Simon Stevin, posthumous portrait | Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek,  Douza-archief

Arts & Sciences
1548 - 1620
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Simon Stevin

A Scientific Lens

The versatile scientist Simon Stevin made important contributions to mathematics and physics, logic and language study, but as an engineer also found solutions for all kinds of practical problems. Together with, for example, Gerard Mercator and Andreas Vesalius, he embodied the modernisation of science.

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Stevin grew up in Bruges, worked for a while in Antwerp and in his thirties emigrated to Leiden, presumably because of his Protestant faith. He popularised the ten-part or decimal system, which had been devised as early as the 10th century in the Arab world, but which he developed further. He made up Dutch words which are still current, such as ‘evenwijdig’ (parallel), ‘wiskunde’ (mathematics) and ‘scheikunde’ (chemistry). In addition, he improved the operation of locks on waterways, he devised interest tables for the repayment of mortgages and laid the foundation for technical education. He was one of the first in the Low Countries to support Copernicus’ thesis that the earth revolves round the sun and believed in the principle of popular sovereigntythe principle that the highest authority lies with the people and a head of state must keep to laws and agreements with the population. . With his empirical and observation-based method of working he contributed to new, modern standards for science.

Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, Flandrica, G 50187

In De Thiende (The Decimal, 1585) Stevin formulated the arithmetical rules for decimal numbers and discussed their practical applications. With his work Stevin put an end to the use in Europe of Roman numerals, with which it is difficult to calculate.

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A Scientific Lens

In about 1586 Simon Stevin stood on the tower of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft in order to drop two lead balls of different weight simultaneously. They hit the ground at the same time. With that simple experiment Stevin refuted Aristotle’s almost two thousand-year-old theory, which many scientists still followed. Light and heavy objects fall at the same speed! An experiment that in 2022 was repeated with extreme precision and confirmed.

Even more important than the outcome of this experiment was that Stevin demonstrated how theory in combination with experiments leads to a reliable scientific method. Not for nothing was his motto ‘Wonder en is gheen wonder’ (Wonder is no wonder): natural phenomena (wonderen) can be fathomed by science and so lose their inexplicable quality.

Like Andreas Vesalius. Rembert Dodoens and Gerard Mercator, Stevin was a face of the scientific revolution that took place in the 16th century. These scientists promoted new forms of research and devised scientific applications. They continued to draw inspiration from Classical antiquity, but no longer accepted old insights slavishly as true. They wanted to experiment for themselves, observe and formulate new laws.

Focal points

Fabrica Vesalius.

Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-2016-1796

Andreas Vesalius performs a dissection in an anatomical theatre. Front page of De humani corporis fabrica (1555).

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The Lens of Doctor Vesalius

The fact that reliable science cannot do without accurate observations, had been previously proved by Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564), the founder of modern anatomy. This son of a Brussels doctor’s family based his knowledge of the human body not on theories but on the careful dissection of human corpses. In so doing he broke a taboo, but it enabled him to dismiss for good all kinds of age-old misunderstandings.

Vesalius studied at the University of Leuven, where he was given permission to perform dissectionsthe cutting open and examination of dead bodies. . The mayor made the corpses of hanged criminals available.

After graduating Vesalius went to Padua, at the time the centre of the Western medical world. He was appointed to a university post and wrote his seven-volume De humani corporis fabrica‘On the structure of the human body’. (The Structure of the Human Body) there. That book contained a minute anatomical description of the whole human body. The illustrations were unprecedentedly informative, Vesalius’ insights transformed medicine. He focused his scientific gaze on the healthy body, while the doctors of the time were mainly interested in the theory of disease. Vesalius dedicated his book to Emperor Charles V, who immediately appointed him as his personal physician. He remained in the service of the Habsburg court until his death.


Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-OB-10.152

Print in which Mercator indicates magnetic north.

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The Lens of the Cartographer Mercator

Gerard Mercator (1512-1594) was a toolmaker, mathematician and Biblical scholar, but he gained world fame with his maps.

Mercator was born Gerard de Kremer in Rupelmonde, as the son of a cobbler. He studied in Leuven, where he fell under the spell of cartography, a field that was making great strides in the Low Countries. He made, for example, a terrestrial and a celestial globe, a very accurate map of Europe, and compiled an atlas, a collection of world maps.

His cartographical representations were extremely important for the European mariners who at that moment were reconnoitring the world. Yet the armchair scholar Mercator never went to sea. For him the scientific method meant that besides theory he based himself on his own calculations. Mathematics and its concrete applications formed the basis of the scientific revolution.

His most important invention was the Mercator projection. With that he attempted the impossible: to project a globe correctly on a flat surface. Of course, for him Europe was at the centre. The maps produced with Mercator’s projection technique made it much easier for mariners to find the correct course, because they maintain the right direction: straight lines between two points immediately give the correct compass bearing. The Mercator projection is still in use everywhere today.

Aardglobe Mercator.
Sint-Niklaas, Koninklijke Oudheidkundige Kring Land van Waas, Mercatorcollectie

Gerard Mercator, Terrestrial globe, 1541. This globe was made by Gerard Mercator for Nicolas Granvelle (1484-1550), councillor to Charles V. The globe shows what new insights had been provided by the voyages of discovery.

Een blad uit de Fabrica van Vesalius. Zijn Latijnse benamingen voor lichaamsdelen groeiden uit tot de standaard in de anatomie.
New York City, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 53.682

A page from Vesalius’ Fabrica. His Latin terms for the parts of the body became standard in anatomy.

Regionale Beeldbank Mechelen

The Mechelen municipal physician Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585), in his Cruydeboeck (Herbarium, 1554), was the first to try to assign plants to different classes, long before Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) laid the foundation for the taxonomy of plants.

Duytsche Mathematiqye
Amsterdam, Scheepvaartmuseum, Wikimedia Commons

Stevin was the driving force behind the School for Dutch Mathematics in Leiden. The school, founded in 1600, trained military engineers and fortress-builders in the vernacular and was unique in Europe. Stevin designed the syllabus.

Standbeeld Simon Stevin.
Brussels, Vlaams Agentschap Onroerend Erfgoed, Pascale Hendrickx.

Stevin was rediscovered after the Belgian Revolution of 1830. In 1846 Bruges erected a statue of him. The event was accompanied by great festivities and also by tensions between liberal supporters and Catholics, who dubbed Stevin, an emigrant to the Protestant North, a ‘heretic’.

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Mercator Frank

Bron: VRT archief, Museum Plantin-Moretus – 24 okt 1994

Mercator Rupelmonde
De Zevende Dag

Bron: VRT archief – 4 maa 2012

Simon Stevin
Ten huize van… – Marcel Minnaert

Bron: VRT archief – 26 jun 1970

Vlaanderen Vakantieland

Bron: VRT archief – 15 nov 2014


Bracke Wouter, e.a.
Vlaanderen in 100 kaarten

Davidsfonds, 2015. 

Broos Paul
Anatomia: de ontdekking van het menselijk lichaam in de Lage Landen (16de tot 18de eeuw)

Davidsfonds, 2017. 

Crane Nicholas
Mercator, de man die de wereld in kaart bracht

Ambo/Anthos, 2003. 

De Maesschalck Edward
Leuven en zijn colleges: trefpunt van intellectueel leven in de Nederlanden (1425-1797)

Sterck & De Vreese, 2021. 

Devreese Jozef & Vanden Berghe Guido
Wonder en is gheen wonder: de geniale wereld van Simon Stevin 1548-1620

Davidsfonds, 2003. 

Droste Filip G.
Simon Stevin, wetenschapper in oorlogstijd 1548-1620

Aspekt, 2007. 

Reinertsen Berg Thomas & Wiersma Neeltje
Wereldtheater. De geschiedenis van de cartografie

Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep, 2018. 

Vanden Berghe Guido, Viaene Dieter & Vandamme Ludo
Simon Stevin van Brugghe (1548-1620): hij veranderde de wereld

Sterck & De Vreese, 2020. 

Vanpaemel Geert
Wereldwijs: wetenschappers rond Keizer Karel

Davidsfonds, 2000. 

Vanpaemel Geert
Vesalius, het lichaam in beeld

Davidsfonds, 2014. 

Weyns Francis
XVI. De zinderende 16de eeuw: Habsburgers, heksen, ketters & oproer in de Lage Landen

Borgerhoff & Lamberigts, 2021. 


Geerts Paul
Suske & Wiske. De mollige meivis (nr 93)

Standaard Uitgeverij, 1975. 

Tulkens Joris
Vesalius, een beroemd anatoom gevangen in de intriges van het Spaanse hof

Davidsfonds, 2014. 

Van Robays Johan
Andreas: de fictieve autobiografie van Vesalius, de grootste anatoom aller tijden

Van Halewyck, 2014. 

Vermeulen John
Tussen god en de zee: roman over het leven en werk van Gerard Mercator

Kramat, 2004. 

Nu kijken

Simon Stevin van Brugghe
Simon Stevin, levensloop
Simon Stevin in ons dagelijks leven

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