Tag Archives: Richard Holmes

Leeches, Balloons, Gods Descending

In 1850 Dr. George Merryweather designed a “Patent Tempest Prognosticator” that used leeches to predict approaching storms. The device, which was lovely to look at, housed individual leeches in a dozen glass bottles partly filled with rainwater. It had long been observed that when the barometric pressure drops, as with the approach of a storm, leeches tend to get excited. The genius of Merryweather’s invention was to harness the muscle-power and barometric consensus of numbers of leeches together so that when the pressure dropped and they all began to skip and frolic in their glass bottles the combined activity would trigger the ringing of a bell. “Leechdom hath prophesied,” the bell said, “now fetch an umbrella.”

I bought a new umbrella this past Monday, a black collapsible one that cost me ten dollars and which in six months or so will give out in a stiff wind or permanently misplace itself. But it was a timely purchase. The local leeches are no doubt cavorting enthusiastically just now. It’s a real event here in northern California when the rain finally comes. It arrives about November or December and continues, sporadically, into May, after which there is no rain to speak of until November comes round again. One can only assume that the merciless summery interlude is a cheerless drudge for the leeches.

I owe my acquaintance with Dr Merryweather’s leech barometer to Richard Holmes and his new book Falling Upwards, which I recently finished. Not that the book has much to say about leeches. It’s concerned instead with the history of manned ballooning from the Montgolfier brothers in 1783 to the Wright brothers in 1903. In his excellent earlier book, The Age of Wonder, Holmes briefly skimmed the subject while exploring the relationship between Romanticism and the second, post-Newtonian scientific revolution. In the present title, he unloads all his ballast and soars into the ether on the subject. It’s a terrific pleasure to read.

If you’ll forgive me, it seems that balloons are in the air these days. Julian Barnes’ new memoir, Levels of Life, also has something to do with the history of manned ballooning. I’m currently reading Rose Macaulay’s The Minor Pleasures of Life, a sort of commonplace book of thematically arranged quotations, which includes under the category of “Celestial” several passages about ballooning. The little chapter book I recently wrote for my daughter also involves two cats making an adventurous balloon trip. (My daughter herself, we recently discovered, has a substantial “dead balloon collection” made of up deflated helium balloons from various birthday parties and other events.)

Speaking of cats, according to a pamphlet from 1784 quoted in Macaulay’s Minor Pleasures, the aeronaut Vincenzo Lunardi, on tour in England, “was accompanied in his aerial passage by a couple of pigeons, a cat, and a favourite lap-dog.” Over Northaw, at an undisclosed altitude, “he threw out his cat… which was taken up alive.” The Montgolfiers also used animals in their early test-flights. They preferred sheep to cats, though it’s worth noting that in the 1960s the French space program did send a cat named Félicette up in a rocket. American balloonist John Wise liked to drop cats in little parachutes from his basket. This throwing of cats from airships is not something my daughter would approve of but she might like the image of them descending in colorful parachutes.

It’s difficult to imagine the shock people must have felt in those early days when the first aeronauts climbed into baskets suspended from gas bubbles and flew off into the clouds. It must have been doubly shocking to see them unexpectedly descend in a sky chariot like angels or visitors from the moon. Jean Pierre Blanchard, describing his third flight in 1784, said that when coming in to land he and his companion were met by a group of astonished French field laborers. “The most courageous contemplated us and exclaimed: ‘Are you Men, or Gods? What are you? Make yourselves known!'” To prove their humanity Blanchard and his friend removed their coats and threw them down. “They seized on them eagerly,” Blanchard says, “and began to divide them in pieces,” like holy relics.

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Reading Notes: Richard Holmes

Consider the following two quotations – the first from Humphry Davy and the second from Thomas Carlyle – and ask yourself how we get from the one to the other:

“Imagination, as well as reason, is necessary to perfection in the philosophic [i.e. scientific] mind. A rapidity of combination, a power of perceiving analogies, and of comparing them by facts, is the creative source of discovery.”

“The progress of science is to destroy Wonder…”

To what degree are the aims of science aligned with those of art? When and why did they begin to diverge? These are some of the questions explored in Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder, an expertly guided tour of the era of “romantic science,” when scientists were still philosophers and philosophers were artists, when discoveries were made (according to the myth) by flashes of insight and obscure inspiration, and when the possibility of scientific horror first began to suggest itself.

We start in 1769 with the young Joseph Banks in Tahiti, there in the capacity of gentleman naturalist assigned to Cook’s expedition to observe the transit of Venus. With his treasury of journals, specimens, and anthropological observations, he returns (just barely) to England and moves from notable disillusionment to notable accomplishment. As vigorous, long-lived president of the Royal Society, Banks becomes the patron spirit of the age, and the rest of the book.

In addition to Banks, Holmes spends a lot of his time with William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus; with his sister Caroline; with Mungo Park in Africa; and with Humphry Davy, who does for the science of chemistry what the Herschels do for astronomy. We’re also given glimpses of George III, Linnaeus, Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin, a whole host of balloonists, Dr Johnson, Horace Walpole, Gilbert White, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy and Mary Shelley, and – as the new scientific generation comes into its own – Michael Faraday, John Herschel, and the young Charles Darwin.

I’m not a specialist or historian of the period, but I loved every page of this book, and I learned something new on every page. Like a more successful Dr Frankenstein, Holmes has knit together a lost era, but reanimated it so convincingly and compellingly that its questioning spirit, its anxieties, and its sense of wonder become our own again.

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Marginalia, no.275

By reflecting a little on this subject I am almost convinced that those numberless small Circuses we see on the Moon are the works of Lunarians and may be called their Towns.

~ William Herschel [qtd. in Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder]

A little reflection is sometimes too much. As a boy I was puzzled by those signs on the side of the highway that read “$1,000 Fine for Littering.” I finally decided the message was a strange sort of permission: If you want to throw thousand dollar bills out the window of your car, well, that’s just fine.

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