Scientific Steampunk

Weston Voltmeter, ca. 1901

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.

Voltmeter detail 1
Voltmeter detail 2

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!

Charles Darwin Considers Dragons

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.

Enjoy!

Happy Birthday, Michael Faraday

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.

M_Faraday_Lab_H_Moore

 

Faraday_Michael_Christmas_lecture

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“.

Isaac Newton–Alchemist

348px-GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689

Isaac Newton, at age 46, portrait by Godfre Kneller, 1689.

Isaac Newton is one of the towering intellects in the history of Science.  He formulated the laws of motion, investigated the nature of light, and invented calculus, among many other accomplishments.  Less well known, however, are his experiments in chymistry. Continue reading

Happy Birthday Michael Faraday!

September 22, 1791 is the birthday of my favorite scientist, Michael Faraday.

Here is a portrait painted of him at age 51, looking much younger than he does in most of his later photographic portraits.

M_Faraday_Th_Phillips_oil_1842

Portrait of Michael Faraday in 1841, painted by Thomas Phillips.

If you’re interested in reading more about this fascinating man, see this blog post.  A slightly more fictional Michael Faraday also features prominently in my latest steampunk adventure novel, “The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday.”

Mr. Bazalgette and the Fatberg

Of late the dispatches from London have concerned a gigantic “fatberg” that has completely blocked one of the main sewer channels under Whitechapel.  That the capital’s Victorian sewer system is just now reaching capacity is due to the foresight and engineering genius of Mr. Joseph Bazalgette who was given the mandate to update London’s sewer system following a series of cholera epidemics in the 1830s and 1840s.

When calculating out the dimensions of the pipes, he considered the highest population density producing the most amount of sewage.  Then he reportedly said, “Well, we’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen,” and doubled the diameter.  It is estimated that Bazalgette’s prudence bought an extra 50 years of life to his brick-lined sewage channels, so that only now is London needing to upgrade its system.

A very informative article in Prospect Magazine investigates the genesis of the Fatberg in more detail.

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.

Cook_Observtory

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.

Continue reading