The discovery of the compass: the earliest known European work of experimental science

Peregrinus, Petrus (Pierre de Maricourt) / Gasser, Achilles Pirmin (ed.). De magnete, seu rota perpetui motus, libellus.

Augsburg, [Philipp Ulhart the Elder], 1558.

4to. (56) pp. With woodcut border on title-page and 4 woodcuts, showing instruments and mechanical devices. Contemporary blindstamped pigskin over wooden boards with stamped ownership: "Joann. Delicasii LL. Doct. Origine Posonien. Sive Prespurgensis MDLXI".


Editio princeps of "the first extant treatise on the properties and applications of magnets" (DSB), containing the earliest description of the pivoted compass. Couched as a letter to a friend in Picardy, dated 8 August 1269, this is "considered the earliest known European work of experimental science, and the foundation of the study of electricity and magnetism" (Norman). "The thirteen chapters into which the letter is divided form the most original, extensive and important treatise on the magnet prior to Gilbert's [in 1600]" (Weaver). Of the utmost rarity: according to the Smithsonian's online catalogue, only "some twenty copies of this book are known to exist"; never seen at auction.

Called "one of the most impressive treatises of the Middle Ages" (DSB), this work was first edited by the Lindau physician Achilles Gasser, famous for contributing the preface to Rheticus's "Narratio Prima", the first published account of heliocentrism, which Gasser had published in Basel in 1541 (where Copernicus's "De Revolutionibus" would only appear two years later). In his introduction to the present work, which he dedicates to Emperor Ferdinand I, Gasser discusses Magellan's circumnavigation of the world, the history of Arab and Western seafarers, and the benefits of the marine compass for navigation and future exploration, which are described here for the first time.

Peregrinus's monograph is divided into two parts: the first is theoretical, presenting the laws of magnetic attraction, the polarity of the lodestone and every magnet (called 'polus' for the first time), experiments with separate lodestones, the attraction and magnetization of iron, and more. Part two applies these theories, presenting various devices that use magnetic attraction - the compass floating on water common at the time, an alternative compass without the use of water, as well as perpetual motion devices for clock and wheel, all four here pictured in woodcuts comissioned by Gasser.

No copies traceable at auction in the 20th or 21st century. A single copy recorded in the trade, offered by Maggs in 1931 and by Quaritch in 1934 (cat. 489, no. 515: "Excessively rare. Silvanus P. Thompson was able to enumerate only eighteen copies, all of which are in public institutions").

Preserved together with three astrological and astronomical works by Arab authors, all complete, printed in 1549 and 1560 in a sammelband (cf. below), bound in 1561 for the vicar general of Ingolstadt.


1) Johannes Delicasius (Theilenkäs), vicar general of Ingolstadt (1513-63), with his blindstamped ownership to upper cover.

2) Manó Wagner (1857-1929), city councillor in Pest and Hungarian Royal Chief Advisor, with his library stamp on the title-page and on p. 121 of Al-Qabisi's "Libellus Isagogicus" and his library label with shelfmark to inside upper cover.

3) Dr. Eszter Tóth (1948-2022), Hungarian physicist and educator who worked with the Hungarian Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner in the 1980s and was in close contact with Edwin Teller in the 1990s (cf. Register to the ET papers, Hoover Institution Library and Archives). Her textbooks on nuclear physics were widely published and saw numerous Chinese and Japanese editions. Acquired directly from her descendants.


(56) pp.; collation: [*]4, A-F4. With armorial woodcut border to title-page and 4 half- to full-page woodcuts in the text, showing instruments and mechanical devices.

(Bound with) II: Al-Qabisi (Alchabitius). [Libellus Isagogicus - Al-madkhal]. Enarratio elementorum astrologiae. Cologne, Arnold Birckmann's heirs, 1560. (32), "171" (but: 471), (1) pp.

(And) III: Masha'allah Ibn-Atari. De elementis et orbibus coelestibus. Nuremberg, Johann Montanus (VomBerg) & Ulrich Neuber, 1549. (200) pp.

(And) IV: Abu Ali al-Khayyat (Albohali). [Kitab al-Mawalid]. De iudiciis nativitatum liber. Ibid., 1549. (128) pp.

Bound in contemporary blindstamped pigskin over wooden boards on 4 raised bands, with supralibros of its first owner stamped in gilt (now oxidized): "Joann. Delicasii LL. Doct. Origine Posonien. Sive Prespurgensis MDLXI". 4to (170 x 217 mm).


Occasional very slight staining with an insignificant waterstain to the fore-edge margin, otherwise a very clean and wide-margined copy on good paper.

The three works bound first show occasional browning due to paper stock; some old worming to ca. 20 ff. in the "Libellus Isagocicus" at the top of the gutter has been professionally restored, as have a very few edge tears. Marginalia and underlinings by at least two different hands of the 16th and 17th century; 16th century full-page annotations, probably by the book's first owner, Johannes Delicasius. Remains of index tabs to all but first work in the volume. Wants front endpapers. The pretty blindstamped binding lacks the clasps; extremeties only slightly rubbed.


I: DSB X, 532-540 (discussing the present work only). Wheeler Gift 46. Dibner 52. Sarton II. 1030-32. Mottelay 45-53. Stillwell (Science) 787 (note). Honeyman 2447. VD 16, P 1885. BM-STC German 682. Not in Adams.

II: VD 16, N 14. BM-STC German 642. Houzeau/Lancaster 4882.

III: DSB IX, 160 & 162. VD 16, ZV 10470. BM-STC German 599. Houzeau/Lancaster 1121 ("Très rare").

IV: VD 16, A 58. BM-STC German 1. No copy recorded at auction.