11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Marcus Cavalier, FRAS, FRI
- Published on Amazon.com
Henry King is the author of the standard (and definitive) work on the history of the telescope. In this book, he aims to do the same for mechanical models of the universe, covering everything from the very earliest known such models, like the Antikythera Mechanism - a geared mechanism accidentally discovered by divers in the Greek islands and thought to date from 2,000 years ago - to the light projecting and electrically powered planetaria of the 20th century. Everything in between, from mediaeval clockworks to the tabletop planetary models of the Enlightenment (known as orreries), gets a look-in. Inevitably, however, with such a wide scope of material to cover, the book has its drawbacks. Firstly, there is the sheer physical size of the work. Large in format (think coffee-table size), it also measures about 4cm thick, giving it a weight of about a kilogram. This is not a book to snuggle up in bed with or take on holiday; spread it out on a flat surface and only lift it to turn the pages. It is unusual, I know, to criticise a book for its format rather than its content, but in this case, its form reflects a basic problem with its content as well: the book doesn't know what to be. Its size says "for the general reader", and this is reflected in the good number of illustrations and photos, which, because of the age of the book (published in the 1970s) and some apparent constraints on its production budget, are all in black and white. But the text is too scholarly and too filled with technical detail for it to work as an introduction for the educated layman. Nor does it work properly as an academic text either, and for exactly the same reason: the book tries to cover too much material in one go - matter dealt with in some chapters arguably bears little relation to that in others. In King's history of the telescope, the connection between the optical tubes used by Galileo in the 17th century and the telescopes of Lord Ross or James Nasmyth in the 19th is clear: what is being told is the history of the development of just one technology (telescope optics) having a single application (astronomical research), and the book has a clear narrative arc. But what, other than representing the heavens, is the connection between a mediaeval clockwork mounted on a cathedral tower and a 20th century display given with a Zeiss planetarium projector, which the public queues to visit as an afternoon's entertainment? The technologies are radically different, but so are the social contexts: from a social point of view at least, a Zeiss planetarium arguably has more in common with the dioramas of the eighteenth century, the magic lantern shows of the nineteenth and the cinema. Trying to cover too much material which is only loosely related in this way also has another drawback, and that is gaps. The overall effect is like reading a collection of academic review papers, rather than a single narrative text. When dealing with the large public astronomical clocks of early modern Europe (the most famous of which today is probably that in central Prague), other less famous, but equally interesting examples are overlooked. The author does not give any hint of even knowing of the existence of the family of technically very similar astronomical clocks in the Hanseatic league ports dotted along the southern shores of the Baltic in cities like Gdansk or Lubeck, which have something very interesting to say about the wealth, status and technical sophistication of these cities at the time of their construction. This may well reflect the era when this book was written: at the height of the Cold War, access to locations behind the Iron Curtain was admittedly restricted, but even in spite of this, King has managed to give full coverage to the enormous mechanical globe in the Kunstkammer in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). In summary, therefore, this book is flawed: its drawbacks are physical, it now looks dated, its scope is overambitious and as a result, its coverage is patchy and it has no clear narrative arc. But I still give it four stars because: what it does contain is both carefully researched and accurate and King deserves credit for that, if you have a background in the history of scientific instruments, the history of astronomy or horology (and preferably a combination of all three), you will find much here of interest, and until such time as someone writes a replacement, you won't find all of this material collected together in one place anywhere else. One day, I might just get round to writing a replacement, but until then, "Geared to the Stars" is a worthwhile investment for the individual with a grounding in the relevant subjects or for the departmental library.