Galileo's Biography

Text by Megan Wilde. Plain text version edited by Ashley Fell for the Electronic Text Center. This biography is based upon information culled from The Galileo Project website.


Early Life
Galileo and the Pendulum
Galileo On Motion
Galileo's Mechanical Devices
Galileo's Family Life
Galileo's Telescope
Galileo and the Inquisition

Galileo's Early Life

Galileo was born in Pisa, Italy on February 15, 1564. His father, Vincenzo Galilei, was a musician. Galileo's mother was Giulia degli Ammannati. Galileo was the first of six (though some people believe seven) children. His family belonged to the nobility but was not rich. In the early 1570's, he and his family moved to Florence.

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The Pendulum

In 1581, Galileo began studying at the University of Pisa, where his father hoped he would study medicine. While at the University of Pisa, Galileo began his study of the pendulum while, according to legend, he watched a suspended lamp swing back and forth in the cathedral of Pisa. However, it was not until 1602 that Galileo made his most notable discovery about the pendulum - the period (the time in which a pendulum swings back and forth) does not depend on the arc of the swing (the isochronism). Eventually, this discovery would lead to Galileo's further study of time intervals and the development of his idea for a pendulum clock.

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On Motion

At the University of Pisa, Galileo learned the physics of the Ancient Greek scientist, Aristotle. However, Galileo questioned the Aristotelian approach to physics. Aristotelians believed that heavier objects fall faster through a medium than lighter ones. Galileo eventually disproved this idea by asserting that all objects, regardless of their density, fall at the same rate in a vacuum. To determine this, Galileo performed various experiments in which he dropped objects from a certain height. In one of his early experiments, he rolled balls down gently sloping inclined plane and then determined their positions after equal time intervals. He wrote down his discoveries about motion in his book, De Motu, which means "On Motion."

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Mechanical Devices

In 1592, Galileo was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Padua. While teaching there, he frequently visited a place called the Arsenal, where Venetian ships were docked and loaded. Galileo had always been interested in mechanical devices. Naturally, during his visits to the Arsenal, he became fascinated by nautical technologies, such as the sector and shipbuilding. In 1593, he was presented with the problem involving the placement of oars in galleys. He treated the oar as a lever and correctly made the water the fulcrum. A year later, he patented a model for a pump. His pump was a device that raised water by using only one horse.

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Family Life

Galileo was never married. However, he did have a brief relationship with Marina Gamba, a woman he met on one of his many trips to Venice. Marina lived in Galileo's house in Padua where she bore him three children. His two daughters, Virginia and Livia, were both put in convents where they became, respectively, Sister Maria Celeste and Sister Arcangela. In 1610, Galileo moved from Padua to Florence where he took a position at the Court of the Medici family. He left his son, Vincenzio, with Marina Gamba in Padua. In 1613, Marina married Giovanni Bartoluzzi, and Vincenzio joined his father in Florence.

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Galileo invented many mechanical devices other than the pump, such as the hydrostatic balance. But perhaps his most famous invention was the telescope. Galileo made his first telescope in 1609, modeled after telescopes produced in other parts of Europe that could magnify objects three times. He created a telescope later that same year that could magnify objects twenty times. With this telescope, he was able to look at the moon, discover the four satellites of Jupiter, observe a supernova, verify the phases of Venus, and discover sunspots. His discoveries proved the Copernican system which states that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun. Prior to the Copernican system, it was held that the universe was geocentric, meaning the sun revolved around the earth.

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The Inquisition

Galileo's belief in the Copernican System eventually got him into trouble with the Catholic Church. The Inquisition was a permanent institution in the Catholic Church charged with the eradication of heresies. A committee of consultants declared to the Inquisition that the Copernican proposition that the Sun is the center of the universe was a heresy. Because Galileo supported the Copernican system, he was warned by Cardinal Bellarmine, under order of Pope Paul V, that he should not discuss or defend Copernican theories. In 1624, Galileo was assured by Pope Urban VIII that he could write about Copernican theory as long as he treated it as a mathematical proposition. However, with the printing of Galileo's book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo was called to Rome in 1633 to face the Inquisition again. Galileo was found guilty of heresy for his Dialogue, and was sent to his home near Florence where he was to be under house arrest for the remainder of his life. In 1638, the Inquisition allowed Galileo to move to his home in Florence, so that he could be closer to his doctors. By that time he was totally blind. In 1642, Galileo died at his home outside Florence.

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