Ferdinand Verbiest 南懷仁, 1562-1633

Following the death of Johann Adam Schall von Bell in 1666, the Kangxi Emperor appointed Ferdinand Verbiest as Vice-Director of the Astronomical Bureau in 1669 and charged him with calendar creation.

Verbiest (1623-1688) was born in Belgium and originally wanted to join the Spanish missions in South America. The request from Schall von Bell for additional help in the Chinese mission came first and Verbiest had the training and talent.

Verbiest had arrived in Macao in 1659 and only traveled up to Beijing later. When he arrived, Schall von Bell and others were in prison. Although Verbiest tried to defend them, he failed. The earthquake that convinced the court to free the Jesuit astronomers also set the scene for Verbiest's great works.

He, as previous Jesuits before him, studied Chinese and took a Chinese name (南怀仁 Nan Huairen), but additionally, he added Manchu to his list of languages. He taught the Kangxi Emperor many subjects and translated the first six books of Euclid into Manchu for him. His abilities as a linguist gave him varied opportunities both within the court and in academics. It allowed him to make contributions in science but also in diplomacy.

Following his appointment to the Bureau of Astronomy his first task was to work on the calendar for the Kangxi Emperor. For this work, the Kangxi Yongnian Lifa (康熙永年历法, the Perpetual Calendar of the Kangxi Emperor) he found that he needed new instruments. From sometime after 1669 to 1674 he worked on the designs for and the creation of six instruments: the ecliptic armillary sphere, the equatorial armillary sphere, the azimuth, the quadrant, the sextant, and the stellar globe. Pictures of each are found on the following pages. The instruments were installed atop the Beijing Observatory alongside the traditional Chinese instruments.

In 1674, Verbiest wrote the Xinzhi Lingtai Yixiang Zhi (新制灵台仪象志, Disclosure on the Newly-Built Astronomical Instruments in the Observatory) to describe the design, use, and function of the instruments as well as giving exact instruction for their production and replication. The work spanned 16 volumes. Verbiest worked with skilled Chinese bronze casters who could transform his designs into exact instrumentation. Verbiest worked from designs brought from Europe and based on those of Tycho Brahe. The instruments were able to make measurements down to 15 seconds of arc.

The primary reason for building the instruments was to introduce a new scale to Chinese measurement. The Chinese equatorial circle had been divided into 365.25 degrees to agree with the solar day. Verbiest used the European 360 degree circle to simplify the mathematics of calendar making. Screws and spirals were added to allow the instruments to be calibrated. Each had a method to establish plumb. While the Chinese had developed equatorial armillary spheres, the ecliptic armillary sphere was new, as was the quadrant, sextant and astrolabe. It is interesting that the development of the equatorial armillary sphere in Europe, long used by the Chinese, was what allowed Brahe and Kepler to define the solar system.

Verbiest made extensive contributions to cartography as well. He wrote over 30 books, many of them devoted to science and mathematics. He cast canons and invented a new type of carriage for them. He even had time to invent the automobile! He placed a steam pump into an enclosing oven and put the whole thing on wheels. He was able to tootle around the grounds of the palace for a demonstration. The work was probably part of his interest in hydraulics. He produced several pump designs and built an aqueduct to help regulate water and prevent flooding along river basins.

Last update: September 2007
© Marilyn Shea, 2007