JF Ptak Science Books Post 1419 [Dedicated to our primum mobile family horse person, Emma Digh Ptak.]
The history of horses in the sciences is not a very wide subject area, though I'd like to look at a few instances in which they help to prove both something and nothing--particularly in the third case below, when the "nothing" was a very big "something".
First, in the history of horsepower (and such an odd history it is, having somewhat and famously to do with billing issues for steam powered engines) there is a certain restricted high-percentage element that are just no-go, unworkable ideas. Some of them served as the basis for further and deeper thinking,and some of them were simply far ahead of the technical abilities of their times.
In 1825 Edmond Genet1 published an interesting book (Memorial on the upwards forces of fluids and their applicability to several arts, sciences and public improvements) which in and of itself is a milestone in a number of different technical aspects--one part of it though sensationally and beautifully elevates itself to the Not-Quite-a-Good-Idea-at-Almost-Any-Time Department.
"The actual plans of Genet's airship called for a balloon shaped to resemble the rounded back of a large fish and containing about 1,023,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas, with a platform or deck fastened beneath. Two horses, moving on a revolving wheel on this platform, were to provide the power for operation of a pair of large, silk-covered aerial wheels, while the rudder in imitation of a fish tail was intended "not only to steer the machine, but also to supply it with an additional force of propulsion". --Genet in his Memorial...
One thing that makes Genet's work so impressive is that as a result of it he applies for and is granted the first patent made in the U.S. for a flying machine. The flying machine he presented in his work though is a little problematic: the canopy and the machine itself are not at all drawn to scale, and their size and breadth are lost a little in that under-representation. I'd say that the figures in the drawing should be half of what they are, given that the flying machine was 132' long and 46 feet wide (and 54 feet high), and the canopy was to be filled with a million cubic feet of helium. The thing was a beast, and was supposed to be blessed with the capacity for lifting 72,000 pounds2. The horses were along for the forward propulsion, moving two large paddle wheel-type wheels on either side of the airship. It just doesn't look right.
Next is a tempting mechanism, an inset living inside a larger engraving depicting a mode of transport not-so-tempting. It comes from Colonel Jean-Gaffin Gallon's (1706-1775) Machines et inventgions approuvees par l'Academie Royale des Sciences....published between 1735 and 1777, and poetically covers its subject over a 111-year span from 1666 to 1777. The massive work was illustrated with nearly 500 engravings covering all manner,shapes and description of technological invention and advancement, not the least of which was the first illustrated description of Pascal's logic machine. Amid all of this vast wealth of potentially revolutionary achievement,. I pluck out this equine example of possible nothingness:
which I am just not sure about, not having the text. I can only hope that the horse was some sort of imaginary mechanical something, given its task and its size. From the looks of its neck and the rider and the length of the horse, if it was a living thing it would have been gargantuan.
Here's an appearance in the Gallon work (from 1735) of another, mechanical, horse that was used for stage productions, and which seemed fairly articulated:
And thirdly, there is this, perhaps the most famous image of horses in the history of scientific illustration:
This beautiful illustration is from one of the greatest experimental physics books of the 17th century, coming as it does from Otto von Guericke's Experiemnta nova (ut vocantur) Magdeburgica de vacuo spatio (Amsterdam, 1672). (In another minute department, this one is also I guess the greatest book ever written by a Mayor of anywhere (as von Guericke (1602-1886) was mayor of Magedeburg for 33 years).) The image shows the greatest of von Guericke's efforts, and one of the greatest (or most important) experiments in experimental science--the dramatic demonstration of the vacuum, showing here that teams of horses could not pull apart two halves of an evacuated sphere, and of course the efficacy of air pressure operating against it (um, the vacuum). The "floating" bits in the sky were an exploded view of the sphere that was the subject of the experiment.
What was more important though, and what the general reader today might easily miss, was that von Guericke created something that many scientists and philosophers said didn't, and couldn't, exist: the vacuum. In modern times, Copernicus depicted the universe as a vast void; Descartes came in the back door (following the ancient and interesting though incorrect theory of Aristotle), not liking the idea very much, and claiming that such empty space couldn't exist. Von Guericke provided the proof that the vacuum, that nothing, did exist.
As a matter of fact the issue of nothingness was very contentious, with the concept of its possibility and the display of a vacuum not achieved until this effort by von Guericke, with his team of horses tugging away at the essence of nothing.
1. Genet is best remembered in American history as "Citizen Genet", at least far more so than that being remembered for gentleman farming or his work in aerostatics and invention. "Edmond Charles Genet had tried to recruit American volunteers to serve in the armies of Revolutionary France and to outfit American privateers to fight against the British. Despite President Washington's orders for him to desist from his high-handed appeals to the American public, he continued the same practices until he was forced from office. Washington permitted him to remain in this country as a private citizen, saving him saving him from the possibility of being guillotined for his failure." So writes the great historian of Science I Bernard Cohen. It wasn't altogether true though that it was Washington who saved Genet; his being allowed to remain in the U.S. was strongly pursued and lobbied by Alexander Hamilton, Genet's greatest detractor/enemy/nemesis in Washington's cabinet.
2. By contrast, the Wright I Flyer (the famous first-flight airplane of 1903) had a wingspan of 40 feet, weighed 625 pounds and sported a 12 horsepower, 170 pound engine (and which by the way was all produced for about a thousand dollars--not nothing, but not a lot).