Saturday, February 9, 2008

Reminiscences of an Active Life #1 -- February 9, 2008

Doctor Peter Henri Van Der Weyde was born in Nymegen, Holland in 1813. He went on to live a remarkable life of achievement in the sciences and the arts. He died in America in 1895. While serving as editor of Manufacturer and Builder Magazine, he wrote many articles, including the ones which gave this blog its name. In 1893 and 1894, he published a 23-part (!) memoir in the same periodical. Here is the first part.

The image comes from the first installment, in the February, 1893 issue.

Reminiscences of an Active Life.


From Manufacturer and Builder, Volume XXV, Number 2. February, 1893

Henri Gerard, the publisher and proprietor of the MANUFACTURER AND BUILDER, has known me for more than twenty years, half of which time we were jointly and harmoniously engaged in establishing the reputation of that journal for reliability and usefulness, and in that way we laid the foundation for the success it now enjoys. By familiar intercourse he became acquainted with many peculiar details of my past long life, and intimated that some account of the career of him who was its chief editor for the first ten, most difficult and trying years of its existence, would be of interest to its readers. At first this intimation was not considered with favor; but when perusing a book often seen in my library but never read, my mind was changed. This book was entitled The Importance of the Life of a Man of Sixty Years of Age (I have not yet located a book by that title, but I’ll keep looking -- JT). I concluded that, considering the proposition made to me, it might be useful to investigate how others had accomplished such a task, and that I might take this book as my guide. I was, however, sorely disappointed on finding that the contents proved its author to have had no career at all; that he never had done anything, nor accomplished anything, but simply lived a bachelor’s life on the income of a small inheritance. He had filled his book chiefly with the events in the history of Europe from 1760, when he was born, until 1820, the time of its publication. This was, to be sure, an important era in the history of Europe, including the events of the foundation of the French republic, caused by the shortsightedness of the aristocracy with the errors of the French royal family, and resulted in the famous Reign of Terror, which was crushed by Napoleon and his army after he returned from his conquest of Egypt. Then followed his triumphant invasion of nearly all of Europe, his failure to conquer Russia, and the battle of Waterloo, which finally crushed him and restored peace in Europe.

But at the close of the book came the most curious feature of this publication, which thus far had not stated anything which is not found in every book on that period of European history. The author closes his work by indulging in prophesying. He says that now (1820) the peace of Europe is firmly secured by the establishment of the balance of power (?) among the different kings, so that there would be no more wars in Europe; and, in regard to America, he held that in the United States wars were utterly impossible, “because,” as he said, “they have no kings.” Comments are unnecessary on such a prophet. That a man without a career, and who could not point to anything he had ever done, should presume to write a book about his life, encouraged me to accept the task imposed upon me by my friend and former associate, because I have had not a single career only, but several, and may say, without boasting, to have done a great deal in a variety of pursuits.

On leaving the parental home, so great was my confidence in the value of the education received through my father’s liberality, that I renounced all claims to any inheritance from his established business (a store of furs, broadcloth and hats), and also from a moderately rich maiden aunt; and this for the benefit of an unhappy widowed sister, eight years my senior, with a family of two daughters, while my parents had no other children.

It is evident from this that I had concluded to make my own career, which was done by various means, and, in fact, resulted in a variety of pursuits, each of which was successful. It must be understood that I do not measure success in the American way -- that is, by the making of money -- but by the test of being a useful member of society.

At the outset, it ought also to be understood that I do not belong to that class of persons who know and do a little of everything (as the phrase goes), but have always thoroughly qualified myself in the principles, details and application of every occupation I have pursued.

As an example, it may serve to give here one of the later pursuits, which was preceded by many others. None of them, however was ever abandoned, but held in reserve until needed. They will be enumerated later on.

1st. As a Doctor of Medicine. -- I have studied in more than one medical college -- in the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and in the University of New York, from which, in 1857, I was graduated and obtained my diploma as M. D., and also a certificate for having pursued a more extended course than is usual. Directly after my graduation, I was appointed as Professor of Chemistry in the New York Medical College, as the successor of Prof. Doremus, who went to the then newly established medical college attached to Bellevue Hospital. I was also appointed as physician to the North Western Dispensary, and practiced medicine in that neighborhood, after having established myself in West Twenty-fifth street. Here I remained until 1859, when I became Professor of Physics and Chemistry in the Cooper Institute, New York city.

2d. Career as a Lecturer.-- Thus, through a combination of circumstances, I was brought back in New York city to the very same position which I occupied in my native land (Holland) on my first appearance before the public in 1833, when I gave my first lecture before the Philosophical Society of Bois le Duc, the capital of the province of North Brabant. The president of that society happened to have seen the dexterity with which I handled the glass plates and violin bow in order to reproduce before some friends the figures given in Chladni’s book on acoustics, and he invited me to give before his society an exhibition, to show that these figures, many of which are quite complicated, were no fancy designs, as had been asserted by some members, but could actually be produced, and required only the dexterity obtained by practice. I had obtained considerable skill in handling the bow by playing the second violin in a large orchestra, seated between and behind professional performers, which practice gave me a great advantage in this respect. Bois le Duc is a very old-fashioned city, the people of which are very formal, wherefore the president, after announcing that I had come there to give a lecture on acoustics, asked the master of ceremonies to conduct me to the platform.

I must confess to some nervousness when unexpectedly facing an applauding audience, evidently fostering high expectations; but quickly made up my mind to start, as introduction, from the three fundamental principles on which sound and the whole theory of acoustics are based namely, a vibrating body, a transmitter of those vibrations -- usually the air -- and an organ to receive those vibrations. I explained that the vibrating body might be a stretched string or disk of glass or metal, etc., acted upon by a blow, as in the piano-forte, or by a current of air, as in the Aeolian harp, or by the friction of a bow, as in the orchestral stringed instruments; an elastic reed, as in the clarionet (sic – JT); a column of air in a pipe, put in vibration by a blast of air acting upon a sharp edge, as is the case in organ pipes, or in the flute.

Regarding the transmission of sound, it was mentioned that air is the usual transmitter, but that other substances, such as water, iron or wooden bars, stretched wires or ropes, would transmit sounds; and finally stated that a description of the organ of hearing would take more time than would be allowable, in consideration of the experiments invented by the genius of Chladni, and to which I was to devote most of the evening. I then left the platform and went among the audience, in order that they should see the formation of the interesting figures, and pointed out that for every musical tone which could be produced on the plate, a different figure would make its appearance.

As this was the thing intended to show, I was most interested in doing justice to the practical exhibit, and in this way wanted to make up for the defects of a really extempore lecture; but had the satisfaction of being complimented by one of the members present on my excellent memory in being able to recite the paper which he supposed had been written out before. This encouraged me to such a degree as to conclude going on in this way in the future. This was done when soon afterward, in another city a philosophical society was established, and by which I was appointed as lecturer. Then and there I began to take the first step to make a historical collection of philosophical apparatus, which was continually increased. I brought most of this with me on my arrival in New York in 1849, when, to my amusement, the Custom House inspectors were puzzled under what head to classify it. There were air pumps, working models for electro-motors, huge steel magnets and electro-magnets, and no end of coils of different kinds and sizes -- in fact, a respectable cabinet of philosophical apparatus. As everything showed marks that it had been used, and not imported for mercantile purposes, it was decided that it should be passed free, as well as my books, which were enclosed in many large boxes. I had, before my departure, sent a great number of boxes (some forty) to the New York Custom House, where I found them on my arrival, and left them there until I had secured rooms in the New York University building, where I found that studios were rented out to artists.

3d. Career as a Mechanic. -- The account of the extensive collection of philosophical apparatus which I brought with me from Europe, leads me back to the means I employed to accumulate such a treasure (as it may well be called) for a person whose principal ambition is to make researches, and to act as a teacher in exhibiting the results to illustrate scientific lectures. The philosophical society which had appointed me as its lecturer, had not the means to buy many pieces of expensive apparatus; but as I had for a long time been making a collection of the most necessary objects, I succeeded very well in illustrating my lectures with the necessary fundamental experiments, while it encouraged me to go on in making all that I was able to. As the city of my birth was a regular beehive of industry, I had passed my time, when not occupied in taking lessons, in visiting various shops, and thus obtained much information, which I found the workmen were always willing to communicate, and which later on was of much benefit to me. As that city was very densely populated, there was no room in the parental home to expand; but as there was plenty of room in the city where the society had appointed me as lecturer, the expansion was indulged in very freely, and I had very soon a good work-bench, with large vise, a heavy turning lathe, and other tools, all homemade, with the help of an old experienced carpenter, while I bought well-seasoned oak and other woods required for the purpose. In this way I had soon a regular workshop, in which I made a great many things, too numerous to mention, needed for experimenting in philosophical lectures.

I soon found that the manual occupation was a great relief from the mental strain to which I was subject by study, lecturing and teaching. Only such things as were beyond my power to make, were purchased, such as microscopes, including a solar microscope, made in that great toy-manufacturing city, Nuremberg, cheaply made of wood and cardboard, but with excellent lenses, and which I used many years later to exhibit to my society, on sunshiny days, various objects, such as the different forms of crystallization of different salts from drops of their solution, when evaporating by solar heat.

On my fifteenth birthday, in 1828, my father gave me a tolerably large Gregorian telescope, with which I could see the rings of Saturn, watch the eclipses of Jupiter’s moons, and keep accounts of the sun’s rotation by recording the position of the sun’s spots. What most interested me, was the moon in its different phases; I then made up my mind that there were no volcanoes in the moon, and that there never had been any, and I have now the satisfaction of seeing that this same opinion is being adopted by the latest investigators. (He was mistaken. Nobody's perfect. – JT)

4th. Career as an Electrician. -- In early life I began making a collection of tinfoil, brass balls of different sizes, brass chains, bottles which could be transformed into Leyden jars, and, in fact, many things needed for an electric machine, which I intended to make as soon as found to be possible by using a cylindrical glass bottle for the generator. When about fourteen years old, such a bottle was found, and an old chemist of experience kindly helped to make a hole in the center of its bottom, so as to pass the axis through, around which it was to be rotated by means of a crank; a round disk, attached to the axis, was cemented to its bottom, so as to make it rotate with the axis. When this idea was talked about, it was ridiculed that a mere boy should have the conceit to make an electric machine. But it was made, and also a few Leyden jars, which were the most effective and at the same time the easiest part of the labor. When the machine was ready, and on trial proved to be a success, those who had most ridiculed me were invited to see it. When they came, they were made to join hands; connection was then made with that jar which had been found on trial to give the hardest shock, and I had the satisfaction of seeing one man sit suddenly down on the floor, while another turned round and hit the man who happened to stand just behind him. They did not ridicule me any more.

After that my main occupation was to make variations on the column of Volta, such as a horizontal column piled up between three glass rods, in which the plates could be screwed in closer contact, without causing the liquid to flow down on the outside and disturb the insulation; also two sets of pasteboard disks, one kind for an acid solution and the other for a metallic salt, such as sulphate of copper, piled up between the zinc and copper plates, in place of copper, acid, zinc; copper acid, zinc, etc. ; the succession, copper; copper sulphate; acid, zinc; copper, copper sulphate; acid, zinc, etc. This worked longer, and was in fact a kind of forerunner to the Daniel constant battery.

In order to give the credit of this arrangement to whom it belongs, it must be added that it was not my own .idea, but borrowed from the chemistry of Berzelius, whose six volumes on this science had then just been published in Germany (1883). They were at once translated and published in the language of Holland, as is done with all good books, and were published there in 1834.

With such a battery I was supposed to have benefited a child who had a sudden attack of paralysis and a loss of sensation in the lower limbs, and whose father (a surgeon) applied to me, when the Leyden jar was tried, but without avail, while after applying the voltaic pile some improvement gradually took place.

In a small neighboring town was a garrison of veterans, for the medical treatment of whom an old marine surgeon had contracted, including the furnishing of medicine. The idea struck him that if he could cure them with electricity, it would save him a considerable sum of money. He belonged to the old school, the followers of which were celebrated for the large doses they prescribed. He applied to me, as he was not familiar with electric machines, to bring his machine in working order. I saw at once that his machine had a wooden support under the prime conductor. I inquired about that, and he said that he had improved it by supplying wood in place of glass, which was so fragile, and therefore had broken. I found that he needed a lecture on conductors and insulators, which I gave him. I obtained a bottle of suitable hight (sic – JT), dried the inside with hot sand, and used it for a support, when the machine worked well. Then I commenced my labor by electrifying the old veterans. It amused me very much to shock the old fellows, some of whom had been shocked in quite a different way in the great battle of Waterloo. They all testified that it did them more good than the medicine they used to swallow, and that it improved their appetite. I believed that it was a doubtful question whether it was the electric treatment or the abstinence from drugs; the symptom of the increased appetite inclined me to believe in the beneficial effect of the latter.

(Continuation in March Number).

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