Copernicus x Smith

The University’s Iconics Collection holds some of the institution’s most valued and treasured items, and the recent push for more digitisation of the University of Edinburgh collections has meant that the Iconic items are a high priority.

Recently I digitised Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). Copernicus is regarded as one of the central figures of the Scientific Revolution for his heliocentric theory. It is considered one of the key works in the history of western astronomy as it brought forth a new theory about the Universe and our place in it at a time where it was widely believed that everything in the Universe orbited a motionless, central Earth. It was also the first open criticism against Aristotelian and Ptolemic systems, which in addition to claiming Earth was central, employed the classical ideal of ‘celestial motions’ being eternally uniform and circular. 

Our copy is particularly special as it is a first edition from 1543 that belonged to Adam Smith, the Scottish economist and philosopher. The book is in very good condition considering its age and provenance, and the elaborately decorative original binding is very robust.  It was a perfect project to photograph on our i2S Copibook V-shaped cradle scanner, purchased earlier this year. Read more about our scanner here.

The two medium format cameras of the v-shape scanner allow even the smallest details to show up in complete clarity. The photographs at a calibre comparable to our Phase One cameras, and at a fraction of the speed that manual photography takes. This semi-automated system of photography has cut our processing times significantly. However, the technology does have its setbacks – the initial load pressure can be too much for some fragile books, so only a selection are safe to be scanned. After seeking advice from the conservation team, they confirmed that this book was suitable for scanning.

Mikołaj Kopernik (Copernicus) was born in Torun, Poland in 1473 and first studied astronomy and astrology at the University of Cracow (1491-94). Through the help of his uncle Bishop Watzenrobe of Varmia, he was elected a Canon of Frombork. As part of his requirements to enter the profession, he had to study canon and civil law in Bologna. During his time there, he researched a wide variety of fields including astronomy. The following years of his life were dedicated to further studies in medicine as well as learning more about his growing passion in astronomy and the Universe. In 1503 he came to Frombork to take up his post with the Church, no doubt continuing a keen interest in astronomy. Copernicus is known to have carried out many observations – records of 27 separate entries are mentioned although they have not seemed to be crucial for formulating his theory.

Adam Smith’s illustration on the endpage?

In 1517 he began quietly working on De Revolutionibus in his spare time, continuing to do so until the end of his life. It was only when Copernicus was on his death bed that he decided to publish it – with the persuasion of his friend and mathematics scholar Joachim Rheticus. His role in the publication of the work is widely acknowledged, as it was his contact Johannes Petreius, a Nuremberg Printer, who secured the rights. Rheticus began overseeing the publication of De Revolutionibus in 1542 but was not able to supervise the entire process due to being called away for work. This caused major concern, as when the book was published in 1543 it appeared to have several changes. Firstly, there were two words added to the book’s title, Orbium Coelestium, and secondly an anonymous preface was added, stating that the claims in the book were merely a hypothesis and not fact, which discredited Copernicus’ many years of hard work and complex mathematical calculations in a single blow. These additions were made by Andreas Osiander, a local Lutheran clergyman who volunteered to proofread and liaise with the printer in Rheticus’ absence.


“it is the duty of an astronomer to record the motion of the heavens with diligent and skilful observations, and then he has to propose their causes or, rather, hypotheses, since he cannot hope to attain the true reasons. . Our author has done both of these very well, for these hypotheses need not be true nor even probable; it is sufficient if the calculations agree with the observations”.

In hindsight, this preface was perhaps the one thing that saved the book during a time when there was a brewing tension between the heliocentric theory and the Bible. Contemporary supporters of the theory felt that this was a significant worry, and perhaps with these sensitivities in mind, Copernicus dedicated De Revolutionibus to Paul III (Pope 1534-49), stating he was aware of how controversial his theory was, but did not want those who quote Biblical passages to falsely distort his theory for their purposes. Despite contradicting the Bible, De Revolutionibus somehow avoided serious censorship until 1616 when it was listed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, as a result of the Galileo Affair.

“In the middle of all sits
Sun enthroned. In this most beautiful temple could we place this luminary in any better
position from which he can illuminate the whole at once? … So the Sun sits as
upon a royal throne ruling his children the planets which circle round him.
The Earth has the Moon at her service”

It was a very difficult and slow process to persuade people to accept a heliocentric view of the world, especially since the majority of European astronomers during this time were devout Christians and learned astronomy in general religious education, following Aristotelian and Ptolemic theories. Furthermore, Copernicus’ mathematical reasoning becomes increasingly complex towards the end of the work as he explains his heliocentric theory with extensive calculations. Because of the radical claims in his work, many believed that Copernicus had not proved that heliocentrism was physically true, but that he provided a more accurate mathematical model. The partial acceptance of Copernicus’ work was disseminated widely at the University of Wittenburg.

Due to its contribution to the Calendrical Reform (which helped to accurately date religious holidays) it was not proscribed, but ‘purified’ in the form of censorship. Approximately 60% of Italian copies were censored. It was taken off the Index in 1758.

By the time it reached Adam Smith’s possession astronomical advancements had been widely recognised and studied, proving De Revolutionibus’s place in history as a mathematically and conceptually sound body of work thanks to astronomers like Galileo and Kepler, who supported the Copernican theory. Smith has added a number of annotations throughout its pages, as well as an inscription on the first page, and a hand drawn chart on the end page. According to our records there is at least one other author of the annotations, identified by Gingerich as coming from 16th century Wittenberg.

Many existing copies in special collections around the world all have annotations added by important scientists and mathematicians over the centuries. It is a testament to past generations’ pursuit of knowledge and truth about our world that has helped to shape the world we know today.

We are aiming to make all the items in our Iconics Collection publicly available by mid 2019 if not sooner. The full volume of Copernicus can be found on our image repository:

Juliette Lichman
Digitisation Assistant



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