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04 December 2019

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

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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

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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"

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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

15 October 2019

New Scientist Live 2019

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New Scientist Live 2019 logo
On Friday 11th October, I went to the New Scientist Live show, which is an annual event for the general public about the wonders of science. There are a series of lecture slots, and an exhibition from universities, learned societies, technology companies, commercial and charitable science "experience" organisation, and makers of science-related ornaments and clothing.

The talks I attended were all very interesting. Tom Crawford of Tom Rocks Maths described his work modelling the flows of rivers into oceans as a means of tracking plastics and other forms of pollution, to find the best places to collect them. The flows are controlled primarily by the Earth's rotation, outflow speed, and the density of the river water relevant to the sea.


Sim Singhrao of the University of Central Lancashire described her work on the possible contribution of poor oral hygiene to Alzheimer's disease. The bacterium Porphyromonas gingivalis, which contribures to gum disease, has been found in the brain of Alzheimer's patients, and it is suggested that Alzheimer's disease may be worsened by the action of the immune system in the brain, or protein fragments left behind when the bacteria feed.


Jess Wade of Imperial College, who works on organic semiconducting materials which can be used in products such as flexible displays, gave a lecture on chirality in science, from Louis Pasteur's discovery of optical isomerism in tartaric acid to biological effects, to the possible origins of chirality in polarisation of starlight due to the rotation of galaxies, to chiral selection of electron spin and the role it may play in our nervous system.


Guillermo Rein of Imperial College described the wide range of work involved in fire science, from fires aboard NASA spacecraft, to how polymers burn, to how large buildings can survive fire without structural failure, to the problem of long-lasting peat fires and the severe air pollution that they cause in South-East Asia. His work has not just been theoretical, but has included spectacularly large experiments in both the Czech Republic and Indonesia.


Finally, Ravi Gogna of BAE described work to improve information sharing between police, social workers, health care, and schools to improve child protection and allow problems to be dealth with without heavy-handed interventions. The technology was originally used to raise flags for fraud in financial institutions.

13 September 2019

The sixtieth anniversary of the first human created object to land on the Moon, Luna 2

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Earlier this year, there was much commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing by humans on the Moon, by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11. Today is the sixtieth anniversary of an earlier achievement, the first human-created object to land on the Moon (or any celestial object other than Earth). This was the Soviet probe Luna 2, which landed on the Moon on the 13th Sep 1959 (the 14th by USSR time), after being launched around one and a half days before. The third and final stage of the probe's launch rocket also hit the lunar surface, in an uncertain location.

A policed metal globe of tesellating pentagons, each marked CCCP 1959
Copy of the ball of plaques carried on Luna 2, now displayed at the Kansas Cosmosphere. Photograph by Patrick Pelletier, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

There is also a British element to this event. Some people in the USA and other western countries had suspected that previous spaceflight achievements by the Soviet Union had been exaggerated or entirely faked for propaganda purposes. Due to this, the astronomer Bernard Lovell, the founder of the Jodrell Bank radioobservatory, acted as an independent witness to prove that Luna 2 actually had been launched and had reached the Moon.

Luna 2 was designed by the leading USSR space systems designer Sergei Korolev. The probe carried equipment to investigate the Earth's magnetic field, radiation, cosmic particles, and micrometeor impacts. A previous, similar probe, Luna 1, had been launched in January, but missed the Moon due to a failure of control of the rocket. Luna 2 successfully landed in the Palus Putredinus region. Luna 1 and Luna 2 confirmed that there was no measurable magnetic field or radiation belt around the moon. The next successful Soviet Moon probe, Luna 3, successfully orbited the moon and took the first photographs of its dark side. Later, in 1966, Luna 9 became the first human-made object to make a controlled soft landing on the moon.

Moscow Cosmos sent Lovell tracking data for Luna 2 and radio frequencies provided by USSR news reports. Jodrell Bank telescope picked up signals from satellite from claimed position exactly as required on two separate occasions. US astronomers were sceptical until Lovell held the telephone handset to the loudspeaker so that they could hear the bleeps. The apparent signal frequency of the transmissions changed due to Doppler shift exactly as predicted from acceleration of the probe under lunar gravity. The last signal was detected from 50 miles above the Moon's surface and the end of the transmission was too abrupt for the satellite to have passed behind the moon. Luna 2 hit the Moon's surface at 22:02:23 BST on 13th Sep 1959 at 7500 mph. The launching rocket also emitted a cloud of glowing vapourised sodium once it had reached 97000 miles from Earth, so that it could be more easily tracked. The probe incorporated a hollow titanium ball covered with Soviet symbols, which was intended to break up on impact and scatter them over the landing site.

An image of craters on the Moon with a close up of a probe.
The later USSR Luna 16 mission landed on the Moon, photographed by the US Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Photograph used by permission from NASA for informational purposes.

Lovell, B, Here is the evidence that the Moon was hit, LIFE 47(13), 28 Sept. 1959, p. 53
Lund, T, Early exploration of the Moon: Ranger to Apollo, Luna to Lunniy, Cham: Springer, 2018. Available as an ebook in British Library Reading Rooms.

 

 

03 July 2019

Renaissance science works in Treasures of the British Library

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To replace the Leonardo da Vinci items that are usually in our Treasures gallery, but are now in the stand-alone "A Mind in Motion" exhibition, our Manuscripts and Incunabula curators have selected some less well-known but very interesting items dealing with the connection between art and science in the Renaissance. On the pure art side are some works by Albrecht Dürer and Michelangelo, but this post is about three volumes of Renaissance science. They sum up the way that humanists during the Renaissance sought to synthesise the existing knowledge of medieval Europeans with rediscovered Classical texts, many of which had been lost in Europe but preserved by Arabic scholars, and further advances that had been made in the Arabic world.

Manuscript page showing pictures of flowers
Depiction of edelweiss from the Codex Bellunensis.


The first item, shelfmark Add MS 41623, is the "Codex Bellunensis", a bound manuscript of herbal material in Latin with some Italian notes. Much of the content is based on De Materia Medica by Pedanius Dioscorides, a famous Greek physician of the first century CE. De Materia Medica was the single most important herbal text in Europe from its writing until the nineteenth century. "Bellunensis" refers to the town of Belluno in Italy, north of Venice, where the manuscript may have been created. The page to which the manuscript is opened in the display shows what is thought to be the first artistic representation of edelweiss, used to treat abdominal and respiratory diseases. The other herbs shown on this spread are valerian, an early sedative, eupatorium, and agrimony. The whole manuscript can be read free online .

The second item, shelfmark Royal MS 12 G VII, is a fifteenth-century Latin copy of Kitab al-Manazir, or "Optics", and another short work, by the great Arab scientist Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, known in Renaissance Europe as Alhazen. The pages on display deal with binocular vision and how the visual axes of the eyes intersect. The book was the first to empirically demonstrate that sight occurs when light reflected from an object enters the eye. Many early classical thinkers had believed that vision worked by the eye emitting some kind of "ray of sight". The book also includes "Alhazen's problem", a geometrical problem involving finding the point on a spherical mirror that a light ray from a given location must strike to be reflected to a second given location. This would not be completely solved algebraically until 1965. The copy on display comes from the Royal Manuscripts collection, a collection of manuscripts and printed books donated by King George II to the British Museum (not to be confused with the King's Library collection housed in the centre of the building, which was donated later by George IV).

Manuscript page showing artistic depiction of constellations
Illustration from the Phaenomena

The third of these items, shelfmark Add MS 15819,  is a manuscript copy of the Phaenomena by Aratus of Soli, a Greek poet of the early third century BCE. This is a long poem with one section describing the constellations of the stars, and a shorter second section on weather forecasting based on observations of the heavenly bodies and animal behaviour. You can read a public domain English prose translation of the poem at the Theoi Project, although we have two copies of the most recent English translation by Douglas Kidd in our collections. Our copy is a manuscript of the Latin translation of the poem by the Roman general Germanicus Julius Caesar, the nephew of the emperor Tiberius and father of Caligula. Our manuscript dates from the fifteenth century and once belonged to, and was probably written for, Francesco Sassetti, a senior manager in the Medici Bank.

Posted by Philip Eagle, with thanks to Eleanor Jackson, Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, and Karen Limper-Herz, Lead Curator Incunabula and Sixteenth-Century Books.

21 June 2019

Influencing Environments: Material, Socio-political, and Ethical Environments in Anne McLaren’s Work

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Anne McLaren (1927-2007) was a leading mammalian developmental biologist who worked primarily with mice and contributed to many fields, including most famously the development of in vitro fertilization (IVF). As McLaren often put it, she was interested in ‘everything involved in getting from one generation to the next’, and in particular, she emphasized the ways in which an individual is always connected to, and a part of, its many environments. Taking a cue from McLaren, then, this post considers how environments—understood materially, socially, and ethically—shaped McLaren’s work.

Scientific Environments

For McLaren, environmental effects are never incidental—not for cells, not for science, and not for the scientist in society—and even her earliest experiments probed deeply into the effects of various environments. Some of the environmental effects she studied are more familiar, like the effect of ambient temperature on population variance, and others are more surprising, like the genetic effect that a mother’s uterus, and not just the material contained within the egg, has on the development of an embryo.

Chart showing influences of the environment and genetics on development cycle
Figure 1. Slide from McLaren’s thumbnail sheet (Add MS 89202/2/20). Copyright © Estate of Anne McLaren.

While McLaren’s research showed how interconnected our very cells are with our environments, she showed an acute awareness for how this interconnectivity proves equally true for science itself. For example, McLaren knew that science needed diverse perspectives to grow, and so she actively fostered collaborative working environments. She was also highly attuned to socio-political issues, including the changing interests of funding bodies; structural gaps, like the lack of accessible childcare, that limit the participation of women in science; and the rise of new social concerns, including those surrounding ‘designer babies’ as embryonic research progressed. She knew that each of these issues materially shaped what scientific questions got asked and by whom (McLaren).
But McLaren did not stop with simply acknowledging the ways in which science was affected by its environment. She also held the reciprocal to be true: scientists affect their own physical, socio-political, and ethical environments. She therefore worked throughout her life to uphold what she saw as the duty of scientists, namely, to share research widely and to work with the public in ensuring that science progresses ethically and in the best interests of society.

Working Environments

But how did McLaren’s own research environments affect her actual work? The path that led to her 1958 breakthrough with John Biggers (1924-2001) on successfully transplanting fertilized mouse embryos cultured in vitro (in glass) to surrogate mothers proves an illuminating example.
From 1952-1959, McLaren and her then-husband Donald Michie (1923-2007) worked together on embryo transfer experiments. They first worked at University College London, but when they ran out of space for their mice in 1955, they undertook what proved to be a fortuitous move into the larger facilities at the Royal Veterinary College, London. There, they had room to grow and, as an added bonus, enjoyed relative autonomy from a specific department while doing their work (McLaren).

Fig-2
Handwritten diary heading giving location and date

.
McLaren and Michie’s experiments went through more than just a change of scenery though. Across their work, they tested a variety of processes for ovary transplants, specimen preservation methods, and embryo transfers from a donor mouse to a surrogate mother. They also experimented with superovulation and superpregnancy, or hormonally triggered ovulation cycles and artificially increased litter sizes respectively, in order to consider, for example, what factors might hinder an embryo’s chance of survival, such as uterine crowding. They asked as many questions as they could and perfected a method of transferring embryos in vivo (directly from the donor to the surrogate), while also proving that the surrogate mother’s uterus passed on genetic effects to the transplanted offspring, tracked in the case of their experiments through the number of lumbar vertebrae (McLaren and Michie).

Handwritten pages of notes on scientific experiments
Figure 3. Pages from McLaren's Embryo Transfer Experiments Notebook, 1955-1959 (Add MS 83844). Copyright © Estate of Anne McLaren.


In the midst of this flurry of work, McLaren and Michie met Biggers. Their research interests overlapped, and, with him, McLaren and Michie undertook even more parallel experiments. One such experiment considered the effect of temperature on population variance, mentioned above, which was inspired in part because they had access to three different temperature rooms at the Vet Collage. Biggers, McLaren, and Michie also briefly considered the relationship between the length of a mouse’s tail—a major site of heat loss—and its ability to regulate temperature, although Biggers reports that they never fully explored that project (Biggers).

Fig-4
Hand-drawn "tree of life" diagram

This rich, collaborative, and multi-tasked environment can be likened to a Darwinian tree of research ideas with many offshoots. As a product of this environment, a seemingly small experiment took place over about two months in the summer of 1958. Using the techniques McLaren had perfected with Michie, she and Biggers cultured 249 fertilized embryos for 48 hours in vitro before transplanting them into eight female mice (McLaren and Biggers). Nineteen days later, these transplants resulted in the live birth of two mice, or as McLaren called them, ‘bottled babies’, which were the first mammals ever cultured outside of a uterine environment pre-implantation (Biggers).

Newspaper column heading with headline "Brave New Mice"
Figure 5. Anthony Smith, ‘Brave New Mice.’ Daily Telegraph, 6 October 1958, p. 11.

This experiment, dubbed by the press as producing ‘Brave New Mice’, justifiably received much scientific and public attention, while also laying the ground work for IVF in humans only 20 years later. Yet, as we see, the experiment itself was but a single offshoot in a much larger web of experiments, in which IVF as such was not specifically McLaren’s focus. This incredible range of McLaren’s impact is due in no small part to the efficient way in which she used the environments, people, and resources around her to their fullest potential, asking as much as she could from and through them in order to learn and give back.


Bridget Moynihan
PhD student, University of Edinburgh

As a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, Bridget Moynihan’s research focuses on archival ephemera and digital humanities. These same interests led Bridget to undertake a British Library internship, researching the notebooks of Anne McLaren.

Further reading in the British Library

    1. For more on the temperature experiments, consult Add MS 83846, Add MS 83847, and Add MS 83848 for laboratory notebooks documenting these experiments, and Add MS 83972, which contains some of McLaren’s relevant published papers, such as 'The growth and development of mice in three climatic environments'. See also Add MS 89202/6/26, which includes tail length data.
    2. For more on the uterine effect experiments, consult Add MS 83843, Add MS 83844, and Add MS 83845 for laboratory notebooks documenting these experiments, Add MS 83830 for conference papers presented by McLaren, including ‘An Effect of the Uterine Environment upon an Inherited Skeletal Character in the Mouse’, and Add MS 83972 for some of McLaren’s relevant published papers, such as ‘Factors Affecting Vertebral Variation in Mice. 4: Experimental Proof of the Uterine Basis of a Maternal Effect’.
    3. For more on the in vitro mice, consult Add MS 89202/2/10 for McLaren and Biggers’ article ‘‘Test-Tube’ Animals. The Culture and Transfer of Early Mammalian Embryos’.

References

Biggers, JD. ‘Research in the canine block.’ Int J Dev Biol. 2001; 45:469–76.
McLaren, A. and Michie, D. ‘Factors affecting vertebral variation in mice. 4: Experimental proof of the uterine basis of a maternal effect.’ JEEM 6, 1958: 645-659.
McLaren, A. and Biggers, JD. ‘Successful Development and Birth of Mice Cultivated in vitro as Early Embryos.’ Nature 182, 1958: 877-878.
McLaren, A. ‘Professor Dame Anne McLaren interviewed by Martin Johnson and Sarah Franklin.’ 2007, oral history recording at the British Library.

09 May 2019

Perfecting the Writing Machine: Blind and Visible Writing Typewriters

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Newspaper advert for Remington typewriter
From Lloyd's List 13th January 1883, shelfmark LOU.LD21

Among the exhibits in our Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition is this advertisement for a "Remington Perfected Typewriter". Guest blogger James Inglis, from the University of St Andrews and the National Museum of Scotland, wrote this guest post for us on how far it was from "perfected".

In 1878, American sewing machine and gun manufacturers E. Remington and Sons released the Remington Standard No. 2. Often regarded as the first commercially successful writing machine, the No. 2 Typewriter incorporated many features of typewriters that we are familiar with today. The No. 2 was the first machine to use a shift mechanism; based on patents by Lucian S. Crandall and Byron Brooks in 1875, this allowed the user to change between upper and lower-case letters. The No. 2 also showcased a QWERTYUIOP keyboard, which was first introduced on Remington’s Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer released in 1874. Today the QWERTY keyboard is ubiquitous across computers and smart devices.

The No. 2 Typewriter was followed by the Perfected No. 2 Typewriter in 1879, which ironed out some of the technical bugs with the original design. Adverts for the Remington Perfected Typewriter proudly stated that “it is to the pen what the sewing machine is to the needle”, reinforcing Remington’s role in the development of sewing machines and typewriters. The No. 2 Typewriter was so successful that Remington continued manufacture for 16 years. By the time the No. 2 typewriter was withdrawn in 1894 almost 100,000 machines had been sold: it was easily the most successful typewriter up to that point. 

Yet for all its success, there was one glaring problem with the Remington Perfected Typewriter. This was a drawback that beset all Remington typewriters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The No. 2 was a blind writing typewriter. In other words, the writing was not visible as you were typing it!
To understand the blind writing typewriter design, the images below show a No. 2 Typewriter from the National Museum of Scotland’s collection. The carriage of the No. 2 Typewriter is raised to reveal the circular arrangement of typebars known as the typebasket. At the end of each typebar are letters, numbers or symbols cast in relief. Each typebar carries two characters which are selected by using the shift key. Upon pressing a particular key, a system of wires pulls the corresponding typebar upwards, out of the typebasket so that it comes into contact with the inked ribbon directly beneath the underside of the platen (the roller around which the paper is wrapped). The pressure of the typebar through the ribbon leaves an imprint on the paper and the character is formed!

A Victorian typewriter sitting on a desk
Remington No. 2 Typewriter manufactured c. 1887. Held at National Museum of Scotland’s Collection Centre. Object reference T.1960.34.

The problem is that when the carriage is lowered the typebars are concealed. The characters are formed on the underside of the platen, out of the operator’s sight. The typist can only see what is written three or four lines later, once the platen has rotated around enough to reveal their previous work.

Side view of Victorian typewriter
Remington No. 2 with carriage raised revealing the inked ribbon and type-bar basket. Object reference, T.1960.34
Close-up image of typewriter mechanism showing circle of type bars below ribbon
View from above showing how the typebars strike the ribbon from below

The video below show how pressing the keys lifts the typebars out of the typebasket and brings them into contact with the ribbon.

For inexperienced typists the amusing results of this drawback were illustrated in the article ‘The Type-Writer and Type-Writing’ published in The Girl’s Own Paper on August 18th, 1888. The article describes how, “During the first week or two the learner’s attempts will probably be something like the following”:  

Sample of typewritten text showing two lines superimposed
Type sample of an inexperienced typist, from an article in The Girl’s Own Paper, Saturday, August 18, 1888, BL shelfmark P.P.5993.w.

The fourth line is particularly bemusing and is caused by the operator typing straight over the previous sentence. Clearly, the typist did not return the carriage correctly in order to start a new line. These kinds of mistakes went unnoticed because the text was completely out of sight.
Yet the common argument was that a properly trained typist shouldn’t need to be able to see their work. A contemporary account of typewriters from Encyclopedia Britannica insisted:


Doubtless the novice who is learning the keyboard finds a natural satisfaction in being able to see at a glance that he has struck the key he was aiming at, but to the practical operator it is not a matter of great moment whether the writing is always in view or whether it is only to be seen by moving the carriage, for he should little need to test the accuracy of his performance by constant inspection as the piano player needs to look at the notes to discover whether he has struck the right one.


The reality of course was somewhat different, and typists of all levels found ways of getting around the problems with blind writing typewriters. The most popular solution was to stop and check on the progress of writing. Typewriters like the No. 2 came with carriages that could be raised and lowered on a hinge for basic operations such as loading the paper and changing the ribbon.
 
The film below, courtesy of British Pathé, shows a typing pool from around 1905. The typists regularly lift the carriage on the typewriters to check on their work.

Raising and lowering the carriage to check what was typed became a routine part of a typist’s work. While this got around the problem of writing visibility this technique was highly inefficient. As typewriter chronicler and inventor Henry Charles Jenkins commented in a paper to the Society of Arts in 1894:  


The Remington, Caligraph, Smith-Premier, Densmore, and Yost machines all have means by which the paper carrier or holder can be turned over upon some kind of hinge, and the writing, which has been performed under and out of sight, is brought into view. Operators get used to this, that they scarcely know how often they do it, but it must consume much time.


Unsurprisingly, rival typewriter manufacturers developed machines where the writing was always visible. The first visible writing typewriter was the Horton released in 1883. A circular introducing the Horton announced: “In the Horton Typewriter has been fully attained… the invaluable object of having all the writing, to the last word, visible to the eye of the operator”. Of the many individuals this will benefit the advert claimed:

It will especially commend itself to those, such as clergymen, journalists and writers generally, who use writing machines in original composition. In the use of machines in which the writing is out of sight much time is necessarily lost in turning up the printing cylinder to get at the run of a sentence construction of which has escaped from the memory; and then, when this has been ascertained and the printing cylinder turned down again, the last word is perhaps forgotten before the rest of the sentence has been formed in the mind, so that the printing cylinder has to be turned up a second time before the writer is able to make any further progress.

Advertisement for Horton Typewriter, "The most perfect writing machine in the world"
Preliminary circular for the Horton typewriter c. 1885

Despite these benefits, the Horton achieved very little success and it was not until the 1890s that visible writing typewriters gained much popularity. One particularly successful machine was the Oliver. The Oliver used U-shaped typebars that struck down on the paper from the right and the left. The video below shows an Oliver Visible No. 3 manufactured in 1904.

 

The machine that changed the state of the play more than any other was the Underwood. Invented by Franz Xavier Wagner in 1892, and manufactured by the Wagner Typewriter Company, this machine has been described as “the first truly modern typewriter”. In 1895, the patent rights were bought by John T. Underwood, marking the birth of the Underwood Typewriter Company. The Underwood was a front-strike typewriter. That is, the typebars hit the front of the platen leaving the text in full view of the operator.

Underwood typewriter on a desk
Underwood Typewriter manufactured c. 1905. Held at the National Museum of Scotland’s Collection Centre. Object reference, T.1934.212

Finally, in 1908 Remington brought out its own front-strike, fully visible typewriter: the Remington Model 10.  The perfected, Perfected Typewriter you might say.

In an advertising pamphlet titled ‘Miss Remington Explains the New Model No. 10’, Miss Remington assures readers: “Yes, I am using one of the new No. 10 Remington Models, and I never supposed that it would be possible to combine so many good things in one machine.”

A young woman in Edwardian office costume points to a typewriter on a table
‘Miss Remington explains the New Model No. 10 Typewriter’ c. 1908. An advertising pamphlet held at the National Museum of Scotland’s Collection Centre.

Yet Miss Remington makes no mention of the move from the blind writing, up-strike design of the Remington no. 9; to the front-strike visible writing set-up of the Model 10, which was arguably the biggest change in design since the introduction of the shift key 30 years earlier. Instead, Miss Remington makes vague comments such as “It has all the splendid points that my old Remington had and a dozen others that no writing machine has ever had.”

By 1908, the Remington Typewriter Company had been supporting their blind writing typewriter design for over a quarter of a century. While market pressures forced the company to change to the new and more popular visible writing system, it was too much of a climb down for Remington to admit that the old blind writing typewriters they had promoted and sold for so long, were far from perfect!

Sources
Michael H. Adler, The Writing Machine. London: Allen & Unwin, 1973. BL shelfmark X.620/7108
https://www.antikeychop.com/

James Inglis, The University of St Andrews and the National Museum of Scotland

Posted by Philip Eagle, Subject Librarian STM

Copyright James Inglis, posted by the British Library under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC license. All illustrations are copyright James Inglis or public domain.

08 March 2019

How Embryologists See: Anne McLaren’s Mouse Models

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This post forms part of a series on our Science blog highlighting some of the British Library’s science collections as part of British Science Week 2019.

What does an embryo look like? You’ve probably seen pictures –photos of clumps of tiny little cells, most likely taken of a petri dish in a lab. But embryologists face many barriers when bringing these miniscule cells into vision. The developmental biologist Dr Anne McLaren found ways around some of these problems starting with her work in the 1950s.   

In 1952, the mammalian developmental biologist Dr Anne McLaren moved to UCL to begin conducting a series of experiments intended to transplant mouse embryos from the uterus of one mother to the uterus of another, foster, mother – a technique called embryo transfer. There were several reasons for her wanting to do this, but the central one was a problem of vision. She wanted to make the embryos visible. As she explained in 1960,

Experimental embryology in mammals starts with a grave and obvious disadvantage compared to experimental embryology in, say, frogs or sea-urchins - namely the relative inaccessibility of the mammalian embryo. On the other hand it is a subject of particular interest, not only because man himself, and most of his domesticated animals, are mammals, but also because the mammalian embryo goes through almost all the critical stages of development in the most intimate contact with a genetically different organism, its mother.

This intimate relationship between the embryo and its mother in the very early stages of implantation, and the potential applicability of these insights to other mammals, like humans, made this an important area of study. This relationship also represented a prime example of McLaren’s central research interest, namely how the gene and environment interact in development. In the mammal, the maternal uterus crucially provides the environment in which the genes have to exert their effects. This is why maternal effects on inherited characters are of particular interest to McLaren.


At school we are often taught that development looks something like this,

The stages of human embryo development from ovum to foetus.
Illustration: human fertilization and embryogenesis. With kind permission of Gaurab Karki, at www.onlinebiologynotes.com


McLaren saw things differently. Although the embryo could indeed develop into a foetus and a baby, this was only under particular circumstances, in a given environment. McLaren wanted to better understand what was required of this environment for the embryo to develop into a healthy mouse. Development could also go wrong, and it was certainly not as simple as the expression of a set of genes against a neutral backdrop. In fact, she believed that the whole concept of a gene meant fairly little without an adequate account of the environment through which they were expressed. 

 

‘This image has been removed due to expiry of the copyright licence. 'The Bucket Model and When Causes Interact,’ are from The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture, Evelyn Keller Fox, pp. 8-9, Copyright, 2010, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. www.dukeupress.edu



But the problem of being able to see this environment remained. Although she could not look directly inside the womb, McLaren realised that instead she could make the interactions taking place between the embryo and the uterus visible. This was made possible by a phenomenon that had been noticed with the number of lumbar vertebrae, the vertebra starting after the last rib attachment and running down to the last vertebra not sacralised, in the offspring of reciprocal crosses between two strains of mouse. In Problems of Egg Transfer in Mice (1955), she explained,

We suspect the existence of a maternal effect whenever reciprocal crosses are made between two genetically differing strains or varieties, if the progeny differs according to which strain was taken as the maternal parent, and which the paternal. …In species hybrids between the horse and the donkey, the mule, which has a horse mother and a donkey father, differs in a number of respects from the hinny, which has the donkey mother and the horse father. One difference lies in the number of lumbar vertebrae that the animals have. Most mules have 6 lumbar vertebrae, like their mothers; while most hinnies have 5 lumbar vertebrae, again like their mothers.

Another example of this effect observed in mules by John Hammond and Arthur Walton in 1938, was the case of lumbar vertebrae in mice. E. L. Green and W. L. Russel, working at Bar Harbor in New York in 1943, noticed such a phenomenon, a suspected maternal effect on lumbar vertebrae in mice, but their experiments had been stopped short by a fire in their laboratory. The effect presented McLaren with an observable trait that was definitely not just due to chromosomal sex linkage, because the difference also appeared in female progeny of the crossed strains, who of course carry two of the same X chromosome. Even through the trait was not sex-linked, it could still be determined either by the cytoplasm of the egg or the uterine environment that the mother provides. The case thus provided a specific instance of the question of the respective roles of gene and environment in the inheritance of an observable trait. The best way of distinguishing between these contributions, she decided, would be by transferring eggs between females of the two strains, “since such eggs would have the cytoplasm of one strain but the uterine environment of the other” (Research Talk, 1953). If the influence was exerted through the cytoplasm, the young would be unaltered in phenotype by the transfer; but if it was exerted through the uterine environment, the reciprocal difference would be reversed.

Sketch showing an ovum being influenced by either its genotype or the environment.
Image: Is it the uterus or the egg affecting the number of vertebrae of the mice? Copyright estate of Anne McLaren MS89202/12


Embryo transfer techniques had been around for a while – in fact, the pioneer of the technique, Walter Heape had used the technique as early as 1890, to show the exact opposite of what McLaren suspected was the case with lumbar vertebrae – namely that the uterus had absolutely no effect on the developing embryo. As their experiments progressed, McLaren and her then husband and collaborator Donald Michie showed that the uterus, in the case of lumbar vertebrae, did exert an effect on the embryo. The mice in the surrogate uterus expressed the trait of the surrogate, not the genetic mother.  There was something in the maternal uterus, not the cytoplasm, that effected the number of lumbar vertebrae. By the end of the experiment she was not able to determine exactly how  this effect was exerted but, she reflected in 1985, the message of the experiment was clear,

As to how this influence is exerted, from the physiological point of view, we are so far in complete ignorance. But the general moral for the geneticist, I think, is clear: that is, when we are dealing with mammals we must be prepared to extend our picture of the genetic control of morphogenetic processes, to envisage their regulation not only by the action of the embryo's genes, but also by the action of the genes of the maternal organism in which the embryo is gestated

Turning cauliflowers into mice: mouse model growing pains 

As might be expected with such a new technique, it took a while to perfect it, to be able to produce standardised results. In the process, McLaren began to see some unusual things. Indeed, during the early days of the experiments, McLaren and Michie were worried about the appearance of some the fertilised ova being produced by the donor female after they’d administered the hormones to induce ovulation. In a research talk from 1953, McLaren recounts,

During the Summer of last year, we were using two-day eggs only; and one day, actually the day we were rejoicing because for the first time we’d got transferred eggs to develop into mice, our 2-day eggs, instead of looking like normal mouse eggs with 4 or 8 distinct spherical blastomeres, suddenly began to look like cauliflowers. The blastomeres coalesced, and the eggs looked awful.

She goes on,

From that day onward, all their eggs looked like that, and as it seemed obvious that something looking like a cauliflower couldn’t develop into a mouse, we didn’t even bother to transplant many of them, but spent much fruitless effort trying to find the cause of the trouble. However, we’ve now got over this difficulty, partly because by using 3-day eggs, which look quite normal, as well as 2-day eggs; partly because this Summer only some of our 2-day eggs looked like cauliflowers; and partly because we’ve got some evidence that cauliflowers can in fact develop into mice.

These pages from McLaren’s lab notebooks show how she tested different variables, like the PH of the medium in the dish before transfer to the foster mother, or the daylight to which embryos were being exposed. She obtained some strange shapes in the process.

Image of written lines in a notebook
Strange cauliflower shapes. Detail from Anne McLaren’s ‘UCL Embryo Transfer’ laboratory notebook, 1953-1956. Copyright estate of Anne McLaren (Add MS 83843).
Image of written lines in a notebook
‘Ghosts’, or disappearing, eggs. Detail from Anne McLaren’s ‘UCL Embryo Transfer’ laboratory notebook, 1953-1956. Copyright estate of Anne McLaren (Add MS 83843).
Image of written lines in a notebook.
A healthy blastocyst (Cells differentiated into cell layers, preceding the embryo stage) –‘hooray’! Detail from Anne McLaren’s ‘UCL Embryo Transfer’ laboratory notebook, 1953-1956. Copyright estate of Anne McLaren (Add MS 83843).

McLaren was discovering new things about the ways in which embryos could develop, and she didn’t always understand what was going on. The appearance of these cauliflowers in development point to the limited view she was getting. It remained difficult to visualise what was going on at these early stages inside the maternal uterus, and the best the embryologist could do was to set up an limited model of the process, to bring to the fore some of the phenomena she was interested in. But biological models, unlike the ones we draw or build out of inanimate material, don’t always comply. Moreover, the view was always partial, and in this case especially limited because all she could do was move her embryos between uteri –about which she knew very little. The only way of knowing more about the uterus would be by intervening in this environment, changing it in some ways and observing the effects this had on the developing embryo which was impossible while the womb remained inaccessible.  As we shall see, McLaren soon went on to develop another window that would allow her to visualise more directly the forces acting on the embryo during development. 

From wombs to dishes

As far as her interest in making the interactions between uterus and embryo visible was concerned, McLaren had definitely succeeded. She had done this by intervening in the biological process of gestation, by moving an embryo from one mother to another and observing the effects it had on the developing embryo. As we have just seen, this technique threw up obstacles and limitations. The cauliflower effect was just one example of a malformation that McLaren was unable to explain because she had little idea about what the uterine environment was made of. She could not figure out the exact mechanisms by which the uterus acted on the embryo because, in order to do this, she would have to play around with them like she had with the medium in the dish prior to transfer, to isolate different variables until she could figure out what factors were at work. She would have to manipulate to be able to see. At the same time, however, McLaren was developing a very promising technique that could provide the solution – the technique of embryo culture. Writing in 1958, she mentioned a method by which egg transfer enables the experiment to influence the environment of the early mouse embryo directly, instead of through the medium of the mother or the other embryos. In collaboration with Dr. Biggers, I have been culturing 8-16 cell mouse embryos according to the technique of Whitten, on Krebs bicarbonate with glucose and bovine plasma albumen added. In two days at 37 [symbol: degrees], nearly 100% of such embryos reach the blastocyst stage, a development which in vivo takes only one day. I then transferred these blastocysts to the uteri of pregnant female recipients, and found that their viability relative to that of control blastocysts had been in no way impaired by the culture treatment….So far we have done no more than demonstrate the feasibility of the technique; but it seems to me that a study of the effects upon subsequent development of variation in the conditions of culture and the constitution of the culture medium, might provide yet another means to overcome the inaccessibility of the mammalian embryo…

Embryos in dishes would allow McLaren to figure out the conditions needed for normal embryonic development. When she and John Biggers (1958) later showed that a mouse embryo after being cultured outside the womb for over 24 hours, could be replaced in the uterus of a mouse mother and develop into a normal healthy mouse, they had pathed the way for In Vitro Fertilisation in humans that would become a reality 20 years later. IVF, a technique that changed the field of embryology as well as society at large, was just one of the offshoots of McLaren’s explorations of gene-environment interactions.

Marieke Bigg
Ph.D candidate, University of Cambridge

Further reading:

McLaren, Anne, and J. D. Biggers. 1958. ‘Successful Development and Birth of Mice Cultivated in Vitro as Early Embryos.’ Nature 182 (September): 877.
McLaren, Anne. 1958, 1960. Experimental studies on the effect of the prenatal environment. 
McLaren, Anne. 1985. An effect of the uterine environment. 

Marieke Bigg is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Cambridge. After completing a B.A. Honors in comparative literature at the University of Amsterdam, she obtained an M.Phil in sociology from the University of Cambridge. In her current PhD research, which she conducts under the supervision of Professor Sarah Franklin, she draws on the biography of Anne McLaren to map the debates on human embryo research in Britain in the 1980s, and proposes new models for policy-making in the area of human fertilisation and embryology today. She is funded by the Wellcome Trust.

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28 February 2019

A visit to the Joint Library of Ophthalmology at Moorfields Eye Hospital

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A painting of an eye with round swollen white lesions on the cornea.
Eye painting by an unknown artist from the Moorfields collection, digitised by UCL. Used under a CC-BY Creative Commons license.


Yesterday Philip went on a CILIP-sponsored visit to the Joint Library of Ophthalmology at Moorfields Eye Hospital.

The library is joint between the NHS trust responsible for Moorfields and the UCL Institute for Ophthalmology. The hospital was opened in 1805 in Charterhouse Square as the Dispensary for Curing Diseases of the Eye and Ear. The driving reason for this was the number of soldiers who were returning from the Napoleonic wars in North Africa with what was known as “Egyptian Ophthalmia”, now recognised as trachoma. The founders were John Cunningham Saunders and Dr. John Richard Farre. In 1810 a medical school was opened and alumni were responsible for opening ophthalmic hospitals in other parts of the world. In 1821 the hospital was moved to Lower Moorfields near what is now the Broadgate office complex and renamed the London Ophthalmic Infirmary, although it quickly became popularly known as “Moorfields”. In 1837 it achieved royal patronage and became known as the Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital. In 1897 the hospital moved to its current site in City Road after the Moorfields site became overcrowded. In 1947 the hospital merged with the Royal Westminster Ophthalmic Hospital and Central London Ophthalmic Hospital, and the name officially became Moorfields. A green line is painted on the pavement from Old Street tube station to the hospital main entrance, to help partially-sighted people find their way.

The Institute of Ophthalmology was founded in 1948, initially on the site of the former Central London Ophthalmic Hospital in Judd Street. It became part of UCL in 1995.

The library now includes items from all the predecessor organisations, and as it is considered a national subject collection no material is disposed of. Much of the journal collection was donated in exchange for the content being indexed in either the British Journal of Ophthalmology or Ophthalmic Literature. There are 7000 books, 63 currently subscribed journals, and 250 journals which are no longer published. There are over 280 CDs or DVDs. The library currently keeps paper subscriptions when possible due to concerns about loss of access due to subscription cancellation or technical obsolescence – many of the CDs or DVDs cannot be used due to outdated software requirements. Most of the material is on open shelf apart from the rarer collections. The rarer material consists of 1500 books and pamphlets, many of which have been digitised by the Wellcome Institute and are included in the Wellcome online digital library. There is also a unique collection of 1700 painted images of healthy and pathological eyes. Many of the earlier eye paintings were by the sisters Mary and Alicia Boole, who were daughters of George Boole of Boolean logic fame. They were mathematicians in their own right and many of their siblings and the following generation had notable achievements in science and art. Later twentieth century paintings were created by the talented medical artist Terry Tarrant. The paintings have been digitised by UCL .The rare books include copies of John Dalrymple’s 1834 “Anatomy of the Human Eye”, the first ophthalmic textbook in English, and the “Atlas of Ophthalmoscopy” by Richard Liebreich, inventor of the ophthalmoscope.

There is a photographic collection of patients and their conditions, often “before and after” treatment. This includes an interesting dimension in terms of Victorian attitudes to privacy and personal identification – many poorer patients had their full names given, while more middle or upper-class patients are identified only by given names or initials. There is also a collection of bound notes on patients back to 1877.

Finally, there is a “museum” collection of artifacts. Many of them are originally from the Institute of Ophthalmology. They include eye testing equipment, ophthalmoscopes, surgical instruments and microscopes. Particularly unusual exhibits include an ivory leech holder used to apply leeches to the area around the eye to treat glaucoma, and a pair of prism spectacles that redirect the vision downwards through ninety degrees, to allow patients forced to lie flat on their backs to read more easily.

The library still serves an audience of predominantly medical students and practitioners. They do a lot of training on databases and library inductions. They lend the majority of the material and there are self-service lending/returning terminals. They also do inter-library loan.

Other activities include doing systematic reviews and helping people with basic IT skills.

There are 32 satellite sites with electronic resources only.

Last year the library achieves Platinum status in the Green Impact scheme for environmentalism in libraries, based around recycling and saving energy.

The whole institution is intended to move in a few years time to a new site in the St Pancras area.