Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part 106

Robert FitzRoy (1805 – 1865)

We take weather forecasts very much for granted, but they are a relatively recent development. In the mid 19th century many believed that the weather was so unpredictable that forecasting it would be the height of futility. When one MP in 1854 suggested in Parliament that recent advances in scientific theory might allow them to know the weather in London “twenty-four hours beforehand”, he was greeted with hoots of derision. Admiral Robert FitzRoy, the erstwhile captain of the HMS Beagle when Charles Darwin made his voyage of evolutionary discovery, had other ideas.

In 1854 FitzRoy was appointed to establish the Meteorological Department of the Board of Trade, later to become the Met Office, charged with enhancing the quality of wind charts with the aim of improving sailing times. He grew increasingly alarmed at the loss of life around the coastal waters of Britain; between 1855 and 1860 some 7,402 ships were wrecked at the cost of 7,201 lives, many of which, he believed, could have been prevented by a timely warning.

The tipping point was the night of 25th and 26th October 1859 when a storm, the worst to hit the Irish Sea in the 19th century, destroyed 133 ships, killing over 800 souls. One of the casualties was the Royal Charter, a steam clipper reaching the end of its two-month journey from Australia, which came to grief off the coast of Anglesey with the loss of all but 41 of its complement of 500 crew and passengers.

FitzRoy was detailed to issue storm warnings. Analysing data gathered from coastal stations and telegraphed to him, when FitzRoy thought a storm was imminent, in what he called “a race to warn the outpost before the gale reaches them”, he deployed the new technology, which the Daily News described “far outstrips the swiftest tempest in celerity”.   

The storm warnings began to appear in September 1860. It was a logical step, having analysed all the data, for FitzRoy to use his findings to predict the weather, irrespective of whether a storm was imminent. On August 1, 1861 hidden away on page 10 of The Times was an unprepossessing item headed “general weather probable in the next two days”. The piece stated that the temperature in London was to be 62F, 61F in Liverpool and a pleasant 70F in Dover, the same as Lisbon. For good measure, it also covered Copenhagen, Helder, Brest and Bayonne.

The weather forecast had arrived, and not only did it prove to be extremely popular, it was surprisingly accurate. FitzRoy’s forecasts were soon syndicated across other newspapers and organisers of outdoor events and students of the turf took especial heed of his prognostications. Punch, the satirical magazine, christened him “The First Admiral of the Blew”.

FitzRoy was keen to manage down expectations, writing “prophecies and predictions they are not…the term forecast is strictly applicable to such an opinion as is the result of scientific combination and calculation”, but cynics were quick to point out their shortcomings. The Age, in its build up to the Epsom Derby in May 1862,noted that with “what satisfaction did the experienced interpreters of the prediction see that he had set down for the south of England – ‘Wind SSW to WNW moderate to fresh, some showers’, which of course indicated that it would be a remarkably fine day, and that the umbrellas might be left behind.” Proactively, FitzRoy took to the correspondence pages of the papers to apologise to “those whose hats had been spoilt from umbrellas being omitted”, when he was wrong, he had a bad run in April 1862, and to defend his methods.      

Storm clouds were gathering, though. Politicians complained about the excessive costs of telegraphing back and forth, politics and public safety rarely mix, the scientific community were sceptical of his methods and his more egregious errors were seized upon by his critics. His last forecast, published on April 29, 1865, predicted thunderstorms over London. The following day, after preparing to go to church and kissing his daughter, FitzRoy went back to his dressing room, locked the door, and killed himself.

It had all proved too much, but the idea of forecasting the next day’s weather was one that would not die.     

If you enjoyed this, check out The Fickle Finger by Martin Fone


The Streets Of London (112)

Gower Street, WC1

Running from Euston Road at its northerly end to Montague Place at its southern end where it becomes Bloomsbury Street, Gower Street boasts one of the longest sets of Georgian terraces in the capital. They were not universally admired when they were built, John Ruskin, prompted to go all Prince Charles, calling them “the nec plus ultra of ugliness in British architecture”. To relieve the boredom of the brown-bricked frontages some stuccoed entrances were added. By the standards of many of the London streets I have looked at, Gower Street is relatively modern, being initially laid out in the 1780s. It takes its name from Lady Gertrude Leveson-Gower who, in 1737, became the second wife of Bloomsbury landowner, the 4th Duke of Bedford aka John Russell.   

The street had a part to play in the development of the railway. Near what is now Gower Place a circular track was built in 1808 to allow the engineer, Richard Trevithick, to display his new-fangled steam locomotive, a Hazeldine and Rastrick single cylinder engine imaginatively called Catch Me Who Can. The intrepid could, for a fee of 2 shillings, sit in a carriage, originally designed for road travel, and experience the thrill of being pulled along, making it the world’s first steam locomotive to pull a carriage of fare-paying passengers. Unfortunately, the experiment did not last long, the engine and carriage being too heavy for the brittle tracks and after a few weeks, following a derailment, Trevithick had to admit defeat.       

Gower Street also had a part to play in London’s developing underground system. The Metropolitan Railway opened the first line in 1863 and a station at the northern end of the street was one of the original stations. It was renamed Euston Square on November 1, 1909.  

At the northern end of the road, too, a plot of land was taken in the 1820s to build an alternative university to the Anglican dominated institutions at Oxford and Cambridge. It was known as “the godless institution of Gower Street” and its first building, the Wilkins Building, opened its doors in 1828. What is now the University College of London gradually expanded over time to occupy much of the eastern side of the street, including the land behind.

On the west side of the street a teaching hospital, initially known as the North London Hospital and later University College hospital, opened its doors in 1834 to provide clinical training for the “medical classes” of the university, its development prompted by the refusal of the governors of the Middlesex Hospital to allow students access to its wards. The first major operation using ether as an anaesthetic in Europe was performed there on December 21, 1846. The teaching hospital brought a mix of qualified surgeons and doctors and medical students to the area. The students, when not busy at their studies, found time to develop a form of slang known as Marrowskying or Medical Greek or the Gower Street dialect. Essentially it was a form of Spoonerism, swapping around the first or first two letters of words in a phrase, doubtless to confuse those not in the know. So, a mutton chop would become a chutton mop, and smoking a pipe poking a smipe. You get the picture.

These days many of the buildings not used by the university of hospital are so-called boutique hotels, following a tradition from the middle of the 19th century when many of the houses were illegally converted into boarding houses. The Bedford Estate fought a losing battle to close them down in a desperate attempt to preserve the area’s reputation for providing “genteel residences”.

One famous resident was Charles Darwin who rented number 110 on December 29, 1838, moving in two days later. According to his daughter, Etty, Darwin christened the house Macaw Cottage, “laughing over the ugliness of their house in Gower Street and the furniture in the drawing-room, which he said combined all the colours of the macaw in hideous discord”. He worked on his theories of evolution there, before his health forced him to move to Down House in Kent in 1842. The was damaged during the Blitz and became part of the University’s Biological Sciences building in 1961 and the garden part of a car park. An evolution of sorts.

You’re Having A Laugh – Part Forty Four

Charles Waterton and the Nondescript (1825)

It is a curious thing that until relatively recently those who were most enthusiastic about the animal kingdom were just as keen to kill and stuff and mount them. Take the eminent traveller, naturalist and taxidermist, Charles Waterton (1782 – 1865), someone we have met before when I was exploring eccentrics.

Waterton revolutionised the stuffy world of taxidermy with a new technique for preserving specimens. Using a mix of mercuric chloride and alcohol to preserve the skin, he would fill the body cavity and other parts with cotton and then stitch it all back to preserve the animal’s natural shape. The legs were kept in place through a series of careful stitches and for birds, bees wax was used to ensure the beak was closed. The carcass was then placed into a box filled at one end “three-fourths up to the top, with cotton, forming a sloping plane”. The advantage of Waterton’s technique was that the whole skin could be manipulated to ensure a natural posture.

The redoubtable Waterton kept most of his prize specimens in his home at Walton Hall, where, during the 1830s, he also created a walled enclosure and what was effectively the world’s first nature reserve. It proved a hit with the public, the most popular attraction being a caiman alligator which Waterton had captured himself by jumping on its back and riding it to exhaustion, or so he said.

In 1821 and again in 1824 Waterton made two trips to Guiana, coming back with hundreds of specimens of exotic South American wildlife, all carefully preserved and stuffed. In 1825 he wrote a book, Wanderings in South America, which became a best-seller and an inspiration to Charles Darwin. Bringing exotica back into the country caused Waterton some trials and tribulations with the customs officers, especially a zealous Mr Lushington who forced him to pay the highest import duty on his specimens. He ran into further difficulties in 1824 when he had in his possession the head and shoulders of what appeared to be a new species, albeit with vaguely human features.

Waterton wrote at the time, “I also procured an animal which has caused not a little speculation and astonishment. In my opinion, his thick coat of hair, and great length of tail, put his species out of all question; … he was a large animal, and as I was pressed for daylight, and moreover, felt no inclination to have the whole weight of his body upon my back, I contented myself with his head and shoulders, which I cut off, and have brought them with me to Europe”. To look at, what he called the Nondescript, resembled a human, albeit with a thick coat of fur around the face.    

When he displayed the exhibit at Walton Hall, it caused a sensation. Rumours, however, soon circulated to the effect that it was the head of a tribesman who Waterton had killed and that the authorities were complicit in a cover up of his crime. Others, though, that there was something fishy about the Nondescript. Waterton’s style was to preserve carefully his exhibits whole and here we only had the bust. Although Waterton had provided an explanation that due to its size and weight, he had trimmed it down, other experts were not convinced and soon realised that it was formed from the rear end of a howler monkey, sculpted to resemble a human. And not just any human. It is thought to have resembled the custom’s official who had given him so much trouble in 1821, Mr Lushington.

A Catholic aristocrat who had refused to swear the Oath of Allegiance, Waterton had form in what was known as anthropomorphic taxidermy. Many of his exhibits were given satirical titles like “Martin Luther after his Fall” and “John Bull and the National Debt”. He was making a monkey out of the custom’s official.

The rather gruesome exhibit still exists and can be seen at the Wakefield Museum.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone


You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty Two

Paul Kammerer and the Midwife Toad

We tend to think that Charles Darwin was single-handedly responsible for developing the theory of evolution but he was not working in a vacuum. An important and controversial contribution was made by the French naturalist, Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), who posited a theory that acquired characteristics were passed down through the generations. He thought that giraffes originally had short necks and legs but, in order to get to the succulent upper leaves, had to develop the long legs and necks they have today. Lamarck though that if a parent had a limp, their child would also inherit one.

Lamarckism fell out of fashion but the Austrian scientist, Paul Kammerer (1880-1926), spent part of his career trying to establish whether there was anything in it. He chose to concentrate on the Midwife Toad which, unlike most toads, does not mate in water and so lacks the black, scaly bumps on their back feet, known as nuptial pads, which allows other male toads to hang on to their partners as they mate. If he forced Midwife Toads to mate underwater, he wondered, would they too grow those bumps? If they did, Lamarck might have been on to something.

After getting his toads to mate underwater, Kammerer discovered, after a few generations, that the males were beginning to develop black nuptial pads, which were then inherited by their offspring. If his findings stacked up, there may have been something in Lemarckism after all. In 1923 and 1924 Kammerer travelled extensively across the United States and Britain, giving lectures and writing about his experiments. In 1924, he published The Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, claiming that his experiments and results showed that Lemarck was right.

Kammerer split the scientific community. His findings were enthusiastically embraced by Soviet Russia, the theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics fitting into the prevailing Marxist philosophy, so much so that Kammerer was appointed as director of a laboratory in Moscow’s Communist Academy in 1926. Other scientists, though, were not so sure.

In 1926 an American scientist, Gladwyn K Noble, curator of Reptiles at the Museum of Natural History in New York, travelled over to Vienna to see for himself. By this time Kammerer was in Moscow and so a colleague showed him the one preserved toad that was left from the experiments and photographs taken while the research was ongoing. Noble claimed that the specimen was a fake, the nuptial pads being nothing more than swellings caused by the injection of black Indian ink.    

Noble published a letter in the journal, Nature, on August 7 1926, claiming that Kammerer had faked the results of his experiments. In a letter to the Soviet Academy of Science written in September 1926, Kammerer admitted the hoax, but claimed that he was not responsible for faking the exhibit Noble had seen and had no idea who had done it or why. With his academic and professional career ruined, Kammerer’s body was found, on September 23, 1926, at the top of an Austrian mountain in Puchberg am Schneeberg with a gun shot wound to his head and a pistol by his side.

Kammerer’s case has become a notorious example of academic hoaxing but more recent developments in genetic research suggest that he might not be the villain he has been made out to be. In 1942 scientists began to understand a phenomenon called epigenetics whereby circumstances or the environment can make changes to the way gene information expresses itself without changing the genetic code itself. Those changes can be passed on to offspring.

A famous example of epigenetics in practice was to be seen during the famine that hit occupied Netherlands in the winter of 1944/5. Malnourished, pregnant women gave birth to children with a higher incidence of mental problems and a tendency to become obese than normal. Some of these traits were passed on to the women’s grandchildren. And a midwife toad has been found in the wild with nuptial pads.

Perhaps the remaining specimen had been faked but the results of Kammerer’s experiments were as he portrayed them. If so, he will have the last laugh.        

If you enjoyed this, try Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone


Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Sixty One

Merchant’s Gargling Oil

The keys to success in quackery are to come up with something that “cures” a multitude of complaints, advertise the bejeebers out of it and sit back and wait for the money to roll in. If you can extend the panacea’s remit to include the animal kingdom, so much the better. This was the route adopted by the purveyors of George W Merchant’s Gargling Oil and it served them in good stead for almost a century.

The liniment, launched on the unsuspecting American public in 1833, was intended to cure burns, scalds, flesh wounds, a bad back, piles, tooth ache, sore throats, chilblains and chapped hands. According to the adverts “Merchant’s Gargling Oil is a diffusible stimulant and carminative” – so you could use it to deal with flatulence. – “It can be taken internally when such a remedy is indicated, and is a good substitute for pain killers, cordials and anodynes. For Cramps or Spasms of the Stomach, Colic, Asthma, or Internal Pain, the dose may be from fifteen to twenty drops, on sugar, or mixed with syrup in any convenient form, and repeated at intervals of three to six hours.”

The first thing to note is that despite its name it could be applied externally as well as internally. Secondly, it was marketed as good for animals as well as Homo sapiens. Apparently, horses went mad for it. Initially, there was just one version of the liniment but from the 1870s there were two distinct versions – in yellow for animals and in a lighter colour for humans. Never mind if you could only get your hands on the animal version, you could still use it.  The ads did warn, though, “it will stain and discolour the skin, but not permanently.”

The Gargling Oil made extensive use of advertising. As well as the standard newspaper ads, there were almanacs, song books and stamps. In the 1870s Darwin’s evolutionary theories and the suggestion that man descended from apes was causing waves. Disraeli noted “Is man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence these new-fangled theories.” The stushie was too good for the copywriters for Merchant’s Gargling Oil to miss and they ran a series of ads featuring an ape with the quatrain, “If I am Darwin’s grandpapa/ It follows don’t you see/ that what is good for man or beast/ is doubly good for me.

So what was in it and was it any good? The former is the easier question to answer as the adverts were unusually forthcoming. It was a mix of petroleum, soap, ammonia water, oil of amber, iodine tincture, benzene and water. It is hard to imagine what possessed Merchant to knock up this concoction but as it must have tasted awful, the instruction to take it with sugar must have been very welcome.

As to its efficacy, it is not clear. It would have been messy to apply and the petroleum base may have been off-putting but it evaded the attentions of the Food and Drug Association. What did for it was a serious fire at the Merchant factory in Lockport in New York in 1928 which completely destroyed the building – I wonder if the Gargling Oil was flammable? – and it was so destructive that the company never got back on its feet again. It did leave us, though, with some wonderful adverts.