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Circles: Fifty Round Trips Through History Technology Science Cultureby James Burke
CHAPTER 1: A BIT OF A FLUTTER
I suppose my view of history tends away from the orderly and toward the chaotic, in the sense of that much overused phrase from chaos theory about the movement of a butterfly's wing in China causing storms on the other side of the world. Which is why I decided to have a go at reproducing the butterfly effect on the great web of knowledge across which I travel in these essays.
This thought came to me at the sight of a giant cabbage white in a Lepidoptera exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London, which reminded me of the other great Natural History Museum, the Smithsonian. Which owes its life to the persistence of one Robert Dale Owen. The two-term Democrat from Indiana almost single-handedly pushed through Congress the 1845 Bill accepting the Englishman James Smithson's $2-billion-and-change bequest (in today's money) that helped to set up the esteemed institution. Owen's efforts also involved unraveling one of the shadier deals in American financial history: most of Smithson's money, which had arrived in the United States a few years before, was at the time in the dubious grip of a foundering real estate bank in Arkansas, into which the U.S. Treasury had thoughtlessly placed it for safekeeping.
Owen was a liberal thinker, the son of a famous British reformer who had earlier started an unsuccessful utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana. Well ahead of his time, Owen championed women's rights, the use of plank roads (for rural areas not served by the railroads), emancipation, and family planning. This last he espoused in a pamphlet in 1830. Subtitled "A Brief and Plain Treatise on the Population Question" (which gives you a feel for the cut of his jib), it advocated birth control by everybody and included three examples of how you did it. Two years later much of Owen's text was lifted (unacknowledged) for a bestselling tract by Dr. Charles Knowlton of Boston: "The Fruits of Philosophy," which went into greater physiological detail.
Forty years on, Knowlton's/Owen's work was republished by activist Annie Besant in England, where it was judged obscene and likely to pervert morals. Ms. Besant conducted her own defense at the trial and in doing so became the first woman to speak publicly about contraception. Which earned her a fine and a sentence. Undeterred, Besant took up larger causes: Indian independence (she was President of the first Indian National Congress), vegetarianism, and comparative religion. This was some years after she'd broken off a romantic interlude with another left-winger, a penniless nobody called George Bernard Shaw, with whom Annie played piano duets at the regular meetings of William Morris's Socialist League in London. Later, Shaw would become fairly well known as the author of Pygmalion and then world-famous as the author of its Hollywood remake, My Fair Lady. The play was all about talking proper (which Eliza Doolittle didn't, you may recall) and featured a prof. of elocution, Henry Higgins, whom Shaw modeled on a real-life linguistic academic named Henry Sweet.
In the 1880s Sweet was one of the inventors of the phonetic alphabet, interest in which was triggered by the contemporary craze for old languages kicked off by William Jones, a Welsh judge in Calcutta. In 1786 Jones had revealed the extraordinary similarities between the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit and Latin and Greek. The revelation revved up nationalism among early-nineteenth-century Romantic movement Germans (whose country had not long before lost a war with the French and was going through a period of cultural paranoia) because it gave them the idea that they might be able to trace their linguistic roots back into the Indo-European mists of time, thus proving they had a heritage at least as paleolithic as anybody in Paris.
This mania for reviving the nation's pride might have been why German graduate students were also getting grants for such big-science projects as sending out forty thousand questionnaires to teachers all over the country asking them how the local dialect speakers pronounced the sentence "In winter the dry leaves fly through the air." On the basis of such fundamental research, pronunciation atlases were produced, and dialectology became respectable. So much so that at the University of Jena, a guy called Edward Schwann even got the money to do a phonometric study of zee French accent. Nice work if you can get it. Schwann was aided in his task by the eminent German physicist Ernst Pringsheim.
In 1876 Pringsheim was one of the science biggies visited by Franz Boll, a researcher who was working on the process by which the human eye is able to see in low light, thanks to the presence of a particular chemical. Or not, in the case of its absence. The whole view of such visual deficiency was taken a stage further by a sharp-eyed Dutch medical type, Christiaan Eijkman. This person happened to be in Java with a Dutch hospital unit, sent out there in 1886 to grapple with the problem of beriberi, a disease that was laying low large numbers of colonial administrators and army people. Eijkman happened to notice some chickens staggering about the hospital compound with symptoms not unlike those of the disease he was studying. But because these were chickens and not humans, he did nothing about it. Until suddenly, one day the chickens got instantly better. What kind of fowl play was going on here?
Turned out, the new cook at the hospital had decided that what was good enough for the local Javanese workers was good enough for birds. So he had stopped feeding to the chickens gourmet leftovers from the table of the European medical staff. Difference being in the rice. Europeans were given polished rice ("military rice"); locals and the chickens got the stuff with the hulls left on ("paddy"). Months of chicken-and-rice tests by Eijkman ended up with a meaningful thought: There had to be something in the rice hulls that was curing the chickens. Or, to put it more meaningfully, without this "something" in their diet, the chickens got the staggers. So was that why people did the same?
A few years later, in England, Gowland Hopkins, an ex-insurance broker turned biochemist, observed that baby rats wouldn't grow, no matter what they were fed, if their diet didn't include milk. He became convinced there was something in normal food that was essential for health and that wasn't protein, carbohydrate, fat, or salt. Gowland labeled these mystery materials "accessory food factors" and went on to share the Nobel with Eijkman, because their work would lead to the discovery of what these accessories actually were: vitamins (in the case of the chickens, thiamine).
Now, why all this made me think that how the web works might remind you distantly of chaos theory was because of what Gowland had been doing before he got into nutrition. He was able to work with pure proteins and their role in nutrition once new techniques had been developed (at Guy's Hospital in London, where Gowland had trained) to analyze uric acid proteins in urine.
And he was interested in uric acid because his very first scientific work had been with insects, when he had conjectured (wrongly, as it turned out) that uric acid was involved in producing the white pigment of the wings of the cabbage white butterfly.
Copyright © 2000 by London Writers
CHAPTER 2: SATISFIED CUSTOMERS
The modern department store, with its money-back-guaranteed merchandise, is one of the great examples of industrial democracy in action. Thanks to mass production and distribution, I can go back to the shop and get a free replacement copy for a cup that I found a flaw in last week. It was one of those willow-pattern things. Genuine Wedgwood. An ironic term, really, because Wedgwood's original stuff was fake. Josiah Wedgwood was a potter who started his career repairing Delft chinaware (fake porcelain, first made for the Dutch middle classes, who couldn't afford the sky-high prices of the real thing coming in from the Far East). Then, in 1769, Wedgwood graduated to crafting his own stuff (fake Greek vases, first made for the English middle classes, who couldn't afford the sky-high prices of the real thing coming in from southern Italy).
The source of Wedgwood's inspiration was an amateur archeologist and site-robber by the name of Sir William Hamilton, who had been appointed English minister to the court of Naples in 1764, not long after the first systematic excavation of the nearby ancient city of Pompeii. So there was a ton of classical bits and pieces lying around for what might charitably be referred to as "collecting." Hamilton's collection grew so big that he published catalogues, one of which influenced Wedgwood.
From time to time, Hamilton would return to England to sell his latest haul of antiquities to institutions like the British Museum or the duchess of Portland. On most of these occasions, the sales agent was his nephew, a ne'er-do-well called The Honourable Charles Greville. Now, there must have been something ne'er-do-well in the Hamilton blood, because Sir William's own mother had seduced the Prince of Wales, and in 1785 he himself took over Greville's mistress (to "save the boy the expense"). The lady in question was a strapping lass thirty-five years Hamilton's junior, who called herself Emma Lyon and who was into "attitudes" (posing, in diaphanous outfits, as various classical Greek and Roman personages).
Emma might have learned the trick while working as an "attendant" for James Graham, one of the era's greater electricity quacks. Graham boasted an impeccable scientific background from Edinburgh University, where he had studied under such medical greats as Joseph Black, the discoverer of latent heat. Electricity at the time was something like cold fusion in the 1990s: Nobody quite understood it, but people supposed that it might do miracles. They knew that an electric current (produced by rubbing glass with a silk cloth, or by touching a Leyden jar) could cause dizziness, a quickening of the heart rate, and spots before the eyes. Maybe electricity was good for the health.
Graham claimed electricity cured only everything. At his posh London Temple of Health (in its elegant, Adam-designed premises), the elite took mudbaths and shocks while surrounded by scantily dressed nubile maidens (Emma was one for a while) and protected from the rude gaze of the riffraff by six-foot-tall bouncers on the front door. Graham had the London demimonde knocked out cold by the star of his shocking show: the amazing "magnetico-electrico-celestial" bed, guaranteed to fix infertility and almost anything else that ailed you. The line of the credulous infertile ran all the way around the block.
Back in Naples, Sir William Hamilton set Emma up in a plush villa, where she continued to assume attitudes. Not surprisingly, her posing turned out to be just the thing to catch the attention of a prominent Navy type who had been at sea for too long (that, and possibly the fact that, as he later noted, Emma never wore underwear). The sailor in question was the hero of the day, Horatio Nelson, whose charms were so renowned that when he sailed into Naples there was female fainting all round. He met Emma in 1798. Quicker than you could say "Admiral of the Fleet," she was his mistress, and they were canoodling on the island of Malta, where the commissioner ruling the place was another old sea-dog, Captain Alexander Ball, who had once saved Nelson's ship and life.
In those days, Malta was a strategic hotspot in the conflict between Napoleon and the rest of Europe. Malta gave Nelson control of the Mediterranean sea lanes and hence secured the route through Egypt to British India. Which was why Napoleon was after Malta. And others. So the island was full of intrigue, and Russian, French, and Turkish spies. There were also a few Americans (resting up after their war with Tripolitania), who had their own transatlantic reasons for undermining the Brits.
All this international hugger-mugger meant that when Ball was not entertaining Nelson and Emma, he was busy writing secret dispatches, night and day. And, because Ball was better at navigation than prose, the dispatches were being edited, day and night, by his new rewrite man, a passing opium addict and Romantic poetry maven named Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had arrived on the island in 1804, on the run from his wife and his habit.
Coleridge had journeyed to Malta to recover his health and financial well-being. After nearly two years, neither goal had been achieved, so the poet headed back to London via Rome, where he met and was painted by an American artist called Washington Allston. The two soon became close friends, and on a later visit to England, Allston introduced Coleridge to his protégé, a young American whose aim in life was to create one of the murals for the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. Alas, the job never came his way, although he did become the rage of New York's art world, founded the National Academy of Design, and made portraits of such movers and shakers as General Lafayette and DeWitt Clinton. In 1829, this young painter headed once again for Europe, where he gradually came to realize that his future might lie elsewhere than on canvas.
On the return trip, in 1832, he came up with the idea that made him so much more famous than did his art, that you are probably still wondering who it is we're talking about. The man was Samuel Morse, and the idea, of course, was sending messages along a wire. Six years of development later, Morse was only about the sixth guy to produce a telegraph, but his version hit the jackpot for at least two reasons. One was the Morse Code. Nobody is totally sure that he didn't snitch it from his partner (and supplier of free hardware) Alfred Vail. Be that as it may, compared with the complicated, telegraph-and-printer models developed by his competitors, Morse's technique was a breeze. It needed just a simple contact key (to send simple groups of five on-off signals), required only a single operator, worked over low-quality wire, and was cheap.
The other reason for Morse's success was also financial. Back then, railroads often ran both ways on single tracks (this saved money) and they frequently crashed (this lost money). Operators urgently had to find a way to instruct trains, coming in opposite directions, when to move and when to wait. The telegraph did just that, for the first time, in 1851 on the Erie Railroad. But it also complicated matters for its users.
By the mid-1850s the Erie employed over four thousand people and the rail network was growing like Topsy. In 1860, the company had around thirty thousand miles of track and things were threatening to go off the rails. The problem was that railroad companies served as many different enterprises all at once: shops, terminals, rail track, marshaling yards, warehouses, and engineering units. Moreover their materials, personnel, and money were spread across thousands of miles. And the nature of the business meant that, from time to time, they had to make instant, system-wide decisions. If the companies were to survive, they needed a radically new kind of command-and-control organization.
Three engineers came up with the solution, making use of the rapid communications facilitated by the new telegraph. Daniel McCallum (of the Erie), J. Edgar Thomson (of the Pennsylvania Railroad), and Alfred Fink (of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad) devised the first business administration organization chart, the idea of line-and-staff management and divisional company structure, and the first true cost-per-ton-mile financial analysis. As a result, the railroads were soon able routinely to handle thousands of articles (passengers and freight) at high rates of turnover (getting them on and off trains) at low margins (cheap prices) on a huge scale (all across the continent).
By the 1870s, railroad management techniques had helped establish another industry built on the frequent and regular delivery of goods. Like the railroads, these businesses operated on a large scale, at low margins, and with high-volume turnover. Like the railroads, their staffs outnumbered the population of many cities. And like the railroads, their organization was departmental. Which is why they became known as "department" stores. These places proved a great hit, and went on to generate the democracy of possessions that characterizes the modern industrial world.
So thanks in the first place to Wedgwood (whose factory is still operating), everybody today can buy his crockery. And anything else they desire. And if there is something wrong with it, get a free replacement, guaranteed.
A practice first introduced, in his London showrooms, by Wedgwood.
Copyright © 2000 by London Writers
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