Curious Expeditions

verbiest.gifRichard Trevithick may have been the father of the steam locomotive, but he was not the first to experiment with that illusive beast, the horseless carriage. Nor does the honor go to the American inventor, Oliver Evans, who produced the first amphibious vehicle in 1804. A good guess would be Swiss-born Nicolas Cugnots three wheeled monstrosity, chugging down a Paris side street in 1769. One would still be off by almost a hundred years and a few thousand miles. The very first engine powered vehicle was built by a Jesuit priest in 1672. It was a toy for a Chinese Emperor.

The Jesuits of the 17th century were a strange lot. Men of both religion and science, they pursued scientific ideals until they were at the very edge of outright heresy. Well-traveled and well-read, Jesuit scholars were some of the most learned men on the planet. So it was with Ferdinand Verbiest. Sent to China on a Evangelical mission, Verbiest was also armed with an expert knowledge of astronomy.

It was an immediate disaster. The Jesuits were imprisoned for teaching false religion and were scheduled to be cut up into little bits. But between an earthquake that destroyed the execution room, and an inquisitive emperor, sentences were never carried out. The Emperor proposed a challenge: An astronomical showdown between Verbiest and a Chinese astronomer, Moslem Yang. Like a 17th century science game show, the showdown consisted of three challenges. To determine the shadow of a fixed gnomon, to predict the position of the planets at a fixed time and to predict the exact time of a lunar eclipse which had been expected. Yang turned out to be the weakest link.
After that Verbiest was made the head of mathematics. He had the Emperors respect, and his ear. So much so that Verbiest demanded (correctly) that an entire month be removed from the Chinese calendar. Incredibly, they removed it. It was not only China that benefited from the relationship; it gave Verbiest access to some of the finest metal workers in the world. It is likely this relationship that resulted in the first car.

Although there is no physical evidence that the car was built, detailed plans of a tiny, steam powered car were found in Ferdinand Verbiests papers, and working models have been produced from them as seen in the picture. It would have been an easy project for the fine Chinese metal workers who were making the 130 brass canons and multiple precision astronomical instruments for Verbiest. We will never know for sure if Verbiest was the first to make a powered vehicle. To the man who drew the Russian-Chinese border, restructured the Chinese calendar, and is the only westerner to ever receive the honor of a posthumous name by the Chinese Emperor, I give the benefit of the doubt.

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2 Responses to A brief note on Ferdinand Verbiest

  1. Ryan in exile

    completely unrelated but have you guys been keeping up all the new Macskafogo news?!?!?!

  2. D

    Until you pointed it out to me, I had never heard of it. The original 4 gangsters one looks great. I want to find a version with English subs.

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