Harp History

After some feedback on my harp twins post, I thought I’d say something about the history of the harp. It’s one of the oldest musical instruments (following the flute and the drum). Harps are known to go back to 3500 BC, in Ur. Harp design has varied considerably over the 5500 years since then.


Harpist depicted on the Standard of Ur, c. 2500 BC

Later harps were of particular importance to the Celtic people, and the harp is still a symbol of Ireland today.


The medieval Queen Mary harp, c. 1400s (photo: David Monniaux)

A limitation of harps has been that the strings correspond only to the white keys on the piano. A significant improvement was the pedal harp – initially the single-action version, and from 1810 the double-action version. The double-action pedal harp is typically tuned to C major, the key of 7 flats. There are 7 pedals, with e.g. the C pedal connecting to all the C strings. Using the pedal can effectively shorten all the strings in this group to give either C or C (and the same for other groups of notes).

Child prodigy Alisa Sadikova playing the pedal harp (at age 9)

The pedal harp is the main concert instrument today. Garrison Keillor once described the instrument as “an instrument for a saint” because “it takes fourteen hours to tune a harp, which remains in tune for about twenty minutes, or until somebody opens the door.”


A modern electric lever harp (photo:Athy)

Smaller harps (including modern electric harps, like the one above) use levers to modify individual strings (which makes key changes much more difficult than with the pedal harp). Electric harps weighing up to 8 kg are described as “wearable,” which reminds me a little of this 11 kg grand-daddy of the laptop.

Camille and Kennerly Kitt playing “wearable” electric harps

The harp is often seen as a stereotypically feminine instrument – when I look at American harpists on Wikipedia, I count 10 men and 60 women. There are, however, exceptions.

Jakez François (president of French company Camac Harps) playing jazz


Blue Jeans and Culture

An earlier post touched on the concept of “cultural appropriation.” This label is often applied inappropriately, because the world is more interconnected than most people realise. It has been that way for longer than most people realise (for example, some 4,000 years ago, tin from England was being traded across the Mediterranean sea for use in making bronze). And ideas go back further than most people realise.

As Michael Crichton says in his excellent novel Timeline, “Yet the truth was that the modern world was invented in the Middle Ages. Everything from the legal system, to nation-states, to reliance on technology, to the concept of romantic love had first been established in medieval times. These stockbrokers owed the very notion of the market economy to the Middle Ages. And if they didn’t know that, then they didn’t know the basic facts of who they were. Why they did what they did. Where they had come from.

Consider blue jeans, for example.

Blue jeans are dyed with indigotin, a chemical derived from the indigo plant, which has long been grown in India. But before someone says “cultural appropriation from India,” indigotin was traditionally derived in Europe from the woad plant (northern Britons painted their skins blue with woad). In China, a different plant was used. Essentially, the use of indigotin was a cultural universal. In Germany, where a culture of excellence in organic chemistry grew up during the 19th century, a practical method for making synthetic indigotin was developed at the BASF company in 1897, and the choice of plant became moot.


A cake of indigo dye (photo: David Stroe)

Blue jeans are made from denim, a fabric named after Nîmes in France. During the California gold rush, Levi Strauss, a Jewish-American businessman of German origin, teamed up with Jacob Davis, a Jewish-American tailor of Latvian origin, to make denim work clothing for miners. These blue jeans were strengthened by metal rivets – an idea due to Davis, patented in 1873.

So which culture produced blue jeans – Indian? French? German? Latvian? Jewish? American? One can only say that blue jeans were produced by human culture.


Illustration from the patent application


Angélique du Coudray, pioneer midwife


Angélique du Coudray

Angélique du Coudray (c. 1714–1794) was a pioneering French midwife. In 1759 she published a midwifery textbook, Abrégé de l’art des accouchements. Her introduction notes the fact that incompetence or lack of care can lead to the death of both mother and child, and continues with a politico-religious imperative: “Ignorons-nous que ces deux viâimes étoient chères aux yeux de Dieu, utiles à leur famille, & nécessaires à l’État? C’étoit un dépôt qui nous avoit été confié. Pouvons-nous, en les sacrifiant à un vil intérêt, ne pas trembler sur le compte exact que nous en rendrons un jour à celui qui leur avoit donné l’être?” (“Do we not know that these two lives were dear to the eyes of God, useful to their families, and necessary to the State? They were a deposit which was entrusted to us. Can we, if we sacrifice them to a vile interest, not tremble at the exact account that we shall one day render to Him who gave them to be?”).

To avoid such deaths, du Coudray explains proper prenatal care, and provides instruction on both normal deliveries and a range of common obstetric problems.


Illustration of a normal delivery, from the 1777 edition of Abrégé de l’art des accouchements

Also in 1759, Angélique du Coudray was commissioned by King Louis XV to tour the country training midwives, in the hope of reducing perinatal mortality. She personally trained thousands of midwives, many of whom went on to train others. Her training course was assisted not only by her book, but also by her Machine, a pioneering lifesize obstetric simulator. The Machine included realistic internal structure, such as bones and ligaments, and could be used to practice delivery of a baby in a range of different positions, while giving the trainee midwife a feel for the forces involved.


Angélique du Coudray’s Machine (photo: Ji-Elle)


Giordano Bruno


Giordano Bruno

The Telegraph tells me that “On this day [the 17th] in 1600, Giordano Bruno is burnt alive for his science, 42 years before Galileo.”

Just one problem – it’s not exactly true.

Giordano Bruno was a Catholic (Dominican) priest with a taste for unorthodox beliefs. He was first accused of heresy in 1576, four years after being ordained. He flirted with Calvinism and spent time in England, France, and Germany, but quarrelled with people wherever he went, and eventually returned to Italy. There the Inquisition condemned him, primarily for stating that “Christ was not God but merely an unusually skillful magician” (he was not condemned for Copernicanism, because that was not declared heretical until 1616).

Bruno was a philosopher and theologian with interests in astronomy and magic, rather than a scientist. He wrote no scientific works, although he did have several interesting ideas on the “art of memory,” and discussed the ideas of Copernicus with approval (though not always with understanding). He also suggested that distant stars had their own planets and life, although he had no evidence for this speculation. Few of Bruno’s works have been translated. Two that have been are Gli Eroici Furori and La Cena de le Ceneri. The latter includes a mix of religious, philosophical, and astronomical ideas.


Bruno before the Roman Inquisition


Newton, gravity, and the apple


Isaac Newton and his apple (image: LadyofHats)

Among the numerous problems in this famous videoclip from South Africa (which I have previously mentioned) are some serious misunderstandings regarding Isaac Newton, gravity, and the apple story. According to William Stukeley (writing in 1726), “After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, and drank tea under the shade of some apple trees; only he [Newton], and myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. ‘Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,’ thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. ‘Why should it not go sideways, or upwards?’

Of course, Newton was hardly the first person to think seriously about gravity. About 2,000 years earlier, Aristotle had recorded his theories on the subject. These had a great influence on the Greek-speaking world, the Muslim world, and Western Europe, up until the time of Galileo. Galileo demonstrated several flaws in Aristotle’s approach, and made measurements which showed that falling objects follow parabolic paths.


Parabolas traced out by a bouncing ball (photo: MichaelMaggs)

Newton’s genius lay in being able to explain both Galileo’s findings and Kepler’s laws of planetary motion using a single mathematical equation: F = G m1 m2 / d 2. This articulated the strength of the gravitational force, while leaving the true nature of gravity mysterious. Consequently, Newton’s work was hardly the last word on the subject. Einstein’s general relativity made considerable advances in the understanding of gravity, but several questions still remain.

The scientific understanding of gravity neither started nor ended with Newton, which means that the speaker in the video linked above is quite wrong in saying: “Western knowledge … is saying that it was Newton and only Newton who knew and saw an apple falling and out of nowhere decided gravity existed and created an equation and that is it. Whether people knew Newton or not‚ or whatever happens in Western Africa‚ Northern Africa‚ the thing is the only way to explain gravity is through Newton, who sat under a tree and saw an apple fall.

Western knowledge says nothing of the kind, of course. It is a sad thing that “decolonisation” is being driven by such radical misunderstandings, when what is needed may in fact be a review of the humanities and improvements in basic education.


Australia Day

Today is Australia Day, marking the 1788 arrival of the First (British) Fleet in Australia. As well as establishing the island continent as a British colony, the First Fleet advanced the scientific study of the region. John White, Surgeon-General to the colony, was a keen amateur botanist and zoologist. His Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales (with colour plates added later) included notes on Australian flora and fauna:

Arthur Bowes Smyth, a naval surgeon on the Lady Penrhyn, made similar observations. His journal included 25 drawings, like this one of an emu (the first known drawing of that bird):


The magnificent Doble steam car

The video above shows the beautiful 1920s Doble steam car owned by Jay Leno (see this article). This magnificent vehicle represents the pinnacle of a technology that was already dead when it was built. A front-mounted boiler powers four cylinders at the rear, which drive the back wheels via spur gears (see below). There is no traditional gearbox or transmission. The steam is condensed and recycled, so that water does not have to be constantly replenished. All very efficient.

Leno says that “The last days of an old technology are almost always better than the first days of a new technology,” and aesthetically (in spite of my love of solar cars) he is probably right. Something similar can be said about the ultimate examples of castle-building, which occurred when castles were already obsolete (see below). So watch the video of this wonderful vintage car!