Tag: Royal Society

Atlas Obscura but Not So Accurata

Atlas Obscura seems to have reached a point that it no longer can describe itself as, well, obscura. The website enjoys more than 300,000 pageviews each day and has produced a book, which is currently the “#1 Best Seller in General Travel Reference” and #293 overall at Amazon. While individual entries might be, physically, off the “beaten path,” they are smack in the center of the virtual beaten path. Given Atlas Obscura’s place in popular culture, and our current anxieties about misinformation, it would be nice if Atlas Obscura tried to ensure it provided accurate information. Regrettably, the one entry I happened to check, the “Rosicrucian Pyramids of Bucks County,” seems to be a hodgepodge of misunderstood and misreported information, historical errors, and factually incorrect statements.

Atlas Obscura’s popup promises to escape the beaten path.
When Atlas Obscura promises to “escape the beaten path,” does that also mean the beaten path of facts?

By looking at two paragraphs from the post—one that purports to provide historical information and one that purports to describe observable facts—we see an author who doesn’t try very hard to distinguish fact from fiction and a website that doesn’t care enough to factcheck its posts.

First, a paragraph drawn from history:

Inspired by the idea of a secret society of learned men, astronomers such as Johannes Kepler, Georg Joachim Rheticus, John Dee and Tycho Brahe formed an actual society, known as the Invisible College, to acquire knowledge through experimental investigation. It would eventually become the Royal Society.

Well, no. Insofar as “the Invisible College” existed, it was an informal network of scholars in the latter 1640s, long after Rheticus, Brahe, Kepler, and Dee had all died. Its connection to the Royal Society is a myth, as Charles Webster pointed out four decades ago.[1] More recently, Lauren Kassell has stated unambiguously:[2]

The once common but erroneous identification of the Invisible College as an antecedent of the Royal Society derives from Boyle’s eighteenth-century editor Thomas Birch. There is now thought to be no link between Boyle’s ‘college’ and the philosophical society …. It is this group, with which Boyle became associated during the 1650s, that is regarded as the precursor to the Royal Society….

If the author of the Atlas Obscura post had looked at the Wikipedia entry on the Invisible College, which cites Lauren Kassell’s entry, perhaps we wouldn’t be reading this myth yet again.

Some of the problems in this paragraph that described the pyramids.

Second, the description of what can be found on the property is riddled with problems:

…the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis … settled in Pennsylvania, and today owns land in Bucks County on which three Rosicrucian pyramids sit. The headquarters of the Fraternitas Rosae Crucis, besides the three temples, it includes a number of normal buildings and “The Beverly Hall,” a large stone building named after the fraternities founder Paschel Beverly Randolph.
Surrounded by “No Trespassing” signs, the pyramids are aligned smallest to largest and covered in Rosicrucian symbolism inside and out, including images of a winged world crowned by a skull and crossbones, and the infamous pyramid with floating eye…

Um… no. There are four pyramids, not three. Only one is large enough to enter and could be mistaken for a temple, though it seems more likely a mausoleum or similar memorial. Two resemble garden fountains that stand 4–5 feet tall (when I visited only one was functioning). The smallest pyramid seems to be a pedestal type decoration. As of a year ago, there were no “No Trespassing” signs (there weren’t any the first time I visited either).[3] Finally, the pyramids are all but unadorned. They certainly are not “covered in Rosicrucian symbolism inside and out.” The largest, the mausoleum (?), has some brass plaques on the outside that list names of deceased members, and you can see a few decorative plaques inside that do have some Rosicrucian symbols on them.

Much of this paragraph seems to be an exaggerated and enthusiastic mélange drawn from Weird Pennsylvania, pp. 55–56. Other parts of the post weave together fictions from history, on the one hand, and fanciful Rosicrucian mythologies, on the other. Disentangling the history from the mythologies of the Fraternitas Rosæ Crucis is a challenge—clearly too much work for the author of the Atlas Obscura post. But it shouldn’t be too difficult for the author get the easily verifiable history correct or to stop short of making things up. For a brief post on the local Rosicrucians and some photos of these pyramids, see “Pyramids of the Fraternitas Rosæ Crucis.”

Perhaps this entry on the Rosicrucian pyramids is aberrant. Perhaps all the other posts are accurate. Or, perhaps, Atlas Obscura should be rebranded Atlas Obscura but Not So Accurata.


  1. Even Frances Yates, who was particularly adept at finding Rosicrucians, did not link Rheticus or Brahe to Rosicrucians or invisible colleges. Dee, to be sure, figured large in her discussion of Rosicrucians. And Kepler was an odd case, whom she called “a heretic from Rosicrucianism” (F. Yates, The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, p. 223). More typically, Samuel Hartlib, Jan Comenius, and Robert Boyle are associated with the Invisible College. Yates devotes a chapter to the relationship between the invisible college and the Royal Society. Charles Webster refutes this Rosicrucian association. He finds, instead, a network that includes Boyle as well as other lesser known physicians and Baconian-minded experimentalists. The role of “the Invisible College” has all but disappeared from recent histories of early modern science, e.g., Wootton’s The Invention of Science all but omits it (I found only a passing reference on page 341 to “an ‘invisible college’” as a correspondence network).  ↩

  2. See Lauren Kassell’s entry “Invisible College” for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (paywall).  ↩

  3. I suppose it’s possible that they’ve surrounded the place with “No Trespassing” signs, but given the other factual problems with this post, I’ve no confidence the author happened to get this right.  ↩

A Letter from James Ferguson

Buried in Haverford College’s Quaker and Special Collections is a substantial collection of autographed letters and other miscellany. Many letters were written by astronomers, mathematicians, naturalists, and others we might call (problematically or not) scientists.[1] Leafing through the collection recently, I came across this letter from James Ferguson on behalf of Lord Charles Cavendish. Writing on 5 July 1765, Ferguson seemed to be trying to get some equipment to carry out experiments on the compressibility of water and other liquids (if the note at the bottom of the letter is accurate).

James Ferguson’s letter to an unnamed correspondent. Ferguson was assisting Lord Cavendish with experiments on the compressibility of water and other liquids.
James Ferguson’s letter to an unnamed correspondent. Ferguson was assisting Lord Cavendish with experiments on the compressibility of water and other liquids.

In the previous few years John Canton had published in the Philosophical Transactions his results on the compressibility of water and other fluids, his “Experiments to Prove That Water is Not Incompressible” 52 (1761–62): 640–643 and his “Experiments and Observations on the Compressibility of Water and Some Other Fluids” 54 (1764): 261–262. The first paper described a his experimental apparatus and reported his findings, that water was compressible. His results disproved commonly held beliefs about the compressibility of water. But his apparatus and method were complicated and his results were, therefore, not universally accepted. He followed up his initial report with further experiments on water and other fluids, e.g., spirit of wine, olive oil, mercury. He confirmed his initial results and, further, found that water “has the remarkable property of being more compressible in winter than in summer,” by which he means cold water is more compressible. At 64° water was compressible only 44 parts per million; at 34° it was compressible 49 parts per million. The other fluids he tested were all less compressible in winter than in summer, i.e., when cold than when hot. He was nominated for a second Copley Medal for these experiments.[2] But before it was awarded, a committee of the Royal Society investigated his results.[3] Ferguson’s letter might give us a glimpse into Lord Cavendish’s efforts to confirm or extend Canton’s results.[4]

Ferguson was a largely self-taught instrument maker with a strong interest in astronomy and mathematics. In the 1740s and 1750s he became something of a popularizer of astronomy—he gave lectures and published books on astronomy for people who did not have training in mathematics. He also designed and made instruments. He was unsuccessful in his effort to become clerk of the Royal Society when he applied in 1763, but was soon elected fellow. In 1765 Cavendish asked Ferguson to help set up an experiment on the compressibility of fluids in the Royal Society House. Ferguson dutifully carried out the task:

Sir,
I have just been with Lord Charles Cavendish, who acquainted me of the thing contained in your Letter, and desired me to call upon you, to give you the following informations

1. To send to Mr Nairne (opposite the Royal Exchange) to desire him to send every thing that belongs to the Condenser, if finished, to the R. Society house.
2. That you sit up Shelves to hold glasses, if not already done.
3. That you provide for [sic] or five pound weight of small shot.
4. And two pound weight of Quicksilver.
5. A funnel (to be made at a Tin-Shop, with a pipe ten Inches long.
6. Conveniencies (Tea or Coffee pots) for boiling & pouring in hot water.
7. To see whether weights for weighing things in Scales are sent in.
8. A sponge.
9. Qu. whether you could assist to morrow, and how far.

I shall call upon you by and by; but must first go to a Turner’s Shop to get some things done for Lord Charles about the Experiment.
Excuse this bad paper, for I have none else in the house at present, and was loth to detain your Servant till I should send for some, who am with respect,
Sir, your most humble Servant,
James Ferguson

Friday 1 o’Clock

NB 5 July 1765 [in a different hand]
For Experiments on the Compressibility of Water & other Liquids [in a different hand]

It is tempting to see the X’s next to the items in the to-do list as evidence that Ferguson’s correspondent (who is unnamed in this letter) had completed that task. I wonder what prevented him from attending to the first and the last item? And finally, I find Ferguson’s apology for the poor quality paper fascinating for what it suggests about, inter alia, the letters Ferguson normally wrote (he implied that he typically wrote on higher quality paper), the mechanics of getting better paper (he just sent out for some), and the nature of correspondence at the time (a servant was waiting while Ferguson wrote the letter).


  1. I’ve mentioned some of these before, e.g., Ernst Haeckel’s Letter to E.D. Cope or Maria Wants Her Sextant Back or Edmond Halley Complains about the Clouds  ↩

  2. Canton had received a Copley Medal in 1751 for his method of making artificial magnets.  ↩

  3. This delay is reported in the The Dictionary of National Biography entry on Canton. The list of Copley recipients indicates that Canton received the second medal for his work in 1764, which if the DNB is correct, indicates the year he published his work not the year he received the medal. See the list of Copley Medal winners  ↩

  4. Or perhaps Cavendish was carrying out additional experiments on thermometers—in the late 1750s he had published “A Description of Some Thermometers for Particular Uses” in the Philosophical Transactions  ↩