Hevelius's observatory destroyed by fire

A letter describing the fire which destroyed Hevelius's home and observatory at Danzig on 16 September 1679 (26 September on the new calendar) was sent to Peter Wyche, the British Consul to the Hanseatic Cities, by D Capellus. We give a version below based on Appendix I of E F MacPike, Hevelius, Flamsteed, Halley (Taylor and Francis, London, 1937):


The very noble and famous Hevelius, feeling himself oppressed with great and unaccustomed troubles, as if presaging some disaster to himself, withdrew with his much loved spouse (but to his great misfortune) on the 16 September to a garden not far from the City Gate of Danzig, in order that he might refresh and restore his fatigued and weary self. He bade his coachman return to the City with the horses before the gates were closed and tell the domestics to guard carefully against fire. The coachman when he had unharnessed and stabled the horses made as if to go to bed, about 9 o'clock, and whether by carelessness as some think, or with intent and of purpose (as the very noble Hevelius himself concludes from the fact that he never rescued from the flames four horses of choice breed and great value) left a burning candle in the stable and set the whole place afire. The fire being started he passed tiptoe through the front house without saying a single word about it. This took place about half past nine in the evening. After he left, a hall servant noticing an unusual smell of smoke, went hastily to the rear portion of the house where he found the house and stable burning with a steady blaze, the fire fanned by a strong Southerly wind creeping further every moment, catching up everything adjacent before it could be stopped. So the three front structures of the house quickly began burning. These Hevelius occupied and on these he had erected that famous and incomparable observatory. His Museum indeed was broken open by friendly hands hastening to assist and save what they could from the flames, and the bound books were thrown down from the windows. But not a few purloined at the hands of unscrupulous men never returned to their owner.

Of the unbound books produced by Hevelius not a single leaf was saved from the flames the titles of these are
1. Selenographia.
2. Cometographia.
3. Prodromus Cometicus.
4. Mantissa prodromi de nativa facie Saturni.
5. Mercurius in Sole visus.
6. Epistolae ad Gassendum, Ricciolum, Oldenburgium et alios.
7. Duae partes Machinae Coelestis, the latter of which only appeared in February of this year 1679, and contained the observations of 49 years surely an incredible loss to letters and posterity.

Of the latter part of the Machina Coelestis scarce ten copies had been sold, so that no more survive anywhere in the world, save the few that their distinguished author presented and transmitted to sovereigns, princes, or friends. Of all the great and excellent instruments made of metal, and of which we read the description in Part 1 of the Machina Coelestis, simply nothing has been saved from this sad conflagration. The photic (or, if one prefer it, optic or perspective) tubes of which one was 140 and another 60 feet long, not to mention the rest, all the glasses too and sights appropriate to this subject, have so perished that nothing at all is left. All that optical plant for polishing and turning, and numerous "forms" specially suited for bringing remote objects under the eye-from the smallest up to those we knew of a diameter up to 100 feet, together with globes ready to be made into "concava ", all have perished.

That most splendid printing office itself and its types, brass and wooden presses and other requisites, as well as a huge and very great mass of most choice and elegant paper, stored up for the approaching publication of the Prodromus Astronomiae.

Nor of the many mechanical instruments used in horologic and gnomonic art and for engraving on brass. Nothing at all of all these remained, not anything of the steel mirrors or other things of value in the Observatory, which all were burnt before any human effort could bring help. In so sad a case wicked men were found who under guise of assisting, broke open cabinets and made off with no small sums in gold and silver coin, with other precious things, among them three clocks of silver, with their cases, which were very dear to Hevelius for the reason that he had engraved and embellished them with his own hands.

If one reckon up the immobile property lost, he mourns for three large ornate front houses, handsomely built and with walls calculated to resist fire, upon which was placed the greater observatory, near to which was another, smaller, in which were housed the greater sextant, of metal, as well as the horizontal quadrant, with many other smaller instruments. He lost also the two rear houses and two others lately erected, hi which one saw the printing office, with the octagonal observatory and that great and elaborate azimuthal quadrant specially adapted to meridian altitude observations. And so seven buildings were destroyed by the fire, completely and razed to the ground. The walls exposed to the fire for the greater part collapsed, except the three fronts of the front houses.

Pictures, silver vessels, ornaments of gold and silver, linen woollen and silk-en apparel, also the vessels of copper and tin and other such household things have so disappeared that scarce any of the metal remaining could be extracted from the ruins. From this lamentable fire there was saved, by the grace of God,
(1) a good part of the bound books together with
(2) MSS. of great importance (1) specially the Catalogue of Fixed Stars, the work of many years, and (2) the new Globus Coelestis Correctus et Reformatus, which was intended shortly to be published. Likewise
(3) thirteen volumes of Letters of Hevelius's Correspondence with many men of the learned world - most useful documents. There were preserved
(4) all Kepler's MSS. and
(5) those which Hevelius in the second part of the Machina Coelestis promised he would publish, (1) Uranographia (2) Prodromus Astronomicus (3) Annus Quinquagesimus Observationum Uranicarum.
Hevelius hopes too that he will be able, with the benevolent aid of the highest patrons of the learned world, to erect his "Urania" anew, and he desires above all the restoration of his printing office, since the copper plates rescued from the fire, which he himself engraved with his own hand and art, are, thanks to God, still extant for the service of new editions of the works-a thing which he esteems not the smallest part of his happiness.

What I am narrating thus far I saw in part myself, with others, in part I have gathered from the lips of Hevelius himself and the trustworthy statements of neighbours. May the Almighty mercifully grant our eyes may never see another such fire, so grievous and so horrible. It can scarce be told, the way the air was filled with flying papers driven by the wind-about eighty hundredweight. And had not God commanded the wind to blow from another quarter extreme danger threatened the Old City of Danzig.

About 11 o'clock at night Hevelius returned into the City through the unlocked gate, but when alas all was already consumed by the fire. This is a very brief narrative of a most sad disaster, so bitter, so sudden, so widespread, and in the fact that the Incomparable Man did not succumb to it we admire not only the constancy of a truly heavenly soul, but we declare the Divine Mercy also, and we implore It long to preserve for the glory of Its Name an excellent scholar and interpreter of heavenly things, reinforced with new strength and possessions, the most brilliant ornament and star of our age. With which prayer, moved by the deepest sense of sympathy, I conclude.


JOC/EFR December 2008

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