Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Re-inventing the Inventors

It's been a while since I last added to the blog and during that time I've been reading some of Milne's earliest known stories.

Published in the Argonaut and around the spring of 1878 these early works help fill in some of the gaps as yet largely unaccounted for between Milne leaving Britain and his appearance at the 1874 San Francisco Inventor's Fare. As this could account for nearly a decade of his life any and all snippets pertaining to his life prior to becoming a writer are always useful.

A Reminiscence of Vasquez, In The Cow Countries and A Mexican Family on the Move mainly recall events from and around 1873 when Milne was still leading an itinerant lifestyle and working as a shepherd, cook and cow-hand. Although these were unlikely to be the careers of choice for a classics scholar, if Milne harbored any sense of regret for the direction his life had taken then it doesn't come across in what are lively, jolly recollections of a period that many people of his status might be tempted to play down or erase from their own personal history.  As was reiterated throughout a Eadweard Muybridge biography I read recently (Muybridge, who was living in San Francisco at the same time as Milne, conducted photographic motion studies which eventually played a part in the creation of cinema) California was at that time a place one could reinvent oneself- several times over if required, as Muybridge's 'creative' personal history demonstrated.
Eadweard Muybridge

This aspect of Milne's early years in America have long confused me, arriving as he did with such impeccable credentials; a descendant of Robert the Bruce, the son of a minister and a graduate (or at least a former student) of Oxford University he had a starting point which may have stretched credulity even for serial re-inventors like Muybridge. Perhaps though this was Milne's reasoning.It is quite possible that he thought no-one would actually believe him had he told them the truth- not that the stories of spring 1878 gave any clue as to how he actually presented himself to his prospective employers. Maybe, like some graduates today, he entirely played down his qualifications and credentials in order to obtain a post evidently beneath his considerable talents. A novel inversion of what was apparently the norm in 1870s California!

As with most of the biographical material I've thus far turned up about Milne anything approximating an answer only leads to a dozen new questions. The stories (which I'll go into in more depth in a later blog) give no clues as to how or why Milne initially emigrated or what happened between shepherding in the company of an infamous and dangerous outlaw in 1873 and his appearance at the Inventor's Fare the following year.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Tom's cats.

I've been reading up on the life of Thomas Alva Edison of late, which is why I've attached a link to a compilation of funny cat videos.

Mentioned by name in one of Milne's earliest pieces of scientific fiction, The Great Electric Diaphragm (May 1879) Edison is referred to later again in what must have one of his last, The Silent Witness (1899). The first is a story regarding the invention of wireless telephones the second an intriguing who-dunnit solved with the aid of phonograph technology.

Given the man's influence on the late 19th and early 20th centuries it should probably be no surprise that Edison received honourable mentions in several scientific romances of the period including E.E. Kellett's The Lady Automaton (1901) as well as getting star-billing in Garrett Putman Servis' Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898) which is available for download here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19141  

Servis' book, an unofficial sequel to The War of the Worlds (something Wells neither sanctioned nor liked), sees the inventor adapt left-behind alien technology before leading an armada of space ships on a mission to teach those pesky Martians a lesson. Despite neither reflecting Wells' concerns of colonialism or containing his self-reflexive warnings about the double-edged nature of technological progress the novel nonetheless has its moments, even if we never hear too much from or ever really learn a great deal about the eponymous hero.

Although I'll write more about each of the aforementioned Milne stories at a later date, what was particularly notable about his appearance in The Great Electric Diaphragm was that, despite the fact 'that Bell had beaten him in the race to patent the first authentic transmission of the human voice', Milne still chose to name-check Edison. 

At present I'm reading History of the Kinetograph, Kinetescope and the Kinetophonograph (1895) which was co-authored by W.K.L. Dickson, a former employee of Edison. As Dickson was a Scot working in this particular field and at that particular time I suspect I'll be reading and writing more about him too before long. However, for now I thought I'd leave you with an interesting quote from a passage in which Dickson discusses the challenges of finding new and novel subjects to be filmed on what must have been the world's first sound stage at Edison's laboratory in West Orange NJ:

"Cats have figured very amusingly in the laboratory shows. We had a consignment of these sent to us, fresh from their triumphs in Barnum's circus,but their Orange debut was delayed, not only on account of the weather, which was unfavorable, but by reason of certain ophthalmic troubles, induced by extensive clawing at each other's optics. We placed them in solitary confinement and doctored them with eye salve,an operation attended with piercing yells and much opposition, and by the time the sun saw fit to emerge from his blanket of clouds, the company was in condition to appear in their several feats of jumping hoops, trundling toy coaches, boxing, riding bicycles etc."

So there you have it: funny cat films were doing the rounds way before YouTube came along and even played their part in the development of cinema technology. So, the next time you attach one to an email or post one on Facebook you can argue that what you've done has some legitimate cultural significance.

Edison Biography http://www.thomasedison.com/biography.html

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Cross stones and correspondence

Throughout the course of some earlier blogs I have hypothesised that Rev Milne's antiquarian interests may well have rubbed off onto his son. In particular I wondered if a news cutting, regarding a toad which had apparently emerged from the centre of a block of sandstone, had been placed in Cupar's Antiquarian Society Book of 1840 by Rev Milne and subsequently provided a starting point for Robert's story of suspended animation, Ten Thousand Years In Ice .

This I felt was likely as it appeared, from the cutting above, that Rev Milne had an interest in archaeology as demonstrated by this report which, I believed, concerned items uncovered at the 'Norries's Law' find of 1819.  However, having recently searched the St Andrews University Library Special Collection I now have reason to believe that this article may in fact refer to a discovery Rev Milne made himself some years later:

"On the 9th of last month when walking through the cathedral grave ground accompanied by a friend we went out by the eastern door, outside which were deported about half a cartload of stones, on turning some of them over we came upon a slab on which we were able with great difficulty to trace several lines... We found an ancient cross partly incised as in relief...  Cross No.1 is a beautiful specimen of the ancient Keltic[sic] cross perhaps coeval with the early Culdees as to be sen at Iona, Largo and on 'Sueno's Stone' at Forres." Extract from a 'Binder of papers submitted to the St Andrews Literary and Philosophical Society': "Some Remarks on a Keltic or Mediaeval Cross found 9th February 1869 in a Grave near the South East end of the Cathedral of St Andrews", by Rev George Gordon Milne.

If these stones are indeed the 'cross stones' mentioned in the above cutting this obviously raises questions about the apparently anachronistic inclusion of the undated newspaper article, potentially from 1869 or thereabouts, appearing in Cupar's Antiquarian Book of 1840. However the fact that Rev Milne was clearly interested in not just local finds but those from further afield remains unaltered, as evidenced by his apparently detailed knowledge of Pictish stones.  Indeed if anything I feel this lends weight to my argument that he was responsible for the inclusion of the cutting entitled 'Singular Circumstance' detailed in an earlier post which I have speculated may have formed the basis for one of Robert's stories.

That his father's interests perhaps influenced his storytelling is one thing but what has never really been explained about RDM is where he developed his aptitude for science and technology. Milne himself wrote about having attended lectures by 'Darwin's bulldog' Thomas Huxley and physicist John Tyndall prior to leaving for America, but these alone cannot account for him turning up at the San Francisco 'Mechanics Institute Fair of 1874' to demonstrate a steam engine of his own design and for which he (among several others) held a patent.

Robert Duncan Milne left Oxford University before completing his degree in classics and to the best of our knowledge the years between 1868-74 had been spent mainly working as a hired hand on sheep ranches throughout California, so quite how the engine came about is still yet a mystery.

One aspect however which I believe may have had a lasting impact was, again, those interests of his father who, through his fellow Antiquarians and friends was connected with the great and good of Victorian science. Rev Milne provides a link between the St Andrews and Cupar Antiquarian Societies, contributing as he did to both. Through this he would undoubtedly have known Sir David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope and one of the St Andrews' society's founding members. Among Brewster's notable acquaintances and correspondents was William Henry Fox-Talbot, most famous for developing Calotype photography.

 Letters in the Special Collection also see Milne Snr. writing to a George Hay Forbes regarding a church matter but, perhaps more pertinently, Forbes Snr, with whom Rev George must surely have been acquainted,  corresponded with the likes of James Watt, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday and Charles Babbage.

Leaders in their respective fields the aforementioned pioneered discoveries in optics, engineering, natural history, physics and computing: could this be where Robert gained his interest and formative schooling in science and technology?

Even if Rev Milne wasn't himself in direct contact with these giants of nineteenth century scientific thought isn't it likely that, given his relative proximity to them, he would have seen fit to share his second-hand knowledge of their achievements with his family? The closest modern day analogy I can come up with would be having a friend whose father was in regular contact with Stephen Hawking: that's something you'd at least mention to your family, isn't it?



Wednesday, 2 January 2013

A Question of Authenticity

First published 14 January 1889 Ten Thousand Years in Ice tells of “how a prehistoric man was resuscitated from a frozen state” and was one of Robert Duncan Milne’s best known stories. There are two key reasons for this; firstly, as Sam Moskowitz noted, it was the only of Milne’s stories to have been included in a book.  At which point it is probably worth mentioning that Milne was essentially a high functioning alcoholic and the $2,000 he received from his uncle, Duncan James Kay, to both fund the publication of a collection of stories as well as pay for a trip back home failed to do either:

‘Milne made serious preparation for his trip to Europe and booked passage. The day of sailing, he started for the ship, stopping on the way to tipple a few. He never made the trip to Europe, never published the book and never, apparently, returned the money’ Moskowitz, p. 234

To this end the appearance of Ten Thousand Years in Ice in a collection called Argonaut Stories (1906) was, for many years, the only published record of Milne’s work outwith the newspapers in which it initially appeared. As was common at the time short stories of this type were often syndicated, and it was its appearance in a Hungarian newspaper, Pester Lloyd, which lead to Ten Thousand Years in Ice’s lasting infamy when it caused ‘something of a sensation’.

Tales of suspended animation and subsequent reanimation are now very much sci-fi standards but were, even in RDM’s day, nothing new: from the Easter story to the likes of Sleeping Beauty (whose origin is a million miles away from the Disney version!) the concept of cheating death by pausing, or freezing, one’s ageing process has always held a fascination for us. Indeed in his chapter on the subject, An Unwitting Hoax, Moskowitz lists several very similar 'trapped-in-ice' stories from the nineteenth century which pre-date Milne's and are cited as possible influences on Ten Thousand Years in Ice. As stated in an earlier blog 'A Singular Circumstance' there was a newspaper article from 1839 (regarding a toad surviving in the middle of a sandstone block) in which I believe Milne's father took a particular interest and may in turn have been the inspiration for RDM.

Where ‘scientific romances’ generally differed from these older stories was in their attempt to rationalise the processes involved in order make them more credible, and Ten Thousand Years in Ice was no exception. Describing the means by which his protagonists were to reanimate the frozen body Milne, like his contemporaries, was not content to merely cite divine intervention or introduce a magic ‘sleeping potion’ but instead named his chemical agent and added some background detail to the drug which lent the story a certain degree of authenticity:

“Where is that phial, I wonder?” interjected the doctor, looking over his medicine-chest, and taking out bottle after bottle; “ah, here it is,” he said, at last, “here is the substance on which I rely to restore action of the heart and give life to our friend here. It has only lately been introduced into pharmacopoeia; but since its introduction it has done wonders in cardiac affections.  It is distilled from a plant which grows only in East Africa. Its name is strephanthus, and its effect is to accelerate the action of the heart. Milne, p.175

The ‘strephantus’ (the italics are Milne’s) mentioned here is clearly a variation on strophantus which was indeed an ‘East African plant’ which was used to treat cardiac complaints. Discovered by fellow Scot, Sir John Kirk (another minister’s son) whilst accompanying Livingstone’s second African expedition, extracts of the plant were used to form Strophantine, which had been commercially available from 1887.

With regards to the credibility of the story several pertinent points to consider here are that firstly Milne obviously kept himself abreast of modern scientific innovations- an aspect which becomes clear the more one reads his work and something which made his writing very topical. Secondly that he was familiar with the manner in which such innovations were presented- the italics used here mirror those used in scientific/medical journals when referring to species types, another aspect which helped add to the authenticity.

The third and final fact to consider is the extent to which the above account gains added gravitas through stating that it was a Knight of the British Empire, Sir John Kirk, who had discovered the plant in question. As he was knighted in 1881, some twenty years after his African trip, he was just plain old John Kirk when he found the plant so his title is, here, applied retrospectively. However its inclusion is in itself undoubtedly something which could confer an added degree of credibility to any story of scientific discovery: an aspect which clearly had not escaped the attention of the Hungarian translator, Mme. Fanny Steinitz, who employed some artistic licence and attributed the story to Sir Robert Duncan Milne.  This appeared to add such an extra level of ‘authority’ to the story that very soon after it appeared the San Francisco Argonaut began receiving letters asking whether or not the story by 'Sir' Robert (or in one case Dr. Milne) was actually true!

Ten Thousand Years in Ice is available to read here: http://ia700800.us.archive.org/3/items/argonaut241889251889sanf/argonaut241889251889sanf.pdf  but the letters from the Hungarian correspondents can be found in Moskowitz’s collection, available to buy here: https://secure.grantbooks.com/z-author-milne-robert-duncan.html as well as here: http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101072899535;seq=151;view=1up;num=135

One curious omission from both Moskowitz's account as well as that found in the earlier Argonaut Stories is that the editor of The Argonaut also got in on the 'unwitting hoax'. As can be seen in the excerpt below the Argonaut  deliberately, and rather mischievously, enjoyed a laugh at the expense of their Hungarian correspondents by playing up on Milne's new-found (and entirely fictitious!) peerage:

More information of the life and work of Sir John Kirk can be found at the links below.


Monday, 31 December 2012

A Singular Circumstance

So, before leaving  behind the Album for the Cupar Antiquarian and Literary Society 1840 it might be worth a recap of the somewhat convoluted route my research took, and why I though it worthwhile.

The obituary for Milne’s father, Rev GG Milne, stated that he was a keen antiquarian, which lead me to the aforementioned album. Among the relatively small number of entries in the album were two which were definitely connected to Milne Snr. The second of these was a report of a public debate on the origin of archaeological finds discovered near Largoward, Fife. This in turn lead me to James Graham-Campbell’s  paper about the ‘Norrie’s Law’ dig which referenced JM Leighton’s 1840 book History of the County of Fife

 Following up on this I read Leighton’s chapter on Cupar which covered legends connected with the Milne’s family home, Carslogie House. These legends, apparently made famous by Sir Walter Scott, involved the ‘Clephane Horn’ which was sounded to rally troops affiliated to the previous occupants of Carslogie, the Clephanes. Leighton also noted that the Clephane family had, at some undetermined point, been gifted, by some undetermined monarch, a steel hand: a metal prosthetic made to compensate a member of the Clephanes who had lost such a limb in the service of the King in question.

With me so far?

As I mentioned previously, the Antiquarian’s album was by and large incomplete. In fact after flicking through several empty pages I nearly put the book down believing that there was no more to see. However, my perseverance paid off when, on the very last page, I spotted a few more cuttings- most of which concerned reports of stock shares.

No information about who had included any of these or why, but this one in particular caught my eye.

 The inclusion of such a small cutting pertaining to such an obscure story as reported, initially, in the Elgin Courant may seem a little odd but I believe the interest in this ‘Singular circumstance’ can be attributed to the Rev. Milne. I say this for two reasons; firstly Milne was, demonstrably, interested in archaeology and secondly he was born in Keith, Banffshire not far from Ballindaloch.

From these articles then we have references to tales which concern ancient and mysterious civilizations (Picts),  advanced technology (the steel hand), literary connections (via Sir Walter Scott) and, potentially, subterranean suspended animation (the unearthed toad) not to mention the aspect of wireless audio communication (the Clephane Horn). Any one of these could be viewed as fodder for an aspiring science fiction writer and I believe that Robert Duncan Milne may well have incorporated several of these aspects into what was perhaps his most famous, or indeed most infamous story, Ten Thousand Years in Ice.

First published 14 January 1889 (available to read here: http://ia700800.us.archive.org/3/items/argonaut241889251889sanf/argonaut241889251889sanf.pdf) Ten Thousand Years in Ice is a first-person account of “how a prehistoric man was resuscitated from a frozen state” and caused something of a sensation when it was translated for publication in Hungary, something I’ll look at in more detail in my next entry.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Steel Hand

Following on from his paragraph about the apparently famous 'Horn of Carslogie' JM Leighton, in his book ‘History of the County of Fife’, continued with this absolute gem:

“Beside the horn, the family of Clephane had long been in possession of a hand made of steel, in imitation of that of a man, which has also been brought into notice by Sir Walter. The tradition is that this steel hand was a present from one of the kings of Scotland to a baron of Carslogie, who had lost his hand in battle, in defence of his country. It does not seem, however, to be an agreed point what king this was, or which of the long line of Barons of Carslogie received the royal gift. It has been said that the hand was lost at Bannockburn, and that the gift was made by Robert the Bruce; but others say that it was at a much more recent period, and that it was presented to the great grandfather of the late General Clephane.” pp37-38

Images of the steel hand can be seen here, pages 206-207:

The last few posts have been mainly concerned with the life and interests of Rev. George Milne and the previous owners of the house in which RDM grew up, the Clephanes of Carslogie.  Although not directly linked, as far as I can tell, to the Clephane family it would seem incredible if the Milnes knew nothing of the legends of Carslogie, especially given Rev. George’s apparent interest in local history.

An ancient castle; daring-do in the name of King and country; a steel hand (just how cool is that?):  already sounds like something out of a book! Certainly my first impressions were of Walpole’s gothic horror ‘The Castle of Otranto’ (1764) but the steel prosthetic (and one which allowed its wearer to still grasp a sword) sounds more akin to sci-fi. As yet I haven’t found a tangible link to this an RDM’s work but it’s hard to imagine that such a place wouldn't have influenced such an imaginative mind.

The Clephane Horn

Referenced in Graham-Campbell’s paper is JM Leighton’s ‘History of the County of Fife’ (1840). As all three volumes are available in Cupar Library’s local/family history section I thought it would be worth checking them for information on, or images of RDM's family home, Carslogie House.

More in hope than expectation- images of Carslogie House have proven to be very hard to source- I looked through the chapter on Cupar. What I found was so much more intriguing:

“Tradition says, that in ancient times, when private feuds and quarrels were common among the Scottish barons, the lords of Carslogie were leagued with the proprietors of Scotstarvet [sic]… The horn of Carslogie, with which the call to battle was soundedhas been rendered famous by Sir Walter Scott, and is still, we believe in the possession of the widow of the late Major-General  William Maclaine Douglas Clephane, the last direct male heir of the Clephanes of Carslogie…”. Leighton, Vol III p. 37

The Clephane Horn: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/t/the_clephane_horn.aspx

As beautiful as this is it's not the weirdest or coolest Clephane family heirloom. More to follow...