Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In the Year 1609

Tonight we watched a PBS Nova special that spent a lot of time discussing telescopes. It reminded me of the piece I wrote for the newsletter on 1609. Following is a reprint of the article from the Henry Hoffman Family News of January/February 2001.

In the Year 1609: The moon was first drawn using a telescope, Heini Hoffmann was born in Oberglatt.

    For Christmas [2000] I gave Dick Galileo's Daughter, a book by Dava Sobel, just because it looked fascinating. It was a fortunate choice; he enjoyed it enough to encourage me to read it too. It is a very readable account of the life of Galileo (1564–1642) in Pisa, Padua and Rome, enlightened by letters from his elder daughter, a cloistered nun.
     Fueled with interest in the 17th century I read Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier's novel based on a painting by Dutch artist Vermeer in the 1650s. The plot was a disappointment, but the book brought to life that time in Delft. I learned that details were mined from the excellent Vermeer and His Milieu, a Web of Social History by John Michael Montias who looked at all sorts of documents of the painter, his friends and three generations of family. The last required genealogical assistance to weave together the names, places and dates to create historical biography. I wish I had access to and could read similar documents in Zürich!
     Galileo's intellectual and aristocratic world is informative for all of Europe, but daily life in conservative, mostly Protestant, Delft was surely closer to that in Zürich. Not having the Catholic faith's need to hurry, probably the same custom was followed in Zürich as in Delft to baptize a child one or two weeks after birth at a service following the Sunday sermon. Creating a 1609 calendar shows the March 5th date of Heini Hoffman's baptism was on a Sunday.
     Bibliographies led me to other books. Interesting is Asimov's Chronology of Science & Discovery which has entries for each year like Grun's The Timetables of History, but only covers a few events, but in some detail. In ArtBook Vermeer I was surprised to learn that the map on the wall in one of his paintings had west, not north, at the top, supposedly common at the time. It looks strange.
     I was especially taken with the pages from Galileo's notebook with the first illustrations of the moon's surface as seen with a telescope in 1609. The telescope was accidentally invented in Holland the previous year but kept secret as a military advantage, but rumors quickly ran through Europe and Galileo easily built his own. He is the first known to have turned it to the sky where he could distinguish the stars of the Milky Way and the mountains and “seas” of the moon.

     Galileo's inventions include a pendulum clock, but that didn't come until the end of his life in 1641. He was blind by then and the model built for him by his son. Try to imagine life in 1609 with no clocks as we know them. He died in January of 1642; Isaac Newton was born Christmas of that year, one of my favorite men of science.
    Exploration was big in 1609 when Henry Hudson, searching for a Northwest passage, reached New York Bay (Manhattan, located by Verrazano in 1531) and sailed his ship Half Moon up the river that would be named for him all the way to the site of Albany. One of Vermeer's ancestors had dealings that year with founders of the East India Company.
     In Oberglatt, the baptism register was begun in 1600. Men named Hoffman first appear as witnesses, Claus in 1602 and Hans in 1605. Soon their own children appear. For some reason the name Hoffman is underlined in these records though others are not. This continues for some years, then another name is underlined. Sadly, around 1609 many baptisms do not list the mother. The given names in this record are diminutives which at this time are very common in the records. These are probably for Heinrich, Jacob, perhaps Gertrude. Heini was always so named. In 1654 his son Hans was born who would become the Ehegaumer.

     I also brought home from the library books on The Thirty Year's War (1618-1648—Switzerland just managed to stay out of this one, but the ending of it had important results for its autonomy and neutrality) and The Black Death or plague which was still a scourge of the 17th century. It was a time of great invention and discovery, but was still very primitive in health and education.

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