Hidden Belgium: The Belgian scientist who inspired the US dollar

Hidden Belgium: The Belgian scientist who inspired the US dollar

Not many people stop to look at the statue in the middle of Simon Stevinplein in Bruges. It celebrates a brilliant mathematician born in Bruges in about 1548. Simon Stevin applied the use of the decimal point in mathematics, but he also designed a sand yacht that could reach a speed of 35 kilometres an hour.

The illegitimate son of Anthonis Stevin and Catelyne van der Poort, Simon worked briefly as a book-keeper in Antwerp before setting off on a six-year tour of Europe. Back in Bruges in 1577, he worked for four years as a tax inspector, then moved to Leiden to study science at the prestigious Dutch university.

While in the Netherlands, Stevin began publishing books on geometry, hydrostatics and mathematics. He was the first to use the decimal point in mathematics and also proved that the downward pressure of a liquid depended on the height and base of the liquid and not on the shape of the container.

His most remarkable invention was the sand yacht he designed in 1600. The four-wheeled vehicle was fitted with two sails and carried 28 passengers on an exciting two-hour excursion along the beach.

Stevin was virtually forgotten after he died in 1620 and nobody knows whether he is buried in The Hague or Leiden. His reputation was restored in the 19th century when the city of Bruges commissioned a statue of Stevin as the first in a series of public monuments honouring distinguished citizens.

Not everyone approved of the decision; one Catholic politician said Stevin was a traitor who had helped the Dutch Protestant cause. He added that Stevin was not even that much of a scientist, but the Belgian ambassador in London leaped to Stevin’s defence, describing him as “the Belgian Archimedes”.

The statue in Bruges shows Stevin holding a pair of compasses and a roll of paper with a diagram taken from the title page of his Elements of the Art of Weighing.

When Thomas Jefferson launched the US dollar in 1792, he based the currency on Stevin’s decimal system, which the scientist from Bruges had outlined in his 1585 booklet De Thiende (The Tenth).

Derek Blyth’s hidden secret of the day: Derek Blyth is the author of the bestselling “The 500 Hidden Secrets of Belgium”. He picks out one of his favourite hidden secrets for The Brussels Times every day.

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