Sunday, December 30, 2012

The World's Most Accurate SlideRule -- Eximius Diu 6

Image Copyright David Hoyer
Reproduced with Permission

We are fortunate to live in a post retro slide rule era where creative minds can ponder how to construct a better slide rule (sort of like a better mouse trap, I suppose).  The new leader at the end of 2012 in this obscure endeavor is Dave Hoyer of Encore Consulting down under in Sydney, Australia.
The Eximius Diu 6 "spiral diameter is 750 mm (29.5"), with 135 spiral turns giving a scale length of 175 m (574 ft).   Due to the nature of spiral slide rule scales, this is equivalent to a linear slide rule of length 318 m (1043 ft)."  This allows the computation of results that are accurate to 6 decimal places.

Robert E Schofield, Joseph Priestley Scholar Died One year Ago Today

Robert E. Schofield   (June 1, 1923 - December 30, 2011) 
We shall miss Bob and the contributions he has made to the history of science and the fuller understanding of one of the greatest persons of the Enlightenment.

Robert E. Schofield of Montgomery Township, NJ, died one year ago today,  December 30, 2011.  Bob was born on June 1, 1923 in Milford, NE, and went on to live in Denver CO as a youth.  He attended Princeton University on a university scholarship and graduated with an A.B. in Physics in 1944. Immediately upon graduating he was drafted into the Army and entered the 9812 T.S.U. of the U.S. Army, Manhattan District Engineers. He served on inactive duty until 1945, was placed on active duty as a T/S in Oak Ridge TN, as a research assistant on the atomic bomb project, before his honorable discharge in 1946.
Bob returned to school to continue his graduate school in physics and was a teaching assistant at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis from 1946 until he was granted his M.S. in Physics in 1948. From there he worked as a research Associate at Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory (a General Electric Company) in Schenectady, NY from 1948 to 1951. He was a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the History of Science and Learning Department at Harvard University from 1951 until earning a Ph.D. in the History of Science in 1955. Concurrently, he was a Fulbright Fellow at University College, London from 1953 to 1954.
Over the next almost 40 years, Robert continued his teaching in many schools. He was a Department of History Assistant Professor and Associate Professor at University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS (1955-1959), Guggenheim Fellow (1959-1960), Associate Professor, History of Science, Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, OH (1960-1964), Professor and Lynn Thorndike Professor, History of Science, Case Western Reserve University (1964-1972), Guggenheim Fellow (1967-1968), member of the Institute for Advanced Study, School of Historical Studies (1967-1968 and 1974-1975), Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, History of Technology and Science, Department of History, Iowa State University (1979 to 1993) and was Professor Emeritus from 1993 on.
One of his proudest accomplishments was in his teaching of undergraduate and graduate students. With Dr. Melvin Kranzberg, he created the History of Science and Technology Program for graduate and undergraduate studies at Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University) in 1961. And, in 1980, with Dr. Richard Lowitt, he created the graduate Ph. D. program in History (Technology and Science and Agriculture) at Iowa State University. During his career as a graduate teacher, he was senior director for at least 12 students who obtained their doctorates in the History of Science and/or Technology, most of whom have continued as publishing and teaching scholars.
Mr. Schofield was a founder of the Midwest Junto for the History of Science (along with Duane H.D. Roller and Robert Siegfried), member of the History of Science Society, Society for the History of Technology, American Society for 18th Century Studies, Academie Internationale d’Historie des Sciences (corresponding), British Society for the History of Science and a Fellow at both the Royal Society of Arts and the American Physical Society.
While at the University of Kansas (1955-1959), Bob along with Dr. Robert Johannsen, started the History Department faculty colloquium, the “Hatchet Club” and with Richard Lowitt’s help started the Iowa State University History Department faculty colloquium, the “Vigilates”.
Author of some 35 papers in history journals such as Isis, Annals of Science, Chymia, Technology and Culture and the Journal of the History of Ideas, he also wrote articles and chapters in books, was author of the biography of Joseph Priestley for the New Dictionary of National Biography (England) and was editor of two books. Robert also wrote The Lunar Society of Birmingham in 1963 for which he won the Pfizer Prize for a History of Science Society book, Mechanism and Materialism (1970), Stephen Hales: Scientist and Philanthropist (with D.G.C. Allan), Man and the Frame of Nature (1989), The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley 1733-1773 (1997) and The Enlightened Joseph Priestley 1774-1804 (2004), for which he won the Roy G. Neville Prize from the Chemical Heritage Foundation in 2006.
Mr. Schofield also has his nearly complete list of publications in the Schofield Festschrift: Beyond History of Science: Essays in Honor of Robert E. Schofield by Elizabeth Garber, editor (Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 1990, pp. 311-312). He is listed in Who’s Who and Who’s Who in America.
Robert Schofield was predeceased by his wife, Mary Peale Smith whom he married June 20, 1959 and had previously obtained her B.A. from Smith College in 1945 and M.A. from Columbia University in 1956 and his parents Charles E. and Nora May Fullerton Schofield. Surviving are his son Charles Stockton Peale Schofield, Johns Hopkins University and a sister Maxey W. Garrett, Austin TX.

The preceding information was summarized from an Obituary at the Kimble Funeral Home in Princeton, NJ at the time of Bob's death.

Human Achievement: Technology

I just read a blog called The Fjordman Report.  The specific post was entitled Human Achievement: Technology... which seems to be somewhat interesting.  It does seem a little disjointed.  I think it is part of a review of a book by Charles Murray entitled Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950.   However, he does not explicitly state that it is a review of this book in his post. Murray's book was published around 2002, if I recall correctly. It is really hard to tell just jumping in to this one post.  After surfing a while I see that there are many other posts relative to parts of this topic. I have not found the first post yet. I will straighten all this out when I figure it out.

One of the most notable omissions, to me, was his not mentioning Joseph Priestley. He dances around him, but never mentions him by name. He covers at least one member of the Lunar Society, but fails to mention most of the more famous members, He covers many famous chemists of the period, but not Priestley. He deals with early developments in electricity, but again skips over the person who wrote the most substantial book on the subject that stood the test of time for about 150 years.  He does not cover the issue of the gas cycle that exists between animals and plants, nor the issue of the discovery of photosynthesis.

I have been looking at a number of his other posts and I must say that he has a rather unusual slant on things. He also seems to be all over the board, including a heavy dose on Islamic subjects, or should I say anti-Islamic subjects. Upon some further reading, it appears that this Fjordsman is living somewhere in exile from his native Norway after being persecuted for his outspoken Islamophobic views against multiculturism.  I will have to spend more time reading this fellow and expand this post.

I also notice a post on a few mathematical items, including the history of the "Arabic Numerals" and Zero.

Let me know what you think about his writings.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Steampunk Slide Rules and Other Retro Computing Devices

I never thought I would see the day when the instructional slide rule from the mid twentieth century would become a pop culture icon.  I just found this item for sale on the Internet.  Someone thought it was worth the price and actually bought it for $1195 plus shipping.

Overall Dimensions
29" H X 15" W X 84" D
73.7cm H X 38.1cm W X 213.4cm D
Rare, large mid-century Pickett brand slide rule that was given to teacher's as a bonus with their student slide rule orders. It would hang at the front of the room and be used for classroom demonstation. The 7-foot long classic yellow slide rule is now suspended into custom-made stainless table base. The slide rule is completely functional, iincluding movable cursor and center slide. Secondary shelf area beneath could hold glass and/or add glass to top if you choose. This is a unique mathmatical classroom artifact with sophisticated, contemporary design. Use as sofa, hallway, office or entry table.

I own three instructional slide rules: two K&E slide rules (the Deci-Lon 68 1100 and the Polyphase 4053) and the Pickett 1010 ES.  I knew there was a reason that I bought those. Where is my sawhorse?

While on the subject of retro steampunk slide rules, I did see an Otis King cylindrical slide rule that was mounted onto a cane.  This was at an antique show many years ago in upstate New York. It popped up again at the 2003 East Coast Oughtred Society Meeting.  The only reference to it that I could find with a picture was here.  I have now found another one that went up for auction on August 9, 2008, in Johnson City, TN. It sold for $750 plus the buyer's premium of 20% plus tax. So, $900 would be a fair price to say that it sold for.  I have an image of that one here below.

I have a birch limb that I've always wanted to convert to an Otis King cane, but I can't quite bring myself to destroy a perfectly good Otis King slide rule to make one. I have tried to find a non-functional  one to buy for that purpose.

I also have seen a Norden bombsight that was converted to a coffee table.  The metal shield was removed on the top and replaced with glass. Cool! I wish I had a picture to show you.

If anyone has seen any other retro type computing device that has been converted to a useful modern item (or even not so useful item) I would like to know.  Please leave a comment or contact me and send an image. I'm sure that some of the other readers of this blog would like to see it.

Addendum 3/3/13
I found another one -- A clock with a slide rule pendulum
Here it is:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Books and Other Ephemera by Joseph Priestley

I realize that I have been working my way around something that might be of real interest to readers of this blog.  Since I started learning about Joseph Priestley about 40 years ago, I have acquired quite a few of his books and other ephemera and paraphernalia. I have always had a fascination with his original works. While I oftentimes get very recent versions of his writings to read, I have been lucky enough to amass quite a collection of his original first and second editions from the latter part of the 18th century and very early 19th century.  In addition, I have noted in this blog, the "Rushing Water" bookplate that I acquired that came from one of his very own books, a house key that was most likely the front door key to his house in Northumberland, PA, and a number of hand written letters and manuscripts.

I have also collected, as noted elsewhere in this blog, likenesses of Priestley in the form of medallions and exonumia or memorial coins, some from 1804 when he died.

I must confess that it will most likely be impossible for me to bring together a substantial collection of his works since he was so prolific in his writings.  He is credited with having written about 150 books.
See Crook, R.E., A Bibliography of Joseph Priestley (1733 - 1804), Library Association, 1966.  Additionally, any decent copy of his major works can sell for thousands of dollars.  Even his religious works go for substantial sums, though not as much as his scientific works.  I have often thought of inventorying the collection I have, annotating the editions and condition, etc. I will start assembling that information on this post below.

I might also add that should anyone want to part with one of his works, or for that matter any other ephemera of his, I would be honored to purchase it, if it is a reasonable price. Just email me and we can see if we can come to terms.

I must add to this post with more specifics as to what I do have for anyone who might be interested.
Stay tuned. Comments appreciated here.

Letters to a Young Man, Part II, Occasioned by Mr. Evanson's Treatise on the Dissonance of the Four Generally Received Evangelists  Joseph Priestley, London, 1793 Joseph Priestly Printed for J Johnson , No . 72 St Paul's Churchyard 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Thomas Armstrong & Brothers, Scientific Instrument Makers

During the second half of the 19th Century Thomas Armstrong (1829?-1890?) was a noted maker of scientific instruments with principal operations in Manchester, England.  Having been trained as an optician, his initial interest was in providing optical devices to a variety of clientele.  However, he rapidly expanded the firm into producing instruments in many new scientific areas.

Joseph Armstrong, Thomas' father, had started the family business as a jeweler and silversmith. Thomas, being the eldest son, joined his father's firm and started incorporating his field of expertise into the firm's product offerings.   After his father's death Thomas took his brother George into the business as his partner and went by the name Thomas Armstrong & Brother in 1868. At some point after that the two Armstrong brothers also made their other brother, Alfred, a partner and the firm was renamed once again to be Thomas Armstrong & Brothers.  By this time they were providing compressed gases, meteorological equipment and other optical equipment to a wide variety of clients.  In 1891, based upon the success of the firm and the quality of the products that they were producing,  they were awarded substantial contracts with the military, and many other government agencies in addition to their other clientele.  Frank Armstrong, Thomas' son, joined the firm in the 1890s.  The firm continued to grow and provided a substantial variety of devices used in World War I.  For a more complete biography of the family of Armstrong scientific instrument makers refer to an article on Thomas Armstrong at the  Manchester Museum of Science and Industry.

I had acquired a pocket aneroid barometer labeled Thos. Armstrong & Bro. a number of years ago and found it to be quite well made and still functioning well.  For those of you who are not versed in the variety of barometer technology there are a number of ways to measure barometric pressure.  

Early barometers were constructed using a column of mercury of about one meter in length.  Furthermore, for these barometers they were required to be kept level. This was difficult to accomplish at sea. 

Subsequently, the French developed the aneroid barometer.  An aneroid barometer which was a thin long metal tube (usually coiled in order to take up less space), closed at one end and with a membrane on the other end. With a vacuum inside the tube and a clockwork gearing mechanism to measure minute movements of the membrane the device could detect very small changes in the atmospheric pressure.  Furthermore, this device was not required to be level in order to give an accurate reading. There are quite a variety of aneroid barometers that have been made. Needless to say, the smaller the tube, the more precise the clockwork gearing mechanism must be to measure the movement of the membrane accurately.  A small accurate pocket barometer is a device to admire.

Finally, the bargraph was developed. The heart of this mechanism was a belows mechanism that was connected to a levered arm with a pen on its other end. It was constructed such that a small movement of the bellows, which resulted from a change in barometric pressure, would result in a larger movement in the pen at the end of the arm through the mechanical advantage of placement of the fulcrum on the levered arm.  Additionally, the bargraph was fitted with a rotating drum covered with graph paper such that the barometric pressure was recorded.

Barometers are used for a variety of purposes. Principally, a stationary barometer will indicate important information for weather prediction.  A portable barometer can be used to measure altitude.  I will discuss each of the barometer types in a later post.

Subsequent to acquiring the Armstrong pocket barometer, I was fortunate to acquire other types of barometers including a number of mercury banjo barometers, a bargraph and a number of other aneroid barometers.  Restored mercury barometers are expensive. Having acquired an unrestored mercury barometers, I have now restored two of my banjo barometers and I am working on the third one.  

Other Armstrong instruments I have acquired include:
A Syke's hydrometer which includes the standard ball and weights, thermometer, and slide rule.  These were used by guagers to measure the alcoholic content of spirits in order to collect the excise tax for the government.  This is again a story for another post.

An automobile clock.

A wall clock




Travelling silverware set

I will post some images of these items as I get around to it.


Joseph Tykociner

Photo Credit: University of Illinois Archives
I first met Joseph Tykociner when I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois. I had enrolled in his seminar course on Zetetics in 1967, which was shortly before his death in 1969 when he was well into his 90s.  He was a frail old man, but he was fascinating, both in terms of his own personal background, and in the contents of the seminar course.

Of course, you should know that he is generally credited as being the first person to successfully put a sound track on film.  He had also been responsible for early work with Marconi in the first transatlantic wireless radio wave communications in 1901, and successfully worked for the Russian Navy on the establishment of wireless communications for their fleet in 1904.  I remember the day we were invited to his house and he showed us the medal he received from the Czar of Russia for his achievements.

Can you imagine this, here we stand in 2012 and I am talking about conversations with a person who was doing pioneering work at the end of the 19th century.

As I got to know him better, my admiration of his achievements grew immensely.  I think the best way to communicate my experiences with him is to first cover his lifelong accomplishments, and then the content of the seminar I participated in, before continuing on to his contributions to humankind.

I'm gong to deal with this post differently than other posts. I am going to just post this part out now and then modify it as I collect my thoughts on the rest of the post.  If you want to add something about him (information about him, while available, is not the most detailed) just send an email or comment on it below and I will incorporate it, if appropriate.

I found a good biography on him in an article in Gazeta: Newsletter of the American Association of Polish-Jewish Studies, 2006 vol. 13, no. 3.

I have a copy of his book Outline of Zetetics somewhere around here. I will dig that out also. It has been more than a few years since I have looked in there. I notice that while Amazon still lists the book, they say that it is out of print and they do not have any copies for sale. Yet, when I did a search on , Amazon has one used copy at $150. I guess I was right that the book is a treasure.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Using the Internet as an Investigative Tool to Solve Crimes

I just read an article on about an amazing piece of investigative work performed on the internet to find some art thieves.  The interesting piece in the article is right down near the very end.

To summarize the brilliant idea, Jefferey Gundlach, who seems to be this very rich financial genius, had a very extensive art collection at his home in Santa Monica.  In September of this year, thieves robbed more than $10 Million in artwork as well as his Porsche, wine, and watches.  As part of the artwork haul the thieves walked off with two works by his grandmother, who was an amateur painter.

The local police and the FBI were both brought in to investigate the crime.  A substantial reward was offered for the return of the stolen items.  Gundlach also gave the investigators a tip for solving the crime. He said that thieves would most likely do a Google search using his grandmother's name to find out more about the artist and the value of the stolen paintings.  He suggested they check the Internet to see if anyone had googled the name.  As it turned out there were exactly two such searches -- one by him and one by the thieves.  The thieves were arrested and all the artwork was recovered.

This story shows true brilliance by Gundlach. My hat is off to him on the idea to look for the thieves in this way.

All this elation should be tempered with the most obvious implications of what happened here.
Obviously, Google provided the information to the authorities. I am assuming they had a search warrant of some sort to get access to the information. It raises the alarm that anything you may do on the internet may be dissected by the government (or for that matter, even by corporate entities) for all sorts of reasons having nothing to do with crime.  Sort of like Big Brother watching over your thoughts, don't you think?  I read the other day that Facebook is now going to be selling personal information that they have collected.  I suspect that we have not seen what the future holds for us in this arena yet. [Note: interestingly, I received an email today that was clearly initiated by the sale of information on my Facebook page to a commercial entity.]

This is a very touchy issue. Appropriate limits must be placed on the use of this kind of powerful "reverse search" capability. I also recall that after the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings for his nomination to the Supreme Court that limits were placed on access to information on what books or VHS tapes (or DVDs) anyone can access at a library or "video store".  The issue seems to have been a factor in the Netflix decision to break up their mail order business from their video streaming business as the laws are quite different on what they could do with this information in each case depending on whether it was information on a DVD rental or a downstream.

As a result of the terrorist attacks of 9-11 we had enactment of legislation in the "Patriot Act" on the ability of law enforcement to access this kind of information without a warrant.  Still, there should be very clear limits and controls. Don't you think?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Anthropology 101

Louis Leakey
I remember well the first day of my Anthropology 101 course at the University of Illinois. I believe it was 1965. Of course, I had no idea who the lecturer for the course was going to be. All I knew at the time was that I was required to take a certain number of courses in the social sciences to get my B.S. in Mathematics. I picked this course because I thought it might be interesting. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.
At the beginning of the first lecture there were these two professorial types at the front of the jam-packed lecture hall. It was one of those rooms where each row is at a higher elevation than the row in front of it. The first fellow to speak, I think, was the head of the Anthropology department. He introduced the other fellow, who, it turns out would be the instructor for the course: Louis Leakey. Mr. Leakey had just arrived on the campus from Kenya where he had been, for the previous 40 years, conducting digs looking for our prehistoric human ancestors. He was, of course, responsible for finding "Lucy", the earliest know bipedal primate known to exist, the Australopithecus.
Of course, when we got to the subject of human archeology he spoke with some authority.  It was his work at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, often called the "cradle of mankind" that had created the most astounding specimens to date in the field.
I really wanted to become an archeologist after being inspired by him.  My major concern was the isolation of being in such remote locations for such long periods of time that ultimately made me look toward more down to earth scientific disciplines.  I think his enthusiasm for his life's work was the real key to understanding him.  He loved, so much the work he did.

Heinz Von Foerster (1911-2002)

Heinz von Foerster was a visionary scholar, academician, one of my mentors, and a dear friend.

I first met him while I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois in the 1960s.  At that time he was a Professor of Electrical Engineering, head of the Biological Computer Laboratory, and a member of the Coordinated Science Laboratory associated with research in the Artificial Intelligence where I had a research position. I published one paper with him.  When I met him my first impression was that he was the best incarnation I had ever seen of the proverbial “mad scientist” who was hell bent on creating something that would destroy the earth. His accent, complexion, facial expressions, and hairline (if that is what you want to call a bald head) seemed to look just like those images I associated with an old Frankenstein movie. The only thing he was missing was the white lab coat.  This first image of him could not have been further from reality.  In truth, yes, he was a scientist, and, yes, he did want to create ideas that would change humanity, and, yes, even a few people might say that he was so intense that you might be inclined to think that he was “mad”, but few would argue that he wanted to destroy anything, except, ignorance.

I eventually was his student in a graduate seminar course, I worked with him in the research lab.  I published one paper with him. And, most importantly, he honored me by agreeing to be on my dissertation committee.  As we got to know each other, we became friends and I was brought into the circle of intellectual thinking that surrounded him. I was introduced to his colleagues, including Humberto Maturana, and John Lilly, to mention a few. Heinz was very outgoing, was a showman with quite a flair for speaking and was a magnet for attracting controversy.

In 1960 he and two of his associates wrote an article (von Forester, Heinz, Patricia M. Mora, and Lawrence W. Amiot. "'Projections' versus 'Forecasts' in Human Population Studies." Science, Volume 136, Number 3511, April 13, 1962)  wherein they proposed a formula for a best fit to historical data on world human population which indicated that the human population of the Earth would become infinite on Friday, November 13, 2026. The so called “Doomsday Equation” was asymptotic to this date. Critics pointed out that the human population was finite and that, given the 9 month gestation period for humans, it was, therefore, impossible to become infinite by any date.

While the article was intended at one level to be tongue and cheek, having, for example, selected Heinz’s own birth date as the “Doomsday”, the paper generated a storm of protest both in the scientific and in the lay press. He received much notoriety for the article, including New York Times and Time magazine articles and three now famous Pogo comic strips.

I remember well, sitting in his office and looking at the original signed Pogo comic strip hanging on the wall behind his desk.  Those who knew von Foerster could see at his very core his unique and profound sense of humor.

Heinz, like my grandfather, was from what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, though Heinz was from Vienna.  He studied physics at the Technical University of Vienna.  Subsequently he received a Ph.D. in physics in 1944 at the University of Breslau.  After the War he took a position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1949) in the department of Electrical Engineering.  In 1958 he affiliated himself with the department of Biophysics and founded the Biological Computer Laboratory in 1962.  In the latter ‘60s he affiliated himself with Robert Chien at the Coordinated Science Laboratory.   For a short account of his life see his New York Times Obituary.

He is best known as a fairly substantial Information Theorist, having participated in the Cybernetics phenomenon. This was actually no surprise, since he came from a very intellectually famous family.  The famous Mathematician/Logician Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of his relatives.  He was a Guggenheim Fellow twice and President of the the Wenner-Gren Foundation for anthropological research. He was the editor of the Macy Conference volumes entitled Cybernetics (1949-53).  He knew John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, and Margaret Mead, just to mention a few of the people he collaborated with.. He is well known for what is now referred to as the von Foerster Equation.

After retirement from the University of Illinois in 1976 he moved to California and i next met up with him when he was on the Board of Directors of Atari Corp. He had built a home for himself and his wife in Pescadero CA and had converted the basement into his office.

I am glad to see that he has been honored appropriately both during the latter part of his life and certainly after his long distinguished career.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Stuart's Portrait of Priestley at Bowood in North Wiltshire

While in North Wiltshire this last Summer we went to Bowood House. Bowood house is the country estate of the Marquis and Marquess of Lansdowne. It was at Bowood house in 1774 that Joseph Priestley isolated the substance that we now call Oxygen. While there is some controversy as to whom was the first to "discover" oxygen, Priestley has been recognized as a true giant during the British Enlightenment Period.

The portrait on the left here sits over the mantle in the room where Priestley actually performed the experiment.  The portrait was painted by Gilbert Stuart, the famous American painter.  It was after Priestley immigrated to the United States in 1794 that he actually sat for the Stuart portrait.

Gilbert Stuart, a famous American portrait painter painted portraits of many of the American Founding Fathers, including the famous portrait of George Washington that hangs in the White House. Please look at my earlier post on the Stuart portrait of Priestley at the National Gallery.

Priestley was employed by the Second Earl of Lansdowne to tutor his son and as his companion. It was in 1782 that the Earl was made Prime Minister of England and given the title of Marquis.  While Priestley was known for his radical activist views, including calling for the independence of the British colonies in America, it was ironic that it was the Marquis who signed the Peace Treaty with the fledgeling United States to end the war of Independence on behalf of the British.

Bowood is also know for another famous scientific discovery by Dr. Jan Ingen Housz, who in the 1790's discovered photosynthesis there. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Silvio Bedini

A friend and fellow Ridgefielder, Silvio Bedini, died at age 90 on November 14, 2007.
Silvio was a very interesting man, indeed.  I could not have summed up Silvio's life more eloquantly as did Robert Post in his article in Technology & Culture (April, 2008):   In memoriam: Silvio A. Bedini, 1917-2007.  I will mention some the highlights from that article here. 

Silvio was born in Ridgefield, CT and lived there until he entered Columbia University in 1935.  He left Columbia University to enlist in the Army and was eventually assigned to top secret military intelligence in Fairfax, VA and ended up in 1945 as chief MIS-X liason with the Pentagon.  Silvio's Army career came to an end with the end of WWII.  He then returned to Ridgefield and joined his father's contracting business doing landscaping. He had expected to return to Columbia, but his father's failing health precluded this.

 While working for the family company he would study history in the evening and began to write articles... He wrote for encyclopedias and for what were called 'true science' comics, which, like 'classic comics,' were designed to spice up elementary school curricula.
He got interested in antiquarian clocks and books and made the acquantance of Derek de solla Price at Yale and Bern Dibner at Burndy Corp.

For his first book in 1958 he wrote Ridgefield in Review, a history of his home town, for the 250th aniversary celebration.

Thereafter, he was invited to join the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of History and Technology and Mel Kranzberg's Society for the History of Technology. These were the two most critical events central to establishing the history of technology as a scholarly discipline.

There were so many connections that Silvio and I shared. We were both Ridgefielders, although I must admit he was there way before me since I arrived in 1975 and he in 1917. We both had professional acquaintences in common: Derek De Sola Price at Yale, Bern Dibner at the Burndy Library in Norwalk, then there was the Columbia connection, the cryptography connection, the gardening, and, of course, the antique scientific instruments.  

He had come up to Ridgefield in 2007 for a visit with freinds and family, and, unfortunately, we missed each other on that trip.  Then, we were scheduled to have lunch together shortly before he died, but that got cancelled due to his ill health, and then he was gone. Gale, his wife, died shortly thereafter.  Silvio and Gale were buried in St. Mary's Cemetary, Ridgefield on May 31, 2008.  The world lost a real gem in his passing.

Joseph Priestley in Calne by Norman Beale

Hobnob Press (UK), 2008, 90pp.
I finally read through this paperback book (it is a relatively short book that is a quick read) just before we went to Bowood House just outside of Calne in North Wiltshire.  The book was undertaken by Norman Beale, who is a local retired doctor who took a fancy to study the history of the famous Priestley in the years he was in service to the Marquis of Lansdowne who resided at Bowood House.

Mr. Beale has clearly not written a biography for the general public's consumption before. Perhaps this is why he has self published this work. While I discovered many interesting details about the life of this famous enlightenment hero that I had not known before, I found the style a little wanting.  I particularly was put off by his tendency to nit pick little points where his interpretation of some detail was ever so slightly different from what others had concluded, many times without any real basis for all the hubbub. I suppose he could have just stated his interpretation without going into the distinction to what was previously recorded by others.

While the book does concentrate on the years when he was in Calne, it does cover the time both before and after he was located there, but in a more abbreviated form.  I am glad that Mr. Beale has both taken the time to research and write the book, but, also, that he has clearly invested his own funds to assure that the book was made available to a wide audience. The final product was produced very professionally.

I, for one, would have thought that a more rigorous account of the "science" would have been presented, but I am grateful for what I got.  Most great science is a lot of very tedious and menial chores.  I can recall from reading Priestley's letters in the "Scientific Correspondence of Joseph Priestley" the letters that went on and on about the most insignificant and irrelevant matters, but that is how progress in science is made.

There is far too little written and known about this superstar of the enlightenment available to the public.  If you are ever planning on going to Bowood House, I strongly recommend that you read the book beforehand.  The staff at Bowood House seems to be oblivious to the Priestley connection in spite of the fact that there is a room there where he first "discovered" or better yet "isolated" oxygen (dephlogisticated air, as he called it).  The book is available at Bowood House, but it is a little too long to read while you are there, so do your homework.  It is available on Amazon. I bought my copy on eBay.

In spite of the ignorance of the staff at Bowood House I would still strongly recommend the visit there.  The portrait of Priestley by Gilbert Stuart is the best painting I have ever seen of Priestley (even though it is a reproduction). In walking down the hallway past the laboratory and over to the library, I could feel the hairs on my neck stand up just thinking about the fact that Joseph himself had walked these very steps almost 250 years before me. That experience is very close to the experience I had holding his Rushing Water bookplate.

Oh, if I could have been a fly on the wall when he was there.  Please don't expect to find his laboratory intact.  All the laboratory equipment was sold long long ago.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Stevie Wonder Opening Act For Bill Clinton

San Francisco (Dec. 8, 2010). Bill Clinton gave the keynote speech at the's DreamForce conference this evening. Due to the inclement weather President Clinton's plane was delayed. Consequently, Stevie Wonder and Mark Benioff had about a one hour discussion on Stevie Wonder's life and inspirations for his music.

At the conclusion of the discussion Stevie Wonder introduced the President. Clinton, upon taking to the podium Clinton said "never thought that a mediocre musician like myself would have Stevie Wonder as an opening act."

Clinton then got down to more serious topics including the disparity in wealth that has become woven into the American society. He cited statistics that there is more disparity in the US now than there ever was in Latin America and other developing nations. He referred to the need for Americans to think for the future.


Stevie Wonder and President Bill Clinton

Another Historic Milestone in Human Civilization is Crossed

It was reported in the media on March 13, 2012 that the last printed edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has been printed. A milestone to be recorded along side that of the ending of the publication of the logarithmic tables in the CRC Handbook and the use of the slide rule, to mention a few of the other milestones of civilization. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has been printed continuously since it was first published in Edinburgh Scottland in 1768.

I remember, sometime in the early '70s when you could finally purchase a calculator to compute a logarithm with a device of smaller volume than the section of tables consumed within the CRC Handbook.
Other milestones that have been passed:
Dialing a rotary telephone
Using a floppy disc
Use of the typewriter or carbon paper
Photography based upon developing silver emulsion film
Elimination of ice to cool refrigerators
The elimination of the telephone book as a means of finding a residential phone number.
Elimination of the cord on a residential telephone line

Other looming milestones are:
elimination of the phone booth
the ebook replacement of the paper book
the mobil phone replacement of the residential phone line.

If you have some others you would like to add to this list please add some of your own.

Space Shuttle ENDEAVOUR Over San Francisco Skies

I watched with awe yesterday as the space shuttle Endeavour passed overhead on its final trip to its resting place in the Los Angeles area.  Here was the symbol of an era being carried on the back of a Boeing 747 on its funeral march going to its final resting place. It reminded me of the funeral procession for President Kennedy after his assassination in 1963, as his flag-draped coffin was carried on a horse-drawn caisson to the Capitol building to lie in state.  In a strange way, these two events are tied to each other as the two anchor points on an era of manned space flight: Kennedy having been the President when Glenn first made his orbit of the Earth and also putting the stake in the ground challenging the nation to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and the shuttle funeral march signaling the end.  This was one of the most memorable events I have seen in years. 

The NASA space age Odyssey of human space exploration spans my entire adult life. 

I was a high school senior when John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, entered his Mercury capsule to be hurled into space on February 20, 1962.
I was a college junior and senior when the Gemini program was launching space capsules.
I was in grad school and just married the month before Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon in July 1969.
My first son was born a few months before the Apollo 13 mission in April, 1970
Apollo 17,  the eleventh and final  mission to the moon in December, 1972, was completed shortly before I completed my doctorate and the birth of my second son. 
The Apollo Soyuz space hook up was in 1975, just as I took my position at Columbia University.
The first space shuttle mission occurred in April, 1981, just as we launched our first PC software product. The events continued on through the decades, some good, some bad:
--the space shuttle Challenger disaster which occurred in January, 1986
--the Hubble space telescope launch in April, 1990
--the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia February, 2003
are all marked by corresponding events in my life.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


One of my most prized possessions is this bookplate that belonged to Joseph Priestley and was most likely affixed by his very hands to one of his books. Very few of these bookplates exist at this time since his library at Fair Hill in Birmingham was destroyed in the riots of 1791 along with many of the books in his library.

Priestley’s ‘Rushing Water’ bookplate

The ‘Rushing Water’ bookplate was first described by Charles A. Browne in The Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, Vol. 12, No.6, June 1920, p. 611. According to Browne: The plate was engraved by Josiah Allen of Birmingham and represents a stream of water gushing through a spout from under a massive rock into a smooth glassy pool. A stone curb, overgrown with grass and flowers, surrounds the spring, on one side of which lies a cup for the convenience of the thirsty wayfarer... For simplicity and charm, the writer has seen no bookplate which surpasses this one. For a chemist who worked so much upon the composition of water, the theme…is most appropriate, while for those who have drawn inspiration from the life and works of Priestley…the symbolism of a fountainhead has an added significance.

When Priestley’s home in Birmingham was attacked by a mob in 1791, most of his books were destroyed, although some survived (see H. C. Bolton, Scientific Letters of Joseph Priestley, New York: privately printed, 1891; letter 78).

Browne found this plate in a copy of The Laboratory or School of Arts by George Smith, “a translation of a German collection of receipts for working gold and silver” (London: T. Cox, 1738), which he had acquired from a dealer in London. Browne claims that he had seen no previous mention of this particular plate and implies that Priestley used the plate in books he had prior to the 1791 riot. Andrea Bashmore, a former historic site administrator at the Joseph Priestley House, has found the ‘Rushing Water’ bookplate in The Works of Peter Pindar (Dublin: Peter Porter, 1795) in the Priestley House collection, which seems to negate the idea that the plate was used pre-1791. In fact, Priestley was already in Pennsylvania when this work was printed.  

I have found another post on the Priestley bookplates which might be of interest.
The bookplate measures 7.6 x 10.5 cm.