James Lick was one of those persons who, through hard work, intelligence, perseverance, and sometimes just good luck, managed to accomplish more than seems possible in one lifetime. I find that many of these people seem to have lived during the Victorian Age, when opportunities were ripe, and a good dose of gumption could result in a dramatically improved situation.
James Lick was born in Pennsylvania in 1796 into fairly unexceptional circumstances; his father was a carpenter and young James followed suit. He eventually learned the piano-making trade and after tuning his skills in New York, he shipped out to Buenos Aires which seemed to be a good market for pianos.
Unfortunately, Lick’s success was initially hampered by his inability to speak Spanish, as well as sporadic South American political unrest. He bounced around the continent for almost 30 years, his business becoming prosperous. Eventually, he tired of the social upheavals, leaving South America completely and ending up in San Francisco with his piano-making tools, $30,000 in gold and 600 pounds of chocolate to sell for a friend. The chocolate sold quickly, prompting Lick to send a letter back to his friend Domingo Ghirardelli advising him to move his chocolate business up to California.
Before the mid-1800s, the typical household owned very few, if any, illustrations. Newspapers had no pictures; Periodicals had none until the 1840s. Books contained only expensive engravings. Photography was still a science experiment.
However, once photography became main-stream, a revolution occurred that enabled three-dimensional images from around the world to be available in almost every Victorian parlor—the stereoview.
A British scientist, Charles Wheatstone, first developed three-dimensional viewing using an optical instrument that would be recognizable today as a stereoscope. Wheatstone started his work before photography was developed, and experimented by making pairs of hand-drawn images that produced the 3-D effect. Wheatstone also had the advantage of being able to “free view”, i.e., to see the 3-D effect without using an instrument. (Remember those “Magic Eye” books from the 1990s where you had to make your eyes go all weird to see the 3-D effect.)
The trick is to fool your eyes into perceiving that a pair of photographs taken from two different angles appears to be a single three-dimensional image with the ability to see objects close and far away properly maintained. As one stereoview advertisement claimed:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I am happy to offer the electronic version of my latest book, Mr. Darwin’s Dragon, at 50% off ($1.75) during Smashwords‘ July Summer/Winter promotion until the end of July.
This book is the latest Airship Flamel Adventure featuring Professor Nicodemus Flamel, the main character in this series.
Charles Darwin, one of Britain’s most famous and certainly most controversial scientists has a puzzle. How could it be that cultures all over the world–who had no prior contact with each other–have ancient myths of dragons? Could dragons have once lived alongside ancient man? Could dragons still exist?
Professor Nicodemus Boffin and his newly launched airship Flamel takes up the famous naturalist’s request to search for evidence of modern dragons. The voyage takes Flamel from Britain through the Middle East and over the Himalayas to China. The search is barely begun when Flamel discovers an illicit gold mine run by Cai Yuan, a cruel Chinese warlord, and his corrupt British collaborator. Professor Boffin and his family are taken hostage in the mine which seems to be guarded by a fierce dragon. The crew of Flamel must rescue them, and together discover whether Mr. Darwin’s dragon truly exists.
I am very pleased to announce that my latest novel in the Airship Flamel Adventures Series, Mr. Darwin’s Dragon, is now available on Amazon for paperback and Kindle formats and on Smashwords for most other ebook formats. Here’s the synopsis:
Charles Darwin, one of Britain’s most famous and certainly most controversial scientists has a puzzle. How is it that cultures all over the world have ancient myths of dragons? Could dragons have once lived alongside ancient man? Could dragons still exist?
Professor Nicodemus Boffin and his newly launched airship Flamel takes up Darwin’s request to search for evidence of modern dragons. The voyage takes Flamel from Britain through the Middle East and over the Himalayas to China. The search is barely begun when Flamel discovers an illicit gold mine run by Cai Yuan, a cruel Chinese warlord, and his corrupt British collaborator. Professor Boffin and his family are taken hostage in the mine which seems to be guarded by a fierce dragon. The crew of Flamel must rescue them, and together discover whether Mr. Darwin’s dragon truly exists.
The book will be launched next weekend at Clockwork Alchemy, the San Francisco Bay Area’s steampunk con. But that’s not all. I also have written one of the eleven short stories published in an anthology titled, Next Stop on the #13, put together with many of the talented authors that you’ll be able to meet at Clockwork Alchemy.
If you’re interested in Steampunk and in the Bay Area next weekend (March 22-24), I wholeheartedly recommend you attend and take part in the shenanigans. I’ll be in the Author’s Alley section of the Artist’s Bazaar. Come by and say Hi!
Also, come by and see me at the two panels I’ll be presenting. On Saturday at 2:00 pm, I’ll be giving a talk on Steampunk Architecture, and on Sunday at noon, I will be presenting “How to Research” along with the master of alternative history, Harry Turtledove. (I expect to learn more from him than I teach myself.)
Today, Sept. 22, is the great British scientist Michael Faraday’s 226th birthday.
Faraday’s contribution to science are many, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that before Faraday, electricity was batteries, and afterward, it was Edison and Tesla and all the motors, transformers, and generators they unleashed upon the world.
Faraday’s relationship to science can be summed up in two images: First, Faraday at work at the lab bench in the basement of the Royal Institution, and second, Faraday presiding over a Christmas Lecture–specifically designed for the layman, and for children in particular.
Professionally, I work in a field that is the direct descendant of Faraday–electrochemistry–so Faraday has always been a bit of a hero for me. For more information of Faraday’s life and contributions, see here. I’ve even written Professor Faraday into one of my novels as a major character, “The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday“.