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Stevin, Simon

1. Dates
Born: Brugge, 1548
Died: probably in The Hague, between 20 Feb. and April 1620
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 72
2. Father
Occupation: Artisan
Stevin was illegitimate. Though he was raised by his mother, his father's name was Antheunis Stevin. He was apparently an artisan; nothing beyond is name is really known about him.
By all evidence the family was poor.
3. Nationality
Birth: what is now Belgium
Career: Netherlands
Death: Netherlands
4. Education
Schooling: Leiden
In 1581, after having been a bookkeeper in Antwerp and then a clerk in the tax office around Brugge, he moved to Leiden, enrolled in the Latin school, and in 1583 in the university. He remained enrolled until 1590. No evidence of a degree.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic, Calvinist
Probably originally a Catholic; certainly a Calvinist after the move to the United Provinces. Wholly pragmatic in religion; without serious spiritual feeling.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics, Engineering, Mechanics
Subordinate: Navigation, Astronomy, Hydraulics
He published extensively on mathematics, engineering (both military and civil), and mechanics, and some on the subordinate disciplines.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Patronage, Government, Engineering
In 1584, Stevin was negotiating with Delft about the use of an invention related to drainage, and later he had patents from the States General for several inventions concerned with dredging and drainage, especially a mill to pump water and a device to pull ships over obstacles.
He worked together with Johan de Groote (father of Hugo Grotius), the Burgemeester of Delft (to whom he dedicated at least one book) on mills which they contracted to erect. Stevin also studied mills theoretically to improve them; he published the first theoretical treatise on mills.
Stevin is the first one in this catalogue I have met (I write this when I am about half done) who supported himself in this sort of activity; I start the category Engineer for him.
Near 1590 he became associated with Prince Maurice. He became his tutor in subjects scientific and managerial; his works after that time were all composed for the Prince. His Wisconstighe Ghedachtenissen, published in three languages in 1605-8, was the most important fruit of their working together--really a set of textbooks compiled for Maurice.
In 1604 he was officially appointed Quartermaster; however, his official position was never as important as his unofficial one through the personal relation. He also supervised the Prince's finances, and was instrumental in introducing Italian methods of bookkeeping.
Recognised as an expert in matters scientific and technical, he was frequently appointed to boards to review such issues -- thus in 1598, on a commission to review a proposal to determine longitude. As a result, a book on navigation in 1599.
Stevin was instrumental in the establishment of an engineering school in Leiden; there is no evidence that he ever taught in it.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Government Official, City Magistrate, Aristrocrat
The relation to Maurice was central. After Stevin's death, Maurice continued to pay an annual stipend for the support of Stevin's children.
His dedications cover the waterfront: the Magistrates of Leiden (who paid him 20 in return), the General of the Artillery, Johan de Groot, the Emperor Rudolf, the States General of the United Netherlands (who is 1617 rewarded him for the dedication of the book on fortification with 200), Hendrick van Brienen (deputy to the States General from Gelderland), Maximilian de Bethune (Hertog van Scully), the Burgermeister of Nurenberg.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Military Engineering, Civil Engineering, Hydraulics, Navigation, Mechanical Devices, Applied Mathematics, Instruments, Cartography
As early as 1594 he published on military engineering; 1617, New Fortification (which employed pivoted sluice locks), and a book on establishing a camp in the field.
His patents included mechanical devices for dredging; also a mechanical spit.
He made improvements in the gearing of mills and in the scoop wheel that lifted the water; these improvemented were supported by reference to his hydrostatical theories. Dijkersterhuis makes in clear that Stevin applied his knowledge of mechanics to the complicated mechanism of the mill on a theoretical plane, although he also indicates that most of his innovations were not permanently adopted in the construction of mills.
He was of major importance in the development and use of sluices.
His work on the general principles of equilibrium in hydrostatics was done to improve the construction of floating platforms used in military assaults.
In the Weeghdaet he described instruments for moving loads.
His work on mathematics included practical surveying, with descriptions of instruments (not of his invention) for that purpose.
About 1600 he constructed two wind driven carriages that Prince Maurice sailed along the beaches of the Netherlands. There are pictures of these devices in Dijksterhuis. They continued to be used (for amusement) until the end of the 18th century.
He even proposed a different form of the bit to control a horse; one was constructed for Prince Maurice to try.
At some point (probably before his relation with Prince Maurice began) he worked out an elaborate scheme to improve the waterways of Danzig, which other engineers later put into effect. He also developed plans for two other Prussian towns, Elbing and Braunsberg.
He developed a triangulation instrument, the triquetium, useful in surveying.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
  1. E.J. Dijksterhuis, Simon Stevin, ('s-Gravenhage: Nijhoff, 1943).
  2. _____, Simon Stevin: Science in the Netherlands around 1600, (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1970)--an abbreviated English version of the original Dutch work.
  3. Edmond R. Kiely, Surveying Instruments, (New York, 1947), p. 224.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

1995 Al Van Helden
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