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Text: Edgar Allan Poe, "A Chapter on Science and Art" (1st installment), Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, March 1840, 6:149-150

[page 149:]


    A WRITER in the last Southern Literary Messenger proposed the endowment, at Washington, of a Central School of Natural Science, as the best disposition of Mr. Smithson's bequest. This academy should have, it is suggested, a perfect apparatus, good cabinets, and the rudiments of a library, to be increased as means would permit. The institution should commence its operations of instruction at the point where our highest universities close — none of which profess, in mathematics, for example, to carry their pupils beyond a general acquaintance with the principles of the Calculus. In natural philosophy itself, the university deficiency of apparatus is a lamentable drawback upon the utility of our colleges. They have no facilities for the conduct of our young men farther than the mere vestibule of the temple. Yet we, above all people of the earth, have the most need of the highest physical instruction, prefaced and aided by the profoundest analytical science. We are, beyond all other nations, a nation of physical wants, means, and opportunities — this not less from the character of our population, than from the extent and general nature of our territory. The entire spirit of the age, too tends rather to physical than to moral investigation. We want means for the immediate development of all our powers and resources. It may be said, moreover, in favor of physical knowledge, that it is the property not of any individual, or of any people, but of mankind. All are interested in its pursuit; its profits all share; and herein consists its great superiority to mere literature; for whose advancement, indeed, we have already abundant means — whose guidance and control may be safely left to the press.

    In the attempt at establishing an ordinary national University we should meet with insuperable difficulties; at all events, with wearisome delay. The jealousy of State Colleges would greatly interfere for it cannot be doubted that an institution at Washington, endowed as sometimes proposed, and immediately fostered by the Government, would tend materially to the injury of other universities. Taking this ground, Congress would not act promptly upon the question — indeed, not at all, until the views of the States be ascertained. Moreover, the funds left by Mr. Smithson are inadequate to such a purpose — as the interest alone is to be used. An institute for men, beginning where other institutions leave off, would conflict with no established interest, and might be carried at once into effect. In respect to the designs of the testator, no doubt should be entertained. He meant to found a College for the advancement of Science. His whole life is a plain commentary upon this intention — and this intention should, in the present case, be made a paramount law. We fully agree with the Correspondent of the Messenger in the expediency of a Central Academy as suggested.

    Some time ago, Mr. Charles Green, of England, published a statement of the grounds upon which he bases his assertion of the possibility of passing, in a balloon, across the Atlantic, from New York, to Europe. His facts should certainly be depended upon; for they are the result of observations made during two hundred and seventy-five ascents. For our own parts, so far from gainsaying one word that the æronaut asserts, we have for a long time past wondered why it was that our own Wise had not æronauted himself over to Europe — than which nothing could be a more feasible manoeuvre. Pure hydrogen must be discarded, as too subtle for our present means of retention. Balloons inflated with carburetted hydrogen (common coal gas) will retain a good inflation for a great length of time. Mr. G. states that he has had gas of this kind brought in small balloons, to fill his large one, from a distance of five or six miles; and we observe (what Mr. G. has not) that in Vienna, according to a simple method invented by M. F. Derionet, the gas is conveyed in hermetically sealed bags, on carriages constructed for the purpose, from the factory to all parts of the town daily. Why do not our gas companies avail themselves of this plan? What an incalculable saving would ensue in regard to the laying down of pipe, ect. [[etc.]] !

    As to making a voyage from America to Europe, the data of the æronaut are plain, and perfectly well based. He has, in the first place, travelled two thousand nine hundred miles with the same supply of gas, and could have continued its use for four months if necessary. In the second place it is demonstrated that a current of air is continually passing round the earth, at a stated distance from the surface, in the direction of west-north-west — in the third place a balloon like the celebrated Nassau can carry with ease three persons, with the necessary provisions and equipments for four months.

    The Curators of the Albany Institute, have been presented by Henry James, Esq., now in Europe, with a fac-simile in plaster of the Rosetta Stone — a copy of which, we believe, did not before exist in this country, except in engravings. All our readers know that the Greek, Coptic, and Hieroglyphic inscriptions on this stone are what led Dr. Young, of Oxford, and afterwards Champollion, of Paris, to find the key to the hieroglyphic alphabet.

    The new mode of engraving introduced by Hulmandel, of London, has great advantages in the saving of labor and expense. The process is described by Dr. Faraday as very simple, and the results as precise and certain. The first impression is directed by spreading oil over the plate, the interstices being filled by a watery solution of gum. The plate is then covered with varnish, and when immersed in water, the gum is dissolved, when the parts required are easily etched by aquafortis [page 150:] The method is principally applicable, however, to cotton and silk printings, and is not very well adapted to the fine arts. Hulmandel is a man of astute intellect, and has a singular tact in the communication of knowledge. His treatise on lithography is one of the most luminous books in the world.

    A gentleman of Liverpool announces that he has invented a new engine, immensely superior in every respect to the old steam engine. The power is created by air and steam. It will consume only one-half the quantity of fuel of the old one; and the rapidity by which a vessel propelled by it will sail, will enable it to cross the Atlantic in six days. Owing to a particular way in which the power acts upon the vessel, twenty miles per hour can be realized by the old steam-engine, and instead of straining and weakening the ship, will brace and strengthen it. By this method the steam power is more than doubled. Doubtful.

    THE Philadelphia Steam Frigate will be ready for launching by the first of September. The ship carpenters have commenced laying the bend or wail planking. The engine is also in a fair state of progress. Messieurs Merrick and Towne are its makers. The Frigate will not carry many guns, but all are to be of huge dimensions.

    The largest steamer in the British navy is the Gorgon, recently built. Her burthen is 1150 tons, builder's measurement. She will carry twenty days' coal, one thousand soldiers, one hundred and fifty-six crew, with stores and provisions for all for six months. The engines are of three hundred and twenty horse power, and the ship is so constructed that the steam-machinery cannot be reached by shot.

    An instrument has been invented by a Mr. Conger of new York, by means of which the existence of fire within a building can be ascertained by a person outside. A small box, containing an air-pump, is placed within the house, in contact with the front wall or door, and from the box, metal tubes, like a gas pipe, communicate with each story of the building. By pulling a knob, such as is usually attached to the wire of a door-bell, the least symptoms of smoke in any part of the building are rendered perceptible. Coincident with this invention is another somewhat similar — that of a self-acting fire-alarm bell. The principle on which it is made is that of the expansion of metals by heat. From a piece of hollow brass, a metal communication leads to a bell, the tongue of which is moved by a spring, not unlike that of an ordinary mouse trap. The fire acts upon the brass, expanding it and causing it to move the apparatus, so as to set the bell ringing. It will strike when the heat is at 120 degrees of Fahrenheit's thermometer, or even at a lower temperature.

    It is well known that when atmospherical air is suddenly rarefied, as wen it issues from the muzzle of an air gun into which it was previously condensed, a fiash [[flash]] of light is perceived, which has been generally attributed to electricity, excited by the sudden expansion. Some interesting experiments on this subject have been made by Mr. Hart, from which he arrives at a different conclusion with regard to the origin of the light.

    In his first trials in which he discharged the gun under a variety of circumstances, using dry, damp, and warm air, and discharging it in warm, cold, dry, and moist weather, he failed in procuring light. In these the gun was unloaded; but when loaded, light was instantly perceived; he therefore supposed that it might be occasioned by the friction of the wadding on the sides of the barrel, which induced him to try a variety of substances possessing different electric powers; as dry silk, wool, feathers, shell lac, sugar, and slips of glass. With the first four he occasionally succeeded, but he never failed with the last two, the glass always giving the most vivid light, which was of a greenish color, extending a foot and a half from the muzzle. In repeating some of these experiments, the old silk which had been lying on the floor, and which had become moist and dirty, was again used, and by it a much more brilliant light was emitted than by any of the others; the same was also the case with pieces of split lath, and even with damp saw-dust picked up from the floor. The gun after this was discharged without any wadding in the barrel, when it always gave light at the first shot after the magazine was charged. From this it was suspected that as its muzzle rested against a wall during the charging, some sand or lime might have fallen in, the attrition of which during the discharge may have caused the luminousness. Accordingly, on taking precautions against this, no light could be obtained, which induced Mr. Hart to introduce a little sand, by which a beautiful stream of light was produced at each discharge. From these experiments, it is evident that the effects were occasioned by attrition, and that the sand adhering to the old wadding, saw-dust, split lath, etc., was the cause of the light; hence on trying these when quite clean none was observed. To ascertain whether the light from these was produced by the abrasion of particles of iron from the inside of the barrel, like sparks from a cutler's wheel — sand, fragments of spar and sugar, were held at the muzzle of the gun when discharged, by which they appeared slightly luminous. When a grating composed of clean and dry thermometer tubes was held in the same situation, there was no light — proving that the luminousness is not occasioned by any electrical appearance excited by the air striking against the objects: we must therefore consider it as caused not by any change which the condensed air undergoes, but merely by attrition, and therefore similar to what occurs in common cases of friction.


The authorship of this series is not certain, but has often been attributed to Poe, as it is by Heartman and Canny (1943) and by The Poe Log (1987). It is not specifically mentioned by Poe in his June 1, 1840 letter to Burton, but it is interesting to note that they begin well into Poe's tenure and stop just as Poe's association with the journal came to an end. The series also contains many Poe-related topics: Balloons, Daguerreotypes, Cannon (artillery), astronomy and such. T. O. Mabbott, in his notes for "The Balloon Hoax," mentions "In parts of a series headed 'A Chapter on Science and Art,' sometimes ascribed to Poe's pen — it now seems to me, on unsatisfactory evidence." (Mabbott, Tales, 1978, p. 1064) and his note to the text about balloons says only "according to the writer of 'A Chapter on Science and Art' .  . " (Tales, p. 1084). Burton Pollin, in his collection of Poe's compilation articles, notes only that "It has not as yet been determinned whether the various compilations in BGM called 'Omniana' and 'a Chapter on Science and Art' (April, May, June, July 1840) were prepared by Burton, Poe, or someone else" (The Brevities, 1985, p. 500). No argument of substance has been offered against the attribution to Poe, and at least as much evidence exists as considered satisfactory for several other items.

Poe had been an editor for the Southern Literary Messenger in 1835 - January 1837. What other person in Philadelphia was so likely to be a reader of that journal, which appealed more strongly to those with southern sympathies? That Poe would have been interested in a extension of public school through college is quite reasonable given his own unfortunate difficulties at the University of Virginia.

[S:0 - BGM, 1840] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc - A Chapter on Science and Art [part I]