More than a Manual: Early-Modern Mathematical Instrument Books

In Elizabethan London, one of the more surprising things a wealthy owner of a beautifully illustrated folio volume could do was to take a sharp knife and cut it to pieces. John Blagrave’s 1585 Mathematical Jewel, in fact, demands nothing less.[1] This work, which introduced an elaborate instrument of Blagrave’s design for performing astronomical calculations, included woodcuts that were specifically provided in order to be cut out and used as surrogates for the brass original:

get very fine pastboord made of purpose, and then spred your paste very fine thereon, & quickly laying on this picture & clappe it streight into a presse before it bee thorowe wette with the paste (fol. ¶6v)

Continue reading “More than a Manual: Early-Modern Mathematical Instrument Books”

Spinning the Risk: ‘The Effects of Nuclear Weapons’ Handbook

The Effects of Nuclear Weapons was by far the most popular handbook of nuclear defense during the Cold War. Adapted from an original publication of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (1950),[1] the handbook was amended and made commercially available for popular use (1957),[2] revised (1962),[3] reprinted (1964),[4] expanded (1977),[5] and even illicitly translated into Russian for use in the Soviet Union (1960).[6] Edited by Samuel Glasstone, a prolific author of science textbooks, The Effects of Nuclear Weapons was described as a “comprehensive summary of current knowledge on the effects of nuclear weapons” and commended by the Federal Civil Defense Administration as “the definitive source of information on the effects of nuclear weapons.”[7] Continue reading “Spinning the Risk: ‘The Effects of Nuclear Weapons’ Handbook”

The Duty to Know: Nineteenth-Century Jewish Catechisms and Manuals and the Making of Jewish Religious Knowledge

In 1878 Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800–1882), probably the most famous nineteenth-century German-Jewish painter, created a work entitled The Heder, or Jewish Elementary School, which re-imagined his first school in Hanau near Frankfurt am Main in the early 1800s. Continue reading “The Duty to Know: Nineteenth-Century Jewish Catechisms and Manuals and the Making of Jewish Religious Knowledge”

Learning to Demonstrate the Spirit in English Practical Divinity

In 1646, the English polymath John Wilkins (1614–1672) published his popular guidebook for preaching, Ecclesiastes, but it was not the first “Discourse Concerning the Art of Preaching” with that name. Over a century earlier, in 1535, the renowned humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) wrote a treatise with the same title in hopes of reforming a clergy whose faults he had spent his career caricaturing and condemning. Erasmus’s own title referred further back still, evoking the book of the Bible in which a “preacher” (rendered from the Latin ecclesiastes) offers advice for good living in a fallen world. Continue reading “Learning to Demonstrate the Spirit in English Practical Divinity”

The Text as Fieldwork: The Book of Nature in Early Modern Japan

In early modern Japan, the study of nature, known at the time as honzōgaku, was primarily a bookish enterprise. The work of scholars who studied rocks and minerals, herbs and plants, flowers and trees, insects and fish, birds and animals—or, as they collectively called them, “myriads of things” (banbutsu) or “herbs-trees-birds-beasts-insects-fish-metals-jewels-grounds-stones” (sōmokukinjūchūgyokingyokudoseki)—began and ended with books. Canonical encyclopedias like Li Shizhen’s Bencao gangmu (Honzō kōmoku in Japanese editions) and Kaibara Ekiken’s Yamato honzō served not only as foundations of scholars’ research and repositories of institutional knowledge but also as the ultimate source of legitimation for their claims on nomenclature, taxonomy, morphology, and aspect as well as for the pharmacological, gastronomical, agricultural, and aesthetic use of plants and animals. Continue reading “The Text as Fieldwork: The Book of Nature in Early Modern Japan”

Formatting Modern Man on Paper: Ernst Neufert’s ‘Lehren’

When an architect in Germany designs a building, chances are that she will reach for “the Neufert” at some point—Ernst Neufert’s (1900–86) Bauentwurfslehre or Building Design Handbook.[1] Now in its 41st German edition, with 18 international editions, the book comprises an encyclopedic assortment of measures and floor plan elements that still serves as a reference for the organization of competition briefs and the execution of commissioned buildings. With its collection of suggestions for architectural programs for everything from dog kennels and zeppelins to office buildings and school layouts, the volume has arguably educated more of Germany’s architects and shaped more of its architectural heritage and current production than any architectural schools or famous masters. Continue reading “Formatting Modern Man on Paper: Ernst Neufert’s ‘Lehren’”

Handbooks of the Mind into Ready Reckoners in Print: The Story of the ‘Encuvati’ in the Nineteenth Century

The Encuvati was the quintessential Tamil multiplication table book, used in precolonial South Indian schools. Nowadays they are available as palm leaf manuscripts, collected from different geographical locations of the Tamil-speaking region of South India and stored in various manuscript libraries there as well as in other collections inside and outside the country. But why is something as innocuous as a multiplication table book important for us? Their contents look nothing like modern tables, with lines and columns, but the numbers are arranged the same way. Their importance emerges from the simple fact that countless children participated in their making from about the seventeenth century, if not earlier. Continue reading “Handbooks of the Mind into Ready Reckoners in Print: The Story of the ‘Encuvati’ in the Nineteenth Century”