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Category archive: Bits from books
I’ve already given you Rod Green’s Dangereuse. Here’s another, longer bit from his book about Magna Carta, a bit which he entitled “Boys and Men” (pp. 61-66) I was especially struck by the part near the end, about people who could pronounce Latin words but who didn’t know what they meant. Sounds horribly familiar:
Not so long ago, it was widely assumed that the concept of “childhood” simply didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. The view was that the kind of life led by a modern child - where good health, play and education experienced as part of a loving family environment is seen as the norm - was in stark contrast to the lives of children 800 years ago, who were treated as a burden to be tolerated until they were old enough to be of some use.
Recent research, however, shows that this may not have been entirely the case. Studies of toys from the period have shown that children were encouraged to play. The toys may have been homemade in many cases, but models of mounted knights made out of metal would have been bought or specially commissioned, showing that some parents cared enough about their children’s play time to lavish gifts on them.
Children do not feature prominently in illustrated manuscripts, paintings or tapestries doing anything more than emulating their parents, but in some cases they can be seen playing games like tag or “king of the castle” and riding on hobby-horses. They were, it seems, encouraged to play and enjoy an active childhood, although their lives were set on a predetermined course at an early age.
In the early thirteenth century, a child surviving the first year of life had a reasonable chance of fighting off disease long enough to acquire the strength needed to survive in the harsh and unhygienic medieval world. In fact, 25 per cent of those born to wealthy parents and up to 50 per cent of those born to the poor did not. A whole host of infectious
diseases for which we now have myriad names would then simply have been classed as “fever” or “food poisoning”. Life expectancy was only around 30 years, although anyone from the ruling classes who made it, strong and healthy, to the age of 21, might well have had another 40 years to look forward to. In the fourteenth century, the Black Death was to reduce life expectancy dramatically.
In the days of King John, however, a fit young boy born into a noble family could expect to live in his parents’ grand house or castle until he was about seven years old. He would then be sent off to live in another castle, most likely in the house of a nobleman a rung or two up the feudal ladder from his own parents, perhaps even in one of the king’s
Here he would serve first as a page, running errands and generally waiting on the lords and ladies of the household. However, he would also learn how a large house functioned and how people interacted with one another, as well as learning about customs and proper manners. He might also be taught how to read and understand Latin and, if it were not already his native tongue, the version of French spoken by the Norman nobility.
A young boy would also learn how to ride and, if he showed promise, he might, when he was around 14 years old, become apprenticed to a knight as a squire. They had to train hard to learn the art of combat, which included lifting heavy stones to build muscle, throwing the javelin, fighting with a quarterstaff, archery, wrestling, acrobatics and sword fighting. Swordsmanship was taught using a blunted sword and a buckler, a small shield the size of a pot lid. This trained the would-be knight how to parry sword thrusts and how to use his shield as an offensive weapon without the novice having to start off with a full-sized, cumbersome shield. Similarly, the blunted sword was used against heavily padded protective layers, although the dull blade could still inflict painful wounds.
The squire would learn how to clean and prepare the knight’s armour and weapons, although major repairs had to be undertaken by a blacksmith or armourer. He would also need to help his knight put on his armour, which meant more than simply helping him to dress - the various elements of the heavy steel all had to be strapped into place in the correct sequence to make sure that they overlapped and allowed for movement in the right way.
This, of course, meant that the squire went with his knight to compete in tournaments. He would eventually get the chance to compete in his own right, even before he became a knight, as there were special contests organized solely for squires.
Whether a squire lived in his knight’s house, or whether he lived in a baron’s castle where landless knights also lived as part of the baron’s permanent military force, he would have regular chores to perform, which would include acting as a servant when his masters sat down to eat. Squires were expected, for example, to learn the correct way to carve meat at the table.
The squire’s apprenticeship would last until he was around 21 years of age, at which point he might expect to be knighted himself. However, he might want to avoid that happening - a squire could be made a knight either by his local lord or by the king, but it wasn’t an honour that everyone could afford. The squire’s family, whom he may have visited only a couple of times a year since he was sent away as a seven-year-old, would have to pay for the costly armour, weapons and warhorse that a knight required, as well as funding any forays he might make to tournaments far and wide. Being a knight could be prohibitively expensive, especially if a second, third or fourth son, who might not inherit any part of his father’s estate when he died (the bulk of property often being bequeathed to the first-born).
Around the beginning of the thirteenth century, there was a growing “middle class” of merchants, tradesmen and professionals, particularly in the new cities and busy ports. Trade with continental Europe had expanded enormously since the Norman Conquest, although Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurs are known to have traded extensively with partners as far away as Russia. Clauses 41 and 42 of Magna Carta make special mention of such merchants.
The son of a merchant would live an entirely different life from that of a boy born into the nobility. From a very young age, he would learn about the family business, in order to play a full part as soon as he was old enough. A boy might also become apprenticed to another merchant or tradesman, a privilege for which his family would have to pay, and be sent away from home to live with his new master.
Merchants, especially those dealing in foreign trade, had to be able to speak and read Latin, which was the international language of commerce, the legal profession and the Church. The sons of the middle classes learned Latin either through private tuition or at one of the new schools that were beginning to appear.
Merchants donated money to set up schools in the most important trading towns and boys would be sent to school to learn arithmetic and Latin grammar, the institutions becoming known as grammar schools. The schools were allied to a particular trade, making them private schools, although fee-paying schools would later be established that were open to anyone who could pay, such establishments being termed “public” schools.
There would have been few if any books in schools. These were hugely expensive, hand-written items - the first printed books didn’t begin appearing until the mid-fifteenth century. Boys learned their lessons verbally, repeating their Latin phrases time and time again, and earning themselves a beating if they got anything wrong.
Some might learn mathematics or become proficient in the use of an abacus, but few would continue their formal education beyond a basic level or contemplate attending one of the new universities.
As the oldest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford University had been growing in stature since the latter part of the eleventh century and the colleges of Cambridge University can trace their history back to around the same time.
Peasants, still by far and away the largest portion of the population, could not afford to send their sons to school. A peasant boy was expected to do chores as soon as he was old enough to learn how to feed chickens or help to herd livestock. When he was strong enough, he would help with the back-breaking work in the fields and perhaps spend some time working in the local landowner’s house or castle, if such was required by the terms of his family’s tenure.
The Church played a major role in everyone’s lives and even the most lowly peasants attended church on a regular basis. However, all services were conducted in Latin, so most people couldn’t understand what was being said - sometimes not even the priest. Despite being the most educated man in the village, while the priest might be able to pronounce written Latin, the chances are he did not understand it. For a lucky few, a well-educated priest might teach boys how to read, but even as late as the fourteenth century it has been estimated that 8 out of 10 adults in England were unable even to spell their own names.
Recently I acquired, in the remainder shop in Lower Marsh (in the basement beneath which Gramex now operates), a copy of a little book by Rod Green called Magna Carta and All That. This is now going for £0.01 on Amazon, and is well worth £2.81.
It takes the form not of a few longish chapters, but rather of lots of easily digestible chunks of verbiage, many of them biographical, and typically concerning persons I had never heard of.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, mother of Henry II, and more to the point from the Magna Carta point of view, mother of King John, I have most definitely heard of. (She was played by Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter.) This (p. 22) is what Rod Green says about Eleanor’s immediate antecedents, and in particular about Eleanor’s grandmother:
Born in 1122, in the Duchy of Aquitaine, Eleanor was brought up on spellbinding tales of her family’s adventures, especially those of her grandfather, William IX of Aquitaine. William, a big man with a fiery temper, was a warrior and a renowned poet who loved to scandalize his audiences. He was never one to let tradition, custom or even the law stand in his way. He divorced his first wife, Ermengarde, and married again, his second wife, Philippa, giving him seven children before he fell in love with Dangereuse de l’Isle Bouchard, wife of the Viscount of Chatellerault.
Dangereuse, it seems, had not earned her risky name lightly and was so called because of her beguiling, seductive manner. She appears to have been a willing participant when William decided to kidnap her while visiting the viscount. He spirited Dangereuse off to his palace in Poitiers and installed her in the tower which was the living quarters of his immediate family. This kind of abduction wasn’t unheard of among the nobility in medieval Europe - however, that didn’t mean that William’s wife was best pleased when she returned from a visit to her family in Toulouse to find another woman in her home. Eventually, she left William; later, she was instrumental in getting the pope to excommunicate both William and Dangereuse from the Church.
William, however, was a very rich and powerful man and eventually persuaded the pope to allow him back into the Church. Aenor, Dangereuse’s daughter from her previous marriage ultimately married William’s son, also called William, and it was from this union that Eleanor of Aquitaine came into the world.
Like I say, I long ago heard of Eleanor of Aquitaine, but never, until now, of Dangereuse. She is all over the internet. I have no idea if any of these many pictures of Dangereuse are in any way genuine.
Although I promise rien, expect more bits here from this most entertaining book.
The Evolution of Everything, pp. 181-184:
Evolutionary reform of education is happening. James Tooley, Professor of Education at Newcastle University, has catalogued - ‘discovered’ might be a better word - the fact that the poorest slums of cities, and the remotest villages, in countries such as India, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and even China abound in low-cost private schools. He first began studying this phenomenon for the World Bank in 2000 in Hyderabad in India, and has more recently followed it through Africa. In the cramped and sewage-infested slums of the old city of Hyderabad he stumbled upon an association of five hundred private schools catering to the poor. In one of them, the Peace High School, he found doorless classrooms with unglazed windows and stained walls, where children of rickshaw-pullers and day labourers paid sixty to a hundred rupees a month (about 90p-£1.50), depending on age, for their education. Yet the quality of the education was impressive. In another, St Maaz High School, he found a charismatic head teacher with mathematical flair who in twenty years had built up a school with nearly a thousand students, taught by a group of largely unqualified (but often graduate) teachers, on three rented sites, from which he made a reasonable profit. State schools existed, with state-certificated teachers in them, but many of Hyderabad’s parents were exasperated by the poor quality of the education they provided, and many of the private-school teachers were exasperated by the poor quality of the teacher training. ‘Government teacher training,’ one told Tooley, ‘is like learning to swim without ever going near a swimming pool.’
When Tooley told these stories to his colleagues at the World Bank, he was told that he had uncovered examples of businessmen ripping off the poor, or that most of the private schools were creaming off the wealthier parents in a district, which was bad for those left behind. But this proved demonstrably untrue: the Peace High School in Hyderabad gave concessions, or even free tuition, to the children of extremely poor and illiterate people: one parent was a cleaner in a mosque earning less than £10 a month. Why would such people send their children to private schools rather than to the free state schools, which provided uniforms, books and even some free food? Because, Tooley was told by parents, in the state schools teachers did not show up, or taught badly when they did. He visited some state schools and confirmed the truth of these allegations.
Tooley soon realised that the existence of these low-cost private schools in poor neighbourhoods was not unknown, but that it was largely ignored by the establishment, which continued to argue that only an expansion of state education could help the poor. The inadequate state of public education in low-income countries is well recognised; but the answer that everybody agrees on is more money, rather than a different approach. Amartya Sen, for instance, called for more government spending and dismissed private education as the preserve of the elite, while elsewhere in the same paper admitting that the poor were increasingly sending their children to private schools, ‘especially in areas where public schools are in bad shape’. This bad shape, he thought, was due to the siphoning off of the vocal middle classes by private schools - rather than the fact that teachers were accountable to bureaucrats, and not to parents. Yet the poor were deserting the state sector at least as much as the middle class. The lesson that schooling can be encouraged to emerge from below was ignored in favour of the theory that it must be imposed from above.
India was just the start for Tooley. He visited country after country, always being assured that there were no low-cost private schools there, always finding the opposite. In Ghana he found a teacher who had built up a school with four branches teaching 3,400 children, charging $50 a term, with scholarships for those who could not afford it. In Somaliland he found a city with no water supply, paved roads or street lights, but two private schools for every state one. In Lagos, where government officials and the representatives of Western aid agencies all but denied the existence of low-cost private schools, he found that 75 per cent of all schoolchildren in the poor areas of Lagos state were in private schools, many not registered with the government. In all the areas he visited, both urban and rural, in India and Africa, Tooley found that low-cost private schools enrolled more students than state schools, and that people were spending 5-10 per cent of their earnings on educating their children. When he asked a British government aid agency official why his agency could not consider supporting these schools with loans instead of pouring money into the official educational bureaucracy in Ghana, he was told that money could not go to for-profit institutions.
Suppose you are the parent of a child in a Lagos slum. The teacher at the school she attends is often absent, frequently asleep during lessons, and provides a poor standard when awake. This being a public-sector school, however, withdrawing your child goes unnoticed. Your only other redress is to complain to the teacher’s boss, who is a distant official in a part of the city you do not often visit; or you can wait for the next election and vote for a politician who will appoint officials who will do a better job of sending inspectors to check on the attendance and quality of teachers, and then do something about it. Good luck with that. A World Bank report cited by Tooley states despairingly that pay-for-performance cannot work in public-sector schools, and ‘dysfunctional bureaucracies cascade into a morass of corruption, as upward payments from those at lower levels buy good assignments or ratings from superiors’.
If your teacher is in a private, for-profit school, however, and you withdraw your child, then the owner of the school will quickly feel the effect in his pocket, and the bad teacher will be fired. In a free system the parent, the consumer, is the boss. Tooley found that private-school proprietors constantly monitor their teachers and follow up parents’ complaints. His team visited classrooms in various parts of India and Africa, and found teachers actually teaching in fewer of the government classrooms they visited than in private classrooms – sometimes little more than half as many. Despite having no public funds or aid money, the unrecognised private schools had better facilities such as toilets, electricity and blackboards. Their pupils also get better results, especially in English and mathematics.
Earlier, in 2014, I posting another bit from a Matt Ridley book, this time from The Rational Optimist. I entitled that posting Matt Ridley on how technology leads science and how that means that the state need not fund science.
Here is another Matt Ridley book bit, on this same subject, of how technology leads science. And it is also from The Evolution of Everything (pp. 135-137):
Technology comes from technology far more often than from science. And science comes from technology too. Of course, science may from time to time return the favour to technology. Biotechnology would not have been possible without the science of molecular biology, for example. But the Baconian model with its one-way flow from science to technology, from philosophy to practice, is nonsense. There’s a much stronger flow the other way: new technologies give academics things to study.
An example: in recent years it has become fashionable to argue that the hydraulic fracturing technology that made the shale-gas revolution possible originated in government-sponsored research, and was handed on a plate to industry. A report by California’s Breakthrough Institute noted that microseismic imaging was developed by the federal Sandia National Laboratory, and ‘proved absolutely essential for drillers to navigate and site their boreholes’, which led Nick Steinsberger, an engineer at Mitchell Energy, to develop the technique called ‘slickwater fracking’.
To find out if this was true, I spoke to one of hydraulic fracturing’s principal pioneers, Chris Wright, whose company Pinnacle Technologies reinvented fracking in the late 1990s in a way that unlocked the vast gas resources in the Barnett shale, in and around Forth Worth, Texas. Utilised by George Mitchell, who was pursuing a long and determined obsession with getting the gas to flow out of the Barnett shale to which he had rights, Pinnacle’s recipe - slick water rather than thick gel, under just the right pressure and with sand to prop open the fractures through multi-stage fracturing - proved revolutionary. It was seeing a presentation by Wright that persuaded Mitchell’s Steinsberger to try slickwater fracking. But where did Pinnacle get the idea? Wright had hired Norm Wapinski from Sandia, a federal laboratory. But who had funded Wapinksi to work on the project at Sandia? The Gas Research Institute, an entirely privately funded gas-industry research coalition, whose money came from a voluntary levy on interstate gas pipelines. So the only federal involvement was to provide a space in which to work. As Wright comments: ‘If I had not hired Norm from Sandia there would have been no government involvement.’ This was just the start. Fracking still took many years and huge sums of money to bring to fruition as a workable technology. Most of that was done by industry. Government laboratories beat a path to Wright’s door once he had begun to crack the problem, offering their services and their public money to his efforts to improve fracking still further, and to study just how fractures propagate in rocks a mile beneath the surface. They climbed on the bandwagon, and got some science to do as a result of the technology developed in industry - as they should. But government was not the wellspring.
As Adam Smith, looking around the factories of eighteenth-century Scotland, reported in The Wealth of Nations: ‘a great part of the machines made use in manufactures ... were originally the inventions of common workmen’, and many improvements had been made ‘by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines’. Smith dismissed universities even as a source of advances in philosophy. I am sorry to say this to my friends in academic ivory towers, whose work I greatly value, but if you think your cogitations are the source of most practical innovation, you are badly mistaken.
I love What If? History, and here is another What If?, from Jonathan Dimbleby’s book, published just this year, about The Battle of the Atlantic. I have only just started this, but so far it looks most promising. In particular, it promises to place this campaign in the wider context of the war as a whole, as this excerpt from the preface (pp. xxiii-xxvii) well illustrates:
Those responsible for the direction of the war on the Allied side were swift to appreciate the critical importance of the Battle of the Atlantic but rather slower to give their navies the tools to finish the job. In the early years of the war Winston Churchill juggled with many competing priorities as he sought to safeguard Britain from invasion and to defend a global empire. As a result, the nation’s resources were stretched to the limit and sometimes beyond it; to the profound frustration of the prime minister, who found it exceptionally difficult to reconcile his boundless ambition with the fact that the men, the armour, and especially the ships were not available in sufficient force to achieve everything at once. Nonetheless it remains one of the great conundrums of his leadership that, although he was to reflect that ‘the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril’, he failed to follow through the logic of this foreboding until it was almost too late and certainly well beyond the point at which that ‘peril’ could have been eliminated. For every month from the start of hostilities until the early summer of 1943, Britain was losing merchant ships at a faster rate than they could be replaced, largely because they were inadequately protected against the Third Reich’s rapidly expanding U-boat fleet. From the British perspective, the story of the Battle of the Atlantic is in significant measure about a prolonged struggle between the Admiralty and the Air Ministry which became so fierce that a senior admiral was driven to comment that it was ‘a much more savage one than our war with the Huns’.’ Their hostilities were suspended only when, after three and a half years of war, Allied losses in the Atlantic reached such an alarming level that for a while it looked as though the U-boats were on the verge of severing Britain’s lifeline, a prospective catastrophe which forced a resolution in favour of the Admiralty.
This damaging clash between two branches of the wartime government owed much to Churchill. In the summer of 1940, as the Battle of Britain raged overhead, the new prime minister was naturally obsessed not only with the need to stiffen national morale but also to orchestrate action against Germany which would reverse Britain’s fortunes and, in time, lead to victory. As he cast around for a means to this end, he swiftly concluded that ‘an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland’ was the ‘only one sure path’ to the defeat of Hitler. The ethical controversies provoked by this misapprehension have persisted to this day. By contrast, the consequences for the course of the Second World War have received less scrutiny. Yet Churchill’s failure to insist that an adequate number of aircraft be released from the bombing of Germany to do battle against the U-boats in the Atlantic until it was almost too late was a strategic error of judgement that made a fateful contribution to Britain’s failure to nullify the U-boat threat until many months later than would otherwise have been possible. The price of this delay may be measured in the thousands of lives and hundreds of ships which were lost unnecessarily in consequence. It may also be measured in terms of its strategic implications.
There is a tempting, indeed mind-boggling, scenario for those students who are lured by the ‘what if’ or ‘if only’ school of historiography: if the U-boat threat had been aborted several months earlier than it was, could the mass transportation of American troops and armaments from the United States to Britain have started in time to countenance a cross-Channel invasion of France in the autumn of 1943? Might the Allied armies have advanced deeper into Germany before the Red Army’s own push towards the German capital in the summer of 1944? If so, would the Allies have been in a position at Yalta to ensure that the Cold War map of Europe was drawn more nearly to reflect their own strength on the ground, greatly to the strategic advantage, therefore, of not only the post-war West but also those millions of Europeans who later found themselves entrapped behind the ‘Iron Curtain’?
It is a tempting vision that is explored later in these pages. What is surely beyond doubt, though, is that the prospect of an earlier victory in the Atlantic - by, say, the early autumn of 1942 rather than the early summer of 1943 - would have had a powerful impact on the fractious debate between London and Washington over Allied strategy in the prolonged build-up to D-Day (which this book also describes in some detail). In a cable to Roosevelt, which he despatched in July 1941, Churchill made it clear that he foresaw the liberation of Europe by a seaborne invasion ‘when the opportunity is ripe’. The single greatest obstacle in the way of this undertaking was the threat posed by the U-boats to the Atlantic convoys. Had this threat been eliminated earlier than it was, the strategic disputes between the Western Allies would have been even fiercer than they became by 1943; in particular the British would have found it far more difficult to persuade the Americans that victory in the Mediterranean (via North Africa and then Sicily) should precede the cross-Channel invasion of France. As it happened, of course, all such speculation, however intriguing, is rendered profitless because the prime minister was unwilling to prioritize the destruction of German U-boats over the destruction of German cities.
Churchill was a titanic leader whose strategic vision has often been unjustly disparaged but, in relation to the war at sea, his impetuous nature led him to embrace a false dichotomy. Contrasting the indubitably ‘offensive’ character of strategic bombing with the ostensibly ‘defensive’ task of forcing a lifeline passage for the convoys through U-boat infested oceans, he invariably favoured the ‘offensive’ initiatives hatched in the Air Ministry over the ‘defensive’ role assigned to the Admiralty. However, the prime minister was not alone in making this misleading distinction. Not only was it shared by his colleagues in the War Cabinet but also by the British chiefs of staff, including the First Sea Lord, Admiral Pound, who had most to lose. Although Pound became increasingly dismayed by Churchill’s refusal to withdraw from Bomber Command the aircraft needed to nullify the U-boat onslaught, he fatally weakened his case by failing to question the prime minister’s underlying premise. This collective mindset was evidently unable to recognize that the Atlantic convoys were no less ‘offensive’ in character than the wagon trains which opened up the American Midwest in the nineteenth century or (to borrow a twenty-first-century parallel) the military escorts which forced a way through the Taliban-infested deserts in Afghanistan to succour front-line towns and settlements. As it was, the Battle of the Atlantic soon materialized into a conflict that essentially was an asymmetric conflict between the convoys and the U-boats, a struggle in which, for month after month, the pendulum of triumph and disaster swung wildly from one side to the other.
I am in the habit of denouncing the notion that science is a precondition for technology (and therefore needs to be paid for by the government). The tendency is for technological gadgetry to lead science, and often to correct science, by defying it and proving with its success that the relevant science needs to be redone.
But there is another even more direct way in which technology leads science. Here is yet another excerpt from Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air (pp. 73-77). Click on the illustration, which I found here and which is the illustration in the book at that point in the text, to get it properly visible:
The study of air itself had only begun to blossom as a science in the past century, with Robert Boyle’s work on the compression and expansion of air in the late 1600s, and Black’s more recent work on carbon dioxide. Before Boyle and Black, there was little reason to think there was anything to investigate: the world was filled with stuff – people, animals, planets, sprigs of mint – and then there was the nothingness between all the stuff. Why would you study nothingness when there was such a vast supply of stuff to explain? There wasn’t a problem in the nothingness that needed explaining. A cycle of negative reinforcement arose: the lack of a clear problem kept the questions at bay, and the lack of questions left the problems as invisible as the air itself. As Priestley once wrote of Newton, “[he] had very little knowledge of air, so he had few doubts concerning it.”
So the question is: Where did the doubts come from? Why did the problem of air become visible at that specific point in time? Why were Priestley, Boyle, and Black able to see the question clearly enough to begin trying to answer it? There were 800 million human beings on the planet in 1770, every single one of them utterly dependent on air. Why Priestley, Boyle, and Black over everyone else?
One way to answer that question is through the lens of technological history. They were able to explore the problem because they had new tools. The air pumps designed by Otto von Guericke and Boyle (the latter in collaboration with his assistant, Robert Hooke, in the mid-1600s) were as essential to Priestley’s lab in Leeds as the electrical machines had been to his Warrington investigations. It was almost impossible to do experiments without being able to move air around in a controlled manner, just as it was impossible to explore electricity without a reliable means of generating it.
In a way, the air pump had enabled the entire field of pneumatic chemistry in the seventeenth century by showing, indirectly, that there was something to study in the first place. If air was simply the empty space between things, what was there to investigate? But the air pump allowed you to remove all the air from a confined space, and thus create a vacuum, which behaved markedly differently from common air, even though air and absence of air were visually indistinguishable. Bells wouldn’t ring in a vacuum, and candles were extinguished. Von Guericke discovered that a metal sphere composed of two parts would seal tightly shut if you evacuated the air between them. Thus the air pump not only helped justify the study of air itself, but also enabled one of the great spectacles of early Enlightenment science.
The following engraving shows the legendary demonstration of the Magdeburg Sphere, which von Guericke presented before Ferdinand III to much amazement: two eight-horse teams attempt – and, spectacularly, fail – to separate the two hemispheres that have been sealed together by the force of a vacuum.
When we think of technological advances powering scientific discovery, the image that conventionally comes to mind is a specifically visual one: tools that expand the range of our vision, that let us literally see the object of study with new clarity, or peer into new levels of the very distant, the very small. Think of the impact that the telescope had on early physics, or the microscope on bacteriology. But new ways of seeing are not always crucial to discovery. The air pump didn’t allow you to see the vacuum, because of course there was nothing to see; but it did allow you to see it indirectly in the force that held the Magdeburg Sphere together despite all that horsepower. Priestley was two centuries too early to see the molecules bouncing off one another in his beer glasses. But he had another, equally important, technological breakthrough at his disposal: he could measure those molecules, or at least the gas they collectively formed. He had thermometers that could register changes in temperature (plus, crucially, a standard unit for describing those changes). And he had scales for measuring changes in weight that were a thousand times more accurate than the scales da Vinci built three centuries earlier.
This is a standard pattern in the history of science: when tools for measuring increase their precision by orders of magnitude, new paradigms often emerge, because the newfound accuracy reveals anomalies that had gone undetected. One of the crucial benefits of increasing the accuracy of scales is that it suddenly became possible to measure things that had almost no weight. Black’s discovery of fixed air, and its perplexing mixture with common air, would have been impossible without the state-of-the-art scales he employed in his experiments. The whole inquiry had begun when Black heated a quantity of “magnesia alba,” and discovered that it lost a minuscule amount of weight in the process - a difference that would have been imperceptible using older scales. The shift in weight suggested that something was escaping from the magnesia into the air. By then running comparable experiments, heating a wide array of substances, Black was able to accurately determine the weight of carbon dioxide, and consequently prove the existence of the gas. It weighs, therefore it is.
With the university system languishing amid archaic traditions, and corporate R&D labs still on the distant horizon, the public space of the coffeehouse served as the central hub of innovation in British society How much of the Enlightenment do we owe to coffee? Most of the epic developments in England between 1650 and 1800 that still warrant a mention in the history textbooks have a coffeehouse lurking at some crucial juncture in their story. The restoration of Charles II, Newton’s theory of gravity, the South Sea Bubble – they all came about, in part, because England had developed a taste for coffee, and a fondness for the kind of informal networking and shoptalk that the coffeehouse enabled. Lloyd’s of London was once just Edward Lloyd’s coffeehouse, until the shipowners and merchants started clustering there, and collectively invented the modem insurance company. You can’t underestimate the impact that the Club of Honest Whigs had on Priestley’s subsequent streak, precisely because he was able to plug in to an existing network of relationships and collaborations that the coffeehouse environment facilitated. Not just because there were learned men of science sitting around the table – more formal institutions like the Royal Society supplied comparable gatherings – but also because the coffeehouse culture was cross-disciplinary by nature, the conversations freely roaming from electricity, to the abuses of Parliament, to the fate of dissenting churches.
The rise of coffeehouse culture influenced more than just the information networks of the Enlightenment; it also transformed the neurochemical networks in the brains of all those newfound coffee-drinkers. Coffee is a stimulant that has been clinically proven to improve cognitive function - particularly for memory-related tasks - during the first cup or two. Increase the amount of “smart” drugs flowing through individual brains, and the collective intelligence of the culture will become smarter, if enough people get hooked. Create enough caffeine-abusers in your society and you’ll be statistically more likely to launch an Age of Reason. That may itself sound like the self-justifying fantasy of a longtime coffee-drinker, but to connect coffee plausibly to the Age of Enlightenment you have to consider the context of recreational drug abuse in seventeenth-century Europe. Coffee-drinkers are not necessarily smarter; in the long run, than those who abstain from caffeine. (Even if they are smarter for that first cup.) But when coffee originally arrived as a mass phenomenon in the mid-1600s, it was not seducing a culture of perfect sobriety. It was replacing alcohol as the daytime drug of choice. The historian Tom Standage writes in his ingenious A History of the World in Six Glasses:
The impact of the introduction of coffee into Europe during the seventeenth century was particularly noticeable since the most common beverages of the time, even at breakfast, were weak “small beer” and wine .... Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and stimulated, rather than relaxed and mildly inebriated, and the quality and quantity of their work improved .... Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries.
Emerging from that centuries-long bender, armed with a belief in the scientific method and the conviction, inherited from Newtonian physics, that simple laws could be unearthed beneath complex behavior, the networked, caffeinated minds of the eighteenth century found themselves in a universe that was ripe for discovery. The everyday world was teeming with mysterious phenomena – animals, plants, rocks, weather – that had never before been probed with the conceptual tools of the scientific method. This sense of terra incognita also helps explain why Priestley could be so innovative in so many different disciplines, and why Enlightenment culture in general spawned so many distinct paradigm shifts. Amateur dabblers could make transformative scientific discoveries because the history of each field was an embarrassing lineage of conjecture and superstition. Every discipline was suddenly new again.
I am reading Steven Johnson’s book, The Invention of Air, which is about the life and career of Joseph Priestley.
Early on (pp. 10-12) there is a delightful bit concerning Benjamin Franklin, and his early investigations into the Gulf Stream:
In 1769, the Customs Board in Boston made a formal complaint to the British Treasury about the speed of letters arriving from England. (Indeed, regular transatlantic correspondents had long noticed that letters posted from America to Europe tended to arrive more promptly than letters sent the other direction.) As luck would have it, the deputy postmaster general for North America was in London when the complaint arrived - and so the British authorities brought the issue to his attention, in the hope that he might have an explanation for the lag. They were lucky in another respect: the postmaster in question happened to be Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin would ultimately turn that postal mystery into one of the great scientific breakthroughs of his career: a turning point in our visualization of the macro patterns formed by ocean currents. Franklin was well prepared for the task. As a twenty-year-old, traveling back from his first voyage to London in 1726, he had recorded notes in his journal about the strange prevalence of “gulph weed” in the waters of the North Atlantic. In a letter written twenty years later he had remarked on the slower passage westward across the Atlantic, though at the time he supposed it was attributable to the rotation of the Earth. In a 1762 letter he alluded to the way “the waters mov’d away from the North American Coast towards the coasts of Spain and Africa, whence they get again into the Power of the Trade Winds, and continue the Circulation.” He called that flow the “gulph stream.”
When the British Treasury came to him with the complaint about the unreliable mail delivery schedules, Franklin was quick to suspect that the “gulph stream” would prove to be the culprit. He consulted with a seasoned New England mariner, Timothy Folger, and together they prepared a map of the Gulf Stream’s entire path, hoping that “such Chart and directions may be of use to our Packets in Shortning their Voyages.” The Folger/Franklin map ...
… was the first known chart to show the full trajectory of the Gulf Stream across the Atlantic. But the map was based on anecdotal evidence, mostly drawn from the experience of New England-based whalers. And so in his voyage from England back to America in 1775, Franklin took detailed measurements of water temperatures along the way, and detected a wide but shallow river of warm water, often carrying those telltale weeds from tropical regions. “I find that it is always warmer than the sea on each side of it, and that it does not sparkle in the night,” he wrote. In 1785, at the ripe old age of seventy-nine, he sent a long paper that included his data and the Iolger map to the French scientist Alphonsus le Roy. Franklin’s paper on “sundry Maritime Observations,” as he modestly called it, delivered the first empirical proof of the Gulf Stream’s existence.
I added that map in the middle of that quote, which I found here. (I love the internet.)
Until now, I knew nothing of this Gulf Stream story. The reason I knew nothing of this Gulf Stream story is that I know very little about eighteenth century history of any sort. This book by Johnson looks like it will be a pain-free way to start correcting that.
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Steven Pinker on the (im)moral message of the Old Testament
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Paul Johnson on what the young Mozart was up against
Richard J. Evans on how evidence can become more significant over time
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Alex Ross on Sibelius
Lawrence H. White on the Scottish experience of free banking
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