Tag: Pamphlets

History of Science Pamphlets

Some time back I stumbled across Brain Washing From Phone Towers and was immediately intrigued by anybody producing pamphlets today,[1] especially pamphlets that deal with any aspect of the history of science.

Sarah Nicholls is the genius behind Brain Washing From Phone Towers, informational pamphlets about this, that, and the other thing.
Sarah Nicholls is the genius behind Brain Washing From Phone Towers, informational pamphlets about this, that, and the other thing.

Out of the blue, I sent an email to the woman, Sarah Nicholls (a printer in Brooklyn), behind Brain Washing From Phone Towers. She responded quickly and sent two of her pamphlets, one on Isaac Newton and one on the Escape Wheel.

The cover of Sarah Nicholls’s “Action at a Distance” pamphlet.
The cover of Sarah Nicholls’s “Action at a Distance” pamphlet.

I immediately read and enjoyed both. They do a wonderful job of combining history, science, and the present in an entertaining and informative way—they are pamphlets, after all.

Newton’s three laws from Sarah Nicholls’s “Action at a Distance” pamphlet.
Newton’s three laws from Sarah Nicholls’s “Action at a Distance” pamphlet.

I particularly like the designs and cuts blocks for the illustrations that adorn each pamphlet (see this post for her work designing the image of wave propagation in the “Action at a Distance” pamphlet). Isaac Newton, Isaac Barrow, Edmund Halley, and Gottfried Leibniz all come up, as do the Royal Society, mathematics, alchemy, scriptures, and the plague.

Detail from Sarah Nicholls’s “Escape Wheel” pamphlet.
Detail from Sarah Nicholls’s “Escape Wheel” pamphlet.

“Escape Wheel” is about keeping time. Sundials, water clocks, pendulum clocks, and other mechanical clocks. Christiaan Huygens, William Clement, John Harrison, and the problem of longitude come up.

Detail from Sarah Nicholls’s “Escape Wheel” pamphlet, section on the longitude problem.
Detail from Sarah Nicholls’s “Escape Wheel” pamphlet, section on the longitude problem.

As with any good pamphlet, the “Escape Wheel” gestures to politics. In a closing note:

Despite the many advantages of new technologies, there are holes in the technological narrative as well.**
**The depletion of scarce resources, the minuscule lifespan of digital devices, profits from the mining of raw materials for electronics funding civil war, coal-powered factories in China producing new devices, growing piles of e-waste, the death of privacy, the rise of the surveillance state, and the burning of more coal to power data centers and wireless networks, so that all our citizens can enjoy instantaneous access to funny pictures of our pets, instagrams of our lunch, and oceans of amateur porn.

Here we get an idea of how she put together the illustrations for “Escape Wheel.” Peruse Sarah Nicholls’s blog to find glimpses of how she designs and prints her pamphlets.


  1. Given the number of posts on pamphlets here, my interest in contemporary pamphleteering should be no surprise.  ↩

Winstanley’s Anti-Quaker Almanacs from the 1670s

Haverford’s Quaker & Special Collections has three amusing 17th-century almanacs: A Yea and Nay Almanack for the People Call’d by the Men of the World Quakers for 1678, 1679, and 1680. The three are bound together in one volume.[1]

Title page for Winstanley’s 1678 Yea and Nay satirical Quaker almanac.
Title page for Winstanley’s 1678 Yea and Nay satirical Quaker almanac.

These Yea and Nay were the genius of William Winstanley (Dictionary of National Biography entry is behind a paywall), whose Poor Robin almanacs were wildly popular in Restoration England. Winstanley complied various religious almanacs, including the anti-Catholic Protestant Almanack and the Episcopal Almanack. The Yea and Nay almanacs mocked Quaker beliefs, practices, and habits.

In his “To the Brethren” Winstanley mocks the Quakers, their inner light, their speech, and their dress.
In his “To the Brethren” Winstanley mocks the Quakers, their inner light, their speech, and their dress.

Winstanley’s “To the Brethren” letter pokes fun at the Quakers’ silent meetings and plain speech and inner light:

…I must confess I have not embellished it with Eloquent speeches, nor complemental phrases, which are like the Lace and Ribbon wherewith men of the World do adorn their apparel; but is what is more pertinent to our purpose, we have been very conversant with the familiar epithets of Thee and Thou, Yea and Nay, &c. that our words may be correspondent to our profession, and nothing found herein any waies suitable to the Outward Light, or to sence it self. In the perusal of it I desire thee to put on they spectacles of understanding, and to read it either by the light of the Sun, or a Candle, for the greatest Rabbi of us all cannot in a dark night see to read it by the help onely of the Light within him, which notwithstanding we boast to be so great, yet is not so good for that use as a farthing candle…

Winstanley collected a number of endorsements for his almanac, the first from James Nayler’s ghost—Nayler was an infamous Quaker who joined the army during the Civil War and then reenacted Christ’s entry into Jerusalem by riding a donkey into Bristol (this Dictionary of National Biography entry is also behind the same paywall; the Wikipedia entry is free but contains less material). Nayler was tried and convicted of blasphemy and, apparently, had his tongue pierced with a hot iron and was stigmatized.[2]

Winstanley’s satirical almanacs mirrored serious ones, including calendars for each month and humorous predictions for each month. For January, he predicted:

Now friends the darkness shall exceed the light, because the nights are longer than the days, and notwithstanding the light that is within us, yet we cannot see to sup without the help of a candle, verily the coldness of the nights may cause great Conjunctions betwixt the male and female Planets of our Sublunary Orbe, the effects whereof may be seen about nine months after, and portend great charges of Midwife, Nurse, name the Bantling, and other matters attendant to such Conjunctions.

Winstanley’s safe prediction that in January the light will be shorter than the darkness because the days are shorter than the nights. Oh, and because of the cold “great Conjunctions” are likely to occur between men and women.
Winstanley’s safe prediction that in January the light will be shorter than the darkness because the days are shorter than the nights. Oh, and because of the cold “great Conjunctions” are likely to occur between men and women.

He also mocked the zodiacal man that was found in nearly every almanac. Typically, these figures illustrated the relationships between the parts of the body and the zodiacal signs that influenced those parts. Starting with Aries at the head and working down to the feet through the twelve signs of the zodiac. Winstanley includes the standard diagram but makes fun of it in the poem underneath.

Is the zodiacal man a man, or a woman, or a hermaphrodite? Winstanley is uncertain.
Is the zodiacal man a man, or a woman, or a hermaphrodite? Winstanley is uncertain.

A final note: on the last page of one of these almanacs is an advertisement for Dr. Lockyer’s Universal Pill, that apparently cured “Scurvey, Dropsie, Stone, Consumption, Aches, and Lameness of the Limbs, all sorts of Agues and Feavers, Gripings of the Gut, &c.” The 1670s and 1680s witnessed a rapid development of a patent medicine market. See, for example, the scurvy epidemic or the Pilulae Antipudendagriae or the widespread marketing use of the pilulae.

Advertisement for Dr. Lockyer’s Universal Pill, which could be purchased from Mr. Watts’ nephew in St. Thomas’s Southwark and Mr. Fyge, Apothecary outside Bishops-gate.
Advertisement for Dr. Lockyer’s Universal Pill, which could be purchased from Mr. Watts’ nephew in St. Thomas’s Southwark and Mr. Fyge, Apothecary outside Bishops-gate.

  1. Joseph Smith’s Bibliotheca Anti_Quakeriana (London, 1873) (online at here, thanks to Haverford College) lists just four such Quaker almanacs, 1677 to 1680. The first is attributed to Poor Robin, Winstanley’s pseudonym. The other three appeared as anonymous, though both EEBO and the Dictionary of National Biography attribute them to Winstanley.  ↩

  2. Haverford’s Quaker & Special Collections has a bunch of material relating to Nayler’s trial and conviction as well as responses to it. Material for another post.  ↩

Plagiarism in 17th-Century Pamphlets?

Wholesale plagiarism is was common in early printed books. Printers, book sellers, and readers even had a word for it: piracy.[1] When dealing with short, cheap pamphlets, this piracy often took the form of wholesale plagiarism. A printer would acquire a copy of one pamphlet, reset the type, find a handy woodblock lying around the shop to use as a title-page illustration, and print up a bunch to sell locally. This is precisely what happened in the case of Georg Tannstetter’s judicia for 1512.

Astrologers produced judicia or practica each winter for the following year. These short pamphlets contained general predictions for the coming year based on the relevant astronomical phenomena—the planetary ruler of the year and any eclipses or conjunctions. In addition, judicia contained predictions related to crops, war, famine, disease, success or failure of the different groups of people, e.g., merchants, farmers, princes, priests, academics, and finally weather. They were frequently produced by a local astrologer associated with the court or the university, for a specific city, and appeared in both Latin and the vernacular.

By 1512 Tannstetter had been at the University of Vienna for a number of year, had worked his way into imperial court ciricles in Vienna, and had produced judicia for at least five or six years. In the winter of 1511 he produced his Judicium Viennense for 1512, which was printed by the Nuremberg printer Wolfgang Huber.

Title-page wood-cut from the Wolffgang Huber edition of Tannstetter’s Judicium Viennense (This is a screen shot from the copy is in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Sig. 4° Astr.P 510.22).

Huber also printed Tannstetter’s wall calendar that accompanied his judicium. The two were linked visually by a shared woodcut illustrating the title page of the judicium and the bottom of the wall calendar. This woodcut depicted the planetary ruler and co-ruler for the year: Jupiter and Mercury. Almost immediately, Henricus Nussia in Cologne produced a quick knockoff of Tannstetter’s Judicium Viennense.

Title-page wood-cut from the Nussia edition of Tannstetter’s 1512 Judicium Viennense ((This is a screen shot from the copy is in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Sig. 4° Astr.P 510.21).

Nussia dug around his shop for a reasonable woodcut—a crowd of astrologers and onlookers pointing up to the stars—for his title page. The text of the judicium is largely unchanged, except for various errors introduced in the typesetting process. He does not appear to have pirated the wall calendar, which would have been much more labor intensive and expensive to reproduce. In this case, Nussia’s motivation seems pretty clear: profit. Judicia were inexpensive to produce and sold well.

It seems a different goal motivated the plagiarism in a pair of pamphlets from the late 1650s. In 1658 an anonymous pamphlet was published offering interpretations and predictions of a recent comet along with other celestial phenomena: The Most True and Wonderfull Relation of a Starre of a Great Magnitude, and casting for a flame as big as any Bushell.

The anonymous pamphlet, The Most True and Wonderfull Relation of a Starre of a Great Magnitude, and casting for a flame as big as any Bushell (1658), printed for F. Coles in London, offered an interpretation of a recent comet.

The pamphlet opens by establishing its authority and thereby the authenticity of the observations and interpretations it contains:

Before I proceed to give you an account of the many admirable formes in which this Prodigious Comet, for many nights together, hath been seene from Thursday December the second, untill Munday [sic] December the sixth, and which may yet continue its dreadfull Apparition (for on that day the Letter sent from thence by a good Hand doth beare its date) it will not bee amisse to represent unto you that at the same Towne of Halling a little before the Warres began their Rained showers of Blood from the Clouds as it is not onely witnessed by some Books at that time published by Authority, but is still to bee attested by many hundred Witnesses that were spectators of it, …

The details—dates, locations, events—in this passage encourage the reader to imagine the events as if he (or in a few cases, she) had witnessed them directly.[2]
The next paragraph seems to anticipate a skeptical audience, one that no longer readily accepts prodigious events and that, consequently, was not persuaded simply by a detailed description. To persuade this audience, the pamphlet reminds the reader that not all towns and places equally fit to experience prodigious events:

It is the observation of a Learned man, that some places by the divine Providence are more appropriate for Miracles then [sic] others, not that the hand of GOD is confined to any place, but that hee is pleased there more particularly to exercise his Power, and to manifest eyther his [sic] Indignation or his good pleasure to the Sons of men; of this the Histories both Sacred and prophane can furnish us with abundant examples, had wee the leasure to prosecute so large a Theame.

As is common, the pamphlet then discusses comets in general, citing no less an authority that Tycho Brahe amongst the “many great Schollers [who] have written large Treatises” on them. It then detours into historical examples of comets. It recounts a story of when King James and his court were hawking and hunting. The king was startled by the appearance of a “Blazing-Starre” and sought the advice of learned mathematicians at Cambridge. In the end, however, the king rejected their ambiguous interpretation and offered his own: “it [the comet] fore-telleth, that the greatest Smart of it, and the sharpest Execution of all shall befall on Me, or my Children.” In 1658 every reader would have appreciated how true King James’s prediction turned out to be. Finally, the pamphlet returns to the particular comet that occasioned its printing. The predictions are, well, ambiguous. Often, the pamphlet claims, comets presage wide-scale death and dying and the deaths of princes. But other times they have presaged wonderful events, like the “Starre in the East” that guided the three wise men to Jesus.

While the whole pamphlet is fascinating, I want to look now at a pamphlet printed the following year. The Dreadful and most Prodigious Tempest at Markfield in Leicestershire promises to interpret a series of prodigious hailstones, claps of thunder that sounded like two armies clashing in the heavens, lightning, and a storm that uprooted trees, walls, and houses.

The anonymous pamphlet, The Dreadful and most Prodigious Tempest at Markfield in Leicestershire (1659), printed for W. Gilbertson, interpreted hailstones, claps of thunder, and a prodigious tempest.

Again, what evidence is taken as prodigious and how the predictions are grounded in that evidence are both interesting, as is the poem at the end describing George Booth as a hermaphrodite. But what caught my eye here was a similarity in particular passages with the previous pamphlet. As before, The Dreadful and most Prodigious Tempest opens with an identical effort to establish its authority:

Before I proceed to give you an accompt of the many admirable and prodigious formes of haile-stones, which in a great storm of thunder and lightning, were taken up and shewed to many at Markfield in Leicestershire, on Thursday the 7th of this present moneth of September, it will not be amiss to represent unto you, that it is the observation of some learned men, that some places by the Divine Providence, are more appropriate for miracles then [sic] others; not that the hand of God is confined to any peculiar place, but that he is pleased there more particularly to exercise his power, and to manifest either his Indignation, or his good pleasure to the Sons of men: Of this the Histories both sacred and profane, can furnish us with abundant examples, had we the leisure to prosecute so large a Theam.

We might explain this similarity away as merely a trope, though to do so undervalues the power and function of tropes, but there is another passage that these two pamphlets share that seems to point to something more. Both invoke a particular historical example to justify the power of prodigious celestial events:

…but in the shapes of Men and Coaches drawn by horses. In Germany about twelve years since, there was seen the shape of a Man in the Air, sitting in the clowds, and cloathed all in white, on his brows were to be seen the rays of Divinity. Those that behled it, did entertain in their hearts the preparations for Repentance, and amendment of Life, believing they had seen some sign whereby they might justly suggest unto themselves that the Resurrection was at hand.

In The Most True and Wonderfull Relation of a Starre of a Great Magnitude the text is identical, except the author noted that it had been “eleven years since.” In neither pamphlet do we learn what consequences resulted, if any. All we learn is that the people who witnessed this man crowned with “the rays of Divinity” encouraged people to amend their ways. We don’t even learn any more about this prodigious apparition, such as where in Germany he was seen. What event in Germany occurred in 1647 that was so significant to an English audience? Diplomats were working to bring the 30 Years War to a conclusion, but the Peace of Westphalia was still a year or more away. Was there a significant, more local event that attracted English and perhaps international attention? And did this example get reused in other English pamphlets during the 1650s?

These passages seem too similar to be explained away as mere coincidence. Perhaps both The Most True and Wonderfull Relation of a Starre of a Great Magnitude and the later The Dreadful and most Prodigious Tempest borrowed from an earlier pamphlet, or perhaps the later pamphlet borrowed from the former. Or perhaps they both borrowed from and in turn propagated a broader set of meaningful practices, tropes, and structures that readers expected when they turned to this pamphlet literature. These two pamphlets alert us to those practices, tropes, structures, and expectations and encourage us to think about how they functioned and what sort of authority authors, printers, and readers attributed to them.


  1. For how printers and readers dealt with piracy, see A. Johns’s recent Piracy (Chicago, 2009). For early versions of his work, see Johns The Nature of the Book (Chicago, 1998), esp. chaps 3 and 7.  ↩

  2. This is related to the virtual witnessing that Shapin and Schaffer detailed in Boyle’s air pump experiments. See Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump (Princeton, 1985), esp. chapters 2 and 6.  ↩