Sights and sounds: darkness and silence

As mentioned in last week’s post, one of the astronomers featuring in the novel Variable Stars is John Goodricke (1764-1786). I featured this portrait, which was given to the Royal Astronomical Society by a relative, C.A. Goodricke. An accompanying letter attributed it to James Scouler, a portrait painter who exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Goodricke – who was born in the Netherlands, educated briefly in Edinburgh and lived in York – is remembered chiefly for his observations of the variable star Algol (Beta Persei) in 1782. He demonstrated that it was in fact a binary star, an achievement for which he won the Royal Society’s Copley Medal. The portrait has all the suitable attributions for this young astronomer who leapt to fame: his finger pointing to an open book, indicating a scientific diagram, another book propped up behind (Principia?), a celestial globe, and some important-looking correspondence. He is smartly dressed, as befits the grandson of a baronet.

What the portrait cannot show is the fact that Goodricke was profoundly deaf. He was also unable to speak, and perhaps the artist gives us a hint of this with the letters, the finger pointing and the sitter’s slightly strained expression as he looks out of the image, apparently trying to communicate an important point to an unseen acquaintance – perhaps his friend Edward Pigott, another protagonist of Koning’s novel. While I mentioned the deafness in my review of Variable Stars, I did not indicate that it plays into another of her themes: music and silence. Caroline and William Herschel were both musicians before they were astronomers, and therefore part of a world that Goodricke cannot enjoy. There are also all sorts of silences endured by the various characters who cannot speak of their love. It is ironic that the deaf and dumb man turns out to be the most successful, briefly at least, communicating his feelings.

While (the real) Goodricke was deaf, however, he had what might be considered the primary sense of an astronomer, or even of a man of science: sight. The remarkable portrait below shows a natural philosopher who lacked vision but clearly had a very good ear and great dexterity. This is Henry Moyes, in a 1792 portrait by John Russell (who deserves a post of his own, in due course).

At first glance it looks like some sort of steampunky jest, but this really is how the blind Moyes appeared (see another extraordinary image here by John Kay). Goodricke had been made deaf in childhood as a result of scarlet fever. Moyes had suffered smallpox, aged three. Despite this setback he became known and admired as a public speaker. Initially lecturing in music, he later turned to lecturing and demonstrating natural philosophy, particularly chemistry. From Kirkcaldy, with the helping interest of Adam Smith, he went on to lecture in London and the US. He attended Lunar Society meetings and was described by Joseph Priestley as an “excellent lecturer”.

Unsurprisingly, he required assistance in demonstrating experiments, apparently making use of his nephew, William Nicol, who became a mineralogist. Moyes was clearly pretty handy himself and, Newton-like, he was said to have constructed model windmills as a child. He also, according to this 1947 article, “played the flute, harpsichord, and other instruments and ‘sang agreeably'”. In this biographical sketch, first published in 1838 by the caricaturist Kay referred to above, Moyes is described as a “remarkable character”,  who was “rather tall in his person, and of a swarthy complexion”, cheerful and an interesting conversationalist. Of his lecturing, Kay, who heard him, writes:

There was nothing very remarkable in his manner. His voice was good, and his articulation excellent. There was no appearance of affectation or conceit, nor of that impudent forwardness which gives offence and creates disgust. Nevertheless, he never seemed in the least degree embarassed, but handled his subject in such a way as to convince his audience that he was well prepared. The accuracy of his language, considering the disadvantages with which he had to contend, was wonderful; and if there were any defect, it consisted in sometimes making use of very bold metapors, which could have been as well spared. His epithets were in general well applied, and seldom had a tendency towards bombast. The address which he discovered in performing experiments excited great interest in the company present, and afforded them the highest pleasure.

Much of that interest was evidently excited by Moyes’ blindness, something that he, and this portrait, did nothing to hide. Having a blind man lecture in chemistry, Kay wrote, “naturally excited curiosity and attention”. He also records a report in an American newspaper on the occasion that “The celebrated Dr. Moyes, though blind, delivered a lecture upon optics, delineating the properties of light and shade”. This theme, not his specialism, would seem to be a deliberate choice: a successful marketing of both his skills and his disability, that ensured that he made a considerable profit on his American tour.

This portrait was found on wikigallery by someone who asked Simon Schaffer, who asked me and my colleagues, if the object Moyes was holding could be identified. Any guesses? There is something in the delicacy with which he is shown holding it, and gesturing to it, that is reminiscent of a musical instrument, but there are no holes or mouthpiece. Could it be some sort of chemical flask? A demonstration device for harmonics? An unlikely telescope?


8 thoughts on “Sights and sounds: darkness and silence

  1. Hi,
    Intriguing stuff ! I think that the object, to have been put in the picture at all, must have been familiar to all those who knew him so therefore some sort of aid. The only thing that I can think is that if he held the cupped end to his ear he would be able to tell the direction that a sound was coming from more accurately, or, with the heightened hearing of a blind person be able to separate a specific sound.
    Slightly worryingly, the artist has given him an expression that suggests he has just heard a good joke !

  2. Thanks for the comments all!

    @Alexi – good picture. As you say, we don’t often think of people wearing specs before, perhaps, 18thc, and dark glasses?!

    @Julian – I like the suggestion, but not quite convinced. I’m pretty sure the bottom of device is solid, which would rule out ear-trumpets and telescopes etc. But it’s not at all clearly depicted!

    @Sulfur Blue – I’ve had quite a few suggestions on Twitter that this is a measuring cylinder, and that was definitely my first thought, given the shape. I think it’s still the best bet, although it’s strange that it looks much more metal than glass and, as you say, it seems a strange thing for a blind person to highlight. I would have assumed that Moyes relied on his assistant to do the measuring. But perhaps Moyes had invented something that he was able to use himself and was, therefore, particularly proud of his signature piece?

    • Hmm. It could well be. As metal is a much better heat conductor than glass, in theory a long metal flask could allow for a blind person with trained, sensitive fingertips to distinguish the point up to which the flask is filled, if the liquid in its interior is hot or cold enough, by pressing or sliding the finger along its height, and perhaps holding for a while. It is just a supposition, though — and perhaps quite a stretch. It would also explain his apparent satisfaction at showing the device. Anyway, a metal flask would just make sense for safety reasons: how many glass beakers would a blind man break in the course of a presentation?

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