Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Thomas Fowler of Great Torrington

Some nicely obscure titles in full view on Google Books: A Description of the Patent Thermosiphon with some modes of applying it to horticultural and other purposes; and Tables for Facilitating Arithmetical Calculations Intended for Calculating the Proportionate Charges on the Parishes in Poor Law Unions. Both are by Thomas Fowler, a printer, banker and self-taught mathematician from Great Torrington, Devon, where he lived all his life.

Fowler was also an inventor, whose "thermosiphon" was a convective central heating system. It worked well, and was well-publicised (see The Gardener's magazine and register of rural & domestic improvement, Volume 5 and The Edinburgh journal of science, Volume 1, both 1829). Unfortunately he didn't make any money from it due to the patent system of the time, which allowed minimal changes without breaching patent, and the idea was pirated.

As Treasurer of the Poor Law Union, his work involved repetitive calculations, typically involving ratios of sums of money. In sterling currency, this involved converting £sd into an integer number of farthings, doing the ratio, then converting back. Fowler's Tables for Facilitating Arithmetical Calculations ... etc outlined a scheme for simplifying these calculations by converting them into a different number base. A mechanical digital calculator was the next step, which he created but again didn't lead anywhere: according to some accounts, the government were so fed up with the Charles Babbage saga that they didn't want to hear of any more calculating machines.

Nothing survives of the calculator except a representation in a stained glass window in St. Michaels Church, Great Torrington. However, it has been reconstructed by Mark Glusker based on a description discovered by researchers Pamela Vass and David Hogan. See The ternary calculating machine of Thomas Fowler. There's a paper about it (not online): The Ternary Calculating Machine of Thomas Fowler, Mark Glusker, David M. Hogan, Pamela Vass, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Volume 27, Issue 3, July 2005, pp4-22, ISSN:1058-6180.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Found music

Wow! Best two quid I've spent for a long time. In rather geeky mood I bought a Logik MP3 player at one of the local charity shops, and found the original owner forgot to purge the contents before ditching it. Particularly, there are many tracks by Thelonius Monk, and a couple of artistes I'd never heard of: Xavier Rudd (though I did know his song Conceal Me) and Eddi Reader. Both are seriously good.

I was especially taken with the Eddi Reader tracks, which come from her album Eddi Reader Sings The Songs of Robert Burns. More about it here: she sings her own innovative arrangements of Burns folksongs. For instance, there's a heartrending minor-key version of "Auld Lang Syne" to a unusual tune resembling "The Unquiet Grave", an exhilarating "The Curragh of Kildare", a dark and driving version of the completely filthy Brose and Butter, and a beautifully orchestrated version of John Anderson, My Jo (above - which was a bawdy song that Burns uncharacteristically cleaned up). The Eddi Reader website has samples: see Eddi Reader Sings The Songs of Robert Burns.

I'd like a chat with whoever - he/she must be local - donated the MP3 player to charity. We might have recommendations to swap.
- Ray

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Wombats in literature

From top: Summer of a wombat, The day's thinking begins, Lizard and butterfly

We just got in an interesting large-format art paperback, The Death of a Wombat (Ivan Smith ; with paintings etchings and line drawings by Clifton Pugh, various editions, orig. 1972). Originally a 1959 radio broadcast - see Music Australia - it focuses on the experiences of a wombat during a bushfire caused by a discarded bottle focusing the sunlight. The narration, backed by the Sydney Symphony, won multiple awards including the Prix Italia. It's very much of its time. A sample:

The wombat comes from a pleasant family, fussy and gentle, slowminded, and polite. He is a close cousin of the koala bear, who took to the trees a long time back to get away from it all. The wombat has a short snub-nose and short, stubbed legs and a short-range mental life. He is a ponderous plump of meat with a lurching walk.

Everything likes a waddler. The wombat lurches on, slowly minding his own business. There are bits of bark to find, and things to visit. And everything likes a waddle and crump, and slowly home to dinner on time. and gently doze in a well-made hole, and early thoughtless yawns, and waddle and crump again.

The wombat gets caught up in the fire, and is badly burned, but:

He makes the miracle of reaching the river.
Slowly he slides
under water
The wombat moves to a soft death now. His fat, charred rump bobs slowly above the water as he drowns. The last thing that he dimly knows is the gentle easing of his terrible burns. A gesture, perhaps, to the friend of all the bush, to the meekness of waddle and crump?

Probably it's more impressive with the music, but I find the text - despite generally enthusiastic reviews to the effect that the anthropomorphism is excusable because it's allegorical - a horrible mixture of the very dark with the repulsively twee. The artwork, however, is amazing: Clifton Pugh produced a cycle of seventeen oil paintings (some realistic, some abstract) and over 50 etchings and line drawings for the story. Three are shown above.

"Wombat poetry is a genre, but not as we know it"
- Arts and minds, Gregory Currie

"The Wombat is a Joy, a Triumph, a Delight, a Madness!"
- Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Death of a Wombat naturally reminded me of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's drawing Death of a Wombat, which I mentioned a few months ago - see Bad luck with gazelles - along with its parody of Thomas Moore's Lalla Rookh

I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet & fat
And tail-less; he was sure to die!

However, I didn't explore in detail the National Library of Australia lecture transcript, Rossetti's Wombat: A Pre-Raphaelite Obsession in Victorian England, which goes into how obsessed the Pre-Raphs were with wombats, DG Rossetti in particular even keeping two, and swapping wombat poems with his sister (see Wombat Poetry and Art by the Rossetti Family).

Oh! How the family affections combat
Within this heart; and each hour flings a bomb at
My burning soul; neither from owl nor from bat
Can peace be gained, until I clasp my wombat!
- Dante Gabriel Rossetti

O Uommibatto
Agil, giocondo,
Che ti sei fatto
Liscio e rotondo!
Deh non fuggire
Qual vagabondo
Non disparire
Forando il mondo:
Peso davero
D'un emisfero
Non lieve il pondo.
- Christina Rossetti

One even turns up in another of her poems.

Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
One had a cat's face,
One whisked a tail,
One tramped at a rat's pace,
One crawled like a snail,
One like a wombat prowled obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry.
- Christina Rossetti, "Goblin Market"

Rosetti's Wombat goes into a deal of the personal background, as does Poetical remains: poets' graves, bodies, and books in the nineteenth century (Samantha Matthews, Oxford University Press, 2004). Lordy! I'm not sure I've ever seen such overanalysis of a fairly light poem as in the latter. For more detail on the wider culture, it looks worth finding The Year of the Wombat: England, 1857 (Francis Watson, Gollancz, 1974).

The New Zealand born poet Douglas Alexander Stewart took a more serious look at the wombat in its own habitat ...

Ha there! old-pig, old bear, old bristly and gingery
Wombat out of the red earth peering gingerly,
Was there some thud of foot in the midst and the silence
That stiffens whisker and ear in sounds’ fierce absence.
Some smell means man!
I see the dewdrop trembling upon the rushes,
All else is the mist's now, river and rocks and ridges.
Poor lump of movable clay, snuffling and blinking,
Too thick in the head to know what thumps in your thinking,
Rears in the rain-
Be easy, old tree-root’s companion; down there where your burrow
Dips in its yellow shadow, deep in the hollow,
We have one mother, good brother; it is Her laughter
That sends you now snorting and plunging like red flood-
To earth again.

... and this one explores a biological quirk of the wombat (its cube-shaped droppings, evolved apparently as territorial markers that won't roll away from where they're deposited):

As you splash along the track
Eyes alert and ears pinned back
You might have seen those queer square turds
And thought, if not expressed in words

The stress of such a defecation
Baffles ones' imagination
But it's not done to entertain us -
The Wombat has an oblong anus.

So if your slumber is disturbed
By cries and screams, don't be perturbed.
Eyes closed, teeth clenched and racked with pain
A Wombat's gone and crapped again!!

The Bastard from the Bush, Obscene Songs and Ballads of Australian Origin, Brad Tate, 1982, Rams Skull Press

... but generally wombats get fairly lightweight roles in literature

The wombat lives across the seas,
Among the far Antipodes.
He may exist on nuts and berries,
Or then again, on missionaries;
His distant habitat precludes
Conclusive knowledge of his moods,
But I would not engage the wombat
In any form of mortal combat.
- Ogden Nash

Nash is correct; despite the bumbling appearance and generally phlegmatic nature, wombats have strong claws and a solid bite. They're heavy enough to knock a human over, and can crush the skull of a predator by barging it against a tree or the roof of the wombat's tunnel. This doesn't stop them starring in any number of children's books, but in the classic prototype of this genre, the wombat is far from cuddly.

In 1918, Norman Lindsay - on whom more later - wrote and illustrated The Magic Pudding (in full The Magic Pudding: Being The Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and his friends Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff). Origin stories vary. According to the National Library of Australia:

Written as a distraction from the horrors of World War 1 and his brother’s death on the Somme, he thought it held him back as a serious writer. The story arose out a professional disagreement Lindsay had with fellow writer, Bertram Stevens, who thought that fairies were the most popular subject for a children’s story. Lindsay believed it was food. The pudding won.

Elsewhere I've seen it stated that Lindsay had a more serious purpose: to create a children's story with a truly indigenous Australian mythos. Either way, it's brilliant: Philip Pullman calls it "the funniest children's book ever" (see his review). The hero is a koala, and the baddie is the miserable and greedy Watkin Wombat. You can even guess his species. There are two types of wombat: the common wombat, which has a rodent-like face; and the hairy-nosed wombat, which is more dog-like. Watkin Wombat is definitely the latter. There's a text-only version of The Magic Pudding at Project Gutenberg (EText-No. 4910), and selected illustrations at the National Library of Australia.

Addendum: I had totally forgotten Ursula Vernon's Digger. See the previous post about recommended webcomics.

Addendum 2: it looks as if Death of a Wombat will be repeated on ABC Radio National's Airplay progamme to mark the 50th anniversary of its broadcast: see Airplay, 15th October 2009.

Addendum 3: To celebrate Australia Day, 2011, BibliOdyssey has some nice images from Ruth Park's The Adventures of the Muddle-headed Wombat. See Wombat Tales.

- Ray

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Webcomic recommendations

Via MetaFilter: The Electro-Plasmic Hydrocephalic Genre-Fiction Generator, an excruciatingly accurate flowsheet for steampunk / cyberpunk / fantasy fiction. This is from Wondermark, David Malki's "illustrated jocularity" based on Victorian clipart. See examples - In which Sparky changes Ownership, In which a Heroine scowls a lot, and In which a Cat plays the Piano, In which it Keeps Going ("You'll not hear much of anything once my Cynthia finishes initiating her binary defense protocols") - and the Archive.

I've already enthused about 2D Googles (illustrator Sydney Padua's development blog for a proto-strip about Babbage and Lovelace as a crimefighting duo).

XKCD, "A webcomic of sarcasm, romance, math and language", by Randall Munroe: generally recommended on the science/computing circuit, as well as Language Log. See examples - Theft of the Magi, Iambic pentameter, and Beliefs - and the Archive. Oh, and the XKCD guest slot at Wondermark.

The Abominable Charles Christopher by Karl Kerschl - "the adventures of a dim-witted yeti through a forest full of colourful animal characters". Hard to tell what this is about: Charles pursues a rather dark and mystical quest amid light relief from anthropomorphized forest creatures, but I'm not sure whether to take it at face value or if the creatures are actually human and have been somehow transformed. See examples - Blunt force drama, Private practice, Time is relative, and The Godfather - and the Archive.

Digger, by Ursula Vernon. "A wombat. A dead god. A very peculiar epic", starting here.
- Ray

Monday, 21 September 2009

Bludleigh prototype?

An update to Life and death in Bludleigh.

There's just been a thread on LibraryThing's "Name that Book" forum: ghost story -- England -- couple changed by house. The work sought sounded remarkably like PG Wodehouse's Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court - which features a young artistic couple who become hunting-obsessed due to the malign influence of a country mansion belonging to one of their relatives. Collective effort, however, tracked it to John Buchan's story Fullcircle: Martin Peckwether's Story.

This concerns an earnest young intellectual couple ...

"Julian and Ursula Giffen. . . . I daresay you know the names. They always hunt in couples, and write books about sociology and advanced ethics and psychics--books called either 'The New This or That,' or 'Towards Something or Other.' You know the sort of thing.

... who move into a small Restoration manor house inherited from one of their relatives, and become benignly altered by it until their attitudes are in tune with those of its amiable Catholic originator, Lord Carteron.

It's the final story of Buchan's The Runagates Club, his 1928 anthology of stories connected by the framing device of storytelling by dining club members (who include Richard Hannay and other Buchan heroes). Given the date and strong similarity in premise and plot, I think it's very likely that the 1929 Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court is a pastiche of Fullcircle.

Wodehouse was, after all, a skilled parodist. This isn't generally remembered because - compare Stella Gibbons and Cold Comfort Farm - the objects of his parody have gone into obscurity. Jaime J. Weinman sums it up well:

Almost everything he wrote began life as a parody of some then-popular genre of stories. Stories about idle young men who belong to clubs (the Drones Club stories, the Bertie and Jeeves stories), "frame" stories told by old adventurers (Mr. Mulliner; the golf stories), stories about stern Aunts who won't consent to their niece's marriage (the Blandings series); these were all familiar to readers when Wodehouse started doing funny versions of them ... At the time Wodehouse started writing for the Saturday Evening Post, these were types of stories that were being told seriously in the Post and many other magazines, and Wodehouse basically made his name by writing stories that took those elements and rechannelled them into farce.

- Wodehouse the parodist, Something Old, Nothing New: Thoughts on Popular Culture and Unpopular Culture, Jaime J. Weinman

Jaime goes on to mention, for instance, the connection with Ethel M Dell, who appears in Wodehouse works as Rosie M Banks.

Addendum. More complex, it seems. In a follow-up - Reciprocal Wodehouse Linkage - Jaime points out that the 'malign house' theme is widespread, and also appears in Wodehouse's earlier Honeysuckle Cottage (1925) in which a writer of hardboiled crime novels, James Rodman, moves into the cottage of a late aunt who was a successful romantic novelist, and finds himself increasingly under the malign influence of sentimental fiction.

Judging by The Figure in the Carpet of "Honeysuckle Cottage": P. G. Wodehouse and Henry James, Wernsman, Marijane R. Davis, The Henry James Review, Volume 26, Number 1, Winter 2005, pp. 99-104), Honeysuckle Cottage draws strongly on Henry James and The Turn of the Screw, which it even mentions:

"Do you believe in haunted houses? Do you believe that it is possible for a malign influence to envelop a place and work a spell on all who come within its radius?" ...
"Of course, ... one has read stories. Henry James's Turn of the Screw ...

Then again, I just found that Buchan's Fullcircle first appeared in magazine form in 1920, putting it among the many possible precursors to Honeysuckle Cottage too.

- Ray

The hand of Google

Slight scan failure in Google Books, from The marvellous and incredible adventures of Charles Thunderbolt, in the moon, Charles Rumball, 1851, between pages 189 and 190. (I found it by accident while Googling for literary cheesemites thus).

Coo: I feel like the brother of Jared. I'd never run into it before, but it happens occasionally: see Google Books adds hand scans at TechCrunch. The pink finger cots appear to be standard kit for the job.
- Ray

Friday, 18 September 2009

A mitey excursion

I've just been reading the concordance to Lovelace and Babbage Vs The Client Pt 3, the latest episode of Sydney Padua's Babbage and Lovelace cartoon adventure (see To the Difference Engine! previously). Sydney's description of Babbage's 1864 Passages from the life of a philosopher as a "comic masterpiece of an autobiography" is well confirmed in this strange chapter, A Vision, which tells an anecdote whose punchline is a chart of figures. Babbage's story tells how he falls asleep in Salisbury Cathedral and channels the spirit of a cheese mite, learning about cheese mite cosmology.

Spending a few days at Salisbury, I had wandered into the cathedral, and being much fatigued, had selected the luxurious pew of the Dean as a place of temporary rest. Reposing on elastic cushions, with my head resting on an eider-down pillow, the vision I have related had taken place.

On removing the pillow I observed a small piece of matter beneath it. This, upon examination, turned out to be a morsel of decayed Gloucester cheese. The whole vision was now very clearly explained. The verger had evidently retired to the most commodious pew to eat his dinner, and had inadvertently left the small bit of cheese upon the very spot I had selected for my temporary repose. It was clear that my Spirit had been put en rapport with the soul of a mite, one of the most cultivated of his race.

With modern aseptic packaging of most cheese, along with refrigeration, cheese mites have been more or less relegated to specialist cheeses such as Mimolette and Milbenkäse (see the cheese mite memorial, Würchwitz, left). However, prior to maybe 50 years ago, they were a pretty well universal sight to anyone who ate cheese, so it's not surprising that references to them should turn up in culture and literature. They were the subject of the first public science documentary film, shown at London's Alhambra Music Hall in 1903 - see Cheese mites and other wonders - and, as a long-standing metaphor, in the title of earlier film Cheese Mites or, Lilliputians in a London Restaurant (1901).

I first ran into them via this poem.

A parable

The cheese-mites asked how the cheese got there,
And warmly debated the matter;
The Orthodox said that it came from the air,
And the Heretics said from the platter.
They argued it long and they argued it strong,
And I hear they are arguing now;
But of all the choice spirits who lived in the cheese,
Not one of them thought of a cow.

- Arthur Conan Doyle, Songs of Action, 1898

The first four lines of the above poem have had wide circulation on the comic and curious verse circuit, often credited as "Anon" - I first saw it in Arnold Silcock's Verse and Worse - but I was surprised to find the full version to be by Conan Doyle. It first turns up in prose form in his epistolary novel The Stark Munro Letters:

Cullingworth has written a parable which makes a paragraph for our wonderful new weekly paper.

"The little cheese mites held debate," he says, "as to who made the cheese. Some thought that they had no data to go upon, and some that it had come together by a solidification of vapour, or by the centrifugal attraction of atoms. A few surmised that the platter might have something to do with it; but the wisest of them could not deduce the existence of a cow."

We are at one, he and I, in thinking that the infinite is beyond our perception.

Conan Doyle must have had cheese mites on his mind a lot, as they turn up in another poem in Songs of Action.

And the doctor says the reason why I sit an' cough an wheeze
Is all along o' varmint, like the cheese-mites in the cheese;
The smallest kind o' varmint, but varmint all the same,
Microscopes or somethin'--I forget the varmints' name.

- from "The Dying Whip", Songs of Action

Many writers seem to have been similarly taken with cheese mites; Verse and Worse also has this one, which tracks to Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack (the poem's not necessarily by Franklin):

Jack, eating rotten cheese, did say,
Like Samson I my thousands slay;
I vow, quoth Roger, so you do,
And with the self-same weapon, too

As a microcosm of the world and metaphor for the human condition, cheese-mites have rich literary connections. Their cosmology and philosophy was even the subject of a whole verse treatise, The chronicle of mites: a satire politico-philosophico-theological and other pieces (James Aitchison, 1887). Aitchison was Minister of Erskine Church, Falkirk, and otherwise wrote predictably dour theological expositions. A pity I can't find his mites poem online, but Wilde's lukewarm review suggests it wasn't up to much.

The Chronicle of Mites is a mock-heroic poem about the inhabitants of a decaying cheese who speculate about the origin of their species and hold learned discussions upon the meaning of evolution and the Gospel according to Darwin. This cheese-epic is a rather unsavoury production and the style is at times so monstrous and so realistic that the author should be called the Gorgon-Zola of literature.
- Oscar Wilde, Pall Mall Gazette, February 15, 1888

I like to think the whole idea - expressed both by Conan Doyle and Aitchison - tracks back to Babbage.

Just for a taster, cheese-mite metaphors and similes turn up variously: in literary criticism, as in Theodore Watts-Dunton: Poet, Novelist, Critic, by James Douglas; in political writings such as James Fitzjames Stephen's 1882 Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and John Stuart Mill's response to it in his On Liberty; in Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well; in Daniel Defoe's A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain; in Washington Irving's Bracebridge Hall; in Tennant's Anster Fair; in the essays of Schopenhauer; in William Cowper's derogatory description of Margate; in Thomas Hardy's The Dynasts; in Le Fanu's Ghost Stories of Chapelizod; in an epigram in Eden Philpotts' 1921 sword & sandal novel Eudocia; in Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga; in Herman Knickerbocker Viele's On the Lightship; in Wilfred Owen's A Terre; in ER Eddison's 1922 fantasy The Worm Ouroboros; and as an instructional analogy in science texts.

If we could place humanity under a microscope we should see, I think, very much what we do actually see when we place a particle of ripe cheese beneath its lenses, namely, a substance alive with millions of animated specks of matter engaged in restless and apparently purposeless activity.
- The Geographical Journal, volume 64, 1924

Probably the strangest of the batch is Occult Chemistry: Investigations by Clairvoyant Magnification Into the Structure of the Atoms of the Periodic Table and Some Compounds (Charles Webster Leadbeater, Annie Wood Besant): an attempt to use clairvoyance as a kind of particle physics tool. Leadbeater gives a flaky explanation of how vaccination works, in terms of it activating some cheese-mite-like universal antibody, "a kind of etheric amoeba in the atmosphere".

Also on the weird science front, cheese mites crop up in the story of Andrew Crosse ("The Electrician", "Wizard of the Quantocks", and quite probably the prototype for Frankenstein) who controversially in 1836 reported having created insects, Acarus crossii, by slow electrolysis of water with mineral electrodes (see pages 310-314, Journal of the Franklin Institute, Volume 19, 1837). This wasn't dismissed out of hand; several researchers attempted to reproduce the results, and failed, The ultimate view, then and now, was that his apparatus had been contaminated by cheese mites or dust mites. Crosse was, by the way, a friend of Charles Babbage, which brings us full circle.

- Ray

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Nation's favourite, and other quotations

This is what happens to villains who quote TS Eliot. See Martial heroics.

I propose a Nation's Favourite Blogger poll. The choices are:
  1. Me
  2. Julie Heyward
  3. Felix Grant
  4. Dr C
Votes by end of September, when the winner will be announced as Nation's Favourite Blogger.

That would be a pretty pointless and self-serving exercise; but, writ large, this is exactly what happens in any number of promotional "best of X" pseudo-polls in which some caucus prepares an arbitrary subset of X (over lunch, for all we know); the public gets to choose from that subset; then the result is announced and hyped as if it had been a free choice from all X. For instance, it happens regularly with the BBC's Nation's Favourite Poet polls, and it always raises the question of how much polls are responsible for defining the favourites they purport to be discovering. Was Jenny Joseph's "Warning" really that popular before being brought into the limelight by inclusion in the 1997 poll? Or as Alison Flood asks in the Guardian, Must the nation's favourite poet really be Kipling?.

I would have hoped Oxford University Press to be above all that, but no. From Waterstones:

Vote for the most memorable quote

To celebrate the latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations - the nation's favourite quotations dictionary for over 65 years - we've teamed up with OUP to help find the most memorable quote. We've created a list of significant quotes taken from each decade since publication (40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and noughties), along with a selection of classic quotes.

Here's the poll, and the choice seems as arbitrary as usual: some genuinely iconic quotes mixed with recentist ephemera about Princess Diana, 9/11 and contemporary politics. And neat though it is, could anyone seriously consider Stephen Fry's "The email of the species is deadlier than the mail" to be a contender for "the most memorable quote of all time"? More memorable than quotes we still use from Homer, the Bible and Roman literature, none of which appear in the list? They conducted a similar exercise in 2004 - see Favourite quotation revealed! - when the winner from the predigested list was "'It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph", which is attributed very unreliably to Edmund Burke - see Wikiquote. I did rather like the runner-up, WB Yeats' "Tread softly because you tread on my dreams", if only because it's a key line in Equilibrium (video above).

I'd have preferred it if the OUP had come up with something iconoclastic and interesting to promote its Dictionary of Quotations. For instance, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K Pullum, CUP, 2002) led with a vigorous debunking of cherished prescriptive rules: see Cambridge Grammar takes aim at 'rules that don't exist' and Book's coauthor sets the record straight. For the OUP, this would have been a fine opportunity to highlight the misattribution that's endemic in the quotation genre, and use the ODQ's superiority to the typically error-ridden online quotation sites as a selling point.
- Ray

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Atmospheric history

While clearing some bookmarks, I found Beach Pneumatic: Alfred Beach’s Pneumatic Subway and the beginnings of rapid transit in New York. This is an assiduously researched study of the early days of New York's subway and rail system, with a particular focus on Beach's concept of running the system by air pressure. Brunel's atmospheric railway (as in the above painting by Nicholas Condy) gets a mention in the chapter on precursors.

Brennan's site is very worth exploring if you like railway / architectural history and subterranea: see also Abandoned Stations, Beach Train, and Dunderberg Spiral Railway.

In the same territory, check out - Capsule pipelines: an old technology still going strong. An SF reference that springs to mind: the scene in Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero where the hero, who has fallen in with a band of outlaws in the depths of the planet-city Helior, is helping them steal food from such a pipeline.

Two blows did it; the top part of the severed pipe bent out of alignment with the bottom and from the opening began to pour an endless stream of linked green frankfurters. Litvok grabbed the end of the chain and threw it over Bill's shoulder then began to coil loops of the things over his shoulders and arms higher and higher. They reached the level of Bill's eyes and he could read the white lettering stamped all over their grass-green forms. CHLORA-FILLIES, they read, and THERE'S SUNSHINE IN EVERY LINK! and THE EQUINE WURST OF DISTINCTION and TRY OUR DOBBIN-BURGERS NEXT TIME!

"Enough..." Bill groaned, staggering under the weight. Litvok snapped the chain and began twining them over his own shoulders when the flow of shiny green forms suddenly ceased. He pulled the last links from the pipe and pushed out the door.

"The alarm went, they're onto us. Get out fast before the cops get here!" He whistled shrilly and the lookouts came running to join them. They fled, Bill stumbling under the weight.

- Ray

Friday, 11 September 2009

All hart

On Topsham Carnival Day recently, one of the pubs had a promotion by "Jägerettes", young women who go around in orange vests promoting Jägermeister, a love-it-or-hate-it German herbal spirit. I'd seen the drink before, but never at close enough quarters to ponder the bottle logo, which is rather familiar as the "hart of the wud" that forms an important motif in Russell Hoban's post-apocalyptic Riddley Walker. In that novel, the only remaining historical document is a pamphlet from Canterbury Cathedral describing its mural of Eustace and the stag.

At the bottom of the painting St. Eustace is seen on his knees before his quarry, a stag, between whose antlers appears, on a cross of radiant light, the figure of the crucified Saviour.
- Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban

This is the ancient story, depicted many times (for instance, by Pisanello) of the conversion of St Eustace, according to legend a Roman general called Placidus who was fond of hunting until he saw this vision of Christ. There's a nice account at the webblog Logismoi - 'The Radiant Cross Which the General Saw' — St Eustace the Great-Martyr. In Riddley Walker, with the fogged and mystical thinking that's a legacy of a nuclear catastrophe, they deconstruct the story as providing insights into dimly-remembered nuclear physics and the legendary "Eusa" who informs their world-view.

Who ever this bloak wer what wrote our Eusa Story he connectit his self to this here Legend or dyergam and the chemistery and fizzics of it becaws this here Legend writing and the Eusa Story the 2 of them ben past down together in the Mincery. "St Eustace is seen on his knees before his quarry." Which a quarry is a kind of digging. Whys he on his knees? What brung him down what knockt him off his feet? What come out of that digging? A stag. Wel thats our Hart of the Wud innit we know him well a nuff. Whats he got be twean his antlers its "a cross of radiant light". Which is the same as radiating light or radiation which may be youve heard of.

The Jägermeister logo comes from a different branch of the story, which accreted to Saint Hubert (aka Hubertus aka Hubertus von Lüttich) a Belgian bishop and "the patron saint of hunters, mathematicians, opticians and metalworkers". Mast-Jägermeister AG (Findel-Mast is the owning family, Jägermeister = gamekeeper or forest supervisor) latched on to the iconography, presumably to play the tradition card, for the branding of the drink in 1935. It was originally sold as a medicinal tonic. The German Wikipedia entry is rather less coy than the English in mentioning the issue of Nazi connections in its origins. I won't go there in great detail (anyone launching a product in Germany in 1935 would necessarily have dealings with the Nazi party) but Der Geist aus des Flasche (The Ghost out of the Bottle, Claudia Keller, Tagesspiel, 24/8/2003) explores the associations of the historical post of Jägermeister that led the drink to be nicknamed "Göring-Schnaps".

The Jägermeister bottle label also features a poem:

Das ist des Jägers Ehrenschild,
Daß er beschützt und hegt sein Wild,
Weidmännisch jagt, wie sich’s gehört,
Den Schöpfer im Geschöpfe ehrt.

It is the hunter’s honour that he
Protects and preserves his game,
Hunts sportsmanlike, honours the
Creator in His creatures.

This is almost universally misattributed to "Otto von Riesenthal" 1, but this is a misnomer for the German forester, ornithologist, hunter and author Oskar von Riesenthal (1830-1898). More detail:

The saying "This is the hunter's honor shield ..." is known to many hunters. Less known, however, is the author of this poem, namely the Royal Forester Oskar von Riesenthal, who first saw the light of this world on 18 September 1830 in Breslau. His family were from Austria. His great-grandfather was a major in the imperial service. But this career doesn't seem to have suited him, because he left and settled in Silesia, where the family bought a farm.

There Oskar was born, the son of a road construction inspector. Subsequently, he attended high school in the town of Oels. After passing his final exams at 18, he began studies at the Royal Forestry, Poppelau, to devote himself to the Forestry Service. Armed with a final diploma, he enrolled in Easter 1850 as a one-year volunteer in the former 6th Military Police Batallion in Breslau, and a year later was discharged as militia officer. From Easter 1851, he attended the Neustadt-Eberswalde Higher Forestry Academy, followed by further time at Schleusinger-Neundorf Higher Forestry to learn the beech and spruce economy of the Thuringian forest.

In 1863, now married, he passed his surveying exam and took the post of district ranger (1868-71) in the Bechstein forest of Tuchola Forest.

In November 1871 he moved to Altenkirchen in the Westerwald. Here he completed in 1876 his extensive work Die Raubvögel Deutschlands (The birds of prey in Germany). Four years later, in 1880, appeared on the art of hunting such a significant book, Das Waidwerk (The Chase). After two more years, in 1882 in Leipzig, his Jagdlexikon (Hunting Lexicon) was released. And finally, he revised the 5th edition of Die kleine Jagd (The Little Hunt, Brockhaus, Leipzig), originally written by Jester, which was published in 1884.

But his tireless work as a writer was far more extensive. In an essay he wrote: "On what do I base my main legitimacy, but my unswerving devotion to the sublime Mother Nature, who sparked my gratitude for more and more removing the bandage from my eyes and letting me learn from her big book". From all his writings and lectures widely held always sounded the warning "Protect and cherish game! Shelter and protection for our birds and forever!"

Ultimately he found at the behest of the then Oberland forester a job as a royal forester at the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and domains, and moved to Berlin-Charlottenburg, where he remained until his death in 1898.

- translation from Oskar von Riesenthal, International St Hubertus Order website 2

The protection, cherishing and sheltering of wildlife doesn't extend to the point of not killing them, merely to doing it humanely. The full poem goes:


Das ist des Jägers Ehrenschild,
Daß er beschützt und hegt sein Wild,
Waidmännisch jagt, wie sich’s gehört,
Den Schöpfer im Geschöpfe ehrt!

Das Kriegsgeschoß der Haß regiert, -
Die Lieb’ zum Wild den Stutzen führt:
Drum denk’ bei Deinem täglich Brot
Ob auch Dein Wild nicht leidet Noth?

Behüt’s vor Mensch und Thier zumal!
Verkürze ihm die Todesqual!
Sei außen rauh, doch innen mild, -
Dann bleibet blank Dein Ehrenschild!

I'll translate it when I have a moment, but it boils down to being honourable by killing things cleanly. If my German is correct, "Das Kriegsgeschoß der Haß regiert, Die Lieb’ zum Wild den Stutzen führt" loosely means "shooting things with ruddy great artillery is governed by hate, but it's loving to shoot game with a small-bore rifle". Von Riesenthal wrote various other books, such as the 1903 Die Stiefel des Herrn Oberforstmeisters, der verrückte Keiler und andere lustige Geschichten und Gedichte (The Master Forester's Boots, the Crazy Wild Boar, and other funny stories and poems.

Returning to the main thread, I find it very interesting how ancient symbols continue to be reinvented for the modern era (see Cross purposes) and the antlers-and-cross image appears to be very durable. Believers and Doubters, Inspired by the Word (Martha Schwendener, New York Times, February 6, 2007) mentions another appearance in J. P. Munro's "Vision of St. Eustace, Master Hunter"

which explores how traditional German Christian sources were appropriated for use on Jägermeister liquor labels, is reproduced in the brochure but is oddly absent from the show [Whitney Biennial 2006]

You can see it here at Flickr.

- Ray

1. Correcting this misattribution is likely to be an uphill struggle, as misinformation abounds in this territory. Even Google Books is unreliable here: if you try a search on "Otto von Riesenthal" you'll find a deal of biographical garbage scraped from a now-deleted hoax article on Wikipedia.

After Riesenthal went on an absinthe binge Bismarck disowned him and forced him to live a shack [sic] composed mostly of deer hides, mud, grass, bones, and discarded mathematics textbooks
- Deer: Webster's Quotations, Facts and Phrases, Icon Group International, Inc.

See Writer Beware Blogs! for background.
2. I'm not clear what this is: apparently a revived historical aristocratic/religious/hunting order.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Arthur evokes old Ludlow

An interesting detection project today. I just ran into the above small watercolour. I couldn't resist buying it; although recognisably a landscape, it has a surreal edge to it, as if the scenery contains half-seen mammoths and other beasts at a water-hole. It being in a Topsham shop, I first thought it might be Countess Wear, but an inscription on the back of the frame says Ludlow - to John and Wins - in remembrance of "Uncle Vokes". That rapidly placed it as Dinham, Ludlow. As you can see from this image at, it's Ludlow looking from Whitcliffe over Dinham Bridge and Dinham Weir.

View Larger Map

The odd thing, given that it's such a picturesque view, is that I can't find any modern shots from exactly the same viewpoint. Maybe it's overgrown and inaccessible now?

Googling artists called Vokes rapidly found a likely ID for "Uncle Vokes": Arthur Ernest Vokes (1874-1964). It's rather getting to the limit of what can be found online, but it appears he specialised in monogrammed watercolours of British natural scenes: the 1927 edition of Who's Who in Art says he was a portrait and landscape painter, and sculptor in bronze. He went to Leeds Grammar School, along with his brother Sidney Benson Vokes (both were sons of JB Vokes of Leeds - see the register); and in the early 1900s both lived in Northampton. He produced a book: Tree-worshipper in watercolours: 60 years of painting by Arthur Ernest Vokes.

- Ray

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Immortal Longings - launch

Portrait, platinum print by Eveleen Myers, from frontispiece to Fragments of Prose & Poetry, 1904

.Immortal Longings: FH Myers and the Victorian Seach for Life after Death: Trevon Hamilton, Imprint Academic.

On Thursday 8th October, 2009,  I went to the launch at Joel Segal Books of the above biography.

From the press release:

This is the first full-length biography of Frederic WH Myers, unjustly neglected Victorian classicist, poet and psychologist, whose systematic and pioneering exploration of nineteenth century spiritualism, mesmerism and related phenomen convinced him of the reality of life after death.

Myers was a friend or acquiantance of Balfour, Browning, Conan Doyle, George Eliot, Prince Leopold, Sidgwick, Stevenson, Swinburne, Tennyon, William and Henry James, and other "Eminent Victorians". His wife, Eveleen, was a wealthy society beauty (painted by Watts and Millais) and an outstanding photographer whose photographs are now in the National Portrait Gallery.

"FWH Myers ... a man of various and remarkable gifts ... yet no full biography of him has hitherto been written ... Altogether a fascinating read!"
- Alan Gould, author, The Founders of Psychical Research

"Frederic Myers was one of the great pioneers in the scientific exploration of consciousness ... In this well-researched book, Trevor Hamilton sheds new light on his life and shows how Myers' work was embedded in the rich social and intellectual life of late nineteenth-century Britain. I read it with great interest".
- Rupert Sheldrake

"With his objective and unsensational approach, Trevor Hamilton provides a valuable new insight into the early days of organized ghost hunting .... the rivalries and deceptions, the scandals and contoversies, the great mediums and researchers of the time."
- Geoff Ward, Western Daily Press

Publisher's page
For a quick overview of the subject, see Frederic William Henry Myers at Wikipedia. The Internet Archive has Arthur Christopher Benson's The leaves of the tree; studies in biography (1911), which has a 33-page biography, and Myers' own Lectures on Great Men (1856), Human Personality And Its Survival Of Bodily Death (Volume I and Volume II) and Fragments of prose & poetry (1904 - posthumously compiled by his wife). A few more can be previewed via Google Books.

Also check out the National Portrait Gallery - Eveleen Myers (née Tennant) (1856-1937), Photographer - for Eveleen Myers' work (really do check it out - her portrait photography in particular is superb). From the NPG: "Eveleen and her sister Dorothy, who later married the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, were painted by George Frederic Watts and John Everett Millais. Both sisters played an active role in the salon their mother established in the early 1870s at which they entertained political figures, artists and intellectuals of the day".

- Ray

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Early spaceships: JJ Astor and Percy Greg

The combat with the dragons - JJ Astor's A Journey in Other Worlds

I recently mentioned searching for print citations for "spaceship". The 1894 one mentioned in the OED comes from JJ Astor's A Journey in Other Worlds. This book is online - Gutenberg EText-No. 1607 - and is not at all unreadable despite the cheesiness of characterisation and dialogue.

"Come in!" sounded a voice, as Dr. Cortlandt and Dick Ayrault tapped at the door of the President of the Terrestrial Axis Straightening Company's private office on the morning of the 21st of June, A. D. 2000. Col. Bearwarden sat at his capacious desk, the shadows passing over his face as April clouds flit across the sun. He was a handsome man, and young for the important post he filled--being scarcely forty--a graduate of West Point, with great executive ability, and a wonderful engineer. "Sit down, chappies," said he; "we have still a half hour before I begin to read the report I am to make to the stockholders and representatives of all the governments, which is now ready. I know YOU smoke," passing a box of Havanas to the professor.

Prof. Cortlandt, LL. D., United States Government expert, appointed to examine the company's calculations, was about fifty, with a high forehead, greyish hair, and quick, grey eyes, a geologist and astronomer, and altogether as able a man, in his own way, as Col. Bearwarden in his. Richard Ayrault, a large stockholder and one of the honorary vice-presidents in the company, was about thirty, a university man, by nature a scientist, and engaged to one of the prettiest society girls, who was then a student at Vassar, in the beautiful town of Poughkeepsie.
The main story concerns the trip of Professor (or Dr. - Astor can't seem to decide) Cortlandt, with his colleagues Bearwarden and Ayrault, to Jupiter and Saturn aboard the Callisto, a spacecraft propelled by "apergy" beams. What's immediately interesting is its vision of its 2000AD setting. As outlined in Chapter IV (Prof. Cortlandt's Historical Sketch of the World) and Chapter V, it's a very Green future making extensive use of wind and solar power, electric cars, gliding ornithopters, and so on, but a world with an English-speaking joint hegemony, split between the Americas and the British Empire. There's an ongoing project to reduce the Earth's axial tilt to reduce climatic extremes near the poles. The off-world section starts out in Lost World vein; the travellers land on Jupiter, where they have to fight off prehistoric beasts. But then it takes a mystical turn. On Saturn, amid more adventures fighting monsters, they encounter the spirits of the dead and have various instructive visions; Ayrault has an out-of-body experience that takes him back to Earth. Strange cross-genre stuff. The author JJ Astor is, by the way, John Jacob Astor IV, who died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

Anyhow, I was pleased to find a citation antedating the OED's by 14 years
"The Apergy once mastered, it was comparatively easy to anticipate and improve upon the ideas of a trifler like Jules Verne, and build a space-ship".
- A STRANGE JOURNEY, The Pall Mall Gazette, London, England, Tuesday, January 20, 1880; Issue 4652
found via 19th Century British Library Newspapers
This is from a review of Percy Greg's 1880 novel Across the Zodiac: The Story of a Wrecked Record (Gutenberg EText-No. 10165); the term doesn't appear in the novel itself. I've passed the citation on to the OED's Science Fiction Citations project. In some respects Astor's book appears to be strongly derivative of this: he definitely nicked the apergy propulsion idea. The storyline of Across the Zodiac is rather different, however; the "wrecked record" refers to a found account of an unnamed protagonist who has gone to Mars on a ship called the Astronaut - the first OED citation for this word. He finds the "Martialists" to be small but humanoid.
He was about four feet eight or nine inches in height, with legs that seemed short in proportion to the length and girth of the body, but only because, as was apparent on more careful scrutiny, the chest was proportionately both longer and wider than in our race; otherwise he greatly resembled the fairer families of the Aryan breed, the Swede or German. The yellow hair, unshaven beard, whiskers, and moustache were all close and short.
He subsequently marries a Martial woman, Eveena 1 but things go pear-shaped when he gets involved in a local power struggle, and fighting ensues. It's more or less a prototype for the "sword and planet" genre of Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Barsoom" novels. Neverthless, it's also technological - some Martial technology is well ahead of Earth's - and has mystical aspects such as telepathy. There's an extended description in Free Energy Pioneer: John Worrell Keely by Theo Paijmans, which discusses the cross-talk between other works and ideas of the time. Greg's Martial culture is essentially feudal, a system adopted after a failed Communist revolution, and appallingly sexist
...The advocates of female equality made a very hard fight for equal culture; but the physical consequences were perfectly clear and perfectly intolerable. When a point was reached at which one half the girls of each generation were rendered invalids for life, and the other half protected only by a dense stupidity or volatile idleness which no school punishments could overcome, the Equalists were driven from one untenable point to another, and forced at last to demand a reduction of the masculine standard of education to the level of feminine capacities. Upon this ground they took their last stand, and were hopelessly beaten. The reaction was so complete that for the last two hundred and forty generations, the standard of female education has been lowered to that which by general confession ordinary female brains can stand without injury to the physique. The practical consequences of sexual equality have re-established in a more absolute form than ever the principle that the first purpose of female life is marriage and maternity; and that, for their own sakes as for the sake of each successive generation, women should be so trained as to be attractive wives and mothers of healthy children, all other considerations being subordinated to these. A certain small number of ladies avail themselves of the legal equality they still enjoy, and live in the world much as men. But we regard them as third-rate men in petticoats, hardly as women at all. Marriage with one of them is the last resource to which a man too idle or too foolish to earn his own living will betake himself. Whatever their education, our women have always found that such independence as they could earn by hard work was less satisfactory than the dependence, coupled with assured comfort and ease, which they enjoy as the consorts, playthings, or slaves of the other sex; and they are only too glad to barter their legal equality for the certainty of protection, indolence, and permanent support."
One might suspect Swiftean satire, but this is undoubtedly the author talking. The Suffolk-born Greg (1836-1889) was a talented journalist who wrote prolifically, but turned increasingly flaky and "rabidly conservative" towards the end of his life. As the ODNB says:
In his youth Greg became known as a secularist, in middle age as a spiritualist, and in his later years as a champion of feudalism and absolutism. His violent opposition to the Unionist side in the American Civil War was made public in his History of the United States to the Reconstruction of the Union (1887) and earned him the reputation of political hard-hitter on the Penny Press. His more eccentric political and religious convictions were forcefully urged in two collections of his essays ... as well as in imaginative novels
Contemporary British papers were quite laidback about his works - The Graphic's obituary called his History of the United States a "meritorious history" - but Burton J Hendrick's 1939 Statesman of the Lost Cause - Jefferson Davis and His Cabinet says that Greg's "hatred for America knew no bounds, and his History of the United States is one of the most violent polemics ever committed to paper". That hatred was specifically directed at the Union, which he viewed as intolerant Puritans ganging up on the aristocratic south (see Normans and Saxons: southern race mythology and the intellectual history of the American Civil War). His 1880 novel Errant: A Tale of Latter-Day Chivalry and the 1883 Sanguelac ground the same axe, and even Across the Zodiac starts with a framing story involving a rude Yankee contrasted with the brave and courteous ex-Confederate officer who found the space traveller's account at the Astronaut's crash site. (Funnily enough, Burroughs' John Carter of Mars was also a Confederate officer).

Among Greg's other novels, The Verge of Night (1885) featured an embattled hero in the form of a Conservative politician whose father and wife try to commit him to an asylum for his political views. Ivy: Cousin and Bride (1881) is the nearest he wrote to a non-polemical novel; while it does feature a Tory journal editor, it's largely a human interest novel about the consequences when a man is forced to marry his cousin for the sake of family honour. Two collections of essays, The Devil's Advocate (1878), and Without God: Negative Science and Natural Ethics (1883), also expressed Percy's reactionary views; the first was satirical dialogues dissing modern developments of his era (such as universal suffrage, female suffrage, the pace of life, the Union), the second targeted agnosticism.

Addendum According to the narrator, Eveena "might possibly have completed her tenth year". No paedophilia is involved: a Martian year being about 687 Earth days, this makes her nearly 19 Earth years in biological age. Nevertheless, the narrator's attitude to her is distinctly parent-child and rather creepy: constant flirtation about chastising her. I vaguely wondered about the similarity between Eveena/Weena; a quick Google finds others who consider an influence on HG Wells likely (see Science Fiction Studies, #3, Volume 1, No. 3, Spring 1974, the HG Wells and earlier SF section, as well as Google Books).

Addendum 2 (July 7, 2010) Upgraded from comments: Bill Higgins - aka Beamjockey - kindly sent me a link to his weblog mentioning that Percy Greg has had a Martian crater named after him: see Hot Martian News: Craters Named for George Pál & Percy Greg. Thanks! Bill's post links to a shory obituary of Greg in The Academy and Literature, Volume 37, 1890, which confirms Greg's career and beliefs:

Mr Percy Greg, who died on Christmas Eve, was a native of Manchester, where he was born in 1836. His father was Mr. William Rathbone Greg, the well-known writer on social and economical questions. Mr. Percy Greg devoted himself to literature and journalism; and, after serving ou the Manchester Guardian, removed to London, where he wrote leading articles for the Standard and other papers. Some of his earliest work appeared under the name of Lionel H. Holdreth. Two volumes, entitled Shadows of the Past and The Spirit of Inquiry, were radical in their tone, as to both theology and politics. The list of books published under his own name is lengthy: Interleaves in the Workday Prose of Twenty Years (1875), The Devil's Advocate (1878), Across the Zodiac (1880), Errant (1880), Ivy, Cousin and Bride (1881), Sanguelac (1883), Without God (1883), The Verge of Night (1885), The History of the United States (1887). Mr. Greg was to the last a fierce partisan of the South in the war of the Secession, and the "Lost Cause " had no advocate on the other side of the Atlantic so warm and so implacable. Perhaps his best book is Interleaves—a little volume of verse that is very little known. Here too the Southern Confederacy is heroically sung; but, apart from these mistaken efforts, it contains "The Martyr of Doubt," "The Martyr of Faith," " Why should the Atheist fear to Die ?" " Thy Kingdom come," and "Hallowed be thy Name." These pieces are expressive of widely different sentiments; but all are marked by strong poetic feeling. The two last-named have been included in the recent Hymnal edited by the Rev. John Hunter. - W. E. A. A.
- Ray

Friday, 4 September 2009

Kells surprise!

Upgraded from out-takes: Researcher uncovers secrets of Kells 'angels'. This PhysOrg piece summarises Cisne J L, 2009, "Stereoscopic comparison as the long-lost secret to microscopically detailed illumination like the Book of Kells’" Perception 38(7) 1087 – 1103, whch postulates a simple stereo-viewing trick as the means for drawing the detailed illuminations in the famous Book of Kells transcribed by Celtic monks around 800CE. The abstract:

The idea that the seventh- and eighth-century illuminators of the finest few Insular manuscripts had a working knowledge of stereoscopic images (otherwise an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discovery) helps explain how they could create singularly intricate, microscopically detailed designs at least five centuries before the earliest known artificial lenses of even spectacle quality. An important clue to this long-standing problem is that interlace patterns drawn largely freehand in lines spaced as closely as several per millimeter repeat so exactly across whole pages that repetitions can be free-fused to form microscopically detailed stereoscopic images whose relief in some instances indicates precision unsurpassed in astronomical instruments until the Renaissance. Spacings between repetitions commonly harmonize closely enough with normal interpupillary distances that copying disparities can be magnified tens of times in the stereoscopic relief of the images. The proposed explanation: to copy a design, create a pattern, or perfect a design’s template, the finest illuminators worked by successive approximation, using their presumably unaided eyes first as a camera lucida to fill a measured grid with multiple copies from a design, and then as a stereocomparator to detect and minimize disparities between repetitions by minimizing the relief of stereoscopic images, in the manner of a Howard–Dolman stereoacuity test done in reverse.

The Book of Kells, which lives at the Old Library, Trinity College Dublin, is iconic both as Christian and Celtic art, and central to the Celtic revival; there are plenty of images online, and many nice books with facsimiles (at the bookshop, for instance, we have a copy of the 1914 The Book of Kells / described by Sir E.Sullivan, and illus. with twenty-four plates in colours). But despite the exposure, the techniques to produce it are still an enigma. As the PhysOrg intro says:

The Book of Kells and similarly illustrated manuscripts of seventh- and eighth-century England and Ireland are known for their entrancingly intricate artwork -- geometric designs so precise that in some places they contain lines less than half a millimeter apart and nearly perfectly reproduced in repeating patterns -- leading a later scholar to call them "works not of men, but of angels".

The phrase comes from the Welsh historian Giraldus Cambrensis, referring in the 12th century to the now-lost Book of Kildare:

Fine craftsmanship is all about you, but you might not notice it. Look more keenly at it and you will penetrate to the very shrine of art. You will make out intricacies, so delicate and subtle, so exact and compact, so full of knots and links, with colours so fresh and vivid that you might say that all this was the work of an angel and not of a man.

I've often suspected that strongly myopic artists must have played a part. I've moderate short sight (I need -8.00D glasses) and find this gives a very useful "hi mag"mode for looking at things about 12cm away, enough for sub-millimetre detail such as halftone rosettes. I'm sure someone worse affected could manage the resolution of the Kells artwork. But Cisne's paper also notes that the Book of Kells shows this kind of resolution between duplicates of the same design, suggesting some means of visual comparison with a template. The mechanism is essentially that used when viewing random dot stereograms.

But precision aside, even at manageable size the complexity of Book of Kells designs is quite baffling, particularly the interlacings of Celtic knotwork. One handy fact - while I don't pretend to understand knot theory - is that some of it is self-working. If you draw a continuous loop, following it and assigning a simple over-under alternation at each crossing automatically assigns consistent interlacing (a feature known across multiple cultures). Forgive the crudeness of this diagram:

While I think that's pretty cool theory, the practice to produce aesthetically good designs requires astonishing powers of draughtsmanship, and the key and classic book is George Bain's Celtic Art: The Methods of Construction, originally published in 1951 to not much acclaim, but reissued in 1971 to become central to the revival of Celtic artwork. See Celtic Interlace; An Overview (Stephen Walker, orig. in Dalriada Magazine). Bain's contribution was to document Celtic art from standing stones and other artefacts, and reinvent low-tech humanly feasible algorithms for drawing them and creating original designs.

click images to enlarge

The above images show Bain's reconstruction and the original of a roundel featuring stylised and interlaced birds, beasts and plants from The Book of Kells, Folio 188r, Incipit to the Gospel of Luke. "Quoniam quidem multi" (see full page at Wikimedia Commons). The actual roundel is just one-and-a-third inches across.

For a bit about Bain himself, see Groam House Museum and George Bain - A Highland Homecoming.I'm sorry to say that he comes across as a somewhat irritating presence in the book. Quite apart from his evident dislike of the modern art of his time, his commentary has a rather tiresome tone, not uncommon with autodidacts with off-the-wall theories, to the effect that everyone else is closed-minded, especially those who acquired knowledge through academic routes

... By minds already stored with information, whether it be acquired by instruction of others or by dint of personal application, prospective books will frequently be rejected. What has been diligently attained is too often assiduously hoarded; and pride and envy co-operate with avarice to render the process of knowledge difficult and expensive
- Anonymous 1795 1

... holders of Art College diplomas ... resenting the introduction of the study of a form of Art of which they knew nothing...

The two above examples show the gross travesties of Pictish Art in Publications by supposed authorities that have been for the past fifty years the only source of information for Students and others in the libraries of every university and centre of art education in the civilised world.

... writers who have been blinded by the "classical" education that still claims to be the basis of all European artistic achievements,

Maybe he's right, but parading the gripe in his book doesn't do him credit as a person. I can't over-emphasise, however, his skill as an artist and draughtsman, and the remarkable body of design techniques he devised. After his death in 1945, his work was continued by his son Iain Bain, a civil engineer who revised his father's techniques to simplify areas dependent on intuition, and published books including Celtic Knotwork and Celtic Key Patterns.

To Bain, by the way, we owe every Celtic knotwork tattoo you've ever seen (many are ripped off straight out of his book).

1. Any ideas on source? It's a distinctive quote, but Google Books finds no sign of it. I suspect Bain made it up.

Addendum For those who can fuse crossed-eye stereopairs, here's one I prepared earlier. Click to enlarge, as usual.

- Ray