Writing the Disaster: Babbage and the Black Box

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

I’m teaching a course in Victorian culture this summer, and planning to open the class with a chapter from Charles Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (on “Natural Theology”). His mathematical speculations in this text seem to me perfectly representative of the anxious and industrious Victorian desire to apprehend every incident and accident of the physical world. In his chapter  “On the Permanent Impression of our Words and Actions on the Globe we Inhabit,” Babbage theorizes that an exhaustive and precise archive of past events would give us an exact vision of our future (to the extent that the latter unfolds as the accumulated consequence of the former). Continue reading “Writing the Disaster: Babbage and the Black Box”

Modern Times, Nervous Men

George Beard.  This image is in the public domain

I’m testing out some ideas about neurasthenia, my favourite nineteenth-century nervous complaint. Mark Micale and Elaine Showalter have argued quite convincingly that neurasthenia was polite metonym for male hysteria. I, however, am interested in the ways that it differs from hysteria – the particulars that made it non-feminizing. The following are some of my musings to that end. Yet again I am sucked into the American context (“really,” the lady protests, “when I’m not splashing about with humanities computing, 98% of my research is on the British, not that you can tell from this blog”): the term neurasthenia was coined by American nerve specialist, George M. Beard, and popularized by his two books Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) (1880) and American Nervousness: Its Causes and the Consequences (1881).

The central distinctions between Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) and American Nervousness arise from the books’ tone and audience. While Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) was written for the medical community, and excerpted and summarized in the periodical press, American Nervousness was, in Beard’s own words, “of a more distinctly philosophical and popular character than [Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia)] which was specially addressed to the professional and scientific reader” Continue reading “Modern Times, Nervous Men”

Scientific Boxing: Gentlemen in the Ring

James "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, heavyweight champion from 1892 to 1897.  Image is in the public domain.
"Gentleman Jim" Corbett
I’ve been working through the various models of masculinity on display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. One of the Exposition’s most popular entertainments (alongside the first Ferris wheel, Buffalo Bill’s Rough Riders, and movable sidewalks) was a daily boxing demonstration by heavyweight champion James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. Corbett used multiple venues –the ring, the stage, the press, film– in his attempt to use popular science to make the strong male body signify as genteel. Continue reading “Scientific Boxing: Gentlemen in the Ring”

Honk if you love Darwin: The Problem of the Human (Researcher)

An interesting discussion recently took place at the “On the Human” forum, hosted by the National Humanities Center, in response to Gillian Beer’s essay “Late Darwin and the Problem of the Human.” The “On the Human” forum is, I think, a really wonderful example of the ways that web technology can allow for thoughtful, engaged, and open scholarly conversations and I encourage you to take a look at it if you haven’t already. Continue reading “Honk if you love Darwin: The Problem of the Human (Researcher)”

Looking at the Origin

Word cloud for On the Origin of Species, 2nd edition
Word Cloud for On the Origin of Species, 2nd edition

I hope visualizations entertain you as much as they do me.  I’ve recently generated two word clouds which denote the word frequency in the second and sixth editions of On the Origin of Species.  As always, they support what we already know (for example, the increased frequency of “Mr” in the sixth edition confirms that there were more men that Darwin could draw on to substantiate his work in 1872 than he had been able to in 1860).  That said, I’m not sure how to interpret the later text’s dwindling use of the word “varieties” relative to “variations,” or the virtual disappearance of the word “believe.”  I suppose visualizations really do make us question the text, rather than providing us with answers.

Word cloud for On the Origin of Species, 6th edition
Word Cloud for On the Origin of Species, 6th edition

Aesthetics Old and New

Molly Porkshanks Friedrich's Mechanical Womb on display at the Oxford History of Science MuseumI expected to be able to hear Molly Porkshanks Friedrich’s Complete Mechanical Womb tick. It didn’t look as though it should pulse with life, but I did anticipate a mechanical buzzing or whirring. I was alone in the basement of Oxford’s history of science museum, at what the museum billed as “the world’s first museum exhibition of Steampunk art.” I’m sure the little figure in the gravid pneumatic tube was honoured by the Continue reading “Aesthetics Old and New”

Avifauna for the Masses

Three rooks' heads from the Natural History Museum, London. First displayed in 1881.

I recently made at trip (or as one friend put it, “what you’re describing is a pilgrimage, Crompton”) to the Natural History Museum in London. It has all the qualities that I like in a museum: super-fatted gothic architecture, knowledgeable staff, and a sensational bird collection.

Victorian curatorial practices are curious to the contemporary visitor. A bird case from the Museum’s inaugural year, 1881, is tucked into one corner of the bird hall. Rather than displaying the mounted birds whole, the case is full of disembodied heads, wings, feet and feathers – the better, I assume, to teach the viewer about bird anatomy. The accompanying text is excessively didactic. The Latin names of the each joint and tendon season the explanatory prose since, as the 1886 catalog suggested, by “the aid of explanatory labels, the essential characters and the principle modifications of all these Continue reading “Avifauna for the Masses”