JF Ptak Science Books Post 1608
“Vision: a device that belongs to those who have it. Far-reaching and fore-shortened, it is something that works best when used closely, loosely, finely and not at all. A gift-and-a-half and a half-a-bother.”
The imagined Devil’s Dictionary of Not Ambrose Bierce
In the many years that I have been looking at antiquarian prints, I must say that in the hundreds of thousands of them that it is very rare to see an image that looks straight down from a height upon its subject. And that is exactly what struck me about this print in the 22 August 1868 issue of Punch, or the London Charivari magazine. Straight down ti is that we're looking, straight onto a busy city street, presented here as though it were the face of the sun, the hansom cabs and people in the thoroughfare being sunspots.
[I've written earlier here on this and related topics, including: Rare Antique Visions of Looking Straight Down at Things; Looking Straight Up, Down, Across and Through; Points of View, Outside-Looking-In and Inside-Looking-Out; and Looking Straight DOwn at Things as Found-Dadaist Objects.]
The sunspot were in the mind of Mr. Punch the very life of the sun, and so too for the bits of humanity filling the streets.
At first I wasn't sure that "sunspots" were chosen for this cartoon for any particular part of their history in 1868--that is, if 1868 wasn't a particularly big year for sunspots. In general they were certainly known by this point for more than a thousand years, though the greatest recent attention with optical instruments occurred with Thomas Harriot, Johannes & David Fabricus and Christoph Scheiner all around 1610-1612, and then most famously with Galileo who recorded them in 1612 in his Istoria e Dimostrazioni Intorno Alle Macchie Solari e Loro Accidenti Rome (or History and Demonstrations Concerning Sunspots and their Properties, published 1613). And closer to this time (among other things) Heinrich Scwabe had published (in 1843) a major advance on the cycle of sunspots. But as it turns out, though, the word "sunspot" had just entered the language in 1868, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, coming via Sir Norman Lockyer's Elementary Astronomy (1868), arriving as "sun-spot". High delightful! Punch was really quite on its toes on this one, employing a brand new word for a well-established astronomical phenomena to a rare view of looking straight down at a bustling street, cycles and all. (Another sort of cycle would soon come to be applied in the next few years in the pages of Nature to sunspots from the brilliant logician (and other things) William Stanley Jevons--this bit of thinking done in trying to correlate sunspots and economic depressions. This one wouldn't hold, though it was a very interesting idea.)