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Thursday, 28 February 2013


News: I may have just started another book.  It's actually already in second draft, but a publisher is interested.  I will say no more until it's a bit more solid.  That has slowed me down a bit for a couple of days, but now I am up and running, which beings me to the cursor.

The cursor we all know best these days is the little blinking thingummy on our computer screen, which runs along, showing us where we are on the screen. To a generation of engineers and physicists who are now mainly retired, the last generation to wield the slide rule, the cursor of their youth was a small slide with a hair-line on it, that was used to read off the results of complex sums, back in the days before calculators became the standard thing to use.

This is a slide rule. The cursor is the plastic thing with a vertical line on it. Just
for the record, I own two slide rules: one was used from 1959 onwards, but I
bought the other one for $2 at a sale in 1980, when they went out of fashion.
Literally, a cursor is a runner, and the word comes to us from the Latin. In that tongue, 'to move rapidly' is currere, from which we get a variety of words like curriculum, but Latin is an inflected language, and what is currere at one point in the life cycle of the word, at other times appears as cursum, which gives us terms like cursor and course — whether it is a race course, or a course of study. Oddly enough, the Latin 'curriculum' has had both meanings, changing from a small race course to a syllabus to be followed, though a currum and a curricle are both carriages.

Other related words include 'cursitate', which means to run hither and thither, rather like formicate, but without the need for ants to be involved, and the cursitor, who was a medieval court clerk, who wrote things, of course, in a cursive or running style, rather than in an uncial style.

But back to 'cursor', aside from its meaning as a slide on a slide rule or similar instruments, the normal medieval university would have had an entirely different sort of cursor, who was a student with a bachelor's degree in theology, to whom fell the task of giving preliminary lessons on the Bible to the new students. In zoology, the cursores were the running birds that we now call the ratites (which led me recently, through a research paper on dinosaurs, to explore the acetabulum).

A current in the ocean or in a stream moves rapidly, and this word also comes to us from the Latin currere as well, and current events are events that are still developing rapidly. But given the way that computers can reduce us to bad language, is a cursor anything to do with a curse? It seems not, for 'curse' is just an isolated Old English word, found nowhere else, a mystery term, unrelated to anything at all. It does not even relate to the English dialect term 'cursen', which means to christen or baptise.

That leaves us just a couple of possible relatives to consider. First, the dried grapes called currants have nothing to do with this family of words, for they are just the raisins of Corinth, somewhat corrupted over the years. That disappointed me, since I once wrote, for a competition, the world's worst multiple choice question, on an aspect of sedimentary geology gone badly awry, which ran something like this:
What is current bedding?
(A) a leaky water bed.
(B) an electric blanket.
(C) your present partner.
(D) sleeping with a sultana.
Now I find the currants are an entirely different family from the sultanas. Ah well, you can't win them all.

What, though, of the currency we hand out to pay for our electric current or our currants, or to meet the needs of the curriculum? That word is in the same word family, because currency flows from hand to hand, and as we all know, it flows much to fast, and runs out all too often.

That's why I am back writing books: they pay for our travels.

Thursday, 21 February 2013



In the past, a large part of medical training involved learning the names of things, and how to recognise them.

Most of these were named in Latin, and so it was necessary for medical students to have at least a small amount of Latin, though it is probably open to question whether they ever gained from this knowledge, save for the odd occasion when they bumped into a foreign anatomist, and felt driven to discuss the fine points of a bone they were gnawing. Still, the habit took hold, and lasted.

This is why zoologists, palaeontologists, and others working with bits of anatomy also needed, and still need, to know this rough Latin, which is how I came to be reading about the vinegar pot of a dinosaur. Actually, it was a paper about the cursoriality of dinosaurs, their running behaviour, and nothing to do with the cursor, but the authors were drawing some interesting inferences on the location of the acetabulum in the pelvises of some dinosaurs, but this object is no more than the socket of the hip joint.

The original acetabulum was a vinegar pot, placed on the table in ancient Rome, and from there it became a measure, half a gill, in fact and then, perhaps for its size and shape, the socket that the hind leg goes into. The vinegar itself is a dilute solution of acetic acid, which the chemists now call ethanoic acid, but the Romans called their sour wine 'acetum', and that name has lived on in many chemical names that we will come to in a moment.

The acetabulum bobs up in a number of forms, apart from the bony version. The name is applied to the suckers on squid, cup-shaped cavities or organs in general, a lobe of the placenta in ruminants, and any socket on any joint of an insect. And in fungi, there are certain cup-shaped receptacles called, guess what? That's right, each of them is an acetabulum.

Now back to acetum, though. Aside from acetic acid, we know the term mainly in the form of acetate, though a particularly pedantic chemist might wish to call the substances that we call 'acetates' by the approved title, 'ethanoates'. To the rest of us, 'acetate' is fine, and it is even a registered name for a fabric made from cellulose, somewhat similar to rayon. Chemically, it is cellulose acetate, and it was once known as acetate rayon.

Acetate can be a bit of a problem when you try to use it: the plastic dissolves in a number of common chemicals such as the solvent used in nail polish, paint remover, and also in a perfume made by Du Pont, called, appropriately, Acete. Sadly, acetate was also used as a plastic to make dolls, and many aging ladies are now finding that their dolls of the 1930s and 1940s are decaying, giving off a vinegar smell as the plastic breaks down again.

All of the metal acetates are soluble in water, except for silver acetate, and lead acetate is known as 'sugar of lead' from its reported sweet taste. Who tested the chemical I cannot say, but there is reason to suspect that the Borgias may have used lead acetate to do away with some of their enemies.

According to the surviving enemies of Pope Alexander VI, the father of Lucrezia Borgia, Alexander himself died when he drank wine from the wrong bottle, which contained his white powder, while attempting to poison a Cardinal Corneto who drank the safe wine.

There are few poisons that can remain unnoticed in wine, but lead acetate would certainly be one of them. Perhaps this is the origin of the old chemists' saying — "he who acetates is lost".

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Adventures in the leech trade

I decided to say something about leeches while I was being given a biopsy in my neck, with an ultrasound-guided needle.  It's just one of those play-safe things: the cyst they were sampling is almost certainly benign, but it's atypical, so the medical consensus is that I should get rid of it,

A feeding leech on a human leg (see below for model credits).
I had a nurse and a doctor working on me, and we were chatting about phlebotomy (it always throws them a bit when the patient speaks the language) and weight loss.  

That was when I indicated that one of my temporary obsessions is the Australian leech export trade.  When I was driving home, it struck me that I ought to write these matters up here, because few people know much about them.

Before I get into that though, something that I only learned when I was writing Australian Backyard Naturalist: most leeches have three jaws and leave a Y-shaped incision.

The land leeches of Australia have just two jaws so they make a V-shaped incision. I had never realised that, even though, like anyone who has spent time in the Australian bush, I was familiar with them. Our land leeches don't show up in the arid zone, though the leech you see above came from a dry ridge on sandstone, during a dry spell in summer.

As early as 1817, explorer John Oxley knew all about leeches in the bush:
The leeches in the bushes were very troublesome, and made many plentiful meals at our expense: this would probably have done us no great harm, but the wounds which they made usually festered and became painful sores.—John Oxley, Journal of an Expedition in Australia, part II, 1817.

Around 1845, Ludwig Leichhardt had trouble as well, though his leeches were aquatic:
In the water-hole near our camp, there were numerous small brown leeches, which were very keen in the water, but dropped off as soon as we lifted our feet out of it. The hornets also were very troublesome…—Ludwig Leichhardt, Journal of an Overland Expedition in Australia: From Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a distance of upwards of 3000 miles, during the years 1844-1845.

In 1849, on the ill-fated Kennedy expedition to Cape York in tropical Australia, botanist William Carron was troubled by leeches as well:
August 8…. We fortunately found water in a low place, and with difficulty lighted a fire, everything being saturated with rain. We then laid down and endeavoured to sleep, but were unable to do so from the number of small leeches which attacked us. I was obliged to get up several times in the night, and in the morning I found myself covered with blood.—William Carron, Narrative of an Expedition Undertaken Under the Direction of the Late Mr. Assistant Surveyor E. B. Kennedy (1849)
Leeches are attracted by body heat, they say. This one is questing for prey.
You can use their heat sense to attract leeches into a jar like this. The hand is that
of my wife, Chris, who is a leech magnet, but quite calm about it. The first shot is
of her leg: when she found the leech, she called me to get the camera so I could
record it before she removed the attacker.

Not everybody saw the leech as a threat. On March 16, 1844, the Westminster Hospital in London advertised in The Times for  PROPOSALS for SUPPLYING a range of items for six months from March 31, including butcher's meat, bread and flour, butter, cheese and lard, London porter, linen, drapery, oatmeal, linseed and barley, tea, sugar, and rice, potatoes, oilman's goods, milk, printing, leeches, and lint.   (The Times, Wednesday, Mar 20, 1844; pg. 3; Issue 18562; col A)

The very next year, Australians started exporting leeches:
Exports per Emma Sherratt for the Mauritius. 6 cows, 6 horses, 100 sheep, 40 tons dried fish, several tons of potatoes, 5 casks grapes, 6 jars of leeches, with various other articles of colonial produce.The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal,  Saturday 22February 1845, page 2 

After a rather tiresome exploratory voyage to the unknown markets of the Mauritius, the supercargo of the Emma Sherratt offered this report (in part):
Leeches.—Pondicherry furnishes the Mauritius abundantly with leeches. They sell from 10 doll, to 20 doll, per hundred, and sometimes as high as 30 doll, per dozen. They arc brought in earthenware pots, half filled with earth, which is constantly moistened with fresh water, the earth sometimes completely changed.The Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, Saturday 5 July 1845, page 2
But there was dirty work afoot, with French leeches being artificially enlarged in the interests of profit.  M. Chevalier, Professor of the School of Pharmacy and a member of the Academy of Medicine, reported the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, had published a pamphlet exposing the wicked practice of feeding some of the 500,000,000 leeches imported into France each year on domestic stock.

The leeches were sold by weight, and where 2000 middle-sized leeches might weigh two and a half pounds, once they were gorged, the leeches would weigh four and a half pounds, raising their value from 75 francs to 180 or 200 francs. Interestingly, given the date, well before the germ theory was accepted, the main concern of Chevalier and other eminent medical authorities was that:
…the origin of the blood contained in the bodies of the gorged leeches being unknown, may become the source of contagious diseases transmitted from animals to man … an imposition alike injurious to commerce and to health.The Maitland Mercury, and Hunter River GeneralAdvertiser, Saturday 20 June1846, 3.

SPECIAL NOTE:  For all Scientific American pieces that I cite in the rest of this entry, you go to the Scientific American archive and burrow down.  Each citation has date, volume and page number, and you can use those to get to the page.

The 19th century offered a wealth of information for leech lovers, For example:
How to make Leeches Bite. Dr. Rennes, of Bergerac, advises that the leeches should be put for an instant into weak wine-and-water, the better for being a little warm, just before applying them ; no sooner are they laid on the part than even the most sluggish pierce the skin instantly ; those even that had been for a short time before used, immediately attach themselves. In the Hotel Dieu, the practice is to wring a linen cloth out of undiluted wine, and wrap the leeches in it for a few moments, which is found to have the desired effect.
Scientific American 21/10/1848, 40 vol 4
 But why would you want a leech to bite?  To cure the patient, of course! And aside from general maladies, leeches were set specific targets:
Leeches recommended on the temples when cholera affected the head.  "Should the head be affected and the face flushed, cold lotions should be applied and leeches to the temples."
Scientific American 30/12/1848, 115
In 1863, Scientific American recommended leeches to treat people poisoned with cantharides or Spanish Fly.  (Scientific American 5/9/1863, 151.)

A writer called F. Lancelott, in Australia As It Is, vol. I, p. 49, claimed that Murray shepherds persuaded Aborigines to wade in the waters and allow leeches to attach, then come out of the water so the leeches could be harvested. The leeches were sold to "the faculty in the colonies".

This is not mentioned elsewhere, and somebody was probably pulling Lancelott's leg.  There was certainly an industry using fresh animal skins to lure and hold leeches.  Susan Priestley, in Echuca, p. 46, says that the leeches were caught, stripped of slime and packed in blue clay, to be shipped to London where they sold for £4/10/- or £5 per thousand, "as they were much in demand by medical men".

By 1862, leeches typically brought between £1/10/- and £5 a thousand. My source here is a slightly distant one: the Sydney Morning Herald, 4/8/1862, quoting the Pastoral Times of July 26 and quoted by G M Hibbins, Barmah Chronicles, p. 118. (I have yet to find the original, but this story gives the bloody-hide method.)
They were caught by laying out blood-smeared hides overnight, and in the morning, the thousands of leeches were stripped off, 'squeezed' to remove the slime and then put in blue clay in a box. If they were not cleaned of the slime, they would surely die.
The trade was even noted in the USA.

A very remunerative business has lately grown … Melbourne in the exportation of leeches. The trade is principally carried on In connection with the operations of the Murray River Fishing company, the fishermen there employed turning their attention at seasons unfavorable to the fishery to the collection of leeches. From 150,000 to 210,000 leeches are sometimes collected in one of the trips of the company’s steamers. They are then packed and conveyed to Melbourne, where a large proportion of them are put up for transmission abroad, great numbers being sent to London and Paris, where it is stated they are preferred to leeches brought from any other place.Scientific American 3/8/1867, 102.
The trade must have reached a peak in the 1860s, going on this report:
SOME articles intended to be transmitted In the English mails, but which were not forwarded by the officials, are thus described by a cotemporary :—Two canaries, a pork pie from Devonport to London, pair of white mice, leeches in bladder, bottle of cream, sample of cider, a roast duck, a loaded pistol, fish, reptiles, &c.Scientific American 19/12/1863, 387

Perhaps the postal authorities were worried that somebody might swallow the leeches: it was known to happen when drinking leech-infested water.
Accidents from swallowing leeches.  It appears from an article in the Archives Générales de Médecine, that the soldiers in Algeria are particularly liable to accidents of this description. At the time when the leeches are swallowed, they are so small as readily to escape detection ; they are filiform, and rather resemble a blade of grass than anything else. They usually become attached to the isthmus faucium, or to the pharynx, and are sometimes found in the nostrils. When once they have become fixed, they generally remain for a considerable period, and undergo their development rapidly. Dr. Baizeau records a case in which they remained for more than six months within the pharynx. They very seldom come away of their own accord, and must usually be extracted forcibly.
If they are too deeply seated to be caught by a forceps, then the patient must gargle his throat with a mixture of vinegar, water, and common salt, and must continue the process for several days. But even this sometimes proves unavailing. The symptoms are those of irritation in the part, together with occasional hemorrhage. The latter is often mistaken for a symptom of disease of the lungs, stomach, &c. The only preventive appears to be a caution to the soldiers not to drink water from streams, &c., when they are on the march. It is a remarkable circumstance that a leech can live so long a period under conditions so opposite to those it previously enjoyed, and bears out In some measure the views of those who class the Hirundinei with the Trematoda and Planaria.
Scientific American 20/2/1864, 122
The Tempest Prognosticator
Somewhere I have a note about a device of this sort being displayed  at the Great Exhibition in 1851, well before the 1854 report below.  If my memory is right, it was dismissed even in 1851 as not all that new!  There may also have been something in an earlier Scientific American, but it isn't where I expected it. If you enter Tempest Prognosticator into your search engine, you will find a great deal more information.

Here, for what it is worth, is what Scientific American had to say about it:

A correspondent of the “Philadelphia North American” gives an interesting description of an ingenious instrument, contrived by Dr. Merryweather of Yorkshire, Eng., the great working principle of which is founded on the sensitiveness of leeches to the changes of the weather. It is well known that leeches confined in a bottle partly filled with water, are accustomed, previous to a storm, to rouse from their sluggishness and exhibit signs of extraordinary perturbation. They will swim in all directions, and rising one after another to the top of the water, commence climbing the side of the bottle.
Availing himself of this time-honored custom among leeches, Dr. Merryweather arranged a number of bottles on a stand, each containing a leech and a metallic tube of a particular form, covered with shellac varnish, so that no metal could come in contact with the animal.— When a change in the weather was about to take place, the leeches would crawl into this metallic tube, and in so doing displace a small piece of whalebone which was arranged so as to partially close the opening. To this whalebone was attached a wire, which, passing upward through the mouth of the bottle, connected with the hammer of a bell, so that whenever the leeches were influenced by the electro-magnetic state of the atmosphere to ascend the tube, notice of the fact would be promptly transmitted to the ears of their master.
But it is not absolutely necessary that every one should have such a finished apparatus as that of Dr. Merryweather. On board of vessels it would only be necessary to keep a few leeches in a bottle, placed in some prominent place where the lookout could occasionally examine their movements, and the necessary warning be conveyed in ample time.
Dr. Merryweather seems to have tested his invention fairly. For an entire year (1850) he wrote to the president of the Philosophical Society of Whitby, accounts of the storm indications of his leeches; and in no instance did they prove incorrect. If these results are verified by other observations, a leech barometer may be deemed an indispensable appendage to every ship and every household.
Scientific American 11/3/1854, 208.
Leeches get along like looper caterpillars ("inch worms"), and make a
fascinating study, but trying to photograph a time series is a real pain.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Curious craft

I will visit, at some future time, the fears people had of the sea, which mainly involved drowning and sharks. This excerpt covers novel marine craft, and it is taken from an unpublished ms called The Shark Suit, the Shoe Gun and the Short Shanked Sheep: it is a study of unusual inventions. many of them designed to allay fears.  You can get a better taste of it here.

The other main fear of the sea did not usually bring death, though it commonly made landsmen wish they were dead. It was mal de mer, or sea sickness. The pitching, the rolling and the yawing of a small ship on a wide sea all played havoc with the victim's inner sense of balance, located inside the skull in semi-circular canals that were associated with the ears.

The conflict between what the eyes saw and the ears sensed, combined with ship smells that assorted the nose, all helped to rob people of their equanimity and their dinner. For many 19th century Britons, even a crossing of the Channel could be too much, forcing them to be more and more insular, trapped on their little island until somebody made a bridge, a tunnel or an aircraft that might carry them safely to the Continent.  Imagine how people felt, sailing from Europe to America or Australia.
From Scientific American.

Sailors actually had a way of cancelling out the confusing motions, an invention called gimbals. Typically, compasses were mounted on gimbals, sets of two rings, one inside the other and free to rotate on two axes at right angles to each other. The idea was that any bottom-heavy object would respond to gravity and maintain a level, just like this stove, which has one set of hinges to the left of D, the other set near A.
It was obviously only going to be a matter of time before somebody came up with the idea of a gimballed saloon, inside a ship, where passengers might ride safely and serenely. Enter Mr. (later Sir Henry) Bessemer, engineer and ingenious inventor.

The ship was to be 350 feet long with a beam of 45 feet, carrying a saloon 70 feet long, 30 feet wide and 20 feet high, as well as carrying a promenade deck. Rather than relying on gravity, an engineer was to watch a spirit level and operate a double-handed lever, controlling hydraulics to maintain the saloon's trim.

The great length of the vessel was to reduce any pitching effect caused by waves, because the length was enough to command several waves at any one time. Extra stability would come from quadruple paddle-wheels and the low freeboard (maritime jargon for not being very high).

The manual hydraulics worked well in a model, and again in a trial version that he set up in his London garden. This larger version was 20 feet (six metres) on a side, with a "hull" sitting in a brick-edged pit. After the ship demolished a Calais pier when it went out of control on the maiden voyage in May 1875, the shareholders lost confidence, and the ship was scrapped in 1879. This was without the stabiliser system having been tested, because on that journey, the saloon was firmly fixed in place. This was because the whole design was inherently unstable, and may have turned over, under the effect of the huge forces that would have been needed.

The saloon portion survived, until March, 1944, serving as a classroom in a horticultural college, when it was largely destroyed by German bombs. Bessemer was knighted in 1879, the year that the hull was scrapped, and we have to wonder if there was any connection, since Queen Victoria refused to travel great distances by boat because she suffered so badly from sea sickness.

From the Pella Advertiser, Pella, Iowa,
17 July, 1897.  Thanks Sue W.
The Queen's problems were well-known to a loyal Canadian son of the British Empire, an inventive lawyer called Frederick A. Knapp of Toronto. His solution the Queen's problem was to be a roller boat that would roll across the waves, impervious to them.

The finished version was to be 800 feet (250 metres) long and 200 feet (60 metres) in diameter. Two steam locomotive engines would provide the power that was to send this hurtling from one side of the Atlantic to the other in just 10 hours, according to reports at the time.

Forget paddle wheels! This invention
had two water-wheels, one each side,
turned by the ship's motion and
working the pumps on the ship.
From Popular Science.
This claimed time got Knapp's roller-boat (implying a terrifying speed of 300 mph, 500 km/h) was probably an error.  The top speed is given elsewhere as 60 mph (100 km/h), which would give a crossing-time of more like 50 hours. In reality, the 110 foot (33 metre) test model never went faster than 6 mph (10 km/h) in trials.

Picture a giant rolling pin with fins, rotating at 25 rpm, containing two locomotive engines (one at each end), a terrified court and a hopefully sedated sovereign, rolling over the seas, perhaps at 500 km/h, more probably at 100 km/h, but still appearing out of nowhere, flattening fishing smacks, wiping out whales, and crushing any icebergs foolish enough to stand in its way.

Looking at the illustration, one might be forgiven for wondering quite how the vessel was steered, and how the helmsman was able to see.  The design called for two cylinders, one inside the other. The outside one rolled and used fins to drive the "vessel" forward. Knapp had a variety of plans: one was a ship able to carry 4 million bushels of grain.

Scientific American.
Another planned use was as a troop carrier that could deliver 30,000 troops and hundreds of tons of equipment, but all that ever got built was a small model that crossed the St Lawrence at low speed, and missing a channel, became stranded on soft mud, where it was surrounded by snow and ice.

In the end, the trial craft was hauled off and moored, then it broke loose in 1907, and eventually, it was buried in landfill in 1927.

At least this last one was never going to sail across the oceans, I hope.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Humphrey's humane bullet.

Contrary to what you may think, I am working at the moment, digging out perceptions people had of "wireless" as radio was always called, back in the period of interest, which is more or less 1895 to 1920.  It's not goofing off, it's work!

The thing is, there are always curiosities that emerge, and I can't let those pass by.  I have learned not to write down where I saw them.  Instead, I copy the text into a spreadsheet called gleanings.xls.  At any later point when I try to recall where I saw that weird story about bullets, I can find it.  In this case, I choose to share it.

Burra is a small rural mining town in South Australia, and on September 1, 1915, the Burra Record offered this idea to its readers:

BULLETS WHICH HEAL. A new bullet that carries in its nickel jacket first-aid kits filled with narcotics to deaden pain, and with antiseptics to heal the wound it makes, has been invented by Alexander Foster Humphrey, of Pittsburg[h].
The new anaesthetic, antiseptic bullet contains both narcotic and antiseptic drugs. There are enough of the former so that a wound even in a vital part will cause little pain or shock to the nervous system.  And while the narcotics are bringing relief to the wounded man the antiseptic preparations are cleansing the torn tissues and checking the flow of blood.
The Humphrey bullet is exceedingly simple in construction. It looks exactly like any bullet at first glance, but a closer inspection will reveal two annular grooves pressed into its nickel jacket. 
The grooves are where the first-aid drugs are stored. The one nearest the tip is for the narcotics and the other for the antiseptics.
The drugs are encased in layers or gelatine, and when the grooves are filled a thin coating of paraffin is spread over the top.
This paraffin coating is melted by the friction of the bullet in the firing of the projecting weapon and in its flight through the air, so that the drugs are ready to begin their work of healing as soon as the missile finds its mark.
The small amount of gelatine which is used to hold the drugs in place is entirely harmless, and is quickly absorbed by the blood. The anaesthetic is also absorbed by the system almost instantly, and in a very short time produces nearly complete insensibility to pain. At the same time the antiseptic is checking the haemorrhage, and uniting with the blood to soothe and heal the torn flesh.
From Popular Science: is that
Mr. Humphrey in the middle?
Well, naturally, I had to go looking for more, but with one exception, it appears to have disappeared during 1915. The exception is The Camperdown Chronicle, May 28, 1935.

On page 3 of that issue, you can read exactly the same story, dredged out of the archives to fill a gap in a page as the time came to roll the presses, I suppose.

There seems to have been no patent issued for the bullet.  Humphrey applied for a swab-valve patent in 1914, but that seems to be his only patent.

I did find him, though, in Popular Science in August 1917, and page 216, and you can read this through Google Books.  He had moved on, from bullets to bayonets, and he had perfected, he said, a pain-deadening bayonet.

Search as I can, I cannot see a patent for that one, either.

Oh well, it takes all sorts!

Mr. Humphrey went on my watch-list, and that was how I turned up this letter to the Pittsburgh Press, in which he argues for armament as the best policy.

Now I am beginning to wonder if Mr, Humphrey was, in fact, all that concerned about the suffering of other humans.  It seems to me that maybe he was looking for feel-good, guilt-free killing methods which appeared to be humane.

Against that, I found a story in the New York Tribune, dated April 22, 1915. By an odd coincidence, that was the precise day on which the German Army started using gas warfare, which they justified as being humane. In the Trib story, which is in the last column on the page, we read that Humphrey had recently "...sent specifications for making the bullet to all the belligerent powers in Europe."

Oh well, maybe I misjudged him, after all.  No matter, he will stay on my watch-list until I see what more I can learn about his models.  So far. I know that a model submarine of his sold recently, and in 1935, some of his model aircraft were on display in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum, and at one stage, that museum also held models of his human bullet.

Tracking the bayonet, it has disappeared, almost without trace, though it got a mention in the The Crosbyton Review. (Crosbyton, Texas), Vol. 11, No. 2, Ed. 1 Friday, January 17, 1919.

And now it's time I really did get back to work!

Still, before I do, a  side issue that I will come back to: the Germans really did have a case of sorts for  claiming that gas warfare was humane.  Their plan was to knock out their enemy, or force them to flee, breaking the deadlock in the trenches.  As the study of Mr. Humphrey's healing bullets has taught me, very few things are ever quite what they seem — but that's another story.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Muriatic acid, up against the wall

Before there were chemists, there were alchemists, and in the absence of a proper science of chemistry, the early alchemists made do with the equally proper mysteries of alchemy. And as with chemists who later emerged from the guff of alchemy, the commencing alchemist had a large vocabulary to learn.

It was unsystematic, but it was romantic, and while the names of the stock-in-trade of the alchemist gave you no clues about what something contained, they gave clear indications of how a substance was made — or sometimes, what it did, or was used for.

Instead of our methanoic acid, the alchemists spoke of formic acid, made from the destructive distillation of crushed ants (ants are formices in Latin, giving us the word 'formicate', meaning to rush around like ants), while a silver diammine solution was ammoniacal moon silver, and marsh gas was the name given to methane, though their combination has the same alarming result, no matter what you called them.  It goes BANG!

In the same way, the substance that we now call hydrochloric acid was referred to as muriatic acid, and this name is still common among metal workers who use the acid in priming metal surfaces for soldering, and brick layers use muriatic acid to clean up stray cement on brick walls.

In fact, to generations of chemists and building workers, this use on walls has been the well-known derivation, with the word well-known to be derived from the Latin murus, a wall, along with 'mural', a painting on a wall, the 'murenger', who was an obscure city officer charged with keeping the walls of a town or city in good order, and the word 'immure' meaning to wall-in, or surround with walls.

Shakespeare speaks once or twice of a 'mure' when he means a wall, and even once, in Troilus and Cressida, of the "strong immures" of Troy, wherein Helen may be found. He speaks more often, though, of those who are 'demure', a word which comes from the Old French meur, meaning calm or still. Somehow the word acquired the de- prefix, but it is just another of the mure words which has nothing at all to do with walls.

Sadly for generations of chemists, who have learned the derivation of 'muriatic' and passed it on, the word has even less to do with walls, and far more to do with the Latin muria, which is brine, or with muriaticus, which means pickled in brine. Hydrochloric acid was prepared from brine, and so could have been called briney acid, but in the arcane language of the alchemists, this had to be muriatic acid.

The expression also lives on as 'muriate', which can either be a lay term for 'chloride', or a verb, meaning to pickle in brine, but these days, 'muriated' only means a compound containing chlorine, or treated with chlorine, which is also derived from brine.

There are a couple of other names given to muriatic acid, like acidum salis, a Latin term meaning 'salt acid', but none of them has anything whatsoever to do with walls. Still, the generations of deceived chemists are no worse off than earlier generations who were deceived about antimony by Dr Johnson, often referred to as the Grand Cham of literature by his admirers.
(As a side issue, the original Grand Cham was the emperor of the Tartars, and there is a mild acid called tartaric acid, but that has nothing to do with this tale—and the acid has nothing to do with the Tartars, either: the name comes from Greek and nobody knows where they got it from.  Tartaric acid has a lot to do withe stereochemistry and Louis Pasteur, but that's another story.)
Now, where were we?  Ah, yes, with Lichfield's other famous son, the one who wasn't Charles Darwin's grandfather.  (You can see why I have to work hard to stay on course!)

According to our first lexicographer, an abbot added antimony to the feed of pigs, and they thrived on it. Then, according to the worthy dictionary maker, the abbot fed the same mix to his monks, who promptly sickened and died, causing the mix to be called antimonachus, bad for monks.

Like the theory of muriatic acid getting its name from the walls it cleaned, the antimony tale is untrue.

If you want to pull somebody's leg, though, think of the way formic acid is produced by the destructive distillation of crushed ants: while 'muriform' is a specialist word for botanists, 'murine' means having to do with mice, so with a bit of effort, if you want to persuade somebody that muriatic acid is prepared by the distillation of crushed mice, then why not?

In any case, they will be no worse off than the generations imposed upon by Dr Johnson, or the succession of chemists and artisans who thought muriatic acid was a product just made for walls.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

A tale of constables

Dover copyright-free art,
Men, page 117.

Gossip and scandal about coppers?  Not a chance.  I just got to wondering about what the term means.

Once upon a time, there was a Latin title, comes stabuli, literally the Count of the Stable, or in more general terms, the master of the Horse, but this person was no mere head groom. In Byzantium, the constable was in charge of the Imperial stables, and that made him a great officer of state.

Thomas Chaucer, the son of Geoffrey Chaucer, was Chief Butler to Richard II, and under Henry IV, he was Constable of Wallingford Castle.

Later, Thomas was speaker of Parliament, and one of his grandchildren, the Earl of Lincoln, was declared by Richard III to be the heir-apparent to the throne, in case the Prince of Wales should die without issue. Sadly any prospect of Chaucer's descendant sitting on the throne died when the Earl died at the Battle of Stoke in 1487.

So clearly, constables were fairly important people, a bit more than P. C. Plod, pounding the pavement, as even Geoffrey Chaucer knew, because he features a "Constable of the castel" in the Man of Law's Tale, which was set some time in the past, though after the time of Muhammad.

Similarly, Shakespeare features the Constable of France who was a high official (and the supreme judge in matters of chivalry until the post was abolished in 1627), in Henry V, and in Henry VIII, Shakespeare includes Buckingham, formerly the Lord High Constable among the characters.

On the other hand, Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing is a constable, while in Love's Labours Lost, we encounter "Dull, a constable".  In Measure for Measure, we meet "Elbow, a simple constable", who hauls Froth and Pompey before Angelo, the Duke's deputy in Act II, saying:
If it please your honour, I am the poor Duke's constable, and my name is Elbow; I do lean upon justice, sir, and do bring in here before your good honour two notorious benefactors.
The humour of the malapropism, as we can see, preceded Dickens' Mrs Malaprop by quite a few years. Equally, the knaves in Shakespeare's plays could raise a laugh by referring to the constables: in the Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff speaks to Mistress quickly of how, being found in woman's attire, "the knave constable had set me i' th' stocks, i' th' common stocks, for a witch." Quickly and Doll Tearsheet, for that matter, were both handed over to the beadles by "the constables" in Henry IV Part 2.

So at some point between 1400 and 1600, the constable's status fell drastically.  Constables of castles remain important, and so do High Constables and Chief Constables, but according to the OED, the constable was, by 1597, a humble officer of the peace. Like the English shire reeve, a great official who became a mere law officer in a town in the Wild West, a sheriff, the constable was no longer a great person in the state.

The butler, whose name literally means the 'bottler', the person in charge of managing the drinks in a household did not have quite the same fall. While it is true that Thomas Chaucer held the title of Chief Butler, this was an honorary role, and he had little to do with the management of royal or other beverages , but slowly, the old usage fell away and the butler remained as the one who done it, perhaps in a dim recollection of a famous 19th century robbery.

Called in to investigate a robbery at Southampton in 1835, Henry Goddard, one of the last of the Bow Street Runners, extracted a bullet which had been fired into the butler's wooden bedhead during the alleged robbery, and showed that the bullet had been cast in a mould which the butler was in the habit of using to make his own bullets, each of which had a small 'pimple' from an imperfection in the mould.

Confronted with the evidence, the butler confessed to having staged the robbery to win his employer's favour, probably the first time that the butler was shown to have done it.

Regrettably, history does not record whether Henry Goddard was a constable at the time, or indeed if he ever rose to be a Chief Constable, but clearly he was a cut above your average Elbow, Dull or Dogberry — and much too clever for the average butler.

Friday, 1 February 2013

A descant on descants

It is time to bring my descants out into the open.  As I indicated recently, I have many partly-baked ideas on my computer that will never see the printer's press but which are yet, in my view, worthy of consideration.  Some are bits and pieces, others would only attract a niche market and be uncommercial, but to their creator, they are interesting.  I prefer to share them and maybe, kindle a light somewhere.

One such group have been knocked together in off moments, and I call these my descants.  They are random wanderings through the shambles that is my mind, and they rarely end up where you (or I) expected.  They offer no heaving bosoms, ripped bodices or shades of grey, no dashing tales, just unexpected curiosities.

But why that name?  Let me descant on this
I have now to follow Mr. Burke through a pathless wilderness of rhapsodies, and a sort of descant upon governments, in which he asserts whatever he pleases, on the presumption of its being believed, without offering either evidence or reasons for so doing.
— (Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man)   
Those of us who either can now (or once could) sing soprano, probably know a descant as an alto part occasionally sung over certain pieces of church music. The 23rd psalm, sung to the tune 'Crimond' has a descant, and a few of the Christmas carols give the sopranos a chance to stand out, as they play the part of angels, singing curlicues and ornamentation around the main theme being sung by the rest of us.

Originally, back in the days when just about all singing was church singing, and that singing was no more than plainsong, the descant was the only melodic ornamentation anybody ever heard. Back then, people probably knew that the word came from Latin: from dis, meaning apart, and cantus, a song, because a descant was apart from what the ordinary folk sang. Soon after, in the days of Chaucer, 'descant' was also used to describe the art of composing or singing part-music, an early form of counterpoint.

By the time William Shakespeare was born, 'descant' had come to mean the soprano or highest part in a musical arrangement, so it was seen in the name of the descant recorder, the descant sackbut, and the descant viol. Not long after Shakespeare died, a descant could also be an instrumental prelude, consisting of variations on a theme.

It was a very versatile word, and even before that, the word had been used to mean 'to comment or enlarge upon', but it was Shakespeare who made the word famous in this sense, the form that it is used here, when he had the hunchbacked Gloucester, or Richard, in King Richard III start the play with "Now is the winter of our discontent . . ." and go on to say:
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
My descants are explorations of and around words in English, how they came to mean what they mean, and what else they mean, and maybe featuring a short diversion into a few of the meanings of suspiciously similar words, like 'decant', which comes to us from the Latin de, from, and canthus, a jug, and which has nothing to do with the target word, or 'recant', which originally meant 'sing it again', but came to mean singing it again — and this time getting it right — making it a bit like a related word, 'recall', as it is used when a faulty product is recalled, rather than remembered.

Closer to the mark, though, are words like 'chant', and the chanter of the bagpipes, the pipe which actually plays a melody, unlike the drones which go over the shoulder and play a sort of plainsong. Then we have the chantry, the cantor in the synagogue, cantabile, canticle, and even the thing that kept sailors merry in days of yore, the sea shanty. The Australian and Canadian rude hut, also called a shanty, probably comes from a different source, though the Australian 'shanty', as a place for the sale of rough liquor, may have involved a certain amount of rude and rough song.

Maybe it even gives us the origins of the thieves' slang or cant, that gave them the name of The Canting Crew, with their mix of Romany, thieves' slang and other terms designed to keep the authorities and agents of the law in ignorance in the early 1800s.

And one can descant on that single topic all night.

Note that I tag my blogs, and all of the descants bear the tag descants. This will help you find them all (including the two that I posted, before this one).  Go to the end of a blog, look for the list of labels, and click on a label to bring up all the others bearing that same tag.