Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Exploring Collections: Satirical Scientific Pamphlet at the Library Company

Posted by Darin Hayton on 03/02 at 10:59 PM

The Library Company of Philadelphia has an incredibly rich collection of early American history. And most scholars come to use this material. What is less commonly realized or celebrated is the Library Company’s amazing collections of early printed scientific literature, and not just from the early American context (for a couple early American scientific texts, see Exploring Collections: Early American Imprints at the Library Company). The James Logan collection contains thousands of books from the late 15th through the early 18th centuries, most of which were printed in Europe and contain Logan’s annotations. But the Library Company holds numerous other interesting texts. One such work is an anonymous pamphlet titled Curious Enquiries, one of only a handful of copies in North America.1

In 1688 an anonymous pamphlet went on sale in London, Curious Enquiries Being Six Brief Discourses. The brief discourses covered rather varied topics: longitude, astrological quacks, the depth of the sea, tobacco, the overpopulation of Europe, and keeping the Sabbath. In the preface to the reader, the author claimed that his essays were “wholly new,” unlike most other works, which merely recycled certain passages out of previous works: “the Common Way is, to have Recourse to a Multitude of Old Authors, and there to pick out some Select Sentences for their Purpose.” Rather than cut and paste quotations out of old books—a bankrupt and uninteresting practice, the author implies—he promises to offer something new and useful to the world. What he offers is an amusing satire of scientific or purportedly scientific practices.

One of the few copies of Curious Enquiries in the U.S.(Source: The Library Company of Philadelphia)

The first discourse treats the problem of determining longitude.2 The author reviews and rejects some ways that, he claims, people had proposed to determine longitude at sea. These are all quite amusing (particularly if anybody really suggested them). For example,

Many Men have had many Whimseys about this Longitude, and such indeed they have only proved: I have read formerly in some Old (I have forgot now what) Book, That if you fill a Glass of Water full to the Brim, and watch the time of the New, or Full Moon, the Water of it self at that very instant of time, would run over. Well, thinks I, by this at least we can discover our Longitude at Sea twice a Month; and very probably may give a good guess at it daily, by observing the Increase and Decrease of the Water, and allowing for the Condensation and Rarefaction of the Air, observed by a Thermometer; but when I tried at several Full Moons, I never observed the Water to stir; so then I concluded that to be false.

Similarly, efforts to determine longitude by tracking the motion of the moon ran into problems either because the instruments were not accurate enough or because the moon’s light obscures the stars as it eclipses them.

Fortunately, the author had stumbled across a method he felt certain would work. He had read about Sir Kenelm Digby’s sympathetic powder and thought he could use this to great advantage. In 1669 Digby had published a lengthy book on the healing and other powers of this sympathetic powder that he had learned about in France: Of The Sympathetick Powder. A Discourse In A Solemn Assembly at Montpellier (London, 1669). Among the powder’s amazing powers was the ability to heal wounds at a distance. Digby cited the example of a James Howell, who had injured his hand in a duel. The wound did not heal and was, in fact, becoming gangrenous. Howell finally turned to Digby for help. Taking a piece of the cloth that had bound the man’s hand, Digby placed it in a bowl of water in which he had dissolved the sympathetic powder. The man flinched when the cloth was first put in the water and then felt no pain:

I ask’d him, then, for any thing that had the blood upon it; so he presently sent for his Garter, wherewith his hand was first bound: and as I call’d for a Bason of water, as if I would wash my hands; I took a handful of Powder of Vitriol, which I had in my Study, and presently dissolv’d it. As soon as the bloody Garter was brought me, I put it in the Bason, observing the while what Mr. Howel did; who stood talking with a Gentleman in a corner of my Chamber, not regarding at all what I was doing: But he started suddenly, as if he had found some strange alteration in himself. I ask’d him what he ail’d? I know not what ails me, said he, but I find, that I feel no more pain: me-thinks, a pleasing kind of freshness, as it 149 were a wet cold napkin spread it self over my hand; which hath taken away the inflammation that tormented me before. I reply’d, since then you feel already so good an effect of my medicament, I advise you to cast away all your plaisters; only keep the wound clean, and in a moderate temper ‘twixt heat and cold.

In the end, Digby used the powder to heal Howell’s hand.

The author of the Curious Enquiries realized that this wonderful powder, which seemed to heal at a distance, could be put to good use solving the longitude problem. Citing Digby, he claimed:

Sir Kenelm Digby in his Discourse of the Sympathetick Powder, tells us how he made Mr. Howel start, upon his putting a Bloody Garter, with which Mr. Howel’s wounded hand had been bound up withal, into a Bason of Water mixed with that Powder: If such a starting cold be made to any Inferiour creature at a great distance, and by often doing it, it would not in two or three months lose its power, we might at Sea with great Ease and Pleasure know when the Sun was upon the Meridian at London, or any other appointed time; and consequently by the difference of Time, the difference of Longitude.

The mechanics of the process are logical and reasonable, if you accept action at a distance. An injured animal, he suggests a dog, would be taken aboard a ship. Each day at an appointed time, noon, somebody in London would submerse a bandage that had been on the dog into a basin of water and sympathetic powder. The dog on the ship would flinch or start. Knowing the time difference between London and the ship’s local time would allow the people on the ship to calculate their longitude.3 He doesn’t, in the end, endorse this method because it would cause the dog to suffer. But at least in principle the method would work.

The discourse on astrology, “A Dialogue Between the Enquirer and An Astrologer,” is amazingly modern sounding in its critique. It could have been written by any of the innumerable critics of astrology over the last century.4 The astrologer is portrayed as a money-grubbing fraud who knows no astronomy and no astrology. He is, apparently, typical: “I hope no Learned Artist in the Noble Science of Astrology, will be offended if I tell an Innocent, Harmless Story (not much varying from the Truth) of an Impudent, Illiterate Intruder into it; for it’s well known, the Nation swarms with this sort of Caterpillers.” The astrologer claimed not to need to read books, because he came by his art naturally, he was “born to be an astrologer.” He didn’t draw up nativities, but looked only to the person’s sun sign, “I need only look in what Sign the Sun was in when the party was Born.” He then swindles his clients out of money by asking them leading questions and by making vague predictions. He admits that he is interested only in making money, that he is a fraud and knows no astrology. He revels in how easily he convinces his clients to pay him.

The remaining discourses are equally amusing and interesting. The Curious Enquiries appears to have been part of the Poor Robin’s series of satirical works, including numerous annual astrological prognostications. These annual almanacs provide hilarious reading with their deadpan prognostications of the most obvious of phenomena, including such truisms as in the coming year the days will be longer and warmer in the summer than they are in the winter. There were also a number of parodies associated with the Poor Robin pseudonym. The early works were attributed to William Winstanley. The Library Company has a number of the later Poor Robin’s almanacs as well as a few of Winstanley’s works. One could spend a pleasant afternoon in the Library Company just reading the Poor Robin’s almanacs, Winstanley’s texts, and the Curious Enquiries.

1World Cat listed seven copies in the U.S. and one in Canada. To this needs list needs to be added the copy in the Library Company of Philadelphia and, apparently, one in The Huntington Library.
2See the excellent new project on longitude by the National Maritime Museum: The Board of Longitude 1714-1828. For an enjoyable history of the longitude problem and its solution, see Dava Sobel’s Longitude (Penguin, 1996)..
3Dava Sobel mentions this method, but remained agnostic about whether or not it was a satire: The Longitude Problem.
4See the summary of such critiques here.

Tags: astrology, kenelm digby, longitude, satire, the library company of philadelphia, william winstanley


Comment posted by LKC on 03/03 at 12:28 PM

There’s a great use of this in Umberto Eco’s novel, The Island of the Day Before.

Comment posted by Paul Halpern on 03/05 at 09:50 PM

I hadn’t realized how much early scientific material there was at the Library Company.  The satirical discourses you cite sound fascinating.

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