Photo of the Galileo manuscript

This single-leaf manuscript by Galileo is one of the great treasures of the U-M Library. It reflects a pivotal moment that helped to change our understanding of the universe.

History of Astronomy

Special Collections Research Center
Hatcher Graduate Library
913 S. University Avenue
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
(734) 764-9377 (p)

A collection of materials on astronomy dating from the second century through the 'golden age' of celestial cartography

If you simply want to read a historical astronomy text, you may be able to find it online, digitized and translated into English. But to fully experience the physical splendor of the documents, you’ll need to make a visit to the library.

Peggy Daub, former curator of the history of astronomy collection, says, “We are one of the few institutions in the world to have all the important early works in astronomy covered, including hundreds of pre-1800 publications.”

The Galileo Manuscript, written 1609-1610, is among the great treasures of the University of Michigan Library. One of the top ten items requested from Special Collections, it is also the most frequently reprinted, appearing in textbooks and on the web, including on the NASA website. The document, written in his own hand, describes and illustrates Galileo’s discovery of the four moons of Jupiter.

Daub says, “The Galileo manuscript is a rare and valuable holding and it gets students excited about the subject. I’m often invited to speak to beginning astronomy students, and the manuscript is part of the talk. Physics classes use it, too, and when Michigan Math and Science Scholars visit, it’s part of our show-and-tell.”

While the greatest strength of the history of astronomy collection is the depth and breadth of its material, the Galileo manuscript is one among its many sparkling gems.

The library owns all of the “big four” star atlases that came out of Europe’s golden age of celestial cartography: the Atlas Coelestis of John Flamsteed, the Uranometria of Johann Bayer (1603), the Firmamentum Sobiescianum sive Uranographia of Johannes Hevelius (1690) and the Uranographia of Johann Elert Bode (1801) — two of which were fairly recent aquisitions made possible with the support of library endowments.

To look back even further, you can examine an Egyptian papyrus containing an astrological treatise, written in Greek around the second century C.E., that predicts the movement of Mars.

Daub points out that the astronomy collection has significant overlap with the History of Mathematics collection. For example, the library owns a rare first edition by Copernicus (1543) that puts forth his theory that the earth moves around the sun, a theory he supported with mathematics since it couldn’t be proven by observation.

The mathematics collection also includes more than 100 editions of The Elements of Euclid, spanning five centuries and many languages. An edition by Oliver Byrne published in 1847 is one of the first examples of the use of color to elucidate mathematical concepts.

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Last modified: 03/02/2018