Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2022:
ALEXANDER W. BRANDON

by John H. Lienhard

Today, another ghost in an old book. 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.

A friend recently gave me a copy of Davies Elements of Surveying, first published in 1830. This 1835 edition is in nice condition. I was delighted because I have a much later version to compare with it. But there's more: Both books are inscribed. The 1835 one, signed in ink by an Alexander W. Brandon, has a curiously disturbing item written in pencil on the front flyleaf (in a similar handwriting). It says,

If man has a natural desire to do evil but, by grace overcomes that desire is he guilty before God?     NO

A genealogist in our Library located Brandon's 1902 obituary. He was born three years after the book was published and was not its first owner. In fact another flyleaf has been torn out. Brandon probably removed a previous owner's name.

Alexander W. Brandon Brandon was raised in Columbia, Tennessee, and was 23 when the Civil War began. He opposed Secession, but loyalty to Tennessee trumped his beliefs. He went off to war with his three brothers to fight for the Confederacy.

His regiment saw the worst of the slaughter. He started at the Battle of Shiloh and his hand was seriously wounded at Perrysville. He continued as a cook, and as a nurse to a huge number of wounded. His regiment suffered terrible losses. When it finally surrendered at Greensboro, only a third of it remained.

A former messmate writes in praise of Brandon, adding that, "As a nurse he was tender and careful as a woman." Back in Tennessee, he tells us, Brandon worked as a carpenter and a contractor.

So he no doubt made good use of this old book, filled with geometry and means for measuring Earth's three-dimensional surface. Yet that strange, possibly guilt-ridden, inscription leaves us wondering. What was it like to be taken out of the line of fire early in the war, then to spend years watching your comrades torn to bits? What was it like to go on to a productive life -- to marry, raise children and live to a ripe age with such memories?

The later version of Davies book was inscribed by my mother to my father, who'd just taken up a second career in surveying. My father had also gone to war. As a WW-I pilot in France, he didn't see action before the Armistice. He spent the rest of his life cursing himself for failing to've wangled his way into combat.

The book includes a fine drawing of a surveyor's transit -- just like the one used by George Washington, Alex Brandon, and my father. Even I used that transit, working with veterans surveying the brush of Oregon and Washington. That's why I see something beyond pallid Victorian sentiment in the obituary's conclusion:

Returning to the vocations of peace, Mr. Brandon met and discharged his duties as a citizen with the same fidelity that characterized him as a soldier.

Ghosts speak from these old books. Their messages are puzzling and indistinct, and they're all the more powerful for their muted ambiguity.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


C. Davies, Elements of Surveying and Navigation. 5th ed., (Philadelphia: A. S. Barnes, and Co., 1835). (The first edition came out in 1830.)

C. Davies, Elements of Surveying and Navigation. Revised Edition (New York: A. S. Barnes & Burr, 1865)

Alexander Winburn Brandon's obituary and photo may be found in Vol. 10 of the Confederate Veteran, 1902, pg. 565-566. Above the photo is written, "After life's fitful fever he sleeps well."

Brandon's messmate A. S. Horsley writes further about him in Vol. 11 of the Confederate Veteran, 1903, pp. 560-561.

My thanks to Herman Detering, Detering Book Gallery, for the 1835 edition, and to Steven Perkins, UH Library, for locating all the background material on Brandon.

Davies transit

Brandon's signature

marginalium in Brandon's book


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.