Ferdinand Verbiest
Le Pere Ferdinand Verbiest.gif
"Le Pere Ferdinand Verbiest"
(Detail of engraving from French book about Chinese empire, published 1736)[1]
Born 9 October 1623(1623-10-09)
Died 28 January 1688 (age 64)

Father Ferdinand Verbiest (October 9, 1623 – January 28, 1688) was a Flemish Jesuit missionary in China during the Qing dynasty. He was born in Pittem near Tielt in Flanders, later part of the modern state of Belgium.[2] He is known as Nan Huairen (南懷仁) in Chinese. He was an accomplished mathematician and astronomer and proved to the court of Kangxi Emperor that European astronomy was more accurate than Chinese astronomy. He then corrected the Chinese calendar and was later asked to rebuild and re-equip the Beijing Ancient Observatory, being given the role of Head of the Mathematical Board and Director of the Observatory.

He became close friends with the Kangxi Emperor, who frequently requested his teaching, in geometry, philosophy and music.

Verbiest worked as a diplomat and cartographer, and also as a translator, because he spoke Latin, German, Dutch, Spanish, and Italian. He wrote more than thirty books.

During the 1670s, Verbiest designed what some claim to be the first ever self-propelled vehicle – many claim this as the world's first automobile, in spite of its small size and the lack of evidence that it was actually built.

Biography Edit

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Portrait of Chicasei Goyô (Wu Yong) (1827–1830)

Verbiest, depicted in the guise of a Chinese priest-astronomer (top right caption reads "resourceful star Wu Yong"(智多星呉用): Wu Yong). (Painting by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, (British Museum)[3]

Early lifeEdit

Ferdinand Verbiest was the eldest child of Joos Verbiest, bailiff and tax collector of Pittem near Kortrijk, Belgium.[4] Verbiest studied humanities with the Jesuits, in Bruges and Kortrijk, and next went to the Lelie College in Leuven, for a year, to study philosophy and mathematics.[4] He joined the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) on September 2, 1641.[2] Verbiest continued studying theology in Seville, where he was ordained as a priest in 1655.[2] He completed his studies in astronomy and theology in Rome.[4] His intention had been to become a missionary in the Spanish missions to Central America, but this was not to be. His call was to the Far East, where the Roman Catholic Church was 'on mission' to compensate for the loss of (Catholic) believers to the emerging Protestantism in Europe.[4]

In 1658, Verbiest left for China from Lisbon, accompanied by Father Martino Martini, thirty-five other missionaries, the Viceroy of the Indies and some other passengers. Their boat reached Macau in 1659, by which time all but ten of the passengers, including the Viceroy and most of the missionaries, had died.[5] Verbiest took up his first posting in Shanxi, leading the mission until 1660 when he was called to assist – and later, replace – Father Adam Schall von Bell, the Jesuit Director of Beijing Observatory and Head of the Mathematical Board, in his work in astronomy. Unfortunately for them, the political situation shifted dramatically in 1661, on the death of the young Shunzhi Emperor, aged 23. His son and successor, Kangxi, was only 7, so the government was placed in the hands of four regents. Unlike Shunzhi, the regents were not in favour of the Jesuits,[5] who suffered increased persecution as a result.

Astronomy contestsEdit

Jesuites en chine

The original engraving from which the detailed image was taken. Represented (top): Le Pere Matthieu Ricci, Le Pere Adam Schaal, Le Pere Ferdinand Verbiest
Bottom: Paul Siu (Xu Guangqi), colao or Prime Minister of State; Candide Hiu, grand-daughter of Colao Paul Siu.

The state religion of the Manchurian ruled Qing dynasty incorporated aspects of shamanism. There was a tradition of public competitions between rival shamans to demonstrate their magic powers. In 1664, the Chinese astronomer Yang Guangxian (1597–1669), who had published a pamphlet against the Jesuits, challenged Schall to a public astronomy competition. Yang won and took Schall's place as Head of Mathematics. Having lost the competition, Schall and the other Jesuits were chained and thrown into a filthy prison, accused of teaching a false religion. They were bound to wooden pegs in such a way that they could neither stand nor sit and remained there for almost two months until a sentence of strangulation was imposed. A high court found the sentence too light and ordered them to be cut up into bits while still alive.[6] Fortunately for them, on 16 April 1665,[7] a violent earthquake destroyed the part of the prison chosen for the execution. An extraordinary meteor was seen in the sky, and a fire destroyed the part of the imperial palace where the condemnation was pronounced.[8] This was seen as an omen and all the prisoners were released. However, they still had to stand trial, and all the Jesuits but Verbiest, Schall, and two others were exiled to Canton. Schall died within a year, due to the conditions of his confinement.[5]

In 1669, the Kangxi Emperor managed to take power by having the remaining (corrupt) regent, Oboi, arrested. In the same year, the emperor was informed that serious errors had been found in the calendar for 1670, which had been drawn up by Yang Guangxian. Kangxi commanded a public test to compare the merits of European and Chinese astronomy. The test was to predict three things: the length of the shadow thrown by a gnomon of a given height at noon of a certain day; the absolute and relative positions of the sun and the planets on a given date; and the exact time of an anticipated lunar eclipse. It was decided that Yang and Verbiest should each use their mathematical skills to determine the answers and that "The Heavens would be the judge". The contest was held at the Bureau of Astronomy in the presence of senior-ranking government ministers and officials from the observatory. Unlike Yang, Verbiest had access to the latest updates on the Rudolphine Tables, and was assisted by telescopes for observation. He succeeded in all three tests, and was immediately installed as Head of the Mathematical Board and Director of the Observatory. Out of consideration for him, the exiled Jesuits were authorized to return to their missions. Meanwhile, Yang suffered the horrible death he had planned for his Jesuit rival.[2][5][6]

Initial projectsEdit

Kunyu Quantu Ferdinand Verbiest 1674

Ferdinand Verbiest published the Kunyu Quantu world map in 1674.

The 1670 calendar included an extra month unnecessarily, added to hide other errors and to bring the lunar months in line with the solar year. Verbiest suggested the errors should be corrected, including removing the extra month. This was an audacious move, as the calendar had been approved by the emperor himself. Fearing the emperor's response, the observatory officials begged him to withdraw this request, but he responded: "It is not within my power to make the heavens agree with your calendar. The extra month must be taken out." Much to their surprise, the emperor after studying the research, agreed, and it was done.[6]

After this, Verbiest and the emperor formed a real friendship, with the Jesuit teaching him geometry, philosophy and music. He was frequently invited to the palace and to accompany the Emperor on his expeditions throughout the empire. He translated the first six books of Euclid into Manchu and took every opportunity to introduce Christianity. In response, the Emperor elevated him to the highest grade of the mandarinate and granted permission for him to preach Christianity anywhere in the empire.[6]

Verbiest undertook many projects, including the construction of an aqueduct, the casting of 132 cannons for the imperial army – far superior to any previous Chinese weapons – and the design of a new gun carriage. He created star charts for the Kangxi Emperor in order to tell the time at night.[9]. Other inventions included a steam engine to propel ships.

Instruments for Beijing ObservatoryEdit


Instruments in the Beijing Observatory, some of them were built by Verbiest.

Having resolved the issues surrounding the calendar, Verbiest went on to compose a table of all solar and lunar eclipses for the next 2000 years. Delighted with this, the emperor awarded him complete charge of the imperial astronomy observatory, which he rebuilt in 1673. The existing equipment was obsolete, so Verbiest consigned it to a museum and set about designing six new instruments:[6]

  • Altazimuth, used to measure the position of celestial bodies relative to the celestial horizon and the zenith – the altitude azimuth.[10]
  • Celestial globe, six feet in diameter, used to map and identify celestial objects.[11]
  • Ecliptic armilla, armillary sphere, six feet in diameter, used to measure the ecliptic longitude difference and latitudes of celestial bodies. (This was the traditional European device while the Chinese developed the equatorial armilla.)[12]
  • Equatorial armilla, armillary sphere, six feet in diameter, used primarily for measuring true solar time as well as right ascension difference and declination of celestial bodies.[13]
  • Quadrant Altazimuth, six feet in radius, for measuring altitudes or zenith distances of celestial bodies.[14]
  • Sextant, eight feet in radius, used to measure the angle of elevation of a celestial object above the horizon. It is used to calculate the angle between two objects, although it is limited to 60 degrees of arc. In navigation, it is used to take a measure of the angle of the sun at noon to determine latitude.[15]

These were all very large, made of brass and highly decorated, with bronze dragons forming the supports. Despite their weight, they were very easy to manipulate, demonstrating Verbiest's aptitude for mechanical design.

Final daysEdit

Verbiest died in Beijing shortly after receiving a wound from falling off a bolting horse.[16] He was succeeded as the chief mathematician and astronomer of the Chinese empire by another Belgian Jesuit, Antoine Thomas (1644–1709). His remains were buried near those of two other famous Jesuits – Matteo Ricci and Adam Schall – on March 11, 1688. Visiting their tomb is not easy, since it is on the campus of a College of Political Science, but it is well-maintained.[6] Verbiest was the only Westerner in Chinese history to ever receive the honour of a posthumous name by the Emperor.

Verbiest's 'car' Edit


The steam 'car' designed by Verbiest in 1672 – from an 18th century print

Beside his work in astronomy, Verbiest also experimented with steam. Around 1672 he designed – as a toy for the Chinese Emperor – a steam-propelled trolley which was, quite possibly, the first working steam-powered vehicle ('auto-mobile').[17] Verbiest describes it in his work Astronomia Europea. As it was only 65 cm long, and therefore effectively a scale model, not designed to carry human passengers, nor a driver, it is not strictly accurate to call it a 'car'.[18]

Steam was generated in a ball-shaped boiler, emerging through a pipe at the top, from where it was directed at a simple, open 'steam turbine' (rather like a water wheel) that drove the rear wheels.

It is not known if Verbiest's model was ever built at the time, although he had access to China's finest metal-working craftsmen who were constructing precision astronomical instruments for him.

The Brumm modelEdit

The Italian model manufacturer Brumm produced a non-working 1:43 scale model of the Veicolo a turbina de Verbiest (1681) [sic],[19] in their "Old Fire" range of 2002. This model was 9 cm long, which, when scaled-up, would have suggested that Verbiest's original would have been nearly 4 metres in length.

However, comparison with drawings in Hardenberg's study show that this model is not the same as Verbiest's. It is actually modelled on a small steam turbine car built in the late 18th century (presumably 1775) by a German mechanic. Unfortunately, the original was probably destroyed during a bombing raid on the Technische Hochschule Karlsruhe during World War II. However, a photo of the original car can be seen at the Deutsches Museum. Hardenberg notes that this steam turbine car operated on the same principle as Verbiest's carriage (the impulse turbine), but employed a more modern arrangement of the drive train.[20]

Major worksEdit

In Chinese
  • Yixiang zhi, 1673 (on astronomical instruments and apparatus)
  • Kangxi yongnian lifa, 1678 (on the calendar of the emperor Kangxi)
  • Jiaoyao xulun (explanation of the basics of the faith)
  • Astronomia Europea, 1687


Verbiest is commemorated on several postage stamps. One, featuring his face, was issued in Belgium, October 24, 1988, to mark the tri-centenary of his death,[21] with a matching pictorial cancellation postmark.[22] Several more stamps were issued in Macau, in 1989 and 1999, featuring a sketch by Verbiest of the Observatory in Peking, where he worked.[21]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Details of original engraving in Washington State University collection
  2. ^ a b c d Wikisource-logo.svg "Ferdinand Verbiest". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  3. ^ Father Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-88) dressed as a Chinese astrologer
  4. ^ a b c d "Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) mathematician and astronomer". Famous Belgians. Belgium - Federal Portal. Retrieved 2008-03-21. 
  5. ^ a b c d Hobden, Heather. "Astronomy in the 17th Century". The telescope revolution. Archived from the original on 2008-03-07. Retrieved 2008-03-20. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f MacDonnell, Joseph. "Fr. Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J. (1623 - 1688)". A Jesuit scientist in China. Fairfield University. Retrieved 2008-03-20. 
  7. ^ Pingyi Chu, ‘Scientific Dispute in the Imperial Court: The 1664 Calender Case’, Chinese Science, 1997, 14, pp. 7-34, p. 16
  8. ^ Campbell, Thomas. The Jesuits, 1534-1921. (1921) pg. 258 e type="text/css">
  9. ^ Spence, 15–16.
  10. ^ The Altazimuth
  11. ^ The Celestial Globe
  12. ^ The Ecliptic Armilla (armillary sphere)
  13. ^ The Equatorial Armilla
  14. ^ The Quadrant Altazimuth
  15. ^ The Sextant
  16. ^ Spence, 12.
  17. ^ "A brief note on Ferdinand Verbiest". Curious Expeditions. 2 July 2007. Retrieved 2008-03-18.  – Note that the vehicle pictured is the Brumm model, not a replica of Verbiest's design.
  18. ^ "1679-1681 R P Verbiest's Steam Chariot". History of the Automobile: origin to 1900. Hergé. Retrieved 2009-05-08. 
  19. ^ Brumm website: photograph of the Brumm model (ref X06) – accessed 2009-05-08
  20. ^ The Leuven Local Heroes in Thermal Sciences and Engineering (Accessed: 2008-03-22)
  21. ^ a b "Father Ferdinand Verbiest, SJ, (1623-1688) President of the Imperial Board of Mathematics". (Jesuits on stamps). Retrieved 2008-03-18. 
  22. ^ "Postal Markings (Jesuits)". (scroll down just beyond half-way). Retrieved 2008-03-18. 


  • Brucker, Joseph. The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1912, Robert Appleton Company.
  • Spence, Jonathan D. (1988). Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K'ang-hsi. New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House. ISBN 0-679-72074-X

Further readingEdit

  • The Oldest Precursor of the Automobile - Ferdinand Verbiest's Steam Turbine-Powered Vehicle Model – Horst O. Hardenberg
    Society of Automotive Engineers (Feb 1995, 32 pages) ISBN 1-56091-652-4
  • ICKX, V., Ainsi naquit l'automobile, Lausanne, 1961.
  • BLONDEAU, RA, Mandariin en astronoom aan het hof van de Chinese Keizer, Bruges, 1970.
  • WITEK, J W (ed), F. Verbiest, Jesuit Missionary, Scientist, Engineer and Diplomat, Nettetal, 1994.
  • GOLVERS, N. (ed), The Christian Mission in China in the Verbiest era, Louvain, 1999.

External linksEdit

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
NAME Verbiest, Ferdinand
DATE OF BIRTH 1623-10-09
DATE OF DEATH 1688-01-28
This page uses content from the English language Wikipedia. The original content was at Ferdinand Verbiest. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with this Familypedia wiki, the content of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons License.

Ad blocker interference detected!

Wikia is a free-to-use site that makes money from advertising. We have a modified experience for viewers using ad blockers

Wikia is not accessible if you’ve made further modifications. Remove the custom ad blocker rule(s) and the page will load as expected.