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.

 

 

A Mechanical Goddess

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Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery

We are living in times in which we are striving to make the digital look more and more perfectly mechanical, especially here in Silicon Valley.

So it is refreshing to see something that is purely and simply mechanical in its very being.  No pixels, no user interface, no MP3 files.  Just gears and springs and levers artfully crafted, and beautifully encased in hand-worked precious metals and gems, depicting the Diana, goddess of the hunt in her chariot.

From the always entertaining and educational blog Two Nerdy History Girls, the video shows the automaton/clock in action. I can imagine it being quite the site at early 17th century soirees  Even today, it is quite amazing!

Sounds of the Past

Before there were MP3 files, before CDs, before vinyl, there were waxed cylinders upon which were stored the faint tracings that could be replayed as sound.

Thomas Edison patented the first phonograph in 1880, and cylinders maintained their popularity until the 1910s when discs began to outsell them.   The University of California, Santa Barbara has archived and digitized over 10,000 of these cylinders and made them available on the web.

Rummaging through the collection gives a real taste of the turn of the (last) century. Most of the cylinders contain music. If you like marches, this was the time of John Philip Sousa. There are also some recordings of important speeches of the day, including several by Theodore Roosevelt, and a description of his journeys in Antarctica by Ernest Shackleton.

For the steampunk enthusiast, there’s also a recording from 1905 of a song titled, “Come, take a trip in my air-ship.” (And for a modern recording of this song, listen to Unwoman (a Steampunk favorite) sing it.  You can even buy her version on a cylinder, in case vinyl isn’t hip enough for you!)

Personally, I’ve used these recordings to give a bit of ambience as background music in a historic house museum I’m involved with. Most people don’t notice it, but it lends a bit more authenticity to the experience, I find. And I’ve spent a fair amount of time just perusing the archives, listening to the sounds of ghosts from the past.

Old House Idiosyncrasies #5–The Trinity House

Not so much an Old House Idiosyncrasy, than an idiosyncratic old house–The Trinity House is a house style from the colonial period that is unique to Philadelphia. These houses were invented to solve the problem of what to do with the center of a large squarish city block:  fill it up with alleyways and tiny houses!

Here’s a great exploration of these homes from the always interesting website Atlas Obscura.

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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