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5 posts from August 2014

29 August 2014

Taking the Train to America: The Royal Scot and 'A Century of Progress'

Royal scot engine

'The Royal Scot', Triumph of the Royal Scot (1933) [10350.pp]. Image: public domain.

Not much remains of the original Victorian Euston Station, a block or two away from the Library. The much-loved and now lamented arch is gone, leaving only two Portland stone cuboid entrance lodges which now serve as real ale and cider pubs. But, under its fine, floating concrete ceiling, the station is still a gateway to the Midlands and Glasgow, as well as Tring and Milton Keynes.

In the spring of 1933, there was, though, much excitement: the arrival of The Royal Scot (London, Midland and Scottish Railway Class 6100). This was not an unusual occurence, since the locomotive, built in 1927 in Glasgow, had a daily 'task of linking England with Scotland', but on this day, the machine was due to be packed up and shipped to North America for a tour of the continent prior to a five-month display at the 'Century of Progress' exposition at Chicago.

The Royal Scot's journey

Unloading The Royal Scot. It made use of the world's largest floating crane, 'London Mammoth', to place the engine on the Canadian Pacific Steamship, Beaverdale, at Tilbury Docks.

A booklet commemorates the expedition as The Triumph of the Royal Scot. It is bundled up with other publications by the LMS at shelfmark 10450.pp, and I have just been to the basement to look at it (noting the rumble of a tube train as it ran past during my descent in the industrial elevator).

'Never before had a complete railway train visited the American Continent', the pamphlet opens. Cross-referencing the Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser (13 April 1933) via the British Newspaper Archive, does raise the eyebrow slightly, as that paper notes in its report on The Royal Scot that the 'G.W.R. express train King George V. attracted great interest when it visited America'. Perhaps it's just a matter of semantics (what is a complete railway train, after all? The Royal Scot was shipped along with its driver, engineer and fireman, making more of a set). The Bell, as the Great Western Railway engine was affectionately called, made the transatlantic trip in 1927 for the Baltimore and Ohio's centenary celebrations. (In 1893, the London and North West Railway also sent the Queen Empress and two carriages to the World's Fair at Chicago; and the Coronation Scot would head to the U.S. in 1939.)

Royal scot map

The Royal Scot undoubtedly made more of a stir, with its grand tour of both Canada and the United States, and then by its presence at the world fair. The pamphlet records that our travelling choo-choo had 3,021,601 visitors pass through it during the entirety of the trip. The 'wonderful gesture on the part of Britain', as the mayor of Detroit put it, was, of course freighted with significance.

The Century of Progress exposition not only celebrated, well, a century of progress, but was a chance for nations to set out their industrial and commercial stall. The arrival of the red train was a whistle-sounding for British industry, and a reminder that it wasn't just Philadelphia that built locomotives. But it was perhaps also a slightly-alarmed whistle. For one thing, the train had to be accompanied with a small leaflet explaining why British trains were so narrow, and there is a sense that British engineering is already overshadowed by its transatlantic competitor, even though it was the 'Nation that gave railways to the World'. The pamphlet also notes that in 'March 1933, the U.S. financial crisis occurred'.  However, the decision to ship the train was 'adhered to, a decision which was greated with the greatest satisfaction throughout the North American Continent, as affording evidence of British confidence in U.S. ability to triumph over difficulties'.

The men who accompanied the train were not entirely sure about what they found during their tour of the States. William Gilbertson (60) and John Jackson explained to the New York Times (11 Aug 1933, p. 17) that they found New York overwhelming, and would be glad to be back in Chicago. The buildings were 'too high', the '"Underground' is steadier than the subway' and the 'giant moghuls of the Pennsylvania Railroad' were not to be prefered to their 'snug little engine'.  The George Washington Bridge, although fine, did not match Tower Bridge. Worst of all,when they sounded the Scot's whistle on the 'first day in Chicago, some one shouted "Peanuts!"'

Our train, then, is more than a piece of engineering, but a symbol of nationhood.  The Royal Scot train, would attract more interest as 'its daily task of linking England with Scotland automatically created for it a much wider interest than could have been achieved with a train operating only in one country'. Ideas (and possibly confusions) of race, nation, Union, and capitalistic competition are waiting to be unpacked at this moment of international crisis and blustery-self confidence, when

'a little slice of Britain [was] transported across the seas -- five hundred tons of British science, skill and steel set down for a space among folk who share the same tongue, the same ideas as the men, labouring in workshops 3,000 and more away, who fashioned the masterpiece of modern craftsmanship that is The Royal Scot'.

Or, as the Vancouver Sun put it, in 1933,

The visit of The Royal Scot to America has explained to the people of the United States and Canada some idea of England's efficiency and greatness. Viewing The Royal Scot -- small, but solid and efficient -- is just like getting an insight into the genius of the British Race.

[Matthew Shaw]

14 August 2014

"Na-no, Na-no!"

Mm cover

Richard J. Anobile, Mork & Mindy: a video novel (London, 1980 ed), Shelfmark X.958/21638.

For obvious reasons, one of Team Americas favourite films is Night at the Museum. It was playing on one of the TV channels on Monday night, and once again I enjoyed Robin Williams doing his turn as Tedddy Roosevelt. Like most people, I suspect, it was surprisingly sad when I woke up the next morning to hear the news of Williams' death, something that has been reflected in the extraordinary amount of column inches and screen time that followed the news.

I wondered what we might have in the collections from happier times, and called up the volume shown above (saving the The World According to Garp for another day). It's billed as a 'video novel', a rather unusual form of publication which riffs off the novelty of the new-fangled video recorders of the 1970s, and tells the story of everyone's favourite Orkan (Mork) and his Coloradan housemate, Mindy, via 'photographs taken from their smash-hit show', Mork & Mindy (which ran 1978-82). Apparently based on an hour-long special, it uses what looks like frames taken from a VCR to tell the tale in comic-book fashion, complete with speech bubbles. Our copy arrived via Hong Kong, a legacy of colonial copyright legislation. You can read more about the novel on Chris Pearce's comics blog.

Naturally, and now somewhat poignantly, the final pages show Mork calling his Immenseness with his final report, signing off as ever with his Orkan salutation:

'Na-no, Na-no!' 



13 August 2014

Sampaio: public works, protest and the Brazilian nation

Frontispiece, Historia da Fundação da Cidade do Salvador. Bahia: Tipografia Benedita Ltda., 1949 (BL shelfmark X.805/2453)

While working on entries to the forthcoming Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography I have been exploring our collection of writings by the Brazilian engineer, geographer, cartographer, architect, and ethnographer Teodoro Fernandes Sampaio (1855-1937). 

Many of you may have been following the recent debates and protests regarding the massive public investment in the World Cup and Olympics in Brazil. Indeed, public works projects have historically been at the centre of re-inventions of the Brazilian nation and usually a source of controversy. And the work of Teodoro Sampaio is a fine example of this. Sampaio lived through some of Brazil’s greatest historical transformations: from slave-society to industrial capitalism, from the Imperial era to the Vargas nation-state. Sampaio not only lived through these transformations, however, but was at the heart of many of them – including designing and overseeing the creation of railroads, mapping and surveying the contours and boundaries of the nation, designing urban sanitation systems, and founding many of Brazil’s first historical and geographical institutions. 

Sampaio also anticipated many of the great social problems that Brazil would face throughout the twentieth century. His engineering and geographical studies focused on the creation of economic opportunities and social integration. Through his research and writings Sampaio attempted to give voice to the poor and marginalised people of Brazil’s interior and Brazil’s indigenous communities.

One of my favourites of his publications that we hold here at the British Library is the Vocabulario geografico brasileiro - O tupi na geografia nacional (BL shelfmark X.700/22900). The book is essentially a dictionary of Tupi words, however each entry includes an geographical and cultural analysis of the word or phrase. Sampaio systematically unpacks the ways in which social roles and cultural concepts are bound up with geography, and the way geography and landscape shape cultural paradigms. Sampaio also recognised that the Tupi had a detailed and historic knowledge of the Brazilian interior that would be essential to the success of new public works projects. Sampaio studied the local and indigenous knowledge of Brazil’s terrain in order to create some of the best maps and charts and river navigations that anyone has ever done of the interior of Brazil. The Library holds many of Sampaio’s works including the classic O Rio Sao Francisco e a Chapada Diamantina (BL shelfmark X.808/36311). 

Next week, King’s College London will be hosting the annual Brazilian Studies Association (BRASA) congress – the first time that it has been held in Europe. I'm looking forward to it and I hope to see some of you there.


08 August 2014

50,000 Moths and Butterflies Died in the Making of this Post


Printing takes many forms. We mostly think of books as something created by moveable type, and then by more automated means, such as linotype or, more recently, digital production. But it can also incorporate the more handmade, corporal, and in the case of this post, lepidopterous.

The volume next to me as I write this post has been in our collections since it was purchased for the British Museum Library in 1900. It is copy number 259 of a limited edition of 500, printed in Boston, Mass., and the two volumes have been bound as one in dark green and black leather. Its title? The relatively unassuming Moths and Butterflies of the United States East of the Rocky Mountains, by Sherman F. Denton (Boston, Bradlee Widden, 1900) [shelfmark K.T.C.27.b.14].

It is a remarkable thing. Denton perfected an existing technique for preserving the wings of moths and butterflies in paper. As the Boston Evening Transcript (1899) explained, Denton sketched and engraved the bodies and outlines of his individual specimens.  Then, the wings of the once fluttery creatures were soaked in various gums and waters and then delicately laid onto prepared paper.  Weights were applied, and after 24 hours, the wing frame was gently brushed away, while the scales had transferred to the page in a form of lepidine transfer process. Along with 400 photographic illustrations, Moths and Butterflies contains dozens of such colourful – and slightly creepy – butterfly wing prints.

Photo 1

Denton, an American naturalist who also produced a series of models, books and prints for the United States Fish Commission at the Smithsonian Institution and the New York Fisheries, Game and Forest Commission, was attempting to show 'our native butterflies and moths not as dried and mutilated specimens in a cabinet... but as one sees them in our woods and fields, fresh and lovely.'  His text that accompanies his specimens demonstrates his genuine fascination and love for the creatures. He also thought his extraordinary work might have wider interest or use:

From the standpoint of the artist and the decorator, the study of the designs and color patterns on the wings of butterflies may be of valuable assistance. Such combinations of pleasing tints are rarely found in the handiworks of man. What better school could be found for the colorist than is within the reach of the humblest aspirant for fame as artist or decorator? Think of students copying the dingy works of the old masters year after year, when at their own doors the grandest combinations of colors that Nature can reproduce are passed by without a thought!

How true. We wonder if Damien Hirst has a copy?

The scientific response was less happy. The method, which can be traced back to the eighteenth century, has not been replicated, with the exception of a collection of Sri Lanken wings (Lionel Gilbert Ollyett Woodhouse, The Butterfly Fauna of Ceylon (Colombo, [1950]) [shelfmark STB (B) G 70] . For scientists, the method does not preserve the membranes of the wings, and the glorious lustre and sheen aside, the colours and shapes can be replicated by other printing methods (such as chromolithography in Denton's day, or even hand-colouring). The cost in numbers of creatures gently put to sleep by potassium cyanide is also very great. Denton states that he used 50,000 butterflies and moths in the production of the print run.

Photo 3

 (a photograph attempting to show the shimmer in the wings)

Photo 2

(not forgetting the moths. All images in the public domain)

Read more:

Boston Evening Transcript (3 March 1899).

A digital copy of the text can be found at the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Cowan, CF, 'Butterfly Wing Prints', Shorter Notes, Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History (1970), 389

Cowan, CF, 'Butterfly Wing Prints', Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History (1968), 368-69

[Matthew Shaw]

07 August 2014

Coming up: Lines in the Ice

HMS Assistance and Pioneer

Above: 'HMS Assistance and Pioneer in Winter Quarters' [Shelfmark: 1781.a.23]

For the last few months Tom Harper (from the Library's Maps team) and I have been working away on a new exhibition for this winter, 'Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage'. It's been an exciting process and we've come across some fascinating material, so we're pleased to start talking about it.

The exhibition looks at why Europeans have been drawn to explore the Arctic, focussing specifically on the charting of the Northwest Passage, and questions the significance of this search in the making of the modern world. I won't give away much about what you will see but suffice it to say there will be maps, books, photographs and more on display.

Franklin artefacts

Above: artefacts from Franklin's lost expedition, found during the long search for his crew and ships [Shelfmark: 1781.a.6]

We're in the process now of working through an initial selection of material, having spent the last few months accumulating a surprisingly lengthy long list. The sad part is know there is so much great material that won't go on display but at least we have the option of blogging about it! 'Lines in the Ice' will open on November 14th in the Library's Folio Society Gallery, make sure you come along and keep an eye here and on the BL Maps blog for some 'Curator's Cut' extras.



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