Imagination, engineering and invention have driven scientific progress for millennia. The Natural Philosopher adopts a number of other roles that encapsulate (both memorably ... and not so successfully) the spirit of innovation that marked the Age of Enlightenment and ushered in the modern age. His portrayals of such innovators include:
John Harrison,the maker of the seafaring chronometer which allowed ship’s captains to accurately determine their longitude at sea. Harrison’s innovative clock withstood the hardships of travel at sea, and kept time with remarkable accuracy that rivaled celestial navigation methods. His devices helped the likes of Captain Cook as he circumnavigated the globe.
Dr. John Jeffries, a Boston-born scientist who studied and flew “aerostatic spheres” along with his collaborator, Jean-Pierre Blanchard. The pair used airships similar to those used by the famed Montgolfier Brothers to cross the English Channel, and inspired men to break the bonds of gravity and take to the skies. Notable men such as Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington were taken with the wondrous possibilities of manned flight, and some notable women took to the air and championed ballooning, too. Dean Howarth incorporates their roles in this pioneering story of Early Ballooning. The scientific observations made by Dr. Jeffries and his fellow “aeronauts” helped establish modern meteorology.
Lieutenant John Gage, a native Virginian who served in the Royal Navy with the illustrious, Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery to the South Pacific. Topics such as navigation, the collection of exotic specimens, encounters with indigenous culture, and high science, such as the observation of the Transit of Venus in Tahiti, all figure prominently in the narrative of the Lieutenant who traveled from Norfolk, Virginia to as far away as Botany Bay in Australia.
John Page, a college friend of Jefferson whose similar love of science led him to found the Virginia Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge. As an avid amateur scientist, Page dabbled in many fields from astronomy to natural science. This portrayal focuses heavily on the shared interests of Page and Jefferson, and allows audiences to appreciate the scientific prowess of the Sage of Monticello.
Major Benjamin Tallmadge, school teacher, soldier, and spy master to General Washington. The Yale educated Tallmadge used the power of his intellect and his ring of spies to thwart the British Army. Scientific principles abound in spy craft - from cryptography and ciphers to the chemistry of invisible inks. The portrayal of Tallmadge includes many methods and tricks of espionage, including demonstrations of the mysterious “sympathetic stains” that could make sensitive communiques visible to only those who know the secrets.
Franz Anton Mesmer and Elisha Perkins, quack physicians who innovated in rather dubious ways and challenged the scientific community to impartially assess and review their wild claims of curative powers. The flamboyant Mesmer, from whom we have the word “mesmerize”, was a German doctor who believed the new sciences of electricity and magnetism could contain miraculous cures for many illnesses. Mesmer’s salons in Paris attracted throngs of followers (including Marie Antoinette and the Marquis de Lafayette) who sought treatments based on the theory of Animal Magnetism. It was not until the dubious “peer reviews” of Franklin and Lavoisier did Mesmer’s craze abate.
Elisha Perkins was a Yankee physician who took latest discoveries in electro-chemistry into a more colorful direction. His “tracktors” were metallic probes used to alleviate pain, gout, and arthritis through skilled application to body parts of the afflicted. His innovation made him a rich man and gave science further reason to embrace skepticism.
The Natural Philosopher recounts the theories and strange methods of these curious men.