H.G. Wells and the biology lab at home

Even if H. G. Wells’s biology students weren’t ordered to stay home, most couldn’t access a biology lab. And yet they had to be prepared for the practical examinations in their field. Wells knew that many of them were working on their own, unable to afford a tutor. How could he best prepare his students?

At the time, Wells was employed by the University Correspondence College, so his students were at a distance, most of them in the UK. Since there were no good biology text-books available for at-home study, Wells wrote one (well, two — part one on vertebrates and part two on invertebrates and plants). Part One was published in 1893, and is his first published full book.

Wells, then 27 and not yet an acclaimed author of science fiction, was also teaching an on-site biology laboratory at Red Lion Square. The University Tutorial College (the UCC’s London branch) had set up excellent facilities. But not everyone could come to London. Some would save up for years just to come for the examinations.

Challenged by this problem, Wells dedicated the last part of his textbook to creating laboratory “practicals” at home. He called it “A Syllabus of Practical Work”.

In it, he explained how to set up ones kitchen table, find the appropriate specimens, and work them in conjunction with the instructional pages and diagrams. In the first edition he had done the diagrams himself, but the reviews had been less than enthusiastic. So in the second edition he asked his former student, now companion, Catherine Robbins, to do them:


Students must do the reading first, of course:

We would impress upon the student at the outset the importance of some preliminary reading before dissection is undertaken. No one would dream of attempting to explore a deserted city without some previous study of maps and guide-books, hut we find again and again students undertaking to explore the complicated anatomy of a vertebrated animal without the slightest, or only the slightest, preparatory reading. This is entirely a mistake.

He then provided a list of equipment needed:

For such dissection as the subject-matter of this book requires, the following appliances will be needed :
(a) Two or three scalpels of various sizes.
(b) Scissors, which must taper gradually, have straight

blades, and be pointed at the ends, and which must bite right up to the tips (or they are use- less). Two pairs, small and large, are advisable
(c) Forceps, which must hold firmly, and meet truly at the points.
(d) Two needles set in wooden handles.
e) An ordinary watchmaker’s eye-glass is very helpful, but not indispensable.
(f) A dissecting dish—an ordinary pie dish will do—
into which melted paraffin wax has been poured, to the depth of, say, three-quarters of an inch, and allowed to solidify. (This wax may be blackened by mixture with lampblack. If the wax floats up at any time, it can, of course, be remelted. Or it may be loaded with lead.)
(g) A rough table or board (for the rabbit and dog-fish).
(h) Blanket pins, and ordinary pins.
(i) A pickle or other wide-mouthed jar, and some
common methylated spirit.
(j) A microscope, with low power of 1 in. or 1/2 in., and
high power 1/6 in. or 1/4 in. Glass slips and cover glasses, and a bottle of very weak (1 per cent.) solution of salt.

And suggestions of where to obtain them:

Animals for dissection may be obtained from the recognised dealers, who usually advertise in such scientific periodicals as Nature, Natural Science, and Knowledge. Sinel (naturalist, Jersey) is the most satisfactory dealer in dog-fish in our experience; Bolton (Malvern) will supply Amphioxus through the post. Frogs and rabbits may be obtained anywhere. The tame variety of rabbit is quite satisfactory for the purpose of dissection.

And instructions on how to do away with Fluffy:

I know I certainly have chloroform around the house.

But the point is that yes, many things one wouldn’t ordinarily think of as being doable at home, can be achieved with a little money and some ordering by mail. Students at the University Correspondence College had a high success rate in the Matriculation, Intermediate, and Bachelors examinations in Biology.


Visiting 1862: The International Exhibition

I’ve been doing some research into London in the year 1862. For me, this is stepping back 25 years from my usual research area, so I find a lot of surprises, in addition to this novel technique for social distancing:

The first thing to do after putting on my crinoline was to find good maps of London, big maps where you can see street names and even buildings:

Guide to the what? The International Exhibition of 1862. Although the Great Exhibition of 1851, with its Crystal Palace, is more famous, this one was supposed to be even bigger. You can see the catalogue here. It took place in South Kensington, on Cromwell Road, where the Natural History Museum would be later.

The Victorianist blog has some good information, and points out that the death of Prince Albert in December 1861 put a damper on the whole proceedings from the start. And it says the building, above, cost £300,000 but the cost was covered by the profits from the Great Exhibition of 1851. My studies of Victorian science education claim that the entire system of British science education was basically financed by the same pool. Which makes me think that the money from the Great Exhibition of 1851 is like pieces of the cross. There is no possible way that they made enough profit in 1851 to fund everything that’s been claimed.

Another page with information is here.

And look, they even had cameras then:



A historian’s tools

I love computers, but sometimes it’s gotta be tape, scissors, and crayons.

St Thomas’s Hospital at the Zoo

The cholera ward, of course, was in the giraffe house…

In my recent researches of St. Thomas’s Hospital, Southwark, I have discovered an unusual episode, a time when the hospital went to the zoo.

St. Thomas’s Hospital was located on Borough Street in Southwark from the medieval period until 1862. (What remains of it, the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret, is my all-time favourite museum in London.) At that time, the railway was forcing itself through the area as companies competed with each other. The proposed railway went right through the heart of the hospital grounds. So in 1862 the hospital was sold to the railway company, for £296,000, according to this.

Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Hospitals shown on “Improved map of London for 1833, from Actual Survey. Engraved by W. Schmollinger, 27 Goswell Terrace”

‘St Thomas’s Hospital 1860’, aerial view. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, Roberts, G.Q., A brief history of St Thomas’s Hospital (1920)

A new hospital site was arranged to be built where most of it still stands, in Lambeth, across from the Houses of Parliament. But this site wasn’t complete until 1871.

View of St Thomas’s Hospital with plan taken from Henry Currey’s, St. Thomas’s Hospital, London. [London] : [Royal Institute of British Architects], 1871 [St Thomas’s Historical Books Collection PAMPH. BOX RA988.L8 T1 CUR]

Most sources skip over this gap. Where did the hospital go in the meantime, for nine years?

It went to Surrey Gardens, in Newington, Walworth, in September 1862. Surrey Gardens had been a pleasure garden, like Vauxhall. It had a zoo. But as business declined, the animals were sold off to build a huge music hall. The hall was gutted by fire in 1861, which coincidentally led to a court case that determined you cannot hold someone to a contract when it’s impossible to fulfill it (in this case, a concert reserved for a burnt-out hall).

St. Thomas’s Hospital decided to lease the whole property, repaired the building, and repurposed some of the zoo.

I’ve been looking for histories and records of St. Thomas’ Hospital to learn more about the situation at Surrey Gardens. The St Thomas’s Hospital Report of 1867 is available, for some reason, at Google Books. Amputation fatalities, I discovered, were lower at the new location.

[Aside: there were also some figures in the Report tables that seem odd to me. How could the average stay in hospital for an ankle sprain be 11 days (p602)? This made me wonder whether one had to stay in hospital to be allowed off work, or whether people really had no one at home to take care of them (or no home — quite possible in a poor neighborhood), or whether ankle sprains were for some reason more serious then? Four men and four women had sprained their ankle that year, and the average stay was 11 days? Perhaps they had more wrong with them than a sprained ankle.]

The giraffe house really was the cholera ward, and the old elephant house was used for dissections. That piece of information comes from a book about Florence Nightingale, who was a big part of all this. She had opened her first nursing school at Old St. Thomas’ only two years before the move, and helped provide for room and board for nurses at the hospital. She also helped design the new Lambeth hospital for maximum light, ventilation, and separation of patients into pavilions. [And she promoted hand-washing as the best anti-infective, as true now as it was in 1860.]

The Illustrated London News of December 1862 (copy available at HathiTrust) features a quick column on how the facilities at Surrey Gardens boasted the “rapid and complete conversion of the old buildings to their new and beneficent uses”, and imagined the gardens would provide a unique opportunity for medical students to stroll and contemplate. Nightingale, who believed in patient access to the outdoors, would have approved this. She wrote a letter to Henry Bonham Carter (her cousin and the Secretary of the Nightingale Fund) on the advantages of temporary buildings for hospitals, but it isn’t available online.

The 9-year relocation gets only a single-sentence mention in Wikipedia. That’s a shame. It seems like such an interesting interlude.

Log books and protest

As part of an unenthusiastic effort to flesh out a paper that I gave at a conference last fall, I have been doing some research. I ordered a book titled “Teaching Britain” by Christopher Bischof through our Interlibrary Loan service. I sat down to start reading it, and the introduction sounded eerily familiar. Then I remembered — I’d heard Bischof give a presentation on his book at the conference!

In one chapter he discusses one of the sources he used, a type of source that’s neglected. I’m a huge fan of neglected sources: that treasure trove of diaries found in the attic, the sketches from the police journal nobody’s looked at, the stockpile of manuscripts left in an obscure archive. On my next trip to London, I’ll be looking at menus for the restaurants in the South Kensington Museum. Love this stuff.

His seldom-consulted items are log books. How could I not have known that the Revised Code of 1862 forced headmasters to keep daily logs of their school, reporting anything that might be a challenge to educating the children according to the code? According to Bischof, these schoolmasters immediately began using the books to not only record events, but opine about their educational woes. The officials tried to ban such personal opinions, but to no avail. The log books are thus a rich source of information, and not just that Mrs Smith was out ill for a whole week. Masters wrote about the rules they didn’t like, and how they were hampering education.

One of the things they were unhappy about, Bischof considers in a separate chapter: “over-pressure”. The Revised Code introduced “payment-by-results”, where schools earned grants based on their pupils’ performance on the big examination. Some children felt so much pressure they had emotional problems. One young lady committed suicide by jumping off a bridge.

I know a bit about the exams: H. G. Wells passed many of them, and was glad to do it. Not only did he earn grant money for the school, but he got himself a scholarship. The purpose of the exams was not only to exert pressure on schoolmasters to do better. It was to allow those capable of good scholarship, even at the poorest schools, to earn places at advanced secondary schools and colleges. This was a ticket to a better future. Wells’s scholarship took him to the Normal School of Science, where he studied under T. H. Huxley. Such an opportunity would never have been presented to a lower-middle class boy without the examination system.

There are obvious parallels to today’s arguments about student pressure and standardized testing. But Bischof also argues that the log books show a self-identification of teachers as professionals. They felt they had a right to complain, that they were the arbiters of what made for good education. This is also a parallel. While professors at big universities may get social respect, school teachers, and those of us at community colleges, do not. We are often not treated like professionals. So I feel a certain kinship with the schoolmasters using the logs to protest. I’ve done as much myself in program reviews and other forms I’ve been forced to complete. At least the Inspectors in 1862 were required to read them.

Catching up in World History

Back in the day (like, 1989) I was hired to teach World History. When I first arrived at the college, I was given the syllabus.

Now, I had been trained to teach Western Civ. I was a Europeanist, with an emphasis in medieval technology and a secondary field of early U.S. History. My graduate school language had been French (no, I don’t speak a word of it now — don’t ask me to order for you). But even I, with my Eurocentric background, could see that the syllabus was not World History. It was what I later learned would be called “The West and the Rest”, a condensed Western Civ class with a unit on India, a unit on China…you get the idea.

So I resolved to reform the curriculum and make the course truly global. I didn’t realize I was wading into a whole intellectual swamp about the history of the world, but I did know I needed help. So I founded the North County Global History Project, in collaboration with historians from other community colleges, and even National University. We created several annual conferences, inviting experts in global history to come speak. We also shared internally, with all the world historians working together, bringing in our various areas of expertise. It worked. The curriculum was revised and approved, and all our instructors have been teaching global history for years.

That included me, until about 2004. At that time, our Western Civ classes were expanding, and I was eager to teach them. Online classes were expanding, and I was learning to teach them. The following year I founded the Program for Online Teaching, and my focus for the next 12 years or so was on online pedagogy, and the creation of new class in the History of Technology.

Well, time’s a funny thing. I now have an opportunity, next fall, to teach World History again. So suddenly I am embarked on examining what’s happened in the discipline, what’s up in the scholarship, and what’s available as far as resources. I’ve been reading the current textbooks, and articles on the last dozen years of the field. Although I had belonged to the World History Association, my membership had lapsed as they priced me out of their conferences (they took place in Italy and on cruise ships). So I don’t exactly have an insider view.

If you read my blog, you know what I think of textbooks. But really, I’d like to start with one, and there are no Open Educational Resources for world history that cover the entire course. I assumed I could find a newer textbook with a solid thematic structure, since that’s where the field was heading back in 2004. It turns out there have been some efforts at thematic global history in recent years, including The Origins of the Modern World by Robert B. Marks, and Forging the Modern World by Carter and Warren. I have just finished reading the latter, except for the last chapter, because by then I was too depressed to continue to the end. A reasonably-priced, readable, book of a good length for students, it has themes that carry through. That’s what I’m looking for, a thematic framework to make history truly global, rather than just bouncing from region to region for each chapter (“Meanwhile, in China…”) But Carter and Warren’s themes have to do with the lengths to which states will go to establish legitimacy (think blowing things up and killing lots of natives) and the difficulty in resisting this. The losers lose horribly. There are names in the book (emperors and such), but you never see the real people, the people on the ground. They just seem to be buffeted by forces beyond their control. There’s no agency, no hope. Yes, I could add that in when I lecture. But I’d feel bad assigning such misery and helplessness.

When evaluating textbooks, I also like to “spot check” content– look in the index for certain things to determine how they’re covered. So since I want to be global, I looked for global things. For commodities, gold or silver work — so does cloth. For food, sugar or chocolate are good (and aren’t they?). I look for coverage of people like the Arabs, the Jesuits, and the Jews, people who didn’t necessarily fit evolving concepts of the nation and tend to operate globally.

And I look for women. Not necessarily individual Great Women, but rather women in groups, acting with agency and purpose. Great Men tend to be individualized as historical actors, even though none of them would have achieved anything without a network supporting them. Women may have to form groups just to be heard. Such groups have fought not only for suffrage, but for things like laws, peace, fair prices, and education. (I look for “peace” also.)

Looking at the books so far, those that have these people as actors tend to have a regional focus rather than a global, thematic focus. That includes Bulliet’s The Earth and Its Peoples (the current edition of the book I used in 2004) and the newer Smith’s World in the Making. The McNeills’ The Human Web and Morillo’s Frameworks of World History are more thematic, but I believe conceptually too difficult for community college students. It’s becoming pretty clear that I have to decide between a global focus without the real human experience, and the real human experience without a global framework. That sucks. You would think the field would have moved further in the time I haven’t been paying attention. I envision a book with global themes and flyovers, but with little boxes that telescope in on an event as an example, and sample those from around the globe.

And no, I’m not gonna write one.

The Bradlaugh-Besant Trial

As a historian who teaches many “fly over” survey classes, I think my story of birth control activism is probably the same story told in many American classrooms. Margaret Sanger* takes center stage, and the years of focus are around 1913 or so.

This is despite the fact that birth control has been around for as long as people have been in a position to think about whether they want more children. I am familiar with the Ancient Egyptian sponge (soaked in the juice of the tips of acacia trees for spermicide), the medieval use of pennyroyal as an abortificant, and the efforts of professional doctors to make midwifery illegal for their own ends (always, of course, with the excuse of fighting quackery).

But here I am, studying the young H. G. Wells, and I’m reading the sections of his autobiography when he’s in Midhurst at the age of 18 or so, and he writes:

The Bradlaugh Besant trial had occurred in 1876 and the light of sanity was gradually breaking into the dark places of English sexual life. There was perhaps a stronger belief current then that births were completely controllable than the actual facts warranted. Now under the stimulus of Plato’s Utopianism and my quickening desires I began to ask my imagination what it was I desired in women.

What is the Bradlaugh Besant trial? I am ashamed to say I have no idea. So I Google it, of course. Apparently, a book by Charles Knowlton had been around for decades, but around 1876 the Society for the Suppression of Vice seems to have encouraged the prosecution of its publisher, Henry Cook, for obscene pictures. Cook spent two years at hard labor, and another publisher pleaded guilty in a similar case.

So National Reformer journalists Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant republished Knowlton’s book (Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People) on purpose, as an act of civil disobedience. The courts were willing to let them off if they stopped printing and selling it, but they refused and suffered fines and imprisonment.

Naturally the next step here is to find the book, which I did at Internet Archive. This version is 1845, but it was originally published in 1831. There’s quite a bit about sex in there, and for those who make jokes about Victorians not knowing about the clitoris, well obviously some of them did:

A number of issues are dealt with fully, with marriage as the solution for all elements of natural desire:

Notice how this also does not fit our, um, preconceptions. But I was seeking the contraceptive information, which was nearer to the end. Knowlton mentions the “baudruche”, or condom, as useful in “checking” conception. He’s also discusses the sponge:

He recommends using the sponge with “some liquid that acts chemically upon the semen”. He follows with a long section on thorough douching within five minutes of congress, also with some alum or chemical agent.

Fantastically modern, useful, and effective information, this. When I had some people read this section and guess what era the book was written, invariably they thought the 1910s. I would have thought so too. But no, it’s 80 years before that. Other sports fans have known about this stuff for years.

But it was news to me. I do explain to my students, who tend to see history as the story of inevitable and consistent progress, that knowledge, excuse the expression, comes and goes. In some ways, less is commonly known about birth control now than in the 1970s or, in this case, the 1830s (and revived in the 1870s thanks to the Bradlaugh-Besant Trial). For the difficulties of the most recent generations, I blame the pill. Unlike the brilliant cervical cap (just try to get fitted for, or even find, one of those), or even the diaphragm, the pill requires absolutely no knowledge of ones body whatsoever. Use the knowledge or lose it. My first thought was that Fruits of Philosophy might be pretty useful to some of my students. And heck, it’s less than 40 pages long.

A couple of facts needed checking. Despite the court case charges, there do not appear to be any pictures (at least in the 1845 version), and Wells meant 1877 for the trial instead of 1876. Good stuff all the same.


[*Margaret Sanger and H. G. Wells had a sexual relationship when he was older, and no child seems to have resulted, which is more than one can say of a couple of his other encounters.]

The mysterious M. Birt

Another post on the mysteries and fascination of doing research!

So I’m checking the transcriptions of various articles by H. G. Wells, and I’m working on a book review he did for the Saturday Review in 1895. The book was Abelard and the Origin and Early History of Universities by Gabriel Compayré. And I get to this:

I often run into this sort of name dropping in Wellsian articles. Since I’m annotating his work, I need to find out who M. Birt is. I assume M is “Monsieur”, though it could be a first initial. I do what I always do, grabbing some of the quote and Googling it in quotation marks. Nothing.

This is unusual, but it’s happened before. Not everything published is available online, of course. So I try to hunt down M. Birt with search terms: Birt + 19th + century + education, Birt + 19th + century + university.

There’s a printer named Birt in Seven Dials, there’s a Rodger Birt who wrote recently about a 19th century photographer. A theologian at Leeds…nope. This looks promising:

He seems to be some sort of astronomer, so I search for a first name. Scroll up 15 pages. William Radcliffe Birt. Google that then.  Oooh, he was a leading selenographer. I know that word now: he liked mapping the moon. But what does that have to do with medieval universities? Maybe he wrote something about them. Try Google Books — all astronomy. Internet Archive. Nothing. Nothing? Take out his middle name. An obituary. An astronomer, and died decades before. Hathi Trust. Nope. Maybe it’s not him.

Back to Google. Birt + university. Lots of acronyms. Birt + medieval + university. Google changes Birth to “birth”, but if I wish I could see what ratings Paul Birt at University of Ottowa is earning on RateMyProfessors.

Back to plan A, the quotation. I try “This is the way with learned bodies.” Nothing. F*** Google. Switch to Dogpile.

Try M. Birt medieval university. Hmmm…

Germany? Entirely possible.

Change search to t + birt + medieval + university. He’s there in Google Books. A modern classicist. No, that’s not it. Back to archive.org. Search theodor birt german. All the books are in German. I don’t read German. Back to Google: Theodor Birk. Wikipedia!

Great! Except none of his publications are in English. The most popular one with a close date is Das antike Buchwesen in seinem Verhältnis zur Literatur (1882). Something about ancient books. Maybe he did medieval stuff too?

Idea! Maybe the quotation is translated from the German. Use Google Translate. Put in part of the quotation. Get German translation. Get Google to translate German result. Not making sense. Try “medieval university” translated, with his name. Nothing.

Besides, Wells didn’t speak German, or if he did he couldn’t have done it well. And he wouldn’t bother translating for an article he’d dashed off for money. It just didn’t make sense. And why would Theodor Birt be messing around in the Middle Ages anyway if he was a classicist? It was all too obscure. By now it’s midnight and I’ve had it up to hear with M. Birt.

Plan A again. I try Googling, “Peripatetics when all the world”. The article by Wells that I’m transcribing comes up, which is nice. But right below it is this:

That’s strange. It’s the book Wells is reviewing. Isn’t the quotation from M. Birt? I take a look. The quote is actually from Campayré’s book. But something is a little different:

That’s not M. Birt. It’s M. Biot. The printer (not Birt the printer) got it wrong. It’s a typo. A 124-year-old typo that has had me searching all over for a mysterious Mr Birt in the middle of the night.

Biot. M. Biot. Campayré calls him a historian of science. Google: Biot + history + science. First link is a dead end, some kind of anagram. Second link goes to some Memoir in Google Books. Score! It’s the Report of the Council to the Forty-third Annual Meeting of (scroll up) the Royal Astronomical Society, 1864. Not astronomy again? But there it is, in all its glory, a little biography:

Ah, Jean-Baptiste. Google the full name. Wikipedia. Oh, no, all the books are in French. Translate: université médiévale…

But, the important thing is, I know it’s a typo, and I know that it’s Compayné quoting and not Wells. That will have to do for what is, quite literally, a footnote to history.


War of the Worlds

Right now, the entire population of the UK is glued to the television, watching BBC’s three-part War of the Worlds.

I want to watch it too, but there’s a problem, and it’s not iPlayer (which you can’t view legally in the U.S.). It’s that I haven’t read the book.

What? you say. How can you not have read War of the Worlds? It’s true. I am not actually a big science fiction fan. That’s not how I got into researching H. G. Wells, and my work mostly stops when he publishes The Time Machine in 1895. I have read that book, and The Invisible Man, and Ann Veronica, and some short stories (the latter mostly because I enjoyed both watching and criticizing the accuracy of The Infinite Worlds of H. G. Wells). I have meant for some time to purchase an old copy of War of the Worlds, but as soon as I enter a bookstore I forget my list.

So the closest I’ve gotten to the story is a 1975 TV movie about the making of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio program (wherein I learned that the sound of the Martian ship opening was created by a jar screwtop echoing in a toilet bowl). I confess that I haven’t even heard the radio program itself, although I make it available to my students.

I can tell you that the story of the radio program causing people to believe that the Martians were landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, is a hoax about a hoax. I believed the TV movie, and only found out later that it didn’t really happen. People (normal people, anyway) did not think the Martians were invading, even if they were primed to hear about what Hitler was going to do next in Europe. And people from New Jersey just aren’t that gullible. Orson Welles ended up owning the story, though, and he and H. G. Wells met up later, in 1940, to chat on radio. (People loved that, but I think it’s one of the most awkward conversations ever, those two enormous egos in the same room.)

So, I thought I’d better read the book before watching the BBC special. Yes, of course it’s online. That’s not how I want to read it, but I started it just to confirm that the language used at the beginning of the special (ok, I peeked for a minute) was Wells. I got as far as this passage about Mars:

During the opposition of 1894 a great light was seen on the illuminated part of the disk, first at the Lick Observatory, then by Perrotin of Nice, and then by other observers. English readers heard of it first in the issue of Nature dated August 2. I am inclined to think that this blaze may have been the casting of the huge gun. . .

Researcher googles on! Bring up MiraCosta College library databases. Find Nature. Hone to 1894. Order by date. And there it was: “A Strange Light on Mars”, Nature 50, no 1292, 2 August 1894. It’s not long.

As it happens, Wells was writing for Nature at this time; in fact, the following issue in September featured his article on “Popularising Science”. Could Wells have read this, and gotten inspired to write War of the Worlds three years later? Certainly.

Could he have written this column? Yes, it’s possible — he did write unattributed bits for money, like the Science Notes in the Journal of Education. I can’t prove it, of course, but it’s interesting, that bit at the end about the Martians seeing us. . .

Now off to the bookstore!




Incipience and books

I am at the North American Conference on British Studies in Vancouver, Canada. The first day, at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park (a vastly overpriced way to breathe among the trees), I saw bald eagles in the wild. Apparently they’ve only been here a couple of weeks, for the salmon. Funny to first see ones national bird in the wild in another nation.

Among the other brilliant presentations I saw today was one on H. G. Wells as futurist, and Sarah Cole (author of a new book) talked about how Wells used terror and war. She focused on The War in the Air and The Invisible Man, and among other things talked about incipience. Wells built suspense through his pauses, as New York waited to be attacked by German airships. His invisible man also assumes that the only option for his invisibility is to do horrible things. It is the impending doom, the feeling sportscaster Charlie Steiner talks about when you start the 8th inning and the Dodgers are behind by one, that aspect of modernity that Cole referenced as a highlight of Paul K. Saint-Amour’s Tense Future, that “pre-traumatic stress disorder”. The great sin to Wells, she said, was lack of foresight.

Certainly it is popular to cast Wells as a prophet — it was even in his lifetime. But the period of his life I’m studying doesn’t have that. He has confidence, but it is focused on the present, on the importance of teaching science, not his later stories about man’s response to science.

Then this evening I went to UBC for a book launch for Sheldon Goldfarb’s book of musings on Sherlock Holmes. He had written a script for him to ask questions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, played by an actor. It was an interesting way to discuss, in dialogue form, some of the themes from the Holmes stories. He implied that Holmes was needed in a time of waning faith, and used Doyle to express the idea that where he (Goldfarb) saw meaning in so many characters being named Arthur, or so many women in the stories being strong and smart, Doyle himself was just writing stories to make money.

That tied the day together. Wells turned to fiction to try to make money, because a friend told him he was working too hard to become a great essayist, and should just write made-up stories. It was easier and more lucrative. In the Doyle character’s whining about how no one looks at his many other books, it became clear that the popular books are what make the money.

But I do understand incipience. It’s what happened as soon as I entered MacLeod’s bookstore this afternoon. Books piled high, on the ground, leaning on bursting shelves. A feeling of impending doom. There it was, an early edition of Wells’ Certain Personal Matters. And more. The proprieter noted my conference name tag, and asked what I studied. I told him, and he showed me more in the science section and then, checking to make sure the till was minded, led me through a Staff Only door into the basement. (Yes, I will follow a strange man into a locked basement if books are involved.) He waved at the back wall. “Elizabethan back in the corner,” he said. “so left of that earlier, to the right…Victorian should be about here” and left me there. Only hunger and the need to get to UBC for Holmes prevented total bankruptcy.