The Art of Travel

A couple of years ago in a panel I did on Victorian Scientists at Clockwork Alchemy, the San Jose Steampunk con, I talked about Francis Galton. “Who?” you may ask. Francis Galton may be the most talented Victorian Scientist that no one has ever heard about today. The breadth of his work is jaw-droppingly astounding. Born in 1822 into the celebrated Wedgwood-Darwin clan (and half-cousin to Charles Darwin), he had all the advantages of a Victorian gentleman, including a wealthy father who died young leaving him with the means to be a gentleman-scientist for the rest of his life.

Young Francis was a child prodigy, reading by age two and knowing Greek and Latin by his fifth birthday. He was impatient with formal schooling, however, and bounced around aimlessly from school to school. He eventually earned an undistinguished degree from Cambridge, but only after suffering a nervous breakdown. Upon the death of his father, he left his studies and turned to travel, science, and invention.

Francis Galton in the 1850s

Francis Galton in the 1850s

The term “polymath” is often thrown around to describe someone with expertise in a wide variety of fields, but Galton truly deserves the label. While all of his work falls under the general category of measuring or quantifying things, his mind was not limited to only one arena. He developed much of what we now call statistics—correlation and regression, the standard deviation. He came up with the first weather map, and the system still used to classify fingerprints. He invented methods to measure mental and physical abilities, such as the questionnaire, and the high-pitched dog whistle. He embraced his cousin’s Theory of Evolution, and expanded upon it, wondering how abilities are inherited, and by the way, wouldn’t it be great if highly talented couples were encouraged to have more children, and the less-abled, fewer. While I am sure Galton offered his idea of eugenics for the benefit of society, it is shockingly bigoted—racist, classist, elitist, take your pick— when measured against today’s mores.

ArtofTravelIn his early years, Galton was an avid traveler and explorer. He traveled down the Nile to Khartoum, and later mounted an expedition to South-West Africa, which was at that time, largely unexplored. From his travels, he wrote his most popular book, entitled The Art of Travel in 1855. The book went through four more editions and is apparently still in print. It can be found as a digital copy online here and here. This book was the bible on how to organize and carry out an expedition into the wilder territories of the Empire. The stereotypical British Explorer in pith helmet and safari outfit? Yeah, he read this book. The book is written in wonderfully ornate Victorian language and definitely worth thumbing through—you just have to put your brain back into a mid-1800s racist, classist, elitist mind-frame.

The book starts with a bit of advice:

 To those who meditate Travel.Qualifications for a Traveller.–If you have health, a great craving for adventure, at least a moderate fortune, and can set your heart on a definite object, which old travellers do not think impracticable, then–travel by all means. If, in addition to these qualifications, you have scientific taste and knowledge, I believe that no career, in time of peace, can offer to you more advantages than that of a traveller. If you have not independent means, you may still turn travelling to excellent account; for experience shows it often leads to promotion, nay, some men support themselves by travel. They explore pasture land in Australia, they hunt for ivory in Africa, they collect specimens of natural history for sale, or they wander as artists.

Being of his time, Galton can also be accused of being sexist, except that in this book, women are hardly mentioned at all and then only as wives of native servants. It apparently didn’t even occur to him that a British woman might be an explorer. In this case, I don’t think that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. To his credit though, he later voted to allow women, specifically the Scottish explorer Isabella Bird, to be appointed Fellows in the Royal Geographical Society, a controversial stand at the time (which wasn’t finally sorted out until 1913).

In this book, Galton has an opinion on even the most trivial detail of travel through wild countries, usually backed up with experimental data or the recommendation of a trusted expert. Thus, we get advice on:

  •  How to navigate: “A pocket compass should not be too small; if one of the little toy compasses be carried in the pocket, it should be as a reserve, and not for regular use. A toy compass will of course tell N. from N.N.E., and the like; and that may be very useful information, but the traveller will find that he constantly needs more precise directions.”
  •  Which goods are useful to trade with natives: “Beads, shells, tobacco, needles, awls, cotton caps, handkerchiefs, clasp-knives, small axes, spear and arrow heads, generally answer this purpose.”
  •  And medical matters: “Travellers are apt to expect too much from their medicines, and to think that savages will hail them as demigods wherever they go. But their patients are generally cripples who want to be made whole in a moment, and other suchlike impracticable cases. Powerful emetics, purgatives, and eyewashes are the most popular physickings. The traveller who is sick away from help, may console himself with the proverb, that “though there is a great difference between a good physician and a bad one, there is very little between a good one and none at all.”

I particularly enjoy his steadfast belief in wearing flannel:

The importance of flannel next the skin can hardly be overrated: it is now a matter of statistics; for, during the progress of expeditions, notes have been made of the number of names of those in them who had provided themselves with flannel, and of those who had not. The list of sick and dead always included names from the latter list in a very great proportion.

Considering that flannel at the time generally meant woolen flannel and not the cotton we typically see today, Galton is espousing the concept behind the saying familiar to hikers and Boy Scouts everywhere, “Wool wears warm when wet.”

And you have to love a book with a section that begins: “Theory of Tea-making.–I have made a number of experiments on the art of making good tea…”


Putting aside the racist attitude, there are quite a few entertaining and informative sections in The Art of Travel, and potentially a useful resource for the steampunk explorer.


5 thoughts on “The Art of Travel

  1. Pingback: The Art of Travel | steampunk |

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