Great Astronomers HTML version

The quaint town of Thorn, on the Vistula, was more than two centuries old when
Copernicus was born there on the 19th of February, 1473. The situation of this town on
the frontier between Prussia and Poland, with the commodious waterway offered by the
river, made it a place of considerable trade. A view of the town, as it was at the time of
the birth of Copernicus, is here given. The walls, with their watch-towers, will be noted,
and the strategic importance which the situation of Thorn gave to it in the fifteenth
century still belongs thereto, so much so that the German Government recently
constituted the town a fortress of the first class.
Copernicus, the astronomer, whose discoveries make him the great predecessor of Kepler
and Newton, did not come from a noble family, as certain other early astronomers have
done, for his father was a tradesman. Chroniclers are, however, careful to tell us that one
of his uncles was a bishop. We are not acquainted with any of those details of his
childhood or youth which are often of such interest in other cases where men have risen
to exalted fame. It would appear that the young Nicolaus, for such was his Christian
name, received his education at home until such time as he was deemed sufficiently
advanced to be sent to the University at Cracow. The education that he there obtained
must have been in those days of a very primitive description, but Copernicus seems to
have availed himself of it to the utmost. He devoted himself more particularly to the
study of medicine, with the view of adopting its practice as the profession of his life. The
tendencies of the future astronomer were, however, revealed in the fact that he worked
hard at mathematics, and, like one of his illustrious successors, Galileo, the practice of
the art of painting had for him a very great interest, and in it he obtained some measure of
By the time he was twenty-seven years old, it would seem that Copernicus had given up
the notion of becoming a medical practitioner, and had resolved to devote himself to
science. He was engaged in teaching mathematics, and appears to have acquired some
reputation. His growing fame attracted the notice of his uncle the bishop, at whose
suggestion Copernicus took holy orders, and he was presently appointed to a canonry in
the cathedral of Frauenburg, near the mouth of the Vistula.
To Frauenburg, accordingly, this man of varied gifts retired. Possessing somewhat of the
ascetic spirit, he resolved to devote his life to work of the most serious description. He
eschewed all ordinary society, restricting his intimacies to very grave and learned
companions, and refusing to engage in conversation of any useless kind. It would seem as
if his gifts for painting were condemned as frivolous; at all events, we do not learn that he
continued to practise them. In addition to the discharge of his theological duties, his life
was occupied partly in ministering medically to the wants of the poor, and partly with his
researches in astronomy and mathematics. His equipment in the matter of instruments for
the study of the heavens seems to have been of a very meagre description. He arranged