JF Ptak Science Books Post 2681
Superman was (is?) as fast as .00005% of the speed of light, or thereabouts, if you gave him the benefit of the speeding bullet being a 50-cal round muzzle velocity. On the one hand, it is fast; on the other, well, not so.
That is what sort-of attracted me to this present pamphlet. I determined to simply scan the thing (James Jackson, Tableau de Diverses Vitesses exprimes en metres par seconde1, published in Paris in 1885) for a quick blog post "On How Fast Stuff Is and Isn't". The slowest on the list was the "Corissance du bambou"/the growth of bamboo, which is actually a quickly-growing thing but not so when in comparison to how many meters it grows per second. And that's what this is, a little 8-page pamphlet listing about 350 things and how fast they are, all calculated in meters/second. The selections are actually pretty interesting in and of themselves. So first to last, where I find several different calculations for the speed of light...and then something else, faster than the speed of light.
The last entry was this: "courant electrique provenant de la decharge d'une bouteille de Leyde dans un fil de cuivre de 0m,0017 de diametre" ("electric current from the discharge of a Leyden bottle into a copper wire of 1/16th of an inch"), with a velocity of 463,000,000 metres/second. No doubt Jackson is just talking about electron flow, which is about 1% of the velocity of the speed of light c along a wire or so (and far less along the wires in your kitchen appliances) while the flow of electromagnetic energy in a vacuum is exactly c--and what he is writing about here is warp 1.2 or a 50% increase in the velocity of electricity over light, when electricity and light are basically the same thing. I just don't know what he is talking about.
The Scientific American Supplement posts a notice of this bit, quoting the American Machinist in its review of Jackson's work, and which also takes care to mention the faster-than-light speed as "the greatest rapidity so far measured":
"The American Machinist extracts from a contemporary a gamut of speeds per second beginning with that of the snail oil is half an inch and ending with the following Electric current on telegraph wires 7,000 miles induction current 11,040 miles electric current in copper wire armatures 21,000 miles light 180,000 miles discharge of a Leyden bottle through copper wire 1 16 inch in diameter 277,100 miles This last is the greatest rapidity so far measured. These figures might have more weight and more interest if the methods of calculating them or the authorities had also been given." Scientific American: Supplement, Volumes 43-44, July 31, 1897 p 17997.
Remember that we're dealing with c twenty years before Einstein's seminal year, when the fastest speed obtainable by anything was that of light and which was considered to be infinite since in space there would be nothing to get in its way, at least according to Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), who imagined that no matter where the originating point of the light source was it would be seen instantaneously from any other point, no matter the location so long as there were no obstacles. Estimates of light's finite speed were proposed by scientists who were born at about the time that Kepler died by Ole Roemer and the everything-man, Christiaan Huygens (who estimated the speed of light at very near the present determination, which was 220k km/s. None of these names appears on Jackson's list, though more recent additions like (Marie Alfred) Cornu (1878 using the not-named-here Fizeau instrument), (A.A.) Michelson (1879), Young, and Forbes (as in James Young and George Forbes in 1882) do.
Anyway the faster-than-light speed Jackson was referring to was for electricity, and no doubt came from the experiments in 1834 by Charles Wheatstone (thanks for the push, Dave Wenner!)
I should make a note within this note of the work of Camille Flammarion (1842-1925), a very provocative and imaginative writer, who produced a small novel called Lumen (1887) in which the main character/souls move through the universe at what must be speeds way beyond the speed of light. His work in general looks like a collection of sci-religio-fiction, with creative writing on time travel (or observation, or viewer, I'm not sure), teeming extra-terrestrial life, transmigration of souls, and so on, filling and flying through the vastness of time and space, and I think collapsing the idea of time itself. ("Lumen" is a recently-dead ET soul that dialogues with Questor, and they wind up moving through the universe at warp speed.) So, there's that.
Anyway this sort of post calls for a lot more reading, which I'm sorry to say I haven't done--I just don't know yet how fast the fastest things were believed to be through the history of science. At least this post gets the ball rolling, if only for me.
- I found seven copies of this 1885 printing in WorldCat/OCLC, the holdings a stellar pedigree (LC, NYPL, Yale, Harvard, U Wisconsin/Madison, Oxford).