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Missing the Colors that Are Not There (1835)

JF Ptak Science Books   Post 2704

I don’t know what there is in this engraving that speaks “color” to me when it should probably be just concerning itself with the blackness of its deep black (which for me is usually the case). Neither the blackness nor the dimensionality of the thing–it seems to give itself some height and depth at the same time–say anything louder than the representation of its missing colors, which we are clearly seeing nothing of in these wavelengths except that there really aren’t any colors here outside of the beautiful black & white.  The contrast is certainly there (“There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast.” Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers), especially in the corner bits, where on closer inspection the blackness is really more white than black. In any event, the print suggests “color” to me for no good reason, except perhaps that it looks very cold, and cold is suggestive of ice blue, and the good contrast for that is yellow. “The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with base notes, or dark lake with the treble.” so wrote Mr. Kandinsky, who saw colors in his sound, and who in the midst of things wrote four experimental pieces of theater based upon this observation, the first and perhaps most prominent of which was called “Yellow” (1909).  And that is why this old engraving seems “yellow” to me (and this without any benefit of synesthesia).

The image in question, from An Easy System of Astronomy, containing an explanation of the Moveable Planisphere, together with a selection of problems, maps &c, intended to either accompany the planisphere or may be used separately in schools. This little guy (14cm) was published in Philadelphia in 1835 and unfortunately does not make mention of any detail of the “planisphere” other than that there was one that could be used. (This is evidently relatively rare, with only two copies located in WorldCat/OCLC–Columbia and the National Observatory.) 

Astronomy easy system

If there was an equal weight assigned to white and black, the white in the corner sections may well outweigh the black, which also happens to show the planet “Herschell”. This was the first planet discovered since antiquity, and was done so by the Hannoverian Brit Friedrich Herschel, who found it in 1781 and who lived with its immediate fame for another 41 years until his death in 1822. Herschel, an enormous astronomical talent who also played and composed, proposed the planet be named  in fidelity “Georgium Sidus” after George III, though that name didn’t stay on the planet longer than a quick shadow. The French astronomer Lalande (who could probably not for genetic /national reasons use the name for George) suggested the planet be named for the discoverer, “Herschell1“, which really wasn’t that terribly popular though it did last for five or six decades, succumbing finally to Bode’s suggestion of “Uranus”. 

Astronomy easy system detail

This is a folding illustration for the following, which here appears much larger than the thing is in its real life, standing as it does only about 5″ (130mm) tall:

Astronomy easy system cover



1.  From the entry “Uranus” from the Oxford English Dictionary:

1783   New Rev. Apr. 325   Notwithstanding Mr. Herschel’s having named his planet the Georgium Sidus, Mr. Lalande persists in calling it the Herschel, Mr. Bode proposes Uranus, Mr. Sivry Cybele, and Mr. Prosperin, Neptune.

1802   O. G. Gregory Treat. Astron. 128   By some astronomers it is called Herschel, in honour of the discoverer; though among almost all foreigners, it has acquired the name of uranius, which it is likely to retain.

1830   Encycl. Metrop. III. 498/1   Both these appellations are, however, now nearly become extinct, that of Uranus being almost universally adopted

1860   D. Olmsted Mech. Heavens 267   Uranus was the remotest known planet..until the discovery of..Neptune.

1902   N. Amer. Rev. Aug. 225   Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are in too primal a state of fluidity and gaseousness to support life.

By: JF Ptak Science Books
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