Joseph Faber’s Talking Euphonia

Euphonia was an amazing machine that was ahead of her time, and who seems to have been the first victim of the “Uncanny Valley” into which falls those creations that seem a bit too real, and creep people out. (Think of the movie “The Polar Express” in which the animation was a bit too real and which turned Chris van Allsburg’s magical Christmas book into a vaguely unsettling computer animated movie.)

Irrational Geographic

Written mention of machines built to imitate human speech date as far back as the 13th century. Early devices, however, were deemed by the Church to be heretical and were often destroyed (in one instance, it is written, a talking device was smashed by St. Thomas Aquinas himself) or at least kept out of the public eye. It was not until the 18th century that the social climate was willing to permit the creation of mechanisms that imitated human elocution, safely protected under the umbrella of scientific pursuit.

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In 1846, a German astronomer living in The United States named Joseph Faber unveiled his cutting-edge Euphonia at London’s Egyptian Hall, having accompanied P.T. Barnum across the Atlantic. Faber had spent the previous seventeen years perfecting this remarkable oddity, and had even dashed an earlier machine to bits out of frustration after American audiences failed to pay him much attention…

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Thirty Days Later is Coming!

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Do you like steampunk and cliffhangers? Adventure and intrigue? Dragons and Sasquatches? Then you’ll like the forthcoming anthology Thirty Days Later, Steaming Forward: 30 Adventures in Time, featuring pairs of stories by favorite steampunk authors who have appeared at the Clockwork Alchemy steampunk convention!

Thinking Ink Press is proud to announce we will publish Thirty Days Later in time for Clockwork Alchemy this Memorial Day. Edited by AJ Sikes, BJ Sikes, and Dover Whitecliff, Thirty Days Later is the sequel to the steampunk anthology Twelve Hours Later: 24 Tales of Myth and Mystery, a charity anthology to promote California literacy programs, and Thinking Ink Press is proud to donate half the royalties of Thirty Days Later to promote literacy.

I’m honored to be included in this year’s anthology.  My stories involve a Victorian astronomer who makes a world-changing discovery.  Or does he?  Only his more sensible assistant knows for sure. Or does she?

Thirty Days Later will launch at Clockwork Alchemy in San Jose, CA over the Memorial Day weekend.  Stay tuned for more news!

Steampunk Currency

I’ve always admired countries that put figures other than national political leaders on their currency.  The UK £20 note featured the great scientist Michael Faraday for a while in the 1990s and in pre-Euro days, Galileo was on the Italian 2000 lire note. Apparently Jane Austen is scheduled to appear on a UK £10 note next year.  The closest that the US has gotten is Benjamin Franklin on our $100 bill.  While Dr. Franklin was a noted scientist of his day, he is featured on US currency because he was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

It was not always so, however. Continue reading

Colorful Death

I ran across this graphic which describes the origins (and typical toxicity) of many materials that have been used across the centuries as dyes and pigments.  (What’s the difference between a dye and a pigment, you say?  Simply put, a dye imparts color to a substrate (cloth, hair, etc.) while a pigment consists of particles which are mixed into a carrier and coated onto a substrate (think paint.))

In any case, it’s an interesting stroll through arsenic-laced wallpaper, heavy metals, and ground-up mummies, leading to purple mauveine, the first synthetic dye, whose discovery by Joseph Perkin in 1856 started organic chemical synthesis–which itself leads to the modern pharmaceutical and chemical industries.

I hadn’t heard of the web comic before–Veritable Hokum–but it describes itself as “a comic about mostly history, maybe science, and possibly some other stuff too.”–so right up my alley.  I foresee binge reading of its archives in my near future.

The Harrison Clocks

A recent post on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog prompted me to remember the wonderful book “Longitude” by Dava Sobel chronicling the history of John Harrison and his lifelong pursuit to develop an accurate chronometer.

In 1714, the Royal Navy had a problem.  Although it was a rather simple procedure to determine the latitude of a ship at sea (by sighting angle of the the sun at noon or Polaris, the North Star, at night), it was exceedingly difficult to determine a ship’s longitude.  After several maritime disasters resulting from faulty navigation, Parliament passed the Longitude Act which offered monetary rewards for methods to determine longitude at sea.

Continue reading

Goldsworthy Gurney–Gentleman Scientist

Goldsworthy_Gurney_-_PD-OLDSir Goldsworthy Gurney is a prime example of that most Victorian of species: the gentleman scientist.  A man of independent means who did not actually need to work to earn his living, and who possessed a scientific mind could make a fair contribution to inventing the 19th century. Such a man was Gurney.

He invented the limelight–a lamp which glowed when heated with an oxygen/hydrogen flame and used to enduring fame in lighting actors on stage.

In the 1820s he invented a steam carriage and proved that it could travel long distances even over the rough roads of the day.

In 1856, he patented an improved heater, called the Gurney Stove, some of which are still in use to this day!

Here’s a link to an article on the BBC website about this interesting and not-very-well-known man.

John Tyndall—The Man who Discovered the Answer to “Why is the Sky Blue?”

John_Tyndall_1I am often amazed by Victorian scientists and engineers who seem to have had infinite curiosity, wide-ranging interests, and, somehow, the time to make pioneering contributions in a number of disparate fields. Francis Galton, Michael Faraday, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel are all examples of these larger-than-life characters. So is John Tyndall.

“Who?” you say. If you ever took an introductory chemistry class, you might remember the “Tyndall Effect” describing how light is scattered in a colloid or another solution containing small particles. It may seem like a pretty narrow and arcane scientific achievement, but as I will describe, light scattering is pretty important, and besides, it was only one of many achievements from this most Victorian of scientists.

John Tyndall was born in Ireland of an English family in 1820. He attended the local schools, learning amongst other things, drafting. This knowledge came into good stead when he was hired by the Irish Ordnance Survey. As the British railways were being built in the 1840s, there was a great demand for surveyors, prompting Tyndall to work for several years in Britain in railway construction planning.

After railway work slackened and intellectual pursuits called him, he left Britain for Germany to further his education in science. At the time, British universities focused on classics and mathematics, and not practical science, whereas Germany schools were known to be more advanced in the practical sciences.

Tyndall landed at the University of Marburg, where he studied under, amongst other people, Robert Bunsen, of Bunsen Burner fame. During his time in Germany, he became adept at experimental and laboratory procedures in a number of different scientific disciplines. Continue reading