Tito Livio Burattini

It is so pleasant to come across people more stupid than ourselves. We love them at once for being so.
Jerome K. Jerome

Tito Livio Burattini
Tito Livio Burattini (1617-1681)

In the 1650s the Italian scientist Tito Livio Burattini created a calculating device (so-called ciclografo), which in 1658 (or even before) he donated to Ferdinando II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany (there are two letters from the Italian scientist Giovanni Alfonso Borelli, dated November and December 1658, which mentioned istrumento o cassettina numeraria (instrument or casket for numbers) sent by Burattini to the Grand Duke.)

The Grand Duke was obsessed with new technology and had several hygrometers, barometers, thermometers, and telescopes installed in his palace. Burattini apparently knew him very well because he served the Polish court and in 1655-1657 he took part in several diplomatic missions in Austria (Vienna) and Italy (Florence, Bologna), spending some time as a guest of the Grand Duke. It is known also that while in Florence, Burattini designed a water clock for the Grand Duke and later made several microscopes and telescope lenses for Duke’s brother, Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici. The Grand Duke obviously highly appreciated Burattini, because in August 1657, returning from his mission in Florence, Burattini brought with him to Poland many gifts of the Grand Duke, “quelques gentilesses de mécanique”.

As it was mentioned in the article for Pascaline of Blaise Pascal, there was at least one Pascaline at the disposal of the Polish court. In the second half of the 1640s Pierre Des Noyers, secretary of the Queen of Poland Maria Luisa Gonzaga, had come into possession of a specimen of Pascaline, and had lent it to King Władysław IV Vasa. It seems that the King had literally fallen in love with this wonderful device, and he never wanted to return the specimen borrowed from Des Noyers. He even ordered two more specimens to the French mathematician Gilles de Roberval, custodian of Pascal’s discovery in Paris. Des Noyers also explained the Polish monetary system to Roberval, in the belief that Pascaline could also be used in Poland for calculating army wages. Obviously, while in the Polish court in Krakow, Burattini had the opportunity to observe the work of Pascaline. Thus in the 1650s, he decided to build a similar device (like Pascal’s contrivance) himself.

Presently the machine, attributed to Burattini (see the photo below) is kept in Florence, Italy, in the Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza.

The calculating machine (Ciclografo) of Tito Livio Burattini from 1658
The calculating machine (Ciclografo) of Tito Livio Burattini from 1658 (© Museo Galileo, Firenze)

The device (complete with a wooden case) consists of a thin sheet of brass with a length of 20 cm, upon which surface are mounted 18 disks. All the disks are connected 2 by 2, which means, that every upper (bigger) disk is connected to the lower (smaller) disk. By that means, the carrying of numbers can be done only from an upper (bigger) disk to the lower (smaller) one, but not between different digital positions of a number. The number to be transferred to the next digit is displayed on a marker disc above each digit. The tens carry is then transferred manually by turning the next digit by the corresponding number of tens carry and resetting the marker.

The lower six pairs of disks are decimal (10 graduations—from 0 to 9), while the upper pairs of disks are graduated from 1 to 12, from 1 to 19, and from 1 to 7 respectively (from the left to the right), in order to be used for monetary calculations (Italy had no unified currency in the 17th century since it has been for centuries divided into many city-states, but for example according to the Venice and Tuscany monetary systems: 1 Ducato=7 Lire, 1 Lira=20 Soldi, 1 Soldo=12 Denari, etc.)

Recently a new version (and it seems rather well-grounded) for the above-mentioned device, attributed to Burattini, was proposed by the historian Vanessa Ratcliff. Exploring Samuel Morland and his calculating machines, she not only noticed the well-known fact, that Burattini’s machine is quite similar to one of the devices of Morland but also examined at some length the inventory information for Burattini’s machine to make the conclusion, that the present machine was not the original one of Burattini.

Yet the first note for the machine (from Borelli in November 1658) mentioned the device as “casket”, not as “plate” or “sheet”. There are also several inventory records for the Medicean scientific collection (from 1660, 1704, 1738), which described the machine of Burattini as an eight wheels device, with a size of about 43 x 12 cm. However, in the catalogue from 1779, the machine is described as Una macchinetta forse aritmetica di due lastre di ottone centinate che racchiudono 18 cerchi tra grandi e piccoli, numerati, imperniati, e da muoversi a mena dito. La macchinetta ha la faccia dorata, ed è lunga nel più pollici 7.3… (a small machine, probably arithmetic, made of two ribbed brass plates that enclose 18 large and small circles, numbered, hinged and to be operated with fingers. The machine has a golden face and is 7.3 inches long…)

So it seems an entirely different machine, not only by appearance but also by dimensions (21 cm long, with 18 wheels, while the first machine was 43 cm long and had 8 wheels.) Interestingly enough, the new description fits perfectly with the present object from the Florence Museum, but not with the description of the original machine of Burattini. So what happened?

The most probable version is the following: Burattini did make in the 1650s a Pascaline-like calculator (first descriptions of the device fit quite well with the 8-wheel Pascaline), which he donated to the Grand Duke. Sometime between 1738 and 1779, the machine sank into obscurity (it is known that in 1746 almost the whole Medicean scientific collection was sent to Vienna, while the Florence collection was enriched with many pieces from Lorrainese Chamber of Physics of Lunéville, under the supervision of the famous french mechanic Phillippe Vayringe (1684-1746), as the maker of one of the machines. Probably during this period the original device was lost or sent to Vienna, while the present device was included in the Florence collection.)

So it seems the present machine is a later device (very similar to the money adder of Morland), made by an unknown maker and mistakenly attributed to Burattini, while the original machine of Burattini, unfortunately, had been lost.

1) Ratcliff, J. R., ‘Samuel Morland and his Calculating Machines c.1666: the Early Career of a Courtier–Inventor in Restoration London’. Brit. J. Hist. Science, 40(2), 2007, pp. 159–179.
2) Hénin S., Early Italian Computing Machines and their Inventors, in: A. Tatnall (ed.), Reflections on the History of Computing, Springer, 2012, pp. 204-230.

Biography of Tito Livio Burattini

Tito Livio Burattini (known also under his polonized names Tytus Liwiusz Boratini, Boratyni, or Buratin), was born on 8 March 1617, in an old and wealthy family of the local rural nobility in Agordo, a small mining town in the Republic of Venice (now in the province of Belluno, Italy). The family was involved in mining production and owned many lands in the area and even a house in Venice.

The native house of Burattini in Agordo
The native house of Burattini in Agordo

The paternal grandfather of Tito Livio Burattini—Niccolò, was knighted by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in 1591, together with his brothers Tito Livio, Girolamo, and Giovanni, thus allowing the family to add to their names the title “da Susino” (because the family originated and had property also in Susin di Sospirolo, a small town some 20 km south of Agordo).

Burattini was baptized under the name Tito Livio Niccolò (to remember his grandfather) and had a younger brother—Filippo (Filip) (born in 1620). Burattini’s father’s name was also Tito Livio (he died in 1665). Burattini’s mother was Isabella (or Elisabetta) Milo (1590-1695), also from a local noble family.

The native house of Burattini is still preserved in the central square of Agordo (see the nearby images).

The plaque on the house of Burattini
The plaque on the house of Burattini

In Agordo is still preserved also another house of the Burattini family with their coat of arms over the front gate (see the image below).

The second house of Burattini in Agordo, with their coat of arms
The second house of the Burattini family in Agordo, with their coat of arms

The primary school in Agordo now is called Tito Livio Burattini (see the photo below):

The Primary School "Tito Livio Burattini" in Agordo
The Primary School “Tito Livio Burattini” in Agordo

Almost nothing is known about Burattini’s childhood. As a boy, he was interested in the problems of mechanics, and in the middle of the 1630s, he studied at the Universities of Padua and Venice, winning a comprehensive knowledge of mathematics and physical sciences, architecture, and others.

In 1635 a terrible fire destroyed the town of Agordo, but it seems Burattini had left his hometown several years before this disaster.

John Greaves (1602-1652)
John Greaves (1602-1652)

Burattini early became a traveling scholar and in 1637 he went abroad to Egypt (just like the inventor of the Sector, Fabrizio Mordente), where he stayed until 1641, devoting himself to the study of Oriental languages ​​and the discovery of Egyptian antiquities, visiting and measuring pyramids and obelisks, exploring the Nile and its periodic flooding. Burattini even worked for some time as an assistant of the English mathematician and astronomer John Greaves (1602-1652) (see the nearby image) with his famous work on the pyramids, crowned by his important book Pyramidographia (1646). In 1639-1640 they measured several pyramids (especially the Great Pyramid of Giza), obelisks and monuments, trying to classify them, and drew up plans of several towns, including Alexandria, Memphis, and Heliopolis. In his notebooks, describing his exploration of the Great Pyramid of Giza, Greaves noted his work with Burattini, moreover, a part of his notes are in Italian, which comes to demonstrate the close collaboration between them.

After returning to Europe in 1641, Burattini settled for some time in Germany, but in 1642 was invited to serve at Polish Royal Court in Krakow. He accepted the proposal and settled in Poland for several years. Here he found good friends like Stanislaw Pudlowski (a pupil of Galileo and Professor at Jagiellonian University), Johannes Hevelius (a prominent Polish astronomer), Girolamo Pinocci (1613-1676), and Pierre Des Noyers, a King’s Secretaries, and others, and worked together with them on various scientific topics.

In 1645 Burattini returned for some time to Italy, then traveled again to Egypt, before settling permanently in Poland in 1647, this time together with his younger brother Filippo. The new Polish queen Marie Louise de Gonzague was a high-ranking and keen patron of sciences and arts and invited many European scientists to settle in Poland.

Burattini lived in Poland up to his death (leaving that country only occasionally and for short periods), serving 4 Polish Kings—Władysław IV, Jan II Kazimierz, Michał Korybut, and Jan III Sobieski as an architect, engineer, mechanic, diplomat, etc. He wrote several books, carried out experiments in optics and astronomy, manufactured lenses for microscopes and telescopes, constructed devices of various types, designed several important buildings, performed a couple of diplomatic missions ordered by his patron Queen Marie Louise Gonzaga, took part in military missions and battles, etc.

In 1650 Burattini was appointed as the Regis Poloniae Architectus (Polish Royal Architect) and directed the construction of the royal palace at Krakowskie Przedmieście in Warsaw, the Palace of Andrzej Morsztyn, the Church of the Discalced Carmelites, etc. He carried out also restoration works at Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw (see the photo below). In Ujazdowie he arranged the first Polish astronomical observatory, in which he discovered the spots on Venus in 1665. In 1660 Burattini was appointed as a financial secretary of the Royal Court.

Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, Poland (Photo: Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy)
Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, Poland (Photo: Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy)

In 1647 Burattini presented to the Polish King Władysław IV a treatise entitled Dragon Volant (Flying Dragon, see the sketch below) with drawings of a complex ornithopter. The King showed particular interest and despite the difficult for Poland wartime, ordered a working model to be produced. In the same 1647 a small 150 cm model, carrying a cat as a passenger was demonstrated before the Polish Court. Burattini was granted 500 talers from the Royal Treasury for the construction of a full-size machine.

The machine was ready in May 1648 and had four pairs of wings, mounted in tandem and a large folding parachute. The machine had a crew of three, and obviously, no one can suggest that it really flew, despite the fact, that Burattini even maintained, that he would fly from Warsaw to Constantinople (some 1700 km) in 12 hours:-) Despite this funny statement, most historians believe, that Dragon Volant is the most important milestone in the development of “heavier-than-air” flying machines between Leonardo Da Vinci at the end of the 15th century and Sir George Cayley in the early 1800s.

The news of the flying models constructed by Burattini and about plans of implementation of the machine itself circulated among many European countries. What remains today is a treatise by Burattini Il volare non e impossibile, and two drawings of the flying dragon, one of which was sent to be assessed by Blaise Pascal.

A sketch from the treatise Dragon Volant by Burattini
A sketch from the treatise Dragon Volant by Burattini

In 1655-1657 Burattini took part in several diplomatic missions in Austria (Vienna) and Italy (Florence, Bologna). Returning to Poland in 1657, Burattini (together with his brother Filippo) participated in the Polish-Swedish War battles under the command of general Stefan Czarniecki, with the rank of captain, commanding a company of infantry recruited at his own expense.

The year 1658 was a very successful one for Burattini. In compensation for his service to the Polish King, on 1 May 1658 he leased the crown vineyard in Cracow, in August he was granted a diploma and a nobleman title, and in November 1658 he opened a mint in Ujazdów, which struck small copper coins referred to as borattines. The production of the coins triggered a violent campaign against him; he was accused of making huge profits from the mint operation (40% of the coin value) and of adding glass to the coins which made them brittle. In 1662 Burattini was brought to the Treasury Commission which however found him innocent and consented to prolong the lease. Apart from the mint in Ujazdów, Burattini opened another mint in Brest-Litovsk. In 1668 Burattini faced new charges of abuse and bribery in favor of the candidacy of Prince de Condé, but he managed again to refute them. In order to pay back the enormous debt (circa 1.5 million zlotys) due to Burattini by the Polish state, in 1678 he was appointed administrator of the silver mint in Cracow.

In 1660 Burattini married to Teresa Bronisława Opacka (17.09.1640-03.10.1701), the young daughter of the prominent Polish nobleman Zygmunt Opacki h. Prus (III) (1587-1654). They were to have six children. In the same 1660 was born their first child—the daughter Ludwika Izabela Boratini, followed by four sons—Aleksander, Franciszek, Kazimierz Karol, and Zygmunt, and another daughter—Barbara.

Burattini's most famous book—Misura Universale, published in 1675
Burattini’s most famous book—Misura Universale, published in 1675

In the 1660s Burattini was in his prime. In the early 1660s, he designed a giant 60-foot focal telescope, described in a letter to Pierre Des Noyers in September 1665. Later he also designed an ingenious wire micrometer to be inserted in the focal plane of telescopes for measuring angular distances. In 1665 Burattini bought the village Jelonek, south of Warsaw. In 1666 he built a bridge over the Vistula for the army. After a short difficult period in his life in the late 1660s, following the death of his patron Queen Marie Louise Gonzaga in 1667, Burattini again got in favor of the Polish Crown and in September 1671, just before Second Polish–Ottoman War, he was appointed as a commander of the fortress of Warsaw. In 1678 he was again awarded a silver mint administration in Krakow.

In his famous book Misura Universale, published in 1675, Tito Livio Burattini first suggested the name meter as the name for a unit of length. He chose the word meter after metron, a Greek word for measure. Burattini’s meter was a universal unit of measurement, based on the length of a pendulum, beating one second. He named this unit metro catholico, which simply means universal measure. Burattini actually was not the first to propose the adoption of a decimal metric system, but he was the first to advance a project that received wide attention and was the one, who first suggested the name meter for the basic unit of length.

Burattini was a known scientist for the time and hold a busy correspondence with some other famous scientists of his time like Ismael Boulliau, Johannes Hevelius, Athanasius Kircher, Marin Cureau de la Chambre, and many others.

In Poland, Tito Livio Burattini managed to establish himself not only as a scientist but also as a businessman and diplomat, to become a rich and powerful man, and to begin a family. His end however was miserable—he died poor and sick on 17 November 1681, in Vilnius.