Starry Starry Night

One stereotypical character of the Victorian Age is the “gentleman scientist”, men (and they were, with the exception of Lady Ada Lovelace, all men) with the financial wherewithal to putter around in their scientific pursuits without the need to actually work for a living.  Charles Darwin, Humphrey Davy, and Benjamin Franklin were all men of independent means and scientific interests.

Another was William Parsons.  Although less famous than the examples above, William Parsons was fortunate enough to inherit an earldom and a large estate in Ireland upon his father’s death. Now as the 3rd Earl of Rosse, he was free to concentrate on his astronomical pursuits.

Although Ireland may seem to have disadvantages as the site of an astronomical observatory—cloudy skies, moisture, and an elevation close to sea level come to mind—he had plenty of land there and plenty of money. So Lord Rosse started building increasingly larger telescopes at Birr Castle culminating in 1845 in a massive instrument with a 72-inch diameter mirror dubbed “The Leviathan of Parsonstown”. It was unlike any previous telescope, requiring massive machinery to move.  It wasn’t until 1918 when the 100-inch Mount Wilson telescope in California was built that a larger telescope was achieved.

The Leviathan of Parsonstown

Lord Rosse’s special interest was solving the nebula problem. Nebulae were faint fuzzy objects in the sky. One group of astronomers believed that they were gas clouds, while the opposition thought them clusters of stars which only appeared fuzzy when observed through telescopes of insufficient size.

And there was no telescope of more sufficient size than the Leviathan.  Observations were made.  Some nebulae were resolved into clusters of stars by the Leviathan’s colossal eye.  Others remained stubbornly fuzzy.  The issue was not resolved. (In fact, those objects in the sky called nebulae are two different things:  gas clouds, and galaxies filled with stars, but that wasn’t determined until even larger telescopes with cameras attached were developed.

And that last point is important.  When the Leviathan was built, photography was in its infancy, and astronomical photography even more so. Observations were recorded by making hand-drawn sketches. One of Lord Rosse’s most famous sketches was of the nebula numbered M-51 which he made in 1845. Lord Rosse drew a nebula with spiral arms and a second smaller nebula interacting with it.  The sketch was so much clearer than what had ever been seen before that it was widely reproduced and published in many popular astronomy books of the day throughout Europe.

Drawing by Lord Rosse of nebula M-51 (now called the Whirlpool Galaxy) through the 72-in Leviathan telescope.
The Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

It does not take much imagination to recognize that Lord Rosse’s sketch of what we now know as the Whirlpool Galaxy greatly resembles the stellar swirls and eddies of Vincent van Gogh’s immortal painting “Starry Night”  Do we know for certain that van Gogh had seen Lord Ross’s sketch? No. Perhaps he did. Or perhaps his artistic vision could tap into the scientific discoveries being made during that time. The two men weren’t contemporaries—“Starry Night” was painted in 1889, forty-four years after Lord Rosse’s sketch—but the sketch was well known.

Perhaps, Lord Rosse and van Gogh approached the same subject from two different vantage points—science and art.  While “Starry Night” is now fixed for all time, progress on astronomical instruments and the observations they are able to make have continued.  Below is a photograph of the Whirlpool Galaxy taken by the Hubble Telescope.  While the abstract billows and curls of Lord Rosse’s sketch appear to us different than they did in 1845, the majesty of the this immense galaxy still provokes awe, just as van Gogh’s does.

M-51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope

Moving Victorians

(Note: This post is a slightly longer version of an article I wrote for my local Victorian home group. If you’re going to plagiarize someone, why not yourself?)

San Francisco Victorian Home on the Move. Photo from the San Jose Mercury News website.

A few weeks ago, a rare sight rolled down Franklin Street in San Francisco: a large Italianate Victorian house.  The house, called by some the Englander House, was built in 1882, but it was the last house left on its block–commercial buildings having taken over all others–and thus was inconveniently in the way of an planned eight-story apartment building.

The developer sold the house, instead of demolishing it (likely had to because of historic preservation laws), and the unoccupied house took a six block trip around the corner from 807 Franklin Street to 635 Fulton Street. The trip cost $400,000 to complete, including moving utility lines, trimming trees, and uprooting parking meters to allow the house to roll smoothly by.

Apparently, this house move was the first in San Francisco in 50 years, although vintage “mobile homes” were more common in the 1970s. Previously, older buildings were summarily demolished if they were in the path of a planned development. However, by the 1970s, it became so obvious that San Francisco was losing its historic houses when “urban renewal” was all the rage that historic preservation ordinances were passed.

House moving also occurred in San Francisco much earlier than the 1970s.  The house in the photo below was moved up Steiner Street in 1908. Where it eventually stopped moving is not known. One could assume that its move had something to do with the 1906 earthquake, but I could find no details about it. A careful examination of the downhill side of the house will show the means of hauling this building: a two-horsepower winch–literally two horses. Cables ran from the cribbing supporting the house to capstans driven into the ground. The horses circled the capstan, slowly rotating the capstans and winching the house along. San Francisco’s hills couldn’t have made it an easy task.

Horse-powered moving of a Victorian in San Francisco in 1908.

In fact, it was often the hills that created the need for moving houses. As the city grew, entire neighborhoods were re-graded in an attempt to flatten San Francisco’s infamous hills, sometimes leaving houses isolated and in need of moving to their newer, lower addresses.

Moving a house from its higher previous location to its new re-graded level.

Moving Victorians around town is relatively more common in flat San Jose (the larger and more populous yet less charismatic city at the south end of San Francisco Bay).  A dozen or so houses were moved from the site of the new City Hall into the midst of other Victorian homes in the Hensley Historic District and the Northside neighborhood. We got to watch two of them come past our house very early one morning.

The Houghton-Donner house, built in 1881, was home to Eliza Donner, one of the children in the infamous Donner Party, and her husband Sherman Otis Houghton, who served in Congress. The house was moved in 1909 and negotiations were ongoing in 2007 to move it again when it was destroyed by a “highly suspicious” fire.

So how does all this relate to Steampunk? Between the time when horses provided the power to move houses, and when diesel truck did, steam tractors were the vehicle to use. Here’s a picture of a house in Winfield, Kansas, USA being moved by steam tractor.

Steampower!

If you’re interested in this topic, a great book with many photographs is: “San Francisco Relocated” by Diane C. Donovan, part of the Images of America series by Acadia Publishing.

EBook on Sale!

As part of Smashwords’s “Read an EBook Week”, I’m reducing the price of “The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday to half-price ($1.74 in the US).

This story is the first installment in the Steampunk-themed Airship Flamel Adventures Series and follows our hero, Nicodemus Boffin, from the ash heaps of the East End of London to the pinnacle of British science.

It’s a ripping yarn of airships, alchemy, and airpirates, set against the frontiers of Science!

Available at Smashwords for most ebook formats.

And if you enjoy this book, the next books in the series are “Mr. Darwin’s Dragon” and “To Rule the Skies.

Enjoy!

Gamble House Virtual Tour

The Gamble House in Pasadena, California demonstrates the epitome of the Arts and Crafts style. Designed by the noted architects Greene and Greene for David Gamble, the son of one of the founders of the Proctor and Gamble Company.

The Arts and Crafts, or Craftsman, style encompasses natural forms and materials. The Gamble House uses several different species of woods, rocks from the nearby riverbed, and patterns of stained glass reflecting flowers and trees. The architects also designed custom furniture for the house.

Built in 1908, the house remained in the family until 1966. There had been interest from potential buyers–one wanted to paint the intricate woodwork interior white. In order to ensure the preservation of the craftsmanship and artistry of the house, it was donated to the City of Pasadena.

The Gamble House is normally open for tours, but in these Days of Covid, a virtual tour has been devised describing the architecture and history of the house.

So, how does the Gamble House connect with Steampunk? It made its screen debut as Doc Brown’s house in Back to the Future.

Verisimilitude

Like many authors, I have an inordinate fondness for interesting words. One of my favorites is “verisimilitude”, both because its etymology is straightforward—veri = truth plus “similis”=like—and because it is a crucially important concept to put into practice in one’s writing.

Much fiction writing includes inventing a world in which the story takes place—science fiction and fantasy writing for sure, and straight fiction to some extent as well. The characters live in this fictional world, interacting with each other as well as with the world. 

Now part of the magic of the process of reading is that the reader will happily follow the writer through the story but only as long as the components seem plausible. Do they possess ‘verisimilitude’? If so, the reader is happy to continue on through the story.  If not, the reader will be jolted out of the story as they question what they just read, and look it over again to make sure they didn’t get it wrong.  The reader usually has a pretty generous latitude in what they’ll believe.  After all, they want to believe the overall story. If the offense is too great, however, they will only grumpily proceed, annoyed that this or that piece of the story seems wrong.

For example: 

Your story’s world seems to be fairly similar to ours, but somewhere in Chapter 2, with no prior warning, your main character kills a dragon with a magic sword. If you hadn’t dropped in subtly somewhere previously that magic swords exist (let alone dragons!) in your world, your reader is going to be very confused, and not a little irked because they’re going to stop reading and flip through Chapter 1 seeing if they’ve missed something important. Not an optimal reading experience.

However, if you had shown early on that your main character lived in a castle and her mother was training her in witchcraft by casually including a scene where she is reading through a book of spells and waving her wand around, the sudden appearance of the dragon in the next chapter wouldn’t be so startling.  A little foreshadowing goes a long way.

There are some examples that seem to contradict this:  Gregor Samsa finds himself metamorphosed into a giant insect in the very first sentence of Kafka’s famous short story. The events that occur afterwards are completely believable, however, and serve to buffer the unexpected initial event.

Even very small inconsistent details can jerk readers out of their reverie if they’re noticed.  For example, if in your novel’s world Britain and the US never quite make up after the Revolutionary War (as they don’t in my Airship Flamel Adventures series), it would seem unlikely that Americans drink tea out of Wedgwood porcelain teacups.

Similarly, in describing futuristic technology, it’s not important that your airship operate using actual true-to-life technology.  But it is important to allow your reader to believe in your technology by sprinkling around a sufficient amount of reasonable-sounding details.  No one who watches Star Trek doubts the ability of the warp drive to propel the Enterprise to trans-light speeds after hearing about nacelles, Jeffries tubes, and plasma conduits.  (I am reserving my position on mushroom-powered drives, however.)

As a writer, your job is to create entertaining and interesting stories, and that means leading your reader along by the hand through your carefully constructed world, free of jarring inconsistencies and implausible events. Verisimilitude is the answer. 

Scientific Steampunk

Weston Voltmeter, ca. 1901

Of all the items I own, none embodies the Steampunk Aesthetic more than a Weston Voltmeter that I bought on ebay several years ago.

Take a look at it. Compared with later analog meters, it’s massive The voltmeter measures 10 inches in diameter and weighs about 12 pounds. The face of the device is painted black with what appear to be nickel-plated text and decoration. The earliest patent number on the central plaque is July 16, 1901, meaning that it was built no earlier than that. Its maker, the Weston Electrical Instrument Company, was well-known at the time for the high quality of its electrical measuring devices. Indeed the device seems to accurately measure electrical voltage still.

It is in the same condition as when I bought it. I’ve considered trying to clean it up a bit, but I kind of like the used appearance.

This device evokes the Steampunk Aesthetic by combining both its functionality with its completely unneeded decoration. The filigree and fancy script on its face contribute not a bit to the device’s ability to measure voltage. Yet they are as intrinsic to the device as its function.

Voltmeter detail 1
Voltmeter detail 2

An interesting factoid: Edward Weston, the American chemist, who started the company making, amongst other instrumentation, the Weston Cell, a very precise electrochemical cell (i.e, battery), which was recognized as the international voltage standard until 1990. He named his son Edward Faraday Weston, obviously after the great British chemist, Michael Faraday. And there’s no scientist more steampunk than Faraday!

Time’s up for “curfew”

As I write, I’ve got 40 minutes to get inside before I could potentially be arrested. San Jose, California has a covid-related curfew that makes it unlawful to be out between the hours of 10pm and 5am. I’m not sure how strictly the curfew is being obeyed, not to mention enforced. It was the latest increasingly strict measure required by people not obeying the previous measure.

When I was growing up in Somerville, Massachusetts, it was well-understood by all us kids that the time to come in the house for the evening was when the streetlights turned on. The lights were controlled by a photocell, so we all got longer after-dinner play times during the summer. It was a simple system based on an indirect measure of the tilt of the Earth’s axis and it worked. Pleas for longer time were rarely granted.

Being a writer, I ponder the origins of interesting words that I encounter. Recently, I came across a picture of a brass fireplace implement called a “curfew” and wondered how it related to the modern meaning.

The curfew was a metal or terra cotta dome that was placed over the remains of the coals in the hearth or stove to prevent the fire from spreading while also preventing the coals from being extinguished. (“Curfew” stems from the French “couvre-feu”, to cover the fire.) It was a fine line between the disaster of a house fire and the hassle of re-kindling a cold fire in the morning. A bell would toll announcing the curfew—-the time to cover up the hearth fire for the night. The practice is ancient and predates the Norman Invasion in England.

Examples of Curfews

Of course, now the curfew is meant to get everyone out of the bars and in their home to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Let’s hope that don’t need either type of curfew for very much longer in the future.