The Artist-Scientist in the history of the Submarine Telegraph

Samuel F. B. Morse’s painting “Gallery of the Louvre” from Art Knowledge News

Previously I’ve briefly discussed some thoughts on the links between art and science through the telescope of history. Through my research into the history of submarine telegraphy I’ve been struck by a continued link, and not just through representations and display, but through professions.

At least two telegraph engineers (that I’ve come across so far) had a previous career as an artist before turning to a life of experiment and science. One is probably one of the most famous men linked to electrical telegraphy, Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse’s career as a painter brought him to England in 1811, where he studied under Washington Allerton, and was eventually allowed into the Royal Academy. Morse went back to America in 1816 and enjoyed a successful career painting portraits of many prominent politicians. In 1830 Morse decided to return to Europe to improve his painting skills, and it was on this trip that he began to develop his concept of the single-wire electric telegraph.[1]

The second artists turned engineer was John W. Brett, one of the pioneers of submarine telegraphy. . In 1831 it appeared he was on the cusp of breaking through as an artist himself, but in October, a few days before the infamous Bristol riots, a fire broke out that destroyed his entire collection which included his own work as well as rare works he had acquired.[2] It appears that this personal disaster spurred Brett on to achieve success in an alternative way, through study and collecting Old Masters, this wide-ranging collection of fine art was highly credited and Brett consequently loaned works to exhibitions held in Manchester, the South Kensington Museum and the Royal Institution of British Architects.[3] However this wasn’t the only source of his fortune, like many people Brett’s imagination had been ignited by the recent success of the overland telegraph. In a conversation with his younger brother, Jacob Brett, it was suggested that if cables had been laid underground, why not underwater. The seed had been sown, but France wasn’t the first location the brothers wanted to connect via submarine cable, in 1845 Jacob Brett registered a company to unite Europe and America, when this was deemed too risky and large a scheme for such a young business the Bretts suggested a cable between England and Ireland, but this was declined by the British Government. According to the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography an agreement was eventually made with the French government in 1847 and it was decided to lay a telegraph cable between Dover and Calais.[4] A cable was eventually successfully laid in 1851, and was the first international submarine telegraph cable.

I’m sure there are many more artist turned scientists, there is after the Jungian Archetype of the Artist-Scientist, of which Wikipedia suggests Su Song, Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin (another pioneer of electricity). Perhaps it is the showman ship early electricity experiments encouraged, or the creativity of invention that attracted the cross-over, or perhaps it is some sort of psychological trait and there are many modern and ancient examples that I haven’t discovered yet.

Advertisements

History: an Art or Science? How different are they?

Conrad Shawcross is the Artist in residence at the Science Museum, London. The Science Museum is one of many scientific institutions that see a value in having artists in residence to engage their audience.

This is an age old question, and as I was trying to put together a presentation on it for University, I’m not planning on trying to answer it at length here.

But while mulling it over I began to realise just how intermingled the two disciplines are today.

History is a bit of a confusing subject, it sits under the branch of learning called Humanities (defined as the study of human culture), different History masters courses can get you a MA or a MSc, and funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council comes from the Science and Innovation Group, part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. None of these points help.

Most arguments of this nature seem to focus on whether or not History is a science, assuming that if you are not a science you must be an art. But I’m not entirely convinced they are exact opposites. Both generally speaking build on previous knowledge or thought, and Postmodernists are able to demonstrate cultural influences on scientific thought as much as artistic, I’ve included a picutre of a piece of work by Conrad Shawcross, and here is a link to an interesting article about Salvador Dalí’s relationship and interest in science. Some of the most interesting pieces of modern art can come out of scientific influences, and scientists can get inspiration or that spark from the arts. Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that even scientific discoveries have been influenced by cultural factors, and it is clear that some sciences are heavily influenced by interpretation. It seems to be increasingly important for science to borrow from the arts to help engage a wider audience with their work and from the large amount of ‘popular’ science books out by authors like Brian Cox and Robert Winston it seems to be a healthy relationship.

I’ll finish up with a letter by Gregory Petsko, a Professor in Biochemistry and Chemistry, recently published in the Genome Biology journal arguing that science needs the arts and humanities:

One of the things I’ve written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including – especially including – the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You’ve just ensured that yours won’t be one of them.

The rest of the letter can be found here.

This letter was written in reaction to the State University of New York at Albany deciding to get rid of its departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts. As cuts loom over the UK and both the sciences and arts feel the need to defend their purpose and position it is worth remembering the similarities and benefits of both.