A 467-year-old astronomy book—which was the first ever to be written in English—has fetched 10,000 pounds (approx. $12,000) at auction.
Jim Spencer, head of books at Hansons, said: “I was thrilled to see the book achieve the price it deserved.
“It was an amazing discovery, the most important scientific text I’ve ever handled. It’s the first astronomical treatise to be published in English.
“The book was printed 467 years ago, before many of the major astronomers had even been born, including Galileo (1564–1642), who’s described as the father of observational astronomy, Kepler, Huygens, Newton, and Herschel.
“The vendor consigned a large box full of antiquarian books, and this one jumped out at me with its allegorical woodcut title page and charming illustrations. It felt special. A little research quickly revealed its significance and scarcity.
“The author, Robert Recorde, invented the equals sign, so the equation I proffer for this auction is: important book = big price.
“I could only find one other copy sold at auction. It fetched 74,200 pounds ($90,000) at Bonhams in 2007. The same book previously sold at Sotheby’s in 1971. Admittedly our copy was not so well-preserved, but it was just incredibly rare.”
Experts say the book is important for three reasons including being the oldest surviving original English astronomy book, rather than a translation.
It is one of the first English astronomy books to mention Polish astronomer Copernicus’s “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), and the heliocentric system. Copernicus (1473–1543) formulated a model of the universe that placed the sun rather than Earth at its center.
In addition, Recorde not only refers to ancient Greek philosopher Plato but also to fellow Greek philosopher Proclus so had access to Neoplatonic source material.
Recorde was born around 1512 in Tenby, Pembrokeshire, and studied at the University of Oxford in about 1525. After choosing medicine as a profession, his studies continued at the University of Cambridge in 1545. He later returned to Oxford and taught mathematics.
He also worked in London as a physician to King Edward VI and Queen Mary, to whom some of his books are dedicated.
He was controller of the Royal Mint but after being sued for defamation by a political enemy, he was arrested for debt and died in the King’s Bench Prison, Southwark, in 1558.