1900 a Balloon Spectacle from Paris to Stockholm or Diversity within an Export of Similar Cultures or Around the World in 80 Scientists featuring “A Lecture on Science and Geopolitics”Jon Agar7 July 2020
(Author’s note: this experimental fictionalised balloon guide to the world of science in 1900 was a chapter subsequently cut from my Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (Polity, 2012), for space reasons. It was fun to write and it ends with a good joke. Jon)
a Balloon Spectacle from Paris to Stockholm
Diversity within an Export of Similar Cultures
Around the World in 80 Scientists
“A Lecture on Science and Geopolitics”
Paris. 1900. City of spectacle, light and movement. We are in the Tuileries, the gardens of the Louvre. Earlier in the day we have followed the crowds around the Exposition Universelle, down underground on the new Metro, up again to visit the pavilions representing the nations of the world – China, Ecuador, Greece, India, Tunisia – the whole world appears here. Indeed, the world seems to have arrived: 57 million visitors, travelling by rail, steamship and foot. Technological systems brought us here, and technologies of the future are here on display: wireless telegraphy, moving sidewalks, giant telescopes, and, fittingly for revolutionary Paris, a new means of flight, and balloon ride for a new century. Evening, with the cool air and dimming skies, is the best time to catch this spectacle. We climb into a giant basket. It can fit two hundred men and women at a time. Above is a billowing gaseous bag held down by ropes. Around us is a circular, white wall. “Ladies and gentlemen”, our conductor announces, “we are about to leave the garden of the Tuileries. Cast off!” (MacGowan 1957: 217).
This is the Cinéorama. Its inventor, former magician Raoul Grimoin-Sanson, patented his idea sharply in 1897, inspired by the remarkable inventiveness in cinema technologies of his fellow Frenchmen. He took ten 70mm cameras, huge even then, and yoked their mechanisms together, so each would operate in time. Then, installed in a real balloon, he filmed the ascent. Now, projecting the ten hand-coloured images on a panorama 333 feet in circumference and 30 feet high, the travellers in their mocked-up balloon in the Tuileries will experience the spectacle of flight without leaving the ground. Grimoin-Sanson includes a descent into Brussels, and projects visits to England, the Riviera, Spain, Tunis, and the Sahara before returning to Paris – a feat achieved by running the ascent footage backwards (MacGowan 1957).
We are lucky to be here. The Cinéorama will only last three days. The gendarmes, alarmed by the collapse of a stagehand in the intense heat generated by the ten arc lights used to illuminate the film, will rush in and close Grimoin-Sanson’s simulation. Almost certainly they are recalling the tragedy three years earlier when a charity fete caught fire ‘when more than a hundred members of the French nobility and of high society had burned to death’ (MacGowan 1957: 218). The eyes of the world are on Paris, and this is no time for a repeat performance.
But the Cinéorama offers us a fantastic means of showing us the world in 1900, and, before the police have their way, let us borrow Grimoin-Sanson’s device. Let us replace his footage with some of our own and take a simulated ride through the world of science, 1900. In the spirit of science fantasy written with a serious point in mind, harking back at least to Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems, let us take with us an urbane but as yet uninformed inquirer and an experienced guide. And, since this is Paris, we could do worse than to borrow Monsieur Verne’s protagonists of Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), the English gentleman who rarely left his club, Phileas Fogg, and his valet, the much-travelled and cunning Passepartout. We join them in the Tuileries. The balloon is ready. “Cast off!”
Fogg: My word. Here we go again.
Passepartout: Monsieur forgets. We travelled by rail – remember the many days journey on the new chemin de fer spanning India and across America on the Transcontinental – how new that was! – and steamer across oceans and the Suez Canal of my countryman Vicomte de Lesseps. Truly the world is knitted together by the spread of technologies. Mondialisation, or globalisation, if you will, is here in our lifetimes. But we did not travel by balloon. I believe that that image will be the invention of Hollywood.
Fogg: What a technology of verisimilitude this cinema is!
Passepartout: Oui. And look: we can now see the metropolis spread out below us. There is Monsieur Eiffel’s tower, still good as new. Doesn’t it look sublime with the lights? And the crowds. They can see progress here, progress through science and machines.
Fogg: Where? I can see nothing but lights.
Passepartout: Don’t be distracted. The excitement is not in the merely visible but the invisible. Let me explain. Yes, you see lots of lights. Indeed the American Edison sent his incandescent lights to Paris nearly twenty years ago hoping to build a European electrical empire, but a combination of recession and gas interests did for him (Fox 1996). The electric lights celebrated down there are German, the Allgemeine-Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) are picking up all the prizes at the Exhibition. No over there, a mile away at the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris, that’s what’s new. There’s the Pole Marie Skłodowska-Curie, working with her husband Pierre Curie, separating and purifying minute quantities of a new element, polonium – a sentimental name! – obtained in 1898. And she suspects the existence of a second, radium. These new elements were mixed in with pitchblende, uranium ore. They strongly manifest a phenomenon that seems beyond explanation, radioactivity, something that emanates from these elements, fogging photographic plates and burning hands. And they are not alone. Look over there in that laboratory at the École Normale. There’s Paul Villard, he thinks he’s found a new penetrating ray emanating from uranium. Gamma rays they are labelled. (Alpha and Beta radiation were reported by the young New Zealander, Ernest Rutherford, working at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.) Villard thinks he will be as famous as Röntgen.
Fogg: Who’s he?
Passepartout: You’ll see.
Fogg: We’re a long way above Paris now. Anything else I should notice before the wind takes us?
Passepartout: It might seem strange with all this talk of new elements, but many of the chemists don’t believe in atoms, not real ones anyway. Attitudes are changing but even when they draw pictures, like Jacobus Henricus van ’t Hoff in Berlin, or build models of molecules that look like billiard balls connected by sticks, like August Wilhelm von Hofmann used to do, also in Berlin, many chemists say these are useful tools for classification, not naïve representations (Bensaude-Vincent 2003: 185). My fellow Parisian, Henri Poincaré, has a philosophy to explain it: he says that atoms are conventions; we agree that atoms have certain properties so that we can work together with them.
Fogg: This fellow, Poincaré. I imagine I would find him in the great philosophical schools of Paris?
Passepartout: Well, yes, you will find him some days at the Sorbonne. But it is more likely he will be at work at the Bureau des Longitudes. Time, as well as atoms, is conventional for him, and only recently have we agreed among ourselves what time should be. (Don’t you remember how the day saved when crossing the International Date Line saved your bet?) Synchronising watches turns out to be much more difficult, and much more interesting, than first glance suggests.
Fogg: Hmm. I’m sure I can read about that later. All this talk of technologies and conventions, any connection, my French friend?
Passepartout: It is an age of means rather than ends, perhaps. We think deeply about means.
The balloon travels on.
Fogg: My, what a view. How far up we are. The air is chill. I can see the snow on mountains to the south, the lights of many small towns and cities, most dim as gaslight but some electric bright, and far to the north the darkness suggests a sea. Fine rivers, tamed and straightened, and put to productive work. Germany, if I’m not mistaken. I remember when it was such a sleepy country. But now I can see order, energy and the bustle of industry below. Some fellows at the club say we must watch out – here’s a new beast, wants our imperial markets, wants its place in the sun. I say Pshaw! Kaiser Bill is the old Queen’s nephew (grandson??). And blood is thicker than water. No trouble there.
Passepartout: You have not seen Prussians speeding through villages and wheat fields. I have.
Fogg: Oh that was a long time ago. Now they have their Germany it’s all settled down. We may tussle abroad, but Europe is at peace.
Passepartout: Maybe, Monsieur, maybe. Certainly if the future is built on science and technology then what riches we see below. Look there. That city is Berlin. See the electric lights, and the huge power stations – quite a contrast to your little dynamos scattered through London (Hughes 1983). There in the smart new suburbs at the Physikalisch-Technische Reichenstalt measurement of electromagnetic radiation is conducted to a precision unequalled in the world. You can hear the director, Friedrich Hohlrausch now: “without [the measuring of nature], the progress made during the last century in the natural sciences and technology would have been impossible” (Buchwald and Hong 2003: 187). What an idea! The more you measure, the more your science, your nation perhaps, progresses.
Fogg: Accurate measurement is an English science, too, you know (Schaffer 1995).
Passepartout: Non. It is French (Schabas 1997). But let’s not be chauvinistic. Rather, look below how precise measurement is part of the working world. There’s the city. There’s the electric light and power. There’s the laboratory with its precision instruments and standards. And there is Max Planck, professor of physics at the university. He is thinking about thermodynamics and electrodynamics. But he is also thinking about data – data from the PTR, data the PTR is generating because it matters for light bulbs. At first glance you see a theorist, an inhabitant of an ivory tower. But now you can see him in his place – everyone’s place – in the working world.
Fogg (looking momentarily uncomfortable): I say, a gentleman such as I doesn’t need to work, you know. Let’s move on.
Passepartout: Do you see that small college town two hundred miles to the west? That’s Göttingen, where the David Hilbert, the last of a line of great mathematicians going back to old Gauss, has published two textbooks, the Zahlbericht of 1897 and the Grundlagen der Geometrie of last year that will shape the modern style of mathematics as it will be taught in the new century. He has high hopes. There’s nothing we must be ignorant about if we work hard enough in mathematics, he says. In August he is coming to the Sorbonne to list the greatest puzzles in mathematics. He thinks answers can be given to all of them. Will he be right, I wonder?
Fogg: Certainly I can’t decide. I’m completely the wrong fellow to ask. But tell me, we’ve heard of physics and mathematics, what of chemistry and biology?
Passepartout: You can smell the chemistry even from here. There’s the coal tar chemical companies. AGFA in Berlin, BASF in Mannheim, Bayer in Barmen and Leverkusen and Hoechst on the Rhine near Frankfurt. Some are dyestuffs factories, and you see that some of them are now making pharmaceuticals. Bayer has a splendid new headache cure called ‘Aspirin’. There’s a cluster more on the horizon, at the foot of the mountains in Basel. I can just read their names: Sandoz, Geigy and CIBA, I think.
Fogg: What sharp eyes you have.
Passepartout: Remember it’s a simulation. The corporations like their names writ large.
Fogg: It seems a mixture of the novel and the routine. There’s new drugs for fevers, aches and pains, but the research seems devoid of spark. New chemicals seem to be turned out with the speed and regularity of Mr Ford’s automobiles. Is there nothing new in chemistry? I can hear a voice from the city of Munich.
Passepartout: That’s the old professor of chemistry, Adolf von Baeyer. You could say he put the last nail in the coffin of the natural dye trade when he showed how to do a complete synthesis of indigo. What’s he saying?
Adolf von Baeyer (despairing, from a great distance): “The field of organic chemistry is exhausted…and then all that remains is the chemistry of grease” (Furukawa 2003: 432).
Fogg: Is the old professor right to despair?
Passepartout: Depends what you think of grease. But no I don’t think he is. What bonds atoms together? (If they exist at all.) How big can a molecule get? Is the chemistry of large molecules different from that of small molecules? Those are good questions. I think the despair is mere fashionable fin-de-siècle despondency. Some of the physicists have the same glum outlook: they say that the advance of physics will just be the measurement of physical quantities to one more decimal point of accuracy. It will be, but thinking about such measurement will bring surprises. Remember Planck!
Fogg. I will.
Passepartout: And look who’s Baeyer’s colleague: few scientists have had such a meteoric rise as the new chair in physics. Wilhelm Röntgen was a professor at old Würzburg university when five years ago he found the mysterious X-rays. A quick published paper, read around the world in a hundred laboratories, and it was clear that physics was not at an end. Since then we’ve seen radioactive elements, and more kinds of rays and radiations are on their way, I am sure.
Fogg: So physics is alive and chemistry is as industrious as ever. What of life?
Passepartout: It seems that as we pass from the nineteenth into the twentieth century, inheritance and remembrance are the themes. On the far horizon to the east is the monastery of Brno, where Gregor Mendel lies in his grave. He’s not forgotten however. Because look north in the flat lands of Amsterdam, where the director of the botanical gardens is growing evening primrose – can you see those tall but floppy yellow flowers? – that’s Hugo de Vries. And look below us to south west, there’s Carl Correns. He’s growing some of Mendel’s old plants, not the peas but the hawkweeds, like tiny dandelions. And over there in the south east in Austria, there’s Erich von Tschermak-Seysenegg. All three are hurriedly reading Mendel’s old paper from forty years ago. But who’s discovered what? I think there’s going to be an almighty row.
Fogg: I hope it’s not too unseemly. But does it matter? Is this a dry dust-up over an old monk’s theories?
Passepartout: If you could breed better corn, or a better cow, or a better human, might it make you influential or rich? Might it protect classes of people such as yours?
Fogg: I’m not sure I follow you. Good breeding will out, I say.
Passepartout: But what if you could control what good breeding was? I mean really control, not the guesswork of our husbandmen. Future races would be guided by whoever held the reins.
Fogg: Can a line of inheritance ever be kept so pure to allow such control. It seems a fantasy. By golly, Passepartout, I think the gas has gone to your head. Tell me: who’s that bearded professor?
Passepartout: They all have beards.
Fogg: That one in Freiburg, in the south west near the border with France, on the edge of the Black Forest.
Passepartout: That’s the man who can answer you question about purity of inheritance. He’s August Weismann. He summed it up eight years ago in The Germ-Plasm: a Theory of Heredity. I quote him from memory (he is in the midst of a summary of his earlier work): “In this essay I assumed the existence in the germ-cell of a reproductive substance, the germ-plasm, which cannot be formed spontaneously, but is always passed on from the germ-cell in which an organism originates in direct continuity to the germ-cells of the succeeding generations. The difference between the ‘body’ in the narrower sense (soma) and the reproductive cells was also emphasized” (Weismann 1893: 9). There you have it: the stream of inheritance, which flows through every living creature, never touches the banks of the body, only mingles with other streams. Purity is assured. Control is possible.
Fogg: This germ-plasm sounds like me an institution imagined in Germany. Carrying values over time.
Passepartout: Professor Weismann thinks he is merely a footnote to your countryman, Charles Darwin.
Fogg: Now that was some funeral. And those are some mountains. The wind is taking us past Freiburg, south and round the Alps. Over Lake Geneva.
Passepartout: If you look carefully you will see more sciences of life. There’s François-Alphonse Forel. He’s been hard at work for a decade, designing instruments that measure the physical characteristics of the lake, and collecting and identifying the living creatures, even the unknown fauna in the lake’s dark depths (Acot 2009). He’s coined a name for his new science that brings it altogether, limnology, but in its emphasis on how organic matter circulates, how everything balances, it reminds me of economy or ecology, if you will.
Fogg: The wind is gathering speed as it rushes past the mountains. I think I can glipse Italy to the south. Anything I should notice?
Passepartout: Not far away in Pavia, he’s on the staff at that psychiatric institution, you can see Camillo Golgi. He’s taking German science even further than the Germans. He’s using the best microscopes, and his own staining techniques to examine the nerve cells. Using his “black reaction” he says he can see that axons, dendrites and fibres – form a single network. But there’s a Spaniard over in Madrid, Santiago Ramón y Cajal who says that Golgi is wrong, that the fundamental structure of the nervous system are individual neurons, not the network as a whole.
Fogg: This controversy is getting on my nerves.
Passepartout: Very droll, Monsieur.
Fogg: Nevertheless, this science of brain intrigues me. I wonder if it is ambitious or narrow-minded? Can the mind be understood by analysis, by finding the smallest units and seeing how they connect? Or is this just what a science led by technique is driven to do?
Passepartout: It depends if there exists an alternative. Look ahead now, sir. We are past the Alps and into the great Austro-Hungarian empire. The lights of Vienna approach. On Berggasse, that street running north of the centre, you will find Sigmund Freud, whose The Interpretations of Dreams was published last year. He might be a product of German science – he studied under that great scientist of energy Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke, and he wrote a rather poor dissertation on the physiology of eels – but he now feels he’s on the track of a new science of the mind.
Fogg: That’s all talk.
Passepartout: Quite so. But it shows there are alternatives.
Fogg: What else is going on in Vienna?
Passepartout: There’s an argument in geology. Eduard Suess is summarising all of geology in his compendium, The Face of the Earth. There’ll be four volumes altogether. But other geologists are not convinced by his theory that sedimentary basins rise and fall gradually tending to an earth that is just ocean – “Panthalassa” he calls it (Greene 2009).
Fogg: I’ve only just got used to the idea that one day all below us was ice. Now this Suess of yours has forecast a water age.
Passepartout: No time to explain. We have left Vienna behind and are approaching Budapest, where if you are quick you can see Baron Loránd von Eötvös at the university performing some of the most delicate and precise measurements – forgive me for being repetitive, but it is a feature of our times. He is comparing the inertial mass (that’s the ‘m’ in F=ma) with gravitational mass (that’s the ‘m’ in the inverse square law of gravitational force) – did Monsieur think they were the same? – and he finds they are the same as one part in two million. He’s planning to make that one part in one hundred million. What accuracy! But why is inertial mass and gravitational mass as good as the same? Perhaps the new century will guess answers.
Fogg: It’s dawn. Where are we now?
Passepartout: The horizon is filled with the fields of the Ukraine.
Fogg: There’s less to see.
Passepartout: It’s hard to see potential. That newborn baby down there has the name Theodosius Grygorovych Dobzhansky. The world of science doesn’t know him yet, and his famous work will be done thousands of miles away. Yet he’ll take some of the culture of Russia with him.
Fogg: I think the sun is rising. What a glorious view.
Fogg. A new reel. That saved some time. The air is warm, the sea sparkles, and thousands of islands lie beneath us. But where’s the science, Passepartout?
Passepartout: Do you see on this big island – it’s called Java. This is where a skullcap and a few bones of an early man were found by Eugene Dubois between 1891 and 1893. He’s claiming his Pithecanthropus erectus is a Huxleyan “missing link”, although now he’s in retreat, with his fossils, back in Amsterdam. But it’s not bones I want you to see, but the vegetation. See the change in colour and form as we pass over the forests of the centre to the monotonous colour of the plantations? Those are the rubber tree plantations of the Dutch East Indies, and there are the beautiful botanical gardens of Buitenzorg. Under its vigorous director, Melchior Treub, Buitenzorg is a site of science of international renown. But the products of science here are constantly on the move: being from or back to the Netherlands, or being sent from this Javan centre out to and back from little replica colonies in the archipelago. Treub is unusual for staying here so long. Others have to leave to the European cities to make a career. That newborn there in Jakarta – his name is George Uhlenbeck – he’ll move to The Hague, Leiden, Copenhagen and eventually to America.
Fogg: It’s all movement.
Passepartout: And some of the science is done on the move. Look down there, do you see a ship sailing the Banda Sea between Timor and Celebes?
Passepartout: That’s the Siboga. A converted gun-boat, now a research vessel. Bigger than the Beagle, but not quite the size of Challenger (Pieters and Visser 1993). It was launched in Amsterdam in 1898, and sailed on this expedition from Surabaya a year later. On board is a crew including Max Weber.
Fogg: The Max Weber?
Passepartout: If you are in the field of marine biology then yes. If you mean the sociologist, then no. This Max Weber is a colleague of Hugo de Vries’s at the University of Amsterdam, and is one of six scientists on board (including Anna Weber, Max’s wife). The rest are Dutch naval officers, servants, and Javanese sailors. They are measuring the depths and trawling the seas for life. The collections will be sent back to the centres of empire.
Fogg: Is everything collected?
Passepartout: Of course not. A selection is made. But there are some ethnological artefacts too.
Fogg: I can surprise you there. Because even though very little disturbs me from the Reform Club I find I can stay in London yet the whole world comes to me. Recently, for example, I happened to see a film of the natives of islands – south of here I believe, just north of Australia. And I heard a phonograph recording too. It was as the ethnologists had raided Edison’s workshop and taken away his inventions. But the sights and sounds! It was as if those strange people had been transported alive across half the globe.
Passepartout: That film would have been created on the Torres Straits expedition from Cambridge University in 1898. Yes, it is remarkable to hear phonographs or see photographs and even film of far away places and the artefacts of different cultures. But the more profound point is that only some places can be sites of comparison – think how strange it is to have the fish-hooks of Melanesia ending up alongside those of the Carib Indians or the Eskimo! Or the skulls of different races, for that matter. And when you can compare, or better still measure and compare, new descriptive and comparative sciences – whether marine biology or anthropology – can be built.
Fogg: Well, it sounds like one more blessing of the Empire to me.
Passepartout: That is in the eye of the beholder. It depends on whether you are doing the comparing. Or are being compared.
Fogg: Is this pattern of transportation the case everywhere outside Europe and America?
Passepartout: Crudely put, yes. But everywhere is different in its own way. Look we are being blown north, across the South China Sea to the island of Japan. The institutions of the West are being copied here, but on Japanese terms. Young scientists are travelling to Europe to train but they are also returning. Or at least some are. Let me tell you about the career of Jokichi Takamine to illustrate how complex this story of movement and the copying of models can be. Takamine was born in 1854, only a few months after Commander Perry’s warships opened up trade with the West; his father encouraged the young Jokichi to study “foreign science”, but his mother, whose family owned a sake brewery will have just as much influence (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008). Takamine studied medicine at Osaka, chemistry at the College of Science and Engineering at Tokyo, before the Japanese government selected him to travel to Glasgow to study industrial technology. He takes copious notes on fertilizer manufacturing. Back in Japan some of this knowledge is transferred, but almost immediately he is sent abroad again, this time to New Orleans in 1884 to a Cotton Exposition. There he proposes to the landlord’s daughter, and they marry in 1887; the honeymoon is a tour of fertilizer manufacturing plants in South Carolina (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008). Sailing home, Takamine sets up the Tokyo Artificial Fertilizer Company, selling super-phosphates to Japanese farmers. The couple have two kids, but life is not idyllic: the air around the factory smells, and Takamine’s mother is not keen on the blue-eyed bride (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008).
Fogg: What happens next? Surely they have travelled far already.
Passepartout: Having taken a Western technology to Japan, Takamine now reverses to process (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008). Takamine’s research was born of Japanese culture and its working world. He is familiar with the powerful kojis – malts produced by Aspergillus molds, used in Japanese fermentation industries to make soy sauce and, as found in his mother’s family’s breweries, sake,. Takamine isolates one component, an enzyme which he will license as “Taka-diastase”, of the malting process, and with this he returns to the United States in 1890. It’s a cheaper way to saccharrify starch, and despite the attacks of traditionalists, he secures a patent (the first for a microbial enzyme in the United States, and Parke-Davis & Company of Detroit market it as a digestive aid (Bennett and Yamomoto 2008). Parke-Davis puts up the money for Takamine’s own research laboratory in New York, where even as we speak he is filing a patent for a pure substance he is calling “Adrenalin”.
Fogg: What’s that? Some patent drug for dicky kidneys, I surmise?
Passepartout: No mere quack medicine. Adrenalin is a hormone, a chemical messenger in the body. There’s a whole new science, endocrinology, emerging as we speak, that asks what hormones are and what they do. Adrenalin and Taka-diastase will make him rich.
Fogg: Good for him. It seems to me that Dr Takamine’s success is a rare thing in today’s America.
Passepartout: How true. Look! As I was telling his story we have crossed the immense Pacific and are approaching the Californian coast. What a place of change! Only fifty years after the gold rush, and all modern life is here. There’s San Francisco, a city of over three hundred thousand souls. Look carefully and you can see the tentacles of the Southern Pacific Railroad. And at night the coast glimmers with electric light. Now we sweep over the Sierra Nevada, and across the West. The networks of metropolitan science reach here too. Down below teams of geologists working for the United States Geological Survey are conducting a great mapping of the gravitational field of this land. The data, reduced and refined back on the East Coast, will inform the paths of prospectors and provide clues about the nature – even movement – of continental rock.
Fogg: Movement! Now I know you are joking, my friend.
Passepartout: Why not? If our balloon can be driven around the world by the gentle gusts of air, why not rock by the great volcanic forces of the earth?
Fogg: The earth is stationary.
Passepartout: And yet it moves.
Fogg: You have lost me. I don’t know even if you are speaking of the past or the future. But what can I see down there, are those prospectors scratching riches from the rocks of Wyoming?
Passepartout: Yes, but not mineral riches. They are fossil hunters, sent west by the wealthy patrons of metropolitan museums, competing to send back bigger and more terrifying dinosaurs to thrill museum visitors. Indeed, from their endeavours an extraordinary story of the movement of models will unfold. Dinosaurs are a sure crowd pleaser. But when Adam Heismann, a ‘young artisan under Henry Fairfield Osborn at the American Museum of Natural History devised a technique for “boring through the extremely fragile center of fossil bones”, he “made it possible to mount, for the first time, free standing skeletons of fossil animals” (Winsor 2009, quoting John Michael Kennedy). A free-standing diplodocus, a huge dinosaur with long neck and tail, extracted from those Wyoming rocks, will be the centrepiece of the new Carnegie Museum of Natural History when it opens in Pittsburgh in 1905. And to show old Europe the wealth of the West, and at the request of the King, Andrew Carnegie will spend some of his steel fortune creating a duplicate cast, shipping the copy across the Atlantic, and reassembling it in the British Museum (Natural History). This “gift”, Nature will record “is not only of immense value and interest to the man of science, but will likewise prove a great attraction to the ordinary visitor to the Museum. It is almost an appalling thought that the skeleton of a creature which lived at least several million years ago should have come down in such marvellous preservation to our own day” (Anon. 1905: 83).
Fogg: I find its duplication and subsequent travel the equal in marvel of its preservation. How science moves in 1900!
Passepartout: Our journey speeds up. It is as if the creators of this picture show want to match the dynamism of the New World. We will have only glimpses of science as we travel. Look north: there outside Chicago is the giant reflecting telescope, a refractor with a main lens forty inches in diameter, built for a research university inspired by the German model, but, like the copy of the Diplodocus, funded by American wealth, in this case the tycoon Charles Tyson Yerkes.
Fogg: He maybe a tycoon but he’s no gentleman.
Passepartout. Perhaps. But American astronomers can compete with European rivals when equipped with such instruments. It’s the birth of a scientific superpower. And talking of births: there in Overpeck Ohio is the newborn Charles Richter.
Fogg: Will he shake the world of science?
Passepartout: Perhaps shake is too strong a word. But he will measure the earth’s tremors. At another Carnegie-funded institution he’ll measure earthquakes as astronomers measure starlight. And there is John Scopes, born in Paducah, Kentucky.
Fogg: A scientist?
Passepartout: A teacher. His life will be a trial.
Fogg: And far south. I can see the islands of the Caribbean.
Passepartout: The biggest is Cuba, the cause of war only two years ago that ended Spanish colonial power there. The American army almost perished from yellow fever, and now Walter Reed is re-interpreting the disease in terms of Koch’s germ theory. Reed is using human experimental subjects – who have signed a written agreement in Spanish and English in exchange for one hundred dollars of gold – to participate in a demonstration that mosquitos transmit the fever (Lederer 2009). Military medicine, germ theory and colonisation march arm in arm.
Fogg: I can see the East Coast now. We are being blown rapidly north.
Passepartout: See the research universities and institutes. There, in Baltimore, is Johns Hopkins University, closest in spirit to German models. There’s New York, glowing in later afternoon, with the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research being planned in Upper East Side, Manhattan – it will open in 1902. There’s the American Museum of Natural History to the side of Central Park. In the suburbs we can see Takamine’s laboratory. Upin New York State, in the Electric City of Schenectady, that hut is the General Electric’s corporate laboratory. Looks inconsequential, doesn’t it? Further along the coast now. Blink and you will miss it: New Haven, Connecticut, home of Yale University, and a mathematical physicist, Josiah Willard Gibbs, known to few (though praised by Maxwell) but writing an extraordinary treatise, The Elementary Principles of Statistical Mechanics that will be published in two years time (Kevles 1971: 32-33). Over Massachusetts now and across the Charles River from Boston we see Harvard and MIT – now there’s a place that takes the working world and makes sciences out of it – and on the coast the marine biology laboratory at Woods Hole.
Fogg: After that blur, we are slowing down. We are a long way North now. It seems to me a desolate rocky coastline. Surely there is little to see here?
Passepartout: We would have to return a year from now, and even then the eye could barely make anything out. Imagine thin wires, five hundred feet long, borne aloft by kites. The wires connect to a radiotelegraph designed by Guglielmo Marconi and his colleagues. His theory is that long radio waves will move a current strong enough to jump across a coherer – a tube of graphite filings – which can then be heard as a faint click. They will be hunkered down, listening in, trying to make out an artificial signal against the static and the Newfoundland wind. And On December 19, 1901, Marconi will persuade himself, and then the world, that he has heard the faint Morse code message “…”, three dots, an ‘S’. The radio waves have come from a spark transmitter at Poldhu, Cornwall, and Marconi will announce that he has sent a wireless telegraph message across the Atlantic for the first time.
Fogg: A single letter, moved from the Old World to the New? The cable companies will not panic yet.
Passepartout: Not yet. But even to achieve this movement, Marconi will have had to turn this patch of Newfoundland coastline into the controlled environment of a miniature radio telegraphy laboratory. Science works on prepared ground.
Fogg: I am ravenous. Let’s return home.
Passepartout: Our balloon is already tracking back along the path of Marconi’s signal. Look there’s Cornwall below, across southern England, and the lights of London shine out of the darkness. There is science in the suburbs – there’s the Burroughs-Wellcome Physiological Laboratories in Herne Hill. And science even in the country piles of the aristocracy – there’s Lord Rayleigh at Terling in Essex whose research will be interpreted by William Ramsay as evidence a new element, the noble gas Argon. But it is the Capital that takes the eye. Capital of many new sciences – electrical, physical, chemical, even psychical. Capital of Empire, Westminster and City gentlemen.
Fogg: Ah! To be in my old armchair at the Reform Club. Perhaps some lamb chops and a tipple. But we are not slowing down. Are we heading to Paris instead?
Passepartout: No. Further north. If I am not mistaken, the ingenious showmen have filmed a balloon ride out of Stockholm, and are now feeding the said film backwards, creating the remarkably convincing impression of a descent into the Royal Swedish capital.
Fogg: A peaceful city.
Passepartout: A city preparing to celebrate science through wealth acquired anything but peacefully. You will have read about the will of Alfred Nobel? The inventor of dynamite had been alarmed by a premature obituary that described him as a merchant of death, and in Paris in 1895, one year before his actual death, he wrote a will that gave most of his considerable fortune to a ‘the interest on which’, and I quote from memory
shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical work by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm, and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting. It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.
The king of Sweden, Oscar II, is not at all happy with that last stipulation. Still he is coming round to the notion now that it is attracting plenty of positive comment and pleasant speculation. I have it on good authority that the winners will include several of those we have seen on our trip.
Fogg: Well? Let it out man.
Passepartout: Röntgen of Munich for physics, and van ’t Hoff of Berlin for chemistry. Behring of Marburg, for physiology or medicine, will complete a hat-trick for the German universities. (The poet Sully Prudhomme, whose work has handily just been collected in many volumes, will take the literature prize back to Paris.) Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Pierre Curie, Ernest Rutherford, Joseph von Baeyer, Robert Koch, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Camillo Golgi, Lord Rayleigh, William Ramsay and Guglielmo Marconi will all be feted before the decade is out.
Fogg: It is the science of metropolitan Europe that is being showered with prizes. But we have seen how it depends on the movement of material, fossils, models, evidence, scientists, even whole collections made by expeditions, extracted from across the world. Can the bigger picture be explained, Passepartout?
Passepartout: I can try, sir, if you do not mind a lecture.
Fogg: By all means. Take your time.
Passepartout (clearing throat): A Lecture on Science and Geopolitics.
At this point the lights go out.
Fogg: I do believe you are too late. Someone else, another day, will have to present your lecture. Not only have the arc lights of the Cinéorama been extinguished, but so have the many Edison bulbs that lighted our way. How fitting that the lights that have mapped for us so much of the world of science are now failing us.
The ghost of Marx: You philosophers have only interpreted the light bulb; the point is to change it.