July 30, 2013
With Jane Austen confirmed as the next face of England’s ten-pound note and yet another Austen-themed film on the way, the global phenomenon surrounding the novelist shows no signs of abating. Recently, a group of D.C.-area fans indulged their Austenmania at the Smithsonian Associates seminar, “Life at Pemberley: Ever After with Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth.” Sandra Lerner, founder of the Chawton House Library and author of Second Impressions (a sequel to Pride and Prejudice), served as mistress of ceremonies and covered matters mundane and monumental in the life and times of Jane Austen. Below, dear readers, are some of the insights she had to offer:
- Jane Austen didn’t have a clue about money. She wrote during the Regency era (1775-1817), when England was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, mass rural-to-urban migration, and transition from a barter to a cash economy. People from all walks of life struggled to adjust to the new paradigm. The wealthy, who had no concept of cash, took to gambling and often accrued astronomical debts. Jane Austen lived in the country, where the subject of money was still strictly taboo, and the fuzzy figures in her novels reflect her financial ignorance. According to Lerner, Mr. Darcy’s income of £10,000 a year was grossly unrealistic for a time when even a politician like Charles Fox held more than £100,000 in debt. Lerner estimates that Darcy would have needed an income of at least ten times as much to manage both his London house and his Pemberley estate.
- Men wore corsets. Gentlemen as well as ladies shaped their waists in the Regency era. Ladies’ corsets were relatively forgiving, providing lift rather than Victorian-era constriction.
- Pants were the latest in men’s fashion and would have been considered outré in Jane Austen’s social circle. Breeches and stockings were still the norm in the country.
- Regency dance was a blend of high and low culture. In the wake of the French Revolution, English elites abandoned stately and elegant dance styles in favor of traditional country dance; even the well-to-do knew these lively jigs from their summer holidays in the country. Regency dance adapted these folk styles to courtly tastes, replacing the claps, hops and stomps with dainty steps and baroque music while retaining the rustic flavor of the original.
- Ladies led, gentlemen followed. Regency-era dances were designed to showcase eligible young ladies. The lady always moved first, and the gentleman’s duty was to guide her through the dance and protect her from any errant Mr. Collinses on the dance floor. Couples danced very close to each other and with tiny, intricate steps to allow for conversation and flirtation.
- Downstairs was just as hierarchical as upstairs. A servant’s rank determined his or her contact with the masters of the house. Highest in the chain of command was the master’s steward, akin to a personal assistant, who managed all staff and household affairs. Under him, the butler and the housekeeper supervised male and female staff, respectively. The lower one’s rank, the more physically demanding the work; scullery maids, lowest of the female servants, were expected to clean and scour the kitchen for 18 hours a day. Rank was always more important than tenure, meaning that a footman of ten years ranked no higher than a butler of five. These conventions did not change until after World War I.
- Jane Austen was preceded by a long line of female authors. Some two thousand novels came before hers, mostly written by poor single women and deemed unsavory by contemporary standards. The majority of these works have been lost to posterity because, in the straitlaced Victorian era, England’s royal repositories declined to preserve them. The Chawton House Library strives to uncover this forgotten legacy by sponsoring research and acquisition of women’s writing from the period 1600-1830.
- Jane Austen’s novels are not “chick lit.” Benjamin Disraeli read Pride and Prejudice 17 times. Sir Walter Scott called Austen’s “talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life. . . the most wonderful I ever met with.” Winston Churchill maintained that her words kept him going through the Second World War. With citations like these, it should be a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen was and still is important.
July 10, 2013
The Serbian inventor was born 157 years ago today, July 10, in what is now Croatia. To honor that genius that helped bring us alternating current as well as countless other inventions, we’re offering an excerpt from a new biography, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, by W. Bernard Carlson. A former fellow at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, Carlson stopped by the American History Museum in June to discuss Tesla’s many innovations, including some on display at the museum. Tesla’s popularity has received a boost recently with everything from comedy sketches, operas and car companies made in his honor. In the following excerpt from Carlson’s new biography, read up on Tesla’s experiments with automatons and radio controlled boats.
Tesla’s interest in automata dates back to his childhood. As a boy, he suffered from nightmares that he overcame by developing his willpower. Struck by the fact that the frightening visions were often the result of some external stimuli that he could identify, Tesla concluded that all thoughts and emotions were the result of outside factors and that the human organism was no more than a “self-propelling machine, the motions of which are governed by impressions received through the eye.” His efforts to understand and control his intense visions, as he explained in his autobiography, “led me finally to recognise that I was but an automaton devoid of free will in thought and action and merely responsible to the forces of the environment.” But if he were merely an automaton, wondered Tesla, why not build one as well?
Excerpted from TESLA: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson. Copyright (c) 2013 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.
June 27, 2013
When editor Arthur Brisbane first observed the Wizard, the man sworn to be greater an inventor than Edison himself, Brisbane was as impressed by what he saw as what he had heard. The Wizard, otherwise known as Nikola Tesla, had already earned a reputation for his daring experiments by the time the two met at a restaurant in Manhattan in 1894. His most shocking performance had been in an effort to demonstrate how safe his alternating currents were when Tesla allowed 250,000-volt shocks to course through his body before a disbelieving public. Noting his slim frame and tall stature, Brisbane noted, “He has big hands. Many able men do–Lincoln is one instance.” Better still were his even more prominent thumbs, after all, “the thumb is the intellectual part of the hand.” Little of Tesla was left unremarked upon, including his pale eyes, which Tesla told Brisbane had once been darker but through years of mental concentration, Tesla had lightened at his will.
“In writing about Tesla,” explains W. Bernard Carlson, author of a new biography on the inventor, “one must navigate between unfair criticism and excessive enthusiasm.” In his new book, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, Carlson examines Tesla’s many achievements and his tumultuous life that earned him the reputation of mad scientist.
In recent years, Tesla has come back into vogue. A Drunk History episode had John C. Reilly portray him as a man constantly frustrated and eclipsed by bigger names. The flashiest of futurist car companies, Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors, borrowed the inventor’s name for its high-tech models. He’s even getting his own opera, created by Jim Jarmusch and commissioned by Dartmouth College. When Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal published a comic titled “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived,” Forbes came to the defense of Thomas Edison–slammed by Inman as a CEO, rather than a geek–and fueled a debate that is still going strong. Inman found plenty of pro-Tesla allies and helped crowd-fund the purchase of Tesla’s Long Island laboratory by the non-profit Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe group, with plans to turn it into a museum.
Born to Serbian parents in 1856 on the outskirts of the Austro-Hungarian empire in what is today Croatia, Tesla showed an early interest in math and mechanics. After surviving a bout of cholera, he enrolled in a polytechnic school in Austria, where he instantly stood out for his achievements. But the success was short-lived. He developed a gambling problem, dropped out of school and suffered a nervous breakdown, eventually moving to Budapest to work at a telegraph company. After working at Thomas Edison’s company in France, Tesla relocated to New York City to work more closely with Edison. He arrived in the United States with just four cents in his pocket. Once in New York, Tesla took up the challenge of improving Edison’s direct current motors and generators but received none of the $50,000 Edison had promised him to do so. Edison claimed it was a joke and gave him a slight raise instead. Tesla quit and formed his own company.
He would go on to earn some 300 patents around the world, help cement the technologies that formed modern AC electricity as well as radio and television. He experimented with what he called “atmospheric electricity” and claimed he invented a particle-beam weapon at one of his annual birthday celebrations. His genius also had a dark side, as Matt Novak writes for Paleofture:
Like any man, Tesla was far from perfect and sometimes had very warped ideas about how the world should operate. One of Tesla’s most disturbing ideas was his belief in using eugenics to purify the human race. In the 1930s, Tesla expressed his belief that the forced sterilization of criminals and the mentally ill — which was occurring in some European countries (most disturbingly Nazi Germany) and in many states in the U.S. — wasn’t going far enough.
As a celebrity scientist, his enigmatic personality often received and receives still more attention than his many inventions and the processes behind them. Carlson’s book seeks to correct this with a technical breakdown of Tesla’s most notable achievements. “It’s all too easy to associate invention with imponderables such as genius, mystery, and luck,” writes Carlson. “In contrast, I view invention as a process that we can analyze and understand.”
Explaining the method himself, Tesla told a crowd gathered for his Edison Medal award ceremony in 1917:
I do not rush into constructive work. When I get an idea, I start right away to build it up in my mind. I change the structure, I make improvements, I experiment, I run the device in my mind. It is absolutely the same to me whether I operate my turbine in thought or test it actually in my shop. It makes no difference, the results are the same. In this way, you see, I can rapidly develop and perfect an invention, without touching anything.
Carlson points out that this approach is quite different from that of Thomas Edison, who was known to want either the plans or the device in front of him to manipulate. To create a portrait of an inventor and his inventions, Carlson relies on schematics, letters and original documents from Tesla’s life to map out his creativity. A former fellow at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, Carlson also called upon resources in the National Museum of American History’s collections to complete his research.
Though many of Tesla’s creations were destroyed in a lab fire in 1895, the American History museum still has a small collection of valuable items, including four motors–two of which are currently on display–that rely on Tesla’s alternating current, a generator and nameplate from the 1895 Niagara Falls hydroelectric power station and a recently acquired stock share from Tesla’s failed Electric Light and Manufacturing Company made out to Robert Lane, the company’s treasurer. Tesla received his own stock shares when the company decided to fire him and move away from invention and into the utilities business.
“It was a very tumultuous industry,” explains Carlson. Companies struggled to figure out how to make electricity profitable, particularly with inadequate means of measuring consumption. Wall Street bankers were uninterested in the Tesla’s idea of wireless power because they could see no way to commodify it. But Tesla recognized that the money would come from the receivers, rather than the sale of the power. When his own company cut him loose, Tesla was devastated.
“He arrives in America in 1884 and this happens within basically two years of his arrival, so Tesla’s heartbroken and he doesn’t know what to do,” explains Carlson, “He basically drifts and winds up digging ditches in downtown Manhattan.”
But in what would prove to be just one of many twists of fate, Tesla’s foreman at the Western Union Telegraph Company showed an interest in the patents Tesla was hard at work on each night and introduced him to a higher-up looking to invest in new inventors. “That’s how he gets the business partners that lead to great success with the motors,” explains Carlson.
Where Edison was an adept businessman, Tesla was less so. In 1888, when Tesla is hired as a consultant at Westinghouse Electric, he finds the support of George Westinghouse.
“The relationship between Tesla, the imaginative inventor and Westinghouse, the entrepreneur and capitalist, is a really good fit,” says Hal Wallace, curator of electricity at the National Museum of American History. Westinghouse bought the patents for Tesla’s polyphase AC motors and agreed to pay him $2.50 per horsepower of electrical capacity sold. Later, when Westinghouse was at the brink of demise after a costly battle for market share, Tesla tore up the contract, sacrificing his plentiful royalties so the patents would remain with Westinghouse.
Both in business and in science, Tesla proved a maverick. But Carlson cautions that this should not dissuade people from studying how exactly he came to his inventions. “Tesla always claimed that he could think through the entire invention in his head and then go and build it and it would work first time, every time,” says Carlson.
Carlson, who spent time with the American History Museum’s Kenneth Swezey Papers, which include letters, photographs and patent testimony, found that even Tesla’s genius can be analyzed and taught to future generations. “There are aspects of the creative process that remain true to this day,” says Carlson. “The number of parallels between Tesla, and say Steve Jobs, are significant and significant enough to say there are indeed patterns and things that we can learn from understanding the creative mind of somebody like Nikola Tesla.”
May 28, 2013
Gaze at the stars this evening and you will see a rare phenomenon: three planets, all glowing so close to each other that it looks like they might bump. The trio—Venus, Jupiter and Mercury—actually are millions of miles apart, but on this special occasion their orbits are aligned with ours such that they appear side by side.
The Milky Way is home to an estimated 200 billion to 400 billion stars, and as many as 17 billion planets. Amazing things are happening around the cosmos every minute, but it is a treat when we can catch an unusual celestial event just by looking up, without even a telescope.
Tonight and in the coming months, a few of these events will be visible to the naked eye from any backyard in the United States so long as the sky is free of clouds. Be sure to mark your calendars—the events are fleeting, and occur at most once a year.
To make sense of these celestial happenings, we enlisted the help of Kimberly Arcand and Megan Watzke, authors of Your Ticket to the Universe: A Guide to Exploring the Cosmos, recently published by Smithsonian Books. Arcand and Watzke both work as communications officers for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which means they have extensive experience dealing with the cosmos and capturing arresting astronomical images. The two have collaborated before on From Earth to the Universe and From Earth to the Solar System, two projects that bring the universe’s wonders down to earth in breathtaking photographs. Their new book features 240 full-color images from telescopes, observatories and in-space cameras, including the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes and NASA’s Curiosity rover.
“You don’t need a medical degree to know when you’re sick or a doctorate in literature to appreciate a novel,” Arcand and Watzke write. “In the same spirit, even those of us who do not have advanced degrees in astronomy, astrophysics or space science can gain access to all the wonder and experience that the Universe has to offer.”
If this list whets your appetite for more exciting cosmological happenings, check out the book to learn far more amazing facts about the Universe, and peruse some of these lists of even more celestial events taking place this year.
Tuesday, May 28: Conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Mercury
In celestial terms, “conjunctions” are when two or more objects appear really close together in the sky. On this rare night, Venus and Jupiter will come within 1 degree of each other, and Mercury, which has been close to the pair since Friday, will be within 5 degrees of them. According to NASA, the last time triple conjunction occurred in 2011, and another. won’t be seen until October 2015.
The three planets will be most visible 45 minutes to an hour after sunset. In the twilight, look west-northwest and low in the sky. Venus is the brightest of the three planets, and Jupiter will be close above it to the right.
Arcand and Watzke say:
Planets are always fun objects to try to find in the night sky. Because they are closer to us than the stars (other than the Sun, of course), they appear as tiny solid disks rather the just pinpricks of light. This means that the planets appear to be less affected by the blurring effects of our atmosphere, which is what causes the stars to “twinkle.” (But stars don’t actually twinkle. The movements of air and moisture in the Earth’s atmosphere makes the distant light look like it’s changing in ways that it is not.)
Venus and Jupiter are not actually any nearer each other than normal–they just appear to align from our vantage point on Earth. Venus is still closer to the Sun than the Earth, and Jupiter remains in its orbit as the fifth planet out at an average of about 500 million miles from the center of the Solar System.
Fun fact: Venus is often a great night sky viewing target and was long referred to as “the evening star” because of it’s clear and early appearance in the evening. So we’re often wishing on a planet and not a star if we wish up on the first bright light of the evening.
The biggest full moon of 2013! On Sunday at 7 a.m. GMT (that’s 3 a.m. in New York, midnight in Los Angeles), the moon will reach it’s closest point to earth of the year, a mere 221,824 miles away. That’s not quite close enough to touch, but it may look like it is.
Arcand and Watzke say:
As the Moon travels in its orbit around Earth, more or less of the Moon’s disk is illuminated by the Sun. When the Moon is behind the Earth with respect to the Sun, we can see its full face lit up by sunlight. This is what we know as the “full Moon,” and it occurs once every 27 days or so. Use the opportunity of a fully illuminated Moon—especially this big one—to get a really good look at our nearest neighbor in space. The pockmarks are the result of meteors that have struck the lunar surface. Because the Moon has essentially no atmosphere or weather like we do on Earth, these craters have been preserved in pristine condition instead of being erased like those on Earth largely have.
Fun fact: On the occasional times a full moon happens 13 times in a year, instead of 12, the last full moon is called a “Blue Moon”, which is where the phrase comes from.
Two major annual meteor showers, the Delta Aquarid and the Perseid, will be shooting across the night sky throughout most of July and August.
The Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower runs from July 12 to August 23, and peaks from July 27 to 28 with up to 20 meteors per hour. It comes from the debris of comets Marsden and Kracht. It is not highly visible in America, and best seen from the Southern Hemisphere and at low altitudes just north of the equator. Light from the moon, in its second quarter, will block most of the faint meteors from sight, too, but you should still be able to see at least some of the big ones if you’re on the lookout for them.
The Perseid Meteor Shower runs from July 17 to August 24, and peaks from August 11 to 12 with up to 60 meteors per hour. It is produced by comet Swift-Tuttle. Unlike the Delta Aquarid, it is highly visible in the Northern Hemisphere, and peaks during a first quarter moon, which means hardly any light will obstruct the show.
Arcand and Watzke say:
Meteor showers are great to plan summer evenings around. These showers happen when the Earth passes through a cloud of rocks from a comet that has been ripped apart by gravity. While many people want to use binoculars or telescopes in order to get the best views of events in the night sky, meteor showers are actually best viewed with just your eyes. That’s because binoculars or a telescope will limit your field of view. The game in watching meteor showers is to get the widest and darkest view of the night sky.
Fun fact: Despite their nickname of “shooting stars” in popular culture, these are not stars at all. Impress your friends and family by pointing out that these streaks of light are, in fact, pieces of rock and other debris whizzing through the Earth’s atmosphere.
April 9, 2013
The red sandstone façade of the Smithsonian Castle makes it one of the most striking buildings in Washington, DC. The stone for the building was cut less than 30 miles away at the Seneca Quarry along the Potomac River in Maryland and shipped to the city in the 1850s when the building was first under construction. But the quarry’s story is a complicated one, involving death, floods, bankruptcy and presidential embarrassment. DC author and historian Garrett Peck recently set about telling its tales in his new book, The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry, out now via The History Press. We chatted with Peck via e-mail about the Castle’s construction, the importance of preserving the stone’s history and the quarry’s “boom-bust ride” of fortune and ruin.
What makes Seneca redstone so special?
Seneca redstone is unique for its color and durability. It is a rusty red color, caused by iron oxide that leached into the sandstone (yes, it literally rusted the stone). The stone was easy to carve from the cliffs near Seneca Creek, Maryland, but it hardened over the course of a year, making it a durable building material. Thus you see Seneca redstone in hundreds of 19th-century buildings around Washington, especially around the basement levels. The stone was considered waterproof.
Why was Seneca redstone chosen for the Castle?
Fifteen quarries from across the Mid-Atlantic bid on the Smithsonian Castle project in 1846, and the Castle could have ended up any number of different colors: granite, marble, white or yellow sandstone—or redstone. The Seneca quarry owner, John P.C. Peter, underbid the competition by such a staggering amount that it drew the attention of the Castle’s Building Committee. It was almost too good to be true, so they dispatched architect James Renwick and geologist David Dale Owen to investigate. They returned with good news: there was more than enough stone to build the Castle. Renwick wrote the Building Committee: “The stone is of excellent quality, of even color, being of a warm gray, a lilac tint resembling that known as ashes of rose, and can, from all indications, be found in sufficient quantities to supply all the face work for the Institution.”
What was the Seneca Quarry like at the height of its production?
The Seneca quarry must have been a bustling and noisy place to work, what with the constant hammering away at the cliffside, the din of workers carving and polishing the stone, and the braying of mules who pulled the C&O Canal boats to Washington. We don’t know how much redstone was removed, but it was extensive: there were about a dozen quarries stretching along the one-mile stretch of the Potomac River west of Seneca Creek. The workforce included many immigrants from England, Ireland and Wales, as well as African Americans. Slaves most likely worked at the quarry before the Civil War—and freedmen certainly worked there until the quarry closed in 1901.
Your book says the quarry’s history was a “boom-bust ride.” What was some of the drama surrounding the quarry and the Castle’s construction?
The Seneca quarry had four different owners: the Peter family, who owned it from 1781 to 1866, then sold it after their fortunes declined because of the Civil War. Three different companies then owned the quarry until it closed—two of them going bankrupt. The Seneca Sandstone Company (1866-1876) was horribly managed financially. It was involved in a national scandal that embarrassed the Ulysses S. Grant presidency and helped bring down the Freedman’s Bank. The quarry’s last owner shut down operations in 1901 once it became clear that redstone was no longer in fashion. It had had a good five decade run while Victorian architecture reigned.
What is the Seneca quarry like today?
The Seneca quarry sits right along the C&O Canal about 20 miles upriver from Washington, DC in Montgomery County, Maryland. But it’s so overgrown with trees and brush that most people have no idea that it exists—even though hundreds of people bike or walk right past it everyday along the canal towpath. Luckily the land is entirely protected in parkland, so it can never be developed. I have a dream that we can create a visitor park in the quarry so people can explore its history year-round.
We so rarely ever make the connection between our building materials and the places where we live and work. Yet every brick, sheetrock, splotch of paint and wooden doorway came from somewhere, didn’t it? The Seneca quarry is one of those forgotten places—but fortunately it isn’t lost to us.
What is your personal connection to the story of Seneca Quarry?
I discovered the Seneca quarry while researching my previous book, The Potomac River: A History and Guide. It was the one major historical site that I found along the Potomac that no one knows about—there isn’t so much as a sign to indicate that it’s there. It is such a fascinating site, like discovering something lost from ancient Rome (even though it only closed in 1901). There has never been a book about the quarry’s history written before, and I also soon discovered that there were no quarry records. It was a story that I had to piece together by searching through archives. Happily I found a treasure trove of historic photos showing the Seneca quarry in action—many populated with the African American workers who worked there.