Saturday, October 27, 2007


The Mutual Poisoning Society

I'm in this week's New Scientist with "The Mutual Poisoning Society," a piece about Frederick Accum -- that would be the dashing young chemistry lecturer above -- who was the David Horowitz and Ralph Nader combined of 1820. His Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons was a pioneering and bestselling book that became popularly known as "Death in the Pot":

"The man who robs a fellow subject of a few shillings on the high-way, is sentenced to death," Accum charged in his preface, "while he who distributes a slow poison to the community escapes unpunished."

The fraudsters’ motives were generally to disguise spoilt or watered-down goods, or to save money by substituting cheap ingredients for expensive ones. "There are instances on record, of bakers having used gypsum, chalk, and pipe clay, in the manufacture of bread," he noted. Gypsum also turned up in wine, to clarify cloudy casks — as did, more alarmingly, dollops of molten lead. Crooked vintners aged cheap new red wines by tossing in sawdust and staining new corks to look old. Switching to tea was no healthier. Accum found bogus blends of whitethorn, elder and ash leaves, and sheep-dung. "Green tea" was created by adding poisonous copper carbonate. If you fancied lemonade instead, vendors saved themselves the trouble of procuring lemons by flavouring the stuff with sulphuric acid...

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine observed that Britain had been revealed as a sort of Mutual Poisoning Society: "The apothecary, who sells poisonous ingredients to the brewer, chuckles over his roguery and swallows his own drugs in his daily copious exhibitions of brown stout. The brewer, in his turn, is poisoned by the baker, the wine-merchant, and the grocer. And, whenever the baker’s stomach fails him, he meets his coup de grace in the adulterated drugs of his friend the apothecary, whose health he has been gradually contributing to undermine, by feeding him every morning on chalk and alum, in the shape of hot rolls."

The book is available as a Gutenberg e-text, and it's fascinating reading. If you were unfortunate enough to be one of his original readers, it'd certainly put you off of your powdered bark, roasted horse-liver, and burnt-parsnip "coffee."

Sunday, October 21, 2007


The Other Reading Room

Design Week previews the refurbishment of the London Library (not to be confused with the almighty British Library). My favorite touch: deliberately mismatched tiles in the loo.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Luv and Rockets

My favorite news graf of the week, hidden yesterday within a perennial Times story about city employees getting nailed for fake college degrees:
An investigator went to the Web site of Belford University and obtained a bachelor’s degree with highest honors in aerospace engineering for $509.15, the department said. After failing an “entry exam,” the investigator was urged by the Web site to take it again, and was sent the answers. The investigator had entered his age as 12 and had written, “I luv planes and rockets,” the authorities said.

Sadly, the Times doesn't bother to link to the Belford University website, whose pitch surely must be seen to be appreciated: "No Experience? No Problem!
Pass our simple online equivalency test and get an accredited online degree within 7 days.... No Admissions. No Attendance. No Hassle."
They also have advisors available "24 hours a day, 7 days a week," which is presumably an advantage when you get that sudden 4 am craving for an M.S. in Microbiology.


Wells, Wells, Wells...

Check out this collection of 318 different book covers for The War of the Worlds -- here's a sixpenny edition from 1913:

Sunday, October 07, 2007


Hotcockle Smackdown!

This week's Times of London reviews Fopdoodle And Salmagundi: Words and Meanings From Dr Johnson's Dictionary That Time Forgot:

The editor has included familiar contemporary terms that had utterly different meanings in 1755: 'faxed' (hairy), 'naff' (a sea-bird), 'rapper' ('one who strikes') and 'hunks' ('a covetous sordid wretch'), but there's more subtle humour and interest in definitions of lost practices, such as 'hotcockles: a play in which one covers his eyes and guesses who strikes him' and superseded meanings: 'cottager: one that lives in a hut or cottage on the common without paying rent and without any land of his own' or 'factory: a house or district inhabited by traders in a distant country'.
If I may -- I believe the definitive use of the word fopdoodle is in Edward Vaughn Kenealy's epic and epically bonkers play A New Pantomime, in his 1878 Poetical Works. It's a speech by the character of Mephistopheles.

It's never been reproduced on the web before, and it is... um... well, it's really something.

Ass-head, Blaekmoor, Cuckoo, Dotard,
Splay foot, Yelper, wry-necked Wretch,
Skulker, Flunky, Horse-face, Stuffgut,
Heaven make me thy Jack Ketch!
Whipster, Gorgon, Pug-nose, Dog-face,
Hair-brained Trull, Grimalkin, Flirt,
Demirep, Lacedmutton, Gadder;
Do give over flinging dirt.
Blusterer, Saucebox, Smell-feast, Weasel,
Swasher, Swaggerer, Princock, Chuff,
Trickster, Shuffler, Lazar, Bow-leg,
Hast thou not yet had enough?
Tell-tale, Jillet, Vagrant, Fibber,
Blouze, Coquette, Slut, Gaptooth, Cow;
Grannum, Henpecker, Empusa —
Faith ! I must give over now.
Fuddler, Slimgut, Tippler, Thickskull,
Spitfire, Sponger, Upstart, Clumps,
Costard, Couple-beggar, Duffer,
You look handsome in your dumps.
Snob, Poltroon, Dwarf, Fool, Gull-catcher,
Loggerhead, Impostor base ;
Juggler, Crookback, limping Cripple,
Broken nose and Pimple-face,
Poor lickspittle, frowsy fellow,
Bastard brat with stinking breath :
Cur, Curmudgeon, Chuffcat, Cuckold,
Baldpate, Dirt, I'll be your death.
Frosty-face barbarian, Savage,
Codger, Spooney, Fogie, Ass,
Vile Mohock, Screw, Gaby, Gudgeon,
Did you hope scot-free to pass ?
Lily-livered Tosspot, Lubber,
Crackhemp, Cullion, Blabber, Boor,
Vile bog-trotter, Whipper-snapper,
You're a pretty god, I'm sure-.
Dastard, Donkey, Whiffler, Shaveling,
Base skipkennel, Loafer, Bull-head,
Foul footlicker, Skimble-skamble,
Have I put sense in your dull-head?
Shatter-pate, Swinge-buckler, Boggier,
Chatterpie, Bamboozler, Dodger,
Meacock, Buzzer, poor Fopdoodle,
You're a pretty first floor lodger!
Snuffler, Loggerhead and Splutterer,
Beetlebrow, Gull-catcher, Viper ;
Hiccius-doccius, bull-eyed Stutterer,
I will make you pay the piper.
In his day job Kenealy was a barrister, most notable for pretty much losing his marbles during the infamous Tichbourne trial. Say, good thing he had that writing career to fall back on!


See? Even The Greeks Dropped Out of Calculus.

An article in this week's Science News discusses this fabulous find:

For seventy years, a prayer book moldered in the closet of a family in France, passed down from one generation to the next. Its mildewed parchment pages were stiff and contorted, tarnished by burn marks and waxy smudges. Behind the text of the prayers, faint Greek letters marched in lines up the page, with an occasional diagram disappearing into the spine. The owners wondered if the strange book might have some value, so they took it to Christie's Auction House of London. And in 1998, Christie's auctioned it off—for two million dollars. For this was not just a prayer book. The faint Greek inscriptions and accompanying diagrams were, in fact, the only surviving copies of several works by the great Greek mathematician Archimedes....

Two of the texts hiding in the prayer book have not appeared in any other copy of Archimedes's work, so no one but Heiberg had studied them until now. One of them, titled The Method, has special historical significance. It could be considered the earliest known work on calculus.

Not only were some of these pages re-used, but several entire pages were painted over in gold-leaf, so that only x-ray fluorescence imaging can now reveal the texts...

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