Text: Carroll Dee Laverty, “Chapter 06,” Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1951), pp. 162-189 (This material may be protected by copyright)


[page 162:]

Chapter VI

Physics and Chemistry

Although astronomy, of the physical sciences, is most important in Poets writings, some aspects of physics and chemistry figure prominently in his works. Chiefly his interest seems to have been in physical inventions and practical applications of chemistry. Occasionally, however, he comments on a general principle of physics or drew an analogy based on a chemical law. But his interest is meinly that of the literary list exploiting recently developed phenomena of applied science to gain the attention cf his readers. In this respect, he is a orerunner of modern science-fiction writers.

At the opening of the nineteenth century the scientific world and been under the influence of Newtonian doctrine for more than a century, An in creased knowledge of electricity in physics and the discovery of new elements in chemistry were probably the developments creating the most active public interest. In both sciences men were gaining knowledge which was soon to reinstate the atomic theory in a modern form. The renewed interest in constitution of matter characterized both physics and chemistry. [page 163:]

Poe comments on certain fundamental laws of physics and uses many of its facts in his prose. The general theory of forces attracting according the inverse square of the distances is the one physical law to which he pays great attention. It is fundamental to Eureka.(1) Electricity, optics, and hydrodynamics are subdivisions of general physics that supply material for his writings, particularly his stories.

Sometimes Poe refers to scientific laws that are basic to astronomy(2) physics. In “Hans Pfaal” he describes a common experiment. Hans throws a handful of feathers from his balloon at an altitude of 132,000 feet. They drop down like a bullet, because, as he soon realizes, the resistance of the air is so slight at that altitude that feathers fall as fast as lead.(3) In “The Mystery of Marie Roget” Poe makes use of the principle of specific gravity:

Now the human body in general, is neither much lighter nor much heavier than the water of the Seine: that is to say, the specific gravity of the human body, in its natural condition, is about equal to the bulk of fresh War which it displaces.(4)

He uses this principle to show that one cannot know exactly how soon a body will rise to the surface without knowing its condition when it entered the water and the amount of chemical decomposition that has taken place.(5) He [page 164:] votes passages on centrifugal and centripetal forces, the periphery of circles, the revolution of the sun, moon, and certain planets, and on pneumatics in such a way as to suggest that the author is merely stating the very obvious.(6) Twice Poe makes use of the concept of momentum to nitrate a point in his criticism.(7) In “A Chapter on Science and Art,” he asserts of a compressed air engine:

It appeared obvious that no great power could be obtained from compressed air than was employed in its compression, minus the friction of the compressing machine. However Mr. Bissell may think of getting over this radical difficulty, (one involving a leading principle of physics) still he can have no claim to be considered an inventor. . . . (8)

But Poe’s widest use of general physics is in dealing with actual machines or devices that arouse curiosity by their novelty or strangeness. He makes several remarks on railroads, which before 1850 were still new. A section of “Mellonta Tanta” describes the railroad of the year 2848. It All travel three hundred miles an hour, operate on a track of twelve paths, the rails of each pair being fifty feet apart.(9) And “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” notes that on the Great Western Railway in England a speed of 71 miles per hour was reached.(10) In the years between 1840 and 1845 England became excited about the atmospheric railway, which [page 165:] was to operate on atmospheric pressure. Sensing the popular interest in this new invention, Poe wrote notes on it in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in April, 1840,(11) and in the Broadway Journal on August 2, 1845.(12) These notes are further examples of his journalistic delight in new scientific achievements(13) of the sort that capture the public mind.(14)

As often, Poe was abreast of scientific inventions in his knowledge and appreciation of the daguerreotype. He seems to have been one of the very first to appreciate the fact that photography could be valuable in the study of astronomy. On January 15, 1840, almost exactly a year after the invention of the daguerreotype, Poe comments that the process had forerunners and then describes it. He praises the accuracy with which it makes [page 166:] age and concludes with a statement showing clearly that he sensed the importance of the invention:

The results of the invention cannot, even remotely, be seen — but all experience, in matters of philosophical discovery, teaches us that, in such discovery, it is the unforeseen upon which we must calculate most largely. It is a theorem almost demonstrated, that the consequences of any new scientific invention will, at the present day exceed, by very much, the wildest expectations of the most imaginative. Among the obvious advantages derivable from the Daguerreotype, we may mention that, by its aid, the height of inaccessible elevations may in many cases be immediately ascertained, since it will afford an absolute perspective of objects in such situations, and that the drawing of a correct lunar chart will be at once accomplished, since the rays of this luminary are found to be appreciated by the plate.(15)

On May, [[sic]] 6, 1840, in the same journal Poe says the daguerreotype will help thsarts and predicts, as did happen, that “the production of Daguerreotype effects on paper is likely soon to be accomplished.”(16)

One uncollected series of articles largely by Poe in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, in March, April, and May, 1840, “A Chapter on Science and Art,”(17) has many short notices on subjects of applied physics. In addition to topics already referred to, these chapters discuss a new mode of engraving, a new kind of steam engine,(18) a new steam frigate, automatic fire [page 167:] alarms, experiments on the discharge of compressed air from a gun and the light ensuing when there is sand adhering to the wadding, submarine diving, error with respect to early thinking about railroads, electrocopying, a method of giving hardness to soft stone, red rain, plate glass, a railway gate, pneumatic engine, a bomb cannon, the velocity of cannon balls, and thunder.

To this list of the practical wonders of science, Poe adds more in “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade.” It is chiefly a recital of the technological wonders known to the first half of the nineteenth century. Within the obvious framework of Scheherazadels telling stories to her husband, Poe alludes, in addition to scientific data discussed elsewhere, to “a pink horse (with green wings) that went, in a violent manner, by clockwork. . .,”(19) the blowpipe, the incubator, the electrotype, the telegraph, the new, faster printing press, and the electrotelegraph(20) printing apparatus. As a journalist, Poe realized that these practical improvements resulting from science, are news. They are just such subjects as were presented in yearbooks and works of scientific wonders aimed at popularizing science.

Optics is important in Poe’s writing. Be uses optical data in figures of speech, he comments on telescopes and microscopes, he develops one story [page 168:] supposed principle of optics, he refers to the best way of looking at ows, and he works several allusions to optics into his poetry. Much of his interest in such things as new telescopes was probably largely journalistic, for they were newsworthy when Poe lived.

In “MS. Found in a Bottle” Poe speaks of polarized light in describing ominous day. The sun “gave out no light, properly so called but a dull and sullen glow without reflection, as if all its rays we polarized.”(21) A later statement in the same story makes use of a figure of speech from optics the rays of my destiny are, I think, gathering to a focus.”(22)

Poe describes a possible optical illusion to present the ghost of Banquo in Macbeth. In his “Pinakidia” published in August, 1836, he writes:

Speaking of the usual representation of the banquet-scene in “Macbeth,” Von Raumer, the German historian, mentions a shadowy figure thrown by optical means into the chair of Banquo, and producing intense effect upon the audience. Enslen, a German optician conceived this idea, and accomplished it without difficulty.(23)

He mentions several optical instruments in his writings. In 1840 he comments on a comparatively new instrument, the Kaleidoscope, invented by Sir David Brewster in 1816.(24) Thrice he mentions microscopes.(25) Others noted are “burning glasses and lenses”(26) and the mirrors of Smyrna “which [page 169:] represent the fairest images as deformed.”(27)

In a note to “The Thousand-and Second Tale of Scheherazade” Poe presents some phenomena of optics:

Common experiments in Natural Philosophy. If two red rays from two luminous points be admitted into a dark chamber so as to fall on a white surface, and differ in their length by 0.0000258 of an inch, their intensity is doubled. So also if the difference in length be any whole-number multiple of that fraction. A multiple by 2-1/4, 3-1/4, &c, gives an intensity equal to one ray only; but a multiple by 2-1/2, 3-1/2, &c, gives the result of total darkness. In violet rays similar effects arise when the difference in length is 0.0000157 of an inch; and with all other rays the results are the same — the difference varying with a uniform increase from the violet to the red.(28)

All the information in this note in similar wording is found in Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic,(29) which Poe is known to have used in preparation of “Maelzel’s Automaton Chess Player.” The same tale states: “Newton demonstrated that the retina beneath the influence of the violet ray of the spectrum, vibrated 900,000,000 of times in a second.”(30)

Poe seems to have been pleased by the beauty of crystals, and was aware of some of their optical properties. He mentions them in “The Sphinx: [page 170:]

Extending forward, parallel with the proboscis, and on each side of it, was a gigantic staff, thirty or forty feet in length, formed seemingly of pure crystal, and in shape a perfect prism: — it reflected in the most gorgeous manner the rays of the declining sun.(32)

Since his boyhood, when he looked through a telescope in his foster-father’s home, Poe had retained an interest in telescopes. His first plan for “Hans Pfaal” was to have it detail telescopic discoveries of the moon.(33) He knew of the construction of Lord Russets new telescope,(34) and sought lore information about “the Frauenhofer telescope” and complained that the papers did not give enough information about it.(35) He discussed the supposed limitations, “for good optical reasons,” of the space-penetrating per of telescopes to eighteen hundred, and advanced the principle that the space-penetrating power of a telescope is proportional to the area of the lens.(36) In 1846 Poe asserted that “There is, in fact, no physical impossibility in our casting lenses of even fifty feet diameter or more.”(37) A telescope with a 200-inch mirror is now in operation. [page 171:]

Poe’s story “The Sphinx” is based upon the false assumption that a very oal object held close enough to the eye will appear huge. By skilful de-tail,he tries but fails to make plausible the story of a man who saw a tiny moth a sixteenth of an inch in front of his eye and thought it a monster, bigger than a steamship. By suggesting the narrator’s gloom and hereditary disposition to superstition, Poe tries, perhaps, to account for ttie appearance as an optical illusion, almost a hallucination. He himself lain the principle on which he tried to build the story:

. . . the principal source of error in all human investigation, lay in the liability of the understanding to under-rate or to over-value the importance an object, through mere misadmeasurement of its propinquity.(38)

In “Landor’s Cottage,” published in 1849, Poe describes another optical phenomenon that interested the people of his day: “the vivid green of the grass in the valley was reflected more or less upon all objects, from the curtain of vapor that still hung overhead. . .”(39) Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic describes a similar phenomenon — landscapes reflected upon a curtain of mist. One of Brewster’s descriptions depicts a settlement seen above the sea that is suggestive of the city in “The City in the Sea,”(40) as will appear shortly.

The idea “that a star may be seen more distinctly in a side-long survey them in any direct gaze however penetrating and intense”(41) — Poe expresses several in varying contexts.(42) Pym uses this method of seeing in the [page 172:] dark hold of the Grampus.(43) Such a sidelong glance is compared to the “intuitive and seemingly casual perception by which we often attain knowledge, when reason herself falters and abandons the effort. . . .”(44) The method is most fully explained in a passage from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

To look at a star by glances — to view it in a side-long way, by turning tom it the exterior portions of the retina (more susceptible of feeble impressions of light than the interior) is to behold the star distinctly isto have the best appreciation of its lustre — a lustre which grows dim pot in proportion as we turn our vision fully upon it. A greater number drays actually fall upon the eye in the latter case, but, in the former, there is the more refined capacity for comprehension. By undue profundity we perplex and enfeeble thought; and it is possible to make even Venus herself vanish from the firmament by a scrutiny too sustained, too concentrated, or too direct.(45)

Where Poe first obtained this idea, it is impossible to say, but it was expressed by Sir John Herschel and David Brewster and by other authors of scientific books that he might have seen.(46) Herschel’s astronomy book is, perhaps, the most likely source.

As in his prose, so in his poetry Poe makes some allusions to optics. His early poem “A Dream” is a figure of speech developed by analogy with light and uses the term ray and beam to emphasize the fact. The two opening lines of “Al Aaraaf” refer to the fact that we see things by means of light coming from the objects seen: [page 173:]

the ray

(Thrown back from flowers) . . . .

Later in “Al Aaraaf” knowledge is likened to

the keen light

That fell, refracted, throt thy bounds, afar,

O Death! from the eye of God upon the star. (ll. 159-161)

The 1831 version of “Fairy-Land” speaks of a scientific ray become fairy:

a fairy ray

How fantastically it fell

With a spiral twist and a swell (ll. 24, 26-27)

And “The City in the Sea” uses scientific conceptions for poetic effect. This poem describes a strange city:

There shrines and palaces and towers

(Time-eaten towers that tremble not!)

Resemble nothing that is ours.

Around, by lifting winds forgot,

Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie (ll. 6-10)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

So blend the turrets and shadows there

That all seem pendulous in air,

While from a proud tower in the town

Death looks gigantically down. (ll. 26-29)

The descriptive part of this poem with the city in the sea pendulous in air could have been suggested by a passage in Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic, although the information was so common that one cannot be certain where Poe obtained it.

As always his poems when dealing with scientific subjects, Poe sub ordinates the science to his poetry. He aims to create an effect of beauty, not of scientific explanation; but his poetry is richer because of his knowledge of optics. [page 174:]

The study of electricity had taken on new importance with the invention and improvement of the galvanic battery in the late eighteenth century and with continued experiments throughout the nineteenth century. When Luigi Galvani observed that a current of electricity would convulse a frog’s muscle, he performed an experiment that captured the imagination of many people. Poe was among them, at a time when the experiments were still comparatively new. He was aware of some of these developments and used material from them in his writings.

His early and later stories contain references to the shock of a galvanic battery. “A Decided Loss,” published November 10, 1832, the “MS. Found in a Bottle,”(47) Narrative of A. Gordon Pym,(48) “William Wilson,”(49) and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,”(50) each compares a startling experience with the electrial shock. A slight variation of the same comparison is found in “The Pit and the Pendulum,”(51) “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,”(52) and “Some Words with a Mummy.” Typical of these uses es one from the latter story: “Morally and physically figurative. . . and literary — was the effect electric.”(53)

Poe says a good deal about electricity Eureka, where he states that electricity is the repulsive power in matter. He also there asserts the identity of heat, light, magnetism, and electricity(54) in accord with many [page 175:] scientific thinkers of the 1840s. Poe sees heterogeneity as the principle of electricity. “Only where things differ is electricity apparent,”(55) he states. As the repulsive principle, electricity is a vital element of matter itself, in his opinion.(56)

The entire story “Some Words with a Mummy depends upon the fact that by the “application of electricity” a mummy(57) was revivified. This story is grotesque, but there is more point to it than might appear. Galvani’s experiments and speculation about the nature of electricity and magnetism, led many people people in the early part of the nineteenth century to identify electricity with “the vital fluid,” Much of the earlier thinking on electricity and magnetism dealt with them as fluids, and it was inevitable that electricity should be thought of as the fluid of life or the vital principle. In Eureka Poe himself refers to electricity as “vitality, consciousness and Thought.”(58) Although “Some Words with a Mummy” is not a realistic story, when the author has the mummy brought to life by electricity, he alludes to the belief that electricity is closely associated with the vital processes.

That same mummy remarks of the people 1845: perceive you are yet in the infancy of Galvarism. . . .”(59) One possible interpretation of that [page 176:] statement is that it is a veiled prediction of the future of electricity. y the developments of the last century have been a great growth frog that infancy and have borne out Poets statement that the wildest dreamer will fall short of the mark when he dreams what a new scientific invention will accomplish or lead to.(60)

In his “Literati” note “Richard Adams Locke” Poe mentions Locke’s “getting up a book on magnetism as the primum mobile of the universe. . . .(61) The immediate purpose of the treatise was the setting forth a new magnetic method of obtaining the longitude.”(62) After pointing out that Locke’s work has been attacked, Poe declares: “. . . my own opinion is that his theory will finally be established.”(63)

Poe was among the first writers to put into prose fiction an electrically powered ship and a trans-Atlantic cable. In his “Mellonta Tauta” he mentions a magnetic cutter:

Spoke to-day the magnetic cutter in charge of the middle section of floating telegraph wires. I learn that when this species of telegraph was first put into operation by Horse, it was considered quite impossible to convey the tires over sea; but now we are at a loss to comprehend where the difficulty lay!(64)

For a decade or two before this story, there were articles in magazines discussing [page 177:] the possibility of using electric power to propel locomotives, ships, and carriages.(65)

For the most part, electricity does not figure in his poetry. The aspects of electricity that interested Poe most were the shock of the galvanic battery and the ultimate nature of electricity as an element of matter itself and even as the principle of sentience and vitality. Finally Poe without electrical power might transform the world, as indeed it did. In IV he wrote prophetically:

And who shall calculate the immense influence upon social life upon arts — upon commerce — upon literature — which will be the immediate result of the great principles of electromagnetics!(66)

“A Descent into the Maelstrom” represents still another aspect of physics. This story is based on the asserted principle that a cylinder swimmin ina vortex would offer more resistance to being sucked in than a body of any other form. Poe attributes the principle to Archimedes, although it is not stated in the “De Incidentibus Fluido. lib. 2.,” which Poe cites. 7 The account of the sailor’s almost miraculous escape from the swirling [page 178:] waters of the Maelstrom is presented with the attention to detail and scientific observation on which Poets method of achieving verisimilitude is based.(68)

The literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is of accounts of the Maelstrom. It was one of the natural wonders of the world written about in books, magazines, and encyclopedias so much that one can hardly thumb a popular magazine of the day without finding a description of the Maelstrom.(69) The point is made by one writer [page 179:] whose work Poe consulted for other information: “The phenomena and dread of whirlpools have afforded excellent matter for marvelous fables both to the ancient poets and more modern writers.”(70) Here as elsewhere Poe trying his hand at what is already a popular subject for writers.(71) The fact that his story is remembered while all others are generally forgotten is due to his genius, which combined purported scientific data with vivid psychological detail.


In chemistry Poe to about certain phenomena such as the foulness of air, the phosphorescence of the sea, and the preservative effect of bichlo-ride of mercury. He also described other chemical phenomena in his works, although he refers to them less often. Two of his stories deal [page 180:] primarily with chemical reactions, and scattered through his writings are a few figures of speech based on an analogy with chemistry. But on the whole chemistry plays a minor part in his work.

Perhaps one reason that Poe knew less about chemistry than astronomy is that it was difficult for a layman without access to a laboratory to learn h about chemistry or keep abreast of the new developments. Another reason may well be that in the first half of the nineteenth century chemistry was in a state of flux. New discoveries were numerous, and new theories were being advanced so frequently and old ones modified so radically that it was difficult for even an expert to keep up with the current state of the science.

Poe refers a few times to the famous English chemist Sir Humphry Davy. In “The Fall of the House of Usher” in a note on the belief in the sentience of inanimate objects, Poe mentions three chemists and refers to one book of “Chemical Essays.”(72) The reference is to Richard Watson (1737-1816) and to Volume V of his Chemical Essays (London, 1781-1787), to the more famous chemist Lazarro Spallanzani (1729-1799), and to the less famous Dr. Thomas Percival (1740-1804), writer on medical ethics.(73) [page 181:]

Several of Poe’s stories deal with air that is chemically impure — a subject of considerable scientific inquiry then, when the nature of air and various gasses was not so well understood as today. In “Hans Pfaal” one of the most vital pieces of equipment was “an apparatus for condensation of the atmospheric air,”(74) which was combined with a means for expelling foul air from the sealed cabin of the balloon. The background of “King Pest,” like “Hans Pfaal” published in 1835, is “a vapory and pestilential atmosphere,”(75) which gave forth a ghastly light and affected the health of those who inhaled it. Essentially the same phenomena were observable near the House of Usher, miasmic air carrying with it illness and insanity.(76) When confined to the hold of the ship Grampus, A. Gordon Pym is nearly killed by “some pernicious influence, like that of burning charcoal, in the confined air of the hold.”(77) The pestilential atmosphere was of interest to chemists writers of Gothic novels also often made it a part of the setting. Poe is probably indebted to both.

Two stories mention a new gas to be used in filling balloons. In “Hans Pfaal” the “gas never yet generated by any other person” is “a constituent of azote, so long considered irreducible. . .its density is about 37.4 times less than that of hydrogen.” It is made from a “particular metallic substance, or semi-metal . . . and a very common acid.” Poe describes it as a [page 182:] chemist would: “It is tasteless, but not odorless; burns, when pure, with a greenish flame, and is instantaneously fatal to animal life.”(78) Hans Pfaal’s description of the method of preparing this gas is like contemporary descriptions of the preparation of hydrogen from iron filings and sulfuric acid, and it is a reasonable conclusion that Poe conceived his new gas by moans of an analogy with hydrogen. The statement that azote (nitrogen) has been reduced is indicative of the state of chemistry in the early nineteenth century. Then new elements were being discovered frequently, and there was not the certainty as to the nature of even the common elements that exists in 1950. It would not have startled the scientific world in 1835 if Sir Humphry Davy, for example, had announced that he had actually reduced azote into lighter elements. In a story of his last year, “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe describes a balloon of the year 2848. It also contains a new gas which “is doing wonders.”(79)

Another chemical phenomenon that attracted Poe’s notice was phosphorescence. In the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, published in 1838, Pym created a usable light in the hold of the ship where he was imprisoned. Pym describes the process:

I placed the slip of paper on the back of a book, and, collecting the fragments of the phosphorus matches which I had brought from the barrel, laid then together upon the paper. I then, with the palm of my hand, rubbed the mole over quickly, yet steadily. A clear light diffused itself immediately throughout the whole surface. . . . (80) [page 183:]

Here again Poe was quick to use in his tales a new scientific discovery, far friction matches were not invented until 1832, only six years before his story.(81) Later in the same narrative, “the glare of phosphoric light” rearting from putrefying corpses showed Pym “seven or eight large sharks . . . .”(82) In two later stories, “The Balloon-Hoax,” published in 1844, and male Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,” published in 1845, the phosphorescent glow of the sea is pointed out.(83) There were numerous mentions writ in the literature of the early 1800s, and scientists of the time were trying to explain it.(84)

Another fact of chemistry that Poe used a number of times is that bi-chloride of mercury, better known in Poe’s day as “corrosive sublimate,” is a preservative of organie materials. In “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” Dupin explains: “There are chemical infusions by which the animal frame can be preserved forever from corruption; the Bi-chloride of Mercury is one.”(85) The treasure chest in “The Gold-Bug” had been preserved perhaps by the “Bi-chloride of Mercury.”(86) When it had been suggested that he might have been [page 184:] done up in asphaltum, the mummy Count Allamistakeo replied: “. . .in my time ix employed scarcely anything else than the Bichloride of Mercury.”(87) In his essay “Street Paving,” published in 1845, Poe says that wooden paving odd be preserved from decay by “the preservative agent. . .corrosive sublimate — the Bi-Chloride of Mercury.”(88)

Perhaps his interest had been aroused by the process of Kyanizing wood, to which John Howard Kyan (1774-1850) gave his name. In his essay Poe describes the preparation of the Kyanizing fluid and its mineralizing effect. The Kyanizing process, which uses bichloride of mercury as a preservative, was widely publicized in England in the 1830s, and a reader of English journals like Poe would have been sure to see articles on it.(89)

Throughout his writing, particularly his tales, there are other references to chemical facts. In the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, Poe describes a strange mass of liquid in which distinct veins remain separate, not mixing chemically:

. . .we:, perceived that the whole mass of liquid was made up of a number of distinct veins, each of a distinct hue; that these veins did not commingle; [page 185:] and that their cohesion was perfect in regard to their own particles among 6112,0ayaa, and imperfect in regard to neighbouring veins.(90)

One part of “The Gold-Bug” is based on the simple fact of chemistry that Natain materials used as ink become visible only when heated’, The narrator explains:

. . . heat had been the agent in bringing to light, on the parchment, the skull which I saw designed on it. You are well aware that chemical preparations exist, and have existed time out of mind, by means of which it is possible to write on either paper or vellum, so that the characters shall become visible only when subjected to the action of fire. Zaffre, digested in aqua regia, and diluted with four times its weight of water, is sometimes employed; a green tint results. The regulus of cobalt, dissolved in spirit of nitre, Ores a red. These colors disappear at longer or shorter intervals after the material written on cools, but again become apparent upon the re-application of heat.(91)

Information about sympathetic ink was available to Poe in encyclopedias and chemistry books of his day.(92)

In “The Black Cat” a natural chemical process serves to increase the superstitious fear of the narrator. A portrait of the cat is etched into the wall by the reaction of the ammonia in the cat’s body and the lime. [page 186:] The narrator, already predisposed to accept a supernatural interpretation es, natural phenomenon, describes the action:

The falling of other walls had compressed the victim of my cruelty into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the lime of which, with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass, had then accomplished the portraiture as I saw it.(93)

A trick of chemistry would naturally appeal to Poe, and he describes one in “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,” published in 1845:

Place a plating crucible over a spirit lamp, and keep it a red heat; pour in some sulphuric acid, which, though the most volatile of bodies at a common temperature will be found to become completely fixed in a hot crucible, and not a drop evaporates — being surrounded by an atmosphere of its own, it does not, in fact touch the sides. A few drops of water are now introduced, when the acid immediately coming in contact with the heated sides of the crucible, flies off in sulphurous acid vapor, and so rapid is its progress, that the caloric of water passes off with it, which falls a llmip of ice to the bottom; by taking advantage of the moment before it is allowed to re-melt, it may be turned out a lump of ice from a red hot vessel.(94)

This experiment is like those described in the textbooks of Poe’s day.(95)

Poe makes good use of one idea of chemistry in his literary criticism — the thought that chemical combination sometimes results in a product different from either of the combining elements. To prove that axioms of mathematics are applicable only to certain fields, Poe says that in [page 187:] chemistry the aggregated parts are sometimes not equal to the Whole.(96) And in a review, he applies the concept to literary criticism:

This pure Imagination chooses, from either beauty or deformity, only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined; — the compound as a general rule, partaking (in character) of sublimity or beauty, in the ratio of the respective sublimity or beauty of the things combined — which are themselves still to be considered as atomic — that is to say, as previous combinations. But, as often analogously happens in physical chemistry, so not unfrequently does it occur in this chemistry of the intellect, that the admixture of two elements will result in a something that shall have nothing of the quality of one of them — or even nothing of the qualities of either.(97)

He repeated the idea more than a year later.(98)

Another idea from chemistry he uses for an analogy in his “Rationale of Verse”:

In chemistry, the best way of separating two bodies is to add a third; in speculation, fact often agrees with fact and argument with argument, until an additional well-meaning fact or argument sets everything by the ears.(99)

But for artistic purposes, Poets most important use of chemistry appears in two tales. A vital part of each story is drawn from this science. The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” is fundamentally a description of the end of the world brought about by chemical means. When a wandering planet ems close to the earth,(100) all the nitrogen of the earth’s atmosphere is [page 188:] withdrawn. The resulting excess of oxygen, according to the tale, first affects the people and vegetation and then sets off a combustion that destroys the earth.(101)

In the last year of his life Poe again took advantage of a popular sub-sectct great interest — the California Gold Rush — and wrote a story purporting to detail in a matter-of-fact scientific way events in the life of a pan who had succeeded in transmuting lead into gold. At a time when Americana were rushing to the gold fields by the thousands, such a story could not but create interest, “Von Kempelen and His Discovery,” in Poets best method of verisimilitude, aims at temporary belief. It mentions several well-known figures in the scientific world(102) and refers to actual periodicals including “Silliman’s Journal” (the American Journal of Science and Arts), which by 1849 had gained prestige in American science..

The narrative proper asserts that Von Kempelen had succeeded in changing lead into gold by using “a mixture of antimony and some unknown substance.”(103) The story says Arago has something to say of bismuth and [page 189:] declares: “pure gold can be made at will, and very readily, from lead, in connection with certain other substances, in kind and proportions, unknown.”(104) The discovery is related to the Gold Rush by speculations as to its effect en the national economy and on the gold-seekers and those thinking of going west.(105) This story, like “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion,” was timely, and leads one to believe that Poe’s interest in chemistry was partly journalistic. He saw in chemistry a chance to display novelty in his stories. Poe took the ancient alchemist’s dream and turned it into a modern feature story.(106)



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 163:]

1.  Poe’s use of the principle of “inverse squares” is discussed in the chapter “Eureka.”

2.  The use which he makes of these laws is discussed in the chapters “Astronomy” and “Eureka.”

3.  Works, II, 79.

4.  Ibid., V, 25.

5.  Ibid., V, 28.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 164:]

6.  Review of Colonel William L. Stone’s Ups and Downs in the Life of a Distressed Gentleman, ibid., IX, 25-26. In “Loss of Breath” is mentioned “a treatise upon ‘the nature and origin of subterranean noises,’” See ibid., II, 166. This passage may have been suggested by a note “Subterranean Noises,” Blackwood’s Magazine, IV (Feb., 1819), 623. See also David Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic (New York, 1832), pp. 208-209.

7.  Works, XIII, 152, and XI, 107.

8.  Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, VI (May, 1840), 246-247.

9.  Works, VI, 206-207,

10.  Ibid., VI, 96-97.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 165:]

11.  VI, 194.

12.  II, 61.

13.  Poe twice mentions experiments of William Hyde Wollaston (1787-1826) in drawing out platinum wire very fine. Once he writes, “Spun out like Wollaston’s wires. . . .” — Works, XVI, 71. And another time, speaking of necromancers, he declares, “Another had such delicacy of touch that he made a wire so fine as to be invisible.” — Ibid., VI, 98. See also Washington Literary Gazette, N.S., II (Oct. 18, 1707, 269, for an earlier article on Wollaston.

One of the fixtures in “Landor’s Cottage” is an astral lamp, a comparatively recent invention in Poe’s day, having been invented by Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, late in the eighteenth century. Poe contrasts the astral with the solar lamp, (Works, VI, 270) which although invented earlier, vas patented in 1843. Elsewhere he compares the astral lamp with “the lamp Of Argand,” invented in 1783. — “The Philosophy of Furniture,” Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, VI (May, 1840), 244. The astral lamp cast no shadow directly below it, and the solar lamp gives a brighter, whiter light. — C. A. Quincy Norton, “Lamp,” Encyclopedia Americana, 1946 edition, XVI, 681 ff.

14.  The Year-Book of Facts in Science and Art (London, 1844), has articles on subjects that Poe dealt with: Monck Mason’s experiments in propelling balloons, the great Comet of 1843, wooden pavement, Henson’s aerial transit machine, atmospheric railways, preservation of timber, and Earl of Rosse’s telescope. Poe’s use of current material such as this classes him with the Journalists of science.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 166:]

15.  Clarency [[Clarence]] S. Brigham, ed., Edgar Allan Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger (Worcester, Mass., 1943), pp. 20-22.

16.  Ibid., 82. In Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine for April and May, 1840, Poe published a note “Improvements in the Daguerreotype,” (VI, 193-194 and 246) and again in 1845 he mentions it. See Works, VI, 99-100. Like Poe, Hawthorne was early aware of the use of the daguerreotype. In 1843 in his story “The Birthmark” he has Aylmer, a research worker, take a portrait by a scientific process of his own invention, “effected by rays of light striking upon a polished plate of metal.”

17.  VI, 149-150; 193-194; and 246-247.

18.  He asserts that “the modern steam engine is derived from the invention of Hero, through Solomon de Caus.” — Works, VI, 137.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 167:]

19.  Works, VI, 81. Poe’s further interest in automata is indicated in the Broadway Journal, II (Jan. 3, 1846), 407-408; Works, XIV, 6-9; XI, 122 and VI, 97.

20.  T. O. Mabbott has shown that the notes on the electrotype and the electrotelegraph, as well as others, probably come from Dionysius Lardner’s Course of Lectures. See “Poe and Dr. Lardner,” American Notes and Queries, Nov., 1943), 115-117.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 168:]

21.  Works., II, 5.

22.  Ibid., II, 9.

24.  Ibid., XIV, 104.

25.  In January of 1830 a solar microscope was on exhibition in Richmond, Where Poe could have seen it. See Thomas Cary Johnson, Jr., Scientific Interests in the Old South (New York, 1936), p. 57.

26.  Works, VI, 133. Many startling experiments with burning glasses were being conducted in the early 1800s. Some melted metals, for example.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 169:]

27.  Ibid., X, 194. These are mentioned in Pliny’s Natural History, where Poe may have learned of them.

28.  Ibid., VI, 99.

29.  Pp. 182-183. Brewster, however, writes “the 258 thousandth part of an inch” — not Poe’s “.0000258 of an inch.” Brewster’s discussion is preceded by an explanation of the fact that “two loud sounds may be made to produce silence.” This circumstance probably explains Poets sentence added to the We on light: “Analogous experiments in respect to sound produce analogous results.”

30.  Works, VI, 98. Compare this statement with the following by Sir James Jean3; “. . .when we see a violet object, eight hundred million million waves Of light enter our eyes each second.” — The Universe Around Us, fourth edition (New York, 1944), P. 130.

31.  Works, XIV, 218-219 and 227.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 170:]

32.  Ibid., VI, 241.

33.  Ibid., XV, 127-128.

34.  Ibid., XV, 133. See also XV, 128.

35.  Doings of Gotham, p. 50. It is worthy of note that in his letter of une 4, 1844, Poe first mentions Lord Rosse, but calls him Lord Russell. The context makes it clear that Lord Rosse is intended. See page 51. One can conjecture that some friend told Poe about Lord Rosse and Poe mis-heard the name as Russell. As soon, then, as he saw the name, he corrected the spelling. In 1844, the year it was completed, Poe was writing about Lord Emels great telescope.

36.  Doings of Gotham, pp. 50-1.

37.  Works, XV, 133. Compare this with the earlier note on the same sub-Jed in II, 103-108. In the earlier note Poe says that the diminution of tight from an object clearly limits the space penetrating power of a microscope.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 171:]

38.  Ibid., VI, 24

39.  Ibid., VI, 258.

40.  Pp. 128-131.

41.  Works, VIII, 215.

42.  In addition to those passages more fully discusses, the idea is expressed in ibid., II, 333 and IV, 217.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 172:]

43.  Ibid., III, 37.

44.  Ibid., XIV, 189. 190.

45.  Ibid., IV, 166.

46.  Sir John F. W. Herschel, A Treatise on Astronomy, a new edition (Philadelphia, 1839), p. 372; David Brewster, A Treatise on Optics, a new edition (Philadelphia, 1835), p. 249; David Brewster, Letters on Natural Magic, pp. 24-25; Elijah M. Burritt, The Geography of the Heavens, p. 141; and Denison Olmstead, An Introduction to Astronomy, fourth edition (New York, 1844), p. 57.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 174:]

47.  Works, II, 309.

48.  Ibid., III, 216.

49.  Ibid., III, 315.

50.  Ibid., V, 173.

51.  Ibid., V, 68.

52.  Ibid., V, 173.

53.  Ibid., VI, 122.

54.  Ibid., XVI, 213-223. In “The Devil in the Belfry” the narrator in a non-serious passage identifies electricity and lightning. — Ibid., III, 248.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 175:]

55.  Ibid., XVI, 212.

56.  In the chapter “Eureka” is further discussion of electricity as found in Eureka.

57.  Works, VI, 120.

58.  Ibid., XVI, 213.

59.  Ibid., VI, 127.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 176:]

60.  Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, p. 22.

61.  Poe himself approaches Locke’s idea in “Mesmeric Revelation” and in Eureka.

62.  Works, XV, 136.

63.  Ibid., XV, 136.

64.  Ibid., VI, 199, 200.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 177:]

65.  For example, “Magnetic Locomotive Engine,” Washington Literary Gazette, (Nov. 22, 1834), 430, which concludes: “This is the first time, we believe, that the well known power of the magnet has been made available for the purposes of locomotion.” See also “New Power,” The Portfolio, Part I (Nov. 19, 1836), p. 176 and “Galvanic Carriage,” ibid., (Dec. 17, 1836) 208, and “Electro-Magnetism,” American Monthly Magazine, XI (Feb., 1838), 148-199.

66.  Works, III, 263.

67.  See Killis Campbell, “Marginalia on Longfellow, Lowell, and Poe,” Modern Language Notes, XLII (Dec., 1927), 520. An independent search of irchimedesl works verifies Professor Campbell’s findings.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 178:]

68. “A Descent into the Maelstrom” is a fictionized presentation of material from many sources embellished by Poe’s imagination and artistic touch. In general, the sources are magazine articles and encyclopedias. They have been discussed at some length by Arlin Turner, who cites a story “Le Maelstrom” in Le Magazin Universel of April, 1836, as supplying a sailor-survivor as narrator and other details. — “Sources of Poe’s to Descent into the Maelstrom,’” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, XLVI (July, 1947), 298-301. Adolph B. Benson has ably discussed the Scandinavian sources of Poe’s information, showing that the description of the famous whirlpool probably came to Poe from Jonas Ramus by way of Eric Pontoppidan’s Natural History of Norway and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, probably the third edition. — “Scandinavian References in the Works of Poe,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, XL (Jan., 1941), 83-90. It should be pointed out that Jonas Ramus is not the Italian geographer Gian Battista Ramusio (1485-1557) as one Poe biographer has asserted. See Una Pope-Hennessy, Edgar Allan Poe 180 -18 A Critical Biography (London, 1934), p. 160. Jonas R. Ramus (1649-1718 wash Norwegian church historian who also wrote on geographical subjects. His Ulysses et Otinus Unus idem sive Disquistio & Historica Geographica identifies the Maelstrom with Scylla and Charybdis and contains descriptions of the whirlpool.

69.  A few accounts of the Maelstrom that Poe could have known follow: E. Darwin’s “Additional Note” XXXI to “The Economy of Vegetation.” This note cites Pontoppidan’s History and other sources, among them The Universal Museum for 1763, p. 131. Blackwood’s Magazine, III (April, 1818), 34, mentions Eric Pontoppidan and Jonas Ramus’s “curious description of Norway.” Roswell Park’s Pantology, which Poe reviewed, describes the Maelstrom. George Barrow wrote a story “The Lord of the Maelstrom,” which was reviewed iliBlackwoodts Magazine, XVIII (Dec., 1825), 770. James Pedder, Poets good friend, describes it in his book Frank: or Dialogues (Philadelphia, 1840), 14118. “On Whirlpools,” Penny Magazine, VIII (May 11, 1839), 183-184, is much like parts of Poe’s story. Older writers, too, like Thormodus Torfaeus, Lucas Jacobsen Debes, and Athanasius Kircher also discuss the Maelstrom.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 179:]

70.  Hugh Murray, The Encyclopaedia of Geography, revised with additions by Thomas G. Bradford (Philadelphia, 1839), I, 196.

71.  Other elements that may have contributed to the raw material from vhich Poe created his story remain. As early as January, 1837, in his review of Irving’s Astoria, Poe quoted a passage about the danger of whirlpools: “three of the canoes stuck immoveably among the rocks, and one was evept away with all the weapons and effects of four of the boatmen.” — Works, II, 234. Two stories in Blackwood’s Magazine, which Pce read carefully, may have given him hints. One tells of a youth who threw himself into a whirlpool and was ejected by the agitation of the water. — XXV (Jan., 1829), 8. Such is what happened to Poe’s narrator. In the other, a story of adventures at sea in a storm, a character twines his arms around a cask to save himself. — X (Oct., 1821), 272. Perhaps here Poe got the hint that he developed in having his hero lash himself to a cask to escape the Maelstrom.

Scholars sometimes tend to simplify the processes of creative writing When they assign only one source for an artist’s story. The tendency to say that Poe used only the Encyclopaedia Britannica for “A Descent into the Maelstrom” is a case in point. The sources of the tale are varied and complex, each contributing an element. Other representative stories using more than one source are “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade,” and “Hans Pfaal.” However many sources he used, though, Poe always stamped the material with the seal of his own originality.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 180:]

72.  Works, III, 286.

73.  Harry R. Warfel first proved the identity of Dr. Percival in “Poe’s Dr. Percival: A Note on ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” Modern Language Notes, LIV (Feb., 1939), 129-131. Margaret Alterton and Hardin Craig in Edgar Allan Poe, American Writer Series (New York, 1935), p. 515, wrongly identify Dr. Percival with Dr. James Gates Percival, a contemporary of Poe. J. Montgomery Gambrill earlier suggested the possibility that the reference is to Dr. Thomas Percival. See his Selections from Poe (Boston, 1907), p. 193. Poe could have read of Dr. Thomas Percival in Patrick Keith’s A System of Physiological Botany (London, 1816), II, 462. There mention is made of a paper concerning sentience of vegetables by Dr. Thomas Percival, who in 1793 was president of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester. Mdth says the paper was in the second volume of the Manchester Transactions. Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant” makes use of a similar theme.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 181:]

74.  Works, II, 53.

75.  Ibid., II, 172.

76.  Ibid., III, 274, 276, 292, and 339. His poem *The Sleeper” contains a reference to an opiate vapor which stops contagion. See Thomas O. Mabbott, “Poe’s ‘The Sleeper’ Again,” American Literature, XXI (November, 1949), 339-340.

77.  Works, III, 27.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 182:]

78.  Ibid., II, 52.

79.  Ibid., VI, 206.

80.  Ibid., III, 38.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 183:]

81.  H. E. Roscoe and C. Schorlemmer, A Treatise on Chemistry (New York, 1886), I, 473.

82.  Works, III, 140.

83.  Ibid., V, 236 and 239 and VI, 83.

84.  For example, Edward Turner, Elements of Chemistry, etc., fourth American from the third London edition Philadelphia, 1832 p p. 72. Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden, which mentions so many scientific data, has an “Additional. Note IX” on the subject. Thomas Dick’s Christian Philosopher (Complete Works, II, 107) mentions phosphorescence, and likewise do some of the chemistry books of the time. Perhaps Poe got a suggestion about phosphorescence of the sea from Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” to which the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym is loosely parallel in story.

85.  Works, V, 27.

86.  Ibid.., V, 119.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 184:]

87.  Ibid., VI, 127. Poe spelled bichloride both with and without a hyphen. The Encyclopaedia Americana mentions the preservative power of bichloride of mercury in its article “Embalming,” which Poe probably used in Preparing his “Some Words with a Mummy,” See Lucille King, “Notes on Poe’s Sources,” University of Texas Studies in English, No. 10 (July 8, 1930), 134, for his indebtedness to the Americana.

88.  Works, XIV, 167. An essay on paving appeared in 1840 in the issue of a magazine Poe read. See Colonel Jackson, “The Whitehall Wood Pavement,” Polytechnic Journal, II (Feb., 1840), 150-155.

89.  See the article, “Kyan, John Howard,” DNB, XI, 347-348, by Richard Bissell Prosser, for a statement of the wide fame Kyanizing gained.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 185:]

90.  Works, III, 187.

91.  Ibid., V, 127-128. Zaffre is an impure oxide of cobalt; aqua regia, a nitric and hydrochloric acids; regulus, the pure state of a metal.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 185, running to the bottom of page 186:]

92.  The following note, for example, has reference to a cobalt product of the kind he mentions and gives almost exactly the information he employs: “The sympathetic inks made by Zaffre dissolved in the marine and nitrous adds have this curious property, that being brought to the fire one of them becomes green, and the other red; but what is more wonderful, they again 106e these colours. . .on their being again withdrawn from the fire. . . . The Process of making these inks is very easy, take Zaffre, as sold by druggists, and digest it in aqua regia, and the calx of Cobalt will be dissolved; which solution must be diluted with a little common water to prevent it from making too strong an impression on the paper; the colour when the paper is heated becomes of a fine green-blue. If Zaffre or Regulus of Cobalt be dissolved in the same manner in spirit of nitre, or aqua fortis, a reddish [page 186:] colour is produced on exposing the paper to heat. Chemical Dictionary by Mr. Keir, Art. Ink Sympathetic.” — Erasmus Darwin, “The Economy of Vegetation,” part I of The Botanic Garden, third edition (London, 1795), Canto I, note to line 487. See also “Ink,” Encyclopaedia Americana, first edition, VII, 15.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 186:]

93.  Works, V, 148.

94.  Ibid., VI, 99-100.

95.  For example, see George Fownes, Elementary Chemistry, Theoretical and Practical, A New American Edition (Philadelphia, 1854), Note 2, pp. 55-56.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 187:]

96.  Works, VI, 44.

97.  “American Prose Writers. No. 2. N. P. Willis,” in the January 18, 145, Broadway Journal. See Ibid., XII, 38-39.

98.  Works, XV, 13-14.

99.  Ibid., XIV, 30.

100.  For a discussion of the astronomical aspects of this story, see the chapter “Astronomy.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 188:]

101.  Dr. Timothy Flint, whom Poe knew by his writings, may have given him a suggestion for this story. “To prevent the whole universe from kindling into one sweeping conflagration, a proper balance of azote [nitrogen] has been mixed with its oxygen.” — Lectures upon Natural History (Boston, 1833), p. 126. As Margaret Alterton has pointed out, the idea of such a fiery fulfillment of prophecy as to the end of the world, Poe could have taken from Dr. Thomas Dick. — Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory, pp. 140-141. Dick describes the imagined holocaust in two of his works. See The Christian Philosopher, Complete Works, II, 32 and The Diffusion of Knowledge (Philadelphia, 1833), pp. 135 and 167-169.

102.  François Arago, the astronomer; Lieutenant NI. F. Maury, American Laval officer and hydrographer; Sir Humphry Davy, British chemist, who Poe saps was at work on the kind of experiment in which Von Kempelen succeeded; and John William Draper, professor of chemistry in the University of New York and author of a chemistry book which had reached its sixth edition by 1848.

103.  Works, VI, 251.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 189:]

104.  Ibid., VI, 253.

105.  Poe’s poem “Eldorado” was likewise inspired by interest in the Gold Rush.

106.  Poe himself quotes Dr. More on the attempts of alchemists to change base metal into gold. — Works, XVI, 114, Erasmus Darwin mentions the possibility of the transmutation of one metal into another in a note to line 398 of Canto II of The Economy of Vegetation,” which is Part I of the Botanic Garden. But the subject is such that no specific source for the idea is needed.



[S:0 - CDL51, 1951] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of EAP (C. D. Laverty) (Chapter 06)