Junk Mail (or the unintended biography of Sir Charles Wheatstone)

rubicon coal for web

The experience of working with a person’s private archive, their uncensored outpouring of thoughts, generally leaves the researcher feeling closer to the subject of study. There is a distinct notion of ‘getting to know you’. When leafing through papers, pattern recognition (that most human of traits) kicks in and the researcher goes about the largely unconscious business of harvesting fragments of the person from the scraps of text. As informative as they are ambiguous, elements such as writing style, thought processes, influences, demeanour, the things a person chooses to write about or omits are stitched together in the mind of the researcher into a kind of operational humanity.

It can be like making friends (indeed, quite literally). Even if the researcher finds they don’t actually like the person they are constructing, they begin to understand and tolerate them, making excuses for them as you would an eccentric uncle. In fact, the idea of family – an underlying connection that goes beyond knowing or liking – may be the best analogy to the relationship a researcher has with a private archive. The faults and uncomfortable truths are as present as the great deeds. There has been no tidying-up, no sanitising and no hyperbolising.

With all this in mind I found it odd, even worrying, that on my many forays into Charles Wheatstone’s private papers I was experiencing none of this. Where was this man’s voice? The unquantifiable feeling of him? I was so aware of his discoveries and in awe of his work. I was better placed than most to understand both the physics and the intellectual circles in which he moved. I would not miss small connections, overlook names dropped, or misunderstand the importance of that reference at this particular time. In short, I had put all the usual effort into this relationship and had the distinct feeling of being snubbed. Where was he? Charles Wheatstone. He wasn’t a person, just a series of scientific discoveries.

All this is going on in my head at the same time as I’m leafing through his collected notes. Tiny scraps of paper covered in tinier, inscrutable writing.  A lot of it is double sided. Sometimes the content is contiguous, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s written at right angles. Sometimes torn through. Sometimes there is a definite ‘front’, sometimes not. As an archaeologist with a lively distrust of words (lying, terrible things) I’m looking at the scraps of paper as things in their own right. Paper quality, reuse, dating evidence, etc. and I noticed that CW was a horder. He kept everything. Wrote on everything. There were scraps no more than three by four inches. The bottoms ripped from the letters of others. The backs of bills and shopping lists. And piece after piece of advertising.

This man was frugal to the point of kleptomania! He saved all his junk mail. Everything that came through his letter box was roughly ripped, stacked and used as note paper. The backs of things became CW’s external brain. The download area for his ongoing thoughts. Every so often you could see he had a ‘clear-up’, making paper folders to collate his scrappy notes in. And at every one of these tidy-up sessions, more junk mail was employed to create order from the chaos of leaflets, tickets, bills and circulars.

And then it hit me. These weren’t the backs of things. They were just different fronts. The junk mail was doing a different job, telling a different story, that of Wheatstone’s life. As Spuybroek notes the influence of a famous person can be read through the actions of those they came into contact with. And it occurred to me that the junk mail Wheatstone received was a reflection of the type of person other people (his contemporaries in some way) thought he was. Circulars, advertising, solicitations and begging letters, invoices, memos and notes, invitations, compliment slips and receipts, all glimpses into his private life.

And so the piece is slowly growing, the unintentional biography of Sir Charles Wheatstone authored by 304 scraps of paper from the community in which he lived and worked.  It seems to be at the centre of a knot of thoughts, a nexus, doing several things at once. It is adding a much needed personal dimension to the biography of the eminent scientist Sir Charles Wheatstone. It is an exploration of the history of junk mail (something which – amazingly – doesn’t yet exist) and it’s also something perhaps more important. It is an approach to the study of archives which has been rather neglected. What other information lies beneath papers? How many fronts have interesting backs? How do our archiving systems obscure or indeed destroy this ancillary information? Either by its omission from the catalogue or its separation from the all important (for archaeologists at least) original context?

During my Scrambled Messages time at the English Lit Dept at KCL I’ve been shocked to discover that context (outside of archaeology) is a dirty word. It’s seen as pertaining to all that is extraneous, all that is background. Within the discipline of course it is perhaps the exact opposite. Context is King. For archaeologists it is all that connects and informs on the materials involved. In this case it would be the wider Victorian society of coal merchants, book sellers, clubs, societies and charities whose work was becoming implicated in Wheatstone’s life. It is also the process by which the paper arrives at his house, the process of making Wheatstone employs to transform it into ‘notepaper’ and the way in which it is stored and deployed by the great man himself. So perhaps this paper I’m working on today will also help to rehabilitate the term context within the wider setting of the Arts.

The World does not get Smaller

This Friday us lucky lot at Scrambled Messages held the first of our workshops. This one was on the subject of Space. In particular what do telegraphic technologies do to our understandings of space. There are lots of familiar old-adages of The World Gets Smaller variety. But really? Does it?

One of the texts we read and discussed in relation to this was an old-skool ANT piece by John Law (1986). (It’s here for those of you who might like to read it, tho be warned it’s proper old-skool-ANT clunky!)

It was written as part of a wider, anthropologically inspired discussion that was going on c.1986 about Power. It takes as its subject the development of Portuguese Navigation, the system which brought little old Portugal a vast and rather far flung empire. Law discusses what is meant by power and control and presents this as a vast network of heterogenous things: ships capable of voyages far out to sea (the caravel, lateen rig, etc.); the developments in astro-navigation (sextant, star charts, etc.); and professional crewmanship (university taught) which allowed them to stay afloat and get where they were going. He sees this network as a combination of Documents, Devices and Drilled-people and argues that it performs Portuguese power over the ocean.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking ‘what has all this 15th-century stuff got to do with the telegraph?’. Indeed. I’d argue in two ways. First, there are useful parallels to be drawn between the two sets of technologies. In the 15th-century ships are the method for effecting Imperialism. They facilitated trade, conflicts, colonialization, government, etc.. The Portuguese maritime world was the cutting-edge of imperial ambitions. There are parallels with the imperial aspirations for telegraph in the nineteenth century. The telegraph system can similarly be seen as a collection of Documents (such as code books, operators mauals, patent specifications, etc.) Devices (cables, keys, recorders, laying and repair vessels, stations, tools, insulators, etc.) and Drilled-people (clerks, linemen, engineers, financiers, newspapers, etc.). Both projects are supported centrally and designed to increase trade and control internationally. Second, and probably more usefully is that Law’s work does something really clever to space; it points out that it is made, through the myriad efforts of all the Documents, Devices and Drilled-peole.

And it’s this connection with the making that I find so useful for thinking about space and the telegraph. People experience space. The sensory, bodily movement through it is the means by which we appreciate it. As a human in possession of a perceiving body, space might therefore be almost directly substituted for effort. The oft-told tale of the telegraph ‘making the world smaller’ therefore seems to stem from the feeling that this effort has somehow been removed. Indeed, what effort is it to pick up the phone (or walk to the Telegraph Office) when compared to riding the overnight mail-coach, piloting the mail-packet round the Cape or indeed the marathon effort of Philippides! It feels smaller.

What Law does when reminding us of the workings of the network is to reveal the effort within things. And actually, by really thinking about what is essential to the telegraph network in terms of sourcing, processing and deploying materials we see that there is a phenomenal amount of effort going into the system. Copper miners and smelters in Chile; Jute retters and spinners in Bangladesh (unravel the hand retted jute contained within the Atlantic Cable and it would stretch to the Moon!); Gutta-percha collectors in the Malay Archipelago; rosin gatherers in the tupentining camps of the Deep South; Peasant tar-burners in Sweden; the ships circling the globe laden with raw materials and vast coils of cable; the army of layers, builders, instrument makers, cable winders, operators, linemen, engineers, clerks and telegram boys all mobilized so a particular person can press a particular button and send a particular message really quickly. The effort is not removed from space! The world is not made smaller in the placing of a telephone call. The effort is deployed in vast quantities, constantly remade larger and with wider and more varied connections than before. Effort laid bare like this dispenses with any easy rhetoric of a world made smaller.


Snail Mail

On the 26th October, 1850, the same year as the first Dover to Calais submarine cable, an article appeared on the front page of the French newspaper La Presse.  The author, Jules Allix, reported with much excitement on an invention which he asserted would change the world (Allix, 1850).  The invention was made by a Monsieur Jacques Toussaint Benoit and was for a method of instantaneous communication over distance without the use of wires.  Benoit claimed that with his revolutionary apparatus he was able to communicate directly between Paris and New York.  The transmitting equipment – described as the Sympathetic-pasilalinic Compass[1] – was a large wooden frame in which was suspended a rotating disc.  Twenty-six small zinc bowls were carefully set into this disc.  The bowls were lined with linen soaked in a solution of copper-sulphate and each bowl was marked with a letter of the alphabet.  The receiver was a copy of the transmitter.  To facilitate communication, pairs of snails were encouraged to form a ‘sympathetic bond’ before being glued into the paired, alphabetised bowls in the transmitter and receiver.  The pair of snails would then be ‘linked’ for life whatever the distance between the transmitter and receiver.  To transmit a message, for example the letter ‘A’, the sender would poke the snail in the transmitting bowl marked ‘A’.  The corresponding snail in the ‘A’ bowl of the receiver would then react by withdrawing or waving its antenna.  The medium of transmission was stated to be ‘escargotic fluid’ (Allix, 1850).  No archaeological remains of this groundbreaking discovery are thought to survive.

Benoit’s idea of instantaneous ‘snail mail’ might sound more than a little silly to twenty-first-century ears but his experiments were grounded in two respectable theories of the time.  The first, Franz Mesmer’s late 18th-Century concept of ‘animal magnetism’, proposed to exist as an invisible magnetic fluid, a life-force flowing through and pervading all living things (Mesmer, 1997 [1779]).  The second was that of ‘galvanism’ and Alessandro Volta’s understanding of electrical action within the body (Munro, 1902).  Mesmer’s ideas, although popular at the time (inspiring among other things, dynamic psychology and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), were later consigned to the lunatic fringes, his name forever associated with stage hypnotism.  Volta’s work, however, is appreciated today as one of the foundation stones of electrical engineering, giving us the ‘volt’ as a unit of measurement as well as the ‘voltaic cell’, or battery.  The Sympathetic-pasilalinic Compass is cited here to serve as an example of the mid nineteenth-century desire for communication over distance.  This desire was intense and manifested itself in many unlikely sounding investigations.  It was not, at the time, dismissed out of hand as we would with the benefit of hindsight.  It should be remembered that the early electrical experiments which finally resulted in successful telecommunications were very much part of the same experimental tradition as Monsieur Benoit and his snails.

[1] Boussole pasilalinique sympathetique

Allix, J (1850, 26 Oct).  Communication Universelle: Et instantanée de la pensée, a quel-que distance que ce soit, a l’aide d’un apparell portatif appelé Boussole pasilalinique sympathetique.  La Presse (pp. 1).

In Transit

In 2006 we undertook an unusual archaeological project to ‘excavate’ a 1993 Ford Transit van. The 50 quid summer project turned out to be hugely contentious. The archaeological community was split down the middle with half of them loving it as innovative methodology and the rest ranting about ‘bringing the profession into disrepute and resigning their memberships to the journal which printed it! Want to see what all the fuss was about, read it here for yourself!

The debate (and the BAJR vote on whether we were mental)



The big, fat publication


Or the shorter British Archaeology version


or watch the (award winning!) film.