Ferdinand Verbiest

(1623–1688)

In 1658 with thirty-five new missionaries, Ferdinand Verbiest accompanied Father Martin Martini on his return to China after having secured at Rome the Decree of Alexander VII for the toleration of the Chinese rites. He reached Macao in 1659, and was exercising his ministry in Shen-si when in 1660 he was called to Peking to assist, and eventually to replace, Father Adam Schall in his astronomical labours. At this time Schall was very much in favour with the Shunzhi Emperor and had considerable authority. This began to change in 1661, however, when the Emperor died and four regents took power to run the country until the Emperor’s seven-year-old son who succeeded him became old enough to rule. With Schall’s death in 1666, Verbiest was the only westerner with the astronomical knowledge needed at the Chinese Observatory; he was appointed director in 1669. 

The Emperor Kangxi was a young and intellectually curious ruler who was fascinated by European science and technology. Highly skilled in many disciplines, Verbiest became a court adviser, working especially closely with the new emperor. Kangxi was astute in using the service of Jesuit missionaries in ways that furthered his own political power, and he enlisted Verbiest’s aid with astronomical predictions, calendrical studies and ballistics. Verbiest was elevated to Mandarin rank and often accompanied the emperor on his travels around the country.

In 1674, Verbiest designed and built a series of instruments for observation, including a quadrant, six feet in radius; an azimuth compass, six feet in diameter; a sextant, eight feet in radius; a celestial globe, six feet in diameter; and two armillary spheres, zodiacal and equinoctial, each six feet in diameter. These were all very large, made from brass, and mounted on highly decorated stands contrived in the form of lions, dragons, flaming pearls, and other oriental motifs. The technology is entirely European while the decorative features are very Chinese.

His large woodcut world map, Kunyu quantu, (1674) was one of a series of maps produced by the Jesuits at the Court in Beijing, beginning with Matteo Ricci’s two woodcut maps of 1584 (single hemisphere) and 1602. Verbiest wrote the Kunyu tushuo, in the same year, to accompany the map.

Verbiest is also known to have built a steam-powered mechanical car,… based on Italian technology, this is the oldest known precursor to the modern automobile.