Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Palmer's Computing Scale

Aaron Palmer patented a slide rule in Boston in 1843. I believe this is the earliest example of an American slide rule.  The "Computing Scale", as he referred to it was available in a number of formats.  In 1846 Palmer apparently sold his patent rights to John E. Fuller. Fuller, in turn, added another circular scale to the original Palmer Computer Scale on the reverse side which would compute the number of days between two dates. Fuller called his scale the "Time Telegraph".
Major variations of Palmer's Computing Scale include:
1.  A 12 inch square hard cardboard device (as shown).
2. A 12 inch square version, as above, with the the Fuller Time Telegraph on the reverse side.
3. Palmer's Pocket Scale, a 10 cm. by 15.5 cm. hardbound book with a smaller version of the 12 inch device attached to the inside rear cover. 48 pp. not including the scale.
4. Key to Palmer's Pocket Scale, the same as 3. above without the slide rule attached to the inside rear cover. This was presumably used as the instruction manual for 1. above. 50pp.
5. Improvement to Palmer's Endless Self-Computing Scale and Key by John E. Fuller. This is like 4. above, but for use with 2. above. 72 pp.
6. Fuller's Computing Telegraph by Aaron Palmer and John E. Fuller, same as 2. above as part of a 22 page book.

I saw one reference to the fact that the use of the word "computing" as associated with the Palmer Scale was the first time that that word was used when referencing a device, as opposed to a person who did that operation.  I cannot confirm this.

Most references to these Palmer devices indicate that it is rare, and the prices they are sold for seem to support this theory.  However, I personally have 12 of them. I did not pay anywhere near the prices I have seen out there.  So, I don't know what to make of this.

Once I bought one of the smaller Palmer Scales on EBay from a fellow in San Francisco. I was in Connecticut at the time and happened to be going to San Francisco about two days after the close of the auction. I asked the fellow if I could come to him in San Francisco to pick it up instead of him mailing it to me in Connecticut. I think I must have spooked him. He refused to agree and insisted that he mail it to me.

Florian Cajori

Florian Cajori (1859-1930) A Swiss American scholar who was one of the most important and prolific writers on the history of Mathematics and Physics during the latter part of the 19th century and earlier part of the 20th century. Born in Switzerland, he emigrated to the United States in 1875.  He received a Ph.D. from Tulane University in Mathematics. He was a Professor of Physics, Engineering and Mathematics at Colorado College (1889-1918) and then a Professor of Mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley (1918-1930) and held a chair there in the History of Mathematics.

I spoke with Charles Cajori (b. 1921), his son, a number of years ago. He lives in Watertown near our home in Connecticut.  Charles is an artist of some note.  We spoke about his father and the fact that his papers are housed at the U.C. Berkeley Library. Now that we live much closer to Berkeley I must go over there some day and look through those archival materials. I'm sure it will be very interesting.

Cajori, among other subjects, is known for his writing on William Oughtred and the history of the slide rule.  There is certainly much more historical interest in these areas now than when he wrote his books on those subjects just after the turn of the century.

I have listed below the more substantial works written by Florian Cajori:

A History of Mathematics
A History of Mathematical Notations I
A History of Mathematical Notations II
A History of Physics in its Elementary Branches, Including Physical Laboratories
William Oughtred A Great Seventeenth Century Teacher of Mathematics
A History of the Logarithmic Slide Rule and Allied Instruments and the History of the Gunther Scale and the Slide Rule in the Seventeenth Century
Principia, Vol. I Motion of Bodies by Isaac Newton (translated by Andrew Motte) (edited by Cajori)
Principia Vol. II A System of the World by Isaac Newton (translated by Andrew Motte( edited by Cajori)
A History of the Concepts of Limits and Fluxions in Great Britain from Newton to Woodhouse
The Teaching and History of Mathematics in the United States
An Introduction to the Modern Theory of Equations
The Chequered Career of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler

I know that at Colorado College they had the annual Cajori Lecture for two years back in the 50s, and the Cajori Award for outstanding Engineering students at Colorado College, but I don't know if there is any continuing award of any national or international acclaim in his honor, or if there have been any substantial scholarly work on his life written. I have not found it. If you know of either, I would be glad to hear about it.

I will augment this post with additional information on Florian Cajori as time permits. Of particular note are his volumes that were published posthumously.

"If a lunatic scribbles a jumble of mathematical symbols it does not follow that the writing means anything merely because to the inexpert eye it is indistinguishable from higher mathematics." --Florian Cajori

William Oughtred and the Oughtred Society

William Oughtred (1574-1660) was an English Ordained Episcopal Minister who is best known for his mathematical work. He was a Fellow of Kings College, Cambridge.

Oughtred is credited with the invention of the slide rule in  1622.  While it was John Napier who invented logarithms and Edmund Gunther who invented the logarithmic scale, it was Oughtred who recognized that by using two Gunther scales sliding by each other he could perform multiplication and division more rapidly than on a Gunther scale alone.  He conceived of this as two circular Gunther logarithmic scales.

In addition to the slide rule he is also known for the introduction of the symbols "x" for multiplication, and "sin" and "cos" for the sine and cosine functions, and "::" for proportion. The book he wrote which he is most noted for is Clavis Mathematicae (1631). 

A very good biography of William Oughtred was written by Florian Cajori entitled William Oughtred, a Great Seventeenth-Century Teacher of Mathematics, Open Court Publishing Co., Chicago, 1916. Cajori also wrote History of the Logarithmic Slide Rule, Engineering News Publishing Co., 1909 which contains many references to Oughtred. There are in print reprints of this volume.

The Oughtred Society is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to the preservation and history of the slide rule and other calculating instruments. Their goals include the dissemination and sharing of information and encouragement for collectors. They are affiliated with organizations in the United Kingdom, Germany, and The Netherlands with similar goals. The Journal of the Oughtred Society, a scholarly publication is put out semiannually by the Society. They have a number of meetings each year, usually on the East Coast and West Coast.  They have a website: and encourage membership.
When I attended the last meeting in Mountain View, CA on June 27 it was held at the Computer History Museum.  It was great to see so many familiar faces again.

The Hunt for a Curta and Discovery of a Treasure

I had decided that I wanted a Curta calculator for my collection of antique mechanical calculators. It was going to represent the last of my mechanical calculators, chronologically speaking.  I should preface this with the comment that I could have easily gone out and purchased a Curta, but that takes half the fun out of it. Curtas are fairly expensive little gadgets, it would not be hard to spend $600 on a good one.  I like to find my computing collectibles at more affordable prices. I figure, if it costs less, then I can have some money left over to buy something else for my collection.

I know that most engineers who went to school when slide rules were de rigeuer ended up keeping their slide rules even though they never used them after they got weaned onto electronic calculators and computers.  They just feel that after all that time together, you don't just throw one away. You have to have more respect for it.  So, it gets tucked away in some drawer somewhere, and every once in while they run across it and it brings back all those fond memories of years past.  The damn thing has no monetary value, so they don't sell it either.  I have found, when telling people that I collect these devices that they are all to often willing to part with theirs because they know it is going to a good home and it will be treated right and won't be destroyed.

Back to the Curta. I figured that someone who used to enter rally races would be in pretty much the same situation as an engineer and his slide rule.  So, I started tracking down rally car enthusiasts.  It isn't very hard. You find one, if he doesn't have one to spare, then ask for the names of others that he know and their phone numbers. It went fairly fast. I had been looking off and on in my spare time for about two weeks, when this one fellow referred me to another.  I called the individual.

No, he had sold his last year. He had no use for it anymore. He couldn't just throw it out and someone offered to give him $100 for it, so he took it.  I, of course, had explained that I was looking for one for my collection of computing devices.  So, then, out of the blue, he says to me, "Maybe you would be interested in these slide rules we have."  My ears went up. "Oh, slide rules! What kind of slide rules?" He replied, "My wife's grandfather, or great grandfather designed them and she might want to get rid of them. I don't know much about them. You would have to talk to her about them."

His wife eventually got on the phone after I had gotten the names of a few more potential Curta owners. When his wife got on the phone she explained that her great grandfather, Edwin Thacher, had designed these slide rules and she had the original production runs for one of them and a prototype for another.  The former was the cylindrical slide rule that I have already written about, the latter was a Scofield-Thacher Engineer's slide rule. 

I asked her if she would be interested in selling the devices. She indicated that she would. We made arrangements for me to come out to visit her.  

Two weeks later I found myself on the road again.  It was about a 4 hour trip in rural New York.  

A little historical insert is due here. Edwin Thacher (1840-1920) was born in DeKalb, Lawrence County, New York and died in New York City. He grew up as a youth in Herman, NY not too far from DeKalb. He was trained as Civil Engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York in 1863 and was employed at first on the Cedar Rapids & Missouri River Railroad, and subsequently with the US Military Railroad during the Civil War. Thereafter, he worked for the Louisville, Cincinnati & Lexington Railroad, Louisville Bridge & Iron Co., and as Chief Engineer of the Keystone Bridge Co. He was most noted for his concrete compression bridges and the slide rules he designed to engineer his bridges. He was always plagued by the lack of accuracy in the calculations he performed in designing bridges.  His most substantial engineering project was the design of the Walnut Street Bridge in Chattanooga, Hamilton County, TN. It was a six-span through truss bridge over the Tennessee River built from 1889 to 1891. It has a total length of approximately 2,370 feet with the longest single span being 320 feet. It is in the National Register of Historic Places.  The Walnut Street Bridge was converted to a pedestrian bridge some time in the latter part of the 20th century and may be the longest pedestrian bridge in the world.  Among the various slide rules he designed, was the cylindrical slide rule that carries his name (in reality, Thatcher[sic] due to a typo) to solve the accuracy problems he was encountering in his bridge engineering design work.

Now, back to the rest of the story. I arrived at the home of the great granddaughter of Edwin Thacher and had a cordial meeting with them.  They produced the various Thacher devices. The K&E 4012 was serial number 1050, indicating that it was the 50th production number produced.  the Scofield-Thacher Engineer's rule was clearly a prototype. They started disclosing what information they knew about him which wasn't all that much, but then they produced their Thacher family Bible.  You should know that way back when it was very common for families to record all the births, deaths, marriages, etc. in the family Bible.  Well, there it was: Edwin Thacher, born October 12, 1839 to Seymour Thacher and Elizabeth (Smith) Thacher.  From there she showed me the family tree, showing her direct descendancy from Edwin. Wow! Was this the Holy Grail squared, or what?  Most of the biographies on Edwin were wrong on the date of his birth. He was not born in 1840 as noted!

We got down to business and discussed the sale of the items.  Their concern was that these were large devices and no one in the family had expressed interest in them and they wanted to make sure that they ended up being taken care of. Yes, yes. I'm real good at taking care of my slide rules.  We talked about the price.  We did not conclude anything at that meeting.  They wanted to think about the whole matter. I did not want to pressure them. I told them I would send them some biographical information on their great grandfather, which I did as soon as I got back home.

We had a number of conversations after that and the conclusion was that they thought they would, at least for the time being, hold onto these family mementos. DARN!!!
So close, but so far from completing the purchase.

By the way, this whole story started out looking for a Curta. Well, I got my Curta a number of months later, but not from the plan I had set out to get it. An acquaintance of mine had a friend who was an engineer who had some slide rules who wanted to give them to me, and while talking to him I learned that he used to participate in rally races. Yes, he still had his Curta, and yes, if I gave him $50 he would sell it to me.
I now have that Curta.

The Quest for the Holy Grail of Slide Rules

I will now tell an interesting story about something I uncovered.

In about 1997, I was sitting and working at my computer and an email popped into my mailbox.  Someone wanted to know if I wanted to buy a slide rule. I didn't recognize the name, but I answered anyway.  Okay I'll bite, "What kind of slide rule do you have? And, oh, by the way, where did you get my name or email address?"  Most slide rules that come up are fairly boring.

A little while later a reply came with more information. "It is a Thatcher and I saw your name on some website advertising that you want to buy slide rules."  "Interesting, a Thatcher." I thought. "I don't remember ever putting an ad anywhere for buying slide rules.  I wonder where she saw that"

There were two principal models of the Thatcher that were made. Production started in 1881. There is the 4012 model and the 4013 model.  Both are almost identical, except for one thing.  They both are almost two feet wide, they are built around a 4 inch diameter cylinder with rotating vanes around the cylinder.  The theory behind a cylindrical slide rule is that by wrapping the scales in a helical fashion around the cylinder the scale can be made considerably longer.  The longer the scale, the more accurate the computations. The principal difference between the two Thatcher models is that the 4013 has a bar across the front of the device to which is attached a magnifying glass that can be adjusted to "read" the answer to a computation.  This allowed the device to be very precise -- so much so, that it was the most accurate device available for many years.  And to get the most out of the accuracy, you really do need a magnifying glass to "read" it.  It turns out that the 4013, while more expensive than its brother 4012, had many fewer produced, and consequently, they are extremely hard to find in good condition -- and they are so very expensive.

Now, back to the story, I assumed it would be a 4012 and probably, like most, fairly deteriorated.  The response I got said it was a 4012 and after a few more back and forths, I concluded it was worth seeing.  It turned out, of all places in the world that it could be, it was about an hour away, in Springfield, MA.  I hopped in the car, went to the bank to get the required cash, and off I went to Springfield from Connecticut.

I arrived at a small house in an older section of town. I knocked at the door and this woman came and let me in.  She showed me to the table where she had on display, unbeknownst to me, two Thatchers.  One was a 4012, and... the other ---the other  was the Holy Grail -- a model 4013.  I tried to restrain myself from showing how elated I was.

The story took a very strange turn.  She was apologizing to me that she had me come all that way, but she had already sold the 4012 Thatcher that I had come to buy........ But, if I was interested, she had this other one almost the same over here.  I knew it, it was a bait and switch!

I looked it over, it was beautiful. It was well preserved, and it had all its parts. "I'll let you have this one for the same price" she said.  "I'll take it"

So, that's how I got the Thatcher and now it sits right next to the Curta in the display case in my living room. But that was not always the case.  I had not purchased the Curta at that time. I was still on the trail to find one.... and that is the next interesting adventure.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Curta Calculator

The Curta Calculator is an amazing mechanical device.  It was first produced in 1948 as the brainchild of an Austrian, Curt Herzstark (1902-1988), based upon work of the famous 17th century mathematician Godfried Leibniz (1646-1718). It performs addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and with some ingenuity even more complex functions.  While Herzstark had conceived the device during the 1930s, it was actually during World War II while a he was imprisoned at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp (his father was Jewish), that he worked out the actual design of the first production devices.  After being liberated from Buchenwald in 1945 and before 1948 he finalized the design and brought the device to the marketplace. The Curta factory was located in Lichtenstein.

The Curta I has 8 slides for entering one of the operands and a 6 digit revolution counter for the other operand and an 11 digit result counter. The entire Curta I weighs only 200 gm.  There were 80,000 Type I calculators produced.  The larger Curta II, first manufactured in 1964 has 11 slides for entering the first operand and a 8 digit revolution counter, and 15 digits for the results. The Curta II weighs about 370 gm. The Type II model had a production run of 60,000.  The difference between the two calculators was primarily the number of digits of significance that the devices could handle.

The first thing you should know about a Curta is that it is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.  It is so small, in fact, that you could not imagine a device this complicated fitting in such a small space. It has such a good feel when holding it and operating it. Curtas are sometimes called "pepper grinders" because of the similarity in looks and size. 
 Numbers are entered on the slides. A rotating crank on the top allows the input number to be added to the result. By lifting the crank the input is subtracted from the result. Rotating the top will cause the the input to be either multiplied by 10 or divided by 10 depending on the direction of the rotation.  So, with a sequence of rotations and lifts and turns relatively large numbers could undergo arithmetic operations with great precision.  In the case of the Curta II, up to 15 significant digits of accuracy. There is a great video showing the operation of the Curta here. Or, see Jan Meyer's amazing Curta simulator here.

I purchased my Curta from a fellow that used it during the 60s for rally car races.  The navigator for the car had the responsibility to see that the driver "paced" the car as prescribed by the rally rules.  This required quick and reliable computation under some difficult circumstances. I don't think a slide rule would have quite made it in that type of situation.  They were also used in airplane navigation and in engineering and scientific computation.  They pretty much went out of favor at the same time as the slide rule during the 1970s.

I found my Curta many years ago, when hand held mechanical calculators were out of favor, yet before the collector craze for older mechanical computing devices had started.  I keep it in a display case in my living room right next to my Thatcher 4013 Calculator.  The reason I mention this is because I have a very interesting story about Edwin Thacher and his Cylindrical Calculator that I stumbled upon while searching for a Curta for my collection.  But that is going to have to be for another day. By the way, no, I didn't make a mistake on spelling the Thatcher/Thacher names above. Edwin spelled his name without a "t" (i.e. Thacher), but the engraver making the device for production misspelled his name on the engraving plate by putting in an extra "t".  The device was so precise and it would have cost so much to redo the engraving that they went into production with the wrong spelling for his name anyway, so the device is a "Thatcher".

Georg Ernst Stahl and the Phlogiston Theory

Just to keep things balanced, I have an engraving of Georg Stahl hanging on my office wall right near my Priestley likenesses, some of these likenesses I have blogged about earlier.  I have Georg hanging there to put things in perspective.  

Georg Ernst Stahl (1659-1734) was born at Ansbach. He was an eminent chemist and physician and is best know as the foremost proponent of the now defunct and discredited phlogiston theory.  

The phlogiston theory was originally postulated by Johann Becher in 1667. It hypothesized that flammable materials contained phlogiston, a substance without any discernible properties, including, mass, or any other physical properties whatsoever.  When the flammable material was combusted the phlogiston dissipated and the material returned to its "dephlogisticated" state called the calyx or true state.

Joseph Priestley was also a lifelong proponent of the phlogiston theory, and, in fact, upon isolating a substance from mercuric oxide with heat, called it "dephlogisticated air" (oxygen).

It was Antoine Lavoisier in France who showed that combustion requires a gas that has weight. This substance he named oxygen, and in demonstrating that it did have mass he had made the phogiston theory obsolete.  The fact that Lavoisier became obsolete after the French Revolution by losing his head is the subject of a blog yet to be composed.

In any case, the conclusion is that even great minds make mistakes. In Priestley's case it was his clinging to an obsolete theory even after it had been clearly discredited.  In Scientific Correspondence of Joseph Priestley the letters Priestley wrote of his observations from experiments he had performed show his numerous mistakes and ill formed conclusions. Yet, through it all, through all the imperfect observations and incorrect thinking, he was able to accomplish so much. It is a lesson to be learned by all.  Mistakes are normal in the course of discovery. They are essential!  And every assumption must be treated with suspicion. 

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson

In early January of this year I was listening to the local Public Radio Station and I heard an interview hosted by Michael Krasny on his Forum program. He was interviewing Steven Johnson, the author of a book published last year entitled The Invention of Air.  It was a very interesting interview and someone mentioned that Johnson would be at the Book Passage book store in Corte Madera, CA on Saturday, January 17.  I decided to go even though I hadn't read his book yet. 

There have been a host of books about Joseph Priestley written recently, Johnson's being one of the latest. My first inclination upon hearing the interview was that this particular book, while intended primarily for the lay reader unfamiliar with Priestley, would step through the usual biographical milestones of his life and his contributions to humankind and be pretty humdrum.  I did find the talk was interesting. 

However, when I went to the talk at Book Passage I heard a more expanded discussion of his book and had ample time to chat with Mr. Johnson afterwards.  We agreed to get together sometime in New York, since he lives in Brooklyn and I am frequently in Manhattan. Even though I have been to New York three times since, I haven't had an opportunity to see him there yet. Maybe on the next trip.

After attending the talk, I actually read his book.  I found it a good read and quite refreshing. He did not, as I had previously suspected, step through the usual biographical material. Instead, he tried to capture the essence of that period of history in England, and the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. He brought forward a number of very interesting observations, including: 
Priestley's penchant for openness by sharing the information he had discerned. He had, after all, written over 150 books on such varied topics as electricity, chemistry, Christianity, education, language, politics, etc.
The role of the coffee houses in the second half of 18th century London -- an 18th century form of social networking, so to speak, where he met with the likes of Benjamin Franklin and the other "Honest Whigs". 

When I say he did not go through the usual biography, there were, of course, the sprinklings here and there of tried and true lines about Priestley's accomplishments for sure, but not laden like many of the other Priestley books. There was just enough for the uninitiated to want to go out and get a real biography to read.

I notice that this book seems to have gotten some real traction of late. I hope it does well and "enlightens" the general public about this great and important historic individual who has, for all intents, been forgotten by the mainstream of our culture.  Actually, never known by the mainstream of our culture. 

Dr. Priestley's Slide Rule

I mused about whether Joseph Priestley, eminent natural philosopher that he was, ever had a slide rule.  While I was at the Priestley House in 2004, I asked the docent, Brooke Dearman, if they had any information to that effect.  Wouldn't you know, the following day she informed me that on the Inventory of Dr. Priestley's Laboratory in 1791 was the listing of a slide rule.  Just in case you don't remember, this is the very same Laboratory that was burned to the ground during the Birmingham Riots of the same year. So, in fact, this is a list of the items that were destroyed when the Laboratory was destroyed.

This Inventory appeared first in the Birmingham Weekly Post in 1890, and was subsequently reprinted as an Appendix in Scientific Correspondence of Joseph Priestley by Henry Carrington Boulton in 1892, and then reprinted again in the reprinting of Boulton's book by the Kraus Reprint Co., New York, in 1969. I've referred to this book before. If you are seriously interested in studying about Priestley, it is a good book to have for reference.

There it is on page 229 under the category of Mathematical Instruments, "A Sliding Rule of the best construction" and on the next line "A Navigation Sliding Rule".  So, now we know that he had two "Sliding Rules". 

But, is there anything else we can learn or conjecture about these sliding rules.  During this period of time, from 1780 to 1790, Matthew Boulton, the famous engineer and industrialist,and his partner of James Watt,  who were both friends of Priestley's and also members of the Lunar Society, had produced a "Sliding Rule" at their Soho Manufactory called a "Soho" ruler in about 1775. This was specifically designed for the engineers' use at Soho. James Watt, earlier in his career was a scientific instrument maker and was quite familiar with the sliding rule.  As best as I can tell at this time the Soho sliding rule had A B C D scales, the  A B and C  scales were double decade scales so that squares and square roots could be computed rapidly, and the D scale was a linear scale. 
There also appear to have been some French slide rules being produced at this time also.

So, it is not clear which exact type of sliding rules Priestley had in his Laboratory. He certainly had access to the Soho sliding rules through Boulton and Watt.  Additionally, we know that Boulton supplied many other instruments and items of need to Priestley's laboratory.  Any information on this would be greatly appreciated.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Interesting Genealogical Connections of the Lunar Society Members and their Offspring

Charles Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection have shaken the world.  To this day they draw controversy.  Some religious groups feel that these theories are in direct contradiction to their belief systems.  Many of the great intellectuals of the Age of Enlightenment, while fiercely defending scientific inquiry were very religious in their own right. Look, for example, at Joseph Priestley.  While many of his era would have considered his religious views heretical, he firmly believed in God and that scientific inquiry would only give man a deeper understanding of Him.

In my ramblings into the Age of Enlightenment, English Industrial Revolution and the Lunar Society, in particular, I had known of two of the eminent members being Erasmus Darwin, the noted doctor, and Josiah Wedgwood, the famous manufacturer of porcelain. I knew that Erasmus Darwin had written some interesting material about "evolution" and I knew that he was the grandfather of Charles, the noted naturalist.

What I didn't know was that Erasmus Darwin's son Robert (Charles' father) had married Josiah Wedgwood's daughter Susannah (Charles' mother). Talk about a great gene pool. Wow!  No wonder Charles could have put it all together.

Also, Samuel Galton, another Lunar Society member, Quaker and noted arms manufacturer, was the grandfather of Francis Galton, the eminent Victorian intellectual who originated statistical methods for many areas of scientific research and developed the concept of statistical correlation. Francis lived at Fair Hill, which was the site of the Priestley house and Laboratory that was burned down in the Birmingham Riots of 1791. Francis' other grandfather was Erasmus Darwin. Zingo! Another one.

So long as we are on this genealogy stuff. Mary Priestley, Joseph Priestley's wife was the daughter of John Wilkinson, the famous ironmaster of Wilkinson sword fame.
This was quite a fraternity. I'm sure that there were many more. If you know of any others, please let me know.

Commemoration of the 200th Anniversary of Joseph Priestley's Death

Joseph Priestley died on February 6, 1804 at his home in Northumberland, PA.  My wife and I, having long admired this extraordinary individual, traveled to Northumberland from Connecticut on February 5, 2004 to pay our respects to him the following day on the 200th anniversary of his death.

 He is buried in the Riverview Cemetery quite near his home there.  It was still wintertime and quite a bit of  snow was on the ground.  We visited the Priestley House, went to his graveside nearby, and went to the Priestley Memorial Chapel of the Unitarian Church in Northumberland for a special service in his honor that Sunday.  He is buried with a simple headstone with his wife, Mary, at his side. His headstone reads:
       "Return unto thy rest, O my soul, for the

Lord hath dealt bountifully with thee.
I will lay me down in peace and sleep till
I awake in the morning of the resurrection"

There were no other visitors at the House or the cemetery that weekend.  Except for the scaled down staff at the House most people who have any interest in Priestley were paying their respects to him in Leeds, England. The place of his birth. I thought that a bit odd, but no matter where it was, it was an awesome occasion. We were quite impressed with the level to which his house had been restored to its original condition.  The staff were incredibly well versed in the history and significance of the site and offered every amenity of cordiality to us.  The service at the Priestley Chapel was inspiring.  The Unitarian Minister from Philadelphia gave the sermon to a packed house which was a well rounded account of Priestley's life and the extraordinary contributions that he made to civilization.  That was the first time I have heard of Priestley referred to as "Gunpowder Joe", a reference to his explosive involvement with the political issues of the time when he was in Birmingham.

It was at Priestley House on August 31 through July 1, 1874, that a group 75 chemists made a pilgrimage to celebrate the centennial of chemistry.  This was the date chosen to mark the 100th anniversary of the date that Priestley performed the experiment that produced oxygen by heating mercuric oxide with sunlight using a "burning glass", a device made of lenses to concentrate the sun's light. The meeting in 1874 is recognized as the first National Chemistry Congress and led to the formation of the American Chemical Society.

We can highly recommend a pilgrimage to this site if you have the opportunity. It is awesome.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Joseph Priestley Bas Relief Wax Portrait by D. Weaver

The last posting of a bas relief likeness of Dr. Priestley that I am posting is one by D. Weaver of Philadelphia, PA. 13 cm by 19.5 cm. I received this one as a present from my wife, so I don't have many details about how she acquired it. Picture will be uploaded as soon as possible. 

This rather striking portrait is a white wax bust on a black background in a gilt frame with glass cover. Dr. Priestley is facing to his right as in the Wedgwood medallion. Weaver used the wax by Guiseppe Cerracchi as the basis for her medallion.  The Cerracchi portrait was produced by Wedgwood in 1779 and was a large 12 inch model.  It is similar to the wax by Hackwood in 1779.  The difference between them being the hair/wig and collar.  It seems that Hackwood's was first and Cerracchi's similar but with the removal of the "Presbyterian parson's wig".

Gilbert Stuart's Portrait of Joseph Priestley

According to the National Gallery of Art "Because he [Stuart] portrayed virtually all the notable men and women of the Federal period in the United States, Gilbert Stuart was declared the 'Father of American Portraiture' by his contemporaries." His most famous work is his unfinished portrait of George Washington. It is noted that Stuart, like Priestley, was a fellow Unitarian.

For this post I am going to quote from the section of Scientific Correspondence of Joseph Priestley that I referred to in my last post about Gilbert Stuart (pp. 177ff):


The distinguished American artist, Gilbert Stuart, born at Narragansett, Rhode Island, in 1756, and died in 1828, executed a portrait of Dr. Priestley at the request of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia; this must have been between the years of 1794 and 1800.  The contract price of fifty guineas was paid to Stuart, who, however, delayed finishing the work, especially the drapery, and took it with him to Boston.  There it was accidentally seen by Mr. Barclay, of Wavetree, near Liverpool, a friend and admirer of Dr. Priestley, then on a visit to the United States.  Stuart, whose eccentricities are well known, sold the portrait for fifty guineas to Mr. Barclay, who took it to his home and had it finished by Artaud in 1812.  At the death of Mr. Barclay it was left to Mr. Rathbone, of Liverpool, who is said to have placed it in a public museum of the city.  We have not, however, been able to trace it.

While in Mr. Barclay's possession three full-sized copies were made; one of these was kept by Mr. Priestley, the Doctor's son, and is now preserved by his grandchildren in Northumberland, PA (20).  The second went to Mr. George Skey, Hackney, and was afterwards bought by Mr. Joseph Parkes, husband of a granddaughter of Dr. Priestley.  It is now in the possession of Mme. Belloc, Mr. Parkes's daugher, and hangs in a private house in Westminster (21).  The third went (we are informed) to Miss Mansell, of Birmingham, and was left by her to Cambridge University (22).  Mrs. Wainewright, granddaughter of Dr. Priestley, informed me the three copies were made by Artaud.

Beside these, small copies were made, one of which is now in possession of the widow of Dr. James Russell, of Birmingham (23).  Another is owned by Mme. Beloc (24); another fell to Mrs. Bowen, a granddaughter of Dr. Priestley, and was taken by her to Australia (25).  Still another of these is in possession of Mrs. Wainewright, of London (26).

Joseph Priestley Engraving by W. Holl

The next image of Priestley that I have in my collection is an engraving by W. Holl. This is one of my favorites. It hangs, framed, in a very prominent place in my office.

It is 13.2 cm by 10.6 cm. This is a steel engraving attributed to a picture by Gilbert Stewart [sic.] in the possession of J. B. Barclay, Esq. of Liverpool. Under the Superintendence of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. London. Published by Charles Knight, Ludgate Street & Pall Mall, East. 1833.

I should mention that a very complete list of the likenesses of Priestley from before 1891 can be found in an Appendix to Scientific Correspondence of Joseph Priestley, edited with copious biographical, bibliographical, and explanatory notes by Henry Carrington Bolton, Privately Printed, New York, 1892.  I am fortunate to have the not so rare Kraus Reprint of 1969 of the rare 1892 first edition. 

In any case, this engraving is identified as (29) on page 179 of that list.  The history of the Gilbert Stuart painting is very interesting in its own right. That will be for another post. I might also annotate here the Bolton number of the other likenesses I have already posted where they exist. I have modified the Bolton nomenclature to account for subsequent likenesses appearing after 1892: Wedgwood medallion (49) as first issued in about 1769, sculpted by Flaxmann (I refer to mine as (49.1) since it is a later edition of the same mold). Please note that there were two different sizes of (49). The one I have is the smaller one. The Halliday medallions are listed as (86) and make no distinction between the bronze and block-tin varieties. I see no mention of the P Bemi medallion.  There were many likenesses of the Wedgwood medallion made. There is no question in my mind that the Bemi medallion is a copy of the Wedgwood medallion. I will reserve assigning a Bolton number to this medallion at this time. It might be time to reconsider the whole numbering system.

Wedgwood Jasperware Plaque of Joseph Priestley

So long as I am blogging about all these likenesses of Joseph Priestley that I have collected over the years, I am adding, yet, another. This one is the plaque done in Jasperware by Josiah Wedgwood.  I will dig out some others that I have and post them as they become available when time permits.

This plaque is 10.8 cm by 8.7 cm. The portrait on the obverse side is of Joseph Priestley in profile of his right side.  The bas-relief image is in white with a Jasperware blue background.  The reverse side has the following information printed on it in gold lettering:
Dr. Joseph Priestley
Member of the Lunar Society
Discoverer o Oxygen
Friend of Josiah Wedgwood
This plaque was struck from the 
original model produced by
Josiah Wedgwood in 1779

Also, impressed into the plaque on the reverse side is the following:


Priestley and Wedgwood were both members of the Lunar Society in Birmingham between 1780 and 1791.  Priestley left Birmingham in 1791 after the Birmingham Riots where a mob burned his house and laboratory as well as his church to the ground. Among the various "sins" that this dissenting minister committed to cause these lawless acts were his outspoken support of both the American and French Revolutions.  This was a very unpopular position to take in England at the time.  Ultimately Priestley and his family emigrated to the United States, arriving in New York in 1794.

Terracotta Plaque of Joseph Priestley by P. Bemi

I was looking for the Thomas Halliday medal of Priestley that I had blogged about earlier, when I came across this plaque which is located at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It is 11.1 cm long and 8.8 cm wide. It was engraved by P. Bemi for Josiah Wedgwood sometime between 1780 and 1790. I purchased one like this a few years ago. Mine is made of terracotta. I would suspect that if it was produced by Wedgwood it would be some ceramic material like this.  

The coloration of mine is just as seen in this picture. Curiously, the attribution at the Museum says that it is made of metal of probable French origin. I have my doubts about that. The reverse side is marked identically in both with the names "Dr. Priestley" and "P Bemi".

Friday, July 24, 2009

Joseph Priestley Medal 1804 by Thomas Halliday

I have been looking a little closer at a Joseph Priestley medallion that I purchased some time ago. I had initially thought that it was the 1804 Death Medal by Thomas Halliday, BHM 563 shown above. The attribution for this medal is a size of 51mm and a composition of white metal. BHM 563 is inscribed with the name HALLIDAY on the obverse side on the lower edge of the bas relief bust. Now, after careful inspection my medal is quite different. It is 52mm diameter and is apparently made of bronze.

Furthermore, the actual portrait of Priestley is slightly different, primarily in the shoulder area and other parts of the bust below the face. The inscription reads "HALLIDAY F". There is no question that the medal I have is not the BHM 563 Halliday medal. I have posted below a picture of my medal.

I have now found my medal listed on the British National Portrait Gallery. It is listed as NPG 175b. According to the NPG this medal is also by Thomas Halliday and also referred to as the Halliday 1804 Death Medal and is 51mm in diameter and is made of bronze and has the same shoulder detail as my medal with the HALLIDAY F inscription.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Possible House key for Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland PA

BELOW: Box Lock and Key surviving from Fair Hill, home of Joseph Priestley 1780-1791. The house was destroyed during the Birmingham Riots of 1791. Now located at Priestley House, Northumberland, PA.

BELOW: Box Lock Key from Priestley House, Northumberland, PA presumed to be Joseph Priestley's key to his home (Priestley House)
(photo supplied by Andra Bashore, Historic Site Administrator, Priestley House, Northumberland, PA)

BELOW: Photos of a key I recently acquired.
A Skeleton key allegedly from Priestley House, Northumberland PA

I have found a piece of potential Priestley memorabilia and would like to discuss the likelihood of its authenticity with anyone who might be able to help me.

I recently purchased a skeleton key from a woman in Lewisbury, PA who says she purchased it from an estate sale in Dillsburg, PA.  Both of these locations are close enough to the Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland, PA to make me think there may be some truth to the story.  The very old paper tag wrapped around the key says that the key was the house key to the home of Joseph Priestley built in 1795-97 in Northumberland. The ink on the tag looks like from an old fashioned quill ink pen. The key itself appears to be made of solid brass and is quite heavy, measuring 6 1/2 inches in length and weighing about 8oz.  I have poked around a little and found that the lock and key for his former home in Birmingham is located at Priestley House in Northumberland (see photo above). From the picture of those items it is clear that the key I have doesn't appear to be the same as that one, and it shouldn't be.

Does anyone know if the original key or lock for the Priestley House in Northumberland still extant? Do you know anything that would be able to assist me in my determining if this is, in fact, the real original period key to the Priestley House? I have already gotten a response to an inquiry to the Priestley House.  They have supplied one of the photos above labelled "Box Lock Key from Priestley House Northumberland, PA"  

Any additional information will be appreciated.

Getting Started

This is the start of my blog. I have thought for years that I would like to put down somewhere some of the things that I have researched and had an interest in over the years.  

This is an excellent time to do this since everything was packed up for the big move out West from Connecticut.  Now it is time to unpack all these trinkets and tell the story that each one deserves.

I'm sure that the blog will grow as I start getting into it.  For right now I want to start documenting a few areas that have captivated my interest for the longest period of time.
Let me list some of the themes here.

Antique computing devices, particularly devices before the electronic age.  This includes devices from about the time of the Antikythera Mechanism, c. 87 B.C. up to and including the death of the slide rule in the early 1970's.  I do not include in this list electronic or electro-mechanical devices that started appearing before the mid 20th century, and definitely do not include what we would call modern electronic computers.

Slide rules, in particular, have been of intense interest to me. I never did use one as a student. I was just young enough to have used computers almost from the first day I went to college (1962).

The Industrial Revolution, in general. More particularly in the Birmingham, England area during the second half of the 18th century.

The Lunar Society of Birmingham, a group of distinguished thinkers, including, Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, and Samuel Galton to mention a few. Benjamin Franklin visited the group on a number of occasions.

Joseph Priestley, the 18th century scientist (natural philosopher), theologian, political activist, educator and all around great guy born in Leeds, England in 1733.

Most commonly known as the scientist who first isolated what we now call oxygen, Priestley actually isolated nine gases, including: nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and carbon monoxide. He also developed the first artificial method of impregnating water to make soda water by infusing carbon dioxide into water and discovered the interesting relationship between plants and animals wherein each supplies essential gases to the other to survive. Priestley wrote the definitive History of Electricity, which was considered the standard text on the subject for about 100 years.

As a theologian he was a dissenting minister in England and played an important role in bringing Unitarianism to the United States.  He was a scholar, having published numerous books on Christianity.  While he believed that Jesus was a great prophet, he did not believe that he was the son of God.  He wrote a seminal volume on the "Corruptions of Christianity".

Priestley was an educator and wrote many books on various subjects including grammar, history, etc.  He developed pedagogical tools that are still used today.

As a political activist he was an abolitionist, an early supporter of the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and critical of the British discrimination against dissenters like himself.  He was friends with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and communicated frequently with them.  He met with, and was consulted on, by many other of the founding fathers of the United States. Some have said that he was the "high priest" of our founding fathers and have credited him with providing Jefferson with the views on liberty and freedom that Jefferson expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

In 1791 his house and laboratory were razed by rioters during the Birmingham Riots, primarily for his support of the American and French Revolutions.  He fled to London and eventually France, where he was made an honorary French citizen.  In 1794 he emigrated to the United States and built a home in Northumberland PA from 1795 to 1797. In his era, Priestley was recognized as one of the greatest scientific figures of the world - up there with the likes of Isaac Newton. He received practically every major scientific honor that could have been bestowed upon an individual at that time. He died in Northumberland PA in 1804.  Yet, today, his name is hardly known, but to the few who have stumbled upon him or from a fleeting mention in a high school textbook as the discoverer of oxygen.