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).


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.

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

Fantastic Devices to Improve your Steampunk Reality: The Difference Engine

This post ponders a topic that I consider when writing Steampunk/Alternate History: How much real (vs. fantastical) science and technology to include in your writing.

Airships, Automatons, and Aliens...Oh My!


Airships. Steam powered trains. Carriages drawn by mechanical horses, or self-propelled. When most people think of steampunk, these types of images frequently come to mind. Often these images are accompanied by automatons running amok, strange contraptions that bare little, if any resemblance to devices that currently exist, filled with cogs, gears and springs.

When it comes to the technology of a steam punk reality, the expectation seems to be big and impressive. But perhaps in a reality where the steam engine never gave way to the modern internal combustion engine, there is still a chance of a similar technological revolution. Perhaps in a world of steampunk, the world would be forever changed by a single device. A device that could take complex data and simplify it, translating it into information that the common man could use. We have the computer; our steampunk counterparts might have The Difference Engine.

For one…

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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