AP History Notes

Posts Tagged ‘science’

Samuel Williams: minister, astronomer, fugitive,…

Along with future physician Isaac Rand (profiled yesterday), Prof. John Winthrop took a young man named Samuel Williams (1743-1817) up to Newfoundland in 1761 to help observe the transit of Venus.

After that experience Williams, son of a Waltham minister (and former young captive from the Deerfield raid of 1704), set out on a rather conventional career path. He became minister at Bradford, Massachusetts. But he also kept up his scientific interests. In 1769 Williams observed the decade’s second transit of Venus from Newbury, publishing his observations through the American Philosophical Society seventeen years later.

In 1780 Williams succeeded Winthrop as Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard. That year he wrote about New England’s famous “Dark Day” and led a small college expedition to Maine to watch the Moon eclipse the Sun.

That trip was hampered by the fact that Williams decided that the best place to make his observations was an island in Penobscot Bay which the British military had just defended from a large Massachusetts attack. As with the 1761 transit of Venus, however, warring governments were willing to let gentlemen make observations for the sake of science.

Later in the 1780s, Harvard student John Quincy Adams wrote: “Mr. Williams is more generally esteemed by the students, than any other member of this government [i.e., college faculty]. He is more affable and familiar with the students, and does not affect that ridiculous pomp which is so generally prevalent here.”

But in 1788 Prof. Williams suddenly had to depart Harvard—and the U.S. of A. He was charged with forgery for falsifying a receipt from a trust he administered. Williams rode north, leaving his family in Cambridge to await word of where to find him.

Williams settled in Rutland, Vermont, and found work as a legal copyist and minister, first fill-in and then full-time. He brought his family north and rebuilt a respectable life. Williams launched the Rutland Herald newspaper and edited it for three years. He published a history of the state and a short history of the Revolution for use in schools. Williams helped found the University of Vermont and in 1806 used his astronomical knowledge to settle the state’s northern boundary with Canada.

One of the telescopes Williams reportedly used is shown above courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. The museum’s webpage says Williams used this one to observe the 1769 transit of Venus, but also implies he was a Harvard professor at the time. Soon I’ll share links to more of Williams’s equipment.

In 2009 Robert Friend Rothschild published Two Brides for Apollo, a sympathetic biography of Williams. I believe the title refers to the two types of astronomical events Williams studied: the transit of Venus and the solar eclipse.

Prof. Winthrop Gets a Good Look at Venus

Prof. John Winthrop of Harvard College (portrayed here by John Singleton Copley, in an image that comes courtesy of the university’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments) was among the many scientists who scrambled to observe the transit of Venus in 1761.

His report on the event to the worldwide scientific community included praise for “His Excellency FRANCIS BERNARD, Esq. Governor of the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay, inspired with a just zeal for the advancement of Literature, which he demonstrates on every opportunity.”

In 1761 Bernard was newly arrived in Massachusetts, and that April he helped secure government support for Winthrop’s research. In just a few years the governor would become very unpopular, with Winthrop quietly supporting that Whig opposition.

As the professor knew from Edmund Halley’s calculation years before, “Newfoundland was the only British Plantation in which one [observation] could be made, and indeed the most western part of the Earth where the end of the Transit could be observ’d.” Therefore, he set out for “the Savage coast of Labrador” with two recent Harvard graduates, Samuel Williams and Isaac Rand, both eighteen years old. They took along most of the college’s astronomical equipment, viz.:

an excellent Pendulum clock, one of Hadley’s Octants with Nonius divisions and fitted in a new manner to observe on shore as well as sea, a refracting telescope with cross wires at half right angles for taking differences of Right Ascension and Declination, and a curious reflecting telescope, adjusted with spirit-levels at right angles to each other and having horizontal and vertical wires for taking correpondent altitudes, or differences of altitudes and azimuths.

Winthrop and his assistants arrived in Newfoundland on Massachusetts’s provincial ship in late May 1761. They set up their equipment and checked and rechecked it, Winthrop wrote, “with an assiduity which the infinite swarms of insects, that were in possession of the hill, were not able to abate, tho’ they persecuted us severely and without intermission, both by day and by night, with their venomous stings.”

The morning of 6 June was “serene and calm.” Prof. Winthrop wrote:

at 4h 18m we had the high satisfaction of seeing that most agreeable Sight, VENUS ON THE SUN, and of showing it in our telescopes to the Gentlemen of the place who had assembled very early on the hill to behold so curious a spectacle. The Planet at first appear’d dim thro’ the cloud, but in a short time became more distinct and better defined.

Winthrop recorded the time of transit and sketched what he saw, telling his readers:

The above observations gave me so many differences between the Sun’s and Venus’s altitudes and azimuths, from whence by spherical trigonometry I deduc’d the Planet’s right Ascensions and Declinations and, from them, in the last place, her Longitudes and Latitudes. It would be neither of entertainment nor use to the Reader to insert the particulars of such tedious calculations. . . .

The comparison of the observations made in the N.W. parts of the world with those in the S.E., when all of them come to be laid together, will give the true path of Venus, abstracted from parallax, by which means the quantity of the parallax will at length be discovered. The right determination of which point will render this year 1761 an ever-memorable era in the annals of astronomy.

Those quotations comes from this edited version [P.D.F. download] of Winthrop’s report.

Winthrop planned to view the 1769 transit from Newfoundland as well, but a fire at Harvard destroyed the astronomical instruments. He asked Benjamin Franklin to send a new set from London, as this Dutch Transit of Venus website describes.

Unfortunately, there was a heavy demand for astronomical devices all over Europe as the second transit approached. Then telescope-maker James Short died before delivering Winthrop’s order. On 11 March 1769, Franklin wrote to Winthrop that he’d managed to get that brass reflecting telescope from Short’s estate, but he was still waiting for the other tools from another craftsman. During the 1769 transit, Winthrop was stuck in Cambridge.

(Thanks to Boston 1775 reader Robert C. Mitchell for some of the links used in this posting.)

Chasing Venus with Andrea Wulf, 29-30 May

Historian Andrea Wulf will speak about her new book, Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens, at two local sites next week. On Tuesday, 29 May, she’ll talk to the Lexington Historical Society at 7:30 P.M. That event will take place in the Lexington Depot, and is free.

The next evening at 7:00, Wulf will speak at the Arnold Arboretum—an appropriate locale since her previous books include Brother Gardeners and Founding Gardeners, about horticulture in the eighteenth century. This talk will cost $10 for Massachusetts Historical Society and Arnold Arboretum members or fellows, $20 for others, and pre-registration is required (call 617-384-5277). Wulf will speak in the Weld Hill Research Building. (Boston 1775 readers may recall that Weld Hill was our best guess for the location of the Continental Army’s fallback position in the summer of 1775.)

Chasing Venus describes the international scientific endeavor to observe the transit of Venus in 1761 and 1769, as predicted decades earlier by astronomer Edmund Halley. On those occasions the planet moved in front of the Sun, appearing as a small black dot against the light.

Earlier this spring the Boston Globe’s review of Chasing Venus described the scientists’ efforts:

The obstacles confronting the platoon of observers were formidable. Britain and France were at war, but this did not deter fellow astronomers from linking up with each other. Indeed, a Frenchman, Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, took the lead. With contacts in Amsterdam, Basel, Florence, Vienna, and St. Petersburg, Delisle was a whirlwind planner and a hub of scientific back and forth. A skilled surveyor, his “mappemonde,” which highlighted the best spots around the globe to glimpse the transit, became an essential document for astronomers.

The theory of the transit was fine and good, but setting up the viewing stations proved a challenge. Getting to far-flung locations was dangerous work. For the 1761 transit, the British sent a man to St. Helena island, a tiny isolated speck in the south Atlantic. A colleague of Delisle’s, Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche trekked 4,000 miles from Paris to the depths of Siberia, only to be attacked by villagers who thought his fancy scientific instruments had magical powers: They blamed him for bringing on devastating floods. Two British fellows named [Charles] Mason and [Jeremiah] Dixon (surveyors of the famous line) were nearly smashed to bits by a French warship as they attempted to get to Sumatra. They nearly quit in fear and frustration.

But surely the most star-crossed (literally) of the Venus observers was the extravagantly named Frenchman Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil de la Galaisière. His name notwithstanding, Le Gentil’s odyssey would be anything but nice. His was a story of tragic near misses. For the 1761 transit, Le Gentil was to journey to Pondicherry, then a French possession in India. War got in the way — the British laid siege to the town, and Le Gentil instead went to Mauritius, where he was waylaid by dysentery. On June 6, the day of transit, he was on a rolling ship, and he could not get an accurate fix on the planet. Eight years later, he made it back to Pondicherry for the 1769 transits, but weather marred the viewing. Poor Le Gentil had come so far “only to be the spectator of a fatal cloud.”

Wulf’s book and talk are timely because there will be a transit of Venus visible in Massachusetts on 5-6 June—assuming the weather cooperates. The Harvard Observatory has set up a viewing time for the public on the evening of 5 June.

TOMORROW: A Massachusetts scientist in 1761.

Benjamin Franklin Discovers Tofu for America

I’ve previously written about Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with vegetarianism while he was a bothersome teenager in Boston.

Now comes word from Ben Franklin 300 (via Robin Shreeves at the Mother Nature Network) that Franklin is the first American documented as sending soybeans to North America and describing tofu.

The tercentenary site quotes this letter from Franklin in London to naturalist John Bartram in Philadelphia on 11 Jan 1770:

I send, also, some green dry Pease, highly esteemed here as the best for making pease soup; and also some Chinese Garavances, with Father [Ferdinand] Navaretta’s account of the universal use of a cheese made of them, in China, which so excited my curiosity, that I caused inquiry to be made of Mr. [James] Flint, who lived many years there, in what manner the cheese was made; and I send you his answer. I have since learnt, that some runnings of salt (I suppose runnet) is put into water when the meal is in it, to turn it to curds.

I think we have Garavances with us; but I know not whether they are the same with these, which actually came from China, and are what the Tau-fu is made of. They are said to be of great increase.

This letter was transcribed differently in nineteenth-century editions of Franklin’s works, leaving out the phrase about “Tau-fu.” Pamela Roper Wagner writes at the Oxford English Dictionary site that this letter antedates the next appearance of “tofu” in English writing by over a century. As for “garavances,” which Franklin thought soybeans were similar to, those are now better known as garbanzo beans.

How to Make Your Own Prophetic Egg

From volume 9 of The Percy Anecdotes, published in London in 1826:


In the year 1819, there was exhibiting in Boston in America, a wonderful egg, said to have been found at a farm house near Bordeaux, having thereon the following inscription:

“Ceci avertit, que Napoleon Bonaparte, remontera sur la trone de France, le 15th Novembre, 1818.”

“This is to give notice, that Napoleon Bonaparte will re-ascend the throne of France, November 15, 1818.”

The advertiser says, “this egg was boiled for breakfast, and discovered by a Lieutenant Patterson, of the British army; and was sold in London in September, for three hundred guineas.”

We should hardly have supposed, that the good folks of Boston could be deceived by such a miserable hoax as this. Nothing is more simple or easy, than the art of making inscriptions upon eggs. Write any words you please upon an egg, with grease, and boil the egg in lime water, with a little onion juice; or place the egg in strong vinegar, for a few hours; and the inscription will appear prominent. We have likewise seen letters raised upon an egg so ingeniously, as hardly to be discovered, with no other instrument than a sharp penknife. The Yankee who can manufacture wooden nutmegs, can make prophetic eggs with as little trouble or expense.

In searching for Plymouth’s “prophetic egg,” I found references to others appearing in Portugal during the Peninsular War and in Macon, Georgia, during the U.S. Civil War. They seem to appear in times of crisis. And now you can make your own for the next time.

(Photograph by Marie Richie, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

Elkanah Watson’s Magic Egg

This anecdote is from Men and Times of the Revolution, the posthumously assembled memoirs of Elkanah Watson (1758-1842). It starts in December 1776 just after young Watson and some friends were inoculated against smallpox:

About the time we left the hospital, Major Thomas, of the army, arrived at Plymouth, from head-quarters. He had left Washington retreating through New-Jersey. I spent the evening with him, in company with many devoted Whigs. We looked upon the contest as near its close, and considered ourselves a vanquished people. The young men present determined to emigrate, and seek some spot where liberty dwelt, and where the arm of British tyranny could not reach us. Major Thomas animated our desponding spirits by the assurance that Washington was not dismayed, but evinced the same serenity and confidence as ever. Upon him rested all our hopes.

On the ensuing Sunday morning, as the people were on their way to church, I suddenly witnessed a great commotion in the street, and a general rush to the back door of Mrs. H—’s dwelling. Supposing the house to be on fire, I darted into the crowd, and on entering the house, heard the good woman’s voice above the rest, exclaiming, with an egg in her hand—“There, there, see for yourselves.” I seized the magic egg, and to my utter astonishment read upon it, in legible characters formed by the shell itself, “Oh, America, America, Howe shall be thy conqueror!”

The agitation and despondency produced, will hardly be appreciated by those unacquainted with the deep excitability of the public mind at that period. We were soon relieved from our gloom and apprehension, by ascertaining from an ingenious painter, who happily came in, that the supernatural intimation was the effect of a simple chemical process. We were convinced it was a device of some Tory to operate on the public feeling.

In the afternoon, an express arrived from Boston; a hand-bill was sent into the pulpit, and at the close of the service our venerable Whig Parson [Chandler] Robins, read from his desk the heart-thrilling news of the capture of the Hessians at Trenton—a happy retort upon the Tories.

Watson’s memoir was published in 1856, or nearly eighty years after this reported event.

TOMORROW: An earlier version of the same anecdote.

(Click on the portrait above or here for the Princeton University Art Museum’s exploration of John Singleton Copley’s 1782 portrait of Elkanah Watson.)

Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills

This is a little outside my self-imposed period, but it’s too good to ignore. From Romeo Vitelli’s Providentia blog:

Even today, archaeologists tracing the campsites used by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in their historic expedition across the Great Plains from 1804 to 1806 can still rely on the relatively high mercury deposits to be found in the soil where the explorers dug their latrines. According to Sam Kean and his excellent book, The Disappearing Spoon, not only did Lewis and Clark set out on their expedition armed with microscopes, compasses, three mercury thermometers, and other scientific instruments, they also carried more than six hundred mercury laxatives, each four times the size of an aspirin, to be used for any digestive problems that they might encounter along the way.

The laxatives, marketed under the name of Dr. Rush’s Bilious Pills, were supplied by Meriwether Lewis’ chief medical advisor and the foremost health authority for the still-growing United States, Dr. Benjamin Rush.

The rest of that posting discusses Rush’s eminence as a physician in the early republic. Vitelli’s Part 2 mainly discusses Rush’s ideas on mental illness and how he had to treat his own son.

Training for Eighteenth-Century Cartographers

The Department of the Geographer, an organization reenacting the cartographic unit of the Continental Army, has announced its fifth annual Cartography, Surveying & Engineering School of Instruction, to be held next month in West Virginia.

The group’s website explains:

At so many of the events we participate in, we are so busy working with the public that we don’t get to conduct training exercises for ourselves. Sessions for the weekend include:
  • Creating (draughting) maps from survey data
  • Thomas Hutchins’ study of magnetic needle dip around the world
  • Colouring maps and plans with period watercolors
  • Observing the 2012 Transit of Venus
  • Enhancing living history impressions by studying museum collections
  • Basics of 18th-century surveying

This is the sort of event I have no interest in attending, but am tickled pink to know that it’s out there.

The next transit of Venus, incidentally, is on 5 June, so make your plans now.

Where is the Science?

I’m killing two birds with one stone in this short post.

Firstly, I feel compelled to reassure readers, particularly Three Pipe Problem who is demanding technical data on the painting right now, that scientific data, technical results about the Malmesbury Judgement of Paris will be forthcoming, in the last part of this series, as I stated on the blog. This will consist of reports on major subsurface compositional development pentimenti, as this is arguably the greatest factor of Raphael’s "Inventiveness" present in this composition, which outweighs many of the other points, apart from the specific Physiognomies.This is in no way to disparage technical scans or the like over other approaches- it’s just appropriate for the structure of presentation that I’ve chosen. And incidentally, I don’t consider what I posted a few days ago irrelevant, digressive or not “useful” to understanding this attribution.

Secondly, Graeme Cameron has asked me to note certain points, which weren’t made in yesterday’s post. I’m happy to do this as I’m trying to give a fully rounded presentation of the case.

1. Some of Raphael’s most famous paintings like the "Madonna of the Chair" and "The Fornarina" compositions had no records and were unknown before they later emerged long after Raphael’s death, in the late 1580/90′s as did the J o P several decades later.

2. One of Raphael’s assistants, Luca Penni also created a J o P " Hybrid" composition based on Raimondi’s engraving, significantly, with the same main focal group of figures, but the cluttered background etc. made subsidiary to them.

3. Pignati cited an early Drawing claimed to be a representation of a lost Giorgione. It was titled "Zorzon", for "Giorgione", and was a very basic group, but more importantly, it was in reverse to Raphael’s J o P.

4. I’m informed that “there is another significant link involving one of the copies, which leads directly back to the Malmesvbury composition’s Raphael origins and to Rome, which has been withheld, which will be revealed in coming Volume II."

Franklin: “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen”

As long as I was writing about Benjamin Franklin and turkeys, I thought I’d look into the oft-repeated statement that he preferred the turkey to the bald eagle as a symbol of the new republic.

That came from a letter to his daughter, Sally Bache, written from France on 26 Jan 1784. Franklin had just received news of the Society of the Cincinnati, and he didn’t really care for it. Most of his letter was about “the absurdity of descending honors.” As for the Cincinnati “ribbands and medals,” Franklin called them “tolerably done,” but then went on to repeat other people’s criticisms.

One of those complaints concerned the eagle that formed the basis of the medal. (The example shown here belonged to Gen. Henry Knox.) Franklin reported, “Others object to the Bald Eagle as looking too much like a Dindon or Turkey.” Derived from “d’Inde” or “from the Indies,” “dindon” was the French word for “turkey.”

Thoughts of eagles and turkeys launched Franklin into a comparison of their symbolic qualities:

For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him. With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy.

Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country. . . .

I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. Eagles have been found in all Countries, but the Turkey was peculiar to ours. He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

Franklin’s understanding of bald eagle behavior left a lot to be desired, according to that bird’s fans. But he liked drawing political lessons from an animal’s supposed habits, as in this letter about rattlesnakes (probably).

While people often quote Franklin’s words in regard to the Great Seal of the United States, he wasn’t discussing that depiction of the eagle. He’d made other suggestions about a U.S. seal back when he was a member of the Continental Congress, but never wrote publicly about the design eventually adopted. This family letter wasn’t published until decades after his death.

I’m therefore inclined to think Franklin offered his turkey suggestion mostly as a joke, like his proposal of daylight saving time the same year.

Dr. Franklin’s Turkey Hotline

In 1750, Benjamin Franklin was deep in his investigation of electricity. He told a correspondent at the Royal Society in London that he planned to try killing a turkey with [what we’d now call] the static charge from two big glass jars.

On 25 December, Franklin wrote to his brother John in Boston describing the result of that experiment:

Two nights ago being about to kill a Turkey by the Shock from two large Glass Jarrs containing as much electrical fire as forty common Phials, I inadvertently took the whole thro’ my own Arms & Body, by receiving the fire from the united Top Wires with one hand, while the other held a Chain connected with the outsides of both Jars.

The Company present (whose talking to me, & to one another I suppose occasioned my Inattention to what I was about) Say that the flash was very great & the crack as loud as a Pistol; yet my Senses being instantly gone, I neither Saw the one nor felt heard the other; nor did I feel the Stroke on my hand, tho’ I afterwards found it raised a round swelling where the fire enter’d as big as half a Pistol Bullet by which you may judge of the Quickness of the Electrical Fire which by this Instance seems to be greater than that of Sound Light & animal Motion Sensation.

What I can remember of the matter is, that I was about to try whether the Bottles or Jars were fully charged, by the Strength & Length of the stream issuing to my hand, as I comonly used to do, & which I might Safely enough have done if I had not held the chain in ye. other hand; I then felt what I know not how well to describe; a universal Blow thrôout my whole Body from head to foot which seem’d within as well as without; after which the first thing I took notice of was a violent quick Shaking of my body which gradually remitting, my sense as gradually return’d, & then I thôt the Bottles must be discharged but could not conceive how, till at last I Perceived the Chain in my hand, and Recollected what I had been About to do:

that part of my hand & fingers which held the Chain was left white as tho’ the Blood had been Driven Out, and Remained so 8 or 10 Minutes After, feeling like Dead flesh, and I had a Numbness in my Arms and the back of my Neck, which Continued till the Next Morning, but wore off. Nothing remains now of this shock but a Soreness in my breast Bone, which feels as if it had been Bruised. I did not fall but suppose I should have been knocked down, if I had received the Stroke in my head. The whole was over in less than a minute.

Franklin wanted his brother to warn young James Bowdoin, whom he had just sent a bunch of electrical writings, about this possible danger. The letter survives in the Bowdoin Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society; you can see it here.

Undaunted, Franklin returned to his experiments and sent a full report to the Royal Society, where it was lost but not before being summarized for its Philosophical Transactions:

He made first several experiments on fowls, and found, that 2 large thin glass jars gilt, holding each about 6 gallons, were sufficient, when fully charged, to kill common hens outright; but the turkeys, though thrown into violent convulsions, and then lying as dead for some minutes, would recover in less than a quarter of an hour. However, having added three other such to the former two, though not fully charged, he killed a turkey of about ten pounds weight, and believes that they would have killed a much larger. He conceited, as himself says, that the birds killed in this manner eat uncommonly tender.

Those experiments led Franklin becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1756.

In Our Time and the Industrial Revolution

My favorite podcast is In Our Times with Melvyn Bragg from BBC Radio 4. In each episode Bragg, a peculiarly British combination of broadcast host and novelist, sits down with three academics to discuss some topic from history, culture, science, or philosophy. The archives of the podcast stretch back over a decade, to when the show was half an hour instead of forty-five minutes—which must have meant even more reminders from Bragg to hurry along.

The History section of the website has a show on “Washington and the American Revolution.” Many more episodes cover elements of the British Empire in the eighteenth century: “The Enclosure Movement,” “Women and Enlightenment Science,” “The Jacobite Rebellion,” “Edmund Burke,” “The East India Company,” “Electrickery,” “The Sublime,” and so on. There are also a lot of shows on aspects of the classical world, which helped to shape that culture.

But I’m also pleased to hear about topics only remotely connected to the stuff of Boston 1775, especially those I don’t know anything about. Right now my MP3 player includes files on Shinto, Delacroix, and the siege of Tenochtitian. I don’t feel I have time to read books on such topics, but I can fill a subway ride listening to an erudite chat about them.

One of the liveliest conversations in the bunch comes in the first of two shows on “The Industrial Revolution.” Bragg usually voices the understanding of an exceedingly well read amateur. One of his guests is anxious to dissuade him of the notion that there was something special about the British (or the Scottish) in spearheading that technological change. The main difference was coal, she says—northern Britain simply had more coal than France did. Self-congratulatory harrumphing about British ingenuity verges on “racism.” Bragg bites back at that, but can’t argue with the data on coal supplies.

I thought back to that show while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s article on Steve Jobs in this week’s New Yorker. He notes the coal theory, but then points to this April 2011 paper by Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr, summarizing it like this:

They believe that Britain dominated the industrial revolution because it had a far larger population of skilled engineers and artisans than its competitors: resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them—refined and perfected them, and made them work.

In 1779, Samuel Crompton, a retiring genius from Lancashire, invented the spinning mule, which made possible the mechanization of cotton manufacture. Yet England’s real advantage was that it had Henry Stones, of Horwich, who added metal rollers to the mule; and James Hargreaves, of Tottington, who figured out how to smooth the acceleration and deceleration of the spinning wheel; and William Kelly, of Glasgow, who worked out how to add water power to the draw stroke; and John Kennedy, of Manchester, who adapted the wheel to turn out fine counts; and, finally, Richard Roberts, also of Manchester, a master of precision machine tooling—and the tweaker’s tweaker. He created the “automatic” spinning mule: an exacting, high-speed, reliable rethinking of Crompton’s original creation.

I immediately wanted to know what Melvyn Bragg and his guests thought of the theory. Is it old-fashioned harrumphing in new language, or a clever application of new sociological thinking? Not that any discussion will settle the question (we can’t experiment with history, after all), but it’s always healthy to look at old ideas in new ways.

Tide Mill Conference in Kennebunkport, 18-19 Nov.

This is one of the more specialized historical events I’ve heard of this fall, and in that little way one of the most intriguing. Not that I plan to go—I just enjoy its existence.

The Kennebunkport Conservation Trust and the Tide Mill Institute will hold a conference on 18-19 November at the trust’s headquarters in Kennebunkport, Maine, where historians from Europe and North America will discuss the history of tide mills. The conference description says:

One presentation will lay out legal issues that affected early tide mills and confront those seeking to make use of tidal energy today. An open forum will allow Maine’s coastal historical societies to share information and to study the tide mills that existed in their back yards. Participants will also have the opportunity to hear about and see first-hand the current archaeological work being done by the Trust at its 1740s James Perkins tide mill site in Kennebunkport.

There will be an informal reception at the Trust’s headquarters on Friday evening, and registration starts on Saturday at 8:30 A.M. There’s a $20 conference fee, and the event is subsidized by a grant from the Maine Humanities Council. For more information, contact Bud Warren or Lisa Lassey.

The picture above, courtesy of the Tide Mill Institute, shows the Perkins tide mill in the early 1900s when it was a tea room. Built in 1794, the structure lasted exactly two centuries before burning down. Tide mills are preserved in some form in Revere and Quincy, Massachusetts.

Looking for pictures also led me to the Mills Archive Trust in Britain, which has extensive links to sites in that country.

TOMORROW: How tide mills helped to define colonial Boston.

Leonardo, Painting and the Natural World.


1) Leonardo da Vinci, A Seated Man, and Studies and Notes on the Movement of Water, (A “Symbolic Self-Portrait”, according to Carlo Pedretti), c. 1510, Royal Library, Windsor Castle, pen and ink on paper, 21.7 x 15.4 cm.


Continuing this series of posts based on lectures I’m giving on Leonardo.

“If you despise painting, which is the sole means of reproducing all the works of nature, you despise an invention which with subtle and philosophical speculation considers all the qualities of forms: seas, plants, animals, grasses, flowers all of which are encircled in light and shadow.”[1] Leonardo da Vinci.

“The painter can call into being the essence of animals of all kinds, of plants, fruits, landscapes, rolling plains, crumbling mountains, fearful and terrible places which strike terror into the spectator; and again pleasant places, sweet and delightful with meadows of many-coloured flowers bent by the gentle motion of the wind which turns back to look at them as it floats on; and then rivers falling from high mountains with the force of great floods, ruins which drive down with them uprooted plants mixed with rocks, roots, earth, and foam and wash away to its ruin all that comes in their path; and then the stormy sea, striving and wrestling with the winds which fight against it, raising itself up in superb waves which fall in ruins as the wind strikes at their roots.”[2] Leonardo da Vinci

These two quotes should be enough to confirm that Leonardo held the natural world in high esteem, but in what way can we view him as a natural scientist or philosopher? Firstly, for a painter to take such a conspicuously scientific approach towards nature was unusual in the renaissance. However, it should never be forgotten that Leonardo was primarily a painter; it would therefore be wrong to regard him as a dry scientist recording the natural world with cold detachment. Kenneth Clark puts it best: “the direction of his scientific researches was established by his aesthetic attitudes. He loved certain forms, he wanted to draw them, and while drawing them he began to ask questions, why were they that shape and what were the laws of their growth?”[3] Out of Leonardo’s delight in drawing and painting natural things emerged his scientific urge and insatiable curiosity which powered it.

In analysing this “scientific urge”, it might help to consider it in the context of a renaissance concept known as fantasia., which in the words of Sharon Fermor who wrote a whole book about it in the art of Piero di Cosimo, was “an image-forming capacity” which was fed by things seen, although there was a certain dream-like aspect to the process too. As Fermor pointed out, Vasari saw Piero as a counterpoint to Leonardo; both were interested in the bizarre in nature, particularly strange forms and shapes (2,3), what could be called the morphological universe. 4] However, unlike Leonardo, Piero was trapped within his own fantasia, and never used it towards a rational end. What passed for “scientific” curiosity in Piero was soon expunged by eccentricity and abstractedness. His landscape and marvellous sea monster in his Perseus Frees Andromeda (2,3)seem products of a feverish imagination.

perseus perseus3
2) Piero di Cosimo, Perseus Frees Andromeda, 1513, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, oil on wood, 70 x 123 cm 3) Detail.


Vasari describes such artists as astratta or fantastic, lost in the love of creativity for its own sake, not as a tool for discovering the natural world. Piero could therefore never have sustained a serious programme of research like Leonardo, who despite his eccentricities was able to marry fantasia and scientia together and produce something unique- the science of art. When Leonardo’s avid curiosity began is difficult to say, but the roots of the artist’s interest in geology, botany and hydraulic engineering might be traced back to the artist’s childhood’s fascination with the natural world. It may not be fanciful to say that nature imbued Leonardo with some kind of pre-romantic fear and dread of it, as in the famous  incident of the cave visited by Leonardo which instilled both “fear and desire” in the young artist’s mind. Caves and strange rock formations are manifested by the artist’s hand in a number of his paintings, especially the celebrated Virgin of the Rocks (4) which has launched a thousand interpretations.



4) Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin of the Rocks, National Gallery, London, 1495-1508, oil on panel, 189.5 x 120 cm.


This also goes back to fantasia, because Da Vinci advises painters in the Trattatto to look at water droplets on the walls of caves in which they will find ideas for their art- the morphological method again. Pondering this “fear and desire” that Leonardo speaks of reminds me of another frightening encounter with nature, this time outside art history. Wordsworth’s nocturnal excursions in The Prelude:Growth of a Poet’s Mind terrifies the child, but leaves an impression about nature that is never eradicated. However, unlike a romantic like Wordsworth, Leonardo was able to fuse his poetic imaginings with a rational objectivity, until the two were virtually inseparable. He did both science and art and was completely unselfconscious about it. His drawings can be seen as “scientific reports” ,or graphic representations of his fantasia in action.


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5) Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of Water, c. 1510, Royal Library, Windsor Castle, ink on paper, 29 x 20.2 cm.

6) Leonardo da Vinci, Study of a Tuscan Landscape, Valley of the Arno, 1473, Florence, Uffizi, pen and ink,


Of the four elements, it was water that most excited the artist. In Milan and Florence, Leonardo studied hydraulics- (a topic in applied science and engineering dealing with the mechanical properties of liquids). As a military and civil engineer, Leonardo was interested in canals and one occasion tried to divert the river Arno, unsuccessfully. Water is present as an early interest in the drawing of the valley of the Arno (6), where we see rivers, pools and waterfalls. According to Leonardo, water “conceals an infinity of movements”, which offers a clue to his interest in it: from it he could devise a system of dynamics that was applicable in both artistic and scientific contexts. A number of drawings (5) betray the artist’s fascination with water; these illustrate such statements as the following. “Thus, united to itself, the water turns in a continual revolution. Rushing hither and thither, up and down, it never rests, neither in its course nor in its character; it owns nothing but seizes everything, borrowing as many different characters as the landscape it crosses.” Could we surmise that the old man contemplating the behaviour of water  (1) is a portrait of the artist as natural philosopher?



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7) Leonardo da Vinci, The Annunciation, c. 1472, Florence, Uffizi, oil on panel, 217 x 98 cm.

8) Leonardo da Vinci, Head of Leda, 1506, Windsor Castle, Royal Library, pen and chalk on paper, 17.7 x 14.7 cm.


As for water’s applicability to the art of painting, it can be seen in the rhythms and patterns of the hair of Leonardo’s figures, e.g. the angel in his Uffizi Annunciation (7)or his beautiful head of Leda (8). Unlike Verrocchio’s hair, which Vasari tells us derives from his love of knots, Leonardo conjures movement out of the forms in nature, thus demonstrating his view that humanity is part of it. But water means much more to Leonardo than this: it can be deployed in medical investigations (the fluids of the body likened to the seas and rivers); geology (its presence in underground caverns and the earth); psychology (the deluge drawings which hint at a morbid fascination with disaster and death.).


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9) Leonardo da Vinci, Deluge over a City, c. 1517,, Royal Library, Windsor Castle, chalk on paper, 163 x 210 cm.

10) Michelangelo, The Deluge, 1508-9, Sistine Chapel, Vatican, fresco, 280 x 570 cm


Interestingly, these tempestuous set of drawings (9) may have a more factual basis; they may have been inspired by two catastrophes that occurred in 1513 and 1514 in the region of Bellinzona, which has inspired some to arrange them in sequence like meteorological illustrations to a weather report. Alternatively, as Daniel Arasse suggests, they might be viewed as a scientific response to Michelangelo’s religious Deluge (10) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, maybe a continuation of the embittered rivalry between the two artistic giants which was always smouldering below the surface.[6]

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11) Leonardo da Vinci, Allegory of the Wolf and the Eagle, c. 1510, Royal Library, Windsor Castle, red chalk on grey-brown paper, 17 x 28 cm.

12) Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of Cats,, Dragon and other Animals, 1513, Royal Library, Windsor Castle, chalk and ink on paper, 27.1 x 20.4 cm.


Unlike the medievalists, Leonardo did not subscribe to the view that natural history was a pretext for moral allegory, although he knew about that tradition through his studies and working practices. He designed allegories for Il Moro at the Milanese court, although sometimes his allegories assumed a more personal cast. An intriguing example of 1510 (11) showing a wolf uncertainly steering a boat with the aid of a compass watched by an eagle perched on a globe reflects how Leonardo incorporated natural history into his art. It has been conjectured that the wolf might symbolise the artist who steers with the aid of rays emanating from the eagle’s crown, which might represent a safe port at court, presumably Milan where Leonardo was working for the French- the eagle wears a French crown and there are three fleurs de lys on the compass.[7].

Leonardo delighted in the many creatures, domestic and wild, real and mythological, that came to his attention. A wonderful sheet of cats (12) might pass for just that until you notice that the artist has drawn a dragon in the middle of the sheet, a strange juxtaposition with some bizarre rationale known only to Leonardo himself. Closer to Piero with his fantasia this time? Spot the dragon yourself !


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13) Leonardo da Vinci, Studies of a Bear Walking, c. 1484, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, pen and ink on paper, 10.3 x 13.4 cm.

14)Leonardo da Vinci, The Hind Foot of a Bear, Royal Library, Windsor Castle, c. 1490-3, metalpoint with pen and brown ink, heightened with white, on blue prepared paper, 161 x 137 mm.


Closer to the spirit of natural history rather than poetic allegory is a study of a bear (13). This sheet not only has the complete creature but a study of its foot, complete with intimidating sharp claws. Drawings with studies of the “structure of a bear’s foot” exist (14, but the American drawing  suggests that the artist would have drawn the animal’s foot while it was alive, according to Kenneth Clark.[8] After it had died Leonardo dissected it in order to compare it with the human foot, an example of comparative anatomy, which was obviously of enormous interest to Leonardo since he draws animal and human anatomy on the same sheets. As Clark puts it, this analogy between man and animal “springs from {Leonardo’s] conception of man as part of nature, subject to the same laws of growth, controlled by the same chemistry.”[9]

[1] Trattato, no. 8.

[2] Trattato, no. 116.

[3] Kenneth Clark, Landscape into Art, 1949, 58.

[4] See Sharon Fermor’s discussion of Piero and Leonardo in Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, Invention and fantasia, 1993, 22-3.

[5] Codex Atlanticus, 171r-a.

[6] Arasse, Leonardo da Vinci, 111.

[7] Arasse, Leonardo da Vinci, 151.

[8] Clark, Leonardo da Vinci, 78.

[9] Clark, Leonardo da Vinci, 78.

Columbus blamed for Little Ice Age

Christopher Columbus gets blamed for lots of things from being a poor manager to being one of the causes of the mass genocide in the new world. However, one thing he is not associated with is global climate change. Until now anyway…
An article by Devin Powell titled Columbus blamed for Little Ice Age has some details. It notes, “By sailing to the New World, Christopher Columbus and the other explorers who followed may have set off a chain of events that cooled Europe’s climate for centuries. The European conquest of the Americas decimated the people living there, leaving large areas of cleared land untended. Trees that filled in this territory pulled billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, diminishing the heat-trapping capacity of the atmosphere and cooling climate, says Richard Nevle, a geochemist at Stanford University.”

Dr. Nevle is quoted, ““We have a massive reforestation event that’s sequestering carbon … coincident with the European arrival.”

I am not going to doubt the sincerity of this research. The world was changed by the European discovery of the new world. Lots of things happened. But Columbus sailing his boats across the Atlantic caused the Little Ice Age in Europe? I think it goes to show how we just don’t understand everything about the global weather and how it acts over the long term yet.

Columbus blamed for Little Ice Age

Christopher Columbus gets blamed for lots of things from being a poor manager to being one of the causes of the mass genocide in the new world. However, one thing he is not associated with is global climate change. Until now anyway…
An article by Devin Powell titled Columbus blamed for Little Ice Age has some details. It notes, “By sailing to the New World, Christopher Columbus and the other explorers who followed may have set off a chain of events that cooled Europe’s climate for centuries. The European conquest of the Americas decimated the people living there, leaving large areas of cleared land untended. Trees that filled in this territory pulled billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, diminishing the heat-trapping capacity of the atmosphere and cooling climate, says Richard Nevle, a geochemist at Stanford University.”

Dr. Nevle is quoted, ““We have a massive reforestation event that’s sequestering carbon … coincident with the European arrival.”

I am not going to doubt the sincerity of this research. The world was changed by the European discovery of the new world. Lots of things happened. But Columbus sailing his boats across the Atlantic caused the Little Ice Age in Europe? I think it goes to show how we just don’t understand everything about the global weather and how it acts over the long term yet.

Did Anyone Feel That? Like a Rumbling? Anyone?

Most of the articles under the pins of the Bostonian Society’s “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” website/app were drafted by students at Wellesley, Suffolk, and Harvard. There were layers of vetting and editing, but those students deserve their credit for starting the process.

One of those pins touches on the Earthquake of 1755. The original article focused on Prof. John Winthrop of Harvard, and his suggestion that the tremor was the product of underground gases and not, as some of his prominent forebears would have said, the anger of God.

The subject doesn’t link to Boston’s political Revolution—the quake came ten years before the Stamp Act, twenty years before the war. But it ties into the Enlightenment’s scientific revolution, the ongoing shift away from theocracy in New England, and daily life in colonial Boston.

Unfortunately, with that focus the article didn’t provide a place to put the pin. Prof. Winthrop lived and worked in Cambridge (I like to think of his house as under the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in the Garage). The map under “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” shows only the Boston peninsula in 1769.

So one of my tasks was to find a way to connect that article to a place in Boston. Surely someone in town mentioned the earthquake. After all, it was…an earthquake! Unfortunately, there’s much less published about 1755 than about 1765 or 1775. Eventually I remembered that John Tudor kept a diary for many years before the war, and his descendants published it in 1896.

Sure enough, Deacon Tudor wrote a few lines about the earthquake. He even pinpointed where in Boston the worst damage occurred! So that’s why the article starts with him, and then zips across the Charles River to discuss Winthrop’s commentary.

Getting a Peek at Jefferson’s Original Language

Last July, the Washington Post reported on how Dr. Fenella France investigated a word that Thomas Jefferson erased and wrote over in his earliest draft of the Declaration of Independence:

Jefferson sought quite methodically to expunge the word, to wipe it out of existence and write over it. Many words were crossed out and replaced in the draft, but only one was obliterated.

Over the smudge, Jefferson then wrote the word “citizens.” . . .

Scholars of the revolution have long speculated about the “citizens” smear — wondering whether the erased word was “patriots” or “residents” — but now the Library of Congress has determined that the change was far more dramatic.

France scanned the document using different wavelengths of light, and then combined and compared those scans on a computer. That allowed her to decipher the erased word: “subjects.” For Jefferson and the Continental Congress he wrote for, that was a significant verbal shift in understanding how people related to their state.

This month the Post published another article on Fenella France:

France, 44, now a leading cultural heritage preservation scientist at the Library of Congress, was named one of four finalists for this year’s Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Science and Environmental Medal for her work in developing imaging techniques that won’t harm documents. Considered the federal worker’s Academy Awards, the Service to America medals are awarded annually by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

Notably, France is an immigrant from New Zealand, once part of the “Second British Empire” that the U.K. assembled after losing half of its North American colonies. (New Zealanders made the formal shift from “subjects” to “citizens” with a new law in 1948.) That country is clearly proud of her work.

Marie-Anne Lavoisier and Her Men

This weekend, the New York Times reports, two Nobel laureates and an art historian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will discuss Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of Antoine and Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier at the World Science Festival in New York.

The newspaper gives us this primer on the Lavoisiers:

Born into wealth in 1743, Lavoisier was a powerful aristocrat and politician as well as a scientist and an administrator of the Ferme Généale, a group of often corrupt tax collectors. A measure of Lavoisier’s social and financial position, Dr. [Kathryn] Galitz [the art historian] said, was that he paid more for the portrait of himself and his wife than had the king, Louis XVI, for one of his own.

Lavoisier married Marie-Anne when he was 28 and she 13, but she grew into more than a muse, doing illustrations for his papers and helping with experiments, a partnership emphasized by David’s painting, which shows Lavoisier sitting at a table littered with papers and chemical apparatus, looking up at his wife, who is leaning over him with her hand on his shoulder. “She was as much of a serious chemist as a woman could be,” Dr. Galitz said. “She’s there in the thick of things.”

What’s the Boston 1775 connection here? (Besides the fact that both my parents have doctorates in chemistry.)

Antoine Lavoisier was guillotined for his tax-collecting and political activity in 1794. Ten years later, after a four-year courtship, Marie-Anne remarried. Her new husband was another well-known scientist and government administrator—none other than Woburn’s own Benjamin Thompson, by then known as Count Rumford.

The couple’s relationship quickly deteriorated—neither was really the monogamous or compromising type. Marie-Anne Lavoisier kept her first husband’s surname. She and Rumford separated after about a year, but remained legally married until his death in 1814.

Benjamin Thompson: Worst Apprentice in the World, part 3

The teen-aged Benjamin Thompson was clearly excited to be working in Boston in 1769, not in his home town of Woburn or even the smaller port of Salem. He sketched his master Hopestill Capen’s building in his notebook, marking the shop where he worked and the dormer attic room where he lived.

Benjamin signed up for private lessons in French and “the Back-Sword” from a Scottish army veteran named Donald McAlpine, and drew fencers in his notebook. Then he ended up skipping half the French lessons.

Meanwhile, Benjamin was supposed to be working in Capen’s dry-goods shop. But according to an 1837 profile in The American Journal of Science and Arts:

Mr. Capen once told his [Benjamin’s] mother, that “he oftener found her son under the counter, with gimblets, knife, and saw, constructing some little machine, or looking over some book of science, than behind it, arranging the cloths or waiting upon customers.”

According to his home-town friend Loammi Baldwin, Benjamin was already working on a perpetual-motion machine, and that’s bound to take up all of one’s time.

By the spring of 1770, Benjamin Thompson was back at his mother’s house in Woburn, having shown he was thoroughly unsuited for work as an apprentice. But he was on his way to becoming Count Rumford, one of the greatest scientists of his age.

Benjamin Thompson: Worst Apprentice in the World, part 1

In 1766, at the age of thirteen, Benjamin Thompson of Woburn was indentured to John Appleton, a Salem merchant. He was a bright and ambitious lad, and had apparently sought extra lessons from a minister in town.

Benjamin did not, however, throw himself into the clerical work Appleton probably assigned to him.

Three years later, well before his indenture was to expire, Benjamin showed up at the Boston dry-goods shop of Hopestill Capen (in the building that now houses the Union Oyster Shop, shown here) and asked for a position there.

Capen wrote to Appleton on 11 Oct 1769:

I understand that you have had a young Ladd, not long since, that live with you, named Benja. Thompson. He now offers himself to live with me, saying that he was sick was the Occasion of his comeing from you, and that now Business is Dull, you dont want him.

I should be greatly oblig’d to you if you will Inform me by the first oppertunity If he be clear with you or not; if he is, please to give me his True Character, as to his Honesty, Temper and Qualifications as a Shop Keeper. Such a lad will suit me if he can be well Recommended, and as he is a stranger to me I know of no body else that can be so good a Judge of him as you.

Benjamin had indeed left Appleton to go home to Woburn and recuperate, but not because he’d been “sick.” He had injured himself making fireworks.

Appleton apparently sent Capen a letter recommending young Benjamin. Perhaps he wanted to get rid of the lad.

TOMORROW (assuming Blogger will cooperate): Benjamin has a message for his old master.

Observing Washington’s Birthday

When George Washington was born, the calendar read 11 Feb 1731. At least, it did so within the British Empire (and the Russian, but that didn’t matter so much).

Most of Europe had adopted the Gregorian calendar in place of the Julian. That new system did a better job of managing leap years to match the calendar to the astronomical year and keep the solstices and equinoxes from shifting. Another difference of the Gregorian calendar was when people reckoned the start of a new year—at the beginning of January, rather than in March.

The British disliked the new system’s popish origin, but even they had to acknowledge it was more accurate. Already many referred to their dates at “Old Style” or “O.S.,” and gravestones sometimes showed both ways of counting the year for dates in the early months: e.g., “1720/1.”

Great Britain finally adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. The next year, Washington turned twenty-one, so his exact birthday was legally significant. The Gregorian date for his birth was 22 Feb 1732, so his date of majority was reckoned as 22 Feb 1753. That therefore became Washington’s legal birthday.

There might have been a private celebration for the general at Valley Forge in 1778. At least, some regimental musicians got extra pay for some event that 22 February. But the public ceremonies didn’t take off until 1782, after the siege of Yorktown confirmed that Washington was worth celebrating. Rochambeau, the French commander, hosted a big dinner for the general that year.

Some Americans thought that celebrating Washington’s birthday was too reminiscent of the king’s birthday holiday under the monarchy. But the date grew in popularity, even as people weren’t sure when to celebrate. On 14 Feb 1790, Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear told Clement Biddle:

In reply to your wish to know the Presidents birthday it will be sufficient to observe that it is on the 11th of February Old Style; but the almanack makers have generally set it down opposite to the 11th day of February of the present Style; how far that may go towards establishing it on that day I dont know; but I could never consider it any otherways than as stealing so many days from his valuable life as is the difference between the old and the new Style.

Apparently Lear’s hints about the proper date got through, and in 1796 Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser reported that the 22nd was:

ushered in here by the firing of cannon, ringing of bells, and other demonstrations of joy. In the course of the day, the members of both houses of Congress, the Senate and representatives of this state, the heads of departments, foreign ministers, the clergy of every denomination, the Cincinnati, civil and military officers of the United States, several other public bodies, and many respectable citizens and foreigners, waited upon the President according to annual custom to congratulate him on the occasion. Detachments of artillery and infantry paraded in honor of the day, and in the evening there was perhaps one of the most splendid balls at Rickett’s amphitheatre ever given in America.

Isaac Weld wrote in his Travels through the States of North America:

every person of consequence in it [Philadelphia], Quakers alone excepted, made it a point to visit the General on this day. As early as eleven o’clock in the morning he was prepared to receive them, and the audience lasted till three in the afternoon. The society of the Cincinnati, the clergy, the officers of the militia, and several others, who formed a distinct body of citizens, came by themselves separately. The foreign ministers attended in their richest dresses and most splendid equipages. Two large parlours were open for the reception of gentlemen, the windows of one of which towards the street were crowded with spectators on the outside. The sideboard was furnished with cake and wines, whereof the visitors partook. I never observed so much cheerfulness before in the countenance of General Washington; but it was impossible for him to remain insensible to the attention and compliments paid to him on this occasion.

The ladies of the city, equally attentive paid their respects to Mrs. Washington, who received them in the drawing-room up stairs. After having visited the General, most of the gentlemen also waited upon her.

However, in 1798 the Washingtons’ neighbors in Alexandria invited them to a birthday celebration on 11 February, the original date. Perhaps they thought the former President might be occupied with public events on the 22nd.

(Washington’s Birthday postcard above courtesy of Dave, via Flickr.)

Anna Barbauld and “A Pensive Prisoner’s Prayer”

On Sunday, the Guardian newspaper ran a story by Richard Holmes, author of The Age of Wonder, about “The Royal Society’s lost women scientists.” It highlighted several pre-twentieth-century British women who, Holmes said, contributed to scientific inquiry.

The first example is Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, who attended Royal Society meetings in the late 1600s. Back in college, I actually wrote a paper about one such session. As I recall now, Robert Hooke was supposed to do something awful to a dog to demonstrate its breathing, but so many members escorted the duchess out to her carriage halfway through the meeting that there wasn’t time. I don’t recall the duchess making a significant contribution to science, and Holmes doesn’t really describe one, as opposed to her contributions to philosophy and letters. Then again, I don’t recall such gentlemen at that meeting as John Evelyn doing much for science, either.

An example closer to 1775 and perhaps to the scientific process is Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825), an important literary figure. Holmes writes:

Anna Barbauld, the brilliant young assistant to Joseph Priestley FRS, the great 18th-century chemist, noticed the distress of his laboratory animals as they were steadily deprived of air in glass vacuum jars, during the experiments in which he first discovered oxygen (1774). Accordingly, she wrote a poem in the voice of one of Priestley’s laboratory mice and stuck it in the bars of the mouse’s cage for Priestley to find the next morning.

Barbauld actually published the poem in 1772. It’s in the voice of a wild mouse that Priestley has just trapped, not one he already had caged in his lab. As for stating that Barbauld was a laboratory assistant, her 2008 biographer, William McCarthy, wrote merely:

[Priestley] allowed his sons to use the block on which he kept his wig as a target for air-gun marksmanship. Like these boys, Anna Letitia was amused by the medley of books, papers, apparatus, and odds and ends that littered Priestley’s study; probably she also got to take a hand in his experiments.

That seems like a slender basis for saying Barbauld was Priestley’s scientific colleague, as opposed to a smart and lively protégée in poetry, politics, chess, and other fields. There’s a big difference between being a magician’s assistant and being a volunteer from the audience assisting with a trick.

In any event, here’s the complete murine poem that Barbauld left for Priestley:

The Mouse’s Petition
Found in the Trap, where he had been confined all Night

Parcere subjectis, & debellare superbos. [To spare the lowly, and to overthrow the proud.] VIRGIL.

Oh! hear a pensive prisoner’s prayer,
For liberty that sighs;
And never let thine heart be shut
Against the prisoner’s cries!

For here forlorn and sad I sit,
Within the wiry grate;
And tremble at th’ approaching morn,
Which brings impending fate.

If e’er thy breast with freedom glowed,
And spurned a tyrant’s chain,
Let not thy strong oppressive force
A free-born mouse detain.

Oh! do not stain with guiltless blood
Thy hospitable hearth!
Nor triumph that thy wiles betrayed
A prize so little worth.

The scattered gleanings of a feast
My scanty meals supply;
But if thine unrelenting heart
That slender boon deny,

The cheerful light, the vital air,
Are blessings widely given;
Let Nature’s commoners enjoy
The common gifts of Heaven.

The well-taught philosophic mind
To all compassion gives;
Casts round the world an equal eye,
And feels for all that lives.

If mind, as ancient sages taught,
A never dying flame,
Still shifts through matter’s varying forms,
In every form the same,

Beware, lest in the worm you crush,
A brother’s soul you find;
And tremble lest thy luckless hand
Dislodge a kindred mind.

Or, if this transient gleam of day
Be all of life we share,
Let pity plead within thy breast
That little all to spare.

So may thy hospitable board
With health and peace be crowned;
And every charm of heartfelt ease
Beneath thy roof be found.

So when destruction lurks unseen,
Which men, like mice, may share,
May some kind angel clear thy path,
And break the hidden snare.

When she republished the lines in the fifth edition of her Poems, Barbauld added this footnote:

The Author is concerned to find, that what was Intended as the petition of mercy against justice, has been construed as the plea of humanity against cruelty. She is certain that cruelty could never be apprehended from the Gentleman to whom this is addressed; and the poor animal would have suffered more as the victim of domestic œconomy, than of philosophical curiosity.

By then it had become known that the mouse had been trapped “by Dr. Priestley for the sake of making experiments with different kinds of air.” Though Barbauld had written the mouse’s plea, she felt a stronger urge to defend Priestley.

Jefferson Hair-Splitting

The latest issue of Colonial Williamsburg magazine, both in print and online, offers an article by James Breig titled “Hair’s Breadth: Locks Could Be Keys to Jefferson Mystery.” That “mystery” is the paternity of Sally Hemings’s children, but most working historians today don’t see that question as mysterious at all.

The article claims otherwise:

Casual readers might believe the Jefferson-Hemings question was resolved in the affirmative in 1998, when a DNA study was done involving descendants of the Jefferson family and of Hemings. . . . the DNA evidence was shaky enough that it had to be bolstered by other data.

That’s backwards. The documentary evidence of Thomas Jefferson’s paternity was already strong, and the D.N.A. provided extra evidence—more than we have for similar cases of the same age.

As a result, most serious readers see the Jefferson-Hemings question as resolved to a high level of probability. Thomas Jefferson was the only Jefferson to have control over Sally Hemings, to be documented as near her each time she conceived, to let her children become free, to be identified by those children as their father, to be said by contemporaries to be their father, and so on. A smaller number of readers insist that other some other Jefferson(s) was more likely, but their arguments are unconvincing.

I don’t see any indication that the author of this article, James Breig, has a scientific background. For twenty-five years he was editor of the Catholic Diocese of Albany’s official magazine, and he wrote a book titled The Emotional Jesus. It’s also not clear to me how much of the Jefferson-Hemings historiography he’s reviewed. The article cites online reports, but none of the books or scholarly articles on the matter. In writing, Breig was apparently unaware that Eugene Foster, the pathologist who led the 1998 study, died two years ago; the text refers to Foster in the present tense.

The article suggests that surviving samples of Thomas Jefferson’s hair could be tested for the D.N.A. markers that have been found in patrilineal descendants of the President’s uncle Field Jefferson and patrilineal descendants of Sally Hemings. It states:

If the owners of the hair gave permission to test the locks, and if the hair yielded DNA, two big ifs, conclusive proof, or disproof, of a Jefferson-Hemings union would be accessible.

Except it wouldn’t. Simple “DNA” wouldn’t be enough, as the article itself quotes a “researcher in DNA and genetics” explaining:

DNA is inherited half from the mother and half from the father. . . . In one generation, we expect to find half of the DNA in common between father and son. When there is more than one generation in distance, then the DNA in common is a smaller percentage, and it gets harder to make any clear conclusion. When looking farther distances in many generations, then the total DNA in common is much lower.

That problem is compounded by the fact that any surviving “hair-shaft DNA is generally very fragmented.”

That’s why Dr. Foster focused on the Y chromosome in his study. That chromosome gets passed down pretty much intact from father to son, not mixing with the mother’s genes. Perhaps Breig meant the Y chromosome when he wrote “DNA.”

So let’s imagine that at some future date scientists discover methods by which they can test the existing Thomas Jefferson hair samples for the appropriate Y chromosome markers. Curiously, the article doesn’t try that thought experiment and discuss the two possible results.

Result 1: a match between Thomas Jefferson, patrilineal descendants of his uncle Field, and patrilineal descendants of Eston Hemings (who later took the name Eston Jefferson). Would that result offer “conclusive proof…of a Jefferson-Hemings union,” as the article claims? Not according to its own measure of significant doubt. Any doubters who are still alive would continue to insist that some other—any other—Jefferson male was a more likely father than Thomas.

Result 2: no match between that hair and the patrilineal descendants of Field Jefferson and Eston Hemings. In that case, the simplest explanation is that the hair wasn’t actually Thomas Jefferson’s. But what if several separate hair samples with solid provenances all match? The next explanation would be that a Jefferson other than Thomas fathered Eston Hemings, and that Thomas himself was not actually the son of the man we believe to be his father.

Or perhaps, moving down the ladder of likelihood, that Field Jefferson wasn’t actually the son of Thomas’s grandfather, or Field’s sons were both secretly fathered by another man, and that whoever left his Y chromosome in that Jefferson line also fathered a man in the Hemings line. All without leaving a clear trace in the documentary record.

Genetic testing on Thomas Jefferson’s hair would point to his brother Randolph or his sons—the currently preferred candidates of the anyone-but-Thomas-Jefferson crowd—only if it also suggests that Thomas Jefferson was the product of an affair between his mother and unknown man. Not only would that probably be among the last things Jefferson’s self-appointed “defenders” would want, but it would also create a bigger “Jefferson Mystery” than we have now.

All told, this article doesn’t strike me as adding much to the Jefferson-Hemings discussion. Any worthwhile historian or scientist would welcome more solid evidence, and revise his or her thinking based on it, so future genetic advances might conceivably be helpful. But this article suggests that we lack sufficient evidence about the Hemings children now, and that people shouldn’t acknowledge Thomas Jefferson’s likely paternity until science advances further. That seems like a petty way to justify keeping doubt alive.