Tag Archives: science

Hidden killers of the Victorian home

corsetTonight’s BBC4 documentary, Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home (10pm) reveals just how many ‘innovative’ domestic products and gadgets harboured deadly poisons and diseases.

Researchers from Modern TV spent several days  in Special Collections and Archives consulting illustrated Victorian periodicals, gathering stills for the documentary. Many useful images, often adverts, were found in Punch, the Illustrated London News, The Graphic, and magazines aimed at the Victorian housewife, such as The Sketch, The Queen, and Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Over 1000 images were gathered in the research process.

The documentary explores the presence of arsenic in Victorian wallpaper, lead in toys’ paint, the unsafe use of gas and electricity, and unsterilised babies’ feeding bottles. It also explores the detrimental effect that the introduction of metal eyelets had on corsetry. The eyelets allowed women’s corsets to be pulled even tighter in the indulgence of fashion, causing considerable damage to the back and internal organs, and increased the risk of miscarriage, as many women continued to wear restrictive corsets throughout pregnancy.

Hidden Killers of the Victorian Home is available on iPlayer until 11th April 2013.

Life through a lens: exploring the miniature world with Robert Hooke’s Micrographia

I was very happy to come across this 1667 edition of Robert Hooke’s fascinating Micrographia among our Early English collections. Micrographia: or, Some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses was the first book in English about the microscope and comprises a detailed record of Hooke’s observations of plants, insects and fossils through his lenses, and a demonstration of the power of the emerging science of microscopy.

Robert Hooke was born in 1635 on the Isle of Wight and studied at Westminster School before becoming assistant to the chemist Robert Boyle in Oxford. He had very wide interests in astronomy, biology, physics, architecture and chemistry, and, after being appointed Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society in 1662, became arguably the greatest experimental scientist of the 17th century, although Hooke’s legacy has long been overshadowed by that of his more famous contemporary, Sir Isaac Newton.

First issued in 1665, Hooke’s Micrographia was the first major work to be published by the Royal Society and has claims to be the first scientific best-seller, inspiring much public interest in the unseen miniature world. Samuel Pepys went so far as to proclaim it “the most ingenious book that I have ever read in my life”.

Micrographia is best known for its detailed copperplate engravings of Hooke’s discoveries, including several magnificent fold-out plates such as the famous flea below. The book also describes a fly’s eye and a plant cell for the first time (Hooke himself coined the biological term “cell” because the walls in plant cells reminded him of monks’ cells in a monastery).

Hooke’s drawing of a flea viewed under his microscope, “adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suite of sable Armour, neatly jointed.”

Hooke was the first scientist to examine fossils under the microscope and the first to note the similarities between living shells and fossil shells, which had up to then been considered a type of stone rather than a once-living organism.

Robert Hooke devised and constructed his own compound microscope

He claimed in Micrographia that the fossils were really “the Shells of certain Shel-fishes, which, either by some Deluge, Inundation, earthquake, or some such other means, came to be thrown to that place, and there to be fill’d with some kind of Mud or Clay, or petrifying Water, or some other substance.” More than 200 years before Darwin espoused the theory of evolution by natural selection, this remarkable man had discovered that changes in life on Earth were documented in the fossil record.

Mapping the heavens and earth: Apian’s Cosmographia in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection

Petrus Apianus (1495-1552), also known as Peter Apian, was Professor of Mathematics at the University of Ingolstadt in Germany and a pioneer in astronomical and mathematical instrumentation. Apian is best known for his studies in the science of cosmography and we hold several editions of his works here in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection.
Cosmography was a broad science which aimed to provide a mathematical basis for mapping the position of everything in the universe, and Apian’s work required not only his skill in mathematics but also expertise in geography, navigation, astronomy, and cartography. He published manuals for astronomical instruments, printed scientific works on his own press, and crafted volvelles, or “Apian wheels”, for the calculation of time and distance.

In 1524 Apian produced his first major work, Cosmographia, which provided readers with a guide to cosmography and an introduction to the disciplines of astronomy, geography, cartography, navigation and instrument making. Gemma Frisius (1508–1555), a Dutch mathematician and student of Apian, produced several expanded editions of the Cosmographia, including the 1545 and 1584 editions we have in SCOLAR. The book remained popular throughout the 16th century, being reprinted more than 30 times and in 14 languages.

Cosmographia describes various scientific instruments, but there are also several working paper examples of Apian’s volvelles included in the text, with which readers could find the positions of the sun, moon and planets, or calculate latitude using the sun’s height above the horizon. Interestingly, the moving parts in Cardiff’s copies of Cosmographia have been printed on the back of used paper – perhaps an early example of recycling to keep costs down. Considering the practical nature of the volvelles, it is also remarkable that these delicate instruments have survived in such good condition.