Mr. Bazalgette and the Fatberg

Of late the dispatches from London have concerned a gigantic “fatberg” that has completely blocked one of the main sewer channels under Whitechapel.  That the capital’s Victorian sewer system is just now reaching capacity is due to the foresight and engineering genius of Mr. Joseph Bazalgette who was given the mandate to update London’s sewer system following a series of cholera epidemics in the 1830s and 1840s.

When calculating out the dimensions of the pipes, he considered the highest population density producing the most amount of sewage.  Then he reportedly said, “Well, we’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen,” and doubled the diameter.  It is estimated that Bazalgette’s prudence bought an extra 50 years of life to his brick-lined sewage channels, so that only now is London needing to upgrade its system.

A very informative article in Prospect Magazine investigates the genesis of the Fatberg in more detail.


Our Enduring Preoccupation with Premature Burial  — The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice

Reposted from The Chururgion’s Apprentice blog…

Taphephobia (fear of being buried alive) has to be the ultimate claustrophobia.

Hours before he died, George Washington told his secretary: “Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead.” This kind of request was not uncommon. In an era when putrefaction was the only sure sign of death, many people […]

via Our Enduring Preoccupation with Premature Burial  — The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice

Voyages of Heavenly Discovery: Eclipse Expeditions

The upcoming total solar eclipse prompted me to look into the grand history of scientific expeditions, specifically expeditions to observe rare astronomical events.


Captain Cook’s observatory on Tahiti. Note the carefully mounted long-case clock.

One of the first voyages of discovery was to the newly discovered island of Tahiti (well, at least new to Europeans, the Tahitians obviously already knew it existed) on a ship called HMS Endeavour captained by a young Royal Navy Lieutenant by the name of James Cook.  The purpose of the voyage (at least publicly…) was to observe the Transit of Venus of 1769, that is, to watch and accurately time the planet Venus crossing in front of the sun. The ship’s company also included Joseph Banks, the famed botanist who brought along with him several assistants, two artists, and two servants.  Charles Green was appointed by the Royal Society to by one of the ship’s astronomers, the other being Cook himself who was a skilled observer.

And why all this expense to travel to the other side of the globe to observe one arcane astronomical event? The public reason was to improve navigation, specifically determination of longitude.  While the latitude of a ship at sea was easily determined with a sextant and a sunny noon-time, longitude was more difficult.  By comparing the times of the Transit of Venus at various places across the globe–some of whose positions were already accurately known, the longitudes of the observing sites could be determined with greater precision. (The longitude problem was eventually solved by John Harrison and his marine chronometers.)

So the Endeavour reached Tahiti, they timed the Transit, and then Cook opened his second set of sealed orders which essentially said, “Go look for this Terra Australis we keep hearing about, and if you find it, claim it for Britain.” After completely mapping the coast of New Zealand, Cook sailed a bit further west and found Australia.

Later astronomical expeditions were somewhat less imperialistic.

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Old House Idiosyncrasies #6–The Octagon House

In a blog post on Steampunk Architecture that I wrote almost three years ago (and which has consistently been one of my more popular posts), I included a picture of the Armour Steiner House in upstate New York which has the distinction of having an octagonal floor plan.  Prompted by a post in the always interesting website Atlas Obscura, I looked around for more examples of these unusually shaped buildings.  And it turns out there’s an interesting story behind them.


Armour-Stiner House, Irvington, New York. Source: JMReidy on

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Victorian Scientists writing poetry — Collecting Reality

Back in 2011, New Scientist magazine produced an excellent article on poetry written by Victorian scientists, including the great James Clark Maxwell. In 1865 he demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel through space as waves moving at the speed of light. The poems the article mentions are collected here: They are quite […]

via Victorian Scientists writing poetry — Collecting Reality

Michael Faraday: The Scientist’s Scientist


Portrait of Michael Faraday, by Thomas Phillips, 1842. If I were to guess, I’d say the apparatus on the left is a battery.

Michael Faraday, as I hope to convince you by the end of this blog post, was not only the most famous scientist of the Victorian Era, but quite possibly the scientist most responsible for the technological advances that have been achieved since.  And considering his humble origins, possibly the least likely to have done so.

After reading the paragraph above, it should come as no surprise that Michael Faraday is my favorite scientist.  As an electrochemist, my work owes much–no, everything!–to the discoveries that he made. And so, it was probably inevitable that Faraday would have a cameo appearance in my steampunk adventure novels.  Little did I know when I started writing that he would end up being one of the main characters in the book that I just launched, The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday.  While writing in the steampunk genre allows one to bend the truth a bit (as far as I know Faraday did not keep a secret lab notebook), I have endeavoured to depict Faraday for the most part truthfully.  His life is sufficiently interesting that it needs little embellishment from me.

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