An Archive of Discovery
This past summer, I interned with some great folks in the archives of the American Philosophical Society, in Philadelphia, which has been promoting science, history and culture for over 250 years.
Wait! “Philosophical” is used in an archaic sense from the 18th century – – “Natural Philosophy” meant science and technology.
The APS is all about “useful knowledge.” Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Rush, etc. were all interested in practical applications of scientific discoveries — not just intellectual conversations, although it’s certainly a place for that, but also to promote research, science, exploration — discovery.
This post meant as a tribute to one of my favorite members of the APS, and one of America’s first friends in France.
(I am re-running my summertime blog, because I found some great pictures to add, and because it is nearing Thanksgiving, and this insightful historical vignette involves a turkey.)
One function of the APS is to serve as “America’s Pantheon of Smart People”.
It says “American”, but membership in this very select company is international. And since Lafayette was a member of the APS, and is back in the news this summer (more about that later), let us talk of French people.
Well, before we talk of the French, actually we should start with Romans.
Do not worry.
This won’t take long.
The original Pantheon was in Rome –and the beautiful version we see today, has survived for almost 2,000 years — put up by the same guy who built Hadrian’s Wall.
Hadrian loved to travel all over the empire, building things, and was reckoned to be one of the “Five Good Emperors” (I guess five good ones, out of something like 264, is probably typical odds for emperors and presidents.) A Pantheon is basically a circular temple to honor all your gods, idols, heroes, etc.
Except the Pantheon is French, is a former church, is neoclassical, is a mausoleum, and only honors French people.
The APS, an American Pantheon of sorts, honors brilliant people of all nationalities, was never a church, is Georgian-style, and it has no dead people in the building of whom I am aware. Other than that, pretty identical concepts.
The APS has honored many Frenchmen of course, including the Marquis de Lafayette. Actually, he was just one of seven marquises on the membership rolls.
At least one Frenchman made it into both the APS and the Pantheon — the Marquis de Condorcet. Although he may not be a good one to bring up, since he was buried in the Pantheon, but they seem to have misplaced his body. Modern science has no patience with this sort of carelessness.
But we don’t want to talk about the misfiled Condorcet anyway. Our favorite Frenchman, Lafayette, was in the news again this summer, because of Hermione currently visiting the U.S.
To anyone of my generation, there is only one “Hermione” and I am not embarrassed to admit my love for the Harry Potter series. But this other Hermione is also beautiful – – a recreation of the frigate that brought Lafayette back to the U.S. during the Revolution, with the news that the French would help us fight the British. The ship arrived at Yorktown, and then visited Baltimore and Philadelphia, and on up the East Coast this summer. It is an absolutely beautiful tall ship. But where was I? Back to the APS.
In 1824, Lafayette sailed across the Atlantic once more, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United States. He took a triumphant year-long tour of the 24 states, with countless veterans’ reunions, dinners, parades and ceremonies in city after city.
Including even a stop in my humble hometown, Waterloo, NY. – – where an ancient cannon, actually a swivel-gun off a slave-ship, was fired in his honor.
(Unfortunately, the rusted relic exploded, killing the local militia captain.)
(When Lafayette learned of the accident, and the absence of a pension for the militia captain’s family, since he wasn’t killed in action, he graciously sent a thousand dollars for their support. The equivalent of $23,972.70 in today’s dollars.)
Our village green was re-named Lafayette Park, just like the park in front of the White House, and our public school has served French fries ever since, continuing to cook them in the original vat of hot tallow to this day.
The parade honoring the Marquis in Philadelphia was four miles long, and took over an hour to pass by.
And of course, when in Philadelphia, he visited the American Philosophical Society (he’d been a member since 1781).
During his visit, he shared his interest in the experiments of Franz Anton Mesmer.
This was the fascinating German doctor who basically invented hypnotherapy, and is commemorated by the word “mesmerize”.
The Marquis had already turned 67, but was after all, a Frenchman — widowed, footloose and fancy-free — and he thought Mesmer’s theory of “Animal Magnetism” sounded pretty promising. (Especially in French: magnétisme animal seems just the thing for chatting up les coquettes).
The APS was open to a demonstration, because in that day and age, Mesmer was considered to be a scientific investigator.
Even though everyone already knew he was mostly nuts.
(Mesmer was not invited to be a member of the APS.)
His process involved dim lighting, magnets, hypnotism, water armonica music, and a lilac-colored robe, and is no longer accepted as real medicine anywhere outside of southern California.
(If you’re interested, there is a flattering bio-pic where he’s played by Alan Rickman, in his pre-Harry Potter days.)
The APS had fun at Lafayette’s Mesmerism demonstration, trying to tap the human body’s energy to generate a “artificial tide” of “animal magnetism.” The members held onto metal rods, mounted on a sort of washtub contraption, to see what came up.
In Vienna and Paris, the apparatus was reputed to generate health-giving convulsions, animal magnetism and a general loosening of purse strings and possibly dress strings, among well-to-do hystericals, but Philadelphians, then and now, are immune to such things as electricity, emotions and sex. (Franklin was the exception, of course).
When Franklin discovered there would be no kites involved, he declared the electro-magnetic bathtub was not real science, but everybody liked Lafayette immensely and had a good time.
Ben Franklin, not averse to women’s company, as long as it wasn’t his wife’s, had already checked out Mesmerism forty years before, when he was ambassador to France. Louis XVI appointed him to a royal panel examining this invention. The panel included the Mayor of Paris, and Lavoisier, the famous chemist and biologist, who of course, was a fellow APS member, and also a doctor you may remember, named Guillotin.
It seems likely that scientific guys like this would have discussed Franklin’s attempt to electrocute and electrically roast a turkey on Christmas Day 1750. Despite the warning labels on every “Leyden jar” (basically a large capacitor, that sends out a mini-lightning bolt), Franklin first zapped himself instead of the bird, causing numbness in his limbs and a need for bifocals.
The turkeys were eventually zapped and suffered violent convulsions. Then at some point during the dinner preparations, they were found to be merely stunned, and required another shock before they were killed.
You have to wonder if some guests felt uncomfortable with this resurrected dinner on Christmas.
Dr. Guillotin immediately abandoned his plans for executing people with an electric chair, and moved on to a more reliable invention.
(Technically, he didn’t invent the guillotine, and opposed capital punishment, but we needn’t cloud a good tale with facts.)
(I attempted to recreate Franklin’s Electro-Turkey Experiment with a bathtub, toaster, and turkey, but until the pending lawsuits with my landlord and PETA are resolved, I am not allowed to discuss them on advice of counsel).
But science marches on, and on a happier note, two of the panelists examining Mesmerism — the Mayor of Paris, and Lavoisier (who used his knowledge of chemistry to make better gunpowder to kill people) — met up again years later, when they were both guillotined.
But I digress.
The Pantheon in Paris has some scientists too, of course, and was the site of Foucault’s pendulum, which demonstrated the scientific principle that, even if you are a terrible bowler, if you have
(a) a pendulum, and (b) lots of time, (c) you can still knock down all the pins.
It just takes longer.
When I say “lots of time”, you’re wondering, why are you so imprecise, when you felt free to criticize the Pantheon for misplacing a few bodies? why not just say, “24 hours to knock down all the pins”.
Well, as Franklin said to the turkey, get stuffed. You’re obviously not scientifically-inclined.
Because according to my extensive research (Wikipedia) it takes 32.7 hours in Paris, for scientific or cultural reasons, to knock down all the pins. (“Latitude vs Latin Attitude”)
Or 2 entire days, if you’re at 30 degrees latitude. If the reason isn’t instantly apparent, you are clearly not headed for membership in the APS.
But perhaps you could take up bowling.
OK, I have totally lost track of Lafayette. Sorry. C’est la vie. My lunch break is over, and back to the archives!
P.S. Apparently the “guillotine” was actually a medieval gadget, perfected by a German harpsichord-maker — who understood it was to be used on cabbages for making sauerkraut. And yet most people making sauerkraut, use a cabbage-slicer called a “mandoline,” not a “guillotine-harpsichord.”
I have always been baffled by this interface between (a) musical instruments, (b) kitchen appliances, and (c) methods of execution. Leonardo da Vinci invented some sort of organ gun (aren’t most organ recitals deadly enough?), and Lincoln was impressed by the Coffee Mill Gun (also called the Agar Gun, although it did not shoot coffee beans or gelatin) of the Civil War.
The Potato Masher, or Stielhandgranate, was of course the grenade used by the Germans in two world wars, but check out James Brown on “Mashed Potatoes U.S.A.” starting the great dance craze of 1962.
Part of the joyous sound of Jamaican music comes from playing coconut graters. I know some pastry chefs use a cornet for icing, and flute a pie crust somehow, and I’ve seen the percussive kettledrums of course, but I’ve fretted over news of Cuisinart-related deaths, and wondered if they’re really accidental, as most people believe?
We’re always told that the bathroom is the most dangerous room in your home, maybe so, but the kitchen is pretty scary, too. Don’t we talk about being battered, pancaked, grilled, lamb-basted, smothered and skewered? Isn’t spatula derived from the Latin for broadsword? If you like crusty bread, a baguette is basically a baton – used for conducting music, playing a carillon, and clubbing rioters. Mace is also used on rioters, and by knights on recalcitrant peasants, and by my grandmother for pumpkin pies.
And look up the pasta called strozzapreti sometime.
On a related note, B Flat I think, did you ever notice, that American appliances hum at a higher pitch, than European ones, humming along at G?
I know it’s due to each continent’s different electrical systems, 50Hz vs 60Hz – – but who chose these notes?? I don’t think a convection oven humming “B flat” is appropriate for making a souffle, for example. And I’ve often wished, as I dance along with my washing machine, that it would vary the beat a bit, and just for once, hum a Middle C instead.