Star-Gazing in the Historic Astronomy Collection



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Home >> Special Collections & University Archives >> New Notable >> Star-Gazing in the Historic Astronomy Collection

The Historic Astronomy Collection in Special Collections is the cornerstone of our rare books collections at San Diego State. With the Zinner Collection (acquired in 1967) at its foundation, this collection has been gradually developed over the decades into a superb resource for studying the history of astronomy and related scientific fields. The Historic Astronomy Collection contains the classic works of Copernicus, Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and other "all-stars," and has numerous subject strengths within it that add significantly to the sum of its historic and research value. Let's explore a few of these!

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Early printed books: Movable type was introduced in the West by Gutenberg around 1450, and books printed between that date and 1501 are called "incunabula." The Historic Astronomy Collection has several examples of incunabula, including editions of Johannes Sacro Bosco's influential textbook De Sphaera Mundi, in which he discusses the Earth as a sphere. The collection also contains many important astronomical texts printed between 1501 and 1650, including the crown jewel of the collection, the 1543 first edition of Copernicus' De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, or "On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres" (previously).

Manuscripts: In addition to Ernst Zinner's collection of scientific correspondence and personal research manuscripts, the Historic Astronomy Collection contains several provocative manuscripts dealing with horology, eclipses, and mathematics. There are also numerous books in the collection with copious marginalia, and there is one lovely illustrated manuscript notebook from 1645 that covers topics in geometry, cosmography, and fixed stars.

Horology: Horology, or the science of time-keeping, was a particular interest of Ernst Zinner's, and his original collection has a fascinating body of works on almanacs and calendars, clocks, and sundials, including Sebastian Munster's important work on sundials from 1533. The development of the intellectual concept of time is represented in this subject category, but the development of the technological advances in time-keeping is particularly strong.

Star atlases: Celestial atlases were indispensible tools of astronomy before the modern era. These maps of the heavens recorded stars and constellations as they were discovered and named, and evolved in design as astronomers and cartographers worked together to find the most accurate ways to depict the fixed positions of the stars. Celestial maps were often hand-colored as works of great beauty, including Flamsteed's famous atlas, a landmark of the genre.

Comets and eclipses: Accounts and predictions of astronomical events such as comets and eclipses are a strong part of the Historic Astronomy Collection, inlcuding an account of the total solar eclipse of 1654, which occurred at the same time a battle in the Russo-Poland War was taking place, creating havoc.

Optics: In addition to early texts on optics and lenses, the Historic Astronomy Collection includes Newton's historic contribution, Opticks, in which he sets forth his various experiments with light, color, and diffraction, and multi-prism arrays.

Astronomical instruments: The technological development of instruments and devices such as astrolabes, orerries, armillary spheres, quadrants, and telescopes is illustrated beautifully in the Historic Astronomy Collection. Included in this category is Marioni's lavishly illustrated catalog of the instruments used by the astronomers in residence at his observatory. Tools such as volvelles (layered paper discs which rotate around a fixed center in the page, which aided astronomers in making complex calculations) are also found throughout the Historic Astronomy Collection.

Prints and portraits: Zinner also collected prints and portraits of astronomical celebrities. Fantastic examples of wood and steel engravings, mezzotints, aquatints, and lithographs are among the hundreds of beautiful prints related to astronomy in the collection.

A catalogue of the Historic Astronomy Collection was published in 1988 and sells in the department for $35. Though much has been added to the collection since then, it is still a fantastic introduction to the treasures of the collection. Stop by SCUA to pick up a copy, or to browse these rarities yourself!

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