THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

23 posts categorized "Science"

12 February 2018

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose: The man who became famous for his research on plants

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In the last blog post we left our fictional hero, the astronomer in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, and his real-life counterpart, Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose, on the fringes of Western sciences. The former fails to get international recognition for his discovery of the Little Prince’s asteroid because of his traditional Turkish clothes, the latter fails to get international recognition for his invention of a coherer that would enable wireless telegraphy because of his reluctance to patent his invention. It is now the year 1920, and things are about to change for both our heroes.

Eleven years after the astronomer’s disappointment at the International Astronomical Congress in 1909, a Turkish dictator passes a law that requires all Turkish citizens to dress in European clothes. So the astronomer returns to the congress in 1920 and repeats his demonstration, but this time “dressed with impressive style and elegance”; and this time round, “everybody accepted his report”. Also in 1920, Bose becomes a Fellow of the Royal Society. Eleven years after he was not awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention that paved the way for the radio, Bose has now arrived at the heart of Western scientific institutions.

Burlington_House_ILN_1873Burlington House, which housed the Royal Society 1873-1967. Via Wikimedia commons.

As Patrick Geddes writes, this “formal acceptance and recognition by his European peers” came to Bose as “the culmination of a series of discussions and incidents spread over two decades”. One such incident happened in 1901, when Bose presented his results on “Responses in the Living and Non-living”, which he published as a book in 1902, to the Royal Society. In his talk, Bose showed that external stimuli, such as poison or electricity, have a similar effect on living tissue, such as plants or muscle, and inorganic matter, such as iron oxide or tin. Bose recorded response curves for muscle, plant, and metal and was thus able to show comparable effects of external stimuli on animals, plants, and metals alike.

This was not only revolutionary, but also unacceptable to parts of his audience. Bose, the physicist, was crossing disciplinary boundaries to chemistry, biology, and physiology, and neither the chemists, nor the biologists nor, particularly, the physiologists were happy. He was asked to revise his paper and negate his own results about the electric response of plants, not because his experiments were scientifically unsound, but because Sir John Burdon Sanderson, a famous professor of physiology, did not believe what he had seen with his own eyes. After all, he had tried to obtain these results in his experiments, but never managed. How could a physicist from India possibly achieve what he had not?

PlantNice plant image, nothing to do with the text. Via the British Library Flickr Commons.

At this point of the story, it might come as no surprise that Bose refused to alter his paper, which was consequently not published in the Royal Society’s “Proceedings”. As before, Bose had to rely on time (and his colleagues) to catch up with him; and they did. Eventually. As Geddes writes about Bose’s award of the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1920: his experiments, which were “questioned and belittled in the first stage, have since added a marvellous new province to the empire of human knowledge”.

Christin Hoene

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English Literature at the University of Kent, and Researcher in Residence at the British Library

08 February 2018

Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose: The man who (almost) invented the radio

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The story of Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose’s life and achievements reads somewhat like that of the Turkish astronomer in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, who discovers the asteroid from which the little prince comes. The astronomer presents his findings to the International Astronomical Congress “in a great demonstration”, but also “in Turkish costume, and so nobody would believe what he said”.

J.C.BoseThe Birth Centenary Committee, printed by P.C. Ray. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJ.C.Bose.JPG  

Like his fictional counterpart, Bose (1858 – 1937) for a long time found himself at the edges of Western sciences. He was born in India, came to England in the 1880s to study at University College, London, and Christ’s College, Cambridge, and returned to Calcutta in 1885, where he was appointed Professor of Physics at Presidency College. Here Bose conducted experiments that would lead him to almost invent the radio – something for which his contemporaries Guglielmo Marconi (1874 – 1937) and Karl Ferdinand Braun (1850 – 1918) won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909. Neither Marconi nor Braun mentioned Bose in their Nobel Lectures; despite the fact that Bose’s invention of a specific coherer, which turned out to be a crucial component for wireless telegraphy, predated Marconi’s experiments by 21 months.

However, Bose never patented his invention. Quite to the contrary: he openly displayed the construction and workings of an earlier version of his coherer when he was invited by the Royal Institution to give the prestigious Friday Evening Discourse on 29 January 1897. Afterwards, The Electric Engineer noted with “surprise that no secret was at any time made as to its construction, so that it has been open to all the world to adopt it for practical and possibly money-making purposes”. Bose’s biographer and contemporary Patrick Geddes (1854 – 1932) notes that Bose was “criticised as unpractical for making no profit from his inventions”, but that it fit both his character and his conviction to seek “no personal advantage from his inventions”.

Jagadish_Chandra_Bose_microwave_apparatusDiagram of Bose's microwave spectrometer apparatus, built between 1894 and 1897. By Jagadish Chandra Bose [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Marconi had less scruples. On 12 December 1901, Marconi used Bose’s 1899 improved version of the coherer to receive the first transatlantic wireless signal. Marconi also applied for a British patent on the device that was not his, in which he did not even mention Bose’s name. Marconi deliberately muddied the waters when presenting “his” invention at a lecture at the Royal Institution on 13 June 1902. As Probir K Bondyopadhyay writes: “By the time Marconi gave his lecture at the Royal Institution, he was already under attack by his own countryman, and Marconi, through his careful choice of words, caused deliberated confusions and, using clear diversionary tactics, shifted attention to works of Hughes, who was already dead at that time”.

Bondyopadhyay’s article was published in 1998. It took almost a century to unveil the true origins of the device that brought us wireless telegraphy and the radio and to give due credit to Bose. Like the astronomer in The Little Prince, Bose did not play by the rules of Western science, and therefore nobody listened. But also like his fictional counterpart, Bose changed garb. And suddenly, people did listen. 

Keen to learn more? Head over to part two!

Christin Hoene

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English Literature at the University of Kent, and Researcher in Residence at the British Library

Further reading:

Bose's legacy and his contributions to the invention of wireless telegraphy are still a contested issue. For a differing account on the “Boseian myth”, see Subrata Dasgupta's book Jagadis Chandra Bose and the Indian Response to Western science, particularly pages 76-83 and pages 250-254.

05 November 2017

Pyrotechnia: A ‘how-to’ guide for firework-makers

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Pyrotechnia, written by a gunner called John Babington, was the first English book about how to make recreational fireworks. It was printed in 1635, seven years before the Civil War. Gunpowder had long been used on the battlefield but, in England, it was only during Elizabeth I’s reign that this technology developed into something that would create fantastic aerial displays. Elizabeth I was famous for her love of fireworks; sumptuous displays were held in her honour and to celebrate military victories.

Pyrotechnia title page

Pyrotechnia told firework-makers all they needed to know about the chemical compounds and complex structural designs required for firework displays. Babington’s instructions are clear, easy to understand and are accompanied by labelled engravings, while the last two sections of the book are helpfully reserved for a treatise on geometry and logarithms respectively. Babington starts simply, with fireworks that are familiar to us today. His is the first printed reference to a roman candle, and there are descriptions of how to make rockets and ‘the best sort of starres’. For stars of a blue colour a combination of gunpowder, saltpetre and sulphur-vive did the trick. He then progresses to making “silver and gold raine”, firework wheels and “fisgigs”, a French firework that fizzed before it exploded.

This was all small fry though. Once a firework-maker had mastered the basics, he could recreate the type of spectacle enjoyed by Elizabeth I. One sight in particular was especially popular during this period: the dragon.

GeorgeAndDragon

It consisted of a huge wooden frame stuffed with spinners, fountains, firecrackers and rockets that ignited to give the effect of a huge fire-breathing creature. Often, a second dragon or St George would be pitched against it and a mock battle would take place. In Pyrotechnia, Babington instructs the reader to strap the dragon and St George together so that, when a wheel is turned, “[they] will runne furiously at each other”. They had to be well balanced as otherwise “they [would] turn their heeles upward, which would bee a great disgrace to the work and workman”. Babington also acknowledges that “much [has been] written upon this same subject”, confirming the dragon’s popularity.

Mermaid and Ship

 A large proportion of Pyrotechnia is also dedicated to creating fiery spectacles on water, a great skill indeed for any firework-maker. Babington reveals “many workes to be performed on the water”, from “how to make a water ball, which shall burn on the water, with great violence” to a “ship of fire workes” and sirens or mermaids “playing on the water”. 

ManuscriptNotesPyrotechnia

The British Library has three copies of Pyrotechnia. The copy in the photographs above has endpapers with a fantastic assortment of manuscript notes and inscriptions by the book’s 17th-century owner. On the first endpaper, most of an ownership inscription can just about be made out: “Edward Nowle[?] his booke bought…25th January …”. Written arithmetic, diagrams and sums are scrawled over the next two pages. It’s obvious that this book was well-used by its previous owner but were they a firework-maker themselves? Did they create a fire-breathing dragon? I suppose we’ll never know!

Maddy Smith
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

14 August 2017

Ranjitsinhji, our glorious hero bold

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The first Indian man to play cricket for England, KS Ranjitsinhji, was described in these glowing terms in a song written in his honour. His cricketing career in England began while he was studying in Cambridge. He played for Sussex from 1895 to 1904 and for England against Australia from 1896 to 1902.

Ranji - Driving MBM 1896

KS Ranjitsinhji, Mirror of British Merchandise, 1896

In 1899 he achieved an amazing first for cricketers – over 3,000 runs in one year. Incredibly, he managed to repeat this in 1900. The Ranji song is featured in the British Library’s Asians in Britain web pages where you can learn more about his life. The web pages were initially developed through projects led by Professor Susheila Nasta of the Open University, including Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad, 1870-1950  

The Asians in Britain web pages tell the story of the long history of people from South Asia in Britain and the contributions they have made to British culture and society. They include ayahs (nannies), lascar seamen, politicians, campaigners such as suffragette Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, scientists and authors. The web pages also highlight the vital contribution people from South Asia made during the world wars.

Naoroji portrait MBM 1892
Dadabhai Naoroji, elected MP for Finsbury, 1892
Mirror of British Merchandise, 1892

The Ranji song is among many fascinating and beautiful items currently on display in an exhibition at the Library of Birmingham, Connecting Stories: Our British Asian Heritage.

Connecting Stories with logos - small

For further details about the exhibition, events and opening hours please see the Library of Birmingham’s website. The exhibition and community engagement programme continue the partnership between the British Library and the Library of Birmingham. They are supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.  


Penny Brook
Head of India Office Records and exhibition curator


Further information
Asians in Britain web pages 
Making Britain Database 
#ConnectingStories

Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain: 400 years of history, (London, 2002)
Susheila Nasta with Florian Stadtler, Asian Britain: a photographic history, (London, 2013)
Mirror of British Merchandise, 1892, 1896 Reference: 14119.f.37

10 July 2017

Dame Anne McLaren: a noted career

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To publicise the upcoming event: Anne McLaren: Science, Ethics and the Archive, to be held at the British Library on 20 July, 6.30-8.00 pm, we are republishing this post examining the notable achievements of McLaren’s career. A longer article on McLaren by the biologist Marilyn Monk can be found on the BL Science blog along with this article on McLaren’s role on the Warnock Committee.

Dame Anne McLaren (1927–2007) was a developmental biologist who pioneered reproductive techniques that led to human in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

Dame_Anne_McLaren_©_James_Brabazon Dame Anne McLaren. Copyright © James Brabazon.

McLaren studied Zoology at Oxford and received a DPhil in 1952. In the same year she moved to UCL and began research with her husband Donald Michie into the skeletal development of mice. In 1955 she and Michie moved to the Royal Veterinary College and it was in 1958, while working with John Biggers, that McLaren produced the first litter of mice grown from embryos that had been developed outside the uterus and then transferred to a surrogate mother. This work paved the way for the development of IVF technologies and the birth of the first IVF baby Louise Brown some 20 years later.
 

McLaren-2

Detail from McLaren’s laboratory notebook dated 1955-1959 recording her experiments concerning embryo transplants in mice. (Add MS 83844). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.
 

McLaren-3

Detail from Mclaren’s laboratory notebook dated 1968-1976. (Add MS 83854). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.


In later years Anne’s career took her from Edinburgh to Cambridge via UCL where she continued her work into fertility and reproduction. As well as undertaking research she was a keen advocate of scientists explaining their work to the population at large and being involved in the formation of public policy. McLaren was a member of the Warnock committee whose advice led to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 as well as the establishment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulated in vitro fertilization and the use of human embryos, on which she served for over 10 years.
 

McLaren-4

Selection of lectures dating from 1977-78 including a ‘Lecture to girl’s school near York’ (Add MS 83835). Copyright the estate of Anne McLaren.

The Anne McLaren papers at the British Library consist of letters, notes, notebooks and offprints. These are currently available to readers through the British Library Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 83830-83981 and Add MS 89202.

Anne McLaren’s scientific publications and books, along with an oral history interview conducted in February 2007, are available to readers via the British Library Explore catalogue.

Jonathan Pledge
Curator of Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts, Public and Political Life

 

27 June 2017

A botanical excursion in Wales

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On Sunday 27 June 1773 at Chepstow, a party of botanists were clambering about ‘on the Steep nacked Bank by the Side of the Wye not far from the Castle’, hunting for plants.  The species identified included wild cabbage (Brassica maritima) on Chepstow Castle, madder (Rubria tinctoria) and stonecrop (Sedum rupestre) “upon the Rocks on both Sides of the Wye above and below the Bridge at Chepstow”, and the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) on the river bank.  They may have been too intent on their botanising to notice that two other members of their party were getting stuck in the mud of the tidal river. The artist Paul Sandby recorded this mishap in his 1775 aquatint, Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire.

K.Top.31.6.f

Paul Sandby, Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire  British Library K.Top.31.6.f. Noc

This expedition took place between 25 June and 16 August 1773.  The members of the party were Sir Joseph Banks, Dr Daniel Solander, Reverend John Lightfoot, The Hon. Charles Greville, Paul Sandby, and possibly also the Swiss geologist and meteorologist Jean Andre de Luc. The itinerary, recorded in Lightfoot’s journal, covered much of the coast of South Wales from Chepstow to Milford Haven and St David’s.  The purpose of the expedition was primarily botanical but there were also artistic aims. 

Sandby had made a tour of North Wales in 1771 and his subsequent enthusiasm for Welsh scenery must have been well known to his friends. While the scientists explored the vegetation, Sandby was taking views of the many castles along the Pembrokeshire coast. They were at St Quintins on 5 July where Sandby sketched the Castle gatehouse and the botanists found mint, Mentha longifolia, “by the Mill going to St. Quintins Castle a mile from Cowbridge, and in a wet marshy meadow on the left going to the Mill, found Ranunculus lingua” or Greater Spearwort.

K.Top.47.50.b

Paul Sandby, St Quintins Castle British Library K. Top.47.50.b .Noc

The party was at St Donat’s on 6 July. While Sandby drew the landscape and castle, the botanists were exploring the cliffs, caves, and crevices at nearby Nash Point where they found the ferns Asplenium marinum and  Adianthum capillus veneris “upon Nash Point facing the Sea, several Patches of it, but upon very high inaccessible places”.

K.Top.47.43.b.

Paul Sandby, North West View of Saint Donat's Castle British Library K.Top.47.43.b. Noc

Sandby depicted the view up the Neath River on Wednesday 7 July while the scientists were making a new botanical discovery for the county of Cheiranthus sinuatus or Sea Stock “a quarter of a mile before you come to Breton Ferry, on a Sandy Bank, on the right-hand side by the Road Side from Bridge End”.

K.Top.47.46.c.

Paul Sandby,View up the Neath River from the house at Briton Ferry British Library K.Top.47.46.c. Noc

This expedition had an unexpected outcome for Sandby’s career.  Later the same year, Banks was approached by the artist P. P. Burdett who wished to interest the scientist in his ‘secret’ printmaking technique as a way to reproduce Banks’s collections from his voyage with Captain Cook.  Banks did not take up this offer, but Greville subsequently paid Burdett £40 for the description and passed it on to Sandby.  This was the technique Sandby developed and named aquatint, and his first set of prints, published in 1775, was of the views in South Wales taken during the summer tour; the set was dedicated to his companions, Banks and Greville.

Ann Gunn
Lecturer in Museum and Gallery Studies, University of St Andrews

Further reading:
A transcript of Lightfoot’s  journal is in the Natural History Museum and it was published in 1905 by H. J. Riddelsdell, ‘Lightfoot’s visit to Wales in 1773’, Journal of Botany, British and Foreign, 43 (1905), 290-307
Gunn, A. V., The Prints of Paul Sandby (1731-1809): a Catalogue Raisonné , 2015 Turnhout: Brepols / Harvey Miller

 

22 June 2017

The King’s Architect and the ‘Architect King’

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n 1757 the Swedish-born Scot, William Chambers (1723–1796) was appointed as architectural tutor to the future king, George III. Chambers’ job was to teach the young heir the principles of classical architecture, but together they also designed and built several real buildings too. The King’s Topographical Collection, assembled by George and later given to the nation, now resides at the British Library and includes views of a number of the buildings born out of their partnership, many of which can now be seen at Picturing Places, the British Library’s brand new online encyclopaedia of all things topographical.

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John Spyers’ view of Richmond Observatory. Maps K.Top.41.16.r. Noc

One of those views is featured in my article about the little-known draughtsman, John Spyers. For 20 years Spyers worked for the most famous of all British gardeners, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, before turning his hand to topographical art and selling two albums of his drawings to the Russian Empress Catherine the Great for a very large number of roubles. A handful of original views by Spyers are preserved in the King’s Topographical Collection. One shows the Royal Observatory in Richmond Gardens, which was designed by Chambers and completed in time for the King to observe the much-anticipated transit of Venus in 1769. While the view’s poorly-drawn sheep are clear evidence of Spyers’ authorship, the drawing was formerly unattributed until an exhibition and conference at Hampton Court Palace in 2016 drew attention to the overlooked draughtsman.

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Design for a Register for the Weather by James Adam. Maps K.Top.41.16.s. Noc

The Royal Observatory is one of the many buildings that illustrate George III’s fervent interests in science and the arts. Another related building is encountered in Peter Barber’s article on the Scottish architect, Robert Adam. Like the Observatory, the design for a weather register by Robert’s partner and brother James was also intended for Richmond. But although it is undoubtedly very elegant, for unknown reasons it was never built – probably to the delight of William Chambers as Robert Adam was one of his great rivals, even though they shared the title of ‘Joint Architect to the King’.

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The Great Pagoda, from Chambers’ Plans, Elevations, Sections…56.i.3 Noc

Adam never completed any major works for the King, whereas Chambers was far more successful in this respect. The majority of his private royal commissions appeared at Richmond’s neighbour, Kew Gardens, between 1760 and 1763. (The present-day Kew Gardens encompasses both parts of the royal estate, although at the time the two gardens were separated by a thoroughfare known as ‘Love’s Lane’.) Chambers designed and built more than 20 follies and seats in a multitude of styles to ornament the gardens – a ‘Turkish’ Mosque, a ‘Moorish’ Alhambra, a ‘Chinese’ Pagoda and a ‘Gothic’ Temple among them. The full story is told in Jocelyn Anderson’s article, which looks at Chambers’ publication, Plans, Elevations, Sections and Perspective Views of the Gardens and Buildings at Kew in Surry (1763). George III’s own copy of this book is today owned by the British Library.

Drysdale PagodaScaff1_2017
Restoration of the Great Pagoda begins… © Historic Royal Palaces

The Great Pagoda in Kew Gardens is currently being restored by Historic Royal Palaces, who are returning the building to its original appearance complete with 80 glowering dragons. The restored building will be open to the public from mid-2018. In much the same way Picturing Places brings into the open hundreds of items from George III’s personal collection of topographical art, with both projects offering further insights into the tastes and patronage of this fascinating and cultured monarch.

Tom Drysdale
Archivist (Curators' Team), Historic Royal Palaces

 

02 February 2017

East India Company saltpetre warehouses at Ratcliff

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In Saturday night’s episode of the BBC drama Taboo, James Delaney was keen to acquire saltpetre, the main constituent of gunpowder.  This resulted in a violent raid on the East India Company’s warehouse to steal a supply.

Saltpetre, or potassium nitrate, forms naturally in certain soils, or it can be manufactured by mixing decaying organic matter with alkalis. It was imported from India in large quantities by the East India Company .  In June 1814, the homeward bound East India fleet arrived in the Channel carrying 23,199 barrels of saltpetre.

  Liverpool Mercury 17 June 1814 saltpetre etc
Liverpool Mercury 17 June 1814 Noc

Because of its inflammable nature, the East India Company kept its saltpetre at a distance from the City of London.  Most was stored at the Ratcliff saltpetre warehouses which stood to the south of Cock Hill in Shadwell. The original Company warehouses built in 1775 by George Wyatt at a cost of £16,000 were destroyed by fire in July 1794.

The Times reported that the fire began at the premises of Mr Cloves, a barge builder, when a pitch kettle that stood under his warehouse boiled over.  As it was low water, the flames spread to an adjacent barge laden with saltpetre and other stores. ‘The blowing-up of the salt-petre from the barge, occasioned large flakes of fire to fall on the warehouses belonging to the East-India Company, from whence the salt-petre was removing to the Tower (20 tons of which had been fortunately taken the preceding day). The flames soon caught the warehouses, and here the scene became dreadful; the whole of these buildings were consumed, with all their contents, to a great amount.  The wind blowing strong from the south, and the High-street of Ratcliffe being narrow, both sides caught fire, which prevented the engines from being of any essential service.’

‘The Saltpetre destroyed at the late fire at Ratcliffe, ran towards the Thames and had the appearance of cream-coloured lava; and when it had reached the water, flew up with a prodigious force in the form of an immense column.  Several particles of the petre were carried by the explosion as far as Low Layton, a distance of near six miles.’  

A fund was launched to provide relief for the hundreds of people who had lost their homes and their personal belongings, including working tools, in the fire. The Company subscribed 200 guineas to this fund and quickly set about rebuilding and enlarging the saltpetre warehouses with the addition of an embankment on the Thames.

Free Trade Wharf 3

The former East India Company saltpetre warehouses from the Thames embankment. Author's photo Noc

   Saltpetre warehouse ground plan

Ground plan of Ratcliff saltpetre warehouse 1835 IOR/L/L/2/987 Noc

The Ratcliff saltpetre warehouses have survived to the present day, escaping the threat of further fires and explosions to outlive the East India Company warehouses storing less dangerous cargoes. Two of the original three buildings have been restored.as part of the Free Trade Wharf development.

  Free Trade Wharf 1

Two blocks face each other across a courtyard running between the Thames embankment and The Highway. Author's photo Noc

 

The Company arms appear over the 1796 gateway on The Highway side which was rebuilt in 1934. 

Free Trade Wharf 2

1796 gateway on The Highway surmounted by the East India Company arms. Author's photo Noc

I strongly recommend the walk from Limehouse Basin following the Thames path round to Free Trade Wharf.  The views down the river are very impressive, especially on a sunny day.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
The Times Friday 25 July 1794 p.2d; Saturday 26 July 1794 p.3d.
The India Office Records holds property documents for the Ratcliff saltpetre warehouses – IOR/L/L/2/969-1170.