Thursday, February 24, 2011

Making Something out of Nothing

The downturn in the economy can be felt in many corners of the world.  Countless people are lacking extra resources to participate in activities that may be interesting or useful.  This past week I was reading in Timothy Ferris’ book Seeing in the Dark and discovered Edward Emerson Barnard, a truly destitute individual from the beginning, who did not let his economic situation prevent him from learning and contributing to society.

Barnard was born into an impoverished home in 1857, a few months after his father had died.  His mother was the sole provider for her family of two young boys and her only source of income was making wax flowers.  Needless to say, the family was usually hungry.  Once during the Civil War, a ship loaded with supplies sank near the Barnard home in Nashville, Tennessee.  Young Edward traveled to the shipwreck and was able to drag a box of hardtack out from the river. He proudly brought it home for supper that evening for his family to enjoy.

Barnard described his growing up years as “so sad and bitter that even now [he] cannot look back on it without a shudder” (Ferris, 227).  He had very little education – two months to be exact – and as a result had few acquaintances since his efforts were spent simply surviving. To lighten his heart, he would lie out in an old wagon bed and look up at the stars. He studied them for hours and even befriended a few favorites.  One was a bright summer star, directly overhead – Vega. Barnard did not know the star’s name however, because of his lack of schooling.

When he was nine years old, after survived a cholera epidemic that had seized the town, Barnard obtained employment with Van Stavoren’s Photographic Gallery.  There he spent his days cranking a set of wheels to keep a large roof-mounted camera aimed at the Sun to captured light, which was used to make prints of photographic negatives.  After a long day’s work, Barnard walked home in the dark – looking up at the stars.

Barnard worked for the photographic gallery for seventeen years, all the while increasing his knowledge of optics and photography.  Using this knowledge he gathered discarded items and built his own telescope.  Barnard studied the sky for hours with his invention but still lacked any understanding of what he was actually observing.  One day a friend needed two dollars, which was a large sum of money to Barnard, but he loaned it to his friend anyway, never expecting to see it again.  As a security for the two-dollar loan, his friend left Barnard a book.  Being angry about the exchange, Barnard did not bother to look at the book for some time.  When he finally thumbed through it, months later, he found that it was Thomas Dick’s text The Sidereal Heavens – a book about astronomy!  Barnard poured over the star charts in the book and soon found the names of the stars he had befriended as a child.

Barnard continued to observe and sky and began reading extensively, he hired a math tutor and eventually earned a degree in mathematics from Vanderbilt University, where he continued on as an instructor. After teaching for some time he was hired by Lick Observatory when he showed up at the observation domes that were under construction.  There Barnard declared that he had quit his teaching job, sold his house and would work for free if he could just be given a chance to observe through the huge telescopes being built.  Barnard’s keen vision and hard work led him to countless discoveries and honor in the field of astronomy.  He published over 900 papers and observed features on the face of one of Jupiter’s moons, Io, that were not confirmed until the spacecraft Voyager flew by one hundred years later.

Ferris, Timothy. Seeing in the Dark (New York, London, Toronto and Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2002) 227-229.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Henry Hudson: Part 3

             Henry Hudson sailed on one final voyage sponsored once again by the British Muscovy Company who had decided it was acceptable to search for a northwest passage. This time Hudson sailed along the coast of Iceland, following George Weymouth’s maps. Hudson left London on the Discovery in April of 1611 with twenty-two crewmen, including his young son John. During this voyage, Hudson’s attempts to find the passage he so desperately sought were not forthcoming. He and his crew spent a dismal winter just south of Hudson Bay in James Bay with their ship trapped in the ice. Spirits slackened, the food ran low and Hudson’s crew began to complain about the length of the journey and Hudson’s seeming inability to command his ship. The crew became more discouraged and Hudson became more anxious to find a passage to Asia.  He continued to suggest that in the spring they resume their search so as not to return to England unsuccessful.
            Once the ice began to thaw in June 1611, the crew of the Discovery mutinied against Hudson. They tied him up and coerced him and several of his crew, including the sick to board a small, light sailboat – a shallop – that belonged to the Discovery, without giving them any food, drink, extra clothing, fire, or other necessities. The insubordinate crew pushed the shallop off into the large unexplored bay that would one day carry Hudson’s name. “The haunting image of Hudson, his son, and the other men, huddled together in the shallop condemned to a slow and agonizing death, ranks as one of the most tragic and despairing scenes in the annals of maritime history” (Dolin, 23).            
            Although Henry Hudson disappeared without fanfare, his explorations led to global success. The results of his exploration of the Hudson River established one of the early bridges between Europe and North America. Though deeply disappointed that the Hudson River was not a passage to eastern trade, Hudson’s discovery set into motion, major changes in the Hudson Valley that directly related to global trade.  The resulting establishment of the Dutch colony of New Netherland was a connection between the Dutch Republic and the New World.

Dolin, Eric Jay. Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Henry Hudson: Part 2

            As Henry Hudson sought support for a third sea voyage, he approached Holland’s Dutch East India Company and found them anxious to employ him to find a northeast passage to the Asia.  Being acquainted with other ocean explorers of the time, Hudson had a particular interested in the voyages of John Smith of the Virginia Company and George Weymouth who had both explored the coast of Maine. Their findings led Hudson to believe a passage to the Orient could actually lie somewhere along the eastern coast of the New World.
            The Dutch East India Company still supposed that a northeastern passage was the only way to get to the Orient, even though evidences were beginning to show otherwise. They may have sensed Hudson’s misgiving about the route he planned to take as they gave him orders “to think of discovering no other routes or passages” besides a northeastern one (Asher, 245). Henry Hudson set out from Amsterdam on April 4, 1609 and sailed under the Dutch flag in his new ship, the eighty-five foot Halve Maen along with a crew of sixteen members, part of them Dutch and the others English. Hudson accepted the assignment from the Dutch East India Company to find a northeast passage but had no confidence in its existence.            
            After a month on the sea, just off the northern coast of Russia, the Halve Maen ran into a sea of ice and could go no further. Hudson used the predicament to persuade his crew to seek out a northwestern passage instead. Hudson selected a westerly current and crossed the Atlantic literally thousands of miles in the opposite direction of his original orders. Before long he had reached the North American coast, near Newfoundland, a destination contemplated by him for sometime, and his first attempt at a northwest passage.
            On September 11, 1609 the Halve Maen sailed “between two headlands, and entered . . . into as fine a river as can be found, wide and deep, with good anchoring ground on both sides” (Van Meteren, 7). It took Hudson and his crew just over a week to sail the 150 miles up the Hudson River to present day Albany, New York. On the 19th of September, the Halve Maen halted where the river narrowed and the ship could go no further, a definite sign that Hudson had once again been unsuccessful at finding a passage to Asia. With this gloomy realization the Halve Maen turned around and sailed southward, back down the river and to the ocean. Hudson noted the possibilities for trade that existed with the natives of the Hudson Valley, and the wide river with a convenient harbor, but went home disappointed because he had not achieved his desired goal. A direct result of Hudson’s interactions with the Mohawk Indians and his exploration up the Hudson River ushered in a global economy in the Hudson River Valley which ultimately led to the alteration of the New York area into one of the world’s greatest trade and industrial capitals.
            Hudson and his crew returned to England’s Dartmouth Harbor from their voyage on November 7, 1609 where English authorities immediately apprehended him, for not serving his own country but exploring for England’s bitter enemy, the Dutch Republic. It was not until July 1610 that Hudson, his crew, logbooks, notes and charts returned to Amsterdam. At the examination of these items, the fact that Hudson did not find a northeast passage was obscured by the realization that he discovered and mapped a waterway for the Dutch in the New World. The interest of the Dutch East India Company was piqued at Hudson’s reports of the Natives who made promises of many skins, furs, and many other commodities. The Dutch Republic soon sent out ships to begin trading furs with the Mohawk tribes of the North River, thus beginning the Dutch’s involvement with global trade on the North American continent.


Asher, G.M.  Henry Hudson the Navigator: The Original Documents in Which His Career is Recorded. New York: Cosimo Inc., 2009.

Van Meteren, Emanuel. “On Hudson’s Voyage,” in Narratives of New Netherland, 1609-1664, ed. J. Franklin Jameson. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Henry Hudson: Part 1

            Henry Hudson made four voyages in search of a northern passage to the lucrative ports of Asia to increase the efficiency of global trade at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Though he studied, labored and prepared, Hudson never achieved this goal. However, as a result of Hudson’s exploration of the North River (present-day Hudson River) and the subsequent establishment of the Dutch colony of New Netherland (present-day New York) a unique avenue of intercontinental trade opened up between New Netherland, the Dutch Republic and the world.
            In 1569, the mapmaker Gerardus Mercator published an atlas of the Arctic and described three potential water routes from Europe to the East by traversing the Arctic regions of the globe. First, Mercator suggested one could “sail straight over the pole and down the other side into the Pacific.” His second option included “sailing northeast by Novaya Zemlya, over Russia, and into the Pacific.” The final speculation included sailing to the northwest and then follow one of two possible paths to the Pacific. A fourth option, not mentioned by Mercator but discussed by other explorers of the time, incorporated a “possible [water] route through the North American continent.”
            Mercator’s Arctic maps were the focus of discovery during Hudson’s life for finding a possible route to the East Indies. Hudson determined to explore Mercator’s three Arctic routes as well as a idea of a possible northwestern route, To accomplish this, he organized and carried out four radical voyages in only four years—an impressive accomplishment even by modern standards. This astounding feat required Hudson to raise the funds, recruit the crew, provision the ships, and plan the route for these voyages in a very short period.
            Henry Hudson gained his first sponsor for exploration from a Russian trading business, the Muscovy Company. On his first voyage in 1607, while sailing for the British with the financial support of the Muscovy Company, Hudson attempted to follow Mercator’s proposed routes of navigating over the top of the world to the East Indies. As Hudson and his crew sailed on their ship, the Hopewell, they soon discovered the carefully studied maps to be incorrect; there was no river running across the North Pole in the summer. Hudson was halted by ice and forced to end his voyage. He returned to England in September of that same year.
            Hudson’s second voyage, much the same as the first, found him sponsored once again by the Muscovy Company, sailing in the same ship and again looking for a northeastern passage to the Orient. Hudson, a capable sea captain could not sail through the waters around the islands of Novaya Zemlya because of ice, which blocked the ship’s path. Because of his failure to find any significant paths to successful global trade, the Muscovy Company lost interest in Hudson.
[1]  Corey Sandler, Henry Hudson: Dreams and Obsession, (New York: Citadel Press Books, 2007), xii-xiii.
[1] Russian Company, August 2007, in Guildhall Library Manuscripts Section,  s.v. “Muscovy Company” (accessed 28 December 2010).