This volume of the Cambridge History of Science covers the period from roughly 1490 to 1730, which is known to anglophone historians of Europe as the “early modern” era, a term pregnant with expectations of things to come. These things were of course mostly unknown and unanticipated by the Europeans who lived during those years, and had they been asked to give their own epoch a name, they would perhaps have called it “the new age” (aetas nova). New worlds, East and West, had been discovered, new devices such as the printing press had been invented, new faiths propagated, new stars observed in the heavens with new instruments, new forms of government established and old ones overthrown, new artistic techniques exploited, new markets and trade routes opened, new philosophies advanced with new arguments, and new literary genres created whose very names, such as “news” and “novel,” advertised their novelty.
Some of the excitement generated by this ferment is captured in Nova reperta (New Discoveries), a series of engravings issued in Antwerp in the early seventeenth century, after the late sixteenth-century designs of the Flemish painter and draftsman Jan van der Straet (1523–1605). The title page shows numbered icons of the first nine discoveries celebrated in the series: of the Americas, the compass, gunpowder, printing, the mechanical clock, guaiacum (an American wood used in the treatment of the French disease, or syphilis), distillation, the cultivation of silkworms, and the harnessing of horses (Figure 1.1). Later editions of the series include depictions of the manufacture of cane sugar, the discovery of a method for finding longitude by the declination of the compass, and the invention of the techniques of painting using oil glazes and of copper engraving itself.