The Weather—and Joseph Henry (2016May27)


Friday, May 27, 2016                                               9:21 AM

Yesterday was very warm—up in the eighties—and last night everyone turned on their air conditioning to go to bed (at least that’s how I figure it) and the power went out. Whatever the actual cause, though, we did have candles and cell phones from 9:30 PM until just before midnight. Once I got over being upset about it, I had a lovely time lying in the dark with the cross-breeze coming through the window—quiet, until the neighbors revved up their generators (I keep meaning to get us one).

There’s so little quiet in modern life—I miss it. That’s one of the great things about parks and trails and such—they don’t just preserve the wildlife, they preserve the quiet, too. Here on the Eastern Seaboard it’s become impossible to find total silence. My older brother moved to upstate New York for some years, back in the eighties—way out in the woods, far from any town—and a good ways from his nearest neighbors. But all he heard all summer long was chain-saws—and he was building a house himself, which was hardly silent. Even completely undeveloped places still have planes flying overhead or highways heard in the distance.

What is sometimes referred to as the Bos-Wash Megalopolis may not be the center of civilization, but it’s certainly in the top three concentrations of civilized development—and silence is not the only thing it has lost. It’s lost its darkness as well—New Yorkers who travel to the high desert out west, or down south to the Caribbean, will find themselves dazzled by the star-crowded sky enjoyed when the ambient city street-light isn’t washing out all but the brightest heavenly bodies.

Our water disappeared too—well, the clean water. It’s hard to imagine all the factory waste and sewage needed to make the Ohio River flammable—and even the mighty Hudson, despite Herculean efforts to clean it up, is hardly a crystal stream. Even the Great Lakes (and they don’t call them ‘great’ for nothing)—can you imagine how much crap we had to dump to pollute all five? It strains the imagination.

Diversity is another victim of civilization—this part of New York State once boasted bears, wolves, wildcats—and carrier pigeons so numerous as to block out the sun when a flock flew overhead. Not that I’d want to meet a bear or a pack of wolves in my front yard—but that’s what’s supposed to be here—that and so much more.

On the occasion of Joseph Henry’s death, he was memorialized at Princeton, where he had held a professorship prior to heading up the Smithsonian Institution in DC. I provide a link to the full article, but I wanted to show you some of my favorite quotes from this eulogy for my favorite historical figure:

https://books.google.com/books?id=Dk4tAAAAIAAJ&pg=RA1-PA139&num=19&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Volume 21

‘Memorial Discourse by Rev. Samuel B. Dod–delivered in the College Chapel, Princeton’

‘As a student of science he was ardent and enthusiastic in his love for the chosen pursuit of his life. He did not dally with it as a pastime, nor prosecute it with the greed of gain, nor pursue it with the ambition of making himself famous among men.’

‘He was characterized by great reverence in the pursuit of truth. Singularly modest as to his own powers and attainments, he never suffered the advancement of his own opinions to warp his judgment or govern his investigations; he held the progress of truth dearer than the success of a theory. And nothing moved his gentle nature to greater indignation than the pretensions of the charlatan or bigot in science.’

‘He says, when put on trial for his character as a man of science and a man of honor, “My life has been principally devoted to science and my investigations in different branches of physics have given me some reputation in the line of original discovery. I have sought however no patent for inventions and solicited no remuneration for my labors, but have freely given their results to the world; expecting only in return to enjoy the consciousness of having added by my investigations to the sum of human knowledge. The only reward I ever expected was the consciousness of advancing science, the pleasure of discovering new truths, and the scientfic reputation to which these labors would entitle me.” And verily I say unto you, he hath his reward.’

‘As an investigator, Professor Henry was characterized by great patience and thoroughness in his work of observation, and by broad, well-considered, and far-reaching generalizations. He distrusted the so-called “brilliant generalizations” with which those favor us who love speculation rather than study. He never took anything for granted, never despised the details of his work, but carefully established, step by step, those data on which he based his conclusions. In 1849 he says, “Since my removal to Princeton I have made several thousand original investigations on electricity, magnetism, and electro-magnetism, bearing on practical applications of electricity, brief minutes of which fill several hundred folio pages. They have cost me years of labor and much expense.”

A letter from Joseph Henry is appended by the Rev. Dod to this memorial discourse, in which Henry describes the outline of his work inventing the telegraph many years before Morse. Robert Morse, using tech developed for him by an associate of Henry’s, filed a patent for his ‘invention’, the telegraph—without having ever studied electricity. This is, to me, doubly devilish due to the prior instance, in which Michael Faraday and Henry discovered the principle of electro-magnetic induction almost simultaneously, with Henry, if anything, getting there first, but never given any share of credit.

Henry describes his legal fracas with Morse, explaining that he never wished to profit from his invention, and thus never applied for a patent, preferring to maintain the dignity of science. As he writes, “In this perhaps I was too fastidious.”—talk about an understatement. To end the discussion, he says, “To Mr. Morse however great credit is due for his alphabet, and for his great perseverance in bringing the telegraph into practical use.” To which we modern readers of this note may insert the implied ‘asshole’.

It is interesting to note in the story of early industrial-era science the concomitant birth of legal scrambles for credit which evolved into today’s battles over ownership of intellectual property. The Constitution mentions intellectual property in Article I, Section 8: “The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Then there was the Patent Act of 1790, followed by the Patent Act of 1793 (between which only 55 patents were granted). But by the Patent Act of 1836, 10,000 patents had been granted. The Patent Act of 1836 was remarkable in creating the first Patent Office. It is no accident that all this legal and legislative activity coincided with the development of steam power and electro-magnetic technology. New inventions have always been looked back upon fondly for their elevation of the human condition—but there wasn’t a one of them that wasn’t also an immediate cash cow—and thus a bone of contention as well.

That Henry failed to perceive this is an example of the old dichotomy—a man with exceptional scientific insight rarely displays the same insight into human nature. There can be little doubt that Henry was a good man—but he was at a loss in dealing with lesser men.

It always seemed to me that the human brain confronts each of its child owners at some point, asking them if they want to observe what’s really happen in the universe, or if they want to observe the ritualized dance of what society perceives as happening—you can’t have both. But maybe that’s just me.

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