Update: H Word posts on books, hoaxes, lives and laptops

Posts over on The H Word, from the last little while. Comments on all of these are now closed, but please feel free to continue any of the conversations in the comments here – particularly on reading about science, discussed in the last post listed here.  On that theme, see also Georgina Voss’s post asking for suggestions of fictional works that help explore the politics of science and technology.


Twenty years on from Longitude… rewriting the “villainous” Nevil Maskelyne

A new book on a Georgian Astronomer Royal reveals that there was a great deal more to Nevil Maskelyne than being clockmaker John Harrison’s bête noire.

The Great Moon Hoax and the Christian Philosopher

180 years ago newspaper readers were thrilled by a story about plants, animals and flying men on the Moon. Why were people convinced, was it a hoax, and why was it written? Was it a satire that went wrong?

Anna Atkins: Google’s tribute to a pioneer of botany and photography

One of the few women to gain presence in 19th-century science, her book, containing cyanotypes of botanical specimens, was the first to contain photographic images.

Destroyed Snowden laptop: the curatorial view

The Snowden MacBook, destroyed in the basement of the Guardian, is on display at the V&A. I asked some experts for their opinion of this unusual and provocative display of technology.

An alternative 13 best books about science?

What books do you think people should read to understand science – not just its content, but also its history and place in society?

Picturing science: comet watching

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Detail of a caricature showing a man watching a comet
‘Looking at the comet till you get a criek in the neck’. Detail of a caricature by
Thomas Rowlandson, 1811. Source: National Maritime Museum
Having begun my series called Picturing Science, I realised that I have stolen the title of another website, which does at least give me an excuse to point those interested in imagery in the history of science to the Origins of Science as a Visual Pursuit project. This fascinating academic project is looking in detail at images as an integral part of doing science, while my series is – for now at least – more focused on science in the public sphere.

Thus, while last week’s fanciful image was produced in the sober, educational context of an encyclopedia, this week’s takes us from the heavens right down to earth. It is a caricature by Thomas Rowlandson, published by Thomas Tegg in 1811, and can be viewed in full here.

On one level the print satirises the increasing popular interest in astronomy in the first half of the 19th century. With telescopes increasingly affordable, and comets in the news, there were undoubtedly more individuals than ever who, like this man in his nightcap and nightgown, were straining to view the heavens until they “get a criek [sic] in the neck”.

1805 had seen what is now known as Encke’s comet and Biela’s comet, two years later there was the much more spectacular Great Comet of 1807. In the year that this print was published, another bright comet, with a remarkable reddish colour and broad tail, was visible to the naked eye for around 260 days. This was the Great Comet of 1811.

As so often, in history and even today, the appearance of a bright comet was connected to particular events on earth. 1811, for example, saw a particularly good wine vintage, and so Comet Wine was marketed. However, it was also interpreted as having portended Napoleon’s invasion of Russia the following year – not least by Napoleon himself – and became known as Napoleon’s Comet. However, something else of earthly – or, perhaps, earthy – concern is happening in this caricature.

Detail from a caricature showing a man watching a comet while his wife enjoys the attentions of another manWhile the old man’s eye is glued to his telescope, and his mind contemplating the heavens, another man takes advantage of the situation, paying lascivious attention to the astronomer’s young and attractive wife. Just to make the relationship clear, her fur stole appears to add a tail to the older man – a symbol, like horns, of the cuckold.

This joke, about astronomers and enthusiasts being so wrapped up in their ideas, views of nature and gadgets that they fail to see what is going on under their noses, is an old one. It appears in Gulliver’s Travels among the inhabitants of the floating island Laputa, who I mentioned inmy post on Swift and satire. It is, unsurprisingly, a common trope of caricature, something I discussed with some other examples in an old post on caricaturing astronomers.

You can see some other distracted astronomers and some 19th-century comet imagery from the National Maritime Museum’s collections and elsewhere on my Pinterest boards. Also on Pinterest are some morePutti of Science, collected by Danny Birchall after last week’s optical putti.

Gulliver’s travels in science and satire

Cross posted from The H Word blog.

Jonathan Swift

For historians of science, Jonathan Swift’s book Gulliver’s Travels is well known both as a work of what we might call proto-science fiction and as a satire on the experimental philosophy that was being promoted by the Royal Society at the time of its publication – two years before the death of Isaac Newton.

A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk at the very same Society that Swift had mocked as wasting time on projects such as the extraction of sunbeams from cucumbers. It was given by Dr Greg Lynall, a Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. He is author of Swift and Science: The Satire, Politics, and Theology of Natural Knowledge, which looks well-worth a read from the review posted on the website of the British Society for Literature and Science.

Swift was a High Church Anglican and Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Knowing this, some might leap to the conclusion that here was someone who did not and could not understand the important work being done by Fellows of the Royal Society, that here was a clash of world views and evidence of a natural hostility between science and religion. This, of course, is completely off track. It ignores the complexity of Swift’s views, the validity of some of his targets and the fact that, while sectarianism might be rife, the importance of religion per se was not in question.

In many ways the whole of Gulliver’s Travels is a satire on the scientific approach of the Royal Society. It is presented as a travel narrative, reporting on extraordinary sights and experiences in foreign lands in a calm, detached and, whenever possible, quantitative fashion. The Royal Society had often encouraged travellers to make such records and reported on information collected in circumstances that ranged across formal experiment, mathematical proof, astronomical observation, field work, library work, happenstance and even hearsay. Curiosities and natural monstrosities took their place alongside Newton’s crucial experiment.

Title page of Swift's Gulliver's TravelsThe most significant section of the book from the history of science point of view is Gulliver’s visit to the floating island, Laputa, where the inhabitants are enamoured of mathematics, measuring, quantifying, experimenting and astronomical predictions. The island floats by magnetic levitation, in what seems to be one of the only ‘practical’ applications of their knowledge – their obsession with accurate measurement has led them to apply the use of quadrants to the art of tailoring, resulting only in badly-fitting clothes. Their heads literally in the clouds, they have to be woken up from their speculations to communicate with Gulliver.

Swift was satirising the ubiquity of Newtonian philosophy in polite society of 1720s London, but he was not being ‘anti-experimental philosophy’, just as no one today is ‘anti-science’. Yes, there was fun to be poked at some of the extravagances and plain oddness of the new philosophy and some its followers, just as in Thomas Shadwell’s play The Virtuoso, which targeted Robert Hooke. However, it works as satire because of genuine concerns lurking beneath – and some of those concerns remain legitimate today.

Most obviously, in Laputa, Swift criticises a world of mathematical and philosophical endeavour that does little or nothing to better people’s lives, especially those of their subjects in the colony Balnibarbi, located beneath the floating Laputa. In fact, satirising the power relations of Britain and Swift’s native Ireland or, more broadly, the rich and poor, we find that Laputa is used to subdue Balnibarbi by threats to block the sun or rain, by throwing down rocks, or even crushing rebel cities by lowering Laputa onto them.

While, in the real world, there was much rhetoric around the beneficial usefulness of new knowledge and, indeed, much focus on practical problems like navigation, mining and agriculture, Swift was surely right that useful applications of the new knowledge either seemed a long time coming, or were clearly in the interests of King, government, military and landowners (who, after all, are much more useful patrons of science than the poor).

Lynall’s talk made it clear how political much of Swift’s satire was, even when the focus might appear to be science. While often associated with the Tories, Swift was suspicious of party politics and the patronage and jobbing that went along with them. Newton became one of the targets of his attacks not because of his science, but because of his influential and very well remunerated position as Master of the Mint, bestowed on him by the Whigs.

Swift once claimed that he had a “perfect hatred of tyranny and oppression”. Lynall showed that if the knowledge or authority of experimental philosophy were used in backing it, that too should be called out. A key episode was where Newton presented evidence to back William Wood’s application for a valuable contract to make new coinage for Ireland. Corruption and bribery – including involvement ofthe King’s mistress – were widely rumoured, as was the claim that the coins were of inferior quality. Swift took Newton, and what he viewed as his fraudulent use of technical evidence in the assays he carried out in Wood’s favour, as legitimate targets for denunciation in his Drapier’s Letters and vicious satire.

Swifts targets were political and often very personal. But, where he smelt corruption, it would seem that the sins of blinding people with ‘the science’ or impressive credentials only made a bad job worse. Meanwhile, the folly of being satisfied simply with the wonder of astronomical prediction, experimental apparatus and exact measurement, while outside people continue to starve, is one we should always be reminded of by the best critics and satirists.


Prize fights: animadversions on the almanac

Cross-posted from the Longitude Project Blog.

A long time ago, in a post far, far away, I stated that “There was no such thing as the longitude prize”. In the same post I also mentioned that I would, nevertheless, have more to say about 18th-century references to a longitude prize. It is high time I fulfilled that promise.

In fact, there are just two mentions of a “Longitude Prize” picked up in Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), which includes millions of searchable, digitised pages from over 180,000 books, pamphlets, essays and broadsides. I think we can safely say that it was not a commonplace term at that time. [A Google Books Ngram search on Longitude Prize and longitude prize gives us nothing between 1800 and the 1890s, and has peaks in the 1960s (after Gould’s chronometer history and Quill’s Harrison biography appeared) and the 1990s (post-Sobel).]

Chasing this reference did, however, lead me to learn about some rather public dissatisfaction with the Board of Longitude and its Nautical Almanac. It also reveals another dispute that hit Nevil Maskelyne.

Both 18th-century uses of the phrase are from Robert Heath’s The British palladium; or, Annual miscellany, for the years 1768 and 1774. Heath was an army officer and a mathematician, best known as a frequent contributor to and subsequently the editor of the Ladies’ Diary. This was an annual publication that contained useful information, calendars and mathematical puzzles. Many of these puzzles and problems, for which prizes were offered, were set by Heath, who initially marketed the British Palladium as an appendix.

Heath’s major publications were, however, Astronomia accurata, or, The Royal Astronomer and Navigator (1760), and The Seaman’s Guide to the Longitude (1770). These were both very combative publications, the first accusing  James Ferguson and Benjamin Martin of making errors in their astronomical tables, and the second attacking Maskelyne for having failed to publish Tobias Mayer‘s lunar tables. The tables, which were nearly ready, actually appeared that year, but Maskelyne and Heath subsequently remained on bad terms, disputing mathematics and table production.

From this disputatious context, we can imagine that the use of the term “Longitude prize” was a loaded one. The 1768 instance leads to a piece of Longitude doggerel, which, for your edification, I will reproduce below. The “prize” here produces a rhyme, but also reveals a negative judgement of the competitive, argumentative and money-grabbing nature of the longitude search.

The 1774 instance occurs within  a piece that compared the British Nautical Almanac with the FrenchConnaissance des Temps. The sub-title is “The Discoverers of the Longitude discovered” and, as we might guess, was critical of the Board of Longitude. It suggested that public money wasted, noting that as aspects of the British ephemeris appeared to be the same as the French, it must have been copied (I think I’m right to say that it was actually the other way round). The article, attributed to “A Sea Officer”, goes on:

The British Computers make as puzzling a Mystery of their mixed and borrowedCalculations (and some no Use at Sea) as of the Longitude they seek. But we, on-board the Navy, make the same Use of the Nautical Ephemeris as we do of a Pack of Cards or the Back-gammon Tables; to pass an idle Hour or to kill Time! For, as we find none is paid for chacing the Longitude-Prize but Longitude Schemers and Projectors, (for whose Profit we are annually out of Pocket by being compelled to buy their Work,) we have long given over the Chace ourselves, without endeavouring to come up with what is not worth ourpicking up.

It was clearly Heath himself: his chief target, Maskelyne, is referred to as “the reverend Superintendentor Commander in Chief of Longitude”. It is unsurprising that Maskelyne, in his autobiographical notes, chose to underline the fact that he never benefited financially from taking on the extra work surrounding the publication of the Nautical Almanac. It was not only Harrison who suspected him of being motivated by money.

These publications, produced after the date that the “Longitude Prize” is usually considered to have been awarded and the problem solved, are very clear in their view that the solution was still elusive.


Tune of the Ass. Or otherwise to be set to MUSIC by Seig. Chrisstiano Longitudiano.

Disputes still arise,
For the Longitude Prize,
Since Whiston and Ditton are fled;
And H__r__n’s W___h,
Have prov’d a mere Catch,
And goes like one out of it’s Head, its Head,
And goes like one out of it’s Head [Note: See Mr. Maskelyne’s Observations.]

Irwin’s Chair lost it’s Fame,
And has now but a Name,
Was surpassed by the Scheme of the Moon;
W_tch_l beat up a Breeze,
For the Longitude Fees,
But to School he was sent away soon, aye soon,
But to School he was sent away soon.

For D__nth__e of Sages,
With one Dozen Pages,
That voluminous Scheme quite knock’d down;
He shew’d where it err’d,
Got his own Scheme preferr’d,
Which made the Watchmaker to frown, to frown,
Which made the poor Q_____r to frown.

Yet D___nth_e, or Ly___n,
We cannot rely on,
Tho’ Cambridge of Oxford takes Place;
Parallax and Refraction,
Are but a Distraction,
Till prov’d to agree with the Case, the Case,
Till proved to agree with the Case.

The Palladium Brother
Has gone little further, [Note: See p.53, & Suppt to Royal Astron. &  Navigator, p.8]
Till his Theory and Practice unite:
Then, by Observation,
He can serve his Nation,
Without his being a Bite, a Bite,
Without his being a Bite.

Of the Longitude Hoard,
Which is rul’d by the Board,
No Em___rs__n ever yet shar’d;
And the Nautical Nac,
Is but a fam’d Crack,
Where a Halley yet never appear’d, appear’d,
Where a Halley yet never appear’d.

Of Cambridge and Lyon,
And Oxford, cry fye on!
No Longitude yet has been found;
The learned Professors,
Have all been Aggressors,
And M__sk__ly__ne‘s only renown’d, renown’d,
And M__sk__ly__ne‘s only renown’d!

(I’ll admit that there are a few references there that I haven’t yet worked out – all suggestions on these names and allusions are gratefully received!)