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Ptolemy History

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The museum Ptolemy set up in Alexandria was in effect the first University in the world. As its name implies, it was dedicated to the service of the Muses, which was also the case with the Peripateteic school at Athens. It was, however, a religious body only in form, in order to meet the legal difficulties of endowment in a world that had never forseen such a thing secular intellectual process. It was essentially a college of learned men engaged chiefly in research and record, but also to a certain extent teaching.

At the outset, and for two or three generations, the Museum at Alexandria presented such a scientific constellation as even Athens at its best could not rival. Particularly sound and good was the mathematical and geographical work. The names of Euclid, familiar to every school-boy was Eratosthenes, who measured the size of the earth and came within fifty miles of the true diameter, Appoloninus, who wrote on conic sections, stand out. Hipparchus made the first attempt to catalogue and map the stars with a view to checking any changes that might be occurring in the heavens. Hero devised the first steam engines. Archimedes came to Alexandria to study, and remained a frequent correspondent of the Museum.

The medical school of Alexandria was equally famous. For the first time in the world's history a standard of professional knowledge was set up. Herophilus, the greatest of the Alexandrian anatomists, is said to have conducted vivisections upon condemned criminals. Other teachers, in opposition to Herophilus, condemned the study of anatomy and developed the study of anatomy and developed the science of drugs. But, this scientific blaze at Alexandria did not endure altogether for more than a century. The organization of the Museum was not planned to ensure its mental continuity. It was a "royal" college; its professors and fellows (as we may call them) were appointed and paid by Pharaoh. "The republican character of the private corporations called the schools or academics at Athens was far more staple and independent". Royal patronage was all very well so long as Pharaoh was Ptolemy I or Ptolemy II, but the strain degenerated, and the long tradition of Egyptian priest craft presently swallowed up the Ptolemies - and destroyed the Aristotelian mentality of the museum all together. The Museum had not existed for a hundred years before its scientific energy was extinct.

Side by side with the Museum, Ptolemy I created a more enduring monument to himself in the great library. This was a combination of state library and state publishing upon a scale hitherto unheard of. It was to be altogether encyclopedic. If any stranger brought an unknown book to Egypt, he had to have it copied for the collection, and a considerable staff of copyists was engaged continually in making duplicates of all the more popular and necessary works. The library, like a university press, had an outward trade. It was a book-selling affair. Under Callimachus, the head of the library during the time of Ptolemy II and III, the arrangement and cataloguing of the accumulations was systematically undertaken. In those days, it must be remembered, books were not in pages, but rolled like the music-rolls of the modern piano-player, and in order to refer to any particular passage, a reader had to roll back or forward very tediously, a process which wore out books and readers together. One thinks at once of a simple and obvious little machine by which such a roll could have been quickly would to and forth the reference, but nothing of the sort seems to have been used. Every time a roll was read it was handled by two perspiring hands. It was to minimize the waste of time and trouble that Callimachus broke up long works, such as the History of Herodotus, into "books" or volumes, as we should call them, each upon a separate roll. The library of Alexandria drew afar vaster crowd of students than teachers of the Museum. The lodging and catering for these visitors from all parts of the world became a considerable business interest for the Alexandrian population.

Excerpt taken from "The Outline of History: Being a Plain and History of Life and Mankind" by H.G. Wells.

Ptolemy I ruled Egypt from 323-285 BC and established the great library at Alexandria, which brought together scholars from the entire known world of the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia. The library housed the Hippocratic corpus of medical writing until it was destroyed by fire in the fifth century AD.

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