The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

45. Where the "old honour" has not altogether fled

"CHRISTMAS DAY (French, Noel from Dies natalis ; German Weihnachtsfest ; Old Eng. and Scand. Yule ; Ang.-Sax., Geol), a festival of the Christian church, observed on the 25th of December, in memory of the birth of Jesus Christ. There is, however, a difficulty in accepting this as the date of the Nativity, December being the height of the rainy season in Judea, when neither flocks nor shepherds could have been at night in the fields of Bethlehem."

Indeed, and this fact is well worth pointing out before we all get carried away by the peculiar joys of the season.
"It is generally considered to rank third among the festivals of the church (Easter and Whitsuntide alone being placed above it) and to have a joy peculiarly its own.

In all civilized countries the annual recurrence of Christmas has been celebrated with festivities of various kinds."

What would be helpful, one supposes, is if there were a particular civilized country whose festivities were most worthy of consideration.
"In none, however, was it more joyfully welcomed than in England, where even still the "old honour" has not altogether fled. In that country it was the custom on Christmas eve, after the usual devotions were over, to light large candles and throw on the hearth a huge log, called the Yule Log or Christmas Block. At court, and in the houses of the wealthy, an officer, named the Lord of Misrule, was appointed to superintend the revels ; and in Scotland a similar functionary used to be appointed under the title of the Abbot of Unreason, till the year 1555, when the office was abolished by Act of Parliament."

We are more fortunate in modern times to be blessed by a parliament that has returned the promotion of fun and jollity to the duties of government, in the person of the Rt Hon Andy Burnham MP and his Department for Culture Media and Sport.
"The reign of the Lord of Misrule began on All-Hallow eve, and lasted till Candlemas day. The favourite pastimes over which he presided were gaming, music, conjuring, dipping for nuts and apples, dancing, fool plough, hot cockles, blind-man's buff, &c. ; and various Christian preachers (as, for instance, St Bernard) have taken occasion to remonstrate with their flocks for paying too great attention to the festive character of the season, and too little to its more solemn aspects. The favourite dishes for breakfast and supper at this season were the boar's head with an apple or orange in the mouth, and set off with rosemary, plum pudding, and mince pies. The house and churches were decked with evergreens, especially with mistletoe, to which a traditional sacredness has been attached since the days of the Druids."

Now, if you will forgive me, I have revels to superintend. Best wishes of the season to one and all!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

44. Pianowire, steam-engines and explosives.

In an age of technological marvels, how best to arm his navy was a question which was readily answered for the gentlemen of 1886. With its engine powered by compressed air achieving an impressive 24 knots over 600 yards, and delivering a payload charge of up to 100lb of gun-cotton, the Whitehead torpedo was clearly the weapon of choice. The Whitehead's accuracy and unwavering course were thanks to an ingenious mechanism in the 'balance-chamber' ('C' in the accompanying diagram) which operated self-correcting fins at the tail. Britannica's author observed that the device "has never been patented, but is a secret ; the details of it, however, have been purchased by all prominent maritime nations."

Less prominent maritime nations may have had to settle for the Sims or the Brennan.

"The Sims torpedo is cigar-shaped, and is suspended to a boat-shaped float. The torpedo is propelled by screws driven by an electric motor situated in the body, the current for which is supplied from a dynamo ashore. The electric cable is coiled on a drum in the torpedo, and pays out as the torpedo advances. The torpedo is also steered from the shore by an electric current. Its speed is about 12 knots."

I'm sorry, an electric torpedo that plugs into a generator on land seems a little impractical? Well, how about this then :

"The principle of the Brennan torpedo is as follows. The torpedo contains two drums upon which a large amount of pianoforte wire is wound. One end of the wire from each drum is taken to large drums ashore, which are revolved by a steam-engine. By winding up on the large drums ashore a rotatory motion is imparted to the drums in the torpedo, which by means of gearing revolve two screw propellers, and these drive the torpedo through the water. The torpedo ca be steered from the shore in any direction, by winding on one drum faster than the other, which alteration in motion moves a vertical rudder on the torpedo."

Although it sounds more like something Heath Robinson may have thought up, impeccable online sources inform me that the Brennan was, in fact, the War Office's defensive weapon of choice at ports harbours throughout the British Empire from 1886 to 1905. The invention of Australian Louis Brennan, it was "the world's first guided weapon," and the only surviving example of this historic weapon can be admired at the Royal Engineers Museum in Kent.

The full article TORPEDO by Commander Edwin J. P. Gallwey of the H.M.S. "Polyphemus" can be read at Reading it will at the very least give some indication why the thickness of ironclad armour was of such national importance, and along with articles such as vol. 9's FORTIFICATION, it ominously foreshadows the industrialized carnage and horror of the First World War.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

43. Great scousers in history (part 1)

Here's an inspiring, brief biography of an inspiring, brief life. All the story of science that followed, from falling apples to men on the moon, is reflected at the moment an excited young clergyman rushes from his church, grasping a pocketbook of laboriously scribbled notes, toward a quiet spot where the dying light of the winter sun burns along the length of a brass telescope, standing patiently in the cold flat fields of West Lancashire.

"HORROCKS, JEREMIAH (1619-1641), an astronomer of extraordinary promise, blighted by a premature death, was born in 1619 at Toxteth Park, near Liverpool. Of the circumstances of his family little is known, further than that they were poor, but the register of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, testifies to his entry as sizar, May 18, 1632. Isolated in his scientific tastes, and painfully straitened in means, he pursued amid numerable difficulties his purpose of self-education. His university career lasted three years, and on his return to Lancashire he devoted to astronomical observations the brief intervals of leisure snatched from the harassing occupations of a laborious life. In 1636 he met with a congenial spirit in William Crabtree, a draper of Broughton, near Manchester ; and encouraged by his advice he exchanged the guidance of Lansberg, a pretentious but inaccurate Belgian astronomer, for that of Kepler. He now set himself to the revision of the Rudolphine Tables (Published by Kepler in 1627), and in the progress of his task became convinced that a transit of Venus overlooked by Kepler would nevertheless occur on the 24th of November (O.S.) 1639. He was at this time curate of Hoole, near Preston, having recently taken orders in the Church of England, although, according to the received accounts, he had not attained the canonical age. The 24th of November falling on a Sunday, his clerical duties threatened fatally to clash with his astronomical observations ; he was, however, released just in time to witness the punctual verification of his forecast, and carefully noted the progress of the phenomenon during half an hour before sunset (3.15 to 3.45). This transit of Venus is remarkable as the first ever observed, that of 1631 predicted by Kepler having been invisible in Europe. Notwithstanding the rude character of the apparatus at his disposal, Horrocks was enabled by his observation of it to introduce some important corrections into the elements of the planet's orbit, and to reduce to its exact value the received estimate of its apparent diameter.

After a year spent at Hoole, he returned to Toxteth, and there, on the eve of a long-promised visit to his friend Crabtree, unexpectedly expired, January 3, 1641, in the twenty-second year of his age. It is difficult to over-estimate the services which, had his life been prolonged, this singularly gifted youth might have rendered to astronomical science. To the inventive activity of the discoverer he already united the patient skill of the observer and the practical sagacity of the experimentalist. Before he was twenty he had afforded a specimen of his powers by an important contribution to the lunar theory. He first brought the revolutions of our satellite within the domain of Kepler's laws, pointing out that her apparent irregularities could be completely accounted for by supposing her to move in an ellipse with a variable eccentricity and directly rotatory major axis, of which the earth occupied one focus. These precise conditions were afterwards demonstrated by Newton to follow necessarily from the law of gravitation.

In his speculations as to the physical cause of the celestial motions, his mind, though not as yet wholly emancipated from the tyranny of gratuitous assumptions, was working steadily towards the light. He clearly perceived the significant analogy between terrestrial gravity and the force exerted in the solar system, and used an ingenious experiment to illustrate the composite character of the planetary movements. He also reduced the solar parallax to 14" (less than a quarter of Kepler's estimate), corrected the sun's semi-diameter to 15' 45", recommended decimal notation, and was the first to make tidal observations."

More, indeed probably all there is to find, can be read about this great, scouse pioneer of science at this page hosted by the University of Central Lancashire's Transit of Venus webpage. Unfortunately, if you missed it in 2004, it will be another 120 or so years before anyone can take the opportunity to repeat Jeremiah's historic observation. There are plaques and so forth to Horrock's memory at the Ancient Chapel of Toxteth (where he is presumed to have prayed and studied as a boy, and thought to have been buried in an unmarked grave), the nearby St Michael's church (the one with the pink tower), and opposite Newton's memorial in Westminster Abbey. Lower Lodge, where Horrocks is believed to have been born, stands no more, but was within spitting distance of Barleycorn Towers, where this electro-aetheric remembrance has been composed.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

42. Three methods for growing cucumbers

From HORTICULTURE by Mr T. Moore, late of the Botanic Garden, Chelsea.