Person: Verbiest, Ferdinand
Ferdinand Verbiest was a Flemish missionary to China in the 17th century. He produced the first Manchu edition of the first six books of Euclid, a remarkable world map, and a steam automobile. He is also famed as an astronomer, designing astronomical instruments and producing calendars.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- Just Verbiest had been born in Bruges in 1593/94 and studied at the Bogaardenschool there.
- Verbiest found, in this manner, his way into the administration, and the municipal government asked him many times to draw up and write official papers and letters for the municipality, the church and the public assistance committee.
- Just Verbiest now took on the role of bailiff and was a tax collector for the lord of Pittem, Don Ferdinando de Zuniga, a nobleman from Madrid.
- Before continuing with Ferdinand's biography, let us say a little about his siblings.
- Judoca Verbiest died aged 16 from the plague.
- Albert Verbiest was awarded a law degree, then was bailiff in Pittem in 1651.
- Ann Verbiest became a nun at the Hospital of Our Lady in Kortrijk.
- Let us return to the biography of Ferdinand Verbiest who lived in his home town of Pittem until 1635 when he was twelve years old.
- Verbiest went to a school in Pittem where he was taught by the parish priest and the sexton.
- Verbiest studied at Bruges for the year 1635-36, then moved to attend school in Kortrijk.
- Verbiest spent four years studying at the Jesuit College in Kortrijk.
- This College, founded in 1431 only a few years after the university was founded, was one of four colleges of the University of Leuven which, when Verbiest studied there, were specifically teaching colleges for undergraduates in the Liberal Arts.
- After taking his vows, Verbiest was sent back to the College in Leuven where he studied mathematics and philosophy for two years.
- He was fortunate that André Tacquet spent the year 1644-45 teaching at the college in Leuven and Verbiest benefitted from being taught by one of the finest mathematicians.
- After his studies in Leuven, Verbiest was sent to teach at the Jesuit College in Kortrijk.
- He knew that two fellow Belgium Jesuits, Philippe Couplet and François de Rougemont, were hoping to be missionaries in China so Verbiest applied to go to China.
- While waiting to go to China, Verbiest went to Genoa where he continued his study of mathematics, probably with Giacomo Bonvicini (1619-1657).
- While waiting for another ship, Verbiest was sent to the Jesuit College in Coimbra to teach mathematics.
- Returning to Lisbon, on 4 April 1657 Verbiest sailed with 37 missionaries, 17 of whom were heading for China under the leadership of Martino Martini (1614-1661).
- Of the two mentioned above, Philippe Couplet was already in China and François de Rougemont was on the same ship as Verbiest.
- In Macao, Verbiest lived in the Colégio Madre de Deus and met up with Philippe Couplet who was waiting for permission to enter China.
- Finally, in the spring of 1659 Verbiest was one of fourteen missionaries allowed to enter China from Macao.
- Verbiest's first assignment was to be a preacher in the Shaanxi province.
- In 1660, however, the Jesuit Johann Adam Schall von Bell (1591-1666), who headed the Beijing Imperial Observatory and the Mathematical Tribunal, called Verbiest to come to Beijing and act as his assistant.
- Verbiest arrived in Beijing to take up this position on 6 June 1660.
- As a result of the accusations, Schall, Verbiest and eight others were detained in prison in chains.
- Because of his stroke, Schall was unable to defend himself, so Verbiest took on that role.
- Showing that Schall had not made errors was easy for Verbiest but he admitted that Schall had shown Christian material to the Emperor.
- Schall was sentenced to death while Verbiest and two others were each sentenced to a hundred strokes of the cane and were banned from the Chinese court.
- Several missionaries were exiled to Canton, but Verbiest was allowed to remain in Beijing.
- In 1667 Verbiest was put under house arrest but this gave him an opportunity to devote much time to working as a mathematician and astronomer.
- Various tests were proposed all of which Verbiest passed with ease.
- In January 1669 he informed the court about further errors in their calendar and, after the instruments at the Beijing Imperial Observatory had been used to show he was correct, Verbiest was appointed Director of the Beijing Imperial Observatory and head of the Mathematical Tribunal.
- Over the next few years Verbiest used his skills as a linguist (he spoke Manchu, Latin, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and Tartar), as a mathematician, as an astronomer, and in other sciences to great effect.
- These large instruments, all of brass and with decorations which made them notable works of art, were, despite their weight, very easy to manipulate, and a credit to Verbiest's mechanical skill as well as to his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics.
- Verbiest was also an inventor with many remarkable ideas.
- From the design of the steam turbine and the arrangement of the power train of this vehicle, it appears that Verbiest was aware of the description of a steam turbine and a self-moving vehicle published in 1629 by the Italian architect and engineer Giovanni Branca (1571-1645).
- Among the things which Father Verbiest particularly recommend to Father Couplet, sent to Rome in 1680 as procurator of the missions of China, was a request for a confirmation of this permission.
- We should note that Verbiest always stressed the importance of missionaries becoming competent mathematicians and argued for improved mathematics teaching in European Jesuit colleges.
- On 13 February 1687 Verbiest fell from his horse and had to spend a while in bed.
- It represents Verbiest as a Chinese mandarin, sitting in a beautifully decorated seat.
- In 1982 the Ferdinand Verbiest Foundation and the Ferdinand Verbiest Institute were founded.
- is a Belgium-based institute sponsored by the Ferdinand Verbiest Foundation leuven and hosted by the Catholic University of Leuven and committed to the dialogue between Europe and China.
- The Institute was named after the Belgian Jesuit-astronomer at the Chinese court, Ferdinand Verbiest.
Born 9 October 1623, Pittem, Flanders, Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium). Died 28 January 1688, Beijing, China.
View full biography at MacTutor
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Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive