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Mathematical Instruments in the Collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Anthony Turner, Silke Ackermann, and Taha Yasin Arslan
Berpols Publishers
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Amy Shell-Gellasch
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In this beautifully executed coffee-table style book, you will find a wealth of stunning images of astronomical and navigational devices held at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Published in 2018, it showcases 138 items held in three departments of the Bibliothèque: maps and plans; money, medals and antiques; and military items (l’Arsenal). The volume starts with an interesting overview of the history of physical items held in library collections, and this collection in particular. In summary, prior to science museums or scientific institutions or departments creating their own collections, scientific and teaching devices were kept and displayed in libraries. This was in part to due to the intimate link between physical objects and the scientific texts they relate to. As time moved on, many libraries divested themselves of space-consuming physical artifacts, but the Bibliothèque Nationale de France has maintained, and even increased, its collection of artifacts.

The volume’s organization mirrors the catalog of the Bibliothèque: Astrolabes, Celestial spheres, Cosmographic instruments, Celestial planispheres, Sundials & Nocturnals, Compasses, Calendars, Varia, Balances, Clocks, concluding with Missing Instruments (known to have been in the collection). The images are artistically taken in clear and crisp high resolution. Even the font style and page layouts are appealing. Each item or set of items is accompanied by a minutely detailed description. For example, listing 27 in section III (Cosmographic Instruments) describes a set of astronomical models for teaching. Twelve items are displayed, including two images of what appears to be a sales flier or brochure.

Section IX, Balances, caught my eye, in particular several Roman iron or bronze balance arms and hooks. To the untrained eye these items look like a cross between fishing equipment and medieval torture items. A 17th century Dutch moneychanger balance set is intriguing. The trays are not identical, one being a traditional pan style, while the other is a flat triangular tray. The box includes a set of 14 engraved weights (one missing). The engraved paper directions are quintessential late medieval, with a skeleton threatening the money changer with a spear to keep him honest.

Having worked with museum collections, I recognize the captions provided for each item as no more than the basic accession information attached to an item at the time it is added to a collection: the name of the item, dimension, materials, and physical description, including any unusual or damaged features, inventory number, etc. Few include the provenance. It would have been helpful to include a discussion of the history of the item and how it came into the collections of the BNF. Though this is not always known, it is not unusual for it to be known or tracked down. By not including how the items came to the library, the book does not provide the “personal” story of each. This is an important, sometimes the most important, information about an artifact.

In addition, little to no description of the use and manufacture of the instrument in the context of the region and time period is provided. This makes this lovely volume be little more than an expensively produced catalog. The images are wonderful to look at, but there is nothing to read that will inform and intrigue the reader. In fact, I was left with many questions. I will enjoy looking at the items from time to time, but I find that that is about all you can do with this volume. While I received the volume full of excitement about what I would learn about these glorious and in some cases novel artifacts, that expectation went mostly unfulfilled.

Amy Shell-Gellasch is a full time lecturer at Eastern Michigan University. Her area of research is the History of Mathematics and its uses in teaching. She co-founded and currently chairs the History of Mathematics Special Interest Group of the MAA and is an associate editor of Convergence online journal. She conducted research on mathematical devices at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History from 2012–2017, and continues to develop content and conduct training workshops for the Smithsonian’s Digital Learning Lab, an online educational platform. Her article “The Spirograph and 19th Century German Mathematical Models” (Math Horizons, April, 2015) was included in Best Writing on Mathematics 2016.

Preface Catherine Hofmann 7
Introduction and acknowledgements 13
Mathematical instruments in libraries 17
The Catalogue:
I Astrolabes 27
II Celestial spheres 81
III Cosmographic instruments 110
IV Celestial planispheres 142
V Sun-dials & Nocturnals 185
VI Compasses 202
VII Calendars 218
VIII Varia 232
IX Balances 267
X Clocks 306
XI Missing Instruments 324
Bibliography 328