Solar Microscopes and Phials Innumerable

Posted on November 17, 2012


Scientific Curios in the Chambers of the Poet Scientist

Really I was thinking about Frankenstein, which has a good claim to be the very first science fiction novel.  Mary Shelley who wrote it was the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.  I was interested in Shelley’s own reputation as the scientific poet and came upon the following description of his Oxford rooms by his friend Thomas Hogg:

Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical instruments, clothes, pistols, linen, crockery, ammunition, and phials innumerable, with money, stockings, prints, crucibles, bags, and boxes were scattered on the floor and in every place. . . . The tables, and especially the carpet, were already stained with large spots of various hues, which frequently proclaimed the agency of fire. An electrical machine, an air pump, the galvanic trough, a solar microscope, and large glass jars and receivers, were conspicuous amidst the mass of matter.  (See Neurotic Poets for the original cite.)

A galvanic trough was a kind of battery–to run the “electrical machine,” I suppose, whatever that was.  Was it just a motor, or did it do anything in particular?

A solar microscope was one that used the mirrors and the sun’s light to project enlarged images of slides onto a screen.

As for “philosophical instruments,” it’s difficult to say which ones Shelley kept around him.  I did a little research into the genre and came upon thaumatropes, phenakistoscopes, stroboscopes, anorthoscopes and stereopticons, all of which deal with visual phenomena and many of which depend on the phenomenon of persistence of vision

Oddly, you already know what a thaumatrope is, but I strongly suspect that, like me, you didn’t know it was called that.  Often they came as a disc with a picture front and back and springy string attached to either side.  I remember owning several as a kid.  You could spin the disc by increasing and loosening tension on the strings, and this caused the pictures on both sides of the discs to combine into one.  The thaumatrope was invented in Victorian times to illustrate persistence of vision, and was one of a class of similar toys and devices fashioned to show the world in a way that went beyond the obvious.

Phenakistoscopes, another type of philosophical instrument, animated images utilizing discs, slots and sometimes mirrors.  Examples of phenakistoscopes as they would have looked in operation may be found here.  It’s well worth a visit.  These were movies before there were movies.

Rather than creating the illusion of motion, stroboscopes functioned to freeze motion in space.  Most are familiar with the idea as strobe lights, but a mechanical stroboscope was possible in the days before electric light using a simple slotted wheel.

An anorthoscope was a device with two spinning discs, one with an obscure image painted on it, the other with slots through which the image could be seen.  When the crank was turned, spinning the discs, the obscure image resolved into a more conventional picture.

More about anorthoscopes may be found here, along with a simulation of several in operation.

Stereoscopes or stereopticons, devices which like thaumatropes never really went away,  were a way of producing the illusion of three dimensional images, using a viewing apparatus and pairs of slightly differing images.  The illusion depended on the brain’s ability to perceive depth using binocular vision.  In my own case, since one of my eyes has always been slightly stronger than the other, I’ve hardly ever been able to get one to work, although my depth vision appears to operate just fine in the real world.

So phials innumerable, chemical stains, burns, batteries, microscopes and philosophical instruments.  Sounds like you could add a little Goth to that and you’ve got a fine setting for your mad plan, Dr. Frankenstein.

I think Mary Shelley had an agreeable and like-minded companion in her spouse when she embarked on her famous novel.  Science fiction has some claim to being a philosophical instrument in its own right, sometimes at least, teaching us to see in different ways.  It is a toy that can inform and transform, like the toys in the poet’s room.

Posted in: history, poetry