A WTF scientific paper from Edinburgh, 1884

I’m still quite busy finishing off my book, and a grant proposal in the meantime, but I thought I’d share a very odd paper from the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 13 (1884), 23-24, entitled, “Extraordinary occurrence at House No. 7 York Place”.

One of the fun things about old journals are the miscellaneous “reports” sent in about unusual phenomena seen in the field, often by non-scientists.  Perhaps my favorite example of this comes from the very first volume of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1665, “An account of a very odd monstrous calf,” by Robert Boyle.  This was the fifth paper ever published in a scientific journal, a fact that I find very amusing for some reason.

The paper I want to describe carries the sub-heading, “(The following notice was sent to the General Secretary, from the Office of Messrs Hunter, Blair and Cowan, W.S.)”.  I can’t really do it justice without quoting it in its entirety:

An occurrence of an extraordinary nature took place in the kitchen of this house on Monday evening, the 8th inst.  The kitchen is in the area, and whilst the office-keeper and his wife and servant girl were seated in front of the fire, suddenly, about twenty minutes past eight, a terrific rumbling sound was heard in the chimney.  Fearing that something was about to topple about their ears, they all sprang aside, and no sooner had they done so than a large sheet of flame issued from the chimney, and without disturbing the ashes in the grate, or touching the grate itself, swept close past the office-keeper, who was standing nearest to the fire-place, and extinguished the gas.  Upon the gas being relit, an extraordinary state of matters was revealed.  The apartment was filled with smoke and dust, while the brick wall partition opposite the fireplace, and which would be 12 to 14 feet distant from it, was so greatly injured that had it not been for the shelving with which it was lined in front, and which held it together, it would have fallen right out.  As it was it stood greatly off the perpendicular, and was cracked and wrenched from its holdfast along the ceiling, and at one part it was bulged out as if it had been forcibly struck by some soft heavy bulky article.  There was no appearance of scorching, as is generally the case when any object of an inflammable nature is struck by lightning.   The vent, which is swept at regular intervals, was swept shortly before, and was therefore comparatively clean.  There is no iron bracketing at the top of the chimney.  With the exception of the partition, no other article in the kitchen was injured, or apparently touched.  The gas pipe runs across the roof or ceiling from the opposite wall towards the fire-place, and the pendant is about the centre of the apartment, rather nearer the fireplace than otherwise, but neither received any injury, although the gas was extinguished.  The evening was wet and boisterous, the wind having been from the west or north-west, but a little before the occurrence the rain had passed off, and later on it  became quite clear, although there was evidently a good deal of moisture in the air.

I really don’t know what to make of this “occurrence”, other than to be relieved that nobody was hurt!  There isn’t any reason to think that the story was fabricated, so there must be a physical explanation.  Anyone care to speculate?

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11 Responses to A WTF scientific paper from Edinburgh, 1884

  1. Peter Morgan says:

    You’re just waiting for someone to say Ball Lightning, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ball_lightning, so you can say that it can’t be that, aren’t you?

  2. jebmc says:

    I would have thought it was a bit late for reports of that kind. Clearly not; but certainly more sober than some of the early ones on such subjects.

    I won’t offer any suggestions as Ive been reading too much Robert Kirk, James Fraser and a later popular science writer with an interest in optics and wondering; until I hit the library tommorow.

    Nice site, congrats on the nomination. You should add Edward Bulwer Lytton to the list of pulp fiction. If memory serves me correct he was offered a post at the admiralty like Winston but turned it down to concentrate on writing. Lytton has one classic in the utopian horror genre.

  3. jeb says:

    p.s Thomas Thistleton Firminger Dyer, Oxford, popular non-fiction writer.

    “The will O the wisp and it’s folklore”. Popular Science Monthly. Or relics of Aryan science as he terms such matters. It was still a topic of conversation with regard to such things as ball lightning at this time by the middle classes.

    I have a slightly later book written by a scientist but on the chapter on Boyle and sulphur (may be a different one). He starts off with a letter from relatives (or it may have been his wife) who saw will o’ the wisps in the Scottish borders. It’s slightly later than the source you give.

    But I wondered why it was included. Must dig out the source. Account above is a sober one but it is setting a precedence for late eyewitness accounts like my one from the borders which more speculative.

  4. jeb says:

    An artificial Ignis fatuus according to some of the period. Certainly.

    Phosphorescence, or the Emission of light by Minerals Plants and Other Animals. T.L. Pihpson. P.h.d F.C.S 1862.

    see page 68-9. Not identical but rather close.


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  6. jebmc says:

    I don’t mind the satire but the above post is a bit dishonest I feel. I study ethnology. science is not the object of my ethnology it’s where I am getting my methodology from. Folks like T.H Huxley who took a big interest in my subject.

    The blog is light on comment at the moment because before I go any further I have to deal with the matter of race and ethnology. Something T.H Huxley and other ethnologists were also trying to do. The concept of evolution was a massive catalyst for change in Ethnology although traditionaly in the u.k the Ethnology society grew out of the anti- slave movement.

    But I have not looked at the subject full. I will stop with Darwin but I need to ensure as background that I look at the subject up until the 1950’s as I need to know exactly what I am doing. I am happy to speculate to an extent when I start looking at new subjects. It’s away of dealing with bias, but sometimes it may pay of at a later date.

    But on race and ethnology I find myself reluctant to say anything until I am done. As it has produced a whole host of crap particulary with regard to evolution.

    I also think part of the reason Ethnology was of such interest to the first evolutionary biologists was because they understood rather more about how identities are constructed than perhaps is the case today in science.

    You may think what I am doing is stupid. I think it is worth the attempt.
    Going from the comments you make I think you are attempting to use mind reading skills to determine my approach as I don’t say that much about it.

    Perhaps it will be unsuccesfull, I don’t know at this stage; but it is certainly worth the effort. If I cannot make an airtight argument I certainly won’t attempt to publish anything this is not done for vanity or personal glory.

    I certainly won’t be seeking any academic funding to complete it as that puts me at the potential risk of having to engage with individuals who have a great expertise in there own area but seem to think that allows them to become an expert in every subject, including ones that remain unwritten.

    Its certainly not the case with all academics but it is a part of academic study and not one that is always for the best.

    But feel free to continue. If you feel it is a joke. It’s not a subject that fills me with laughter but clearly as you know what I am doing you think it is.

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