An Extraordinary History: Prussian Blue

September 20, 2019

For anyone who paints today, it is hard to believe there was ever a time when the beautiful, versatile, and stable Prussian Blue pigment did not exist. But the fact is it is just a few hundred years old.

It was discovered, by accident, in the first decade of the 1700s in Berlin by a colour-maker called Diesbach.  Prior to that time, blue pigments had been sourced from “indigo, smalt, azurite and ultramarine, derived from lapis lazuli, which was expensive.”  The new process was cheap and easily manufactured. Its first verifiable use in an artwork was in “The Entombment of Christ” by Pieter vander Werff in 1709.

entombment

I didn’t know any of this until I read a fascinating article called “Prussian Blue and Its Partner In Crime” by Philip McCouat in Journal of Art In Society.  The article goes on to describe the pigment’s use in European art and, notably, in the creation of an entire genre of Japanese painting.

The second part of McCouat’s article (“…Partner in Crime”) takes the story into even more interesting ground once a Swedish chemist discovered that by mixing Prussian Blue with diluted sulphuric acid he could create the deadly poison hydrogen cyanide, a favourite of poisoners ever since.  This section of the essay details the first murderer caught by telegraph, and the use of cyanide and its derivatives both by US gas chambers and by Nazi mass executioners.

Who knew that such a beautiful colour could have such a blotchy history? Mix up your favourite beverage, settle back, and enjoy this fascinating long read.

 

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Diaries As History

September 19, 2019

Dr. Irving Finkel is one of my favourite scientists. He is an Assyriologist and a senior curator at the British Museum. His daily work involves the translation of 5,000 year-old cuneiform tablets from ancient Iraq. He is an elegant, impassioned, and amusing speaker, helping to popularize what might otherwise be a rather mysterious period of history. He is perhaps most famous for having found and translated a Sumerian text detailing the Flood story written thousands of years before the same story was adopted in the Bible.

Following another of his interests, in 2007, Dr. Finkel founded the Great Diary Project which collects, preserves, and publicizes diaries of all kinds.

“Diaries are among our most precious items of heritage. People in all walks of life have confided and often still confide their thoughts and experiences to the written page, and the result is a unique record of what happens to an individual over months, or even years, as seen through their eyes. No other kind of document offers such a wealth of information about daily life and the ups and downs of human existence. The Project’s idea is to collect as many diaries as possible from now on for long-term preservation. In the future these diaries will be a precious indication of what life, in our own time, was really like.”

Dr. Finkel can explain the importance of diaries to the historian better than I can:

 

As a social and cultural historian, I would be ecstatic to find the diaries of one or more of the characters who have enlivened Commercial Drive over the last 120 years.  In some ways, the Highland Echo which thrived on the minutiae of local activity acted as the diary of our neighbourhood. But to read the actual diaries of the local players would be so much more valuable in understanding, for example, motivations and prejudices.  I live in hope that some may eventually emerge.


Adrian Mole: Sociology In The Raw

September 17, 2019

I have just finished reading the entire Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend. These eight hugely funny books purport to be Adrian’s diaries and correspondence beginning when he is a 13 3/4 year old schoolboy and ending as he reaches forty, a disappointed failure.

This is neither high art nor great literature but is a work of sustained comic genius, following the life of a wannabe literary intellectual against a period of British history that encompasses both Thatcher’s Falkland’s War in the early 1980s, the emergence of Blair’s New Labour in the 1990s, and the involvement of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s.  While Mole’s thoughts often involve these larger issues, his actual life is lived within the bitter constraints of Tory (and Labour) austerity and the growing inequalities that those policies generated.

He fails at all sorts of jobs (celebrity chef, author, environmental welfare officer, bookseller), grossly fails at consumerism, and invariably gets the wrong girls pregnant.  Moreover, his family is the oddest collection of characters since the Gormenghast dynasty, even though their reality is drawn so well that many of us will recognize individuals of the types involved.

I suspect that future historians may use the Mole series to better understand the sociology of England in these decades.  In fact, the humour is so interwoven with the intimacies of daily life in the Midlands I wonder whether anyone outside of England (not even, perhaps, the other parts of Britain) will fully grasp the subtleties of the comedy.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the entire series, I would recommend either Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years or Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction.

 

 


The Cholera Map in 3D

August 11, 2019

I am fairly sure I have mentioned before my great interest in the way that data can be graphically visualized to create new awareness, or simply to explain something more accurately.  I have even tried to create some myself when I thought they would add value.

One of the most famous early examples of a data visualization leading to political action was Dr. John Snow’s investigation into a cholera outbreak in London in 1854.  By tracking the deaths in one area of Soho, he traced the infection back to a single well that had been polluted.  The map he created to illustrate the specific spread of the disease was instrumental in launching the new science of epidemiology.

Snow’s map was, of course, a two-dimensional display, with all the limits imposed by that technology.  However, the famous map has now been digitized and turned into a 3D object that can be viewed from any angle using the tools on the right of the screen.

This very simple display shows off the potential of 3D mapping very well.

Thanks to the Spatial Awareness newsletter for the tip.


Mapping America

May 10, 2019

There are few things I enjoy more than history and maps.  So, finding a site that perfectly matches both is a joy and something to be shared. I came across one today: It is the America Transformed: Mapping the 19th Century exhibit at the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Centre.  To quote their Introduction:

“During the 19th century, the United States expanded dramatically westward. Immigrant settlers rapidly spread across the continent and transformed it … Historical maps, images and related objects tell the story of the sweeping changes made to the physical, cultural, and political landscape. Moving beyond the mythologized American frontier, this map exhibition explores the complexity of factors that shaped [America] over the century.”

This is Part One of a two-part series, covering The United States Expands Westward, 1800-1862.  Part Two — From Homesteads to Modern Cities, 1862-1900 will be available in November.

If you have any interest in 19th century American history and/or an interest in how maps and graphics help shape our view of history, this is a site worth spending some time exploring.


Books Read in Q1 2019

April 2, 2019

These are the books I managed to squeeze in this last three months:

 

Barrington Moore jr: “Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy”

Downing, Taylor:  “1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink

Laura Shapiro: “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America”

Ursula K. LeGuin:  “No Time to Spare

Jack Ashby: “Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects”

Fred Thirkwell and Bob Scullion: “Greetings From British Columbia

Richard Wrangham: “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Sam Wiebe: “The Last of the Independents

Sam Wiebe: “Invisible Dead

 

 

 

 


In Praise of Jimmy Carter

March 29, 2019

Regular readers will no doubt know that I am not a fan of politicians, especially senior American politicians.  However, I have always admired and been impressed by Jimmy Carter. The following profile is from an email newsletter from Mother Jones. I hope they won’t mind me reprinting it in full as it says exactly what I would like to say:

“He has never sought great riches, or to capitalize on the presidency for personal gain. He lives in a home that is assessed for a lesser value than the armored Secret Service vehicle that sits outside it.

Last week, at 94, Jimmy Carter became America’s oldest living former president, prompting praise for the human rights champion and Navy veteran. When in power, he looked ahead, installing solar panels in the White House and promoting a slew of judges of color and women to the federal bench, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Out of power, he oversaw election monitoring in many tight votes worldwide and has spent decades volunteering to build homes with Habitat for Humanity.

“We…are grateful for his long life of service that has benefitted millions of the world’s poorest people,” said the Carter Center, an Atlanta-based nonprofit focused on public policy.

As a public servant and after the presidency, Carter embodied the traits we feature each week in this newsletter. He thought of others and refused to take credit for the daring rescue of six US diplomats in Iran (an episode later made famous by the movie Argo). The reason? Carter didn’t want to endanger the lives of other US diplomats held hostage there.

Carter took the hard road internationally, seeking to burnish America’s standing by refusing to coddle strongmen, such as Chile’s authoritarian leader, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. As a young reporter in neighboring Argentina, I witnessed testimony from Carter’s human rights chief, Patricia Derian, on how she directly confronted a leader of that military government on torture. (Busted, Argentina’s naval chief rubbed his hands and replied: “You remember the story of Pontius Pilate, don’t you?”)

Although reviews of Carter’s presidency have been mixed, political scientist Robert A. Strong writes that “some consider him to be the nation’s greatest former President,” and that his work is admired by people on both sides of the aisle.

In a Washington Post interview last fall, the former president said it was difficult to abide President Donald Trump’s constant lies, and he called the current presidency a “disaster.” Carter recalled that he would have been expelled from the Naval Academy for a lie, and hinted that his father, who whipped him six different times with a peach tree branch, would not have tolerated mistruths, either.

“I always told the truth,” he said simply.”