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.

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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.

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

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Michael Faraday: The Scientist’s Scientist

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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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The Evolution of the Kitchen

A few years ago, I had the chance to tour the Newport Mansions in Rhode Island, the “summer cottages” of the Gilded Age wealthy.  While the mansions are over-the-top gorgeous (and literally built to impress), I found the kitchens, sculleries, and butlers’ pantries more interesting.  Maybe because I could actually picture the people who worked there.  I’m not sure how much if anything I have in common with the social set of Newport. The photo below shows the amazing kitchen and two story butler’s pantry at The Breakers, one of the more splendid “cottages” in Newport.

The two-story butler's pantry held all of the dishware for the family.

Gavin Ashworth and The Preservation Society of Newport County

This link connects to a site that shows the evolution of the kitchen from the 1870s to the 1970s.  It’s a little click-baity, but the illustrations and photographs of vintage kitchens more than make up for a.

And it’s a good reminder of why those of us who live in vintage houses, generally don’t have kitchens from the period.  I like my refrigerator and microwave, and wouldn’t really enjoy keeping the stove stoked and the ice box full of ice.

How to Eat Like a Victorian

Here’s an interesting article about Victorian food.  Like many other things, there was a great change in diet during the Victorian Age. Most of the foods that Victorians ate would still be considered relatively healthy today, although very different in composition than today’s diet–no kale, bananas or sushi. Probably not too surprising is that the amount of food that one consumed, or could afford to consume, made a huge difference in overall health.

 

 

The Shipwreck in a Corn Field

From the always entertaining and informative website, Atlas Obscura (if you’re not already reading it, you really should be…) comes the story of a sunken steamship that was discovered in the middle of a corn field in Missouri.  How the steamboat Great White Arabia ended up in the corn field is only half the story (the Missouri River shifted course, leaving it on, or rather under, dry land).

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Some of the crockery excavated from the hold of the Arabia (Photo by Wikimedia user Johnmaxmena2).

The amazing part of the story is the amount and variety of immaculately preserved cargo found on board.  The Arabia was on its way upriver loaded with all the sundry items required for life on what must have been not too far from the American western frontier when it sank in 1856. Because the ship and its cargo has spent most of the time since underground and not underwater, they have been amazingly preserved.

The team that discovered and excavated the steamboat have opened the Arabia Steamboat Museum to display some of the 200 tons of cargo excavated before the field had to be replanted with corn. If I’m ever in that part of the country, I think it would be an extraordinarily interesting museum to explore.