Important People, Important Discoveries

Of Spirit Levels & Breaststrokes: The Life of Melchisédech Thévenot

Seventeenth century Frenchman Melchisédech “Big Mel” Thévenot was the very definition of a polymath. At various times in his roughly 72 years (circa 1620-1692 CE), Thévenot worked as an author, cartographer, diplomat, and scientist; he was also known as an extensive traveler and an “orientalist”—that is, someone who is knowledgeable about Asia (referred to in Thévenot’s day as “the Orient”). Though not a well-known name, Thévenot is credited with numerous significant discoveries and inventions.

Started Near the Top, Stayed There

Thévenot was born into a family of royal office holders—not royalty, exactly, but highly-ranking elected officials that were pretty darn close to royalty. Growing up in a wealthy household gave young Big Mel educational opportunities most of his peers would never have. He took to languages easily, and was soon a polyglot, fluent in French (naturally), English, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish, among others.

He quickly made a name for himself as an amateur scientist, studying astronomy, magnetism, medicine, and physics. Thévenot was one of the first to suggest the use of lemon juice as a potential remedy for stomach ailments, and ipecac to cure dysentery.

In the 1660s, Thévenot and two of his protégé’s Jan “Big Jan” Swammerdam of the Netherlands and Niels “Big Niels” Stenson of Denmark, began a scientific study in which they ultimately discovered the nature and mechanism by which embryo fertilization occurs in humans and animals.

Title Recall

Thévenot’s most famous contributions include the granddaddy of all level measurement gizmos and a now-common form of aquatic locomotion.

It’s called a “spirit level” because the bubble is actually a ghost.

Big Mel invented the spirit level (a.k.a. the bubble level) in 1661, almost filling* a small vessel with alcohol and mounting it on a ruler with a small viewing lens fitted into it. Though Thévenot did everything he could to spread the word on his wacky new invention, the spirit level did not come into widespread use until the early 18th century.

Though he didn’t actually invent the breaststroke, Thévenot’s book The Art of Swimming helped popularize the motion by bringing it to the attention of swimmers all over the world. Good ol’ Benjamin Franklin, when he was good young Benjamin Franklin, is known to have read the book and subsequently became a talented swimmer as a youth.

Oh yeah, Thévenot was also one of the founders of the French Academy of Sciences, which is kind of a big deal, I guess.

* If it were completely full, it wouldn’t work.

Photo credit: Heartlover1717 via / CC BY-NC-ND

Historical Science & Technology, Technology

Torquetum & Rectangulus

The above is not the name of the illest hip hop duo since OutKast. Instead, the torquetum and rectangulus are medieval astronomical instruments used for spherical trigonometry.

The Torquetum of Jabir ibn Aflah

Also known as the turquet, the torquetum is designed to measure and convert three sets of coordinates—horizontal, equatorial, and ecliptic. First developed by Spanish Muslim astronomer and mathematician Jabir “Big Jabir” ibn Aflah in the late 12th or early 13th century CE, it is essentially an analog computer.

An example of a torquetum can be seen in Swiss artist Hans “Big Hans” Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (below), above the elbow of the dude on the right.

The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein the Younger

Wallingford’s Rectangulus

Approximately a century later in 1326, English Catholic monk and mathematician Richard “Big Dick” of Wallingford developed the rectangulus. Perpetually irked by the limitations of astrolabes, Big Dick designed the device to measure the angles between planets and other astronomical bodies, as the torquetum does; however, the rectangulus is calibrated via linear scales and read by plumb lines, and resolves polar measurements directly into their Cartesian components.

Technically, the rectangulus is a form of skeleton torquetum—a series of nested angular scales that allow measurement of azimuth and elevation in direct polar coordinates relative to the ecliptic. Prior to the invention of the rectangulus, converting these coordinates required the most advanced mathematics that had yet been developed. Ye olde rectangulus simplified these and further calculations.

The original rectangulus is lost to the sands of time, but extant examples date back to the 1600s. The device was comprised of a brass pillar with numerous linear scales hinged above it. Sights on the upper arm allowed it to be easily aimed at the intended astronomical object. Plumb bob lines descending from the scales intersected with linear scales, which were themselves marked on horizontal scales. This gave measurements in trigonometric ratios, rather than angles. Math, right?!

Photo credit: irinaraquel via / CC BY


Shen Kuo’s “Strange Happenings”

Shen Kuo was a polymath, scientist, and statesman of Song Dynasty China (circa 960-1279 CE). Shen was at least pretty danged good at archaeology, astronomy, botany, cartography, ethnography, geology, hydraulic engineering, math, meteorology, pharmacology, and zoology. He was also an academy chancellor, diplomat, government finance minister and state inspector, military general, musician, and poet.

Among Shen Kuo’s most famous works is The Dream Pool Essays. Written in virtual isolation at his private garden estate outside of what is now Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province, China, Dream Pool Essays contains writings on astronomy, botany, geology, natural phenomena, zoology, moveable type printing, and Shen’s personal beliefs and philosophy. It also contains a section called “Strange Happenings,” which recounts a UFO sighting. That is not a typo.

Not As Good As Stranger Things

“Strange Happenings” recounts the tale of an unidentified flying object spotted in the skies above the city of Yangzhou. During the reign of Emperor Renzong (1022-1063 CE), a bright, pearlescent object was supposedly seen multiple times during over multiple nights. Similar reports were made by villagers in Anhui and Jiangsu to the east.

An actual photo of the UFO from the Song Dynasty.

Shen recounts one villager’s story, in which intense beams of light blazed out of the craft’s door as it opened; the outer shell then opened, revealing a “big pearl the size of a fist, illuminating the interior in silvery white.” The light was said to be too bright to look at, and powerful enough to be seen from ten miles away. “The spectacle was like the rising Sun,” the villager reported, “lighting up the distant sky and woods in red.” The object then flew off at high speed and disappeared over the horizon.

“Strange Happenings” also reports that Yibo, a well-known poet from the nearby city of Gaoyou wrote a poem about his encounter with the pearl-like craft. This and other publicity led the city of Fanliang in Yangzhou to build what was called the “Pearl Pavilion,” a place where tourists could travel to by boat and stay, in hopes of a UFO sighting.

Photo credit: Marcο_Paiola via / CC BY-NC-ND

The Science of Film, Music & Art

The Science of “Gertie the Dinosaur”

Gertie the Dinosaur is one of the most famous early animated films. Created in 1914 by American cartoonist Winsor “Big Winnie” McCay, the short film was used as an interactive part of McCay’s vaudeville act. McCay would “command” Gertie to do tricks, and the dinosaur would enthusiastically oblige, much to the delight of audiences. Citizen Kane himself later hired McCay and effectively shut down his act; McCay then added a live-action introduction to the animated film for its theatrical release.

Art is Science is Art

Gertie the Dinosaur was the first animated film to use keyframes, registration marks, tracing paper, and animation loops to create the illusion of steady and lifelike movement onscreen. Would-be intellectual property thief, and fellow American animator, John Randolph “Big Johnny Randy” Bray tried to patent a number of McCay’s animation techniques, fortunately to no avail. Bray is also believed to be behind a knock-off version of Gertie that made the rounds more than a year after the original.

Production of Gertie the Dinosaur began in mid-1913, with McCay using his spare time to hand-draw thousands of frames on 6.5” by 8.5” sheets of rice paper. Rice paper was McCay’s medium of choice because it is translucent and does not absorb ink, making it ideal for animation.

Animation cel from Gertie the Dinosaur.

The short was McCay’s first animated film to utilized detailed backgrounds. The nigh-crippling task of retracing those backgrounds over and over for each frame fell to McCay’s neighbor, art student John A. “Big A Johnny ” Fitzsimmons.

McCay’s animation frames occupied a 6” by 8” area of each sheet. The outer perimeter of this area was marked with registration marks in the corners of each sheet, making it easier to align them for filming and resulting in reduced jittering (a common problem for early animated films). The drawings were mounted on large pieces of stiff cardboard and photographed at Vitagraph Studios in 1914.

Science is Art is Science

McCay took special care with the timing and motion of his animation. Gertie’s breathing was timed to match the filmmaker’s own, and McCay consulted with experts from New York museums to get Gertie’s movements as anatomically accurate as possible.

Also utilized in the production of Gertie the Dinosaur was what came to be known as the “McCay Split System.” In the Split System, major poses are drawn first, and the frames in betwixt are drawn later. This resulted in still smoother timing and motion.

McCay refused to patent his Split System, and he would share details with basically anyone who cared to ask. The aforementioned Johnny Randy Bray was one such person who cared to ask, posing as a writer working on an article about animation.

Bray’s use of McCay’s unpatented techniques led to their widespread adoption throughout the animation world. In this way, the exploitation of McCay’s technology helped animators make significant advances in their craft.

Photo credit: iamdonte via / CC BY-NC

Historical Science & Technology

The Warren Field Calendar

The Warren Field Calendar is an archaeological excavation discovered in the Dee River Valley of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, in 2004. It was not until 2013, however, that the find was discovered to be the world’s oldest known calendar, dating back over 10,000 years.

The Mighty Mesolithic Monument of Aberdeenshire

Warren Field is located near Crathes Castle in Aberdeenshire county, in northeastern Scotland. The field itself contains a series of a dozen purpose-dug pits that are believed to correspond to the twelve phases of the Moon, as in a lunar calendar. It was discovered from the air by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and first excavated in 2004.

Crathes Castle (no, I couldn’t find any pics of the Calendar itself–sorry!)

The twelve pits are shaped to mimic the phases of the moon, and appear to be intended to help the observer track lunar months. The pits align along the southeastern horizon, and with sunrise on the day of the Winter Solstice. This provides annual astronomical corrections to coordinate the solar year with the lunar cycles, and helps account for the asynchronous solar year (which is why we need Leap Day every four years).

The Warren Field Calendar may also have been used as a seasonal calendar to help nearby communities of the age track the migration of animals they hunted for sustenance. The fact that it was created by a society of hunter-gatherers, rather than farmers, is unique amongst historically significant ancient calendars.

Evidence indicates that the pits were carefully maintained and repeatedly reshaped in response to shifting solar and lunar cycles; the monument may have been altered hundreds of times over the 6,000 year period in which it was used.

For whatever reason, the Warren Field Calendar fell out of use approximately 4,000 years ago. The find has been dated to roughly 8000 BCE, during the Mesolithic Period (circa 10,000 to 5000 BCE). Thus, the Warren Field Calendar predates the next-oldest historically-known calendars, from Mesopotamia, by over 5,000 years.

Photo credit: -epsilon- via / CC BY