Friday, 14 November 2014

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

November 14

 Well now, if you’ve currently been experiencing one of those dour days that seem no better than a sluggard indolent underachiever leaden with inertia, then fear not because, historically speaking, November 14 has traditionally been somewhat slow to get into its stride and, indeed, we have to wait for 1666 to come along before we see any decent action whatsoever. Before we go any further, however, and in order to avoid thousands of irate letters pouring in from all the outraged boffins out there, we should point out that, whilst most of us think of inertia as a complete lack of movement, the physicists (we blame that Kepler bloke for it) define inertia as “the tendency of a body to preserve its state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force.” And, just in case we’ve got any pedants, purists or downright etymologists looking in today, the word actually comes from the Latin, iners, which is in- (not) plus ars (art), or, in other words, unskilful. So, in a way, we’re all wrong. But, there you go, a paragraph used up already and we still haven’t achieved anything beyond bickering amongst ourselves, so you can see what kind of a day we’re up against.
Right then, getting back to 1666, if we may, and that can only mean Samuel Pepys, who this day was recording in his diary of how he’d been to see one of the very first blood transfusions (between two dogs), barely four decades after William Harvey had made his discoveries about circulation and the heart. Mind you, as early as 1657, Dr Wren (later Sir Christopher) had made his own experimental stab at injecting various fluids into the veins of animals, achieving what are described as “mixed results.” No doubt someone drew him discreetly to one side and suggested that perhaps the doctoring game wasn’t quite his line and had he thought about having a bash at architecture instead at all? Pepys told his diary that what he had observed this day was “a pretty experiment”, pretty probably meaning something quite different back then, though you’ve always got to bear in mind that our Samuel was the sort of japing rogue that thought it tremendously entertaining sport to go rummaging through a lady’s blousery whilst she was still within it (and boast about it to his diary later). The experiment itself he wrote down as a “very good success”, though the dogs concerned may not have viewed it quite so enthusiastically, the donor especially, a “little mastiff”, seeing he ended up with no blood left at all and subsequently died.

Even earlier still, we get the story of how, in 1492, Pope Innocent VIII lay dying and how his Jewish physician, Giacomo di San Genesio, gave him a transfusion orally, by having him drink the blood of three ten year old boys, which Pepys probably would’ve put down as a very good success, seeing the boys died and, later on, so did the pontiff. This tale is, however, somewhat like the women Pepys got his mitts upon, completely without foundation, being probably no more than anti-Semitism and given away by the rather apocryphal ten year old boys.

Pope Innocent VIII himself, though, is a regular sort and well worth a quick look at while we’re hereabouts. For a start off, he had two illegitimate sons before ever he went priesting and, whilst his nepotism toward his fellow clergy was “as lavish as it was shameless,” one thing he could not abide was witchcraft, going so far as to issue a papal bull on the subject, Summis desiderantes (basically My Big Investigation). Because this was, of course, the time of the Inquisition roaming around all over the place and coming down hard on that kind of thing, the bull being at the instigation of his main man in these matters, Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, the very fellow who would pen the polemic Malleus Maleficarum in 1486 (literally The Hammer of Witches), in which he would claim of them that they were the ones to blame for bad weather. ("Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that, just as easily as they raise hailstorms, so can they cause lightning and storms at sea; and so no doubt at all remains on these points.") Oh, it’s easy for us to scoff at such ignorant naiveté today here in our enlightened times but bear in mind that there was no Ukip in those days, so how could they possibly have known, like we do, that storms and flooding are actually caused by gay marriages?

By the time we reach 1680, we’re back with the physicists again, Well, for the sake of strict accuracy, the astronomers actually – best get that right, in case they start writing enraged letters too, because we all know what dreadful name-callers astronomers can be. Which is very much the point, as it happens, seeing that when Gottfried Kirch discovered his Great Comet on 14 November 1680, what did they end up dubbing it? C/1680 V1, that’s what. An appellation suffused with all the inspiration and romance of a cabdriver’s sock. To be fair, though, it is also known as Kirch’s Comet and, for some reason, Newton’s Comet too. What makes it special is that it was the first comet to be discovered by telescope and it went on to become one of the brightest ones of the seventeenth century, so much so that it is supposed to have been visible in daylight. On 30 November that year, it passed within 0.42 AUs of Earth – yes, just look at the smug supercilious grins on the faces of the astronomers now (and the physicists too, come to that), because they know what 0.42 AUs actually means as a measurement, whereas to the rest of us it’s about as enriching as that same cabdriver’s loudly stated views on immigration. So, to dispel the myth, an AU or Astronomical Unit (see what we mean about naming) is basically the distance from Earth to the Sun or, in proper money, exactly 149,597,870,700 metres, which doesn’t mean very much at all until we reveal that this is very nearly the same as 2,876,882,129 Nelson’s Columns set end to end. A lot. But still not a very near miss.

Kirch did a fair bit of discovery with his telescope, including, in 1681, the Wild Duck Cluster, (we’d take it all back about naming except) known as open cluster M11 and, in the same year, the Mira variable Chi Cygni, as well as introducing three new constellations: the Reichsapfel, the Kurfürstliche Schwert and the Sceptre of Brandenburg, so at least he had a valiant stab at the naming game. And yet, for a long period, he was entirely unable to find employment (“I’m really looking for something in the comet-spotting line”) and had to earn his living making calendars, poor chap, though he did end up as the first ‘Astronomer Royal’ in Berlin and had a crater on the Moon and an asteroid named after him.

This day 1732 and the USA (or the Thirteen Colonies as they still were then, the Declaration of Independence not coming until 4 July 1776) got its very first professional librarian in the form of Louis Timothée, appointed by none other than Benjamin Franklin himself, whose Junto, or Leather Apron Club (best not to ask), had been set up with aim of self-improvement, reading being an especial favourite amongst the members. The one drawback, however, was that books were rare and expensive, so Franklin hit upon the brilliant idea of a subscription library and thus was formed one of his first philanthropic projects, the Library Company of Philadelphia, which started on 1 July 1731. Though not quite so brilliant on his part was thinking that he could run his library without an actual librarian, a patently absurd notion to us today, rather like suggesting you can grow fish without a hacksaw. By 14 November 1732, he had realised the utter folly of this approach and so Louis Timothée was hired (or Lewis Timothy, as he is commonly known, it being held, back then, as a truth self-evident that all men are created equal but some of them will inevitably be French. He was actually Dutch). He was paid the princely sum of three pounds every trimester, which may not seem like a lot but, then again, he only had to work Wednesdays from two to three and Saturdays from ten to four.
Unlike the Americans to lag behind, but meanwhile the rest of us have been having paid librarians since about 700BC, the first one to get it all going being Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria, who had a library in his palace at Nineveh, though it tended to be tablets in those days rather than books. But, as is only right and proper, they were all arranged in a logical order by subject and type, meaning that cataloguing is every bit as old as the concept of library itself. The Greeks were pretty keen too, counting some big names amongst their librarians, including Apollonius, Aristophanes, Aristarchus, and Callimachus, who would eventually come up with a cataloguing system known as the pinakes, which was hugely popular for centuries until Melvil Dewey came along with his Dewey Decimal Classification in 1876. He was an American, possibly making up for lost time, and, as a young man, advocated spelling reform, changing his name from the original Melville (ditching the superfluous letters) and also, for a while, turning his surname to Dui. Luckily, it didn’t stick, otherwise we might have had people thinking it was the “Dwee Decimal System,” and then where would we be? Bet he’s the blighter responsible for all those hideous sawn-off words like program and color and, indeed, catalog.

We’ll need to skip straight past Charles Darwin “departing by horse for Montevideo” in 1833 (that he suffered horribly from seasickness could be the explanation there) and William Thomson in 1834 entering Glasgow University aged ten years and four months, and even the publication of Moby Dick, all of which came this day, otherwise we won’t have time to mention the very fellow who should be star of any November 14 celebrations: an American preacher by the name of Charles Julius Guiteau who should be infamous but, rather like the rest of us, even some of our American contingency will not have recognised the name. Anyone care to take a guess at his bid for notoriety?
It was this day 1881 that the trial began of Charles J Guiteau, who had flopped in many a trade, including failed politician (though aren’t they all?), theology, law and bill collecting. What set the whole thing in motion was when he wrote a speech in support of Ulysses S. Grant which he later revised to one in support of James A. Garfield, who would win the Presidential election of 1880. Guiteau never delivered the speech in a public (but did print it as a pamphlet in hundreds of copies) and he fully believed that this alone was what had won Garfield the top job and that, as reward, he should himself be given some cushy little earner, say as a diplomat, say in Vienna or, failing that, Paris would do. Garfield’s gratitude proved underwhelming, so Guiteau was left with no option but to shoot him. On 2 July 1881 at a railroad station. He even bungled that in his own inimitable way, seeing Garfield clung to life for a further eleven weeks, the second of four Presidents to be assassinated. Care to name the rest? Three should be easy enough, seeing we’ve already given you one to start with, but who’s the elusive fourth?

As early as 1875, Guiteau’s family had declared him insane and attempted to have him committed; only he escaped and went into politics (rather proving their point really). Having been snubbed by the top brass, he decided that God had commanded him to kill the ungrateful President, so he went out to buy himself a big gun (he had to borrow $15 for it), choosing an ivory-handled .44 Webly British Bulldog because he imagined that it would make a good museum piece after he’d done the deed. It did get into the Smithsonian but they somehow lost it later. Just Guiteau’s luck. He spent the next few weeks on target practice and even wrote to the President to tell him what to expect. Which Garfield ignored. To wrap things up neatly, he paid a visit to the District of Columbia jail in the hope of getting shown round, as he expected to be banged up there later: they told him to come back later, which he would. All June he trailed Garfield around Washington, on one occasion to the railway station, where his victim-to-be was seeing his wife off on a trip to the beach, though Guiteau decided the shooting could wait as the First Lady was in bad health and he “didn’t want to upset her”. Instead, he held off until the main man was heading off on his own summer hols and got him at the railway station, firing at point blank range (so why all the target practice, unless) nearly missing with the first shot and hitting Garfield in the back with the second, before calmly walking off to catch the taxi he had standing by. He was arrested instead.

Guiteau may have shot Garfield but, sadly, it proved to be his own doctors that finished the President off. At first, they said he wouldn’t last the night (he lived eleven weeks) and then they took to probing for the bullet without washing their hands first, and then generally sticking their dirty fingers in entirely the wrong place, one of them puncturing his liver just for good measure. Alexander Graham Bell even devised a metal detector to try and locate the bullet but this proved to be largely unsuccessful, mainly because they’d forgotten that the bedframe was made of metal too. Though Navy engineers did manage to rig up an early version of air conditioning by having fans blow over a large box of ice against the heat of a Washington summer, which worked well enough to lower the temperature by twenty degrees. Nonetheless, Garfield still died, on Monday 19 September.

On 14 November, Guiteau went on trial, amazingly pleading not guilty, because God had told him to do it, and then going on to constantly insult his defence team and giving his testimony in the form of epic poems before singing John Brown’s Body to the court. He remained blissfully unaware of the public’s revulsion and hatred of him (two assassination attempts were made on him), going so far as to advertise for “a nice Christian lady under thirty.” None of did him any good: on 25 January 1882, he was found guilty and condemned to the rope, his execution being set for 30 June that year. Even then, he was not done, dancing his way to the gallows before shaking hands with his executioner, waving to the crowd and then reciting a lengthy poem he had written that morning, called I am Going to the Lordy. He had wanted full orchestra backing for this last (request denied) but he sang it solo, though numerous times breaking down to sob on the shoulder of the nearest man. The hood was then put over his head and, at the agreed signal (he would drop the paper the poem was written on), he was sent to meet the Lordy. 

Your four assassinated Presidents are, of course, Abraham Lincoln (15 April 1865); Garfield, as we’ve seen; William McKinley, the generally overlooked one (14 September 1901); and John F. Kennedy, also in November (22 November 1963). How did you do? Bizarrely, it was not until the Twenty-fifth Amendment was ratified in 1967 that there was an official procedure for what to do if the President became incapacitated. We British, on the other hand, and without wanting to sound too pompous and superior about it, have an absolutely foolproof method of ensuring nothing calamitous befalls Our Glorious Leader: we simply utter those three dread words: Clegg’s In Charge …


Pepys: By John Hayls (1600–1679) (Flickr) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Comet over Rotterdam: Lieve Verschuier - painting by Dutch artist Lieve Verschuier [public domain]

Kirch: By Polylerus at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Librarian: Giuseppe Arcimboldo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Guiteau: By Unknown photographer, cropped by User:Connormah [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Garvey Shot: By A. Berghaus and C. Upham, published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Franklin: Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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