Tycho Brahe’s Printing Press

Written by Lynn Bui

Picture of a printing press from 1568. At the left in the foreground, a “puller” removes a printed sheet from the press. The “beater” to his right is inking the form. In the background, compositors are setting type. Wikimedia Commons.

For a majority of the Middle Ages, many people did not know how to read and write, Latin was understood only by the highly educated, and books were made and used by the scholarly. In the mid-15th century, during the Renaissance period, there was a momentous occurrence that transformed the world of literature. The printing press was invented. Before then, books were hand-written by scribes or monks. This ground-breaking invention changed the intellectual world as it allowed for rapid spread of new ideas as well as the reproduction of texts. Not only that, this increased the availability of books and encouraged those that were formerly illiterate to learn how to read. As a result, the population cumulatively became more educated. Johannes Gutenberg (Johann Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg), a German goldsmith, was the ingenious inventor (Kreis). Before he introduced his invention to the world, the central method of reproducing books was an adaption of the Chinese method of printing paper money and playing cards.

A woodblock of the kind that was used by Yangzhou’s printshops of the past for printing books. From the collection of the China Block Printing Museum in Yangzhou. Wikimedia Commons.

These instruments were called “block-prints”. A wooden block was carved with an expression or image. After being engraved, the block was covered in ink and transferred to paper. Because each paper required a separate block, this method was expensive as well as inefficient (Kreis). Additionally, the woodcuts were not durable, as they had a tendency to split after being pressed repeatedly. Once this occurred, a new block was engraved and the old one was disposed of.

Gutenberg’s invention, was not exactly a printing press, per se, but rather an instrument with a moveable, variable-width, metal type (Santillan). His vast knowledge about metals and his profession as a goldsmith allowed him to manipulate and craft type from alloy of lead. This facilitated the printing on paper because the type was high-quality and durable. Gutenberg used a special matrix that enabled the quick and precise molding of new blocks from a uniform template. He applied oil-based ink on high quality paper which was more durable than the previously used water-based ink. On a few occasions, Gutenberg tested out colored printing for several headings.

Movable metal type. Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to spreading knowledge, the printing press also revolutionized the literature world. Before all this, a copy of a book made in one area differed from the same book written from a different area (Eisenstein). Additionally, the manner in which books were read also transformed. Before when there were few literate individuals, books were read aloud to a group. After the introduction of the press, more people learned how to read and the oral readings became private, silent readings. The printing press allowed the same exact information to fall on the same pages. Every characteristic of each book was identify to the next. Its creation allowed a vast number of books to circulate around great areas, as a result, authorship became important and profitable. Printing became more standard in the way it was created (Pettegree). There was uniformity in the typography, the page layout, as well as the overall style. It became important to know who wrote the book and when it was written. This information allowed citing references to be possible.

Tycho Brahe was one of the many significant scientific authors of the sixteenth century. He was a Danish astronomer. In the year 1576, the king of Denmark, Frederick II, gifted him the island of Hven. This island is located between the countries of Denmark and Sweden. Tycho Brahe moved his family there and built an astronomical observatory. In addition to his astronomical instruments, he also built an alchemical laboratory, a personal printing press, and a paper mill. Throughout his time at Hven, he went through many printers as well as paper makers. He always had people stay at his home to work by helping him with research, publishing his works, or collaborating to create new theories and ideas.

The path of the comet Tycho Brahe saw in 1577. Courtesy of History of Science Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries.

After Tycho Brahe discovered the supernova of 1572 and the comet of 1577, he gave lectures on astronomy at the University of Copenhagen. He also wanted to publish his findings, however, the Cassiopeia printing press was not equipped to deal with his new kind of technical scientific publication. He worried about accuracy, technical illustrations, as well as plagiarism. As a result, he decided to build his own printing press on his own island and called it the Uraniborg press (Lowood). In the early renaissance period, many natural philosophers believed that any gained knowledge was the result of recapturing ancient wisdom. Renovation rather than innovation. However, the philosophers of Tycho Brahe’s time realized that modern knowledge exceeded the previous knowledge, so they took a different outlook on understandings. The work he created possessed new knowledge that the world had never seen, therefore, he considered that a property of his belonging, as did many of the scholars during this time period (Christianson). An additional reason as to why he wanted his own printing press was that he believed the entire aesthetic of the book represented the author. As a result, he was very particular with how he wanted to publish his work and supervised it closely.

Tycho Brahe hired a man named Joachim to collect parts for the printing press and to print Tycho’s work. Once the printing press was fully assembled, he decided to start with the volume two on the comet of 1577. He created many other works and sent them to various audiences as gifts. By the early 1589, Tycho Brahe had acquired another printing press to have a total of two (Shackelford). He was printing various works when there was a recurring paper shortage that required him to close his printing office for an extended period of time. He sent various workers to buy paper, but in the end, he realized that the only method was to build his own paper mill. In order to sustain a paper mill, Tycho Brahe would have to have waterpower. On the island of Hven, there was no such source, as there were a few artificial fishponds, but no real lakes or streams. He hired a contractor, Valentin, to construct a series of dams in the southern half of the island (Christianson). For the required laborers, he required the native villagers of Tuna to work for him. Once the large dam was completed, and the paper maker used linen rags to create paper. The books that he created included high quality parchment paper for bookbinding and fine writing paper. He also had a watermark with the arms, helmet, crest, and mantling of Brahe and initials T.B. On each page, he employed two watermarks – one being the Brahe arms and initials and the other being the east elevation of the Uraniborg.

Tycho Brahe published several books, a few of his major compositions include – De Nova et Nullius Aevi Memoria Prius Visa Stella (On the New and Never Previously Seen Star); De Mundi Aetherei Recentioribus Phaenomenis (Concerning Mural Quadrant the New Phenomena in the Ethereal World); Astronomiae Instauratae Mechanica (Instruments for the Restored Astronomy); Astronomiae Instauratae Progymnasmata (Introductory Exercises Toward a Restored Astronomy). He also composed a series of Latin friendship poems for the purpose of his inaugural of own publishing. This series was gifted to his friend, Erik (Christianson).

During this time, there were two significant works that influenced the astronomical community – Almagest by Ptolemy and Copernicus’s De revolutionibus. Although these two works explained the model of the cosmos, they suggested two very different models of cosmology. Tycho Brahe weighed these two contrasting theories and carried out an extensive amount of research to make a conclusion of which theory he would support. His discovery about the supernova of 1572 and the comet of 1577 was significant because it challenged the existing Aristotelian cosmology. Tycho Brahe’s observation of the supernova and comet suggested that these occurrences were further from Earth than the moon. Aristotle hypothesized that the heavens were finite and solid and that the planets were perfectly encased in spherical shells. Because a comet was unpredictable and its path is irregular, Aristotle theorized that comets occurred in the terrestrial world. The terrestrial world was changing and imperfect, but the celestial realm was perfect. Tycho Brahe made known a number of orbital anomalies. His astronomical instruments were designed and created to have a greater level of accuracy as compared to other instruments during that time period. He calibrated them often. With his instruments, he was able to observe not only the position of the planets but the points of their orbits as well. Tycho Brahe’s work disproved the Aristotelian belief, because he observed that comets traveled unpredictably through the heavens and in between these spheres. As a result, the new theory about the heavens was that it was not made from material spheres, but perhaps empty space. After more calculation and observation, he concluded that the heavens were fluid, rather than solid. The heavens were changeable. He compared this concept to a fish swimming through water. His hypothesis was the intermediate between the Copernican and the Aristotelian system. The Earth continued to be the center of the universe, which followed the Aristotelian physics, also the only physics available during that time. The Moon and Sun revolved around the Earth, however, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn revolved around the Sun (Crowther). The comet he observed was observed to be between Venus and Mars. Tycho Brahe’s theory became popular for anyone who rejected the Aristotelian system, but could not accept the Copernican theory.

The printing press not only facilitated the communication of philosophers, but also allowed each philosopher to be important. This invention was the determining factor that allowed such great philosophers to stand out from the others. This invention allowed philosophers to possess a greater audience pool. People read various books and formed opinions of what they believed and whose theory they supported. This invention allowed precise information, words and images to be conveyed in all direction across any distance. Tycho Brahe’s astronomical instruments were high-quality and highly accurate, which allowed him to create precise observations. Additionally, these accurate instruments allowed him to discover astronomical phenomena that were unknown previously. This factor, with the addition of having his own printing press, allowed Tycho Brahe to be a competitive philosopher compared to other individuals. He had the flexibility to publish his work continuously, as long as he had the funding. When he obtained two printing presses, he increased his odds even further as he always had both printing presses operating. While one printing press was working on volume one, the other printing press was busy publishing the second volume. He sent a variety of his works to different friends, philosophers, and scholars to get his ideas out and to make himself known.

Works Cited

John Christianson, On Tycho’s Island: Tycho Brahe, Science, and Culture in the Sixteenth Century (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Kathleen Crowther, Tycho Brahe

Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press As An Agent Of Change: Communications And Cultural Transformations In Early-Modern Europe (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Steven Kreis, The Printing Press The History Guide, 2 May 2016.

Henry E. Lowood and Robin E. Rider, “Literary technology and typographic culture: The instrument of print in early modern science.” Perspectives On Science 2, (1994): 1-37.

Andrew Pettegree, The Book in the Renaissance (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010)

Rita Santillan, The effect of the printing press in the Renaissance in the 15th century, Italy ETEC540: Text Technologies, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike. 9 Nov. 2010

Jole Shackelford, “Tycho Brahe, Laboratory Design, and the Aim of Science: Reading Plans in Context,” Isis 84, no. 2 (Jun., 1993): 211-230.

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