Henry Washburn and Nathaniel Langford - Scientists of the Day

On Sep. 18, 1870, a party of explorers rode into Upper Yellowstone Basin and sighted a geyser in full eruption. The expedition was led by Henry Washburn, the newly appointed Surveyor-General of Montana territory, and he was accompanied by Nathaniel Langford and a small contingent of soldiers. The geyser delighted everyone, and they named it “Old Faithful.” Immediately they saw another, even more impressive, which they named “The Beehive,” then another, “The Castle”, and finally, the queen of them all, “The Giantess”. Upon their return, Langford wrote an article for Scribner’s Monthly, which appeared in two parts in May and June, 1871 (see first image above). He presented a very exciting account of their discovery of the Lower and Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River, and of the splendors of the Upper Geyser Basin. It is interesting that Langford was less impressed by Old Faithful, which he didn’t even illustrate, than the other geysers, especially The Giantess, which he thought was the grandest sight he had ever seen (see second image above).

There were also several nice general views in the magazine of the Upper and Lower Basin and the Canyon of the Yellowstone. Interestingly, several of these woodcuts in the articles, including that of the Giantess, were made and signed by a young artist who did not even make the trip. His name was Thomas Moran. He would visit Yellowstone later that year, as a member of the Hayden expedition of 1871. One of the products of his trip was a monumental painting, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872), which was hung in the US Capitol and played a significant role in convincing Congress to declare Yellowstone our first National Park in 1872. We display this splendid painting as our last image.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City 

(Source: lhldigital.lindahall.org)

Stephen Hales - Scientist of the Day

Stephen Hales, an English physicist, was born Sep. 17, 1677. Hales was an ardent follower of Isaac Newton, and he attempted to find the same laws and regularities in plants that Newton had found in the inorganic world. Between 1723 and 1725, Hales did an elegant series of experiments on living plants, exploring how fluids and gases move within them, and whether the sap circulates in plants, as blood does in humans (belief in plant circulation was common; Hales found that it did not occur). By exposing the roots of a pear tree, and severing one root and attaching the stub to a glass tube filled with water and connected to a barometer, he was able to measure both the quantity of water that passed through the root system, and the pressure of transport (see first image above). By covering the dirt surface of a sunflower in a pot with a lead sheet, he was able to measure the quantity of water added to the pot, and by weighing the pot, how much water must pass to the leaves and evaporate (or “perspire”, as Hales put it). Hales was truly the father of plant physiology, and he published an account of his experiments in a book called Vegetable Staticks (1727), which we have in the History of Science Collection (as well as several contemporary translations into French and German).

But Hales’ most famous contribution to experimental science was a new piece of laboratory apparatus for chemistry—a science that Hales cared little about. He needed some way to collect gases being given off by plants, so he came up with the idea of conducting these gases, via a glass tube, to a bottle that was inverted over a water bath. If the bottle were full of water to begin with, then as the gas bubbled up into the bottle, it would displace the water, and soon you would have a vessel filled with the gas, which you could cork and carry elsewhere to test. The device came to be called the “pneumatic trough”, and most of the gas discoveries of the last half of the century—hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen—would not have been possible without it. Hales’ version is shown above (second image). The last image depicts the version of Hales’ pneumatic trough that was used by Joseph Priestley to discover oxygen.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Nicolas Desmarest - Scientist of the Day

Nicolas Desmarest, a French geologist and cartographer, was born Sep. 16, 1725. When Desmarest began his work, it was thought that basalt formations, such as the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, were some sort of sedimentary deposits. In 1763, Desmarest began mapping the Auvergne region of central France, which contains most of that country’s mountains. He noticed that the mountains were not at all like the Alps, but had the shapes and features of volcanoes, even though no active eruptions had ever been recorded in France. And he found basalt formations everywhere, the source of which he was able to trace to the volcano-like craters.

In 1771, Desmarest presented a geological map of the Auvergne region to the Paris Academy of Sciences, locating all the craters and basalt formations, and in the accompanying memoir, he argued that the mountains of the region were once volcanic, and that basalt is a volcanic, or igneous, rock. Desmarest was really the first to suggest that volcanoes had been important forces in shaping the face of the earth in the deep past, and that wherever we see basalt, we are observing the remains of past volcanic action. We displayed Desmarest’s map in our 2004 exhibition, Vulcan’s Force and Fingal’s Cave; the online version shows a detail of the map. The complete map is shown above, as well as two other details. The last one shows the map legend, and indicates that Desmarest understood fully that one can distinguish ancient lava flows from more recent ones, and that the “prismes de basalt” (columnar basalts) were clearly related to the lava flows.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

(Source: lhldigital.lindahall.org)

Joannes Jonston - Scientist of the Day

Joannes Jonston, a Polish naturalist descended from a noble Scottish family, was born Sep. 15, 1603. In 1650, Jonston published the initial volume of his Historia naturalis, the first new natural history encyclopedia since Ulisse Aldrovandi began issuing his Natural History in 1599. Jonston’s one of the first zoological encyclopedias to utilize engravings instead of woodcuts, and the reader is treated to splendid views of badgers and polecats, as well as newly discovered South American mammals such as anteaters, sloths, and armadillos (see first two images above).

Aldrovandi filled 13 fat volumes with his encyclopedia of nature; Jonston squeezed his into 6 parts that fit nicely into just 2 volumes, and he included many more species to boot. How did he manage that? Jonston did so by leaving out the references to animal fables, proverbs, numismatics, hieroglyphics, allegories, morals, and emblems, all of which had been a necessary element of Renaissance natural history. For many reasons, but mostly because animals of the new world did not have any allegorical or emblematic meanings, Jonston omitted everything that wasn’t related to description of the animal itself—and unwittingly established the tone of natural history ever since. We bought our copy of Jonston’s Historia naturalis at auction in 1982 and since the binding had deteriorated, we had it rebound in a beautiful half-calf binding. The volumes are so attractive that one of them was chosen to be the model for one of the large book spines erected outside the Kansas City Public Library parking garage. The spine label was changed from “Jonston, Hist. Nat. de Avibus” to read: ” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens”. In the photo above, Dickens nee Jonston is right between Lord of the Rings and Charlotte’s Web.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

(Source: lhldigital.lindahall.org)

A color wheel and spectrum, and tints and shades from Répertoire de couleurs, 1905.

H. L. Mencken - (Honorary) Scientist of the Day

 H.L. Mencken, an American journalist, was born Sep. 12, 1880. Mencken wrote for the Baltimore Sun for most of his working life, and was noted for authoring a study of the U.S. version of English, called The American Language (1919), but he is best known in scientific circles for his daily coverage of the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in the summer of 1925. It was Mencken who dubbed the proceedings “The Monkey Trial,” and every day he wrote a long column for the Sun in which he took aim at Christian Fundamentalists, small-town judges, William Jennings Bryan, and Southerners in general. He marveled at a setting in which a pastor, the principal critic of John Scopes, would be allowed to open the court proceedings with a prayer, and he admired the energy of Clarence Darrow, whose efforts he likened to shouting up a drain spout in Afghanistan. He was particularly hard on Bryan, whom he called a “vulgar and common man…ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking” —and this was in an obituary column, written when Bryan died 5 days after the end of the trial. To read Mencken’s columns in sequence is to witness hard-boiled, two-fisted journalism at its best, a kind of writing that has long since disappeared from American newspapers, which now seem to seek to offend as few as possible. You can read extracts of these columns at the UMKC Law School Scopes Trial website, with links to the full columns at the end. Mencken has been well served by cinematic portrayals; in the original film version of Inherit the Wind (1960), he was played by a wonderfully sardonic Gene Kelly, in the 1988 version by Darren McGavin, and in the 1999 remake by Beau Bridges. But it is hard to beat Gene Kelly, with or without his tap shoes.

The second image above shows the Scopes trial in process, on a day so hot they moved the proceedings outdoors. The photograph captures the famous scene when Darrow questioned Bryan, who volunteered to be an expert witness on the Bible.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Ulisse Aldrovandi - Scientist of the Day

Ulisse Aldrovandi, an Italian naturalist, was born Sep. 11, 1522. Aldrovandi was one of the most notable citizens of Bologna, not only because he was a professor there, but because he had assembled one of the greatest collections of natural wonders the world had ever seen. His cabinet of curiosities was a must-see for any high-ranking visitor to Bologna, and it soon inspired other such collections all over Europe. Aldrovandi also kept a staff of artists to draw the objects in his collection. Not until late in life did he get around to publishing an encyclopedia of natural history—the first volume, on birds, came out in 1599, when he was 77, and only a few more volumes appeared before his death.

However, Aldrovandi bequeathed his entire collection to the city of Bologna, and the funds to support it, with the proviso that the publishing program go on, and indeed it did, with the 13th and final tome being printed in 1668. We have a complete set of the Natural History in the History of Science Collection, and it is quite impressive, in its matching vellum-bound folios. The volumes are filled with large woodcuts, many of them copies of similar cuts in Conrad Gesner’s History of animals, but many quite original, as are all of the images above. They show, from top to bottom, a toucan, a porcupine, an armadillo, and a kangaroo rat, with Aldrovandi’s own portrait, from the first volume on birds, inserted at the bottom.

 Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Jacques Boucher de Perthes - Scientist of the Day

Jacques Boucher de Perthes, a French customs official and amateur antiquarian, was born Sep. 10, 1788. In the 1830s, Boucher de Perthes began collecting palm-sized pieces of flint in the vicinity of his home town of Abbeville, in northwestern France, and he came to believe that they were human artifacts—in a word, stone tools. In 1847, he published the first volume of his Antiquités celtiques et antédiluviennes (Celtic and Antediluvian Antiquities) and presented his case that humankind went much further back than the era of recorded history, and that these human ancestors used stone tools before they invented metal ones. Practically no one accepted his argument, primarily because his flints were without context—unassociated with human or animal remains. However, after Brixham Cave was discovered in England in 1858, with its mixture of stone tools and extinct animal remains, many geologists—including the eminent Charles Lyell—revisited Abbeville and came to realize that Boucher de Perthes had been right all along. A somewhat embittered Boucher de Perthes—he was still very much alive—was only too happy to agree. His book eventually stretched to 3 vols, completed in 1864, and we displayed it in our 2012 exhibition, Blade and Bone: The Discovery of Human Antiquity.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Joseph Leidy - Scientist of the Day

 Joseph Leidy, an American physician and naturalist, was born Sep. 9, 1823. Leidy was a prominent member of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and he was the first to recognize dinosaur remains in North America. In 1856, Leidy identified some teeth that had been discovered by Ferdinand Hayden out in the Nebraska Territory; he named three of the new genera Trachodon, Troodon, and Deinodon, all of which are dinosaurs. Leidy truly understood what they were, as he pointed out that Trachodon teeth were similar to that of Iguanodon (the second dinosaur discovered in England, and the two dinosaurs on the left in the third image above), and Deinodon resembled Megalosaurus, the first dinosaur described in 1824 (and the dinosaur on the right in the third image above).

 Two years later, the partial remains of a large dinosaur were discovered in Haddonfield, New Jersey, and presented to the Academy. Leidy described it and named it Hadrosaurus. He pointed out that, because of its large hind limbs and smaller fore-limbs, Hadrosaurus probably moved more like a kangaroo that a lizard. This was the first suggestion that some dinosaurs might not have been quadrupeds, as they had been modeled by Benjamin Hawkins at Sydenham Park near London a few years before (see third image above). Leidy published his finds in two volumes of the Proceedings of the Academy, and we displayed both in our Paper Dinosaurs exhibition along with some other Leidy material (see items 9-11 in the exhibition).

The first image above is a restored scene of prehistoric New Jersey—two Hadrosauri can be seen in the background.  The second image is a reconstruction of a Hadrosaurus skeleton, done in 1868 by Benjamin Hawkins.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City

Robert Fludd - Scientist of the Day

Robert Fludd, an English physician and Hermetic philosopher, died Sep. 8, 1637, at age 63.  Fludd is best known for his mammoth encyclopedia, Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica (History of the Macrocosm and Microcosm, 1617-19), the last gasp of a Renaissance magical world view that saw an interconnected universe filled with correspondences and sympathies. The book is famous for its engraved plates that illustrate these connections, such as the wonderful title page, depicting a human form, the microcosm, overlying the planetary spheres, the macrocosm (see first image above). Another plate illustrates a cosmic monochord, with each planet corresponding to a musical tone, demonstrating the harmony of the spheres (see second image above). Numerous brackets connect various elemental, celestial, and angelic spheres, with labels such as “octave,” “fifth”, and “fourth” identifying the interconnecting harmonies.

Fludd’s images drew an attack from Johannes Kepler, who at the time was completing his own Harmonices mundi (Harmonies of the world, 1619), and at the end of this work he weighed in on Fludd. Kepler discovered his harmonies by measuring such things as planetary distances and speeds, and by looking for harmonic ratios in those figures. Fludd, he argues, just made them up. It makes for a pretty picture, but if the harmonies don’t correspond to any numbers in the real world, then they are just nonsense, argued Kepler. This brief contretemps epitomizes the difference between the Renaissance and the 17th century world views, the one proposing correspondences everywhere, the other insisting that a correspondence not grounded in a physical measurement is a phantasm. Fludd replied, and then Kepler, and then Fludd again, and needless to say, neither convinced the other. It is hard to have a conversation when there is no common ground. Such is often the case when world views collide.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City