Category Archives: Scientific History

The Vicar and the Sleeping Butterfly

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew

The Rev. Octavius Pickard-Cambridge walked briskly through the stooked wheat sheaves on his way to his tiny church of Winterborne Tomson. As the service commenced he saw a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly fluttering at the window, during his sermon it settled on one of the beams over his head, folded its wings and seemed to fall asleep. He smiled to himself at the idea that his sermons could even make butterflies sleep.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, pulpit

The following week the corn had been carted away, and his path ran through stubble. As he climbed into his pulpit he glanced up, and noticed in surprise that the butterfly was still there. It had settled by a small knot in the wood, so he could tell it hadn’t moved since the previous week.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, chancel roof

The following Sunday it was still there, and the next. Outside the church the seasons changed, leaves browned and fell. The first frost covered the ground, and made patterns on the church windows.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, South wall

But the butterfly slept on.

Christmas came, the singers packed into the West Gallery roared out the ancient Christmas Carols.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, west gallery

But the butterfly slept on.

Snow came, and it was hard to trudge to the church on a Sunday, the water froze in the font so a baby had to be christened with water brought in a kettle from the Manor House.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, font & cover

But the butterfly slept on.

The snow melted and February lived up to its country name of ‘fill-dyke’, water puddled on the church floor.

Winterborne Tomson, St Andrew, interior

But the butterfly slept on.

Until finally the seasons turned, flowers poked their heads through the brown leaves, blossom began to turn the hedges white. As the church door was opened the butterfly finally awoke, and during his sermon the vicar saw it find its way out of the door.

That evening the Rev. Octavius Pickard-Cambridge settled down and wrote an account of what he had seen, the first time anybody had watched a hibernating insect continuously throughout the winter.

Sleeping butterfly1

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Filed under Historical tales, Scientific History, Victorian

How to Tell a Comet

Last night, or rather earlier this morning we saw the comet Neowise, visible in the northern sky. It made me think of this delightful Victorian poem.

How to Tell a Comet, or Astronomy Made Easy.

Though you may not know a planet
From the bird that’s called a gannet,
Nor distinguish Sagittarius from Mars;
Though the beasts in that strange zoo
May all look alike to you,
And you lump the whole caboodle just as “stars;”

Though you cannot place the lion,
Nor correctly trace Orion,
Nor discern the jewelled belt he proudly wears,
Nor the big and little hounds,
Through those happy hunting grounds,
Nightly chasing up the big and little bears;

Though you cannot tell the Dippers
From your grandpa’s old felt slippers,
And to name the constellations you would fail,
There’s one thing that you may know
And be very sure it’s so,
You can always tell a comet by its tail.
Its airy, hairy, winking, blinking, flowing, glowing tail;
Its fiery, wiry, gleaming, streaming, flaring, glaring tail.

Unfortunately I cannot lay my hands on the book where I found it, so I cannot give you any more information about the poem.


The picture comes from, ‘Comets and their General and Particular Meanings, According to Ptolomeé, Albumasar, Haly, Aliquind and other Astrologers’ of 1587.

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Filed under Poems, Scientific History, Victorian

A Dream of Airliners

Men dream, these men dreamt of airliners.

The wings vibrated as the tiny steam engine spun.
“Good to go.” Called Henson.
Stringfellow released the tail and the Aerial ran along the line gathering speed, as it came free at the end the wings lifted it and the machine flew across the room, dropping into the catch net at the far end.
For a moment the engineers looked stunned, then grinned and shook each other’s hands.
The world’s first powered flying machine, the first aeroplane (albeit a model), had flown.

The first step to realising their dream had been made.

Stringfellow Monoplane 1848
The First Aeroplane

John Stringfellow and William Henson built the first working model aircraft in 1848, and flew it in a large room of the mill Stringfellow owned in Chard, Somerset.
They dreamt of building a massive steam powered airliner.

ariel-steam-carriage-pscc
The Aerial over London

This was written in response to this week’s prompt at the #carrotranch. Apparently the reference has something to do with pop music, however my knowledge of popular music is limited, particularly after the beginning of the last century, so a true historical tale instead,


June 18, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story that includes good vibrations. What is unfolding? Is someone giving off or receiving the feeling? Where is the story situated? Gather some good vibes and go where the prompt leads!

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Filed under Flight, Scientific History, Victorian

The Curious Scissors Net, another Entomological reconstruction

During lockdown people have been encouraged to try handicrafts, also to get out and enjoy nature. Now as a reenactor who enjoys experimental history, there was an obvious thing to do – make an eighteenth century butterfly net.

Some time ago I described how I made a reconstruction of a Clap, or Batfowler net to see how this improbable looking butterfly net functioned. Rereading Moses Harris’s The Aurelian a little while ago I was inspired to make another improbable looking insect net, the Scissors or Forceps Net.

He begins by describing;

Racket Nets. Which are form’d of Wire about the Size of a Raven’s Quill, turned round to a Circle, bending the Ends outwards by way Shanks, which are made fast in a Brass Socket;  this Circle or Ring of Wire is covered with Gause, and bound round with Ferret [A stout tape most commonly made of cotton OED]; a round Stick of about two Feet in Length is fitted to this Socket, by Way of Handle. These Sort Of Nets are what an AURELIAN should at all Times carry about him; a Pair of these of about six Inches Diameter are the most convenient for that Purpose. The chief Use of these Sort of Netts are for catching Moths, sitting against a Tree, Wall, or Pales; or a Moth or Fly sitting on a Leaf, may be conveniently caught between a Pair of these.

The Fly Catching Macaroni

Then he tells us that;

The Scithers Net are no more than a small Pair of these Racket Nets; fixed on two Pieces of Iron which are rivetted across each other, with two of the Ends turn’d round in the Form of Rings, for the Admittance of the Thumb and Finger; in short, a Pair of Toupee Irons, or Curling Tongs, such as is used by a Hair-Dresser, are very well adapted for this Purpose, with a round Net fixed to the End of each Tong with binding Wire, or small Twine well waxed; these Nets are principally adapted to take small Moths, &c.

Scissors Net cartoon

So to make a Scissors Net, I first needed a pair of tongs. Whilst I have (as one does) a pair of Georgian Curling Tongs, I didn’t want to use these so I needed a pair of tongs of similar proportions. After a while I found some old barbeque tongs which could be adapted.

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I then needed to make the wire loops, I unfortunately don’t have a Ravens Quill, but online enquiries (thank you 18th Century Sewing facebook group) suggested just under 1/8 inch diameter. Fortunately wire coat hangers are about the right size.

DSC01094

Unfortunately I cannot find anybody who produces ferret these days, but it was easy enough to create a stiff cotton tape, and finally create the net.

DSC01106

Then I had to work out how they were to be used, the delightfully named Letitia Jermyn, in 1824, she tells us that;

The forceps are about ten or twelve inches in length, provided with fans of a circular or other form, and are covered with gauze; they are held and moved like a pair of scissors, and are used to catch the insects when at rest.

In later editions of her book (1836) she adds further advice

The leaves should be expanded as wide as possible, and the prey approached very cautiously, and when within reach, close them upon it suddenly, including the leaf or flower on which it rests.

Whilst William Curtis, in 1771, advised using them to catch wasps and bees as;

These insects being armed many of them with poisonous stings, it will be necessary to use the forcep nets to catch them with.

DSC01105

I soon discovered that they were very easy to use, especially when taking insects sitting on flowers, and on a plant like bramble I was able to capture insects without risking the net being caught. As to why the net fell out of use, I suspect it was simply the problem of carrying a number of nets. Difficult when was no longer accompanied by a servant.

On day I might well make a pair of Racket Nets, as described by Moses Harris, or the oddest of all nets, and also the simplest.

The Casting Net, described by Letitia Jermyn in 1824 (she dropped it from later editions of her book);

If they {insects} are beyond your reach, you must use a casting net, which may be made thus:- tie a weight (a halfpenny for instance), in one of the corners of a piece of gauze, about the size of a common handkerchief, a lighter weight in the second corner, and a bit of very light wood in the third : the inequality in the weight and bulk of these substances, will occasion the gauze to open, when thrown from the hand : a thin piece of twine, a yard to two long, may be tied to the remaining corner, by which the net may be drawn in at pleasure. The art of spreading it to its full extent may be acquired with very little practice.

The vision of a Regency Lady throwing a weighted handkerchief over a butterfly of moth is a delightful one, which it would be lovely to recreate.

Sources

Curtis, William. 1771 Instructions for Collecting and Preserving Insects

Harris, Moses. 1776 The Aurelian or Natural History of English Insects

Jermyn, Letitia. 1824 The butterfly collector’s vade mecum; with a synoptical table of British butterflies.

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Filed under Butterfly Net, Georgian, Historical Reconstructions, Reconstructing the Regency, Scientific History

The Amazing Jar that changed the world

He looked in amazement at the little fern, growing in the sealed jar. According to Dr Ward it had been growing there for three years.

“But what nourishes it?”

“Sunlight.” He replied, “Water evaporates, and condenses in the jar. Minerals feed the leaves, and return to the soil, all it needs is light.”
“Is it of any use?”
“Use! Glass boxes filled with plants, on a ships deck, will carry them safely around the world. We will move useful plants wherever we want. This could end famines, create industries and beautify gardens, it could change the world.”
It did.

Unpacking a Wardian Case at Kew in the 1920’s photo from Kew Gardens

All true.
In 1829 Dr Nathanial Ward tried to hatch out a moth chrysalis, it died, but a tiny fern seedling growing in the jar continued to grow although Dr Ward did nothing. Realising what this might mean he experimented and a decade later had a successful box for transporting pants around the world. Properly named the Wardian Case, after its inventor, it was used to transport medicinal, food and commercial crops around the globe. It really did change the world.

 

Written in response to this week’s carrotranch prompt
May 7, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story to nourish. The characters can nourish or be nourished. What else can be nourished? A tree? A setting? Does the sunset nourish the soul? Go where the prompt leads!

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Filed under Historical tales, Scientific History

Georgian Lockdown – Or regulating my Beaureau

A few days ago, in her column in the Daily Telegraph, Victoria Coren Mitchell, commenting on our present times, wrote;

 

Most of us have veered sharply in one of two directions: into the future or into the past. Some have relaxed into a rather 18th-century life of sketching, singing and snoozing, with an hour’s constitutional each day to take the air. Others have grabbed the 21st century by the throat, downloading Zoom and Skype, taking mass online Zumba classes and launching podcasts.

 

Now as somebody who never quite got on with the twentieth century it is obvious which way I would go. So today I found myself regulating my Beaureau. My wife had pointed out that several generations of spiders had created interesting artworks between my larger Galilean thermometer and Rush Light holder, so I spent several hours turning this.

Into this

Discovering the desiccated remains of arachnids, and other invertebrates, small tools of various dates and part of a Mammoth tooth (in other words the usual things one has on a desk).

 

But how, you might ask if you have managed to get this far, is this Georgian?

 

Well, I remembered a passage in the diary of Edmund Rack of Bath, which not only mentioned tidying a desk but also covered the problem of toilet paper shortage!

 

January 14 1780
In the morning regulated my Beaureau and put the useless papers on a string for necessary purposes.

 

As Mr Rack was a scientist who was friends with William Herschel and corresponded with the likes of Sir Joseph Banks, one wonders what was in the ‘useless papers’ he recycled as toilet paper!

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Filed under Georgian, Scientific History

A Star in the Rock

“Professor, this rock has a star on it.”
“Wonderful, another of these marvellous stones.”
“But don’t you think it looks as if it has been carved by hand?”
“Indeed it does, the hand of God. My theories about the nature of fossils are proved, I must write the book immediately.”

Illustration from Lithographiae Wirceburgensis

The conspirators were delighted.
“If he publishes he will be laughed at across Europe. We will be revenged.”
“But what if we are discovered? Already the stonecutter wants more money.”
“Don’t worry, he will lose his place in the University and we will be safe.”
They were very wrong.

In the 1720’s Professor Johann Beringer, professor of Natural History at the University of Würzburg, collected numerous fossils. At the time it was debated whether they were the remains of long dead animals and plants or had been created by God during the process of creation.

 

J. Ignatz Roderick and Georg von Eckhart, colleagues and rivals at the university, arranged for hundreds of mock fossils to be carved and placed where Beringer could find them. Beringer published his book, Lithographiae Wirceburgensis, which was universally mocked.

 

Then the stonemason came forward, as he hadn’t been paid, Beringer sued Roderick and Eckhart and won, they were dismissed from the university. Beringer remained at the university and wrote many more books, but none as controversial, Roderick and Eckhart died in poverty, not helped by the fact that the stonemason also won his case for unpaid wages!

 

This piece was written in response to the latest Carrot Ranch prompt; In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a rock star. You can feature a central character or write about the feeling like a rock star. Go where the prompt leads!

I, naturally, have been led up a curious byway of scientific history, I hope you enjoy it.

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Filed under Historical tales, Scientific History