was about the life of Charlemagne (800 AD) or Alfred the Great (900) with a darker reputation, but just as, took a lot of light in reality.
But astronomy, a science that medieval thinkers excelled in, is a good tool (if we can keep up with geometry) to explain arithmetic, mapmaking, or medicine involved. If anyone can get it right, it's Seb Falk, a Cambridge historian whose carefully constructed narrative and prose is as simple as a well-forged “label” or a rotating pointer on an astrolabe.
His hero John Westwyk took his name from a mansion near the Roman ruins of Verulamium and became a monk at St. Albans Abbey, a place of learning with established ties with the monarch. He later moved to the monastery in Tynemouth and surprisingly led a crusade in 1383 that did not go further than Ypres. A decade later, John Westwyk left the blueprints and user manual for the Equatorium, his wheel-on-wheel machine, in a manuscript temporarily attributed to Chaucer. In 1955, Cambridge University Press published a beautiful edition in green cloth entitled The Equatorie of the Planetis. A copy with little thumbs is on a shelf at home.
Dr. Seb Falk, author of The Light Ages - Jason Bye
It was edited by a brilliant loner scholar, Derek Price, who discovered the manuscript unnoticed in Peterhouse, Cambridge. It aroused interest because of two words written in the margin: Radix Chaucer. Radix was a technical term for a basic data set in astronomy. The attribution to Chaucer was not stupid, for the poet had written his own treatise on the astrolabe for a 10-year-old child. It was a Norwegian scholar, Kari Anne Rand, who methodically went through manuscripts until she announced in 2014 that she had found one with handwriting identical to that of the equatorial. It was in a book given by St. Albans Abbey to Tynemouth, and the dedication was "Dompnus Johannes de Westwyke".
Using the obscure Westwyk as a guide allows Falk to present the world of his time without overshadowing it with a more well-known character like Chaucer. In preparation for the task of estimating the solid geometry used in modeling the solar system, Falk lets the reader update on a method for using the finger joints to add or subtract large numbers up to 9,999. One diagram is from a manuscript by Bede (died 735 AD).
A few pages later, Falk gives a simple method for long division in your head of, say, 729 by 34. It works just as well if the numbers are in Roman numerals (DCCXXIX ÷ XXXIV).
This was a breeze for Westwyk, who used sexagesimal units based on the sixties in his astronomical calculations. We do the same thing every day to count the hours in minutes and seconds. In tables that express sums with great precision, Westwyk would divide nine times by 60 to express, for example, a 98,000 million-millionth part of a complete circle. Such numbers were needed to calculate the slow downward drift of the constellations from year to year against the conceptual framework of the night sky (which, as is known, would take 49,000 years to complete a circuit). Westwyk and his contemporaries were ready to grapple with even slower celestial motions that would take 750 billion years to traverse one degree of 360 degrees in a circle.
What, you may ask, was the purpose of being so precise when everyone mistakenly thought the sun was going around the earth? Isn't it a mosquito swallowing a camel? One thing I learned from Derek Price's introduction to the equatorial is that when you discuss relative motion it doesn't matter whether you think of the earth as stationary or as the sun.
God was represented in a 13th century Bible as a geometer with a compass
The heliocentric model proposed by Copernicus in 1543 was, according to Falk, “in the end no simpler than the one it replaced”. Copernicus had wanted to iron out obvious irregularities in the system inherited from Ptolemy, in which the earth was not quite at the center of the apparent motion of the sun and planets, each of which revolved around its own so-called "deferent center". , a little offset from the earth. Westwyk knew all about it - he advises marking the deferent center with a “small hole no wider than a small needle”.
It is noteworthy that he (like Chaucer in his astrolabe) wrote in native English. 300 years later, Newton was still writing in the Principia Mathematica in Latin, the international language of learning. Westwyk's mental world was just as international, but he spanned it into several languages (relying on translators for Arabic sources).
Even so, it is a real surprise that the first words of the equatorial are: “In the name of God Pitos [merciful] and merciful [merciful]”. This is none other than the Bismillah, the Islamic invocation with which the Koran begins. It says nothing that contradicts the Christian faith, but here it shows more strongly than if a British political tract began: "Liberty, equality, brotherhood", the extent of the transcultural influence of the 14th century.
"Belief in God has never prevented people from understanding the world around them," says Falk. Again and again he pursues borrowings from Western Christian astronomers from Muslim astronomers. The current astronomical tables of the 1320s were translated in Paris from Castilian into Latin, which two Jewish astronomers had used when they presented their work to King Alfonso the Wise. Copernicus used them two centuries later.
The equatorium was finally built. The Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge maintains a six foot specimen made under the instructions of Derek Price in the workshop that later made Crick and Watson's DNA model. The huge instrument, whose use and origin were so quickly forgotten, had been kept in a box marked "King Arthur's table". But now there is a website hosted by Peterhouse where you can virtually compute the position of Venus, for example on Thursday February 17th, 3102 BC. (The historian once assigned Noah's flood) or the position of Mars on your birthday.
The Age of Light: A Medieval Voyage of Discovery is published by Allen Lane for £ 20. To order your copy for £ 16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop
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