Essays
Science & Medicine

Picturing a Voice: Margaret Watts-Hughes and the Eidophone

Picturing a Voice: Margaret Watts-Hughes and the Eidophone

Of the various forms the nascent art of sound recording took in the late nineteenth century perhaps none was so aesthetically alluring as that invented by Margaret Watts-Hughes. Rob Mullender-Ross explores the significance of the Welsh singer’s ingenious set of images, which until recently were thought to be lost. more

Greenland Unicorns and the Magical Alicorn

Greenland Unicorns and the Magical Alicorn

When the existence of unicorns, and the curative powers of the horns ascribed to them, began to be questioned, one Danish physician pushed back through curious means — by reframing the unicorn as an aquatic creature of the northern seas. Natalie Lawrence on a fascinating convergence of established folklore, nascent science, and pharmaceutical economy. more

Brilliant Visions: Peyote among the Aesthetes

Brilliant Visions: Peyote among the Aesthetes

Used by the indigenous peoples of the Americas for millennia, it was only in the last decade of the 19th century that the powerful effects of mescaline began to be systematically explored by curious non-indigenous Americans and Europeans. Mike Jay looks at one such pioneer Havelock Ellis who, along with his small circle of fellow artists and writers, documented in wonderful detail his psychedelic experiences. more

Flower Power: Hamilton’s Doctor and the Healing Power of Nature

Flower Power: Hamilton’s Doctor and the Healing Power of Nature

Rebecca Rego Barry on David Hosack, the doctor who attended Alexander Hamilton to his duel (and death), and creator of one of the first botanical gardens in the United States, home to thousands of species which he used for his pioneering medical research. more

Mesmerising Science: The Franklin Commission and the Modern Clinical Trial

Mesmerising Science: The Franklin Commission and the Modern Clinical Trial

Benjamin Franklin, magnetic trees, and erotically-charged séances — Urte Laukaityte on how a craze for sessions of "animal magnetism" in late 18th-century Paris led to the randomised placebo-controlled and double-blind clinical trials we know and love today. more

The Poetry of Victorian Science

The Poetry of Victorian Science

In 1848, the mineralogist, pioneer of photography, and amateur poet Robert Hunt published The Poetry of Science, a hugely ambitious work that aimed to offer a survey of scientific knowledge while also communicating the metaphysical, moral, and aesthetic aspects of science to the general reader. Gregory Tate explores what the book can teach us about Victorian desires to reconcile the languages of poetry and science. more

Bringing the Ocean Home

Bringing the Ocean Home

Bernd Brunner on the English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse and how his 1854 book The Aquarium, complete with spectacular illustrations and a dizzy dose of religious zeal, sparked a craze for the "ocean garden" that gripped Victorian Britain. more

Darwin's Polar Bear

Darwin's Polar Bear

Musings upon the whys and wherefores of polar bears, particularly in relation to their forest-dwelling cousins, played an important but often overlooked role in the development of evolutionary theory. Michael Engelhard explores. more

The Dreams of an Inventor in 1420

The Dreams of an Inventor in 1420

Bennett Gilbert peruses the sketchbook of 15th-century engineer Johannes de Fontana, a catalogue of designs for a variety of fantastic and often impossible inventions, including fire-breathing automatons, pulley-powered angels, and the earliest surviving drawing of a magic lantern device. more

Pods, Pots, and Potions: Putting Cacao to Paper in Early Modern Europe

Pods, Pots, and Potions: Putting Cacao to Paper in Early Modern Europe

Christine Jones explores the different ways the cacao tree has been depicted through history — from 16th-century codices to 18th-century botanicals — and what this changing iconography reveals about cacao's journey into European culture. more

Master of Disaster, Ignatius Donnelly

Master of Disaster, Ignatius Donnelly

The destruction of Atlantis, cataclysmic comets, and a Manhattan tower made entirely from concrete and corpse — Carl Abbott on the life and work of a Minnesotan writer, and failed politician, with a mind primed for catastrophe. more

Human Forms in Nature: Ernst Haeckel's Trip to South Asia and Its Aftermath

Human Forms in Nature: Ernst Haeckel's Trip to South Asia and Its Aftermath

An early promoter and populariser of Darwin's evolutionary theory, the German biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel was a hugely influential figure of the late 19th century. Bernd Brunner looks at how a trip to Sri Lanka sowed the seeds for not only Haeckel's majestic illustrations from his Art Forms in Nature, for which he is perhaps best known today, but also his disturbing ideas on race and eugenics. more

W. B. O'Shaughnessy and the Introduction of Cannabis to Modern Western Medicine

W. B. O'Shaughnessy and the Introduction of Cannabis to Modern Western Medicine

Cataleptic trances, enormous appetites, and giggling fits aside, W. B. O'Shaughnessy's investigations at a Calcutta hospital into the potential of medical marijuana — the first such trials in modern medicine — were largely positive. Sujaan Mukherjee explores the intricacies of this pioneering research and what it can tell us more generally about the production of knowledge in colonial science. more

Lofty Only in Sound: Crossed Wires and Community in 19th-Century Dreams

Lofty Only in Sound: Crossed Wires and Community in 19th-Century Dreams

Alicia Puglionesi explores a curious case of supposed dream telepathy at the end of the US Civil War, in which old ideas about the prophetic nature of dreaming collided with loss, longing, and new possibilities of communication at a distance. more

The Many Lives of the Medieval Wound Man

The Many Lives of the Medieval Wound Man

Sliced, stabbed, punctured, bleeding, harassed on all sides by various weaponry, the curious image of Wound Man is a rare yet intriguing presence in the world of medieval and early modern medical manuscripts. Jack Hartnell explores this enigmatic figure's journey through the centuries. 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

Visions of Algae in Eighteenth-Century Botany

Visions of Algae in Eighteenth-Century Botany

Although not normally considered the most glamorous of Mother Nature's offerings, algae has found itself at the heart of many a key moment in the last few hundred years of botanical science. Ryan Feigenbaum traces the surprising history of one particular species — Conferva fontinalis — from the vials of Joseph Priestley's laboratory to its possible role as inspiration for Shelley's Frankenstein. more

Copying Pictures, Evidencing Evolution

Copying Pictures, Evidencing Evolution

Copying — unoriginal, dull, and derivative by definition — can be creative, contested, and consequential in its effects. Nick Hopwood tracks Haeckel’s embryos, some of the most controversial pictures in the history of science, and explores how copying put them among the most widely seen. more

Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence

Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence

Defecating ducks, talking busts, and mechanised Christs — Jessica Riskin on the wonderful history of automata, machines built to mimic the processes of intelligent life. more

The Anthropometric Detective and His Racial Clues

The Anthropometric Detective and His Racial Clues

Ava Kofman explores how the spectre of race, in particular Francis Galton's disturbing theory of eugenics, haunts the early history of fingerprint technology. more

Worlds Without End

Worlds Without End

At the end of the 19th century, inspired by radical advances in technology, physicists asserted the reality of invisible worlds — an idea through which they sought to address not only psychic phenomena such as telepathy, but also spiritual questions around the soul and immortality. Philip Ball explores this fascinating history, and how in this turn to the unseen in the face of mystery there exists a parallel to quantum physics today. more

The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Professor Sharon Ruston surveys the scientific background to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, considering contemporary investigations into resuscitation, galvanism, and the possibility of states between life and death. more

Notes on the Fourth Dimension

Notes on the Fourth Dimension

Hyperspace, ghosts, and colourful cubes — Jon Crabb on the work of Charles Howard Hinton and the cultural history of higher dimensions. more

Richard Spruce and the Trials of Victorian Bryology

Richard Spruce and the Trials of Victorian Bryology

Obsessed with the smallest and seemingly least exciting of plants — mosses and liverworts — the 19th-century botanist Richard Spruce never achieved the fame of his more popularist contemporaries. Elaine Ayers explores the work of this unsung hero of Victorian plant science and how his complexities echoed the very subject of his study. more

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