Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

30 MARCH, 2012

Beautiful Vintage Cross-Sections of Trees, Many Rare or Extinct Today


A bittersweet masterpiece of design and natural history.

From Cedric Pollet’s artful photos of bark to Rachel Sussman’s magnificent portraits of Earth’s most ancient perennial plants, trees seem to possess a special magnetism for human curiosity. But no visual documentarian has approached the inventory of trees with more dedication than Romeyn Beck Hough (1857-1924). Between 1888 and 1913, Hough cataloged hundreds of tree specimens in what became an epic 14-volume masterwork entitled American Woods. He employed a breathtaking, unusual display method: actual specimens mounted on card stock in three cutouts of the tree’s wood — transverse, radial, and tangential — alongside detailed descriptions of the tree’s habitat, characteristics, growth patterns, medicinal properties, and commercial possibilities. The collection endures as a work of unparalleled achievement and retails accordingly, with edition sets appraised as high as $30,000.

Luckily, Taschen has preserved Hough’s work and love of trees in the much more accessible The Woodbook: The Complete Plates, reproducing in painstaking facsimile all specimen plates from a rare original volume the editors acquired. The trees are arranged in alphabetical order and presented in Hough’s signature triad of cross-sections, revealing a wealth of colors and textures. Accompanying the wood cuts are lithographs by Charles Sprague Sargent, depicting the leaves and nuts of the trees, as well as texts contextualizing the trees’ geographical origins and physical characteristics.

Besides being an invaluable treat for naturalists and designers alike, The Woodbook is also a bittersweet artifact — in the century since Hough completed American Woods, many of the trees have become rare or completely extinct.

The individual plates have been made available online, courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center of the NCSU Libraries — a fine addition to these 7 important digitization projects.


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29 MARCH, 2012

Ancient Romans’ Fanciful and Entertaining Pre-Scientific Beliefs about Animal Behavior


What the greed of the octopus has to do with the ram’s preferred bedside and the hyena’s gender-bending.

We don’t know much about the Roman writer, collector, and moralist Claudius Aelianus, better-remembered as Aelian, except that he was born sometime between A.D. 165 and 170 some 25 miles outside of Rome, and that he made obsessive almanac-like collections on esoteric and odd topics. Though few of those survive, his magnum opus, De Natura Animalium (On the Nature of Animals), was popular enough in his heyday to survive largely intact, enduring as the only know work of Aelian’s today. The collection features seemingly random stories about animals, selected for no other reason that Aelian found them interesting, and serves as a kind of early encyclopedia of animal behavior rooted partly in mythology, partly in the speculative science of the day, and partly in Aelian’s own liberties as a storyteller.

In Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals, writer and Encyclopedia Britannica contributing editor Gregory McNamee resurrects the best of these stories, full of sketchy science and fanciful facts, to offer unprecedented insight into how ancient Romans thought of animals — a curious precursor to today’s scientific fascination with animal minds, and a fascinating caricature of our tendency to imbue the minds of others, be they animal or human, with the characteristics, qualities, and motives of our own.

Aelian was also a clever publisher with a keen sense of what people would find interesting and of how to get them interested in the obscure and exotic — the hallmark of a great curator. McNamee writes in the introduction:

Aelian knew as much as any person of his time about animals. He knew what this contemporaries knew, and he knew what they would find exotic. On the Nature of Animals is thus both a wonderful window onto the beliefs of ordinary people and a testimonial to the transmission of knowledge in the ancient world. It is also a great entertainment to read, as Aelian ponders the ways of the animals an tries to work them out, sometimes successfully, by our lights, and sometimes not.

A few entertaining, enlightening, scientifically egregious selections:

The OCTOPUS is greedy, sneaky, and voracious, and it will eat anything. It is probably the most omnivorous creature in the sea. Here is the proof: in times of hunger, it will eat one of its own tentacles, thus making up for a lack of prey. When better times come, it grows back the missing limb. Nature thus gives it a ready meal in moments of want.

If you were to see a male HYENA this year, next year you would see female one. The reverse is true. Hyenas share both sexes, and they marry, and having done so, they change sex year by year. This a fact and not a fancy tale, and it makes the stories of Caeneus and Teiresias seem quaint.

The ELEPHANT is frightened of rams and the squaling of pigs, and the Romans put both to use in sending the elephants of Pyrrhus of Epirus in flight, by which the Romans won a resounding victory. The elephant is also easily overcome and mollified by a woman’s beauty. At Alexandria, in Egypt, it is said that an elephant competed with Aristophanes of Byzantium for the love of a garland maker. The elephant loves fragrances and is entranced by the smell of flowers and perfumes.

When a LION grows old, burdened by age, he cannot hunt. He hides himself away in caves or lairs in the jungle, and he does nothing about hunting even the weakest of his former prey, for he is self-conscious about his age and well aware of his incapacity. His young will come get him and take him out while they hunt, but leave him behind whenever they give chase to some animal. When they have successfully hunted, then they invite their old father to the feast. He comes quietly up, step by step, almost at a crawl, and meekly embraces his children, licking them, and then eats with them. No Solon had to deliver this as a law to the lions: nature, which supposedly knows nothing of law, teaches them to do these things. This is a a law that is immutable.

The female DOLPHIN has breasts like a human woman, and she suckles her young with abundant milk. Dolphins swim in a body, ranked by age. The young swim in front, and after them the adults. The dolphin loves her children and protects them: first come the young, then the females, then the males, all alert and on guard, keeping an eye out on the whole school. What, O great Homer, would Nestor say, whom you call the foremost tactician among all the heroes of his time?

During winter the RAM will sleep on its left side, while after the venereal equinox it sleeps on its right side. At each change of the season, it changes its way of sleeping.

When CRANES squawk, they bring on rain showers. So it is said — and also, that cranes have some sort of power which arouses women and causes them to dispense sexual favors. I take this at the word of those who have seen it happen.

In the prologue, Aelian conveys a healthy ethos that many contemporary writers — or creators in any discipline, for that matter — would be wise to take heed, balancing pride in one’s work with realism about the all too common compulsion to please all critics:

For my part, I have gathered everything I could learn on the subject here, and put it all into ordinary speech. It seems to me that the result is noteworthy. If you think so, then I hope these words will be useful to you. If not, give them to your rather to keep and study. Not everything pleases everyone, and not everyone wants to study everything. Plenty of other writers have come before me, but that should not disqualify me from praise, if it really is true that this learned book is far ranging and well written enough to deserve attention.

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28 MARCH, 2012

The Idea Factory: Insights on Creativity from Bell Labs and the Golden Age of Innovation


Successful innovation requires the meeting of the right people at the right place with just the right problem.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Thomas Edison was the most famous inventor in the world. He hoarded useful materials, from rare metals to animal bones, and through careful, methodical testing, he made his new inventions work, and previous inventions work better. Churning out patent after patent, Edison’s particular form of innovation was about the what, and not about the how — the latter he could outsource and hire for.

“In 1910, few Americans knew the difference between a scientist, an engineer, and an inventor” explains Jon Gertner at the beginning of his lively book about a place that fostered a home for all three, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. The difference was clear to Edison, who was generally disinterested in the theory behind his inventions, filling his Menlo Park complex with specialists to do the work he’d rather not. “I can always hire mathematicians,” he said, “but they can’t hire me.”

At Menlo Park, Edison hired scientists to do the theoretical work so that he could concentrate on testing his inventions.

To be an inventor, Gertner insists, one needed “mainly mechanical skill and ingenuity, not scientific knowledge and training.” (Qualities that the ingenious Hedy Lamarr had alongside her mechanical partner George Antheil, an unlikely artistic pair who invented an essential frequency-hopping radio signal during World War II that later gave us technologies like Bluetooth and wifi.) For more than sixty years, from the 1920s to the 1980s, Bell Labs would bring together all of the above to create essential inventions of the twentieth century: the transistor, radar, the laser, communication satellites, UNIX, and the C++ programming language.

Adventure stories about 'wireless boys' and 'radio boys' were popular around the turn of the century.

It was the child-tinkerers during the first decades of the century who would populate Bell Labs during its explosive growth in the 30s and 40s. Adventure books recounted tales of “Wireless Boys” (or “Radio Boys”) who solved dastardly crimes and helped those in need, all by building their own wireless telegraphs at home. “Wireless is a thrilling pastime!,” exclaims the author of one of these books:

To be a wireless boy and make your own apparatus is to have the kind of stuff in you of which successful men are made — men who, if they were shipwrecked on a desert isle at daybreak, would have something to eat by noon, a spring bed to sleep on by night and a wireless station the next day sending out an SOS to ships below the horizon, for help.

Around this time, Alexander Graham Bell’s American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) had a massive, government-sanctioned monopoly on all telephone subscriptions, buying regional phone companies, single-handedly manufacturing all of the parts for all of the cables, switches, repeaters, and vacuum-tubes. AT&T made the phones work, it made the parts that made the phones work, and it hired scientists and engineers to make the phones work better. During the 1920s, this third arm is what became Bell Labs.

Tesla I communications satellite for television signals and space data, 1962. (Alcatel-Lucent USA Inc. and the AT&T Archives and History Center)

In the beginning, Bell Labs was populated with grown-up wireless boys — physics, engineering, and chemistry grad students and junior professors seduced away from colleges with astronomically better pay. The new recruits were required to climb telephone poles, operate a switchboard, and sign a paper that sold all rights to any future patents to AT&T for a dollar.

The Picturephone, from the 1964 New York World's Fair (AT&T Archives and History Center)

Bell Labs was a place for discovery, which wasn’t always profitable, and invention, which usually was. During World War II, the US government invested $2 billion into the development of the atomic bomb, but they invested around $3 billion in the development of radar, much of which took place at Bell Labs. (“Scientists who worked on radar often quipped that radar won the war,” Gertner writes, ” whereas the atomic bomb merely ended it.”)

In 1961, Bell Labs moved to a campus designed by Eero Saarinen. It was sold by the company in 2006.

During the post-war reorganization of the Labs, older management was demoted, younger management given new titles, and, most importantly, every research group was interdisciplinary: chemists mingled with physicists who chatted with metallurgists who lunched with engineers. Every building in the New Jersey campus was interconnected and no one was allowed to shut their door. This was the beginning of a newly innovative time, but not the same “genius”-driven Eureka! moments that seemingly characterized the work of Edison. Gertner writes:

At the start, forces that precede an invention merely begin to align, often imperceptibly, as a group of people and ideas converge, until over the course of months or years (or decades) they gain clarity and momentum and the help of additional ideas and actors. Luck seems to matter, and so does timing, for it tends to be the case that the right answers, the right people, the right place — perhaps all three — require a serendipitous encounter with the right problem. And then — sometimes — a leap. Only in retrospect do leaps look obvious.

(“Chance favors the connected mind,” Steven Johnson famously observed in his own exploration of how innovation happens.)

The story of The Idea Factory is one of individuals, architecture, millions of tiny moving parts, deliberate work, and, of course, luck and timing. It was a culture of creativity that worked for its age, impossible to reproduce in quite the same way, nor would we want to. Today, we might subscribe to the philosophy that “creativity is just connecting things,” as Steve Jobs once said about his own idea factory, but first someone has to test, apply, develop, and manufacture all of those connectors.

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

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