Friday, 10 February 2012

As it might be made

It is surprising that the National Archive of Anachronisms contains only a handful of references to Sir Charles Wheatstone. The discovery of an early telegraph device during the 1969 moon landing is already well-documented (see 'A Welsh Dresser with a Difference' by U. Persson). However, a more recently deposited fragment casts new light on Wheatstone's process of invention.

The item in question is an incomplete piece of correspondence of uncertain date and authorship. It appears to describe a visit by a friend to Wheatstone's workshop in the late 1820s.

'I passed by Conduit St. and decided to call on Charles only to find the house in a state of unimaginable chaos. Charles appeared dazed and was found sitting at the dining table upon which the remnants of an uneaten breakfast had been pushed all to one side. On the tablecloth before him, all manner of peculiar hieroglyphic designs had been drawn using Mrs. Howell's homemade chutney. Recurrent among these designs was a regular six-sided figure. Charles hardly acknowledged my presence but stared fixedly at the images on the table, murmuring to himself. Perplexed, I attempted to find out the matter from Mrs. Howell herself. She proceeded to tell me the most extraordinary story: very early that morning Charles had received a visit from a "foreign gentleman", dressed in curious garments and carrying a small, square case. He had joined Charles for breakfast and had left abruptly without taking his hat. Young Nellie, the maid, had given chase and, unable to match his furious pace, had followed him for half a mile at which point he turned into an alley. Arriving at the turning, the maid claims to have seen this curious character crawl into a "great pile of animal furs, all crumpled up". Beside herself with terror she had watched as this "'orrible, shaggy thing" had begun to expand into the shape of a globe. As it began to float into the air she had fallen into a swoon and was revived and brought back to Conduit St. by a police officer.'

It is pointless to speculate on the conversation that took place between Wheatstone and the "foreign gentleman" that morning. What is certain is that the descriptions of the "Hot Hair Balloon of Shoreditch", reported in 1863, closely resemble the account given by Wheatstone's maid. The Shoreditch "balloon" is reported to have abducted a certain John Leighton as he left a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries one November evening. He was found twenty minutes later asleep on the pavement in Hammersmith. He refused to speak about his experience. Soon afterwards he published this vision of the metropolis.

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