Search This Blog

Monday, 28 December 2015

Yes Monster

Right now, I am well into the second volume of Colonial Concerns, though if the first volume fails to sell to a dead-tree publisher, I will pile the two together as a Great Big e-book: I have 130,000 words in the bag, all sorts of amusing side-lights to Australian social history, and it is galloping along.

Today, I am working on the story of bubonic plague in Australia, starting with a tale that reads like a script outline for Yes, Minister! Take it from me: it's all real.

* * * * * * * *

By the 1890s, the medical profession largely accepted the idea that germs (usually referred to as bacilli) caused disease, and these things were regarded with superstitious awe. Imagine how the Victorian Board of health felt when they received an anonymous warning in late 1898 that a Dr. Haydon, living at Macarthur, near Warrnambool, had arrived from India about six months earlier, with samples of the bacilli of the bubonic plague.

There was no time to lose (other than the six months that Gray had already been in Australia!), so the Board sent a Dr. Gray to call upon Haydon to see if the covert denunciation was correct, and if it was, to try to persuade Dr. Haydon to hand the microbes over for destruction.

Haydon confirmed that he did indeed have the bacilli, saying that he had secured them for experimental, purposes, at great risk to himself, and he wanted £300 compensation if he had to hand them over. The Board, as all Boards do when faced with a contrary view, started to flap and flail.

The colonial government had no legal power to interfere with the importation, so they appealed to the Minister of Health, Mr. H. R. Williams, and this is where the comedy started. The Secretary of Trade and Customs, Dr. Wollaston, stated that everyone coming to the colony is technically bound to report everything in his possession.

Inquiries at the Customs Department showed that no such importation had been reported. Microbes are not dutiable, and there was no law to prevent their importation, but the Minister proposed sending a Customs officer to seize the germs, after which, Dr. Haydon, instead of being compensated; should be prosecuted for secretly importing the germs of a fearful and dangerous disease.

Those who have worked in bureaucracies know that Sir Humphrey Appleby has always been there. Wollaston, who was formed in that mould, saw a better way. The microbes had been imported in gelatine, opening up a legal solution. Gelatine was subject to a duty of 3d per lb. So, as Dr. Haydon had not paid the duty, the department was entitled to seize the gelatine!

Detective-Inspector Christie, who was more used to seizing illicit whisky stills, contrabrand tobacco and cigars, jewellery, and the like, was told to leave by the 4.20 p.m. train for Warrnambool, and hurry along to Dr. Haydon’s at Macarthur, where he was to seize the microbes. I like Australian Town and Country Journal’s version:

This was the first time, he had been entrusted with such a duty; and, not knowing one microbe from another, he felt nonplussed, until he was informed that he would be accompanied by a bacteriological expert in Dr. Gray, who would identify the particular parcel. Armed with a writ from Dr. Wollaston. Detective Christie left by the 4.20 p.m. train, and Dr. Gray, who was on his way back, was instructed by telegraph to join Christie and return to Macarthur. Christie was directed to seize the microbes at all hazards. This he did, and destroyed them by fire. [1]

And so, children, Australia was saved from a terrible fate of bubonic plague. Well, not quite, because the germs, if they were what they were believed to be, lacked anything that could transfer them from one person to another. And in any case, plague was just around the corner, but to learn more about that, you will need to do your own research, or read the book.

[1] Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney), 19 November 1898, 13,

Sunday, 27 December 2015

The nature of wit

Snff?  Eh? What?

Oh, yes, sorry, I drifted off there for a bit. I am hard at work writing and forgot to post anything here. No matter, here's something I prepared earlier.

To most of us, the word 'wit' appears either in the form of somebody being witty or in some way having lost their wits, and given that, it is a little hard to deal with the Biblical and formally legal expression 'to wit'. King Henry uses the expression, just before Gloucester, the future Richard III stabs him in Henry VI, Part 3. Henry tells Gloucester:

Thy mother felt more than a mother's pain,
And yet brought forth less than a mother's hope,
To wit, an indigest deformed lump,
Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.

This reference to Gloucester's hunchback turns out to be an unwise career move on Henry's part. Again, at the end of Act II in The Merchant of Venice, a servant tells Portia

Madam, there is alighted at your gate
A young Venetian, one that comes before
To signify th' approaching of his lord,
From whom he bringeth sensible regreets;
To wit, besides commends and courteous breath,
Gifts of rich value.

So what is this wit that the characters speak of? It comes from an ancient Indo-European root meaning 'to know', and that is precisely what 'to wit' means. Variations on the term even turn up in languages like Czech, where a bear is called medved, because, as every reader of Winnie the Pooh knows, bears have a serious interest in honey.

Now honey, which yields us mead, even today, is medd in Welsh, mádhu in Sanskrit, and meodu in Old English, so it should not surprise us if the Czechs call their honey med. The second half of medved is our 'wit' in English, or wissen in German, or veta in Swedish, while in Sanskrit, we find four collections of knowledge called the Vedas. In other words, the bear, to the Czechs, is the 'honey knower'.

The verb 'wit' even turns up in an inflected form, as 'wot', mainly in poetical works, so we should not be surprised to find it awaiting us at every turn in Shakespeare, as in this comment from Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra:

O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!
Do bravely, horse; for wot'st thou whom thou mov'st?
The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm
And burgonet of men.

Over time, the root has buried itself deep within the language. A wise person was one who knew things, and wisdom and knowledge were seen as the same, and even a wizard seems to come from that source. A witch, however, may be different — in Old English, a male witch was a wicca, while a female witch was a wicce. Some of the 'witch' trees, like witch hazel, though, are entirely free of witchery, coming instead from the linguistic root that gives us 'wicker', and meaning pliable, easily bent.

And just to confuse the issue, there is another Old English word that we now render as 'withy', generally meaning the twigs of a willow or similar tree, and sharing an origin with the Latin word for a vine, vitis, which we recognise today only in the form of viticulture. But while we may be assured that in vino veritas, in wine there is truth, there is no trace of knowledge on the vine, though intelligence of a sort often travels by way of the grapevine.

Knowledge can be found elsewhere, though. The 'wiseacre' who seems to be a modern term of contempt, has an ancient history, going back more than 400 years to a time when the wiseacre was a wise-sayer or soothsayer, not unlike the Dutch wijsseggher of the same period, or the German Weissager, meaning the same thing.

Nowadays, we seem to relate wit to a rapid response, as in a witticism, or having a quick wit. Whatever wit was, though, Francis Bacon thought it was undesirable in court, when he observed that "Judges ought to be more Learned, then Wittie".

There is one wit that is essential in any legal hearing, and that is the person called before the court to reveal what they know: the possessor of knowledge, the all-knowingness we call 'the witness'.

There is a bird of the curlew family known as the godwit, but this does not seem to have any particularly good theistic connections, and I decline to speculate in any way, shape or form about the peewit.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Keeping a log

If you want to understand a log, the place to begin is with the nautical mile, which is exactly 1000 fathoms, 6000 feet, or the distance covered by one minute of latitude. Once you understand that simple relationship, most of the rest of the calculations to do with navigation become easy indeed.

The problem with sailing away from land is that you are never quite sure what you are going to bump into, just over the horizon, because you don't know quite how far you have sailed, and while you can use sightings on the sun and the stars to work out how far you are north or south, east and west is another matter, and to sort this, you need a very accurate chronometer.

At the equator, a degree of longitude east or west is also 60 nautical miles, away from the equator it is less. If you are using a timepiece to work out where you are, the skies appear to roll past at a steady 15° each hour, which means a degree every four minutes. If your timepiece is wrong by just one minute, that is a quarter of a degree, 15 nautical miles, far enough to make the difference between safe at sea and dying of thirst in a desert.

This is why most early navigators would get to the right latitude, and then sail along carefully, until they hit their target port. One advantage of doing this was that all the calculations that are needed as you angle across the latitudes and longitudes disappear, as if you were sailing on a flat surface, rather than across a huge sphere. In fact, sailors called this 'plane sailing', though these days, we are more likely to say "it's all plain sailing from here". Incidentally, the people who praise William Bligh for his epic journey across the sea after the mutiny on the Bounty should look at the map again: Bligh was a good navigator, and made his task easier by relying on plane sailing.

When Dutch ships sailed from Europe to the East Indies, they rounded Africa, sailed east across the Indian Ocean, and then turned north, hopefully before they hit Australia, but many of them missed, and so the Great South Land became New Holland for quite a few years, due to a certain amount of bump-and-grind inadvertent discovery by Dutch seafarers who had slightly lost track of how far east they had sailed.

To avoid this sort of problem, navigators used all sorts of tricks to work out where they were, and how fast they were going. One way was to drop a log of wood over the side at a fixed point on the ship's side, and time how long it took for a second point on the vessel to reach the log.

This wasted logs, and was unreliable, so before long, the log was dropped with a line attached to it, to see how much of the line paid out in 30 seconds or 60 seconds, measured by a sand-glass.

The old dropped log was not entirely forgotten, because English sailors called this a Dutchman's log, but they soon found a better design to use.

Jeffery Walker's patent log rotator

If you multiplied the length of the line that went over the side by the correct factor of 120 or 60 (for 30 seconds or 60 seconds — you work out why!), you knew how far you would go in one hour at the same speed.

Then somebody had a clever idea: put knots in the line, and count them as they go through your hand. If these knots are 1/120 of a nautical mile (50 feet) apart, then each knot paid out in 30 seconds indicates one nautical mile an hour, while knots at 100 foot intervals are used for a sandglass period of 60 seconds.

Later, better ways were found of getting the measurement, like Walker's patent log rotator, shown on the left,

Wind and water speeds are still measured in knots (not 'knots per hour') because of this practice. Later, the 'log' grew much fancier, and even became a small propeller in a tube set into the hull, which drove a gear system to provide sea mile data.

No matter how they were obtained, the results were, of course, written in a 'log book', and that term came to apply to any record, such as the record of people accessing a computer system.

And that is why, today, we 'log on' to a computer system, though few of us spare much thought, as we do, of the horny-handed old salts who heaved lumps of wood over the side of old sailing ships.

Bloggers think about their origins even less.