Sketchy

Michel-Eugène Chevreul

Photograph of Michel-Eugène Chevreul (Wikimedia Commons)

Writing to Paget on 5 February 1888, Charles Edward Brown-Séquard enclosed something extra.

The drawing, in ink, is a “Sketch of Monsieur Chevreul (back view), on his chair at the Academy of Sciences, taken by Professor J. M. Charcot December 1887.” The gentleman in question is balding, with a mad-scientist’s ruff of hair ringing his head.

I find “taken” an odd choice of words: one takes photographs but makes a sketch. Photography can seem—can be, in the case of amateur snapshots, with little thought given to composition or technical requirements, beyond (maybe) flash/no flash—a more passive thing. A real image is preserved. “Taken.” Almost like “stealing,” a lucky seizure of something to which one has no particular claim. A certain degree of accuracy is assumed, which need not be the case with a sketch, created from nothing (even if inspired by reality).

Beautifully incomprehensible

The Paget collection includes undated shorthand notes (presumably on religion) by Joseph Priestley. The writing is quite beautiful, in the way of scripts in unknown alphabets. The many colons and dots bring Arabic to (my) mind. Occasionally there is a recognizable cursive word: dominion, silver, extent, oblation, genuine, etc. The script looks like it belongs chiseled into the set of a sci-fi movie or scrawled across blood-spattered pages in a thriller.

Arithmetic

There are some letters from Charles Babbage in the James Paget collection (which is kind of weird: it’s an autograph collection, so in many cases it’s literally a matter of lists of signatures–like a list of members of a philosophical club–but in other cases there are letters that are, now, interesting for reasons beyond the simple signature). In a 2 June 1870 letter to Mrs. Paget, Babbage discussed a “very successful experiment” involving his Analytical Engine. It added a 26 digit number and a 25 digit number in under 30 seconds.

Just a fun fact to whip out at a party. (Assuming, of course, that you go to the good sort of party, where Charles Babbage Facts are appreciated.)