Mr Punch does transits, constellations and coiffures

Punch, or the London Charivari is a wonderful source for history of science. It is impossible to think of a popular magazine today including jokes that span politics, science, the arts, classical reference and what we might call observational comedy. As with the image posted on the Ptak Science Books blog the other day, the editors of Punch had high expectations of their readers’ ability to recognise not just a handful of scientific celebrities but a while range of figures from the scientific community. Those of us who have commented on John’s post are struggling to be sure of the identities of some of those represented, or to explain just what the mathematician is doing with a fish that has so shocked a zero (have a look – and let me know if you can explain!).

In the comments, I pointed to the existence of the SciPer Index, created at the HPS department in Leeds between 1999 and 2007. This indexed short runs of sixteen 19th-century periodicals, creating a online resource and three important books.[1] While the project suffered from being at the head of the game – being superseded in many ways by mass digitisation projects, which cover much longer runs of periodicals with full images – it remains immensely impressive in terms of the added value created by the project members. This is not just a word-searchable set of texts, but a real index, explication and glossary.

For something as visual and complex as Punch, this is exactly what is required. The image on John Ptak’s site is nothing to a search engine until it is described in words. And the SciPer Index not only describes, but identifies and connects. It is not, of course, infallible: the dedicated scholar-indexers occasionally missed or misidentified references, and had to make complicated choices about just what we, or 19th-century writers, define as ‘science’, but it is the only thing I know that really spells out just how prevalent, and how intricate, such references were at this period.

I often come back to Punch, especially as I was lucky enough to inherit a set of bound 19th-century volumes. Because I have recently been thinking about the historic transits of Venus, I was looking today at the 1874 and 1882 volumes, knowing from Jessica Ratcliffe’s The Transit of Venus Enterprise in Victorian Britain (2008), that there are some great illustrations, revealing popular interest and the imperial and nationalistic agendas bound up with the transit expeditions. More of those another time – one will certainly be making its way into the exhibition at the Royal Observatory this spring. What struck me today, leafing through these volumes, is just how many references to science are there each year. Take a look at the SciPer Index for earlier volumes to see what I mean.

I will share just a couple of 1874 astronomical examples (a year that saw a comet and a transit of Venus), otherwise I could be here all night….


I hold, whatever PROCTOR writes,
Out-door observing, these chill nights,
A snare to the unwary

Long though you gaze into the sky
(Not quite, I hope, cigarless),
What chance of seeing meteors fly
Through a heaven that hangs starless?

A blazing fire in bright steel bars
Best observe, after dining;
And study – if you must have stars –
Those ‘neath arched eyebrows shining.

Transit of Venus snugly watch.
With comforts that enhance it:
There is no place like home to catch
Your Venus in her transit.

Let who will, ‘mid Kerguelen’s snows,
Seek freezing-post and thawing-room,
My Venus one short transit knows –
From dining-room to drawing-room.

Let me observe her, by lamp-light,
In chaise longue, soft and lazy,
Her witch-face framed in hair-wreaths bright,
Enough to drive one crazy.

Sweet star of eve, whose beauties blend
With foam of vaporous laces,
That like a cloudy setting lend
A mystery to thy graces,

Heightening the charms they half enwrap –
Sweet star too of the morning,
In muslins fresh, and pretty cap
A prettier head adorning!

Yes, “Vive l’Astronomie,” say I –
But what I add between us is –
While our Home-Heavens can still supply
Observers with their Venuses!

Not the best poetry – though kudos for rhyming “Venuses” with “between us is” – and rather sickly sweet than funny, perhaps. There is little to hint at the strides that women were beginning to make in education and public life at this date. However, this image ‘Constellations and Coiffures’ does something distinctly different:

The joke, of course, is about the fashionable new hairstyle, but it takes its range of astronomical references for granted. A telescopic chignon was, of course, apt for a comet, ‘long-haired’ being the literal meaning, though please note too the telescope earrings. Ether, nebulae and cluster are also thrown into the accompanying poem. At the end, “Berenice’s hair” refers to Coma Berenices, formerly part of Leo and now a constellation in its own right. It was named after Queen Berenice II of Egypt, who swore to sacrifice her long, blond hair to Aphrodite if her husband Ptolemy III Euergetes returned safely from war. He did, and she placed her hair in the temple. It disappeared and, the story goes, the court astronomer, Conon of Samos, appeased the angry king by claiming that the gods were so pleased by the hair that they had taken it and placed it in the heavens.

A source of early feminism Punch is not, but as a source for developing an understanding of the role, meaning and cultural baggage of science among the Victorian middles classes it is, undoubtedly, essential reading.


[1] These were Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: Reading the Magazine of Nature (CUP, 2004), Culture and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Media (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2004) and Science Serialized: Representations of the Sciences in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2004).

(Via teleskopos)

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