JF Ptak Science Books Post 1775
The 1895/1896 issues of Nature magazine are compliantly normal until the first weeks of 1896 when the first of a flood of articles is published about the astonishing discovery of 50-year-old Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen. The English-language popular science journal announcement of his December 28, 1895 “Ueber eine neue Art von Strahlen" ("On a New Type of Ray"), appearing 16 January 1896, began the introduction of a new state of human experience. His experiments—built upon the work of J. Plucker (1801-1868), J. W. Hittorf (1824-1914), C. F. Varley (1828-1883), E. Goldstein (1850-1931), Sir William Crookes (1832-1919), H. Hertz (1857-1894) and the odious Phil Lenard (1862-1947 and who didn’t die soon enough)—revealed as much to humans as did the experiments and inventions of Hooke and Leeuwenhoek on the invisible worlds revealed by the microscope. There are more than 150 articles on the Roentgen (and soon to be “X-“) Ray, all published within 12 months of the original announcement, almost all excitedly, trying to comprehend, elucidate, expand, verify, this new world.
[The news of the discovery is first and most popularly reported in the January 6, 1896 London Standard: “The noise of war's alarm should not distract attention from the marvelous triumph of science which is reported from Vienna. It is announced that Professor Routgen (sic) of the Wurzburg University has discovered a light which for the purpose of photography will penetrate wood, flesh, cloth, and most other organic substances. The Professor has succeeded in photographing metal weights which were in a closed wooden case, also a man's hand which showed only the bones, the flesh being invisible”. By the end of the month the news was completely absorbed, worldwide.]
I looked at the advertising in these issues (my copies of Nature for these decades generally have the original paper wrappers for the weeklies, complete with ad copy), looking for the first time that a Roentgen machine was offered for sale to the general public. As it turns out, they popped up 12 March 1896 (once), 19 March (twice), and then about once a week for the rest of the year. A little surprising, I think, a little light to my Monday-morning quarterback’s eye—I expected more; bigger, more, splashier. But the ads are small and sedate, hardly similar to the discovery they represent.
The rest of the world, the rest of the advertising world, stayed the same--the Roentgen discovery and the enormous possibilities and promises of his “new photography” lived in their own unique sphere, unencumbered by their sassy new brother. This mild response seems dimmer still when you compare it to that which greeted other (relatively) simple but still major advancements in the world of photography. Take for example Etienne Marey, who was a technoid and physician who was able to capture motion of all sorts--he was able to develop a picture so to speak of the movement of blood in the body via his instrument to calculate blood pressure, and he also created a shotgun-style camera that made the world's first high-speed photographs of movement. And so it cane to pass that in the late 1870's and early 1880's people were instantly able to see what a horse looked like when it galloped or what the body did *exactly* when jumping over a chair. When you couple this with fourth-dimension material one wonders why it took several more decades to bump into these images in the art of 1907+.
(Duchamp Nude Descending series, 1915; above, Marey, 1881)
And what indeed was normal in these pages? Magic lanterns
and magi lantern slides appear at all levels; the gorgeous Wimshurst machine gets heavily advertised; the redoubtable Negretti & Zambra advertised all manner of excellent scientific instruments (biographs, thermogrphs. Nadeer Bros. advertised a pretty standard cell, and the ancient Crossley displayed their “new” oil engines, “suitable for all classes of agricultural work”. J.H. Stewart was selling their semi-automatic electric arc lamp, while across the page was Newton & Company’s “Newtonian” arc lamps for lanterns (“self feeding and focus keeping”). Microscopes and prepared slides abound, and Thomas Bolton advertises discretely and effectively for their “living specimens for the microscope”.
The Physical Review, the American upstart in the science world advertises that its third volume was available, while its distant cousin, the Psychological Review, advertised its own third volume. Booksellers seem to take the most space, thank goodness.
There are a few medical throwbacks: Epp’s Cocaine takes out occasional tenth-page ads for their “cocoa-nib extract, tea-like” selling its ‘gentile nerve stimulant”. Right underneath is “Holloway’s Pills”, promising to cure biliousness, sick headache, indigestion, and all (?!) internal complaints. These are brilliant simple samples of the skeleton of science in world-dominant Great Britain, in a world dominated at that time by H.A, Lorentz, Ernst Mach , Roentgen, Korteweg, de Vries, Bateson, Jean-Baptiste Perrin, Pierre Curie, Zeeman, Becquerel, Joseph Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, Marconi, Ramsay, Fitzgerald. And so on.
Nothing offered for sale here offered any significant clue to the pregnant world of modernity that was nearly there—the world would become ‘modern” almost immediately following Roentgen, with revolutionary, epochal changes in art (in non-representational form more so than Impressionism), theater, literature, music. Just about everything changed (except politics). But there is no hint to paradigm shift hidden in the ads, just as they were with the machines selling the promise of Roentgen’s “new photography. There’s something about the fine glass, superb turning of the screw, and a perfectly oiled gear though that makes this sort of perfection seem so lonely in the world of larger change. Bertha, Roentgen’s wife, sat for 15 minutes while her husband passed his rays through her hand; she ran from the room once she saw the results, revealing her very bones and no doubt a strong sense of the
fragility of life, and the strong presence of death. Many had the same reaction to the Kandinsky's shapes and Malevich’s white circles and red rectangles and Ibsen’s drama and Einstein’s dancing dust and the rogue syncopation of jazz. It is probably a very natural reaction to try and protect established memory—but memory should be more flexible than that, I think, to keep a healthy mind.