JF Ptak Science Books Post 1933
I’m not sure how my thinking went from Athanasius Kircher’s Earth skeleton to the magnificent Eberhard Werner Happel 1675 world map of ocean currents featuring what might be the largest California ever seen in the history of cartography, but, well, the thinking wound up there, (and this leaving out Bishop Burnett’s perfect primordial world egg in the process). This was intended as a simply post following up yesterday’s bit in the Blank and Missing Things series relating to California as an island and the missing land mass connecting the non-island to the rest of North America. Nominally California usually appears as a stubby/plump infected-appendix-sized bit either attached/not to the continent, but the California in the Happel (1647-1730, a man of math and medicine) map is larger than the rest of North America from the California gulf to the Atlantic. Of course that also includes all of Alaska and then some imagined lands as well, but, still the mass of it is labelled “California” stands by itself larger than South America, Africa (which looks surprisingly good for the age of the rendering), China (which is very very small) and Russia (which lacks virtually all of Russia east if the Urals). The only land mass that comes close to California’s size is the Antarctic regions, which is drawn here as a solid land mass including the scant points of data for New Zealand and Australia and whatever other island was found in southerly South Sea travels, all drawn together and fitted into an enormous continent.
Although there weren’t many explorers yet to go up the west coast of North America in 1675, other maps of the period render the coastline in a more accurate way than this. The point of the map, really, is to display what was known of the ocean currents, some of which was correct but a lot of which is not–though it is a very good attempt given the state of the data collection. The source of this map,the Peabody Library’s The World Encompassed (1952) calls it the “first chart of ocean currents”, which I think is incorrect–and it is here where our favorite 17th century science-Jesuit comes into play, for it is in Athanasius Kircher’s Mundus Subterreaneus (1642) that the first map of ocean currents occurs.
[Michael Tramezinus's map of the Western Hemisphere (1534) showing a mostly non-existent western coastline of North America along with a stringy California--but given the time and the available information, it is an excellent map that is not afraid to define unknown lands with a squiggly line. Source, plate 35 from The World Encompassed.]
Kircher is a highly problematic character in the history of science. He is at times wonderful and insightful and creative; at other times he is boring, pedantic, grueling, wrong, fanciful, and stingy with attribution. I’m no Kircher scholar, but it seems to me after al this time that sometimes he writes stuff that he couldn’t've meant, that he absolutely knew better than to assert–but there it is, anyway, written as gospel truth (and the Gospels and related religious mythio-stories evidently demanded obedience to their own truths, in which Kircher complies) . This is one of the problems with the Fra Athanasius.
In his Mundus Subterraneus Kircher presents the true first map of ocean currents ( Tabula Geographico-Hydrographica motus Oceani, currents, abyssos, montes igniuomos in universe orbe indican), some bits being correct and others not so. He rejects the Aristotelian concept of condensation, and figures that the accumulation of snow/rain/dew is simply not enough water to feed the rivers and lakes and oceans, so he devised subterranean oceans and rivers with vast stores of water to feed the waters topside. His hydrophyllaciae is one of four components of an underground Earth that closely coincides with the four elements and with the human condition, much in the tradition of the Medieval body/spirit approach to the understanding of the world system.
[Source: image from the mapseller site of Sebastian Hidalgo Sola, Buenos Aires, here.]
John Edward Fletcher, in his A Study of the Life and Works of Athanasius Kircher, ‘Germanus Incredibilis …” describes Kircher creating an “Earth Skeleton”which he dresses according to science and ecclesiastical needs, finding a vis spermatica, the launching of all matter from the primeval chaos of primordial Earth. The Mundus addresses this and many other things–it is, in all of this and all of its faults (as Fletcher states), a great repository of all geological knowledge of the time. There is the good with the bad in the Mundus, “a conglomeration of exotic facts and fiction, along with odd scraps of truth and the occasional flash of brilliance” (Fletcher, p. 172), and the ocean currents map is one of those bits.
Kircher undertakes an enormous and probably impossible job in this book, but may actually be kept from getting to the big point by depending upon himself too much. As Fletcher points out (page 171), the Mundus‘ third edition of 1671 failed to take into account the major advances in fields touching on the book’s contents, in particular, the work of Mariotte and Varenius, which was much superior to that of Kircher on the ocean currents, neither of which are discussed or even mentioned in the new edition.
This was a very round-about way of getting to the California-part of the Happel map, but the attribution of the World Encompassed as “the first” of its kind needed to be addressed.
Here’s an interesting read on the Kircher/Happel maps: from http://www.coastalguide.com/helmsman/gulf-stream-history-noaa2.shtml