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Confessions of an Archive Rat

I admit it: I am an archive rat.  I just love to get in to a hoard of letters, diaries and notebooks from the past, especially when I know that not too many other hands have touched the material before me!  In writing The Philosophical Breakfast Club, I was so fortunate to have at my disposal the vast archives of Charles Babbage, John Herschel, and William Whewell, as well as numerous letters from Richard Jones (which are preserved in his best friend, Whewell’s, archive, which somehow seems fitting–even in death their papers are together). 

Since publishing the book, I have been asked by a number of readers about the experience of reading so many letters of my protagonists.  First, the practical details. 

Most of the letters are in these archives: the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge; the British Library (in London); the Royal Society of London, and the Science Museum archives in Swindon (home of a railway museum and the largest UK outlet mall!). Once you have permission to visit these archives, you must request the bound volume (as in the Babbage collection at the BL) or the box of letters. The paper must be handled carefully, touching the ink as little as possible. The handwriting is very horrible–so hard to read. I rediscovered a passage recently from Eliot’s MIDDLEMARCH where it is noted that it was the mark of a gentleman to NOT have the clear handwriting of a clerk! None of these four men could be accused of that. I usually need a magnifying lamp, especially with Whewell’s handwriting. When I am away from the letters for a while, the first day back is usually wasted, as I try just to get used to deciphering the handwriting again! But there is no substitute for holding and reading these letters–the men and their time just comes vividly to life in a way that mere digital transcriptions could never fully convey. I feel so fortunate to be able to have had that experience. It is almost as if I was able to eavesdrop on their conversations–and I hope that sense is conveyed to readers of the book.

Some people wonder whether it is really important to see the letters themselves, for instance if there are digital transcriptions.  In the case of these four men, there are no complete transcriptions, but even if there were I would still have wanted to see the original letters. There are a few reasons for this.

First, I have caught errors in the transcriptions that do exist; this is not uncommonly the case with such bad handwriting! Second, the historian can learn, or at least make inferences from, certain physical features of a letter: how hard was the writing impressed into the paper at a given point (was someone angry, or at least emphatic?)? How many underscores are there below a word or phrase? What was added as an afterthought above or below a previously written line? Etc.

I can think of a couple of instances off the top of my head where seeing the physical condition of the letters was instructive. In one letter of the early letters between Whewell and a friend, letters in which they bantered rather boyishly about ladies, there is suddenly a paragraph that has been covered up with a dark paper and a glue so strong the paper would not budge (I only VERY gently tugged :). Given the previous paragraph, it is clear that the censored one is about a girl Whewell was involved with in some way. Whewell saved all or most of the letters written to him, even from his college days–so he must have felt it might one day be a collection others would want to see. Did HE, years later, censor this letter so that later prying eyes would not see, perhaps, how far his “flirtation” with Marianne had gone? Or did a surviving relative do so later, perhaps his niece, who also published some of the letters? To me, such details are the very stuff of history and biography.

I’m not saying that it is impossible to write good history without going through each and every bit of related correspondence in person. But when it can be done, it certainly, in my view, adds to the story the historian is able to tell.

Or maybe, it’s just that I am a real archive rat.

Interview with LA STAMPA

Today’s Tuttoscienze section of the Italian newspaper La Stampa has an interview with me about the members of the philosophical breakfast club. In it I discuss the changes they brought to science as a profession, and consider how the four men would feel about science today. They would have been pleased by the fact that there is international cooperation in research projects–something that they really spearheaded, with Whewell’s research on the tides and Whewell and Herschel’s active support of the international effort to collect meteorological and magnetic data. But they would have been dismayed, I think, by the growing chasm between science and religion, and science and general culture.

You can read the interview (and see some images of Whewell, Babbage, Herschel and Jones) here.

A Friendship that Revolutionized Science

I was recently asked what surprised me the most while writing The Philosophical Breakfast Club.  I think it was my realization that what had started out as a book about the power of ideas to change the world had become a story about a friendship that revolutionized science.

Read the full story here.

Happy Birthday, John Herschel (b. March 7, 1792)!!

In honor of John Herschel’s birthday, I would like to share this brief excerpt from the beginning of chapter 9, “Sciences of Shadow and Light.”

Thirty-three years after the fact, Margaret Herschel still recalled with photographic clarity the visit a friend of her husband’s had paid to Slough. On February 1, 1839, William Henry Fox Talbot took the new railway from London to visit John, bringing with him specimens of an ingenious method he had devised to capture images on paper. Margaret recalled that Talbot had shown the two of them “his beautiful little pictures of ferns and Laces taken by his new process.” He had produced them by placing leaves and pieces of lace on top of specially treated paper inside a wooden box covered with a glass lens, and setting the whole apparatus outside on the lawn of his estate, Lacock Abbey. The action of the sun on the light-sensitive silver chloride coating on the paper turned the areas around the objects a warm, dark brown, while the parts covered up by the leaves and lace were left a bright white–not unlike the effect of the potter Josiah Wedgwood’s jasperware, with its creamy white designs against darker backgrounds.

The problem, Talbot complained to the Herschels, was that over time the continued exposure to light would cause the images of the leaves and laces to turn a dark brown, just like the background, and the picture would be lost.  He had no way to “fix” the images.  Margaret remembered that her husband had said, “Let me have this one for a few minutes.”  After a short time he returned, and handed the picture to Talbot, saying, “I believe you will find that to be fixed”—and thus, Margaret proudly boasted, the problem of rendering photographs permanent was solved by her husband.

Herschel had, on this telling of the story, realized with a flash that experiments he had conducted in 1819 could provide the solution. . . .

Coming Soon…..

Photos from the book launch party at the Lotos Club Tuesday evening, and a very, very big review coming out on Saturday!

Inventing the Scientist

It was June 24, 1833, at the meeting of the recently-founded British Association for the Advancement of Science. William Whewell (pronounced “who-ell”), a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and former professor of Mineralogy, had just finished a speech opening the conference. When the applause died down, the members were shocked to see a frail, grizzled man rise slowly to his feet. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the celebrated Romantic poet, had written a treatise on scientific method decades before. Coleridge had hardly left his home in Highgate for the past thirty years, yet he had felt obliged to make the journey to attend this meeting.

At that time, the practitioners of science were known primarily as “natural philosophers.” Coleridge remarked acidly that the members of the association should no longer refer to themselves this way. Men digging in fossil pits, or performing experiments with electrical apparatus, hardly fit the definition. They were not, he meant, “armchair philosophers,” pondering the mysteries of the universe, but practical men – with dirty hands, at that. As a “real metaphysician,” he forbade them the use of this honorific.

The hall erupted in a tumultuous din, as the assembled group took offense at the insult Coleridge clearly intended. Then Whewell rose again, quieting the crowd. He courteously agreed with the “distinguished gentleman” that a satisfactory term with which to describe the members of the association was wanting. If “philosophers” is taken to be “too wide and lofty a term,” then, Whewell suggested, “by analogy with artist, we may form scientist.”

It was fitting that the term was invented by Whewell who, along with three of his friends, transformed the natural philosopher into the modern scientist.