Saturday, November 30, 2013

Byrd's Lightning

Engraving by Albert Flamen
for Devises et emblemes d'amour (Paris, 1664)
Over the years when he was preparing his History of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina for publication--hoping to capture the notice of the London literary marketplace--William Byrd sat in his library and added all sorts of materials he thought would please his readers. Since he was positioning himself as the preeminent expert on Virginia, he made sure his narrative featured information about the topography and natural history of the region. In this sense Byrd was participating in the mission of the Royal Society; he had been a member since 1696. In the early days of the Royal Society Robert Boyle prepared a framework on which roving philosophers could “superstruct” a solid natural history, a set of "heads" or categories of general inquiry for organizing observations. Boyle first enjoined travelers to observe the air (latitude, longitude, the length of the shortest and longest nights, the climate, what stars and constellations may be seen, the temperatures of the air, its clarity and seasonal variation, the duration of the several kinds of weather, “meteors” such as lightning, wind, contagious sickness, and suitability to human temperaments). Then he instructed the observer to consider the water (the depth, tides, and currents of the sea; the course, length and width, flooding, and quality of the water; lakes, ponds, and springs; the fish that stock the various bodies of water). Boyle then directed the observer to consider the configurations of the earth itself, and then its inhabitants and productions. Topographical considerations included plains, valleys, hill, and mountains, the presence of volcanoes, mineral deposits, the quality of soil, and the grains, fruits, and other useful plants that grow there. The products of the earth—grasses, grains, herbs, flowers, fruit and timber trees—all favor certain conditions of soil and climate, which Boyle directed the observer to record. Animals, both wild and domesticated, were also to be studied. Further, the observer must examine “subterraneal” productions of the earth: beds of stone and quarries, clay for the potter, medicinal earths, salt-springs, chemicals, ores and mines. Finally, Boyle turned to the population, who though “above the ignobler Productions of the Earth” must also be studied. Travelers meaning to report their discoveries back to the Royal Society routinely carried and referred to Boyle’s instructions, often in a more detailed version commissioned by Boyle, John Woodward’s Brief Instructions for Making Observations in all Parts of the World. [i]
Byrd's method in observing (and borrowing information about) natural phenomena can be understood as a response to Boyle's recommendations. Throughout the History of the Dividing Line Byrd reported on the air and weather encountered during the 1728 surveying expedition. One interesting phenomenon is worth noting: the relation of weather to the fertility of the soil. Noting that variable seasons were preferable to an unfailingly warm climate, Byrd explained that constant summer would deprive people "of the Variety and Sweet Vicissitude of the Seasons, which is much more delightfull than one dull and constant Succession of Warm Weather, diversify’d only by Rain and Sun-Shine.” Although such a climate would allow cultivation of orange, lemon, and olive trees, there would be distinct disadvantages: “The Soil wou’d also want the Advantages of Frost, and Snow, which by their Nitrous Particles contribute not a little to its Fertility.” Byrd here draws on the natural philosophers’ chemical explanations for meteorological phenomena. That the air contained infusions of certain chemicals was inferred from the likeness of thunder and lightning to chemically-induced explosions. By condensation, potentially explosive mineral substances such as sulphur and nitre—“Etherial Gunpowder”—are borne aloft. As Robert Hooke noted, “The Atmosphere about the Earth doth abound with a spirituous Nitre, or Nitrous Particles, which are every where carried along with it.”[ii] Virginia naturalist Rev. John Clayton observed that the “Nore and Nore-West” winds in Virginia “are very nitrous and piercing, cold and clear.”[iii] The dynamics of this mineral infusion in the air are essential to an understanding of weather, as John Locke explained:
Besides the springy particles of pure air, the Atmosphere is made up of several steams or minute particles of several sorts, rising from the earth and the waters, and floating in the air, which is a fluid body, and though much finer and thinner, may be consider’d in respect of its fluidity to be like water, and so capable, like other liquors, of having heterogenous particles floating in it. . . Clouds do not consist wholly of watry parts: for besides the aqueous vapours that are raised into the air, there are also sulphureous and saline particles, that are raised up, and in the clouds mixed with the aqueous particles, the effects whereof are sometimes very sensible; as particularly in Lightning and Thunder, when the suphureous and nitrous particles firing, break out with that violence of light and noise, which is observable in Thunder, and very much resembles Gunpowder.
Those nitrous particles not burned up in lightning return to the surface of the earth through precipitation:
That there are nitrous particles raised into the air, is evident from the nourishment which rain gives to vegetables more than any other water; and also by the collection of niter or salt-peter in heaps of earth.[iv] 
The wind circulates minerals that have risen through the air, but as Robert Boyle explained in his “Experimental History of Cold,” the pores of the earth’s surface are closed during the winter months, so that the earth does not exhale the minerals deposited by the air.[v] It was widely understood that “nitre”—either sodium carbonate or sodium or potassium nitrate (saltpeter)—was both a component in explosive recipes and a key nutritive ingredient in certain soils.

It is an easy logical step to conclude that a region where nutritive particles are preserved by cold at the same time they continue to accumulate the additional minerals the snow brings will increase in fertility. The Virginia climate, with its “Nore winds,” ensured the soil was particularly well suited to the cultivation of tobacco. Clayton explained,
I conceive Tobacco to be a Plant abounding with Nitro-Sulphurious Particles; for the Planters try the goodness of their Seed, by casting a little thereof into the Fire; if it be good, it will sparkle after the manner of Gunpowder: so will the Stalks of Tobacco-leaves.[vi]
That Byrd subscribed to the notion of a beneficial transference of chemicals from air to earth is clear in a letter he wrote to his friend John Boyle in 1727: “We have had the most delightfull winter here that ever I saw in any country, just frost enough to fertilize our ground, and purify the air.”[vii]

Admirable Curiosities (London, 1702)

The Royal Society also encouraged their correspondents to report unusual phenomena; it is not difficult to find reports of strange lightning strikes in the Philosophical Transactions. Byrd also relates a tale of a remarkable occurrence in Virginia:

This Rain was enliven’d with very loud Thunder which was eccho’d back by the Hills in the Neighbourhood in a frightfull Manner. There is Something in the Woods that makes the Sound of this Meteor more awfull, and the Violence of the Lightening more visible. The Trees are frequently shiver’d quite down to the Root, and sometimes perfectly twisted. But of all the Effects of Lightening that ever I heard of, the most amazing happen’d in this Country in the Year 1736. In the Summer of that year a Surgeon of a Ship whose Name was Davis, came ashoar at York to visit a Patient. He was no sooner got into the House but it began to rain with many terrible claps of Thunder. When it was almost dark there came a dreadfull Flash of Lightening which struck the Surgeon dead as he was walking about the Room, but hurt no other Person, tho’ several were near him. At the same [time] it made a large Hole in the Trunk of Pine Tree, which grew about Ten Feet from the Window. But what was most surprizing in this Disaster, was, that on the Breast of the unfortunate Man that was kill’d, was the Figure of Pine-Tree as exactly delineated, as any Limner in the World cou’d draw it. Nay the Resemblance went so far as to represent the coulour of the Pine, as well as the Figure. The Lightening must probably have past thro’ the Tree first before it struck the Man and by that means have printed the Icon of it on his Breast.
     But whatever may have been the Cause, the Effect was certain, & can be attested by a Cloud of Witnesses who had the Curiosity to go and see this wonderfull Phœnomenon.
News of this wonderful occurrence appeared in Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette (August 12, 1736): "We hear from Virginia that..." The story was reprinted by several colonial newspapers.[viii]

[Promotional message: my new edition of Byrd's Dividing Line histories was published on November 1, 2013. See the UNCP page for the book here:  It is also available in good bookstores everywhere, and through online book merchants.]

[i] “General Heads for a Natural History of a Countrey, Great or Small,” Philosophical Transactions, I (1665-1665), pp. 186-89. An expanded version of the article was published separately as General Heads for the Natural History of a Country Great or Small; Drawn out for the Use of Travellers and Navigators (London, 1692). See also John Woodward, Brief Instructions for Making Observations in all Parts of the World (London, 1696). Ralph Bauer points to Boyle’s “Heads” in his Cultural Geography of Colonial American Literatures (Cambridge, 2003), Chapter 3 and pp. 186-187. Bauer interprets Boyle as the practitioner of an earlier form of empiricism superseded by “Newtonian” method, though without providing a clear account of his distinction.
   [ii] Robert Hooke, “Of Comets and Gravity,” The Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke (London, 1705), p. 169 [Hayes 796].
[iii] “A Letter from Mr. John Clayton Rector of Crofton at Wakefield in Yorkshire to the Royal Society, May 12. 1688. Giving an Account of Several Observables in Virginia, and in his Voyage Thither, More Particularly concerning the Air,” Philosophical Transactions, XVII (1693), p. 784.
[iv] John Locke, “The Elements of Natural Philosophy,” A Collection of Several Pieces of Mr. John Locke (London, 1720), pp. 198-199. The explanation of thunder and lightning as the explosion of volatile sulphur and nitre, dating back to Paracelsus, was taken up by early modern scientists including John Mayow, Robert Boyle, John Woodward, Thomas Robinson, and Edward Barlow. See Vladimir Jankovič, Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of English Weather, 1650-1820 (Chicago, 2000), pp. 26-28.
[v] Robert Boyle, “The Experimental History of Cold,” Philosophical Works, I, 698.
[vi] “A Continuation of Mr John Clayton’s Account of Virginia,” Philosophical Transactions, XVII (1693), p. 943.
[vii] Byrd to John Boyle, Baron Boyle of Burghill, February 2, 1726/7; Correspondence, p. 361.

[iv]The story appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, August 12, 1736:"We hear from Virginia, that not long since a Flash of Lightning fell on a House there, and struck dead a Man who was standing at the Door. Upon examining the Body they found no Mark of Violence, but on his Breast an exact and perfect (tho’ small) Representation of a Pine Tree which grew before the Door, imprest or printed as it were in Miniature. This surprising Fact is attested by a Gentleman lately come from thence, who was himself an Eye-witness of it; and ’tis added that great Numbers of People came out of Curiosity, to view the Body before it was interr’d." The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven 1960), II, 160. Several colonial newspapers republished the story, all giving it the same dateline, “Philadelphia, August 12.” The York lightning story that appeared in the New-York Weekly Journal, CXLVI (August 23, 1736), repeats Franklin’s story nearly word for word. The story appeared without any substantive changes in the Boston Evening Post, LV (August 30, 1736); Boston Post Boy (August 30, 1736); and the New England Weekly Journal, CMXCI (August 31, 1736). [Thanks to Joel Berson for conversations about this story in colonial newspapers].

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