Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

05 JUNE, 2012

The First Feminist Film (1922)


A woman, a gun, and a practical joke gone awry.

Feminist film is among the 100 ideas that changed cinema, but when did it really begin and how did it first manifest? In 1922, French writer, critic, and director Germaine Dulac (1882-1942) directed the pre-Surrealist silent film La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet), considered by many the first truly feminist film. It tells the story of an intelligent woman trapped in a loveless marriage, whose husband has made a running practical joke of pointing an empty revolver at himself and pretending to shoot himself. One day, Madame Beudet, beset by her hopeless situation, puts real bullets in the revolver, but is soon plagued by remorse. Before she can retrieve the bullets, however, her husband gets to the revolver — except this time he points it at her. She manages to escape the bullet by a hair, but her husband assumes she was trying to end her own life, so he embraces her and professes his love.

The film is now in the public domain and is available in its entirety:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

05 JUNE, 2012

Chasing Venus: When the World Came Together to Measure the Heavens


What Ben Franklin, Sweden, and a lucky break in the clouds have to do with the distance to the Sun.

In 1716, sixty-year old Sir Edmund Halley called on astronomers all over the world to leave their cozy observatories, travel to the edges of the known world, set up their telescopes, and turn their eyes toward the sunrise on the morning of June 6th, 1761, when the first Transit of Venus of the scientific age would march across the face of the sun.

In the eighteenth century, the solar system had a shape but not a size. By timing the entrance and the exit of Venus across the sun from latitudes all over the world, Halley explained, astronomers could roughly calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun — a “celestial yardstick” for measuring the universe, as Andrea Wulf calls it in her excellent book Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens.

A photograph from the 1882 Transit of Venus

It was the first worldwide scientific collaboration of its kind, a mathematical olympiad six hours in duration, with years of planning and seconds that counted. Today, more than 250 years after this grand experiment that required astronomers all over the world to gather together and look to the sky at the exact same moment, we will experience the last transit of our lifetime (unless modern medicine makes us survive to December 2117, when the next one will take place).

To avoid looking directly at the sun, a reflecting telescope could project the image onto a wall. (Wellcome Library, London)

Astronomers had two chances to catch this rare event, one in 1761 and one eight years later, in 1769. (The first viewing had taken place in 1639, observed by two astronomers in the English countryside.) The first outing was a gamble that the venture could work, the second was a high-stakes race to get it right. Mild-mannered scientists would have to become swashbuckling adventurers.

Crabtree watching the Transit of Venus, A.D. 1639 by Ford Madox Brown. William Crabtree was one of the first to ever view the transit, along with his friend Jeremiah Horrocks.

In 1761, the best viewing locations for the transit were also the most remote. The best times to capture data, explained Halley, were the shortest and longest durations and required locations in the extreme north and south, and unified efforts of the British, French, Russian, and Swedish governments, despite the fact that the British and French were at war — an unlikely alliance as heartening as the Christmas Truce of 1914.

A 1793 cartoon with a man and a woman viewing the transit (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Sun-Earth Day)

Months before the 1761 transit, a fleet of international astronomers was dispatched to South Africa, India, Siberia, Mauritius, eastern Finland, Newfoundland, and the remote island of St. Helena with instructions to set up their massive telescopes in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth. They required an impossible union of plentiful government funding, smooth sailing, open roads, understanding locals, accurate clocks, keen eyes, and clear skies.

A 1790 map showing the viewing path of the 1761 Transit of Venus, by James Ferguson. Central Europe would miss much of it, as would most of North and South America. (Library of Congress)

In the morning of June 6, 1761, the Queen of Sweden hurried to the Stockholm observatory to watch as the boiling edge of Venus touched the edge of the nighttime sun at 3:21AM. A Swedish astronomer stationed in eastern Finland was prepared to time the entry at 4AM, but local farmers had decided that the morning was also a good time to set fire to unwanted brush, and the smoke obscured much of his precious view. India caught the entrance at 7AM, Jakarta at 9AM, but most had trouble securing both the entrance and the exit. Clouds plagued the viewings at Cape Town and St. Helena, but Harvard professor John Winthrop was able to carefully time Venus’ exit while stationed in Newfoundland, the only calculation in North America.

A drawing of the 1761 transit, with an accurate depiction of the planet’s path, by Nicholas Ypey (Library of Congress)

Once the data was collected, a second problem emerged: there was no standard measurement on Earth for a proper calculation. A minute in India would be different than one in Halifax which would be different than one in South Africa. The same for feet, inches, meters, miles. The task at hand was monumental, impossible, and essential for mapping the heavens. When the final figures were tallied for the distance of the Earth to the Sun, the range of answers covered over 20 million miles. It was a poor mathematical showing.

Unlike the event eight years before, a fair amount of the 1769 transit would be visible in London. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Sun-Earth Day)

Eight years later, in 1769, the scientifically-minded Catherine the Great was in power in Russia, as was George III in England, and both were eager to spend heavily on a new army of astronomers. Over four hundred viewings were scheduled, including locations in Lapland and Baja California. The brightest minds of the Enlightenment rallied around the cause: Benjamin Franklin spearheaded the calculations in the colonies, and Captain James Cook shuttled a fleet of scientists and naturalists to Tahiti, where they viewed the transit with cloudless blue skies.

During the 1769 transit, the observations of Captain James Cook in Tahiti were an essential part of the international data collected. (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society)

It took three years for Captain Cook to return to England with his essential data, and the calculations when completed narrowed the margin of error from 20 million miles to just 4 million. But the Venus expeditions had gathered not just numbers, but plants and animals and observations of customs from around the world. Chasing Venus chronicles a rare planetary event that happened at a rare juncture in human history, when the age of empire, the age of science, and the age of curiosity brought the world together for just a few moments — to achieve the measure of the universe.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

04 JUNE, 2012

Presidential Campaign Posters: 200 Years of Election Art


A brief visual history of political propaganda design.

The intersection of propaganda and creative culture has always been a centerpiece of political communication, from the branding of totalitarian regimes to the design legacy of the Works Progress Administration to Soviet animated propaganda. Now, from The Library of Congress — America’s most centralized collective memory — and Quirk Books comes Presidential Campaign Posters: Two Hundred Years of Election Art — a magnificent large-format volume of 100 tear-out, ready-to-frame political campaign posters from the Library of Congress archives, each contextualized by a short historical essay on the respective election, alongside its final electoral and popular vote statistics.

In the preface, NPR’s always-brilliant media pundit Brooke Gladstone writes:

We media consumers are far too jaded by national politics to be influenced by campaign posters, right? We all know that posters are blatant manipulations, intended not to inform but to enlist. They emphasize faces and catchphrases. They condense complicated issues into jagged little pills. They are blunt instruments.

At the same time, the most effective campaign posters of every era leave as much as possible to the voter’s imagination. They are like Japanese manga: the less detailed the image, the more easily we can identify with the candidate, the more space for projecting our dreams. The more specific the image, the greater the risk of creating a feeling of “otherness,” which translates into death at the polls.

What emerges is a quilt-portrait of politics itself, stitched together by a common thread of propaganda techniques and the underlying ideological necessities they bespeak, unchanging across the ages — all the more striking given many of these posters come from an age predating marketing as we know it and what Gladstone calls the “now never-ending research into the psychology of primary colors, the semiotics of sans serif, and the syntactics of the sound bite.”

1856: James Buchanan (Democrat) v. James Fremont (Republican) v. Millard Fillmore (American)

1860: Abraham Lincoln (Republican) v. Stephen Douglas (Democrat) v. John C. Breckinridge (Southern Democrat) v. John Bell (Constitutional Union)

1864: Abraham Lincoln (Republican) v. George B. McClellan (Democrat)

1872: Ulysses S. Grant (Republican) v. Horace Greeley (Liberal Republican)

Gladstone observes:

The ultimate lesson of this collection is how choppy those waters are. Political art is nothing less than an illustration of the skirmishes and stalemates that created and continue to animate the American experiment. As you look at each poster and read about each campaign, it becomes increasingly clear that the tug of war over taxes and trade, the distribution of wealth and power, and the role of government itself, will never end.

Every generation renews the battle and fights it again. And every time, political candidates borrow from past campaigns the lexicon of perpetual political war. It reverberates in the slogans and the speeches, the urgent need: for tax relief or social protections, for an active government or a dormant one, for war or peace, to stay the course or to change direction.

1908: William H. Taft (Republican) v. William J. Bryan (Democrat) v. Eugene V. Debs (Socialist)

1924: Calvin Coolidge (Republican) v. John Davis (Democrat) v. Robert La Follette (Progressive)

1928: Herbert Hoover (Republican) v. Al Smith (Democrat)

1948: Harry S. Truman (Democrat) v. Thomas E. Dewey (Republican) v. J. Strom Thurmond (States' Rights Democrat) v. Henry A. Wallace (Progressive)

1968: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) v. George Wallace (Independent)

1968: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) v. George Wallace (Independent)

1968: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) v. George Wallace (Independent)

1968: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. Hubert Humphrey (Democrat) v. George Wallace (Independent)

1972: Richard M. Nixon (Republican) v. George McGovern (Democrat)

1980: Ronald Reagan (Republican) v. Jimmy Carter (Democrat) v. John Anderson (Independent)

1980: Ronald Reagan (Republican) v. Jimmy Carter (Democrat) v. John Anderson (Independent)

1988: George H. W. Bush (Republican) v. Michael Dukakis (Democrat)

2008: Barack Obama (Democrat) v. John McCain (Republican)

2008: Barack Obama (Democrat) v. John McCain (Republican)

At once a time-capsule of history and an invaluable timeline of design evolution, Presidential Campaign Posters offers a rare look at the craftsmanship of political propaganda and the abiding aspects of the human condition that it bespeaks.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.