Today, an old magazine. 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 1836
volume of the British Saturday Magazine.
This venerable periodical was, and it still is, provided by the
Committee of General Literature and
Education. They, in turn, were sponsored by
the Society for Promoting Christian
That sort of aegis can easily put us off our feed
today. But this was a time when the Church of
England owned the British intellectual
establishment. In those days, only Anglican
clergymen could teach at Oxford or Cambridge
University. And the Society for Promoting Christian
Knowledge was pretty worldly in its outlook.
A typical edition of the Saturday Magazine
began with an account of some exotic place — maybe
Persia, India or China — maybe a byway in
Spain or France. It took great interest in Australia — in Aborigines and
culture. The British presence in Australia had
just taken root, and the British back home wanted
to know about their strange land down under.
But I'm most drawn to a monthly feature: The
Young Scientist. One series of these pieces is
all about the chemistry of a burning candle. No
author is named. But, from the style and content,
it could well be spinoff of Michael Faraday's
famous Lectures on the
subtleties of candle flames.
technical content of all the science writings, is
really quite good. One article is titled
Arithmetic. The first key-operated
calculating machines lay fifteen years in the
future, so it deals primarily with Greek and Roman
forms of the abacus. It treats the Chinese abacus
as a modern variation, and it goes on to tell how
certain eastern Asians wrote numbers on the joints
of their fingers to make their hands into a form of
The article tells how the Court of the
Exchequer got its name: The British financial
offices once used a large table set up with a
checker — or chess-board pattern on the top. It was
called a saccaria and it functioned a lot
like a big abacus. The operator used small coins as
The magazine is also full of poetry. Wordsworth,
Southey, Coleridge, and Washington Irving are all
there. Most of the poems are Romantic paeans to
wild nature, but sometimes with an edge. These
lines by Wordsworth have an almost Ogden-Nashian
The umbrageous oak, with arms outspread,
Full oft when storms the welkin rend,
Draws lightning down upon the head
It promised to defend.
So the riches pour forth: tricks of geometry and
arithmetic, explanations of medicinal and toxic
features of purple Foxglove — anatomy, stories,
technology, and folkways.
If I were a bright twelve-year-old British kid in
that world without movies or radio, I can well
imagine hanging around the bookstall, waiting for
this week's installment to arrive — this week's
cornucopia of mind-stretching adventure.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Saturday Magazine, Volume the Eighth,
January to June MDCCCXXXVI, London: John William
My thanks to Catherine Patterson, UH History
Department, for her counsel on this episode.
The website for the Society for Promoting Christian
As a sidebar, here is something very similar to the
Asian idea of finger counting: http://scienceblogs.com/goodmath/2006/10/no_abacus_handy_use_your_hands.php
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.