Verbiest: The Priest Who Invented the Automobile

Even one who is as maladroit as I when it comes to the Internet, profits from “YouTube” with its cavalcade of some of the great people and events of more than a century. Would that it could go back farther, but there are many moving scenes to which we have access. One shows Father Georges LeMaitre, father of the “Big Bang” with Albert Einstein at the California Institute of Technology in January of 1933. Father Le Maitre, priest and physicist, had challenged Einstein’s postulate of a static state universe. Father Le Maitre contended that an expanding universe, exploding from a “first atomic moment” or “atomic egg” actually sustained Einstein’s general theory. Others were not convinced and a decade later, in that dark mill of science which is Cambridge University, Arthur Eddington rejected it and Fred Hoyle called LeMaitre’s theory the “Big Bang” as a term of mockery. But Einstein was deeply moved and said at the conclusion of Le Maitre’s presentation, “This is the most beautiful and satisfactory explanation of creation to which I have ever listened.”

Beauty. Now, it was not Augustine as many think, but Galileo paraphrasing Augustine’s insistence on the right use of reason who said that the Scriptures teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. But Augustine did confess, “Late have I loved thee, Beauty ever ancient, ever new.” This was the ineffable beauty of the Creator, reflected in the symmetry of the entire universe. For all his theological constraints, it is significant that Einstein chose first to call Le Maitre’s explanation “beautiful.”

This past March, YouTube delivered another powerful scene which, I admit, brought fugitive tears to my Anglo Saxon eyes. At Stanford University, an assistant professor of physics, Chao Lin Kuo, knocks on the door of the Russian physicist Andrei Linde to tell him that many years of patient observation near the South Pole, seems to confirm his theory of primordial gravitational waves issuing from the pure quantum gravity of Le Maitre’s “first atomic moment.” In astonishment, Linde’s wife, also a physicist, speechlessly embraces the young man. Overwhelmed, Professor Linde accepts a glass of champagne and says hesitatingly, “I always live with the feeling—what if I believe this just because it is beautiful?”

If “beauty will save the world,” pace Dostoyevsky, it will also salvage physicists, since beauty cannot contradict truth. And when physicists are allured, the heart of all science succumbs, for as Ernest Rutherford said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” Pope Urban VIII, who championed Galileo until that man, though of faith, made Simplicio in his Dialogue of Two Chief World Systems the weak proponent of divine omniscience, conjoined his patronage of science with that of art.   For him, Galileo was not alien to those artists he also promoted: Bernini, Lorraine, Poussin and Cortona. One need not fear hoping that a thing is true because it is beautiful. Truth cannot be ugly, and beauty is always a radiance of truth itself. Discord arises only when the categories are mixed up: when how to go to heaven is invoked to tell how the heavens go, or when knowing how the heavens go is applied to deny that we can go to heaven. Father Le Maitre politely corrected Pope Pius XII for saying that his cosmological discoveries affirmed the “Fiat Lux!” of Genesis. The pope obliged the professor and backed off.  On a lower level of discourse, the brilliant Father Stanley Jaki, who taught that modern physical science is the product of the Christian understanding of order and providence, corrected me once in a similar way, but not as delicately as Father Le Maitre did, for Father Jaki had an Hungarian spirit that did not tarry in the halls of patience or languish in understatement.

The list of great Catholic scientists is as long as the years since modern science became conscious of itself, but my clerical perspective would focus on Catholic priests compelled by beauty to discover more about the ordering of things for, as Alexander Pope wrote, “Order is heaven’s first law.”   Everyone knows of Roger Bacon and Albert the Great. But Copernicus was a priest, too, and likewise the geneticist Mendel. Barsanti developed the internal combustion engine after Buridan theorized inertial motion. Clavius was a guide in designing the Gregorian calendar, Gassendi observed the transit of a planet across the sun. Picard was the first to calculate accurately the size of the earth, Steno founded modern geology as Mabillion did paleography and Valentin modern chemistry and Marenne acoustics. The first wireless transmission of the human voice was by Sarasa.  Kirche was the first to observe microbes by microscope and Jedlike invented the dynamo and electric motor. Thirty-five craters on our moon are named for priests who contributed to natural science.

A particularly compelling model for the way the care of souls unites with the custody of creation is the singular prodigy, Father Ferdinand Verbiest. He was born on October 9, 1623, the very day that Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Urban VIII, wrote in a letter to Cesarini of the wonderful circumstance “in questa mirabil congiuntura” by which Galileo had supported Copernicus. Father Verbiest grew up in Pillem, Flanders, now Belgium and the homeland of Father LeMaitre. Having studied in Bruges and Kortrijk, he studied philosophy and mathematics in Leuven and then, having joined the Society of Jesus, he pursued theology in Seville and Rome, along with astronomy. His hope to be a missionary in Central America thwarted, he was sent to China along with thirty-five other missionaries, and was one of ten survivors by the time the boat reached Macau in 1659. In the steps of Matteo Ricci and Adam Schall, the Jesuits had already established their presence in the imperial observatory in Beijing. Upon the death of their patron, the young Shunzi Emperor, jealous court astronomers, led by Yang Guangxian, tortured them, and Verbiest was among those who were forced into a crouched positioned, unable to sit or stand for two months. Then sentenced to be cut to pieces while still alive, they were released after an earthquake and fire were taken as omens in their favor. Verbiest next submitted to several contests of his mathematical and astronomical skills, including the calculation of a lunar eclipse.

The new Kangxi Emperor made Father Verbiest his tutor in geometry, philosophy and music. Father Verbiest was a priest first of all, and secured permission to preach the Gospel throughout the empire, in return for translating the first six books of Euclid into Manchu. Some 800,000 conversions are attributed to his influence. Among his thirty published works is his translation of the Missal into Mandarin. He also reformed the Chinese calendar, and calculated all solar and lunar eclipses for 2000 years. Ever the diplomat, but guiltless of human respect, when told not to correct the Chinese calendar he boldly answered: “It is not within my power to make the heavens agree with your calendar. The extra month must be taken out.” And so it was. He rebuilt the imperial observatory and designed new instruments: an altazimuth, celestial globe, ecliptic armilla, equatorial armilla, quadrant altazimuth and an eight foot sextant. Using his surveying skills, and conferring in Latin with the Russian ambassador on behalf of the Qing emperor, he fixed the official Russo-Chinese borders. Rather like Aquinas dying after his magnificent brain was fatally wounded by a tree branch, Verbiest died in a fall from a bolting horse. He was given an imperial burial, and became the only European accorded an “immortal” name, Kiao-Li-Siang Kiai.

Verbiest had also studied the properties of steam. His “Astronomia Europea” describes an “auto-mobile” which he designed as a toy for the emperor around 1672. It used a rudimentary boiler (a prototype of the Stanley Steamer) with wheels turned by steam forced towards a turbine. This was a scale model not constructed to carry passengers, but while the invention of the car may be attributed to Cugnot, Anderson, Benz or Daimler, and some have even proposed Leonardo earlier, there are those on the other side of their planet in remote Cathay who would say that the real inventor was Verbiest. More recently he was honored on a Belgian postage stamp.

Will Durant said, “Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art.” These great priests in the name of Christ loved creation because of the Creator and they never spent their intellects at the expense of the salvation of souls. They had no need to fear that their theories might be tricks because they were beautiful. Chimeras can fool the senses, but not beauty. And the Source of all beauty is Truth itself. “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2).

Fr. George W. Rutler


Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. He is the author of many books including Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943 (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press) and Hints of Heaven (Sophia Institute Press). His latest books are He Spoke To Us (Ignatius, 2016) and The Stories of Hymns (EWTN Publishing, 2017).

  • Scott W.

    This was a scale model not constructed to carry passengers

    So he invented model railroading and cluttered hobby shops as well. 🙂

  • The_Monk

    Bravo! A grand article; eloquent as I have come to expect from Fr. Rutler….

  • Nick_Palmer3

    A wonderful, yet dauntingly titled book, ‘Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought’ by Harvard’s Gerald Holton (1988) speaks to the theme of beauty in science. Holton was the first person given access to Einstein’s personal archives. He finds that pace the story and timeline in typical physics textbooks, Einsteins primary motivation for his theory of relativity was not the anomalous results of previous experiments (like those of Maxwell in the 1880s), but rather a deeply held conviction of symmetry in the universe and a desire for beauty in theory.

    Despite its title, the book is marvelously well written and approachable by any reasonably well-educated person.

  • bill b

    Enjoyable but a misleading title. Conceptualize is what he did. Leonardo Da Vinci conceptualized a number of now modern related things but he rightly gets credit for none because inventing means completing in actuality. But the above piece makes one want to read more about the Jesuits in 17th century China.

    • johnalbertson

      The evidence is that the machine did work and performed for the Emperor’s delight. But it was scaled down and not strong enough actually to carry passengers.

    • Norman

      Maybe so but I had always attributed Diamler/Benz as automobile inventor but thanks to Father Rutler I’ll have to examine their definition of “automobile” because the first they made moved, but didn’t hold any passengers either… If Father Verbiest’s moved with any kind of sustainment, then he may be able to take credit right?… Or not?… Thoughts?

      • Valentin

        If it moved on it’s own without any peddling required than it is an auto-mobile (hence the name).

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  • pi2r2

    Thank you Rev. Rutler for a wonderfully written and compelling story. One may have to concede the invention of a stream engine and more, though perhaps not an automobile.

    • JohnR7

      Great article. Thanks. You mention “Marenne” elsewhere I have seen his name spelt “Mersenne.” You also state that “The first wireless transmission of the human voice was by Sarasa.”
      I would enjoy finding a reference for that. This article

      states, “Landell de Moura (1861–1928) – Priest and inventor who was the first to accomplish the transmission of the human voice by a wireless machine.”

      • TheAbaum

        On the the subject of priests and radio: don’t forget

        Rev. Jozef Murgaš, 1864-1929, who was born at Tajov, a small village in Slovakia. He came to America and became pastor of Sacred Heart Slovak Church, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

        His invention of the ‘tone system’ of wireless telegraphy and ultimate transmission of the human voice by wireless means was his greatest accomplishment in the scientific world. His first public transmission of sound over land was made on November 23, 1905 between Scranton, Pa. and Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Father Murgaš held 17 patents.

        Rev. Murgaš was also an accomplished Artist, Scientist, Botanist, Lepidopterist and Poet.

  • Valentin

    Great article. I think the problem with a lot of the more secularist ‘scientists’ is that they study biology before they study theology or philosophy. My name is Valentin (yay) and my father is a chemist. Pax Christi Semper Tecum

  • Martin

    “Copernicus was a priest” I’ve heard this but have never been able to find it in a good academic source, could anyone provide one.

    • Grtgrandpa-Tom

      Copernicus published Six Books on the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbits, which he dedicated to Pope Paul III in 1543. Copernicus introduced that the sun, rather than the Earth was at the center of the Universe system. This heliocentric model was not subject to formal Catholic censure until the Galileo case. The Book: “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization,” by Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Ph.D., goes into some detail about Copernicus, but does not specifically say if he was in the order of priesthood. God was a mathematician, the Book of Wisdom (11:21) says He “ordered all things by measure, number, and weight.”

  • Greg Cook

    Father, Isn’t “beauty will save the world” originally from Dostoevsky, not Solzhenitsyn?

    • T.Procopio

      what is from his novel ‘The Idiot’

  • Grtgrandpa-Tom

    “Priest in the City.” Love Father Rutler’s EWTN broadcasts. A great book to read: How the Catholic Church built Western Civilization, by Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr., Ph.D.. There are many Priest who are the fathers of many of the sciences, economics, education, and laws. There are 35 craters on the moon named for Jesuit scientist and mathematricians.

    • Deoacveritatimyfaithsustainsm

      I loved Christ in the City with Father Rutler on EWTN too, and I am also listening to Thomas E. Woods, Jr., Ph.D.. book as well.

      Both sources are excellent but most importantly very informative.

      • Grtgrandpa-Tom

        Yes, it is called “Christ in the City,” rather than Priest in the City that I wrote. Currently Father Rutler is doing the “Parables.” I too listened to Thomas E. Woods podcast, then I bought the book from EWTN book store. I is a great addition to my library, and is the source for informing the atheist and the protestant about the Catholic men who contributed so much to the advancement of civilization. Good luck, and God bless you and yours.

  • Philip Sieve

    The universe may have expanded, but where’s the proof of a large object from whence it originated? There could have been a pulse in space that pushed a lot of loose space bodies in all directions. I prefer the hard sciences, like those which are demonstrated in “Outrageous Acts of Science” and not the speculative kinds.

    • johnalbertson

      The whole point of the discovery done by the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole is that it may very well have made “5 Sigma at point 2” of Expansion Theory “hard science.”

      • Philip Sieve

        Expanded from what and where? Maybe we should be concerned with what is happening, now. What will happen could be considered if things don’t change. This speculative stuff is like private revelation. As sure as it may seem, following it like a catechism or Bibke is putting too much faith in what is not divinely inspired–not, by nature, firm footing. Neither grants, livelihoods, nor degrees should be refused for contradicting speculative science stories. Just stick with the scientific method.

    • El_Tigre_Loco

      “I prefer the hard sciences… and not the speculative kinds.”

      Maybe, but all science is first speculation through postulating a theory and then seeing if the theory follows observation.

      • Philip Sieve

        I want to know what is now. The rest is subject to politics. Even the weather reports could be used by opportunists.

  • Ronk

    “Now, it was not Augustine as many think, but Galileo paraphrasing Augustine’s insistence on the right use of reason who said that the Scriptures teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. ”
    Actually Galileo was quoting verbatim Cardinal Bellarmine’s paraphrase of St Augustine.

    • johnalbertson

      It gets more complicated, as Galileo claimed to be quoting Baronius., but this was in conversation. The phrase is, I think, not to be found in writing by either Baronius or Bellarmine. At least they agreed. Great minds can think alike.

  • Mali Gerilac

    Don’t forget Fr Andrew Gordon (1712 – 1751), a Scottish Benedictine monk, who made the first electric motor.

  • Mary Jo Anderson

    Fr. Rutler never disappoints (I am in the midst of his terrific book, Principalities and Powers). This is a wonderful, charming window into the history of scientific contributions by priests. If the YouTube links had been added, we would have symmetry. Bravo!

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  • zoltar

    Be sure to watch the movie entitled, “The Principle,” when it comes out this fall. Using the latest discoveries of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation, it shows that we on Earth do indeed inhabit a special place in the universe.

    • johnalbertson

      Please: this documentary project is an embarrassment Some of those whose comments are excerpted in it assert that they were duped, not knowing what it was about. Sungenis is of the tinfoil hat school. With a bogus Ph.D from a non-accredited diploma mill in the Republic of Vanautu ( ! ) disobeyed the bishop of his own diocese who banned him from public speaking in Catholic institutions, and was removed from EWTN, and not only for his Holocaust denying rants. This sort of thing can damage the Church if people are inclined to take it seriously. Check out his bio.

      • pointvicente

        To be clear I am not taking sides here. However, whenever someone rails against another individual in this manner you might want to get a balanced look at the evidence from both sides of the accusations. Truth to be told the those that were interviewed were caught on camera signing the consent form. So I’m not sure how you could possibly say they were “duped”.

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  • jmjriz

    This is an article that deserves mass circulation.

    Having journeyed down many of the historical same paths as good Fr. George (and I too was chastised by the late Fr. Stanley Jaki) I lament the missed opportunities for us Catholics to get the “fullness of truth” out and up where it belongs.

    A case in point is the history of the creation of the metric system (and its Catholic “father” Abbot Gabriel Mouton). Without this unifying gift modern science would still be splintered and stunted. And this is where the beauty comes in…It just so happens that because this length was established as THE standard that the absolute/constant speed of light in a vacuum and the speed of sound (at 3 decrees Celsius) are respectively 3×10^8 m/s and 333 m/s. So light waves/particles and sound waves both point to the threeness of creation and to the threeness and oneness of the Creator.

    I ask people to also consider the fact that astrophysicists calculate that 333,000 masses of the Earth would fit into the mass of the Sun. These aren’t made up numbers, they are the best science out there. I wonder what the science community would have said if celeritas (the speed of light) was determined to have been exactly 3 as opposed to 2.9979. God made it so close, but not exact for to do so would have affected our relationship with the “unapproachable light.” Faith requires mystery and the mystery of light (wave-particle duality) points the duality of the God-Man and to the Holy Eucharist.

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