Simon Stevin, homo universalis

Museum Plantin-Moretus

Simon Stevin, one of the greatest scientists from the Low Countries, died in 1620. Who was this multi-talented scholar? What has his influence on science been? The Museum Plantin-Moretus sheds light on this versatile genius.

Title page from De Thiende, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

Simon Stevin was born in Bruges in 1548. He was the son of Anthonis Stevin and Cathelyne van der Poort. He hailed from a prominent family of mayors, aldermen, magistrates and merchants. Stevin was proud of his heritage. He often showed off his birthplace on the title pages of his books.

The manor of The Brugse Vrije, Unknown, Original Source: Wikimedia

Stevin's professional start is a modest one. He first worked as an accountant in Antwerp and as an employee of the tax department in Bruges.

Calvinistic riot controlled in Antwerp, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

These were turbulent times in the Southern Netherlands. Religious strife was flaring up everywhere. In 1577, tensions between Catholics and Calvinists reached a boiling point. Stevin moved to the North.

Map of Leiden, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

From 1581, he lived in Leiden. He studied at the university there. He met the stadtholder and commander of the armed forces Maurice of Orange. The printer-publisher Christophe Plantin also crossed his path. From then on, both men played a major role in the life of Simon Stevin.

Portrait of Maurice, Prince of Orange, Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt, c. 1613 - c. 1620, From the collection of: Rijksmuseum
Simon Stevin and Maurice, The Prince of Orange
Title page in Jan Brouwenszn, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

In 1593, Stevin became the private teacher of Prince Maurice. He taught him geography, astronomy, geometry, the art of weighing, perspective, accounting and economics. These teachings were later compiled in the volume Wisconstige gedachtenissen (1608).

Detail of "Grolla Obsessa et Capta" by J.Blaeu, J. Bleau, Original Source: Wikimedia

In 1603, Prince Maurice appointed Stevin as quartermaster of the army of the Seven United Provinces. Stevin built army camps and took care of provisioning.

Example of Italian accounting, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

War is an expensive business. Stevin convinces Prince Maurice to introduce double-entry bookkeeping for the army. The mismanagement of local stewards becomes a much smaller issue.

Example of Italian accounting, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus
Example of Italian accounting, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus
Portrait of Christophe Plantin by Peter Paul Rubens, Peter Paul Rubens, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus
Simon Stevin and Christophe Plantin
Portrait of Christophe Plantin by Peter Paul Rubens, Peter Paul Rubens, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

The Frenchman Christophe Plantin arrived in Antwerp in 1555. He started a publishing and printing company that would become one of the most prominent in Europe. The legacy left by Plantin and his successors can still be admired in the Museum Plantin-Moretus.

Reconstruction drawing of the Christophe Plantin's house in Leiden, H. J. Jesse, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

Plantin also had a printing company in Leiden. There he printed works for the university. Of the fifteen works Stevin published, eight were printed by Plantin.

Interest table, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus
Influential works by Simon Stevin 
Interest table, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

Tafelen van Interest (Tables of Interest), 1582

Simon Stevin was the first to publish comprehensive interest tables. Interest tables are tables that facilitate the calculation of interest. Traders anxiously kept them a guarded trade secret from their competitors.

Browse the book online

Plan of the vicinity of Antwerp with views of famous buildings of the city, including the stock exchange, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

Trade in the Netherlands was flourishing in the sixteenth century. Cities - including Antwerp - were meeting grounds for international traders.

Each region in Europe had its own sizes, weights and coins, which made interregional trade exceedingly difficult.

Pages from The thirteenth, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

De Thiende (Decimals), 1585

Trade in the Netherlands was flourishing in the sixteenth century. Cities were meeting grounds for international traders. But each region in Europe had its own coins, weights, measures and volumes. In De Thiende, Stevin introduced the ten-part system. This made it possible to convert the large variety of coins and sizes.
De Thiende was translated into French, Danish and English.

Browse the book online

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), 1790, Original Source: The National Museum of American Diplomacy

Did you know De Thiende by Stevin forms the basis for the American dollar?

In 1792, the United States of America adopted the dollar as its national currency. Its later president Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) advocates a decimal system basis for the new currency. In his argument, he appeals to Stevin's De thiende. That is why one dollar consists of 100 cents. It makes the dollar the first modern currency.

The weighhdaet, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

Wisconstige Gedachtenissen (Mathematics), 1586

Wisconstige Gedachtenissen (1586) is one of Stevin's most influential works. It is composed of portions of Beginselen der weegconst (The principles of weighing), De weeghdaet (Dynamics) and De Beghinselen des Waterwichts (The principles of hydrodynamics).

Browse the book online

The weighhdaet, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

Beghinselen der Weeghconst (Principles of Weighing), 1586

In this book, Stevin discusses the theory of equilibrium (statics). Using specific problems, Stevin leads the reader to insights into various mechanical principles, and provides methods for solving them. These problems are illustrated with beautiful illustrations.

In Beghinselen der Weeghconst Stevin also presents the ‘clootkransbewijs’ (proof of the law of equilibrium on an inclined plane, also known as the 'Epitaph of Stevinus'). A thought experiment demonstrates how forces work on an inclined plane.
A string of identical beads hangs around a triangle at equal distances. Stevin first assumes that the shear force on one side will be greater than on the other side. This generates a ‘eeuwich roersel’ (a continuous movement).
The latter, a perpetual motion machine, is thus impossible according to Stevin. There must be balance!.
Stevin is so pleased with this proof that he uses the image of the clootcrans as an emblem on the title page of his book.

Oval portrait of Johan (Jan) de Groot, 1636, Original Source: Museum Rotterdam

De Weeghdaet (Dynamics), 1586

In de Weeghdaet, Stevin also does limited research into the theory of dynamics. Together with Johan Cornets de Groot (1554-1640), he performed the classic drop test in which they dropped two lead balls from a church tower. Although one is 10 times heavier than the other, they fall to the ground in identical times.

Hydrostatic paradox experiment, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

Beghinselen des Waterwichts (Principles of hydrodynamics), 1586

In this book, Stevin discusses hydrostatic properties, the theory of liquids in a balanced state. Stevin was the first to build on Archimedes' law. This law says that the buoyancy acting on an immersed object is equal to the weight of the displaced fluid mass. Stevin is the first since Archimedes to introduce additional insights into hydrostatics.

Page from Limeneuretikè, sive portuum investigandorum ratio, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

Havenvinding (Naval navigation), 1586

The United East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC) was founded in 1602. The Northern Netherlands developed into a formidable naval power. A safe, fast method of travel became a priority. Stevin advocates loxodromic navigation. A ship does not navigate the shortest route, but rather a route with a constant angle to the meridians of longitude, thus eliminating the need for continual adjustment.


Want to know more? Browse all works of the mathematician Simon Stevin from the Museum Plantin-Moretus

Verscheyden Inventien by Simon Stevin, Original Source: Nationaal Archief Nederland
Stevin as an inventor and engineer
The Sterctenbouw, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

De Sterctenbouwing (Reinforced Constructions) , 1594
During the Eighty Years' War (1568-1648) the need to reinforce cities grew. At the request of Prince Maurice, Stevin improved all kinds of fortifications.
Moers in Germany was built according to Stevin's theories.

The Sterctenbouw, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus
Floor plan after an engraving in Blaeu, Unknown, Original Source: Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed

Together with Johan Cornets de Groot, he constructed a water mill for the Dutch city of Ijsselstein. It was delivered late and did not meet expectations, which led to a court case. Stevin proves that his designs were performing well elsewhere and wins the case.

De zeilwagen van Simon Stevin, 1602, Anonymous, Willem Isaacsz. van Swanenburg, Jacob de Gheyn (II), 1647/1649, From the collection of: Rijksmuseum

Wind Chariots

In 1601, Stevin designed the wind chariot (Zeilwagen). Prince Maurice sailed with 27 guests over the beach from Scheveningen to Petten. They set an unprecedented record: 80 km in two hours.

Principles of the Weeghconst, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus
Simon Stevin and his legacy
Principles of the Weeghconst, From the collection of: Museum Plantin-Moretus

Simon Stevin died at the beginning of 1620. His impact on the Dutch language is still experienced on a daily basis. He introduced many new terms into Dutch, including evenwijdig (parallel), wijsbegeerte (philosophy), wiskunde (mathematics), afkomst (origin) and evenaar (equivalent). Stevin believed that the Dutchification of science was crucial. He wanted to reach as many people as possible.

Once again proof that he was a true Homo universalis.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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