Primum Mobile
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Primum Mobile



One version of the Ptolemaic system of celestial spheres, with the primum mobile (sense 1) shown as the tenth heaven[n 1]

From Middle English primum mobile ("outermost celestial sphere causing other spheres to move"),[1] borrowed from Late Latin primum mobile (literally "first mover"), from Latin pr?mum ("first; at first") (adverbial accusative of pr?mus ("first")) + m?bile (from m?bilis ("mobile, movable")). The Latin term is a calque of Arabic (mu?arrik ?awwal, "first mover"). The English term is cognate with Ancient Greek ? (tò prôton kinêsan, "prime mover") (and compare ? (pr?t? kín?sis, "first motion")).[2]



primum mobile (plural primum mobiles or prima mobilia)

  1. (astronomy, historical) The outermost celestial sphere of the heavens in Ptolemaic astronomy, which was believed to cause all the inner spheres to rotate.
    • [1814], Didacus Placidus de Titus [i.e., Placido Titi], "Theses, from the First Book of the Author's 'Celestial Philosophy'", in John Cooper, transl., Primum Mobile, with Theses to the Theory, and Canons for Practice: Wherein is Demonstrated, from Astronomical and Philosophical Principles, the Nature and Extent of Celestial Influx upon the Mental Faculties and Corporeal Affections of Man; [...], London: Printed and published by Davis and Dickson, [...], OCLC 710365739, paragraph 33, pages 12-13:
      But as there is a double motion of the stars, that is, under the primum mobile, and round the world, by both which, as we have said, they influence, we must consequently suppose, that the significators rule over things subjected to them by this twofold (or double) motion, to wit, under the primum mobile, and round the world.
    • 1822, "the author of 'Creation,' a poem" [pseudonym], "Laws Tending to Demonstrate the Action of a Primum Mobile, or Solar Repulsion", in Primum Mobile, or Solar Repulsion; being a Query Concerning the Primary Cause of Motion in the Solar System, as Connected with Gravity, Liverpool: Printed by James Smith, for the author, OCLC 504150561, pages 243-244:
      A primum mobile, therefore, being essential to the celestial mechanism, the same may be proved geometrically to originate in a solar repulsion, or in a repulsive force produced by whatsoever cause, and emanating spontaneously from the central luminary; [...]
    • 1867, Dante Alighieri, "Notes to Paradiso. [Canto XXVII.]", in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, transl., The Divine Comedy, Boston, Mass.; New York, N.Y.: Houghton, Mifflin and Company. [...], OCLC 2114993, page 701, column 1:
      Dante [Alighieri] now mounts up from the Heaven of the fixed stars to the Primum Mobile, or Crystalline Heaven.
    • 1872, "Additional Notes", in Walter W[illiam] Skeat, editor, A Treatise on the Astrolabe; Addressed to His Son Lowys by Geoffrey Chaucer. 1391 A.D. Edited from the Earliest MSS., London: Published for the Chaucer Society by N[icholas] Trübner & Co., [...], OCLC 11713042, page 75:
      The equinoctial was supposed to revolve, because it was the "girdle" of the primum mobile, and turned with it.
    • 1893, William Gilbert, "Of the Daily Magnetic Revolution of the Globes, as against the Time-honored Opinion of a Primum Mobile: A Probable Hypothesis", in P[aul] Fleury Mottelay, transl., William Gilbert of Colchester, Physician of London, on the Lodestone and Magnetic Bodies, and on the Great Magnet the Earth: A New Physiology, Demonstrated with Many Arguments and Experiments. [...] A Translation, New York, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons, [...], OCLC 990811632, pages 320-321:
      Far more extravagant (insanior) yet is the idea of the whirling of the supposititious primum mobile, which is still higher, deeper, more immeasurable; and yet this incomprehensible primum mobile would have to be of matter, of enormous altitude, and far surpassing all the creation below in mass, for else it could not make the whole universe down to the earth revolve from east to west, and we should have to accept a universal force, an unending despotism, in the governance of the stars, and a hateful tyranny.
  2. (chiefly philosophy, theology) The prime mover or first cause ("an initial cause from which all other causes and effects follow").
    Synonym: primus motor
    • 1779 January 20-22, Jeremy Bentham, "302: To Samuel Bentham: 20-22 January 1779 (Aet 30)", in Timothy L[auro] S[quire] Sprigge, editor, The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham (The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham), volume 2 (1777-80), London: UCL Press, published 2017, DOI:10.14324/111.9781911576273, ->ISBN, pages 219-220:
      Have we got among our primum mobiles the force of such elastic vapours as be generated for the purpose out of nonelastic substances, and are not incondensible? A good magazine of vitr[iolic] acid and powder'd marble would not only save the expence of air in feeding fire, but generate heat.
    • 1815, [Jeremy Bentham], "Table 1. I.--Notes to the Advantages.", in Chrestomathia: Being a Collection of Papers, Explanatory of the Design of an Institution, Proposed to be Set on Foot, under the Name of the Chrestomathic Day School, or Chrestomathic School, [...], London: Printed for Messrs. Payne and Foss, [...], and J. Ridgway, [...]; by J. M'Creery, [...], OCLC 29075267, pages 24-25:
      [M]otion is transferred and modified; by none of them produced:--in all of them motion finds a channel; in none of them [...] a source. [...] [W]hat are the several sources of motion, and what are the corresponding prime movers, or primum mobiles?
    • 1956, Heinrich Zimmer, "On the Sipr? Shore", in Joseph Campbell, editor, The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul's Conquest of Evil (Bollingen Series; XI), 2nd edition, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, published 1993 (10th printing), ->ISBN, part II (Four Episodes from the Romance of the Goddess), page 311:
      The Universal Goddess, the World Mother, is among the oldest, "longest-winded," of the great supporting divinities known to the myths of the world. [...] For just because she is the Great Mother, so was she there before anything else. She is the primum mobile, the first beginning, the material matrix out of which all came forth.
  3. (by extension) The person or thing that is the main impetus for some action; a driving force.
    • 1689 May 24, Robert Cotton, "Debate on the Heads for a Bill of Indemnity", in Cobbett's Parliamentary History of England. From the Norman Conquest, in 1066, to the Year 1803. [...], volume V (Comprising the Period [...] 1688, to [...] 1702), London: Printed by T[homas] C[urson] Hansard, [...]; published by R. Bagshaw [et al.], published 1809, OCLC 679032317, column 257:
      The great wheels, the primum mobiles, that have gone so violently and brought us into this confusion, I move that you will proceed against them, and that the king's gracious intentions may have farther effect, and those only excepted.
    • 1817, [William Kitchiner], "Sauces and Gravies", in Apicius Redivivus; or, The Cook's Oracle: [...], London: Printed for Samuel Bagster, [...], by J. Moyes, [...], OCLC 606082028:
      Some of the oil-shops colour this [essence of anchovy] with bole armeniac, rose pink, Venice-red, &c.; but all these additions deteriorate the flavour of the anchovy, and the palate and stomach suffer for the gratification of the eye, which, in culinary concerns, will never be indulged by the sagacious gourmand, at the expense of these two primum mobiles of his pursuits.
    • 1845 July, Edgar Allan Poe, "The Imp of the Perverse", in George R[ex] Graham, editor, Graham's American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art, volume XXVII, Philadelphia, Pa.: George R. Graham, [...], OCLC 1017756595, page 4; republished in Prose Tales, volume VI, Virginia edition, New York, N.Y.: Thomas Y[oung] Crowell and Co., [1890s?], OCLC 977555208, page 145:
      In the consideration of the faculties and impulses--of the prima mobilia of the human soul, the phrenologists have failed to make room for a propensity which, although obviously existing as a radical, primitive, irreducible sentiment, has been equally overlooked by all the moralists who preceded them. [...] We could not understand, that is to say, we could not have understood, had the notion of this primum mobile ever obtruded itself;-- [...]
    • 1848 January, "Art. V.--Kosmos, Entwurf einer Physischen Weltheschreibung, von Alexander von Humboldt. [...] 1845. Cosmos. Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe. By Alexander von Humboldt. Vol. I. Translated under the Superintendence of Lieut. Colonel Edward Sabine, [...] 1846. [book review]", in The Edinburgh Review, or Critical Journal, volume LXXXVII, number CLXXV, London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans; Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, OCLC 950902861, page 199:
      Simultaneous with these changes, but referring themselves to a totally different order of causes the seat of which is wholly exterior to our globe, and which depend entirely on the action of the sun and moon as the ultimate causes--the prima mobilia--of all these oceanic and atmospheric movements to which continents owe their destruction and reproduction, we have the continual formation of new strata at the bottom of the ocean; [...]
    • 1861, John F[rederick] W[illiam] Herschel, Physical Geography: From the Encyclopædia Britannica, Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, OCLC 4225595, paragraph 111, pages 97-98:
      But when we come to look upon them [strata of the earth], not, indeed, as the prima mobilia, but at least as the instruments, the levers and wedges with which the real primum mobile, the central heat, does its rough work on the crust of our globe, they lose their claim to this ideal permanence, and come to be considered as, in fact, newer than the rocks they penetrate and displace.
    • 1987, Cynthia B. Herrup, "From Accusation to Indictment", in The Common Peace: Participation and the Criminal Law in Seventeenth-century England (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History), Cambridge, Cambridgeshire; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press, ->ISBN, page 93:
      The standard metaphor for the role of the grand jury in early modern law was the primum mobile, the wheel that allowed all other wheels to begin their turning.
    • 1999, Patrick Vittet-Philippe, "Beyond Digital Television", in Michael Scriven and Monia Lecomte, editors, Television Broadcasting in Contemporary France and Britain, New York, N.Y.; Oxford, Oxfordshire: Berghahn Books, ->ISBN, page 120:
      The primum mobile and main engine of the Information Society in Europe, NDS [new digital services] have been the focus of urgent attention among European Institutions and Member States who are suddenly confronted with the arduous task of transitioning regulations conceived in a very different analogue environment.
    • 2009 February 6, John H[amilton] McWhorter, "Dead End: Hubert Harrison's Militant, Unproductive Racial Politics [review of Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 (2008) by Jeffrey Babcock Perry]", in City Journal[1], New York, N.Y.: Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, ISSN 1060-8540, OCLC 1126515108, archived from the original on 21 November 2018:
      Perry would have it that [Hubert] Harrison was "a key unifying link between the two great trends of the Black Liberation Movement: the labor- and civil-rights-based work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the race and nationalist platform associated with Malcolm X." This formulation, however, is a bit of a stretch: it makes Harrison the primum mobile behind, for example, the Montgomery bus boycott that King spearheaded in the fifties, [...]
    • 2014 January 17, Will Self, "How has England changed since 1994?", in Alan Rusbridger, editor, The Guardian[2], London: Guardian News & Media, ISSN 0261-3077, OCLC 229952407, archived from the original on 1 March 2016:
      The absolute intractability of the Irish question for successive waves of the English liberal consensus remains with us, at least in the diminuendo of Ulster, to this day; but revolving round this primum mobile of colonialism (and recall: Ireland was put to the sword by parliament, not monarch) are all the other crystal spheres of the expansive English cosmos.
    • 2017 August 28, Dan Chiasson, "The Playful Poetry of Ange Mlinko [print edition: Merry War]", in The New Yorker[3], New York, N.Y.: New Yorker Magazine Inc., published 4 September 2017 (print edition), ISSN 0028-792X, OCLC 243417341, archived from the original on 14 December 2019:
      The American poet Ange Mlinko's fifth book is "Distant Mandate" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Her title, borrowing a phrase from the writer László Krasznahorkai, refers to art's primum mobile, its primordial first domino. The drive to create art is a "mandate" so ancient that it should probably by now have expired, and yet when it arrives, still, it is always in a hurry.



  1. ^ From Petrus Apianus; Gemma Frisius (1539) Petri Apiani cosmographia, per Gemmam Phrysium, apud Louanienses medicum ac mathematicum insignem, restituta: additis de adem re ipsius Gemmae Phry. libellis, ut sequens pagina docet, Antwerp: In pingui gallina Arnoldo Berckma[n]no [Arnold Birckmann], OCLC 1113627241.


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