Essays
Culture & History

George Washington: A Descendant of Odin?

George Washington: A Descendant of Odin?

Yvonne Seale on a bizarre and fanciful piece of genealogical scholarship and what it tells us about identity in late 19th-century America. more

“Let us Calculate!”: Leibniz, Llull, and the Computational Imagination

“Let us Calculate!”: Leibniz, Llull, and the Computational Imagination

Three hundred years after the death of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and seven hundred years after the death of Ramon Llull, Jonathan Gray looks at how their early visions of computation and the “combinatorial art” speak to our own age of data, algorithms, and artificial intelligence. more

Richard Hakluyt and Early English Travel

Richard Hakluyt and Early English Travel

The Principle Navigations, Richard Hakluyt's great championing of Elizabethan colonial exploration, remains one of the most important collections of English travel writing ever published. As well as the escapades of famed names such as Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, Nandini Das looks at how the book preserves many stories of lesser known figures that surely would have been otherwise lost. more

The Calcutta Pococurante Society: Public and Private in India’s Age of Reform

The Calcutta Pococurante Society: Public and Private in India’s Age of Reform

Joshua Ehrlich on an obscure text found on the shelves of a Bengali library and the light it sheds on the idea of the "public" in 19th-century Calcutta. more

"Unlimiting the Bounds": the Panorama and the Balloon View

"Unlimiting the Bounds": the Panorama and the Balloon View

The second essay in a two-part series in which Lily Ford explores how balloon flight transformed our ideas of landscape. Here she looks at the phenomenon of the panorama, and how its attempts at creating the immersive view were inextricably linked to the new visual experience opened up by the advent of ballooning. more

"For the Sake of the Prospect": Experiencing the World from Above in the Late 18th Century

"For the Sake of the Prospect": Experiencing the World from Above in the Late 18th Century

The first essay in a two-part series in which Lily Ford explores how balloon flight transformed our ideas of landscape. We begin with a look at the unique set of images included in Thomas Baldwin's Airopaidia (1786) — the first "real" overhead aerial views. more

The Secret History of Holywell Street: Home to Victorian London's Dirty Book Trade

The Secret History of Holywell Street: Home to Victorian London's Dirty Book Trade

Victorian sexuality is often considered synonymous with prudishness, conjuring images of covered-up piano legs and dark ankle-length skirts. Historian Matthew Green uncovers a quite different scene in the sordid story of Holywell St, 19th-century London's epicentre of erotica and smut. more

Frankenstein, the Baroness, and the Climate Refugees of 1816

Frankenstein, the Baroness, and the Climate Refugees of 1816

It is two hundred years since "The Year Without a Summer", when a sun-obscuring ash cloud — ejected from one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in recorded history — caused temperatures to plummet the world over. Gillen D’Arcy Wood looks at the humanitarian crisis triggered by the unusual weather, and how it offers an alternative lens through which to read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a book begun in its midst. more

George Washington at the Siamese Court

George Washington at the Siamese Court

Keen to appear outward-looking and open to Western culture, in 1838 the Second King of Siam bestowed upon his son a most unusual name. Ross Bullen explores the curious case of “Prince George Washington”, a 19th-century Siamese prince. more

Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments

Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments

Deirdre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson, curators of the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments, explore the wonderful history of made-up musical contraptions, including a piano comprised of yelping cats and Francis Bacon's 17th-century vision of experimental sound manipulation. more

Forgotten Failures of African Exploration

Forgotten Failures of African Exploration

Dane Kennedy reflects on two disastrous expeditions into Africa organised by the British in the early-19th century, and how their lofty ambitions crumbled before the implacable realities of the continent. more

When Chocolate was Medicine: Colmenero, Wadsworth, and Dufour

When Chocolate was Medicine: Colmenero, Wadsworth, and Dufour

Chocolate has not always been the common confectionary we experience today. When it first arrived from the Americas into Europe in the 17th century it was a rare and mysterious substance, thought more of as a drug than as a food. Christine Jones traces the history and literature of its reception. more

Julia Pastrana: A “Monster to the Whole World”

Julia Pastrana: A “Monster to the Whole World”

Julia Pastrana, a woman from Mexico born with hypertrichosis, became one of the most famous human curiosities of the 19th century, exhibited the world over as a "bearded lady" while both alive and dead. Bess Lovejoy explores her story and how it was only in 2013, 153 years after her passing, that she was finally laid to rest. more

Illustrations of Madness: James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom

Illustrations of Madness: James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom

Mike Jay recounts the tragic story of James Tilly Matthews, a former peace activist of the Napoleonic Wars who was confined to London's notorious Bedlam asylum in 1797 for believing that his mind was under the control of the "Air Loom" - a terrifying machine whose mesmeric rays and mysterious gases were brainwashing politicians and plunging Europe into revolution, terror, and war. more

Piracy at the Old Bailey

Piracy at the Old Bailey

Ben Merriman presents a selection of piracy cases from the proceedings of London's Old Bailey. Although a few live up to the swashbuckling heists of stereotype, many reveal the surprisingly everyday nature of the maritime crimes brought before the court, including cases involving an argument over chickens and the stealing of a captain's hats. more

Picturing Pyrotechnics

Picturing Pyrotechnics

Simon Werrett explores how artists through the ages have responded to the challenge of representing firework displays, from the highly politicised and allegorical renderings of the early modern period to Whistler's impressionistic Nocturne in Black and Gold. more

John L. Sullivan Fights America

John L. Sullivan Fights America

In 1883, the Irish-American heavy-weight boxing champion John L. Sullivan embarked on an unprecedented coast-to-coast tour of the United States offering a prize to any person who could endure four rounds with him in the ring. Christopher Klein tells of this remarkable journey and how the railroads and the rise of the popular press proved instrumental in forging Sullivan into America's first sports superstar. more

1592: Coining Columbus

1592: Coining Columbus

For many, the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas is inextricably linked to a particular image: a small group of confident men on a tropical beach formally announcing their presence to the dumbfounded Amerindians. Michiel van Groesen explores the origins of this Eurocentric iconography and ascribes its persistence to the editorial strategy of the publisher who invented the initial design, a full century after Columbus' encounter. more

Darkness Over All: John Robison and the Birth of the Illuminati Conspiracy

Darkness Over All: John Robison and the Birth of the Illuminati Conspiracy

Conspiracy theories of a secretive power elite seeking global domination have long held a place in the modern imagination. Mike Jay explores the idea’s beginnings in the writings of John Robison, a Scottish scientist who maintained that the French revolution was the work of a covert Masonic cell known as the Illuminati. more

Writing his Life through the Other: The Anthropology of Malinowski

Writing his Life through the Other: The Anthropology of Malinowski

Last year saw the works of Bronislaw Malinowski - father of modern anthropology - enter the public domain in many countries around the world. Michael W. Young explores the personal crisis plaguing the Polish-born anthropologist at the end of his first major stint of ethnographic immersion in the Trobriand Islands, a period of self-doubt glimpsed through entries in his diary - the most infamous, most nakedly honest document in the annals of social anthropology. more

Inside the Empty House: Sherlock Holmes, For King and Country

Inside the Empty House: Sherlock Holmes, For King and Country

As a new series of BBC’s Sherlock revives the great detective after his apparent death, Andrew Glazzard investigates the domestic and imperial subterfuge beneath the surface of Sherlock Holmes’s 1903 return to Baker Street in Conan Doyle’s ‘The Empty House’. more

Encounter at the Crossroads of Europe - the Fellowship of Zweig and Verhaeren

Encounter at the Crossroads of Europe - the Fellowship of Zweig and Verhaeren

Stefan Zweig, whose works passed into the public domain this year in many countries around the world, was one of the most famous writers of the 1920s and 30s. Will Stone explores the importance of the Austrian's early friendship with the oft overlooked Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren. more

Elizabeth Bisland’s Race Around the World

Elizabeth Bisland’s Race Around the World

Matthew Goodman explores the life and writings of Elizabeth Bisland, an American journalist propelled into the limelight when she set out in 1889 - head-to-head with fellow journalist Nellie Bly - on a journey to beat Phileas Fogg's fictitious 80-day circumnavigation of the globe. more

A Dangerous Man in the Pantheon

A Dangerous Man in the Pantheon

This October marks 300 years since the birth of French Enlightenment thinker Denis Diderot. Although perhaps best known for co-founding the Encylopédie, Philipp Blom argues for the importance of Diderot's philosophical writings and how they offer a pertinent alternative to the Enlightenment cult of reason spearheaded by his better remembered contemporaries Voltaire and Rousseau. more

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