Month: January 2019

Ghosts and the Society for Psychical Research

Sometime in the mid 1770s the German scholar Georg Christoph Lichtenberg predicted with a certain degree of optimism:

Our world will yet become so intricate that it will be as ridiculous to believe in a god as it is nowadays to believe in ghosts.[1]

Although Lichtenberg investigated electrical phenomena and is credited with discovering “Lichtenberg Figures,” he is probably most widely known for his aphorism, pithy observations on the natural and social world around him that fill a number of notebooks, Sudelbücher as he called them in German. While his prediction about a belief in god might one day be accurate, his claim about how ridiculous it was in the 1770s to believe in ghosts seems to have been unfounded (or perhaps only locally true).

Just a century later, in 1882, the newly founded Society of Psychical Research stated as one of its primary goals the investigation of haunted houses and ghosts. Listed as one of the “Objects of the Society” was:

A careful investigation of any reports, resting on strong testimony, regarding apparitions at the moment of death, or otherwise, or regarding disturbances in houses reputed to be haunted.

To realize this goal the Society of Psychical Research set up the “Committee on Haunted Houses.” In the first volume of the Proceedings of the Society of Psychical Research the Committee published a detailed report on two reportedly haunted houses. But first the authors of the report laid out their criteria for assessing alleged hauntings, which included efforts to distinguish between apparitions and “ordinary hallucination[s]” and finding corroborating testimony or external evidence. In the case of corroborating testimony, the committee recognized the possibility that “several persons [could] misinterpret the same phenomena in the same manner, exemplifying what is called ‘collective delusion’.” And, of course, the committee had to trust the witness, which relied less on corroborating evidence and more on the social standing of the individual.

First report of the Committee on Haunted Houses, Society of Psychical Research.

Apparently, in the 1880s England haunted houses were relatively common. The committee remarked that their efforts to collect reports of haunted houses “has been fruitful beyond our expectations; we have obtained a large mass of testimony.” Many of the subsequent volumes of the Proceedings included long and detailed reports on haunted houses. In the first report, the committee analyzed two cases of haunted houses in order to present their methods of investigation and, it seems, to demonstrate their general skepticism about ghosts.

In the first case, a Mr. X. Z. encountered an apparition around 1:00 AM:

At first Mr. X. Z. was dazzled by the light, but when his eyes became used to it he saw, standing at the end of the passage, about 35 feet from him, an old man in a figured dressing-gown. The face of this old man, which Mr. X. Z. saw quite clearly, was most hideous; so evil was it that both expression and features were firmly imprinted on his memory. As Mr. X. Z. was still looking, figure and light both vanished, and left him in pitch darkness.

Mr. X. Z. learned the following day that a previous occupant, an old man, had strangled his wife and then cut his own throat “on the very spot where Mr. X. Z. had seen the figure.” Mr. X. Z. wasn’t the only person to experience something disconcerting. Another man who a year later had come to stay at the house, abruptly left after one night. He had been kept awake by “cryings and groanings, blasphemous oaths, and cries of despair” at his bedroom door, “the spot where the murderer had committed suicide.” Finally, a few years later, Mr. X. Z. was in London visiting the owner of house. While there he saw a portrait and claimed it was the same face he had seen on the apparition. The painting was a portrait of the old man who had murdered his wife and then committed suicide.

The committee would not easily be led into believing this was an actual ghost. Instead, they adopted a more skeptical position, offering only a summary of the evidence.

The second case was, again, a haunting linked to an unfortunate death in a House, in this case a young woman.[2] In this case the committee amassed considerable testimony—six different witnesses of “high character” had in a “plain and straightforward manner” claimed to have seen a “shadowy figure”—but the committee withheld judgement. It is unclear whether a disbelief in ghosts motivated the committee’s skepticism or a recognition that their audience would be unlikely to be persuaded prompted them to adopt an agnostic position. At least one member of the committee, Frank Podmore, had a nuanced relationship with the various claims to paranormal phenomena. He established himself as the Society’s resident skeptic. Over the years he would write a number of reports on haunted houses.

Frank Podmore, resident skeptic in the Society of Psychical Research.

Whatever the final position the Society of Psychical Research adopted with respect to ghosts and haunted houses, Lichtenberg was clearly mistaken when he dismissed as ridiculous society’s belief in ghosts. Ghosts and apparitions were alive and well at least a century later.

  1. The original German: “Unsere Welt wird noch so fein werden, daß es so lächerlich sein wird einen Gott zu glauben als heutzutage Gespenster.” This aphorism is in “Sudelbuch D,” conveniently available at the Spiegel Online collection of Lichtenberg’s works.  ↩

  2. The details of the woman’s death were intentionally not reported: “…the circumstances attending her death, which lend a tragic interest to the commonplace details of the following narrative, we are not a liberty to enter.” The committee regularly exercises discretion in what identifying and specific details they publish, usually, it seems, in an effort to protect the value of the property or the reputation of the people involved.  ↩

Pre-Modern High Tech

Last month the Washington Post ran a short article by Erin Blakemore on medieval scientific instruments, “Think smartphones are astonishing? Discover the ‘high tech’ devices of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.” It was a little light on details, but nicely highlighted Epact, an on-line collection of pre-modern scientific instruments. It is easy while away a bit of time browsing the collection.

Erin Blakemore‘s recent article on Epact and pre-modern scientific instruments.

Since the article was illustrated with a Sloane astrolabe from the British Museum, I thought I’d draw attention to another great resource: The Astrolabe: An Online Resource. The website gives you access to every astrolabe in the History of Science Museum’s[1] collection, which is the largest single collection of astrolabes in the world. Astrolabes in the collection range over a millennium and much of the Northern Hemisphere, from the late 9th-century Syria (one of the oldest surviving astrolabes) to the 20th-century England. Most of the instruments date from the pre-modern period. While perhaps not the most flashy of websites, it is probably the single best resource for studying astrolabes.[2]

The Astrolabe: An Online Resource is the best collection of astrolabes available.

Browsing the collection always turns up something new. Just a few highlights:

  • astrolabe 37148, which has amazing engravings of the constellations on the back;
  • astrolabe 48213, which has an ingenious set of gears (the oldest complete gear train) that show the phases of the moon and motion of the sun and moon;
  • astrolabe 45359, which is a so-called “Chaucer astrolabe” because it resembles the illustrations in Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe, especially the cute little dog’s head star pointer at the bottom of the rete;
  • astrolabe 49687, which is the only surviving spherical astrolabe (there are various descriptions of spherical instruments, but only this instrument survives)
The only (known) surviving spherical astrolabe. It’s truly beautiful.

While I don’t agree with the Washington Post’s author’s conclusion—“a visit to Epact is a glimpse into a bygone world — one in which scientists dared to dream and discover”—I do agree with her earlier statement that spending a few minutes browsing the items on Epact or The Astrolabe: An Online Resource will “make you appreciate the artistry and intricacy of now-obsolete scientific tools or leave you starry-eyed over each instruments’ function and a role.”

  1. The museum formerly known as the “Museum of the History of Science”  ↩

  2. If you need a quick introduction to astrolabes, see my “An Introduction to the Astrolabe.”  ↩

Chambers Full of Snakes

Thumbing through a couple early modern collections of secrets always turns up strange and fascinating techniques and recipes. Some seem obviously useful, such as how to make a candle burn under water or make one burn forever. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, recipes to treat wounds and restore health are common. We find numerous recipes about curing various types of tooth aches (which also suggests a rather refined taxonomy of dental pains), or recipes for removing corns and warts., or how to cure a tooth ache. Some recipes seem to treat familiar issues, such as the recipe for an ointment that you comb into your roots to make the hair on your head grow thick and lush, or the recipe for a paste that when applied to your limbs removes hair. Or the paste that prevents pimples.

But other recipes seem of limited or very particular use. For example, at least a handful of books of secrets include a technique for making a chamber appear to be filled with snakes. Far from a temporary fad, we can find these recipes in books from at least the mid-sixteenth century until the mid-seventeenth century.

Most of the techniques are broadly similar, varying only in the details. These two recipes offer typical instructions:

  • From Thomas Hyll’s A Briefe and Pleasant Treatise (1586):

How to make thy Chamber appeare full of Snakes and Adders. TO doo this, kyll a Snake, putting the same into a Panne with Waxe and let it so long boyle: vntyll the same be throughe drye, and of that Waxe make a Candle, lighting the same in the Chamber, and then after shall appeare, as though there were a thousand creeping in thy Chamber.

Title page from Richard Amyas’s An Antidote against Melancholy (1659)
Richard Amyas’ An Antidote against Melancholy and 53 other secrets.
  • From Richard Amyas’s An Antidote Against Melancholy (1659):

A device to make a Chamber to appear full of Adders and Snakes. Kill a dozen Adders and Snakes, and take the oyl of them, and mix it with wax, and make a Candle, light it in a Chamber where rushes are, and the rushes will appear to be Adders and Snakes about the Room.

In what context would this secret be useful or even desirable? Were people in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England inveterate and enthusiastic pranksters? Was this some form of defense, terrifying would be burglars and thereby protecting your belongings? How are we to read and understand these recipes, which seem so different from the more utilitarian and practical recipes?

Astronomy and Printing

The Printing Museum in Tokyo has what looks to be an amazing temporary exhibit right now on astronomy and print, aptly named “Astronomy and Printing. In search of new world vision.”[1]

Astronomy and Printing, a special exhibition at the Printing Museum, Tokyo.

The exhibit brings together nearly 100 printed objects stretching from the 1450s to the 1870s.[2] In addition to showing an impressive range of items, the flyer and brochure are truly beautiful.[3]

The amazing flyer for the “Astronomy and Printing” exhibition.

The museum also hosted some lectures on the history of astronomy, alas now all past.

On the back of the flyer were listed the various lectures that accompanied the exhibit.

The brochure lists the objects, a list that includes all the expected authors and works, e.g., works by Pliny, Ptolemy, Hyginus, Albumasar, Peurbach, Regiomonatus, Dürer, Apian, Fine, Brahe, Kepler, as well as a number of Japanese authors,[4] etc. It also has a nice timeline with authors and references to the books on display as well as cosmological diagrams.

The brochure listed the items on display and provided this nice timeline that keyed to the objects on display.

The exhibition runs until January 20, 2019. If you find yourself in Tokyo with nothing to do, I recommend an afternoon at the Printing Museum.

  1. That is the English title. Since I don’t know Japanese, I can only assume the Japanese title is the same. If you do know Japanese, you can find out more at the Japanese page: 天文学と印刷  ↩

  2. As my Japanese hasn’t improved in the last sentence or so, I should acknowledge that I might have missed some object.  ↩

  3. For reasons I don’t understand, the English page does not have a link to the flyer. A PDF is available from the Japanese page linked in note 1.  ↩

  4. My Japanese is still, regrettably, nonexistent.  ↩