Life of Johann Muller Regiomontanus
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Johann Muller von Konigsberg lived between 1436 and 1476. He has been widely known in his Latin pseudonym “Regiomontanus”. He was one of the most important German scholars in various fields including mathematics, astronomy and astrology. He is recognized as the most successful mathematician and astronomer of Europe in the 15th Century. He was also a sought after astrologer, although it has been argued that his interest in astrology decreased with his age, but he is still remember for his work in astrology. Apart from his work in the above field, he made contribution to the education system and is also credited to be among the first printers.
His early life
Regiomontanus was born in a village called Fraconian near Konigsberg in Bavaria. Following he naming system which included the surname and the place of birth he was therefore named Johannes Muller of Konisgberg although his Latin name was Joanes de Regiomonte which was simply abbreviated as Regiomontanus
Regiomontanus spent his early years at home where he got his basic education. When he reached 11 years, he was sent to Leipzig where he started his formal education. It is at Leipzig that his interest in different fields started to grow. However after only three years in Leipzig, he was taken at Alma Mater Rudolfina, which was the University of Vienna in Austria, for higher education. This portrayed his capacity in education as he was far more above his peer. At fifteen years, he graduated from the university with a degree in Arts or magister atrium. He was awarded a baccalaureate (masters) in 1452, but he could receive due to his age limitation as he was till below the mandatory age of 21. Therefore he was forced to wait until he was 21 so that he could receive the master degree.
According to Hughes (1967), it is at the Alma Mater Rudolfian where a very close becomes friend of George von Peurbach. His meeting with George von Peurbach was one of his most important moments as George later turned to be his mentor. George von Peurbach (1423-1461) was a renowned mathematician and astronomer, He was mentored by Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa but he rejected Nicholas’s speculations that the earth could have been moving around the sun. According to Brown (1990) he was a great admirer of Ptolemy and had even planned to write a correct version of Almagest which was to be based on some of the existing Latin translations Regiomontanus formed a strong father-son bond with Peurbach. However the sudden death of Peurbach left him in a great shock and with a big responsibility to continue with his work. This was one of event that built up his scholarly work. He was left with the duty of completing the translation of Almagest. (Hughes, 1967)
The translation of the almagest was perhaps the first major task of the young student. He had vowed to do all he could to accomplish the work of his mentor. He studied Greek in order understand the Ptolemy and complete the transition. It was from this work that he became very much interested in Old Greek and some Latin Manuscripts. In his efforts to complete the translation, he ended up with a huge collection of Greek and Latin manuscript
In his entire life, Regiomontanus accomplished a lot contribution in a special way to the field of mathematics, astronomy and astrology. In order to understand his work, we have to look at his particular work in the three fields. Let us firs look at his contribution in the field of mathematics.
(i) His contribution to mathematics
Regiomontanus contribution to mathematics can be traced to his work in trigonometry. Although he worked in different areas in mathematics, his most notable work was on the tables of sines and tangents which were later printed and used by astronomers. These tables were widely used and formed the base for the development of the modern tables. They were extensively used in calculation of decimal instead of the sexagesimal system which was used before Regiomontanus had worked on these tables.
Regiomontanus also worked on Tabulae primi mobilis in which he provides a number of solutions for spherical triangles. Although they were later to be superseded when logarithmic technique of calculation was developed, Tabulae primi mobilis were important foundation for the development of the logarithmic calculation techniques. It should be noted that he contributed great to the theoretical grounding for mathematical in one of his printing, De ominmodies triangulis omnimodi libri quinque. Although this work was not completed in his life time, it was later printed in Nuremberg around 1533n after his death. According to Swerdlow (1999) this was of great use to the later astronomers, including Copernicus and Tycho Brahe, who also contributed greatly to the field.
In 1461, he completed retranslating Ptolemy’s almagest, accomplishing the duty that he had been left with by Peurbach. His translation of the Almagets from Arabic to Latin spurred new interests in mathematics although it was later refuted by Copernicus. The Ptolemy introduced some new techniques in mathematics and it also modified the existing techniques to suit the purpose of the mathematician of the time. There was a lot of work that had been done before the Ptolemy especially on epicycles and eccentric models explaining planetary motions and these works had been approved by scholars like Aplonius of Pegra. However, Brown (1990) shows that the translation of the Ptolemy had a great impact on plane and spherical trigonometry which had already been established before.
Regiomontanus work on geometric modeling and in studying the motions of planets, other than the earlier studies which had concentrated on the sun and the moon, was considered exception in the way he tried to break with the traditions. He introduced a geometric device which was later to be named the equant point. According Hughes (1967) in his construction the planets were shown as moving round the earth within an eccentric circle. This was considered as a new concept in geometric modeling which formed the bases for later studies
In his work he traveled far and wide and his travels took him to Greece and Italy. He passed through major towns and cities by then including Padua, Venice, Rome, and others. While visiting Venice in 1464, he completed one of his important works that he is remembered for. He completed his work on Triangles of all Kind. (Brown, 1990)
(ii) His contribution to astrology and astronomy
Regiomontanus made great contribution in the filed of astrology. This was in a great contrast to scientific work since astrology was considered contradictory to the scientific work. His work in Astrology was later to be practiced by one of the renowned astronomer Johannes Kelper. In 1467, Regiomontanus was invited to Hungary by King Mathias Huniades Corvinus to offer his service as a librarian in the new founded royal library in Budapest. From the war that the King had won against the Turks, he had a collection of some very rare books which he could only entrust with Regiomontanus since they were considered important treasures. After he arrived in Hungary, the king suddenly became ill and some of his advisors predicted that he would die. When Regiomontanus was called to give his prediction, he used his astrological skills and predicted that the king was just suffering from a heart weakness which was caused by an eclipse. According to Shank (1998) the king later recovered from the illness and rewarded Regiomontanus with many rewards for his astrological skills.
While in Hungary Regiomontanus carried out successful works in horoscopes, what later came to be known as natal charts used by famous patrons. One of his works Tabulae directionum which he completed in Hungary is specifically designed to be used by astrologist and it had important information that could be used to determine astrological house. (Shank, 1998)
Regiomontanus printing work
Regiomontanus did not stay for a long time in Hungary and he returned to his home in Nurnberge in 1471. His home city was widely known for learning and trade and there was a printing press which had been opened. Regiomontanus considered this as an important opportunity to pass the written word of science to the rest of the world. This was just years after the 1454 discovery of printing machine by Johann Gutenberg.
Regiomontanus took to the opportunity and opened up his own press. This marked the starting of his long journey to the world of printing. He started printing important programs with scientific manuscripts, although this was to be cut short by his sudden death. Regiomontanus also founded the first astronomical observatory and later equipped it with some of the finest astrological equipments including armillary spheres and devices which were used to measure angular distance between two celestial objects.
He is credited to have been the first publisher of commercial books for mathematics and astronomy. One of his recognized printing work was Ephemeredes, which was a table listing the position of the sun, the moon and all the planets each and every day between 1475 and 1506. This is one of his works which brought him to the limelight of scientific work and it is believed that Christopher Columbus, who discovered the Latin America, had a copy of these table listings during his voyage. According to Swerdlow (1999) Columbus used this to predict the lunar eclipse which occurred in February 29 1506.
This work represented an empirical study on sound astrology as contained in this almanac or the ephemeredes. In this work, he had juxtaposed weather prediction in the manuscript almanacs and it later turned out to be important to scholars in weather observation to check their weather prediction.
Some of his calendars which he printed in Nurmberg covering the period between 1475 and 1531 had limited information on astrology. They detailed the methods that could be used to find times for bloodletting based on the moon position. The later scientists who edited this manuscript added other important information.
Through his published work, he was able to spread the scientific discovery to rest of the world. This is taken as one of his most important contribution to the world of science and mathematics. He made it easy to pass the generated knowledge from one person to the other and also took teaching and learning of mathematics a notch higher. Therefore he made a great contribution to teaching and learning of mathematics
The death of Regiomontanus
The circumstances surrounding his death remain controversial. His death was not expected as it did not come from any prolonged illness but it was rather abrupt. It came when he had been invited by the pope for an important mission to assist the church with its calendar.
Pope Sixtus invited Regiomontanus to Rome in 1475 to help the church to review the Julian calendar which had been used by the church for centuries. The calendar had been outdated by the changing season and was not coherent with the changing seasons. Although he had many duties to attend to including his new found printing work, he reluctantly left for Rome to the Eternal City. It is here where he met his death on 6th July 1476 which was exactly one month after his 40th birthday. Up to date, the cause of his death remains controversial. There are some who argues that he died from plague while others assert that he was killed by a passing comet. There are others who argue that he was poisoned by Trebizond’s sons who had a grudge with him for his earlier criticism of their fathers work on the translation of Theon’s commentary on Ptolemy. (Brown, 1990)
There are a number of reasons why Regiomontanus is remembered long after he passed away. This is not only through the contribution he made to the field of mathematics, astrology, and astronomy but also because he pioneered the printing education. His involvement in printing press ensured that there was mass education and many people could access work by scholars.
The most influential of his work was De triangulis omnindis which means on triangles of every kind. This work was on five parts or books which were modeled after Euclid element. Through his work and books, he helped to pass down an organized body of knowledge in printed work. His notable work was his translation of Ptolemy and the Hindu and Arabs scholar’s work. In his series of books, he introduced simple concepts in mathematics beginning with his book 1 which introduce concept like quantity, ratio, equality, circle, arch and the chord. There is integration of work from other scholars in his work as well. For example the sine sign is introduced in Hindu definition. (Hughes, 1967)
His book II introduces Trigonometry proper which introduces enunciation of law of sines. Like all other work in his books, this is introducde in literature rather than in symbols but with a very clear formulation as expressed in any modern-day book
Regiomontanus remains one of the most influential figures of the 15th century. His work in mathematics, astronomy, and astrology remains the most influential up to date. He is remembered for having pioneered important studies in different academic work. From this translation of Ptolemy to his works on trigonometry, his work presents important body of knowledge that has been used by other scholars for centuries in their work. Regiomontanus influences in the academic world and especially in the field of mathematics was supplemented by his work in the print media. When he acquired his own printing press, he published important almanacs and manuscripts which were used by scholars after him and which are still used in the modern world. Therefore we can say that his influence is still very strong in the fields that he specialized in.
Brown, E. (1990): Regiomontanus: His Life and Work. Amsterdam
Hughes, B. (1967): Regiomontanus on triangles. Madison, Wis.-London
Shank, H. M. (1998): Regiomontanus and homocentric astronomy. Journal of History Astronomy, Vol. 29 (2): 157-166.
Swerdlow, N. M. (1999): Regiomontanuss concentric-sphere models for the sun and moon. Journal of History Astronomy, Vol. 30 (1): 1-23.