Tag: William Derham

Storms, Sounds and Authorship

The wind has been wildly whipping the last few days, putting me on edge. It doesn’t help that the wind makes the neighbourhood noisier than usual: clanking gates, blowing cans… The normally distant rumble of the tube train suddenly passes right down our street, while the planes seem to fly right over our roof. The weather can do funny things to sound.

Tableau of William Derham (1657 – 1735), an English clergyman and natural philosopher. Source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Palthrow.

Tableau of William Derham (1657 – 1735), an English clergyman and natural philosopher. Source: Wikimedia Commons, uploaded by Palthrow.

Back in 1708, William Derham was inspired by his observations on weather and sound to publish on the motion of sound in the Philosophical Transactions. Derham’s letters to Sloane show how Derham had carefully thought about the subject for years before his article appeared. Academic writers will have much sympathy for Derham’s path toward publication.

In January 1704/5, Derham was confident that he was “setteling the business of the Flight of Sounds, which may be of good use”. He had ten questions and was happy to add more if anyone in the Royal Society had any; by the time he published, there were nineteen questions. Derham was charting the sound of gunfire to determine what factors affected sound, such as the type of winds and weather, size of gun, time of day, and direction of the shot.

Many credible authorities, from the Florentine Academy to Isaac Newton, had differed on the question of “What Space Sounds fly in a Second or any determinate Time?” To settle the matter, Derham repeated their experiments and at greater distances. The answer seemed close:

I have allmost satisfied my self about all the former Enquiries, which when I have fully done I will impart it to the Society. I only want a few Guns from the Tower or some such large distance (which I could see in the Evening) to fully confirm what I have already done.

Derham was more guarded by April 1705. He reported that he was not as close to finishing his experiments as he’d hoped. Having met “with fresh matters” that nobody had ever observed before, he was “cautious of determining any thing precipitatly; & therefore I shall yet delay giving the Society an account of what I have done”.

Lithograph by C.H. Bacle,  19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

A light-hearted picture, but I hasten to add that Derham did not use women’s skirts to test his theories on sound. Lithograph by C.H. Bacle, 19th century. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

What he could tell them was that “Storms do accelerate Sounds, wch I did not discover (only suspect) till last Fryday” when he had been timing the sound of guns fired at Blackheath. Contrary winds resulted in delays, while high winds sped the sounds up. But to test his theory, he needed more guns. Derham reassured Sloane that he would “use my greatest care in all this matter” because his newest observations differed so greatly from those of others–and “perhaps the Societys reputation my be somewhat hurt by any neglect or want of an act”.

In December 1706, Derham was still working on the project. He had only just found “an excellent semi-circle to take the Angles, & thereby the distances of the places from whence I observed the Flight of Sounds”. This, he noted, “was the only thing that hath delayed the me from imparting my Observations on that subject.” And in April 1707, he referred in passing to using triangulation to measure sound.

Finally, Derham sent off his observations in February 1707/8. His letter hints at his relief, as well as his hope that the article would be published as soon as possible.

I have sent you my Observations about Sounds; which as it hath cost me some pains, so I hope will be acceptable to you, & the most illustrious Society. If you think it worth publishing in the Transactions, I desire you will be pleased to put it into one of the next.

A week later, Derham’s anxiety emerges more clearly when he wondered whether Sloane had even received the article: “Be pleased to let me know whether you recd my account of Sounds with my Packet of Lrs from Florence.”

The article was intended to be Derham’s Important Work (and it was), appearing as it did in Latin rather than the English he usually used for his Phil. Trans. submissions. It also took up a full thirty-three pages. With his careful measurements, increased distances, and use of instruments, Derham provided a more accurate assessment of the speed of sound than previous scholars.

It’s just a shame that Derham never mentioned his mysterious Japanese (?) co-author anywhere in his letters to Sloane…

According to a data entry howler error in the online Phil. Trans., Soni Motu was the first author on the article. How’s that for revisioning history?

Soni Moto

An early eighteenth-century ghost

By Felicity Roberts

One of the most entertaining set of letters in Sir Hans Sloane’s correspondence was written by William Derham (1657-1735), the rector at Upminster in Essex and an enthusiastic member of the Royal Society.  Derham’s letters to him are so lively that you get a good impression of their shared business and scientific interests–including, it seems, ghosts.

Sloane and Derham began to correspond around 1698 and continued until shortly before Derham’s death in 1735.  Since Derham’s clerical duties frequently prevented him from attending Royal Society meetings, Derham sent his natural history observations to Sloane to be read at Society meetings (Lisa Smith has discussed Derham’s activities in not one but two previous posts). This is especially true for the period during which Sloane was Secretary of the Society, between 1693 and 1713.  Derham wrote to Sloane with observations of the weather; details of his experiments on the speed of sound; and astronomical observations.

Perhaps the living of Upminster did not pay well, or perhaps Derham was just happy to do his friend a favour, but in 1705 it appears that alongside his clerical duties Derham also agreed to be an agent for Sloane in the purchase and management of a farm in a village Derham calls “Orset” (present-day Orsett, south east of Upminster).

The details of the property management letters are fascinating, not only because it shows the social and business connections forged between members of the Royal Society, but also because it suggests how Sloane increased his estate by investing in land.  Exactly how Sloane financed his museum is still not known–his medical practice, sugar plantation, hot chocolate recipe, eye remedy, and property buying must all have contributed.

But my favourite Derham letter is that of 13 December 1708. Derham wrote excitedly to Sloane with an “odd story” concerning Sloane’s farm tenants who:

[R]eceive disturbances constantly every night by great rumbling in the chambers, dashing the Doors open, & shutting them wth [damaged], that the woman’s Spinning-wheel (standing by her [bed]-side in the room they ly) is whirled about as if they spun, yt the warming-pan hanging by her bed-side is rattled & rung, that a woman who lay in one of the Chambres lately had the clothes pulled off her bed perpetually, & putting out her hand to pull them on, she felt a cold hand take her by her hand.

Richard Newton and John Hassell after George Woodward, The Haunted Cellar. Credit: The British Museum.

Derham’s story, which he has had second-hand from a neighbour, is rather breathlessly related.  And indeed, the details of the spinning-wheel operating of its own accord, and of the bed clothes being pulled off by a cold hand during the night, are pretty spooky.  But it seems that Derham’s curiosity has been aroused rather than his fear.  He encouraged Sloane:

 “You being a curious man, I wish you would come, & we would go, & ly there a night.”

True to their Royal Society philosophy, Derham proposes that they spend the night in the farm so that they might observe the events and collect evidence.  It is a delightful suggestion from Derham, but we do not know whether Sloane ever took him up on his offer!

Domesticity and Astronomy in Eighteenth-Century England

This past week has been an exciting time for portents! What with a meteor blasting into Russia, an asteriod passing close to earth, St. Peter’s Basilica being struck by lightning, and the Pope resigning, early modern people would have been getting a bit nervous…[1] As it is, some people believe that the lightning strike was a sign that God approves the Pope’s decision. Perhaps we live in a more optimistic era.

There are several letters in the Sloane Correspondence database about early modern astronomy, although only two that mention comets.[2] By the eighteenth century, there was a growing shift away from seeing dramatic astronomical events as portents. Clergyman William Derham (1657-1735), for example, wrote to Sloane regularly about natural philosophy and his letters (dated 28 March 1706) reveal a careful attention to matters of fact rather than a concern with religious signs.[3]

“Part of a Letter from the Reverend Mr W Derham, F.R.S. Concerning a Glade of Light Observed in the Heavens”. Philosophical Transactions, vol. 25, no. 305 (1706), p. 2221.

In one of Derham’s letters, which also appeared in the Philosophical Transactions (vol. 25, 1706), he described his star-gazing just before Easter. While observing the satellites of Saturn, he spotted a “glade of light” in the constellation of Taurus. The light had a tail like a comet, but a pointy upper end instead of a rounded one. This, Derham was certain, was similar to what Joshua Childrey and Giovanni Domenico Cassini had observed. When the following nights were cloudy, Derham was unable to spot the glade again–and, although Easter Day was fair, he “forgot it unluckily then”. By the time he was next able to look at the skies, the glade of light was gone.

This was the only bit of Derham’s rather long letter that was published in the Phil. Trans. this time. In the letter, Derham also dicussed sunspots and requested advice about his wife’s eye problems. This was typical of many of Sloane’s correspondents, whose letters blurred the boundaries between scholarly, social and medical matters.

Anna Derham, aged about 31, was suffering from eye problems. Sloane had recommended that she take a variety of medicines, including a purge (and rather revoltingly, woodlice), in addition to eye drops. The eye drops, Derham reported, did not agree with his wife and had caused an inflammation. The purge, moreover, had left Mrs. Derham with violent pains spreading from above her eye to throughout her head and face. Derham believed that the eye medicine had resulted in his wife’s cornea wasting away. The outcome of the eye problem was not noted, but a letter from later that year (30 August 1706) mentioned Mrs. Derham’s increasingly severe headaches, which worried both her and her husband. Whether her health improved (or Derham simply distrusted Sloane’s advice in this case) is unclear, but Derham did not mention his wife’s health again until November 1710 when he feared that she might die from peripneumonia. (Mrs. Derham didn’t, managing to outlive her husband.)

What strikes me as particularly interesting in Derham’s account is the small detail that he forgot to look at the skies on Easter Sunday. As a clergyman, he was no doubt very busy in the week leading up to and including Easter. It would be entirely understandable that he might forget… but he did manage to look out his telescope in the nights prior to Easter.

The rather pressing matter of his wife’s health, on the other hand, is the most likely reason. It’s clear that her symptoms were alarming and disabling (as would have been the treatments, as purges kept one very close to the chamberpot). To compound the domestic disruption, the couple had four children between the ages of two and six in 1706. At the very least, Derham was monitoring his wife’s health and overseeing her medical care.[4] Even with domestic help, Mrs. Derham’s poor health would have posed a challenge for the household at the best of times, but even more so at the busiest time of year for a clergyman’s family.

Early modern scientific endeavours often took place within the early modern household, meaning that these activities were inevitably subject to the rhythms and disruptions of daily life. With his ill wife, several young children, and Easter duties, Derham simply did not have time to remember.


[1] For other recent blogging on historical comets, see Darin Hayton on “Meteorites and Comets in Pre-Modern Europe” and Rupert Baker on the comets in the Philosophical Transactions (“Watch the Skies“).

[2] The other letter was from Leibniz (5 May 1702), which was an account in Latin of a newly discovered comet.

[3] On Derham and his family, see Marja Smolenaars, “Derham, William (1657-1735)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/7528, accessed 7 June 2011.]

[4] For more on men’s medical caregiving roles within the family, see my article “The Relative Duties of a Man: Domestic Medicine in England and France, ca. 1685-1740”, Journal of Family History 31, 3 (2006): 237-256.