Reopening the Dibner Library of Science and Technology

incunabula… incunabula…incunabula…

That is the word that that was proclaimed all around me the first day of my internship. I had no idea what it meant. I recognized that it was Latin, but that’s as far as I got. Then I went to the library. And that was where everything came together.

Preface and definitions of Summa de arithmetica geometria proportioni et proportionalita.Preface and definitions of Summa de arithmetica geometria proportioni et proportionalita.

I learned that in the first week of March, the Dibner Library would be reopening after construction and a symposium would be held. This symposium would be titled “The Era of Experiments and the Age of Wonder: Scientific Expansion in the 17th – 19th Centuries,” designed to drive home the point that old books matter. There would be many distinguished speakers, including my supervisor Peggy Aldrich Kidwell, and displays of books for visitors to observe.

My part in this event was to put together a display case of three to five books from the years 1450-1500 on the subject of mathematics. Here is where I finally figured out what that magic word, incunabula, meant. Just like I was, you might be already guessing the general idea behind the word. All books published in the years between 1450 and 1500 are collectively referred to as incunabula. The word means “in the cradle” in Latin; the books represent the birth of the printed word as we know it today! Once Gutenberg invented his moveable type printing press, knowledge exploded across Europe.

Here are two books which caught my eye:

  • Epytoma Ioannis de Monte Regio in Almagestum Ptolomei by Regiomontanus 
    When Copernicus read Book V Proposition 22, he saw a 1300-year-old error on lunar theory, spurring him to complete his own research and become the father to modern astronomy. The author of this book also wrote Ephemerides. Christopher Columbus brought this book along on his travels and in 1504 convinced the natives of Jamaica that he was powerful by predicting a solar eclipse on February 29.
  • Summa de arithmetica geometria proportioni et proportionalita by Luca Pacioli
    A woodcut initial, depicting a monk with an opened book and compass, repeats numerous times throughout the text. It is generally agreed that the monk is to represent Pacioli, his position in the clergy, and his interest in mathematics. This author also wrote Divina Proportione, the first book dedicated to the Golden Ratio.

The following week, the History and Pedagogy of Mathematics (HPM) group had a meeting in Washington and I was able to expand that initial single case on mathematics to three cases on mathematics and related sciences. It was a great experience to hear feedback and explain background information about the books I chose to exhibit.

Here are two cool books on applications of mathematics:

  • Anathomia Mundini emendata per doctorem Melerstat by Mondino dei Luzzi
    Customarily, corpses of criminals were used for classroom dissections in anatomy classes. In 1319 four of this author’s students were charged with body snatching. As a professor, dei Luzzi became one of the first to do public dissections.
  • de Architectura by Vitruvius Pollio
    The Baroque and Neoclassical periods borrow from this Renaissance work immensely. The famous Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci is based off some of the pictures and writings on proportions in this book.

Bob Brabanec, Jim Kiernan, and Amy Ackerberg-Hastings at the HPM meeting 
Left to right: Bob Brabanec, Jim Kiernan, and Amy Ackerberg-Hastings at the HPM meeting. Courtesy of Bob Stein.

If you’d like to learn more about the Dibner Library and their incunabula collection check out this Web site or for information on the reopening event that I participated in look here.
Happy Reading!

Mary A. Kavanagh is an intern at the National Museum of American History.