The Science of Film, Music & Art

The Sackbut’s Tale: A Brief History of the Sackbut

Would you listen to an album by Sackbut Shorty? I probably wouldn’t, either, but I sure do listen to Trombone Shorty. The sackbut is a type of trombone, is what I’m trying to say. And this, then, is the sackbut’s tale…

A Sackbut By Any Other Name Would Sound As Sweet

The earliest references to the precursor to the modern trombone, le trompette des ménestrels, come from early 15th century France. The name “trombone,” of Italian origin, predates “sackbut” by a good two decades; ze Germanz were calling essentially the same instrument the “Posaune” even earlier than that; later, the Scottish term draucht trumpet, or drawn trumpet, came and went. The French were also the first to use the term “sackbut,” but the name was ultimately more widely used by the English. Eventually, trombone became the preferred term, because English is a stupid language.

This cat is the Jimi Hendrix of the sackbut.

76 Sackbuts

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the trombone evolved from the trumpet. Until circa 1375, trumpets were basically just a  long, straight tube with a flared bell at the end. By 1400 or so, Renaissance metalworkers had developed methods of custom tube winding that allowed them to produce the “C” and “S” shaped bends needed to create trumpets that looked and sounded more like what we know today.

By the end of the 15th century, the slide trumpet—a regular trumpet with a single, short slide—had become popular in the alta capella wind bands found in towns and cities throughout Europe at the time. The slide trumpet quickly grew in size and complexity to become a distinctly new instrument, the sackbut.

Sackbuts of this era had bells that were just over four inches in diameter, giving them a different sound than modern trombones, which have bells between seven and nine inches in diameter. As such, many 21st century practitioners of Renaissance and baroque music utilize replica sackbuts instead of modern trombones. (Modern reproductions often add spit valves, stockings, slide locks, and other anachronistic details that do not affect sound but that increase playability and player comfort.)

Truth in advertising.

The sackbut’s bell continued to widen and its slide continued to lengthen until it reached the proportions of modern trombones, sometime in the early 1800s. After that, the sackbut unfortunately faded away and the trombone became music’s preeminent telescoping brass instrument.

Top photo credit: failing_angel via / CC BY-NC-SA

Bottom photo credit: *Tom* via / CC BY-NC-SA

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