1902 Encyclopedia > Nicolaus Copernicus

Nicolaus Copernicus
Polish astronomer and founder of modern astronomy
(1473-1543)





NICOLAUS COPERNICUS, or KOPPERNIGK (1473-1543), was born on the 19th February 1473, at Thorn in Prussia, where his father, a native of Cracow, had settled as a wholesale trader. His mother, Barbel Watzelrode, was the daughter of a well-to-do merchant. The education of Nicolaus, whose father died early, was undertaken by his uncle Lukas Watzelrode, subsequently (1489) bishop of Ermeland. After a course of instruction at the school in Thorn, he entered the university of Cracow in 1491, and during four years studied mathematical science under Albert Brudzewski, devoting his spare time to painting. At the age of twenty-three he repaired to Bologna, and attended the lectures of Dominico Maria Novarra, professor of astronomy there. He next spent some years at Padua, where, in addition to mathematics and astronomy, he applied himself to medicine, in which, in 1499, he took the degree of doctor. In 1500 he was at Rome, enjoying the friendship of the astronomer Regiomontanus, and fulfilling with distinction the duties of a chair of mathematics. Copernicus had already been for some time a member of the chapter of Frauenburg, at which place he appears to have taken up his abode in 1503. His time was now engaged in clerical work, in giving gratuitous medical aid to the poor, and, though with but a slender stock of instruments, in the prosecution of his favourite studies. The house which he occupied at Allenstein is still to be seen, with the perforations which he made in the walls of his chamber in order to observe the passage of the stars across the meridian; also the remains of an hydraulic machine, similar to that at Marly, which he constructed for the purpose of raising the water of a rivulet for the supply of Frauenburg.

Nicolaus Copernicus image

Nicolaus Copernicus


By this bishop and fellow-canons Copernicus was employed in defending their rights and privileges against the encroachments of the Teutonic knights; and when sent as a deputy to the diet of Grodno, he busied himself in considering the means of improving the corrupt coinage, and wrote a paper on the subject, which was placed among the archives of the diet. Copernicus sought by a comparative study of the various astronomical systems, at one simple and consistent. According to the hypothesis of the ancient Egyptians, Mercury and Venus revolved round the sun, which itself, with Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, moved round the earth. Apollonius of Perga chose the sun as the common centre of all the planetary motions, but held that, like the moon, it turned round about the earth. The principal Pythagorean philosophers on the other hand, regarded the sun as the centre of the universe, about which the earth performed a circuit. Nicetas, Heraclides, and others assigned a central position to the earth, but supposed it to have a motion of rotation round its axis, which produced the phenomena of the rising and setting of the stars, and the alternations of day and night. Philolaus removed the earth from the centre of his system, and conceived it to have not an axial rotation, but also an independent annual revolution round the sun. From the various ill-founded and unshapely theories of his predecessors Copernicus obtained the material for erecting a solid and imposing structure—the system with which his name is connected. This was expounded in a treatise entitled De Orbium Caelestium Revolutionibus Libri VI., the preparation of which occupied its author from about 1507 to 1530. This work Copernicus long delayed bring content to defer for a while the popular outcry against himself, which, as a setter-forth of truths hitherto unknown to science and as an impugner of the rights of time-honoured dogmatism, he must be prepared to endure. At length, however, yielding to the importunities of his friends, he permitted the publication of the book, which he dedicated to Pope Paul III.; in order, as he says that he might not be accused of seeking to shun the judgment of enlightened men, and that the authority of his Holiness, if he approved of it, might protect him from the baleful tooth of calumny.

The work was printed at Nuremberg, under the superintendence of Rheticus, one of the disciples of Copernicus. The impression had just been completed, when Copernicus, who had all his life enjoyed perfect health, was attacked with dysentery, followed almost immediately by a paralysis of the right side, with loss of memory, and obscuration of the understanding. For some time he lingered, and on the day of his death, only a few hours before he expired, a copy of his work sent by Rheticus arrived, and was placed in his hands. He touched it, and seemed conscious what it was; but after regarding it for an instant, he relapsed into a state of insensibility, which soon terminated in death. He died on the 24th May 1543, at the age of seventy. His tomb, which is not distinguished form that of the other canons of Frauenburg, was in 1581 adorned with a Latin epitaph by the Polish Bishop Cromer. In 1830 a statue of Copernicus, by Thorwaldsen, was placed in the Casimir Palace at Warsaw; and in 1853 another monument to him, by Tieck, was erected at Thorn.

The first formal exposition of the theories of Copernicus in contradistinction to the notions which had hitherto prevailed, was a letter published by Rheticus, and entitled Ad Clar. V.d. Schonerum de Libris Revolutionum eruditiss. Viri et Mathematici excellentiss. Rev. Doctoris Nicolai Copernici Torunnoie, Canonici Warmiensis, per quemdamjuvenem Mathematicae studiosum, Narratio prima. Dantzic, 1540, 4to; reprinted, with a eulogium, at Basel, 1541, 8vo. The works of Copernicus are—1. De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium Libri VI., Nuremberg, 1543 small folio; reprinted at Basel in 1566, with the letter of Rheticus, and also included in the Astronomia Instaurata of Nicolas Muler, Amsterdam, 1617 and entitled De lateribus et Angulis Triangulorum, Wittenberg, 1542, 4to; 3. Theophylactici Scholastici Simocattae Epistolae morales, rurales, et amatoriae, cum versione Latina. In 1521, Copernicus presented to the states of his provinces his work on money; and there are several manuscript treatises of his in the library of the bishopric of Warmia.

The Life of Copernicus has been treated of by the following authors:—Gassendi (Paris, 1654); Sniadeski (Warsaw, 1803); Westphal (Constance, 1822); Percy (Paris, 1824); Czynski (Paris, 1846); Szyma (Lond., 1846); Prowe (Thorn, 1852-55-60-65); Szulc (Warsaw, 1855); and Domenico Berti, in Copernico e le Vicente del Sistema Copernicano in Italia (Rome, 1876). See ASTRONOMY.








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