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Posts Tagged ‘history’

27 JUNE, 2012

A Radical Journey of Art, Science, and Entrepreneurship: A Self-Taught Victorian Woman’s Visionary Ornithological Illustrations


The bittersweet story of a young woman and her family, who triumphed through tragedy to bring a passion project to life and change the face of science illustration.

When she was only six years old, Genevieve Jones, known to her friends as Gennie, began accompanying her father Nelson, a medical student and amateur ornithologist, on buggy rides into the wilderness, searching for birds’ nests and collecting eggs to add to their make-shift cabinet of natural history. One spring morning in the 1850s, Gennie found an intricate bird’s nest that neither her father nor Howard, her younger brother, could identify. An inquisitive mind, she set out to find a book that would solve the mystery, only to find that no one had ever written one to help people differentiate the nests and eggs of various birds. What followed was a remarkable story of art, science, and entrepreneurship, full of tragedy and triumph, as the Jones family embarked upon filling that void in natural history, told for the first time in America’s Other Audubon (public library) by former National Endowment for the Arts librarian Joy M. Kiser.

Gennie as a young woman. Howard tipped this photograph into the front of his mother's copy of Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio

Gennie had grown up a bright, curious young woman, fascinated with science, gifted in art, and an avid reader, but awkward and shy — unusually tall at nearly 6 feet, with a skin condition that made her appear flushed at all times. Still, she fell in love with a man ten years her senior, whom Kiser describes as “an exceptional musician and literary critic, but, unfortunately…a periodical drunkard.” In 1876, just before Gennie turned thirty, her parents broke off her engagement, concerned about her suitor’s drinking. To console her broken heart, Gennie went away to stay with her best friend Eliza’s parents in Pennsylvania, where she visited the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia and saw some of the hand-colored engravings in Audubon’s now-iconic The Birds of America, noting that even Audubon had neglected to include eggs and nests as anything more than a decorative prop.

When she returned home to Circleville, Ohio, Gennie had grown unusually despondent. Her parents became increasingly concerned and, eventually, Nelson encouraged her to pursue her illustrations of nests and eggs, and collect them into a book — an idea he had previously rejected whenever Genie had brought it up, due to astronomical costs of creating a lavishly illustrated book, but was now ready to support it as a much-needed distraction from Genie’s anguish, for which he felt personally responsible.


Progne Purpurea – Purple Martin


Fig. 1. Pandion Haliaetus Carolinensis – Fish Hawk (a.k.a. American Osprey)

Fig. 2. Meleagris Gallopavo Americana – Wild Turkey

Fig. 3. Cathartes Aura – Turkey Buzzard


Melanerpes Erythrocephalus – Red-headed Woodpecker

Family and friends rushed in to support the project and Gennie set out to illustrate the 130 species of birds that nested in Ohio, many common throughout the rest of America. She and Eliza labored over the intricate illustrations, while Nelson devised a business plan to produce 100 copies of the book, to be called Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio, and sell them by subscription in approximately 23 parts, charging $5 for the hand-painted version and $2 for the uncolored version. When the first twenty subscribers were secured, including some of the country’s most prominent ornithologists, production began. Kiser describes the astonishingly laborious and scientific process, reminding us of how far we’ve come with design and printing technology:

Gennie and Eliza drew illustrations in wax pencil on both sides of sixty-five-pound lithographic stones. Then Howard placed the stones into crates that were shipped eighty-nine miles to Cincinnati, where [the printing company’s] artisans fixed the drawings with a solution of nitric acid, applied ink to the surface of the stones, and printed test proofs to determine the quality of the renderings. When errors were found, the ink was cleaned off and the stones were recrated and shipped back to Circleville for corrections. The first stones made several trips back and forth before the artists conquered the challenges of keeping the points on the wax crayons sharp and the edges of the line drawings crisp.


Quiscalus Purpureus var. Aeneus, Ridgway – Crow Blackbird (a.k.a. Bronzed Grackle)

In 1878, the first three lithographs of part one were finished and sent to ornithological publications for review, earning Gennie’s artwork praise as equal to and even better than Audubon’s. Elliott Coues, a prominent ornithology bulletin editor, wrote:

I had no idea that so sumptuous and elegant a publication was in preparation, and am pleased that what promises to be one of the great illustrated works on North American Ornithology should be prepared by women.


Coccyzus Americanus – Yellow-billed Cuckoo (a.k.a. Rain Crown, Rain Dove)

Once the first batch was mailed in 1879, the overwhelmingly positive response nearly doubled the number of subscribers to 39 — 34 for the hand-colored version and 5 for the uncolored — including former President Rutherford B. Hayes and a young Harvard student by the name of Theodore Roosevelt. But fate threw Genie a cruel curveball — a mere month after the first part was mailed, she contracted typhoid fever and fell violently ill. On her deathbed, she instructed her brother to keep the project alive and enlist the help of their mother in producing the illustrations. She died on Sunday, August 17, 1879, at the age of thirty-two.

In the years that followed, Gennie’s suitor, overcome with sorrow, committed suicide. Her family remained in profound grief and shock, from which their only solace was in bringing Gennie’s vision to life in its full glory. Her mother, Virginia, learned the lithographic technique and began illustrating the eggs and nests Gennie had collected. Kiser writes:

Gennie’s book became the Jones family’s transitional object, a physical entity with which they could distract themselves from their heartache and into which they could invest their passion and energy. Virginia poured all the love she could no longer give to her daughter into illustrating the nests and eggs. Virginia had never drawn or painted anything that required scientific accuracy before…. Despite her grief, she struggled with overcoming her casual artistic style and transformed herself into a scientific observer. Analysis and intellectual rigor were essential, because an artist does not draw what she sees, she draws what she understands.


Empidonax Traillii – Traill's Flycatcher

Soon, Virginia was producing lithographs “every bit as lovely, exacting, and accurate as her daughter’s,” but even so, she couldn’t manage the workload and had to hire three assistants, paid between $1 and $3 for each illustration they painted. The subscription plan of $5 for a single hand-colored part — three illustrations with text — was now significantly short of breaking even. But Virginia and Howard continued to publish the book for two more years, funding it out-of-pocket, until they, too, were struck with typhoid fever. They survived, but Howard suffered heart damage and Virginia’s eyesight was permanently damaged. Still, though he had to give up his medical practice for a year, Howard continued to collect eggs and nests, and Virginia, despite her severe eye pain, continued to illustrate them.


Petrochelidon Lunifrons – Cliff's Swallow

Gennie’s memorial book was finally completed in 1886 and published as a lavish volume bound in full red morocco leather, with a remarkable, first of its kind feat of ornithological illustration inside. But the folio-sized treasure was too expensive for almost anyone to afford and, even though Gennie’s father had spent his entire retirement savings of $25,000 to finance the project, not enough copies of the book were sold to offset the production costs. Virginia became temporarily blind for nearly two years, having strained her eyes so severely to complete the work, and the family was on the brink of poverty — but they never complained:

They both felt thankful that they had the resources to see the project through and considered their collective work on the book the most significant accomplishment of their lives. Nelson never recovered from his daughter’s death. He remained a pension examiner for the United States Army, but he gave up his medical practice and spent much of his time alone in the woods.


Ardea Virescens – Green Heron (a.k.a. Fly-up-the-creek)

After Nelson and Virginia passed away in the early 1900s, Howard locked the doors to the studio where Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio had been produced and they remained sealed for thirty years, until grandson Nelson III, at the age of twelve, was so overcome with curiosity that he sawed the hinges off and broke into the forbidden family temple. Though he was promptly punished, his act prompted Howard to seek a suitable home for his mother’s copy of the family’s masterpiece and it eventually made its way to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where Kiser came upon it as the museum’s librarian.


Icterus Baltimore – Baltimore Oriole

The museum’s copy of the labor of love that nearly drove the Jones family into bankruptcy was eventually appraised at $80,000. But its contribution to the study of ornithology, its feat of exquisite scientific illustration, and its testament to the power of working with true purpose remain priceless.


Fig. 1. Tinnunculus Sparverius – Sparrow Hawk

Fig. 2. Accipiter Cooperi – Cooper's Hawk

Fig. 3. Buteo Lineatus – Red-shouldered Hawk

Fig. 4. Buteo Borealis – Red-tailed Hawk (a.k.a. Hen Hawk)

Smithsonian Curator of Natural-History Rare Books Leslie K. Overstreet writes in the foreword to the book, which falls somewhere between A Glorious Enterprise and Nests: Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built Them:

The creation of a talented young woman and her dedicated family in a small Ohio town far from the intellectual and artistic centers of mid-nineteenth century, Illustrations of the Nests and Eggs of Birds of Ohio was a singular and remarkable achievement. It is almost impossible for us today to imagine how ambitious the project was in its own time or how daunting the physical and technological obstacles that had to be dealt with and overcome. Even more, in our modern world of the professionalization of science*, it may seem astonishing that amateurs like the Joneses could produce something scientifically important and lasting.

(*Of course, one could also argue the exact opposite — the Jones family is an early example of today’s explosion of citizen science, from protein folding to whale songs to space exploration, its feats every bit as “scientifically important and lasting” as formal science.)

America’s Other Audubon, an appropriately lavish large-format volume full of Gennie, Virginia, and Eliza’s gorgeous illustrations, captures this extraordinary story of curiosity, creativity, and entrepreneurship with the kind of rigor and passion on par with the Joneses’ own.

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

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25 JUNE, 2012

Why I Write: George Orwell’s Four Universal Motives of Writing and Creative Work


“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.”

Literary legend Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, remains best remembered for authoring the cult-classics Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but he was also a formidable, masterful essayist. Among his finest short-form feats is the 1946 essay Why I Write (public library) — a fine addition to other timeless insights on writing, including Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and various invaluable insight from other great writers.

Orwell begins with some details about his less than idyllic childhood — complete with absentee father, school mockery and bullying, and a profound sense of loneliness — and traces how those experiences steered him towards writing, proposing that such early micro-traumas are essential for any writer’s drive. He then lays out what he believes to be the four main motives for writing, most of which extrapolate to just about any domain of creative output.

I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer’s motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.

After a further discussion of how these motives permeated his own work at different times and in different ways, Orwell offers a final and rather dystopian disclaimer:

Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don’t want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a POLITICAL purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.

This, of course is to be taken with a grain of salt — the granularity of individual disposition, outlook, and existential choice, that is. I myself subscribe to the Ray Bradbury model:

Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say ‘Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…’, you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else.

Why I Write is part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series, excellent in its entirety.

Photo via The Atlantic

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22 JUNE, 2012

Alan Turing: Church, State, and the Tragedy of Gender-Defiant Genius


On the man who was caught between the past and the future in clothes a size too small, and profoundly changed our lives anyway.

Little about your day so far, including reading this, would be the same were it not for logician, mathematician, avid reader, and computer science pioneer Alan Turing (June 23, 1912–June 7, 1954). While he remains celebrated as instrumental in the invention of the computer, responsible for coining the very concepts of “computation” and “algorithm” in their present form, Turing — who has shaped nearly every facet of our modern lives — is also one of history’s most tragic figures. Beyond his intellectual prowess, another aspect of his character permeated his intellectual contribution and ultimately led to his untimely death, yet it remains at best a silent echo.

In 1952, Turing was criminally prosecuted by the U.K. government for his homosexuality, illegal at the time, and forced to take female hormones to “cure” his unlawful “disorder” — a process known as chemical castration — as an alternative to a prison sentence. Less than two years later, shortly before his forty-second birthday, Turing committed suicide. In The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer (public library), David Leavitt offers a poignant lens on how Turing’s homosexuality factored into his intellectual and creative triumphs and tribulations:

In a letter written to his friend Norman Routeledge near the end of his life, Turing linked his arrest with his accomplishments in an extraordinary syllogism:

Turing believes machines think
Turing lies with men
Therefore machines cannot think

His fear seems to have been that his homosexuality would be used not just against him but against his ideas. Nor was his notion of the rather antiquated biblical locution ‘to lie with’ accidental: Turing was fully aware of the degree to which both his homosexuality and his belief in computer intelligence posed a threat to organized religion. After all, his insistence on questioning humankind’s exclusive claim to the faculty of thought had brought on him a barrage of criticism in the 1940s, perhaps because his call to ‘fair play’ to machines encoded a subtle critique of social norms that denied to another population — that of homosexual men and women — the right to a legitimate existence. For Turing — remarkably, given the era in which he came of age — seems to have taken it as a given that there was nothing wrong with being homosexual; more remarkably, this conviction came to inform even some of his most arcane mathematical writings. To some extent his ability to make unexpected connections reflected the startlingly original — and at the same time startlingly literal — nature of his imagination.

Alan Turing

To further illustrate this odd duality of the disenfranchised and the prodigious that defined Turing’s existence, Leavitt cites the writings of novelist Lyn Irvine, whose husband was the mathematician Max Newman, and her brief recollection of Turing published in the late 1950s — an insightful portrait of him as a man unable to fit into the standard social molds, torn between the past and the future:

Alan certainly had less of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in him than most of his contemporaries. One must go back three centuries (or on [forward] two perhaps) to place him…

This tension of belonging, elusively just beyond reach, comes up a few paragraphs later, where Irvine writes:

He never looked right in his clothes, neither in his Burberry, well-worn, dirty, and a size too small, nor when he took pains and wore a clean white shirt or his best tweed suit. An Alchemist’s robe, or chain mail would have suited him, the first one fitting in with his abstracted manner, the second with that dark and powerful head, with its chin like a ship’s prow and its nose short and curved like the nose of an enquiring animal. The chain mail would have gone with his eyes too, blue to the brightness and richness of stained glass.

Leavitt laments:

The alchemist took logical principles, wire, and electronic circuits, and made a machine. The knight defended the right of that machine to a future.

If only he had been able to save himself.

The most tragic irony — or, perhaps, greatest frontier for redemption — is that today, we’re still debating the very civil liberty and basic human right the violation of which precipitated Turing’s suicide, but we’re waging our wars, fueling and following that debate, largely via the machine he invented. More than half a century later, how many Turings are we forcing to be smaller than they are, and how many are we losing completely?

But, for now, a much more upbeat way to celebrate Turing — a LEGO Turing Machine, recreating the famous 1936 Turing Machine, the first simulation of a computer algorithm, in everyone’s favorite brick toy:

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