We are time travelers

March 1, 2016

detail from Allegory of Vanity, by Antonio de PeredaAs part of Distributed Proofreaders, yes, we are time travelers. We get glimpses of time. This is not just because we work on history books written in their own time. We also get a contemporary perspective on technology, science, medicine, entertainment, vocabulary, attitudes, personalities, language, and more from a different time.

Because public domain is restricted in America to items that were published before 1923, with a few exceptions, we spend most of our proofing time in the past. We’re not hopping back and forth between something using current vocabulary and spelling vs. something older. We stay in the past. As a result when we see words like burthen, intrust, inclosure, to-day, skilful, musquitoes, &c., we begin to recognize them as accurate for the time and see them as old friends. We know that a receipt is a recipe. We learn that children are encouraged to work on projects with knives, saws, chemicals and the like (see this review of The Boy Craftsman for a good example of that). Oh yes, we are in another time.

We discover references to some event that was common knowledge at the time a book was published, and that knowledge is lost now. Several books with stories of early US western travel refer to stopping at the farm of early missionaries, the Whitmans. And then they end that portion of the tale with, “of course that was before the massacre.” Apparently any reader of the time knew about the Whitman massacre.

On any given day, volunteers at DP have the opportunity to travel to many times and many places. To-day my choices include: Nagaland in northeast India, in ancient times as viewed in the late 1800s and early 1900s; Mexico in the early 1500s; Königgrätz, Bohemia, in 1866; print shops in the US and England in 1888; England from 1066 to 1154; English towns in the 1400s; Russia from 1903 to 1912; Napoleonic War experiences during the period 1804-1814, compiled before 1815, in a book originally published in 1839 that nearly disappeared before being republished in this edition in 1902. This example demonstrates that there are the times in the books and the times of the books—when they are about vs. when they were written, published and printed. In a single volume we can go back to at least three times: the time being presented, the time it was written—which impacts word choice, perspective and attitude—and the time it was published—which impacts typesetting, font, characters (like long s) and layout.

Come and join us. Where else can you make such a trip through time!

This post was contributed by WebRover, a DP volunteer.


Histoire de France: Our 29,000th Title

January 14, 2015

PGDP - 29.000th Unique Title

Distributed Proofreaders is celebrating another milestone — our 29,000th title posted to Project Gutenberg — with another very special project: the completion of all 19 volumes of Jules Michelet’s Histoire de France.

Michelet labored for over 30 years on his masterpiece, at first aided by his job in the French government’s Record Office, which gave him access to a vast array of primary sources. Due to his ardent republican sentiments, he lost his job after the 1848 Revolution, but continued the work on his great Histoire, taking time out now and then to produce a number of works on subjects as varied as natural history, religion, and even witchcraft. Project Gutenberg has a good collection of Michelet’s works in different languages.

The Histoire, completed in 1867, covers the full sweep of French history from ancient times to the French Revolution. Michelet devoted several volumes to the Renaissance, a term that he is said to have coined to describe the flowering of European culture after the strictures of the Middle Ages. He brought to his work not only meticulous scholarship, but also a unique personal style, almost poetic in its romanticism, and a deep interest, revolutionary for its time, in the people of France, not just their kings and governments.

Congratulations to the many DP volunteers who brought this great project to fruition!


A Diplomat in Japan: A British view of the Meiji Restoration

May 3, 2014

Every country has at least one historical era that forms the basis of much of its books, film, and television. The United States has the Wild West, and Japan has the Meiji Restoration.

The Meiji Restoration has the makings of great drama. Sparked by Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan, there was dramatic conflict between the Southern Coalition demanding the expulsion of “the barbarians” from Japan, and the Tokugawa Shogunate trying to placate everybody. In that conflict were lies and intrigue; plots, conspiracies, and assassinations; masterless samurai and royalty; and crimes of passion and honor.

There was also a story-book hero: Saigo Takamori. While he helped overthrow the Shogunate and form a modern government, he then led a rebellion against that government when it threatened the samurai class. He came to symbolize a romanticized samurai culture, and the Tom Cruise movie “The Last Samurai” presented a fictionalized version of his story.

Most of the stories about the Meiji Restoration focus on the internal conflict within Japan. The foreigners were mainly treated like secondary characters whose function was comical relief. In woodblock prints, foreigners were represented by grotesque caricatures of ape-like creatures with large noses and red cheeks.

After decades of knowing the story from the Japanese point of view, it was interesting to read A Diplomat in Japan, a recollection of incidents from the viewpoint of the secretary of the British legation in Tokyo. This story is told many years later, in 1903, after Ernest Satow became Sir Ernest.

Sir Ernest based his account upon diaries and letters written at the time of the events described. He did not rely on his memory of what happened decades before. For that I commend him.

In one instance, he wrote:

“My diary contains no further entry until the middle of May, and letters I wrote to my parents narrating the incidents which befel us at Kiôto have not been preserved.”

He states the foreign community has been described by an English diplomat as “the scum of Europe,” but said:

 “No doubt there was a fair sprinkling of men who, suddenly relieved from the restraints which social opinion places upon their class at home, and exposed to the temptations of Eastern life, did not conduct themselves with the strict propriety of students at a theological college. That they were really worse than their co-equals elsewhere is unlikely.”

Describing Yokohama society:

“There were few ladies in the settlement. Japan was a long way from Europe, with no regular steam communication, and the lives of foreigners were supposed to be not very safe at the hands of the arm-bearing classes.”

The danger of the arm-bearing classes is shown in the killing of foreigners, like a merchant named Richardson who was riding with friend when they met with a train of a daimiô’s retainers, who bid them stand aside.

“They passed on at the edge of the road, until they came in sight of a palanquin, occupied by Shimadzu Saburô, father of the Prince of Satsuma. They were now ordered to turn back, and as they were wheeling their horses in obedience, were suddenly set upon by several armed men belonging to the train, who hacked at them with their sharp-edged heavy swords.”

After the Richardson murder, the British demanded satisfaction. The Shogunate cooperated, but the Satsuma clan did not, so British ships attacked the clan in Kagoshima and burnt much of the city.

“The Admiral in his report, which was published in the London ‘Gazette,’ took credit for the destruction of the town, and Mr. Bright very properly called attention to this unnecessary act of severity in the House of Commons; whereupon he wrote again, or Colonel Neale wrote, to explain that the conflagration was accidental. But that I cannot think was a correct representation of what took place, in face of the fact that the “Perseus” continued to fire rockets into the town after the engagement with the batteries was at an end, and it is also inconsistent with the air of satisfaction which marks the despatch reporting that £1,000,000 worth of property had been destroyed during the bombardment.”

The bombardment convinced the Satsuma clan of the superiority of Western weapons, and Sir Ernest eventually became friends with the leaders of the clan.

Later, a conflict with the Choushûu resulted in naval operations against their Shimonoseki batteries. The Choushûu clan also learned the superiority of Western weapons, and Sir Ernest eventually became friends with the leaders of that clan as well.

This led to the situation where Great Britain was friendly with the Southern Coalition while the French were friendly with the Tokugawa Shogunate. The book speaks much of this rivalry between Great Britain and France.

Subsequently the writer witnessed the execution of two murderers by decapitation, and says:

“It was a horrible sight to see the attendants holding the headless corpse down to the hole, and kneading it so as to make the blood flow more readily into the hole, and I left the spot in all haste, vowing that mere curiosity should never induce me to witness another execution.”

There were other incidents, including times when his life was in danger, partly by his own recklessness. He was a bold man, sometimes more reckless than prudent. He was also a good storyteller, but part of the story that he told (maybe unintentionally) was the ignoble role that the European forces played in Japanese society. The British weren’t there for noble reasons, but then neither were the French, Dutch, Americans, North-Germans and Italians. They were all there for the great adventure, and the thrill of the chase for wealth.


Something to Do in the Meantime

March 5, 2014

While the Distributed Proofreaders website is down, you might like to check out some of the other books we’ve already posted to Project Gutenberg. One you may enjoy is a book I read recently, Poison Romance and Poison Mysteries by CJS Thompson.
Picture of book cover
This thoroughly enjoyable book, published in 1904, begins with an advertisement for the health-giving properties of Eno’s Fruit Salt and ends with an advert from a tea and coffee purveyor. I’m not sure they’d have been too happy at the association with poisons. It’s partly a history of poisons and poisoning and partly a titillating true-crime book, with a foray into criticism of the use of poison in fiction.

  • Enjoy the reviews (all recommended it, except for the Daily Mail, which was a bit sniffy about it)
  • Wonder at the story of poisons throughout human history
  • Thrill as you read the details of actual cases of poisoning
  • Gasp with astonishment at how easy it will be for you to poison someone after reading this book 1
  • Smile at the critique of the unrealistic use of poisons in fiction—even Shakespeare doesn’t escape censure
  • Ponder whether the advertisers knew their products were being advertised in a book about poison
1  Although I don’t think he realised he was writing a poisoner’s manual, and I don’t recommend experimenting. 😉

Interestingly, tobacco is included in the list of poisons, it seems that even in 1904, tobacco was considered harmful by some.

The habitual inhalation of tobacco smoke is undoubtedly harmful, but unless the smoke be intentionally inhaled, very little makes its way into the lungs.

Employed to excess, it enfeebles digestion, produces emaciation and general debility, and is often the beginning of serious nervous disorders.

But on the other hand

Be this as it may, the moderate smoking of tobacco has, in most cases, even beneficial results, and there appears little doubt that it acts as a solace and comfort to the poor as well as the rich. It soothes the restless, calms mental and corporeal inquietude, and produces a condition of repose without a corresponding reaction or after-effect. In adults, especially those liable to mental worry, and all brain workers, its action is often a boon, the only danger being in overstepping the boundary of moderation to excess.

Indeed, at the beginning of the 1600s, King James I is reported as describing smoking as

a custom loathsome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harmfull to the brain, dangerous to the lungs; and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoake of the pit that is bottomlesse

When criticising the fictional depiction of poison, the author’s worst strictures are reserved for

the lady novelist is the greatest sinner in this respect, and stranger poisons are evolved from her fertile brain than were ever known to man.

Real life poisoning cases are described and analysed, including various ladies who were accused of murdering their husbands and lovers, a doctor who murdered his brother in law, another who killed his wife and mother in law, the infamous Neill Cream who killed a number of young women, and a celebrated recent American murder case.

In recommending this book, I really can’t put it better than the reviewers did at the time.

The Saturday Review:—”A great deal of curious information concerning the history of poisons and poisonings.”

Illustrated London News:—”The story portions will attract most attention, and the poisoned gloves and rings of old romance supply satisfaction to that sensational instinct which is absent in hardly one of us.”

The Queen:—”Will fascinate most people. Is very readably written. Its only fault is that it is too short.”

Liverpool Courier:—”It is a readable book as well as an able one. The author is an eminent toxicologist and writes pleasantly on the lore connected with the science.”

The Scotsman:—”It is successful and interesting. Full of odd and startling information.”

Aberdeen Free Press:—”Fascinates the majority of his readers. One could wish that Mr. Thompson had written much more.”

Glasgow Citizen:—”A book of the week.”

Glasgow Herald:—”Light and eminently readable.”

My own review? A fascinating, entertaining book that should be on everybody’s ‘must read’ list.


Collection of Nebraska Pioneer Reminiscences

January 5, 2011

I have always been fascinated by tales of pioneers. Whether this is because I am of pioneer stock myself, or that I find it amazing that my ancestors were able to live happy productive lives in the most primitive of circumstances, I am not sure.

When the book Collection of Nebraska Pioneer Reminiscences became available for smooth-reading at Distributed Proofreaders, I immediately downloaded the text to read. I found it just as enthralling as I had hoped. The descriptions of the hardships suffered by the people settling this region of the country are, believe it or not, typical pioneer stories. My own family has a legend which says that my great-great-great-grandmother rode in her rocking chair with the household goods on the wagon, carrying a loaded shotgun and acting as lookout, as the family journeyed from Pennsylvania to Ohio. In the Nebraska reminiscences, I found reminders of this story. Many of the women were pressed into duty as guards, butchers, bakers, and candlestick-makers. The men expected it of their women, and the women seemed to take it all in stride.

I stand in awe of the bravery with which these pioneers faced blizzards, grasshoppers, prairie fires, visits by Indians (and raids by some Indians), tornadoes, and sheer boredom, not to mention frustration with the constantly-blowing wind. That is a recurring theme in many of the reminiscences in this book: The Wind takes on a personality all its own and to some of the pioneers seemed almost to become a living entity.

I don’t think I would be strong enough to survive walking across the Missouri River in the dead of winter, as Mrs. Elise G. Everett did. She wrote a selection for the book which she titled “Experiences of a Pioneer Woman.” This essay starts on p. 32. Mrs. Everett wrote,

“On December 31, 1866, in a bleak wind I crossed the Missouri river[sic] on the ice, carrying a nine months’ old baby … and my four and a half year old boy trudging along. My husband’s brother, Josiah Everett, carried three-year-old Eleanor in one arm and drove the team…. We lived with our brother until material for our shack could be brought from … Iowa. Five grown people and seven children, ranging in ages from ten years down, lived in that small shack for three months. That our friendship was unimpaired is a lasting monument to our tact, politeness, and good nature.”

I wonder if I could still be friends with anyone, after living in such close confines through a winter. Could you?

Some of the women were less content in their new lives. Many spoke of homesickness, and many were extremely lonely. One of the men who wrote an entry for the book was General Albert V. Cole (see p.18). He realized that his wife was not happy, but he wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. He wrote,

“… Mrs. Cole made butter, our first churn being a wash bowl in which she stirred the cream with a spoon, but the butter was sweet and we were happy, except that Mrs. Cole was very homesick. She was only nineteen years old and a thousand miles from her people, never before having been separated from her mother. I had never had a home, my parents having died when I was very small, and I had been pushed around from pillar to post. Now I had a home of my own and was delighted with the wildness of Nebraska, yet my heart went out to Mrs. Cole. The wind blew more fiercely than now and she made me promise that if our house ever blew down I would take her back to Michigan. That time very nearly came on April 13, 1873. The storm raged three days and nights and the snow flew so it could not be faced. I have experienced colder blizzards but never such a storm as this Easter one. I had built an addition of two rooms on my shanty and it was fortunate we had that much room before the storm for it was the means of saving the lives of four friends who were caught without shelter. Two of them, a man and wife, were building a house on their claim one-half mile east, the others were a young couple who had been taking a ride on that beautiful Sunday afternoon. The storm came suddenly about four in the afternoon; not a breath of air was stirring and it became very dark. The storm burst, black dirt filled the air, and the house rocked. Mrs. Cole almost prayed that the house would go down so she could go back East. But it weathered the blast; if it had not I know we would all have perished. The young man’s team had to have shelter and my board stable was only large enough for my oxen and cow so we took his horses to the sod house on the girl’s claim a mile away. Rain and hail were falling but the snow did not come until we got home or we would not have found our way. There were six grown people and one child to camp in our house three days and only one bed. The three women and the child occupied the bed, the men slept on the floor in another room. Monday morning the snow was drifted around and over the house and had packed in the cellar through a hole where I intended to put in a window some day. To get the potatoes from the cellar for breakfast I had to tunnel through the snow from the trap door in the kitchen. It was impossible to get to the well so we lifted the trap door and melted fresh snow when water was needed.”

General Cole continues with his description of the family’s life on the Nebraska plains in calmer times, as well. And, later in the book, the four friends relate this tale from their perspectives.

I understood completely Mrs. Cole’s homesickness, as I now live 1,836 miles from my family and the house where I grew up. I’ve lived here for nearly 32 years, and sometimes I am still so homesick it hurts. And I have nearly every convenience known to modern man!

There are several entries which tell about buffalo hunts, the ruts left in the prairie by the pioneers following the Oregon Trail, and other events in the history of Nebraska. But my favorite parts of the books are those which tell about the everyday life events and how the families overcame seemingly impossible odds, to grow and flourish in what was a remote frontier.

This book contains some material which is not politically correct, so if you are offended by references to Indians and raids and so on, I would recommend that you either do not read the book, or that you remember the time-frame in which it was written. It stands as an historical chronicle of an era that has long since passed away, but which is a vital part of the growth of this great United States of America.


Mathematical Recreations and Essays

November 13, 2010

W. W. Rouse Ball‘s “Mathematical Recreations and Essays” contains an odd but decidedly interesting collection of essays about a range of different subjects. The 4th edition dating from 1905 was recently posted to Project Gutenberg. Far from being interesting to mathematicians only, this book has something for everybody who’s interested in puzzles and number games or in the history of science.

The book is divided into two parts of quite different character. The first part, titled “Mathematical Recreations,” ranges from simple number games of the “guess the number” kind to magical squares and mazes, discussing topics such as mathematical and geometrical fallacies, the “Eight Queens” problem on a chessboard, map colourings and many more. The problems presented are not exactly new or original and don’t pretend to be, but I like the systematic treatment given to many of them.

Part II of the book, titled “Miscellaneous Essays and Problems,” contains a wealth of historical information about mathematics-related topics made even more fascinating by the fact that it was written more than a century ago. It starts with a description of the development of the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge, giving a very interesting glimpse into the history of mathematics education at one of Britain’s most prestigious universities. The next chapters give a history of classical geometrical problems, the quadrature of the circle the most prominent of them, followed by an introduction to Mersenne’s numbers. After that comes a short description of the “scientific” aspect of astrology, which the author himself wasn’t too sure whether to include. There’s a chapter introducing early cryptography, one on hyper-space, including space with more than three dimensions as well as non-Euclidean geometry, and one on time measurements.

But my absolute favourite is the last chapter on matter and ether theories. At the time this book was written, the internal workings of atoms were not yet known and the subject of the wildest speculations. The author gives an account of the different theories proposed and how they explain the way atoms interact with each other. Rather than reporting scientific developments from a historical standpoint, this chapter provides some valuable insights into science in action, which makes it really fun to read.

Tucked away behind the index are advertisements for the W. W. Rouse Ball’s other works, together with blurbs from probably every review that was ever printed. Let me cite from one of the reviews for this book, which I have to heartily agree with:

… A great deal of the information is hardly accessible in any English books; and Mr. Ball would deserve the gratitude of mathematicians for having merely collected the facts. But he has presented them with such lucidity and vivacity of style that there is not a dull page in the book; and he has added minute and full bibliographical references which greatly enhance the value of his work.–The Cambridge Review.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and would really like to see the other works by this author on PG: they are surely worth a closer look.


Letters of a Lunatic

November 3, 2010

Letters of a Lunatic: A Brief Exposition of My University Life, During the Years 1853-54. The title says it all. The author was Professor George J. Adler, the date of publication was 1854, and the situation was reminescent of the old quote: “Even a paranoid can have enemies.”

Prof. Adler was a noted lexicographer of his time, made famous for his dictionary of the German and English languages. Until 1854, he was chair of German Language at the University of the City of New-York. In 1854, he was found insane and was committed to the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, where he subsequently died. Letters of a Lunatic was a short tract written by him stating his side of the story of what happened.

My main object was of course to vindicate and defend my character, my professional honor and my most sacred rights as a rational man and as a public educator, against the invasions of narrow-minded and unjust aggressors, whose machinations have for several years been busily at work in subverting what other men have reared before them, in retarding and impeding what the intelligence of our age and country is eager to accelerate and to promote.

The tract includes letters from him to the head of his university, to the mayor of New York, and to others unnamed. In addition to that, there are: a letter supposedly from the head of his university, comments on some of the letters, and a section outlining the Law of Intellectual Freedom. Revealing are his comments that:

The scum of New-York in the shape of Negroes, Irishmen, Germans, &c., were hired, in well-organized gangs, to drop mysterious allusions and to offer me other insults in the street, (and thus I was daily forced to see and hear things in New-York, of which I had never dreamt before,) while a body of proselyting religionists were busy in their endeavors to make me a submissive tool of some ecclesiastical party or else to rob me of the last prospect of eating a respectable piece of bread and butter.

and that:

A night or week of such proceedings would be enough to set a man crazy. What must be their effect if they continue for months? And yet expressions like the following were perpetually ringing in my ears:—”Go on!” “You are the man!” “You are not the man!” “Go on! no, stop!” (by the same voice in the same breath.) “Out of the Institution with that man!” (by the laurelled valedictorian of last year.), “Stand up!” (by Prof. C——, close to my door.) “He started with nothing!” (by the same voice in the same place). “Pray!” (by ditto.) “You have finished!” “Go away!” “Thank God, that that man is out of the Institution!” (by a lady member of a certain religious fraternity, on terms of intimacy with a certain prominent politician of the neighborhood.) “Pursue him, worm that never d-i-e-s!” (theatrically shrieked by the same voice.) “You are a dead man! Dead, dead, dead, dead!” (by the voice of a certain popular preacher. ) “He is deceived, he is deceived!” (by the spokesman of a body of theological students in front of the neighboring Seminary, as I was passing.) And at times even: “Die!” “Break!” (on the supposition that I was in embarrassed circumstances.) “Whore!” even was one of the delectable cries! To these I should add the mysterious blowings of noses (both within sight and hearing,) frightfully significant coughs, horse-laughs, shouts and other methods of demonstration, such as striking the sidewalk in front of my windows with a cane, usually accompanied with some remark: “I understand that passage so!” for example.

There might have been a powerful conspiracy, or he might have been delusional, or both. No matter what was the truth, it was a fascinating read.


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