Inventions and castles in the air

“Mummy,” my eldest piped up early this morning, “what’s phantasmagoria?

Where to start? Such inventions have made their mark through history. But the word: phantasmagoria – that seems to tug from the nineteenth century, to a background of fairground music.

History and hindsight have shown us those ideas from the nineteenth century which have passed the test of time: and equally, those which were simply castles in the air.

Phantasmagoria were, in essence, horror shows.

They were the culmination of the magic lantern: its ultimate conclusion. Its predecessors shone a light through a transparent slide, with an image on it, onto a surface.

This rendered the image much, much bigger; and made it appear and vanish without someone putting it there. It had a useful ethereal quality, too, which meant it could capture an audience’s imagination.

The showmen of the 19th century used this to cash in on the public’s emergent fascination with all things supernatural. Joe Public was sizing up every new piece of thinking which came his way, often indiscriminately. Is it science or fantasy? No-one seemed to have quite enough wherewithal to distinguish.

So the 19th century phantasmagoria- the really big stage productions with horrific visions superimposed on writhing smoke – they made it to one of London’s scientific institutions: The Royal Polytechnic Institution, based in Regent Street, London.

Science or fiction? Even the scientists of the day weren’t entirely sure.

One hundred and seventy-one years ago today,  a cartoonist died in Hampstead, aged 45. He shed light on the matter.

William Heath’s biographical details are sparse. Born around 1794, it is thought he had a military career, but made money illustrating books from an early age –  some say just 14 years old.

By 1826 he was a founder and regular contributor to magazines of caricature and comment: The Northern Looking Glass and later The Looking Glass, and latterly Mc’Leans Monthly. A Dr John Brown commented of him: ‘poor Heath, the ex-Captain of Dragoons, facile and profuse, unscrupulous and clever’.

Unscrupulous and clever: oh, yes.

I found one of his a few days ago. It lives at the British Museum. And it is called the ‘March Of Intellect’. It has a snatch of explanation: “Lord, how this world improves as we grow older!”

It was drawn in 1829, just before his work became extremely sought-after. Here is the new scientific age represented in all its glory, the artist volunteers acerbically.

I could stare at it for hours. In one corner, floating in the sky, are castles in the air. Nearby is a signpost reading:”Scheme for the repayment of the national debt.” On the ground below is a huge human cannonball, shooting several unfortunates high into the sky. It is titled:”Quick conveyance for the Irish Emigrants”.

There’s a lavish company suspension bridge stretching to Cape Town and a huge inhospitable-looking bat-shaped airship for transporting convicts bound for New South Wales.

Ladies and gentlemen are taking the air on a platform suspended by four hot air balloons.  And my personal favourite: a Grand Vacuum Tube Company provides an express service to Bengal.

Lampooning does not come better than this. Scientific discoveries, it seems, may have made Everyman gullible. It’s hard to know which inventions hold water when one is in the middle of a maelstrom of  invention.

But I would like to try the vacuum tube just once.

One invention which made its way into the twentieth century from the nineteenth was Thomas Edison’s phonograph.

According to “In December, 1877, a young man came into the office of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and placed before the editors a small, simple machine about which very few preliminary remarks were offered.

“The visitor without any ceremony whatever turned the crank, and to the astonishment of all present the machine said : ” Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the phonograph?” The machine thus spoke for itself, and made known the fact that it was the phonograph…”

Showmanship: and a concrete, useful invention. A rare combination, presented just four years before the close of that outrageous nineteenth century.

And today I heard the oddest phonograph recording: the sound of Robert Browning reading some of his own work onto one of Edison’s cylinders.

You can check it out here. Because The Poetry Archive has begun to collect early recordings of some of the greats. the collection is small right now, but it’s growing: and includes WB Yeats.

Browning’s recording, made in 1889, is currently the oldest in the collection. He was at a dinner party thrown by his good friend Rudolf Lehmann, who had a new phonograph. Everyone was invited to record, and finally Browning was prevailed upon to read ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’.

It’s mightily indistinct. I’m told he forgets his words and at the end exclaims that this is indeed a wonderful invention. It’s a high-pitched voice: not at all how I always thought he would sound.

But it is brought to us by an invention long overtaken. While phantasmagoria and vacuum tubes are shadows in history, the effects of the phonograph have outlived Edison’s device.

That’s the sign of an enduring legacy, now, isn’t it?

22 thoughts on “Inventions and castles in the air

    1. While Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is one of my favourite musicals, that car is categorically not phantasmagorical. I’, guessing the Sherman Brothers only wrote the music which must put Roald Dahl squarely in the frame for that shameless bit of rhyming….

    1. I looked everywhere for background to this man who has made me laugh so much, Nancy. Even the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography doesn’t have the full story. I have two more of his, and the one which made me giggle most is still to be revealed 🙂

  1. Wonderful post, Kate. I’ll be checking out the link to the archives–would love to hear Browning’s voice myself, and Yeats’ too.

    I have to ask–are you a researcher by trade? I love to stop by every day because I learn so much.

    1. No, I’m a squirrel, Maura 🙂 I love nothing more than finding old bits of patchwork information and stitching them together. Glad you enjoy stopping here: I love my visits to 36 x 37….

  2. What a very busy painting, Kate. There would be something new to discover every day for a long time. I loved this post and I can see if I continue to read your work I will greatly impove my general knowledge. Thank you so much!

    1. Thank you, Adeeyoyo. The world is full of strange things, new and old, isn’t it? It’s lovely to have you reading…and I was enchanted this evening by your post….

  3. I love that picture! When I was a kid I used to love to just immerse myself in complicated pictures like that whenever I found them. You can sit back and travel very far indeed with something like that in front of you.

      1. I’m really tempted to buy a copy of the print – but I have enough things (like blogging) to distract me from my work each day.

  4. Phantasmagoria has always been one of my favorite words! What a terrific history lesson. I’m going to look up William Heath. Love the artwork!

    1. Its amazing, isn’t it, Elizabeth? Digging up stuff about Heath has been quite a challenge: but what a mind. Thank you for posting some of your poetry up on your site: it really is very beautiful 🙂

  5. Once again, a fascinating post, Kate – I thought ‘phantasmagoria’ was coined by Lewis Carroll. The ‘March Of Intellect’ reminds me of Mike Wilks’ ‘Ultimate Alphabet’ – I’ve had this book for many years and its entertainment and educational value is endless.

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