Ferdinand Verbiest

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Fr. Ferdinand Verbiest S.J.
Portrait of Ferdinand Verbiest
Born(1623-10-09)9 October 1623
Died28 January 1688(1688-01-28) (aged 64)

Father Ferdinand Verbiest (9 October 1623 – 28 January 1688) was a Flemish Jesuit missionary in China during the Qing dynasty. He was born in Pittem near Tielt in the County of Flanders (now part of Belgium).[1] He is known as Nan Huairen () in Chinese. He was an accomplished mathematician and astronomer and proved to the court of the Kangxi Emperor that European astronomy was more accurate than Chinese astronomy. He then corrected the Chinese calendar and was later asked to rebuild and re-equip the Beijing Ancient Observatory, being given the role of Head of the Mathematical Board and Director of the Observatory.

He became close friends with the Kangxi Emperor, who frequently requested his teaching in geometry, philosophy and music.

Verbiest worked as a diplomat, cartographer, and translator; he spoke Latin, German, Dutch, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian and Manchu. He wrote more than thirty books.

During the 1670s, Verbiest designed what some claim to be the first ever self-propelled vehicle – many[who?] claim this as the world's first automobile, in spite of its small size and the lack of evidence that it was actually built.

Early life[edit]

Ferdinand Verbiest was the eldest child of Joos Verbiest, bailiff and tax collector of Pittem near Kortrijk, Belgium.[2] Verbiest studied humanities with the Jesuits, in Bruges and Kortrijk, and next went to the Lelie College in Leuven, for a year, to study philosophy and mathematics.[2] He joined the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) on 2 September 1641.[1] Verbiest continued studying theology in Seville, where he was ordained as a priest in 1655.[1] He completed his studies in astronomy and theology in Rome.[2] His intention had been to become a missionary in the Spanish missions to Central America, but this was not to be. His call was to the Far East, where the Roman Catholic Church was 'on mission' to compensate for the loss of (Catholic) believers to the emerging Protestantism in Europe.[2]

On April 4 1657, Verbiest left for China from Lisbon, accompanied by Father Martino Martini, thirty-five other missionaries, the Portuguese Viceroy of the Indies and some other passengers. Their boat reached Macau on July 17 1658, by which time all but ten of the passengers, including the Viceroy and most of the missionaries, had died.[3] Verbiest took up his first posting in Shaanxi, leading the mission until 1660 when he was called to assist – and later, replace – Father Johann Adam Schall von Bell, the Jesuit Director of Beijing Observatory and Head of the Mathematical Board, in his work in astronomy. Unfortunately for them, the political situation shifted dramatically in 1661, on the death of the young Shunzhi Emperor, aged 23. His son and successor, Xuanye (the Kangxi Emperor), was only 7, so the government was placed in the hands of four regents. Unlike Shunzhi, the regents were not in favour of the Jesuits,[3] who suffered increased persecution as a result.

Astronomy contests[edit]

An engraving from a French book about the Chinese empire, published in 1736. Represented from left to right:
Top: Matteo Ricci, Johann Adam Schall von Bell, Ferdinand Verbiest
Bottom: Xu Guangqi, colao or Prime Minister of State; Candide Hiu, grand-daughter of Colao Paul Siu.[4]

In 1664, the Chinese astronomer Yang Guangxian (1597–1669), who had published a pamphlet against the Jesuits, challenged Schall von Bell to a public astronomy competition. Yang won and took Schall von Bell's place as Head of Mathematics. Having lost the competition, Schall von Bell and the other Jesuits were chained and thrown into a filthy prison, accused of teaching a false religion. They were bound to wooden pegs in such a way that they could neither stand nor sit and remained there for almost two months until a sentence of strangulation was imposed. A high court found the sentence too light and ordered them to be cut up into bits while still alive.[5] Fortunately for them, on 16 April 1665,[6] a violent earthquake destroyed[citation needed] the part of the prison chosen for the execution. An extraordinary meteor was seen in the sky, and a fire destroyed the part of the imperial palace where the condemnation was pronounced.[7] This was seen as an omen and all the prisoners were released. However, they still had to stand trial, and all the Jesuits but Verbiest, Schall von Bell and two others were exiled to Canton. Schall von Bell died within a year, due to the conditions of his confinement.[3]

In 1669, the Kangxi Emperor managed to take power by having the remaining (corrupt) regent, Oboi, arrested. In the same year, the emperor was informed that serious errors had been found in the calendar for 1670, which had been drawn up by Yang Guangxian. Kangxi commanded a public test to compare the merits of European and Chinese astronomy. The test was to predict three things: the length of the shadow thrown by a gnomon of a given height at noon of a certain day; the absolute and relative positions of the Sun and the planets on a given date; and the exact time of an anticipated lunar eclipse. It was decided that Yang and Verbiest should each use their mathematical skills to determine the answers and that "The Heavens would be the judge". The contest was held at the Bureau of Astronomy in the presence of senior-ranking government ministers and officials from the observatory. Unlike Yang, Verbiest had access to the latest updates on the Rudolphine Tables, and was assisted by telescopes for observation. He succeeded in all three tests, and was immediately installed as Head of the Mathematical Board and Director of the Observatory. Out of consideration for him, the exiled Jesuits were authorized to return to their missions. Meanwhile, Yang was sentenced to the same death he had planned for his Jesuit rival, but the sentence was reduced to exile and he died en route to his native home.[1][3][5][8]

Initial projects[edit]

Ferdinand Verbiest published the Kunyu Quantu world map in 1674.

The 1670 calendar included an extra month unnecessarily, added to hide other errors and to bring the lunar months in line with the solar year. Verbiest suggested the errors should be corrected, including removing the extra month. This was an audacious move, as the calendar had been approved by the emperor himself. Fearing the emperor's response, the observatory officials begged him to withdraw this request, but he responded: "It is not within my power to make the heavens agree with your calendar. The extra month must be taken out." Much to their surprise, the emperor after studying the research, agreed, and it was done.[5]

After this, Verbiest and the emperor formed a real friendship, with the Jesuit teaching him geometry, philosophy and music. He was frequently invited to the palace and to accompany the Emperor on his expeditions throughout the empire. He translated the first six books of Euclid into Manchu and took every opportunity to introduce Christianity. In response, the Emperor elevated him to the highest grade of the mandarinate and granted permission for him to preach Christianity anywhere in the empire.[5]

Verbiest undertook many projects, including the construction of an aqueduct, the casting of 132 cannons for the imperial army – far superior to any previous Chinese weapons – and the design of a new gun carriage. He created star charts for the Kangxi Emperor in order to tell the time at night.[9] Other inventions included a steam engine to propel ships.

Instruments for Beijing Observatory[edit]

Instruments in the Beijing Observatory. Some of them were built by Verbiest.
The Verbiest instruments on the terrace of the observatory. Photograph by Thomas Child, c. 1875.

Having resolved the issues surrounding the calendar, Verbiest went on to compose a table of all solar and lunar eclipses for the next 2000 years. Delighted with this, the emperor awarded him complete charge of the imperial astronomy observatory, which he rebuilt in 1673. The existing equipment was obsolete, so Verbiest consigned it to a museum and set about designing six new instruments:[5]

  • Altazimuth, used to measure the position of celestial bodies relative to the celestial horizon and the zenith – the altitude azimuth.[10]
  • Celestial globe, six feet in diameter, used to map and identify celestial objects.[11]
  • Ecliptic armilla, armillary sphere, six feet in diameter, used to measure the ecliptic longitude difference and latitudes of celestial bodies. (This was the traditional European device while the Chinese developed the equatorial armilla.)[12]
  • Equatorial armilla, armillary sphere, six feet in diameter, used primarily for measuring true solar time as well as right ascension difference and declination of celestial bodies.[13]
  • Quadrant Altazimuth, six feet in radius, for measuring altitudes or zenith distances of celestial bodies.[14]
  • Sextant, eight feet in radius, used to measure the angle of elevation of a celestial object above the horizon. It is used to calculate the angle between two objects, although it is limited to 60 degrees of arc. In navigation, it is used to take a measure of the angle of the Sun at noon to determine latitude.[15]

These were all very large, made of brass and highly decorated, with bronze dragons forming the supports. Despite their weight, they were very easy to manipulate, demonstrating Verbiest's aptitude for mechanical design.

Final days and death[edit]

Verbiest died in Beijing shortly after receiving a wound from falling off a bolting horse.[16] He was succeeded as the chief mathematician and astronomer of the Chinese empire by another Belgian Jesuit, Antoine Thomas (1644–1709). He was buried in the Jesuits' Zhalan Cemetery in Beijing, near those of other Jesuits including Matteo Ricci and Johann Adam Schall von Bell, on 11 March 1688.[5]

Verbiest was the only Westerner in Chinese history to ever receive the honour of a posthumous name by the Emperor.

Verbiest's 'car'[edit]

The steam 'car' designed by Verbiest in 1672 – from an 18th-century print

Beside his work in astronomy, Verbiest also experimented with steam. Around 1672 he designed – as a toy for the Kangxi Emperor – a steam-propelled trolley which was, quite possibly, the first working steam-powered vehicle ('auto-mobile').[17] Verbiest describes it in his manuscript Astronomia Europea[18] that was finished in 1681. A friar brought it to Europe and it was then printed in 1687 in Germany. In this work, Verbiest first mentioned the (latin) term motor in its present meaning. With one filling of coal, he wrote that the vehicle was able to move more than one hour.[19] As it was only 65 cm (25.6 in) long, and therefore effectively a scale model, not designed to carry human passengers, nor a driver or goods, it is not strictly accurate to call it a 'car'.[20] Despite this, it was the first vehicle that was able to move by 'self-made' engine power.

Since the steam engine was still not known at that time, Verbiest used the principle of an impulse turbine. Steam was generated in a ball-shaped boiler, emerging through a pipe at the top, from where it was directed at a simple, open "steam turbine" (rather like a water wheel) that drove the rear wheels.

It is not verified by other known sources if Verbiest's model was ever built at the time and no authentic drawing of it exists, although he had access to China's finest metal-working craftsmen who were constructing precision astronomical instruments for him.

The Brumm model[edit]

The Italian model manufacturer Brumm produced a non-working 1:43 scale model of the Veicolo a turbina de Verbiest (1681) [sic],[21] in their "Old Fire" range of 2002. This model was 9 cm (3.54 in) long, which, when scaled-up, would have suggested that Verbiest's original would have been nearly 4 metres (13 ft 1 in) in length.

However, comparison with drawings in Hardenberg's study show that this model is not the same as Verbiest's. It is actually modelled on a small steam turbine car built in the late 18th century (presumably 1775) by a German mechanic that was inspired by Verbiests vehicle but different, for example, only with three wheels.[19] Unfortunately, the original was probably destroyed during a bombing raid on the Technische Hochschule Karlsruhe during World War II. However, a photo of the original car can be seen at the Deutsches Museum. Hardenberg notes that this steam turbine car operated on the same principle as Verbiest's carriage (the impulse turbine), but employed a more modern arrangement of the drive train.[22]

Major works[edit]

In Chinese
  • 仪象志 (Yixiang zhi), 1673 (on astronomical instruments and apparatus)
  • 康熙永年历法 (Kangxi yongnian lifa), 1678 (on the calendar of the Kangxi Emperor)
  • 方言教要序论 (Jiaoyao xulun) (explanation of the basics of the faith)
  • Astronomia Europea, 1687


Verbiest is commemorated on several postage stamps. One, featuring his face, was issued in Belgium, 24 October 1988, to mark the tri-centenary of his death,[23] with a matching pictorial cancellation postmark.[24] Several more stamps were issued in Macau, in 1989 and 1999, featuring a sketch by Verbiest of the Observatory in Peking, where he worked.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Ferdinand Verbiest" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  2. ^ a b c d "Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–1688) mathematician and astronomer". Famous Belgians. Belgium – Federal Portal. Archived from the original on 9 March 2008. Retrieved 21 March 2008.
  3. ^ a b c d Hobden, Heather. "Astronomy in the 17th Century". The telescope revolution. Archived from the original on 7 March 2008. Retrieved 20 March 2008.
  4. ^ "Details of original engraving in Washington State University collection". Archived from the original on 4 March 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d e f MacDonnell, Joseph. "Fr. Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J. (1623–1688)". A Jesuit scientist in China. Fairfield University. Retrieved 20 March 2008.
  6. ^ Pingyi Chu (1997). "Scientific Dispute in the Imperial Court: The 1664 Calendar Case". Chinese Science (14): 16. JSTOR 43290406.
  7. ^ Campbell, Thomas Joseph (1921). The Jesuits, 1534–1921: A History of the Society of Jesus from Its Foundation to the Present Time, Volume 1. Encyclopedia Press. p. 258.
  8. ^ Mungello, David (7 April 2005). The great encounter of China and the West, 1500–1800. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. ISBN 978-0-7425-3815-3.
  9. ^ Spence, 15–16.
  10. ^ Marilyn Shea (May 2007). "Altazimuth – 地平经仪". University of Maine Farmington. Archived from the original on 11 October 2008. Retrieved 22 March 2008.
  11. ^ Marilyn Shea (May 2007). "Celestial Globe – 1673 – 天体仪". University of Maine Farmington. Archived from the original on 28 August 2008. Retrieved 22 March 2008.
  12. ^ Marilyn Shea (May 2007). "Ecliptic Armilla – 1673 – 黄道经纬仪". University of Maine Farmington. Archived from the original on 1 December 2008. Retrieved 22 March 2008.
  13. ^ Marilyn Shea (May 2007). "Equatorial Armilla – 1673 – 赤道经纬仪". University of Maine Farmington. Archived from the original on 11 October 2008. Retrieved 22 March 2008.
  14. ^ Marilyn Shea (May 2007). "Quadrant – 1673 – 象限仪". University of Maine Farmington. Archived from the original on 7 May 2009. Retrieved 22 March 2008.
  15. ^ Marilyn Shea (May 2007). "Sextant – 1673 – 纪限仪". University of Maine Farmington. Archived from the original on 1 December 2008. Retrieved 12 November 2008.
  16. ^ Spence, 12.
  17. ^ "A brief note on Ferdinand Verbiest". Curious Expeditions. 2 July 2007. Archived from the original on 3 April 2008. Retrieved 18 March 2008. – Note that the vehicle pictured is the Brumm model, not a replica of Verbiest's design.
  18. ^ Verbiest, Ferdinand (1993). The Astronomia Europaea of Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J. (Dillingen, 1687) : text, translation, notes and commentaries. Nettetal: Steyler Verlag. ISBN 3-8050-0327-7.
  19. ^ a b Zur Geschichte des Kraftfahrzeugs. In: Automobiltechnische Zeitschrift. 2/1949, page 40.
  20. ^ "1679–1681 R P Verbiest's Steam Chariot". History of the Automobile: origin to 1900. Hergé. Retrieved 8 May 2009.
  21. ^ Brumm website: photograph of the Brumm model (ref X06) – accessed 8 May 2009
  22. ^ The Leuven Local Heroes in Thermal Sciences and Engineering Archived 26 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine Accessed 22 March 2008)]
  23. ^ a b "Father Ferdinand Verbiest, SJ, (1623–1688) President of the Imperial Board of Mathematics". (Jesuits on stamps). Retrieved 18 March 2008.
  24. ^ "Postal Markings (Jesuits)". (scroll down just beyond half-way). Archived from the original on 10 May 2008. Retrieved 18 March 2008.


  • Brucker, Joseph. The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912, Robert Appleton Company.
  • Spence, Jonathan D. (1988). Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K'ang-hsi. New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House. ISBN 0-679-72074-X

Further reading[edit]

  • The Oldest Precursor of the Automobile – Ferdinand Verbiest's Steam Turbine-Powered Vehicle Model – Horst O. Hardenberg
    Society of Automotive Engineers (Feb 1995, 32 pages) ISBN 1-56091-652-4
  • Ickx, V., Ainsi naquit l'automobile, Lausanne, 1961.
  • Blondeau, R. A., Mandariin en astronoom aan het hof van de Chinese Keizer, Bruges, 1970.
  • Witek, J. W. (ed), F. Verbiest, Jesuit Missionary, Scientist, Engineer and Diplomat, Nettetal, 1994.
  • Golvers, N. (ed), The Christian Mission in China in the Verbiest era, Louvain, 1999.

External links[edit]

Media related to Ferdinand Verbiest at Wikimedia Commons