Today, an old book takes stock of science and art
in 1852. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
I've been reading the third
yearly Annual of Scientific Discovery,
published in 1852. It gives a neat snapshot of
thinking just before a wholly new modern science
rose up in the late 19th century. Darwin's
Origin of Species would come out seven
years later. In the next decade, Maxwell and
Boltzmann would begin writing a new physics based
on molecular action. Pasteur had yet to lead the
way toward understanding bacteria.
In practical, hands-on, 19th-century America,
science meant both less and more than it does
today. The book begins with an account of London's
Great Industrial Exhibition -- better known as the
Crystal Palace Exhibition. That famous glass
and steel building consciously linked industry with
So what was catching our attention 150 years ago?
Certainly the new telegraph lines were. A cable had
just connected England and France. One author
wondered how soon a telegraph
message would pass from England to America.
Actually, that message would be sent only six years
later. We see a big interest in telescopes and
astronomy and in the new iron steamships. Foucault
had just demonstrated the Foucault pendulum in
Paris, and the public loved it.
The book indexes only one item under the word
medicine -- a new means for preparing
medicinal powders. Anthropology is a great
fascination, but it's in a strange state: The book
reports a new translation of the Dakotah Indian
language, but it also quotes a French scientist
talking about a race of men with tails in South
America. A noted English naturalist has found that
human life on earth must reach back as far as
20,000 years. An American finds what appears to be
a 2000-year-old skull in Ohio, and he's surprised
that the cranial cavity suggests a brain just like
A few surprises, though: a patent for an electric
light, 30 years before Edison's. An English
scientist says the consumption of tobacco puts 340
million pounds of carbonic acid gas into the
atmosphere each year. He calls it a serious
For the most part this book sees only through a
glass darkly. Its writers hardly had a clue about
forces poised to reshape us. Atomic physics was
just taking shape. So were bacteriology, medicine,
mass production, and industrial chemistry. People
like Darwin and Mendel were about to shape a wholly
new vision of human life on earth, but that vision
is absent here.
I believe that the change we faced in 1852 was
almost as dramatic as the change we face today.
But, I doubt we're any better at understanding
what's going on about us. I've often said that the
future is absolutely unpredictable. Now this
strange old book reminds us how terribly hard it is
even to read the present -- with any accuracy.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds