THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Science blog

68 posts categorized "Curiosity"

18 June 2020

Citizen Science and COVID-19

Add comment

Your experience of the COVID-19 pandemic could be an important contribution to science. Researchers from diverse disciplinary backgrounds are keen to learn about your stories, insights, routines, thoughts and feelings. While some projects would be eager to receive diaries in the narrative style of Samuel Pepys or John Evelyn, others want more specific information in survey format.

Hand-drawn and painted cartoon illustrating various ways people have entertained themselves during lockdown
Illustration: Graham Newby, The British Library: Lockdown Rooms (3rd June 2020)

Citizen science engages self-selected members of the public in academic research that generates new knowledge and provides all participants with benefits. The engagement can vary from data gathering or participatory interpretation to shared research design. Different forms of citizen science can be referred to as public science, public participation in scientific research, community science, crowd-sourced science, distributed engagement with research and knowledge production, or trans-disciplinary research that integrates local, indigenous and academic knowledge.

Contributing to citizen science projects sustains a sense of control, sense of belonging (empowering feelings in and after isolation) and sense of being useful which are particularly important in uncertain times. According to the UK Environment Observation Framework, self-measured evidence is more trusted by people, and organisations that draw on data generated through citizen science are more trusted. Trust is linked to transparency. Better understanding of how scientific knowledge is produced, and having a role and responsibility in shaping the knowledge production process, are likely to enable citizen scientists to re-frame the often-uneasy relationship between society and science.

Scale is a distinctive feature of citizen science. The more people are engaged, the more comprehensive an understanding can be reached about the researched topic. The featured COVID-19 Symptom Study has become the largest public science project in the world in a matter of weeks:  3,881,488 citizen scientists are involved as of 18th June 2020. Big data allowed medics to develop an artificial intelligence diagnostic that can predict the likelihood of having COVID-19 based on the symptoms only: a vital tool indeed when testing is limited.

The citizen science initiatives highlighted here, COVID-19 Symptom Study, COVID-19 and You, and COVID Chronicles, may inspire you to contribute to them or find other projects where you can take an active role in developing better understanding of current and future epidemics.

COVID-19 Symptom Study
https://COVID.joinzoe.com/data
Epidemiology
Institutions: King's College London, ZOE
Launched: 25th March 2020
Your contribution helps you and researchers understand COVID-19 and the dynamics of the pandemic (UK, USA).
How: Submit your physical health status regularly.

COVID-19 and You
https://nquire.org.uk/mission/COVID-19-and-you/contribute
Social sciences
Institutions: The Open University, The Young Foundation
Launched: 7th April 2020
Your contribution helps you and researchers understand how COVID-19 is affecting households and communities across the world.
How: Fill in an online survey with choices and narratives.

In addition to supporting current research, your contribution could add to future inquiries as well. Collecting and archiving short personal stories ensures authentic data will be available when researchers in the future look back to us now with their research questions. Reliable data should be collected now, while we are still living in unprecedented times. It is especially important to record the experiences of people from less privileged backgrounds, in contrast to earlier pandemics where the voices of all but the upper and middle classes, and the political, legal and scholarly elite, have often been lost to history. COVID Chronicles, an archival initiative, is doing just that. COVID Chronicles is a joint project: BBC 4 PM collects and features some of the stories and The British Library archives them all for future academic inquiries.

COVID Chronicles
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-52487414
History, social sciences
Institutions: BBC Radio 4, The British Library
Launched: 30th April 2020
Your contribution helps you and future researchers understand how people experience the COVID-19 pandemic in their daily life, at a personal level.
How: Submit a mini-essay (about 400 words) to BBC Radio 4 PM via e-mail: pm at bbc dot co dot uk. Your essay will be archived by The British Library and made available for future research.

The gradually easing lockdown and the anticipated long journey of national and global recovery generate a growing appetite to record, reflect on and analyse the COVID-19 epidemic's influence on our life. Not all "citizen science" projects observe high standards of privacy and ethical responsibility, however. Before joining in any research with public participation, consider the principles of citizen science suggested by the European Citizen Science Association and the questions below:

Five questions before joining a citizen science initiative

  1. Can you contact the researchers and the institution(s) they belong to with your questions and concerns?
  2. Is the research approach clear to you? In order words, is it clear to you what happens to your contribution, how it shapes the investigation and what new knowledge is expected?
  3. Is your privacy protected? In other words, is the privacy policy clear to you, including how you can opt out any time and be sure that your data are deleted?
  4. Are you contacted regularly about the progress of the research you are contributing to?
  5. Are you gaining new transferable skills, new knowledge, insights and other benefits by participating in the research?


Further reading:

Bicker, A., Sillitoe, P., Pottier, J. (eds) 2004. Investigating Local Knowledge: New Directions, New Approaches. Aldershot : Ashgate.
BL Shelfmark YC.2009.a.7651, Document Supply m04/38392

Citizen Science Resources related to COVID-19 pandemic (annotated list) https://www.citizenscience.org/COVID-19/
[Accessed 18th June 2020]

Curtis, V. 2018. Online citizen science and the widening of academia: distributed engagement with research and knowledge production. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Available as an ebook in British Library reading rooms.

Open University. 2019. Citizen Science and Global Biodiversity  (free online course) https://www.open.edu/openlearn/science-maths-technology/citizen-science-and-global-biodiversity/content-section-overview?active-tab=description-tab
[Accessed 18th June 2020]

Sillitoe, P. (ed). 2007. Local science vs global science: approaches to indigenous knowledge in international development. New York : Berghahn Books.
BL Shelfmark YC.2011.a.631, also available as an ebook in British Library reading rooms.

Written by Andrea Deri, Science Reference Team

Contributions from Polly Russell, Curator, COVID Chronicles, and Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies, are much appreciated.

 

13 May 2020

Diarists and diaries

Add comment

Three manuscript volumes, two open, one closed with a logo showing a dragon on the front.
Diary in the 17th century: The autograph manuscripts of John Evelyn's Diary  Copyright © The British Library Board

‘But one shower of rain all this month.’ - entered John Evelyn in his diary on 29th April 1681. What would you write about April 2020 in your diary?
 
John Evelyn (1620–1706) is one of the best-known English diarists. He is known as a diarist but he was also a scholar, a botanist, a landscape gardener, author and one of the founding members of ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge' (est. 1660).
 
An engraving of a white-haired man in academic dress, holding a large leather-bound book
Diarist: John Evelyn (31 October 1620 – 27 February 1706) Copyright © The British Library Board

Unbeknown to him, Evelyn was also a chronicler of climatic change. His weather notes provide us with data on the period dubbed as the Little Ice Age in Europe.
In his diary he noted numerous extreme weather events. The first reference in 1636: ‘This year being extremely dry’, continued later with extreme cold winters when the Thames froze over for weeks, extreme heat, and extreme wind including hurricanes, and unseasonal weather at various times of the year. 
1st January 1684
The weather continuing intolerably severe, streets of booths were set upon the Thames ; the air was so very cold and thick, as for many years there had not been the like. The small-pox was very mortal.
 
9th January 1684
I went cross the Thames on the ice, now become so thick as to bear not only streets of booths, in which they roasted meat, and had divers shops of wares, quite across as in a town, but coaches, carts and horses passed over.
 
11th August 1695
The weather now so cold, that greater frosts were not always seen in the midst of winter ; this succeeded much wet and set harvest extremely back.
Unlike most weather diarists, Evelyn did not take daily notes but focused on the unexpected. There are three years of exceptionally high number of weather notes in Evelyn’s diary: 1684, 1695 and 1696.  His comparative notes on the weather makes him stand out of weather diarists. 
25th June 1652
After a drought of near four months, there fell so violent a tempest of hail, rain, wind, thunder and lightning, as no man had seen the like in this age ; the hail being in some places four or five inches about, brake all the glass about London especially at Deptford, and more at Greenwich.
 
21st January 1671
This year the weather was so wet, stormy, and unseasonable, as had not been known for many years.
 
21st April 1689
This was one of the most seasonable springs, free form the usual sharp east winds that I have observed since the year 1660 (the year of the Restoration), which was much such as one.
Despite his longitudinal view of how the actual weather compared with previous years of his lifetime, he did not engage with weather forecasting. He took notice, however, of the relationship between weather conditions and health (epidemiology) issues, in line with The Royal Society’s priorities.
 
Keeping a weather diary in the second part of the 17th century was not unusual. In fact, The Royal Society encouraged it. One of the earliest histories of The Royal Society (1667) gives an account of how Christopher Wren’s (architect, another founding member of The Royal Society) initiated the study of the ‘history of seasons’ as the priority of the Royal Society.
The Second Work which he [Wren] has advanced, is the History of Seasons: which will be of admirable benefit to Mankind, if it shall be constantly pursued, and deriv'd down to Posterity. His proposal therefore was, to comprehend a Diary of Wind, Weather, and other conditions of the Air, as to Heat, Cold, and Weight; and also a General Description of the Year, whether contagious or healthful to Men or Beasts; with an Account of Epidemical Diseases, of Blasts, Mill-dews, and other accidents, belonging to Grain, Cattle, Fish, Fowl, and Insects.
Thomas Sprat (1667:315-6)
The Royal Society published a detailed description to support weather monitoring: 'A METHOD For making a History of the Weather by Mr. Hook’ (Sprat 1667:175-182)
The Royal Academy's stamped bookplate, showing their coat of arms in black and white
The bookplate of The Royal Society Note the Latin motto: Nullius in verba (Take nobody’s words for it)
Wren’s initiative is better understood in the context of extreme weather events and unusual seasons. Weather lore was not fully reliable for farmers and seamen any more. April showers did not necessarily happen – as Evelyn recorded in 1681. Finding out the laws and the cause of weather became a priority for a growing naval power. Evelyn, as an active member of the Royal Society, must have been aware of Wren’s initiative but did not follow any rigorous rules in his diary.  
 
Evelyn’s diary inspired scholars across disciplines over the last 400 years. One of them, J.M. Winn, M.D. (1848) - motivated by a severe winter in England in 1846 - extracted weather (and epidemiology) related entries from John Evelyn’s diary and concluded that Evelyn’s observations corroborated Howard Luke’s theory of a ‘cycle of seven years in the seasons of Britain’. Howard (see his work on clouds) made his theoretical proposition based on his own daily weather diary. Regardless of the accuracy of his conclusion, Winn recognized the value of Evelyn’s longitudinal dataset over a period of extraordinary climatic and social changes. Winn, similar to Wren and Evelyn himself, was keen to account for the link between extreme climatic and social events; a topic that has become part of our daily conversation as well this spring.
 
The British Library holds The John Evelyn Archive, a collection of his autograph diary, correspondence and related documents. This year marks John Evelyn’s 400th anniversary of birth (31 October 1620).
 
Celebrating Evelyn comes in style for many people who started keeping a diary this spring, written, audio, photo, or video diary, for recording their story of the Covid-19 epidemic, the impacts and the questions raised by this epidemic and the unfolding climatic changes. Evelyn, Wren, Howard were not professional meteorologists. But their observations, insights, and understanding of the importance of weather contributed to the history of meteorology, history of science and the history of civilisations.
 
Your Covid-19 Chronicles can also be part of The British Library's latest born-digital archives initiated by BBC Radio 4’s. Read here how your Covid-19 stories can make history.
An image shows a teacup, a closed laptop computer with monitor, a pen, a cloth-bound book and a pair of earbud headphones
Diary in 2020 [Photo: A. Deri, 6 May 2020]

Further reading
British Library to find home for Covid Chronicles (3 minutes)
Hear Polly Russell lead curator at the British Library tell Evan Davis how the Covid Chronicles might be used by future researchers.
30th April 2020
Evelyn, J., W. Bray (ed.) 1952. The diary of John Evelyn.   Vols. I-II. Dent.
BL Shelfmark W11/6235 Vol I; W11/6236 Vol II
Digitized editions of Evelyn’s diaries on http://www.archive.org & http://www.gutenberg.org 
Sprat, Th. (ed.) 1667. The History of the Royal Society of London, for the Improving of Natural Knowledge. London.
Winn, J.M. 1848. Notes on Meterology. Annual Report of the Royal Institution of Cornwall. Appendix II. Vol. 29. pp. 38-45.
BL Shelfmark Ac.1225
 
Many thanks to Phil Hatfield for his helpful suggestions.
 
Written by Andrea Deri, Science Reference Team

02 April 2020

Publishers offering coronavirus articles free.

Add comment

A pair of hands in blue disposable gloves frames a green petri dish with a model coronavirus in the centre
Image by danielfoster437 under a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 license


As the coronavirus pandemic continues to dominate news and lock down our daily lives, most of the major academic publishers have agreed to make their relevant articles available free online, even if they would otherwise be published with a paywall. Here is a set of links to various publisher sites, whether you are working on it yourself or looking for something to pass the time with.

American Chemical Society

American College of Physicians

Brill

British Medical Journal

Cambridge University Press

Cell Press

Chinese Medical Association

Elsevier

Emerald

European Respiratory Society

F1000

Frontiers

Future Science Group

Healthcare Infection Society

IEEE

IET

Informa Pharma Intelligence

Institute of Physics

Journal of the American Medical Association

Karger

The Lancet

National Academy of Sciences

New England Journal of Medicine

Oxford University Press

Royal Society

SAGE

Science

Springer Nature

Wiley

Wolters Kluwer

01 April 2020

Clouds: How Luke Howard linked Weather Lore and Natural Philosophy

Add comment

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
   William Wordsworth

A greyscale image of a painting of a large fluffy cloud
Figure 1 Cumulus is one of the three main genera of cloud formations proposed by Luke Howard in 1802 and still used today. Image from Howard, L. 1832 (second edition). On the modification of clouds, etc. page 33. Philo. Mag. Pl. VI. Vol. XVII. DRT Digital Store 1393.k.16.(1.)

 William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) ‘lonely as a cloud’ poem was conceived in April 1802 on a spring day walk in the Lake District. A few months later, in December 1802, a pharmacist and amateur meteorologist, Luke Howard (1772-1864) delivered a paper in London, on the dynamics of cloud formations. The two events were unrelated but their futures became intertwined. Howard’s essay ‘On the modifications of Clouds’ (1803) resonated deeply within learned circles, including arts and sciences. Clouds soon became the objects of fascination and scrutinizing attention. Articulating the order of the enigmatic sky-scape inspired poets, painters and scientists. The "lonely as a cloud" simile in Wordsworth’s poem, which he composed and published (1807) years after his Lake District walk, is also a nod to Howard’s ideas.  Within sciences a century later, the International Cloud Atlas (2017) of the World Meteorological Organization still draws on Howard’s taxonomy. 

 
What is it about Howard’s approach to clouds that made his essay so influential? Various characteristics have been identified so far; a few are highlighted here.
 
Howard likened cloud formations to the eloquence of human facial expression:
Clouds 'are subject to certain distinct modifications, produced by the general causes which effect all the variations of the atmosphere: they are commonly as good visible indications of the operation of these causes, as is the countenance of the state of a person's mind or body.' (Howard 1830:3)
By relating clouds to people, especially the face, the most personal feature of an individual, Howard captured the imagination of his readers: a truly powerful captatio benevolentiae at the time of growing interest in the self and its romantic reflections in the world.
 
In addition to making clouds personal, Howard drew on sources of knowledge that had authority on the weather in different parts of the society in the early 19th century England. One was popular knowledge or weather lore based on the practical knowledge of weather-wise farmers and mariners whose life depended on their ability of reading the clouds and other weather signs. The other was the theoretical knowledge of natural philosophers whose ambitions to account for weather changes employed experimental methods of the fledgling sciences.
'It is the frequent observation of the countenance of the sky, and of its connection with the present and ensuing phaenomena, that constitutes the antient [sic] and popular meteorology. The want of this branch of knowledge renders the prediction of the philosopher (who is attending only to his instruments may be said only to examine the pulse of the atmosphere) less generally successful than those of the weather-wise mariner or husbandman.' (Howard 1830:3)
Howard recognized the challenges of linking the two, translating between different ways of knowing, especially when mariners’ and farmers’ tacit knowledge was considered as  ‘incommunicable’:
'But as this experience is usually consigned only to the memory of the possessor [Howard refers here to mariners, farmers], in a confused mass of simple aphorisms, the skill resulting from it is in a manner of incommunicable; for, however valuable these links when in connexion with the rest of the chain, they often serve, when taken singly, only to mislead; and the power of connecting them, in order to form a judgement upon occasion, resides only in the mind before which their relations have passed, through perhaps imperceptibly, in review.' (Howard 1830:4)
The above description makes Howard a forerunner of the still on-going debate on the commensurability of practice-based and scientific knowledge.

Howard was fully aware of the obstacles presented by the isolation of different knowledge traditions and of the necessity of communication. This is why he proposed a common vocabulary:
'In order to enable the meteorologist to apply the key of analysis to the experience of others, as well as to record his own with brevity and precision, it may perhaps be allowable to introduce a methodical nomenclature, applicable to the various forms of suspended water, or, in other words, to the modification of cloud.'  (Howard 1830:4)
An image of three clouds of different types, described in the caption
Figure 2 Cirro-cumulus, cirro-stratus, cumulo-stratus, from top to down. Cirrus, stratus and cumulus, represent Howard’s three main genera of cloud formations. They can transform into each other and form composites. Image from Howards, L. 1832 (second edition). On the modification of clouds, etc. page 33. Philo. Mag. Pl. VII. Vol. XVII. DRT Digital Store 1393.k.16.(1.)

By linking practical knowledge and experimental scientific approaches, Howard highlighted an important similarity: both assumed order and predictability in the formation of clouds, or ‘nubification’, as Howard referred to the process. Both assumed that cloud formation was driven by many more factors than the ‘sport of winds’. Landscape features in the following example: when the morning sun warms up the mist, which sits in the valley as a stratus, formed during the night, a cloud can form as a nascent cumulus over the meadow, an indicator of fair weather:
‘At nebulae magis ima petunt, campoque recumbent.’ (But the clouds seek more the vales, and rest upon the plain)
Virgil Georgicon. Liber I. line 401 quoted in Howard on page 8 in the section of describing cirro-cumulus. (Translated by J.B. Greenough, 190)
Howard’s invocation of Virgil further strengthened his argument for connecting popular and scientific knowledge. Quotations from Virgil’s Georgics Book 1, that covers knowledge of farming and weather recognized in 1st century BC in ancient Rome, gave further credibility to practice-based knowledge. Howard’s readers who grew up on Latin antiquities recognized the Georgics as classic text and this familiarity may have given greater appeal to Howard’s ideas.
 
Howard’s cloud book is very short, only 32 pages, and illustrated with the author’s watercolours. The British Library holds three editions (1803, 1830, 1894), of which the second is digitized, and freely accessible remotely through Explore (Digital Store 1393.k.16.(1.))
 
Cloud spotting remains a passion, and Howard’s taxonomy of cirrus, stratus and cumulus still guides cloud observation in the 21st century.
This spring, in our isolation, looking up at the sky from our window, clouds may present the only contact we have with the natural world. The ever-changing cloud formations may give us both a sense of space and a sense of belongingness; even more so if we share our observations on citizen science initiatives, such as BBC Weather Watchers.
 
A photograph of a sky filled with fluffy cumulus clouds over the roofs of suburban houses
Figure 3 Sky-scape with cumulus over London (Photo: Andrea Deri, 31st March 2020)

In our bliss of solitude, dreaming on our couch with Wordsworth, may our wondering about clouds also extend to Luke Howard.
‘For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.’
A handwritten poem on a piece of paper
Figure 4 A section of a hand-written manuscript of William Wordsworth's poem 'I wandered lonely as a cloud'. © The British Library Board 065858. BL Add. MS 47864

References:
Boon, R., 2014. The man who named the clouds. Science Museum Blog. https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/the-man-who-named-the-clouds/ [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Brant, C., 2019. A cloud. European Romanticism in Association?: A pan-European organization bringing together individual researchers, scholarly associations and heritage institutions studying Romantic literature and culture.  https://www.euromanticism.org/a-cloud/ [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Hamblyn, R. 2001. The invention of clouds: how an amateur meteorologist forged the language of the skies. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. British Library shelfmarks m02/13387, YK.2001.a.15194
Howard, L., [1830]. On the modification of clouds and on the Principles of their Production, Suspension, and Destruction: Being the Substance of an Essay read before the Askensian Society in the Session 1802-3, Second ed. Printed by Talor, Black-Horse-Road, Fleet Street, London. British Library shelfmark 1393.k.16.(1.) 
Pedgley, D.E., 2003. Luke Howard and his clouds. Weather 58, pp. 51–55. https://doi.org/10.1256/wea.157.02 [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Reno, S.T., 2017. Romantic Clouds: Climate, Affect, Hyperobjects Seth T. Reno, in: Robertson, B.P. (Ed.), Romantic Sustainability: Endurance and the Natural World, 1780-1830. Lexington Books, Chapter 3. British Library shelfmark YC.2016.a.11155 
P. Vergilius Maro, Georgics. Books One. J. B. Greenough, (ed.) Translated by J.B. Greenough into English, 1900 Text
http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0058%3Abook%3D1%3Acard%3D393 [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Wordsworth, W., Kelliher, W.H., 1984. The manuscript of William Wordsworth’s poems, in two volumes (1807): a facsimile. British Library, London. British Library shelfmark Document Supply fGPB-46
 
Contributed by Andrea Deri, Science Reference Team

16 March 2020

Caroline Herschel born 270 years ago today.

Add comment

A close-up image of a handwritten manuscript on paper
The first page of the letter from Caroline Herschel on display in the Treasures Gallery

Happy birthday Caroline Herschel!


Today is the 270th anniversary of the birth of the German-born British astronomer Caroline Herschel, who discovered eight comets and fourteen nebulae. She also produced an expansion and correction of the previous main British star catalogue, created in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century by John Flamsteed, and made substantial contributions to the catalogue of nebulae and star clusters published after her death by her nephew John F W Herschel. She made heavy contributions as well to the work of her elder brother William Herschel, famous as the discoverer of Uranus.


Caroline Hershel was born in 1750 in Hannover in Germany, the daughter of a military musician. As the youngest daughter of her family, it was assumed by convention at the time that she would devote her life to helping her mother maintain the home and look after her father and elder brothers, which she resented. Her escape from this came when her brother William invited her to move to England and join him in Bath, where he was working in the family tradition as a musician. Caroline became a promising singer, but when her brother shifted his interests from music to astronomy he assumed once again that she would naturally help him in his own career. Over the years, despite this unwilling beginning, she became genuinely enthusiastic for the subject. In 1782, William was appointed Royal Astronomer by George III (not to be confused with the older position of the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich) and the pair moved to Datchet near Slough, to be closer to the royal home at Windsor. In 1787, William pursuaded the King to pay Caroline a salary in her own right, making her the first woman in Britain to be employed as a scientist.


The work was not just intellectual but physically demanding. William and Caroline had to construct their own telescopes and spend hours in the open air at night making observations. William's telescopes were some of the largest in the world at the time, being from twenty to forty feet in length. On one occasion, Caroline fell and impaled her leg on part of a telescope, losing a two ounce lump of flesh and suffering an injury which a military surgeon later told her would have entitled a soldier to six weeks spent in an infirmary.


Caroline's contributions have traditionally been undervalued due to a mixture of her personal shyness (coupled with disdain for people who she considered intellectually inferior) and her willingness to publicly depict herself as merely a submissive helpmeet to her brother, to avoid controversy, which were played up by subsequent commentators who wanted to depict her as conventionally feminine. Letters to her family which we hold here at the BL reveal her as a rather more strong-willed person, with a sardonic sense of humour.


After William's death in 1822, Caroline moved back to Hannover, where the position of her home in the centre of the city prevented her from much astronomical observation. In response, she devoted herself to compiling the catalogue of nebulae and star clusters. She died in 1848, increasingly physically frail in her later years but mentally sharp until the end.
We hold three copies of the first edition of Caroline Herschel's catalogue of stars, at the shelfmarks L.R.301.bb.2, 59.f.4, and B.265. The copy at L.R.301.bb.2 bears the bookplate of Charles Frederick Barnwell, at one time assistant keeper of antiquities at the British Museum, and is bound with a copy of the star catalogue of Francis Wollaston, another astronomer of the same era.


The letter from Caroline Herschel currently displayed in the Treasures Gallery is taken from the section of the Charles Babbage papers dealing with astronomy, Add MS 37203. It is a copy of a letter originally sent to Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal of the era, who was one of the few friends who Caroline was comfortable enough with to make an extended visit to. Her letters to close relatives while living in Hannover, which show a more outspoken side to her, are found at Egerton MS 3761 and Egerton MS 3762. The "Egerton" refers to the fact that they were purchased by the British Museum Library with money from an endowment created specifically to acquire manuscripts in the bequest of Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater.


Further reading:
Brock, C. The comet sweeper. Thriplow: Icon, 2007. Shelfmark YC.2008.a.3165, also available as e-book in the British Library Reading Rooms.
Hoskin, M. Herschel, Caroline Lucretia (1750-1848). In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2005. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/13100. Available online in British Library Reading Rooms.
Winterburn, E. The quiet revolution of Caroline Herschel. Stroud: The History Press, 2017. Shelfmark YK.2018.a.6511, also available as e-book in the British Library Reading Room

09 March 2020

Donald Michie (1923-2007): ‘Duckmouse’, a modern-day polymath

Add comment

This post is part of a series highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2020.

Codebreaker? Geneticist? Computer scientist? There is no single label which best encapsulates the wide reach of Donald Michie’s career as a scientist. In nearly 70 years of research, Michie crossed paths with some of the most well-known scientific names of the twentieth century, such as Alan Turing and Trofim Lysenko, and was at the forefront of two contrasting fields of scientific research.

Michie was born to a middle-class family in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar) in 1923, son of a British Empire banker. As was typical for young British boys of the Empire, he was sent back to Britain to boarding school for his education, attending Rugby School.

As a young man, fresh out of school and armed with a scholarship to study classics at Balliol College, Oxford, Michie accidentally found himself on a codebreaking course at Bletchley Park in 1942, in the middle of World War II. Intending to attend a Japanese language course, he had inadvertently turned up six months early, but was pointed to a codebreaking course, which he excelled at, returning after hours to revise and practice. Upon completing the course, he was assigned to the Newmanry (a group within Bletchley), cracking the Lorenz cipher.

Black and white photograph of a young white man in collar and tie
Donald Michie c. 1940s (Add MS 89072/1/5). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

 During his time at Bletchley, Michie befriended Alan Turing, whom he bonded with over their (relatively) poor standard of chess play. Their shared interest in playing chess badly and work on what we would now consider early computers led Michie and Turing to wonder: could machines be taught to play chess? And, beyond that, could machines think?

The latter question would form the basis of one of Turing’s best-known papers in 1950, a paper which still influences modern computer and AI research. The former led to Michie and Turing theorising their own chess-playing programmes on paper, with the hope that one day they could run them through a computer to test who’s played better. The programmers of Manchester’s early computers put paid to that prospect in the early 1950s, and the Turing-Michie computer chess match never took place.

One popular story abounds for Michie and Turing: during the war, Turing was known to trade his money for bars of silver, which he then buried in various spots around Bletchley Park. He made no note of the location of his silver, for fear of wartime invasion and discovery by the Germans. Post-war, Turing enlisted assistance from Michie to help locate it using a ‘gimcrack’, home-made metal detector. The search for Turing’s buried silver ingots around the grounds of Bletchley proved fruitless, and they remain lost to this day.

Following the end of the war, Michie turned his attentions away from computing and took up his place at Oxford, however not to study classics, as originally planned, but medicine instead. In his own words: ‘After the war, I had been switched on to computing, but there weren’t any computers to do experiments with. I had to do something, so I became a biologist.’ Michie earned his PhD in mammalian genetics in 1953 under the supervision of Ronald Fisher, then moved to the Department of Zoology at University College London. There, he worked alongside his second wife, Anne McLaren, exploring genetic inheritance in mice. Large parts of Michie and McLaren’s work together has become central to the field, such as their work indicating that inbred mice were not best for experimentation. Perhaps most notably, their pioneering research on embryo transfer on mice would later be developed, especially by McLaren, to form the basis of human IVF treatment.

Michie’s research in the 1950s also brought him into contact with the ongoing debate in Britain around the work of Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko was a scientist whose theories dominated Soviet genetics and agricultural science from the 1930s to the 1950s. He took a Lamarckian approach to genetics, arguing that acquired characteristics could be inherited. For example, a mouse which grows a long tail in response to a hot climate could then pass this trait on to its offspring. This theory was hotly contested outside the Soviet sphere of influence, conflicting as it did with the prevailing theories of genetics in Western Europe and the USA. Michie, however, saw some value in Lysenko’s theories and advocated for them to be tested in Britain by both professional scientists and amateur gardeners, hoping this would give the approach greater credibility.

Michie eventually came face-to-face with Lysenko in a chance encounter during a visit to the Moscow Institute of Genetics in 1957. Having camped across Europe in an old car with a friend, Michie met up with McLaren in Moscow, where the two of them interviewed Lysenko. Michie found Lysenko ‘stubborn, impatient, bigoted [and] intolerant’, yet also recognised qualities of ‘energies focussed in the search for understanding and the urge to communicate it’. According to Michie, it would take someone of Lysenko’s temperament and talents to make meaningful scientific advances, or even to ‘revolutionise’ an ‘old branch of knowledge’.

A black and white photograph of four men and two women in a room.
Donald Michie (far right) and Anne McLaren (second from right) with Trofim Lysenko (third from left), 1957 (Add MS 89202/5/48). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Anne McLaren.

 Whilst Lysenko’s fame and appeal faded into the 1960s, Michie’s interest in international exchanges and the sharing of scientific knowledge and practices did not. He hosted many Soviet researchers in Edinburgh and undertook numerous visits beyond the Iron Curtain himself, as well as trips to visit colleagues in the USA.

By the late 1950s, Michie was once again pursuing his interest in artificial intelligence (AI), taking on a bet from a colleague in Edinburgh (where he moved in 1958) that he could not produce a learning machine. The outcome, in 1960, was MENACE (Machine Educable Noughts and Crosses Engine), a matchbox machine which learned, through trial and error, how to play noughts and crosses perfectly. His bet won, Michie threw himself into AI research full-time, co-founding the Experimental Programming Unit at Edinburgh in 1965, followed by the Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception there a year later.

Michie’s importance in AI was perhaps most evident in the early 1970s. Firstly, he and his team at Edinburgh built and programmed a robot, named FREDERICK (Friendly Robot for Education, Discussion and Entertainment, the Retrieval of Information, and the Collation of Knowledge). Freddy II could identify different parts of an object and assembling them. It was amongst the most advanced robots of its kind at the time, integrating perception and action in one machine.

A large robotic pincer grips a crudely-stylised toy car as it rests on a table
Freddy with toy car, c. 1973. Reproduced with the permission of the University of Edinburgh.

 However, this progress was not deemed sufficient. The Science Research Council commissioned Professor Sir James Lighthill to conduct a survey of AI in Britain, and in 1973 he published his report. The report was damning, arguing that progress in AI research was insufficient to justify the funding it was receiving. A BBC TV debate followed at the Royal Institution as part of the series of science debates called, Controversy. Michie, alongside John McCarthy and Richard Gregory, took on Lighthill. The argument was ultimately lost in the eyes of the Science Research Council. AI funding took a heavy hit, with Michie’s department in Edinburgh one of only three university departments left engaging in AI research in the UK. The subsequent decade of AI underfunding came to be known as the ‘AI Winter’ as similar cuts were enacted in the USA.

Michie’s research into AI continued, founding the Turing Institute in Glasgow in 1983. During these later years, Michie returned to Turing’s ideas, in particular the concept of a ‘child-machine’, ‘an educable machine, capable of learning and accumulating knowledge over time’. To this end, Michie developed a chat-bot: Sophie. Sophie was intended as a challenge to the Turing test, i.e. can a machine convince a human it is human? To Michie, ‘the value of the Turing test is not what it says about machine intelligence, but what it says about human intelligence’. He gave Sophie a sense of humour, a backstory, a family; in essence, Sophie had a personality. Apparently ‘Southern California Trash’ was an apt accent for her personality when demonstrating the speech-generating software.

A head-and-shoulders shot of a grinning, balding white man in a suit and tie
Donald Michie c. 1980s (Add MS 88958/5/4). Reproduced with permission of the estate of Donald Michie.

Donald Michie at the British Library
The Donald Michie Papers at the British Library comprises of three separate tranches of material gifted to the library in 2004 and 2008. They consist of correspondence, notes, notebooks, offprints and photographs and are available to researchers through the British Library’s Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue at Add MS 88958, Add MS 88975 and Add MS 89072.

Sources and Further Reading:
Michie, D., ‘Interview with Lysenko’, Soviet Science Bulletin, V (1 and 2, 1958), 1-10.
Michie, D., Donald Michie on Machine Intelligence, Biology and more, ed. by Ashwin Srinivasan, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
van Emden, M., ‘I Remember Donald Michie (1923 – 2007)’, A Programmer’s Place, 2009, https://vanemden.wordpress.com/2009/06/12/i-remember-donald-michie-1923-2007/ [accessed 30 October 2019].

Matt Wright
Matt Wright is a PhD student at the University of Leeds and the British Library. He is on an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership researching the Donald Michie Archive, exploring his work as a geneticist and artificial intelligence researcher in post-war Britain.

14 January 2020

INTRODUCING THE WISE FESTIVAL (WOMEN IN SCIENCE EVENTS) – 11 February 2020

Add comment

A handwritten letter from Ada Lovelace to Charles BabbageThe British Library is joining in the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrating and raising the voices of women in science with a one day mini festival. Our events and talks will encourage you to laugh, sing and think. Every few days this blog will look in more detail at the participants and their involvement with the event.

From 1pm drop in to our free Entrance Hall sessions, including fun scientific presentations, hands-on activities and a chance to create your own (bio)selfie using the bacteria swabbed from your cheek. There’s something for all ages and levels of science knowledge. See the full list of activities here.
Then join us for an evening of talks to hear from women about their experiences of working in the sciences. This is a ticketed event and tickets can be purchased from our website.

The British Library holds one of the most comprehensive national science collections in the world, ranging from ancient manuscripts grappling to understand different aspects of the world, prior to the development of science as we know it today, to the latest scientific publications deposited at the Library through the electronic legal deposit every day. The British Library preserves the UK scientific record, supports scientific research and enables access to science for all, which includes supporting equality and diversity in science. During 2020 the Library’s exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women's Rights will be looking into the struggle for women’s rights in all walks of life which includes an ongoing struggle for equality in all areas of science, technology and engineering. The WISE Festival is an opportunity to start our reflection on women’s rights and to celebrate the achievements of women in science in a way that we hope will be fun, inspirational and thought-provoking.

Join us next time to find out more about Sunetra Gupta.

WISE (WOMEN IN SCIENCE EVENTS) Festival, British Library 11 February 2020.
www.bl.uk/events/wise-festival

04 December 2019

Oil, storms and knowing part 2: Pliny, Franklin and the IPCC Special Report on Oceans

Add comment

This post is the second of a pair to mark the period of the 25th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and is contributed by Andrea Deri, Cataloguer.

In addition to seafarers, fishers in the Mediterranean Sea applied oil as Pliny the Elder and Plutarch described. Divers released olive oil from their mouth and used the oil film on the sea surface as a ‘skylight’ for underwater fishing. Oyster collectors in Gibraltar did just the same. They made use of their observation that oil prevented ripples formation and the smooth surface allowed steadier and deeper penetration of sunlight for increased visibility under the water.

Seal hunters also benefitted from the smooth sea surface created by oil. In their case it was the common seal that ‘released’ the oil as 18th-century Welsh zoologist Thomas Pennant, shared hunters’ observations:

Seals prey beneath the water, and in case they are devouring any very oily fish, the place is known by a certain smoothness of the waves immediately above.

An image shows three seals lazing on a rocky outcrop
Common seals create an oily patch on the sea surface when they consume their oily fish underwater. Seal-hunters were aware of this phenomenon. From Thomas Pennant, British Zoology Volume I Plate XII (London, 1812:167) 728.f.26.

Pouring oil on the sea was practiced and endorsed even by the British Admiralty (1891) as a way to prevent waves from crashing over the vessel:

Many experiences of late the utility of oil for this purpose is undoubted, and the application is simple. […] A very small quantity of oil, skillfully [sic] applied, may prevent much damage both to ships (especially the smaller classes) and to boats, by modifying the action of breaking seas.

The oil was often applied from an oil bag, ‘usually filled with oakum (teased rope fibres), and/or cotton waste, and fish oil was indeed the preferred (and cheapest) medium used.’ The oil bag was hung over the side of the vessel, immersed in the sea, windward, and pricked with a sail needle to facilitate leakage of the oil. […]’

Sea captain J. W. Martin describes the most recent use of oil bag in ‘launching or recovering ships’ boats, embarking or disembarking a pilot’ and makes the point that carrying an oil bag was compulsory in British ships’ lifeboats’ equipment until 1998.

It was Benjamin Franklin whose experiments provided impetus for exploring the science, the physics, behind the phenomenon: why and how oil prevented waves from breaking. In the spirit of Enlightenment Franklin used an experimental approach to triangulate and scientifically account for practitioners’ observations.

The correspondence of English and Dutch ‘learned gentlemen’ reveals their excitement and commitment for compiling oil stories from as diverse sources as possible – ‘ancient’ (Latin and Greek classics), ‘vulgar’ (lay knowledge), anecdotal, published and experimental – in order to defend the authority of either practitioners’ or natural philosophers’ approach to understanding the oil’s wave stilling effect.

Franklin acknowledges his bias towards ‘modern’ (18th century) ‘learned’ people’s knowledge compared to old and lay sources:

I had, when a youth, read and smiled at Pliny's account of the practice among seamen of his time, to still the waves in a storm by pouring oil into the sea […] [I]t has been of late too much the mode to slight the learning of the antients [sic]. The learned, too, are apt to slight too much the knowledge of the vulgar. This art of smoothing the waves with oil, is an instance of both.

This candid self-reflection is all the more interesting as Franklin and his fellow Enlightenment philosophers benefited from the data, which they snubbed at, for formulating their ideas. By privileging the fast-developing scientific approach, the ‘learned gentlemen’ facilitated the shift of epistemic authorities from traditional knowledge to science and contributed to the politically constructed divide between different ways of knowing.

A drawing shows a nineteenth-century rowing boat approaching an endangered sailing ship in a stormy see
A lifeboat approaching a ship in a stormy sea, from Description of the Royal Cyclorama, or Music Hall: Albany Street, Regent’s Park ... (London, 1849) RB.31.a.23(2)

Within the scientific paradigm, integration of practical and scientific inquiry remained a challenging enterprise with resistance from all involved.

However, a new paradigm seems to be emerging in the context of the unfolding climatic changes. While the authority of knowing still held by science, the relevance of local, traditional and indigenous ways of knowing appears to be slowly acknowledged (again):

Scientific knowledge, Indigenous knowledge, and local knowledge can complement one another by engaging both quantitative data and qualitative information, including people’s observations, responses and values. However, this process of knowledge co-production is complex and IK and LK possess uncertainties of a different nature from those of scientific knowledge, often resulting in the dominance of scientific knowledge over IK and KL in policy, governance, and management. [IPCC 2019:37]

The IPCC special report on ‘The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate’ published in September 2019 portrays science and local knowledge (LK) and indigenous knowledge (IK) as complementary, an attitude that pours oil on the troubled waters of the local knowledge - science nexus.

Thanks to Marja Kingma, Curator, Germanic Collections, BL European Studies; Dr. Saqib Baburi, Curator, Persian Manuscripts, BL Asian and African Collections with contributions from Arani Ilankuberan, Curator, South Indian Collections; Phil Hatfield, Head of Eccles Centre, BL Eccles Centre for American Studies and Julian Harrison, Lead Curator, Medieval Historical & Lit., Western Heritage Collection;

References and further reading:

Franklin, B. ‘Of the Stilling of Waves by Means of Oil. Extracted from sundry Letters between Benjamin Franklin, L.L.D. F.R.S. William Brownrigg, M.D. F.R.S. and the Reverend Mr. Farish’. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1774, 64(0), pp.445–460. Available at: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rstl.1774.0044 [Accessed 3 December 2019].

Gilkes, M. F. ‘A Whatsit’ Mariner’s mirror, 2009. 95(3), pp.336–337. Shelfmark Ac.8109.c.

IPCC, 2019. Summary for Policymakers. In: IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.[H.-O. Portner, D.C. Roberts, V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, M. Tignor, E. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, M. Nicolai, A. Okem, J. Petzold, B. Rama, N. Weyer (eds.). In Press. Available at https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/  [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

IPCC and Allen, M.R., Global Warming of 1.5 oC?: Global Warming of 1.5 °C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Technical Summary [in press]. [online] (Geneva, 2019) Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/02/SR15_TS_High_Res.pdf. [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

Martin, J.W.C.F. ‘Oil Bag’. Mariner’s mirror, 2010, 96(1), pp.94–95. Shelfmark Ac.8109.c.

Mertens, J. ‘Oil On Troubled Waters: Benjamin Franklin and the Honor of Dutch Seamen’. Physics Today 59 (2007), 36. (P)PQ00-E(51) <https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/1.2180175> [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

Pennant, T. British Zoology (London, 1812:167) Shelfmark 728.f.26. Volume I Plate XII

Pliny the Elder, Natural history, with an English translation in ten volumes by H. Rackham, M.A. (London, 1938)?
 Book II, CVI. 233 - CIX 235 page 360 Latin, page 361 English translation Shelfmark 2282.d.150

Plutarch, Moralia in Fifteen Volumes, with an English translation by Lionel Pearson and F. H. Sandbach (London, 1965)?
 Volume XI 854 E - 874 C, 911 C - 919 F Shelfmark 2282.d.96.

Taylor, A. D. and J.J.P Hitchfield, The West Coast of Hindustan Pilot: including the Gulf of Manar, the Maldive and Laccadive Islands (London, 1891) Shelfmark V 8711

Wyckoff, L. A. B. ‘The Use Of Oil In Storms At Sea.’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 23, (1886), 383–388. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/983222  [Accessed 3 December 2019] 

Oil, storms and knowing part 1: Seafarers Calm Waves with Oil

Add comment

This post is to mark the period of the 25th Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and is contributed by Andrea Deri, Cataloguer.

A storm at sea is one of the most feared experiences, as it often presages shipwreck. Mariners would do anything to survive tempestuous waters, from weather forecasting to casting holy oil or auspicious soil from the tomb of a Persian Sufi saint, Abu Eshaq Kazaruni (d. 1035) on the waves.

Occasionally, sailors wailing from fear were also briefly plunged into the sea: to calm them, not the waves though.

A medieval illumination showing a group of people with varied skin-tones and costumes crammed into a ship. A young boy is being dangled by his arms over the side.
A Persian pageboy is thrown overboard briefly in order to calm his fears from Saʿdī Shīrāzī, Gulistān (CE 1258), part of his collected works or Kullīyāt. IO Islamic 843, Folio 42v

Oil features prominently in K. V. Hariharan’s paper on ‘Sea-dangers in Early Indian Seafaring’, a catalogue of traditional adaptation practices to a range of marine hazards, including cyclones: ‘Seafarers seemed to have known the effect of oil to smoothen the sea surface’. As storms approached seafarers ‘covered their body and garments with oil to smoothen the surface of the water they touched on thus presenting less resistance to the wind and preventing breaking of the waves – the real dangers in wave motion’.

The sewn boats in the archipelago of Lakshadweep, South India, boats fastened with coir, not nails, have also been coated with an oily material for the same reason seafarers covered themselves with oil: making the vessels waterproof and smoothing the water around them.

In addition to coating, seafarers also poured oil directly onto the sea to prevent the waves from breaking on their vessel. Throwing oil on the waves was applied so widely that it became in idiom in Dutch (‘olie op de golven gooien’) and English (‘pouring oil on troubled waters’) with the meaning of settling a disagreement and ‘bringing about a state of calm after great anger or excitement, etc., by tact and diplomacy.’

‘Oily seas’ that appear during the stormy southwest monsoon (June-September) along the Kerala coast, however, are not caused by mariners but natural processes. According to B. Arunachalam, an authority of Indian marine navigation:

[…] such a sea-surface – the kedu neer – is believed by seamen to generate a relatively smooth surface, ideal for anchoring or drifting during foul weather in rough seas. The mudbanks of Cochin, for this reason, are treated as safe anchorages during active monsoon times. 

Kedu neer  (Tamil  கெடு நீர் ) literally means ‘bad water’. It refers to a turbid and calm marine area with almost no waves. A recent scientific study suggests the calmness of the ‘oily sea’ is linked to the wave damping effect of fine suspended matter, not oil. Mariners may have called these patches ‘oily seas’ as the water over the mud banks near Cochin, Kerala, known to generations of fishers, behave similarly to waters that have no waves because they were covered by a thin oil patch.

A close-up of a wooden boat on water, with an area of calm water immediately around it contracting with the rippling water further away
Traditional sewn fishing boat, small odam, in Agatti, Lakshadweep, India, coated with an oily substance. Photo by Andrea Deri, 23 February 2007

 

A simplified image of the coastlines around the Indian Ocean. The site of Cochin is highlighted.
Map of the Indian Ocean in B. Arunachalam, Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation. (Mumbai, 2002:9) YA.2003.a.26499. Cochin, where the oily seas of the mud banks provide safe anchoring during the monsoon season, is marked in South India.

 

A hand=drawn chart of a coastline and island
Traditional Kutchi sea chart, with east at the top, features the Malabar coast, shown as seen from the sea, with coconut palms in B. Arunachalam, Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation. (Mumbai, 2002:28) YA.2003.a.26499. The Cochin port (Kochi Bandar) played an important role in local and regional trade. South Indian ports are considered to be some of the oldest maritime centres.

 

It was not only in the tropical seas where mariners made use of the oil’s water calming properties. Bede, the Anglo-Saxon scholar and monk, tells us ‘How Bishop Aidan foretold to certain seamen a storm that would happen, and gave them some holy oil to lay it’ [642-645 AD] off the Kentish coast in cold North Sea, recorded in the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, in the British Library at Add MS 1450.

Bede lists his sources including Utta, the priest who received the oil from Aidan, in order to add credibility to Aidan’s sea calming, revered as miracle. The credit, however, perhaps should go beyond Aiden, to local mariners anonymous to chroniclers.

As Aidan served on two islands, Iona and Lindisfarne, he spent considerable time in boats where he may have experienced and learned the practice of pouring oil on waves from local fishers and seal hunters who ferried him. Could Aiden’s holy oil be the same kind of oil local mariners used to quell waves? If so, this is an example of how local knowledge or rather adaptation practice to extreme weather became canonised.

A stylised medieval image showing three robed men in a sailing boat.
St Cuthbert (c 634-687) in a boat at sea, with two other men, from Chapter 11 of Bede's prose Life of St Cuthbert. Yates Thompson 26 f. 26 Cuthbert became a monk after his vision of St Aidan who died in 651

 

Nautical idioms preserve seafarers’ practices. Most of us, landlubbers, need to take a historical perspective to unpack and appreciate their meaning, and we may still ponder over their relevance today. Faced with the unfolding changes of our climate, a major concern of our time, seafarers may serve a great source of inspiration by the way they kept their knowledge alive with keen observation, tireless experimentation and sharing.

If you have an "oil on water" story, you can tell us here.

References and further reading

Arunachalam, B. Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation (Mumbai, 2002)  Shelfmark YA.2003.a.26499

Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (London, 1954). Book III, Chapter XV. Shelfmark 4824.m.1

Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum; Plympton annals for the years 1066-1177, Shelfmark Add MS 1450

Hariharan, K. V. ‘Sea-Dangers in Early Indian Seafaring’. Journal of Indian History, 1956. 34 (Part III (Serial No 102)), pp.313–320. Shelfmark Ac.1928/2

Jeans, P.D. Ship To Shore: A Dictionary of Everyday Words and Phrases Derived from the Sea (Santa Barbara, 1993) Shelfmark YC.1996.b.3808

Jyothibabu., R. Balachandran, K.K., Jagadeesan, L., Karnan, C., Arunpandi, N., Naqvi, S.W.A., Pandiyarajan, R.S., 2018. ‘Mud Banks along the southwest coast of India are not too muddy for plankton’. Nature Sci. Rep. 8, 2544. Available online at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-20667-9 [Accessed 3 December 2019].

OED, pour oil on troubled waters. [online] Oxford Dictionaries | English. 2019. Available online at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/pour_oil_on_troubled_waters [Accessed 3 December 2019].

M. b. Otman, ‘Ferdaws al-moršediya fi asrar al-samadiya’. In: F. Meier and I.A. Afšar, eds., Die Vita des Abu Ishaq al-Kazaruni in der Persischen Bearbeitung von. (Istanbul, 1943) Shelfmark Per.D.537

Sa'di Shirazi, Gulistan (CE 1258), part of his collected works or Kulliyat. Shelfmark IO Islamic 843, Folio 42v

Subramanian, P.R. Kriyavin tarkalat Tamil akarati: Tamil-Tamil-Ankilam (Madras, 2000)

Simpson, J. A. and E. S. C. Weiner eds., Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 1989:749) Shelfmark OIA 423

Varadarajan, L. Sewn Boats of Lakshadweep. National Institute of ([Dona Paula], 1998). Shelfmark YP.2019.b.606

Wright, J.R. A companion to Bede: a reader’s commentary on ‘The ecclesiastical history of the English people’. (Grand Rapids, 2008) Shelfmark YC.2009.a.15214.

06 November 2019

Local Heroes - Trevithick's steam locomotive demonstration of 1808, "Catch Me Who Can"

Add comment

In September 1808, the Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick exhibited and operated a steam engine called "Catch Me Who Can" on a circular track of about 100 feet in radius, on a site to the south of Euston Road within walking distance of the British Library. This was the first time in the world that a steam locomotive was used to haul paying passengers on a railway. (It was not the first time that passengers had been carried by steam at all, as five years earlier Trevithick had carried passengers on a steam-powered road vehicle, the London Steam Carriage, and in 1804 had used the world's first steam railway locomotive to haul employees of the Penydarren ironworks in Wales.)

Trevithick was the pioneer of the use of high-pressure steam in power, as advances in metal refining had made it possible to create boilers that could safely contain it. His stationary engines were much more efficient than the earlier low-pressure engines of Newcomen and Watt.

It is not clear exactly how long the locomotive operated for, but it was for at least a fortnight. A marathon operation of a continuous 24 hours was promised, but never carried out, probably due to a failure of the track. The very high entrance fee of two shillings may also have put the public off, as well as the delays in getting the demonstration working. The first advertisements had promised that the attraction would be opened in mid-July, something that might be seen as a portent of notorious later delays in London railway openings.

The site has been identified from contemporary reports and maps as probably being a field known as South Murralls, which is now somewhere under the main complex of University College London. During reconstruction of the UCL Chadwick Building a little further south-west, in 1999, a cinder pit was discovered that may have been connected to the demonstration.

Two paper tickets depicting an early steam locomotive, with handwritten notes.
Original tickets to the Catch Me Who Can demonstration. Photograph by Science Museum Group, used under a CC-BY-SA license

The only reliable depiction of what the locomotive looks like seems to have been a drawing on the entrance tickets, a few of which have survived. The oldest surviving drawing of the locomotive in action was made in 1872 and appears to have been imaginative, with the locomotive based on the ticket depiction. Famous drawings of the scene attributed to the artist and cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson and dated "1809" are now recognised as probably being early-twentieth-century forgeries. More recently, a contemporary drawing by the artist John Claude Nattes now in the collection of the Guildhall Library under the shelfmark Nattes Drawings No. 50 has been recognised by J P S Buckland, and confirmed by John Liffen, to probably show the boiler of the locomotive before its final assembly. It is very similar to the boiler of a Trevithick stationary steam engine of the same era now at the Science Museum.

A group based in Bridgnorth, where the original engine is thought to have been constructed, has built a replica based on the ticket depiction and other locomotives by Trevithick for which detailed drawings and models have survived.

A four-wheeled steam locomotive stands in an industrial-looking shed
The Catch Me Who Can replica at Barrow Hill. Photograph by Hugh Llewelyn under a CC-BY-SA license.

After the end of the experiment, Trevithick seems to have given up interest in steam locomotion. It may have been because he did not get the amount of money or support that he hoped for, but he was also involved in a range of other projects at the time, including an attempt to build a Thames Tunnel (in which he was nearly drowned in a cave-in) and a short-lived engineering works in Limehouse. In 1810, after a serious illness, Trevithick returned to his home in Cornwall, and much of the rest of his life was spent in mining projects in South America.

Sources and further reading:

Liffen, J. Searching for Trevithick's London railway of 1808, in Boyes, G. (Ed.), Early railways 4, Papers from the Fourth International Early Railway Conference, Sudbury: Six Martlets Publishing, 2010, pp. 1-29. Shelfmark YC.2011.a.3466
Payton, P. Trevithick, Richard. In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, most recently updated 2007, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/27723, available electronically in the British Library reading rooms
Tyler, N. Trevithick's circle, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 2007, 77(1), pp. 101-113. Available electronically in the British Library reading rooms