Since today is Darwin’s birthday you can expect that the blogosphere will be buzzing with posts about Darwin. Most will be about Darwin’s scientific achievements, some will be eloquent and insightful. Others will focus on the conflict between evolution and religion. Since, however, it is Darwin’s birthday, I would like to focus on the man. Darwin, having been born in the 19th century and having died in the 19th century faced some interesting problems in his daily life. Problems very few of us have to worry about now.
A case in point concerns his well. The well was 325 feet deep and getting water from it was a bit of a chore. Darwin turned to the Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette for help:
Bucket Ropes for Wells.–I suffer from the serious misfortune of a well 325 feet deep. It is worked by two buckets, and a chain, which, from its great length, is necessarily very heavy. Would a wire rope (galvinised) answer? This, I presume, might be tight and thin; it would have to carry, at each end, a strong and heavy bucket, holding 12 gallons. The rope would have to work over, and, I presume, once quite round, a wheel only 14 inches in diameter. Would any of your correspondents have the charity to give the result of any actual experience of light wire rope; such would be of value, probably to others, as well as to myself. C.R.D.
I’ve seen many adds in my local community paper asking for advice like this. The more things change, eh. A few years later he was back iin the Gardener’s Chronicle with a new problem.
Apparently he went with wire and it was working reasonably well. Here is Darwin on his new problem:
The Subject of Deep Wells has been sometimes discussed in your columns. I have a well 325 feet deep, and the 12-gallon bucket actually weighs 40 lbs. For many years I used a chain weighing 232 lbs.; this, with the water, itself 96 lbs., amounts to 481 lbs. I have made an enormous saving of labour by using for the last half year Newall’s patent wire rope. Now, will any one have the charity to say from experience whether there could not be a great saving in the weight of the bucket. Would zinc, or gutta percha, or leather serve? The bucket must be strong enough to withstand being occasionally dashed against the side of the well. Or must I stick to my old substantial oaken friend? C. D.
Unfortunately, there is no indication as to how he solved this new problem. On a other occasions he would use the Gardener’s Chronicle to appeal for help with his experiments. This one is, well, charming:
LIZARD’S EGGS. If any of your readers could obtain for me some eggs of the Lacerta agilis, I should be greatly obliged. Lizards are most widely distributed, and I want to ascertain whether the eggs will float in sea-water, and, if so, whether they will retain their vitality. A reward of a few shillings (which I would gladly repay as well as postage) offered to schoolboys, would perhaps get these eggs in the proper districts collected. Ch. Darwin, Downe, Farnborough, Kent.
Darwin also had causes that he felt strongly about. Steel jaw traps being one of them:
Few men could endure to watch for five minutes, an animal struggling in a trap with a crushed and torn limb; yet on all the well-preserved estates throughout the kingdom, animals thus linger every night; and where game keepers are not humane, or have grown callous to the suffering constantly passing under their eyes, they have been known by an eyewitness to leave the traps unvisited for 24 or even 36 hours. Such neglect as this is no doubt rare; but traps are often forgotten; and there are few game keepers who will leave their beds on a cold winter’s morning, one hour earlier, to put an end to the pain of an animal which is safely in their power. I subjoin the account of the appearance of a rabbit caught in a trap, given by a gentleman, who, last summer witnessed the painful sight many times. “I know of no sight more sorrowful than that of these unoffending animals as they are seen in the torture grip of these traps. They sit drawn up into a little heap, as if collecting all their force of endurance to support the agony; some sit in a half torpid state induced by intense suffering. Most young ones are found dead after some hours of it, but others as you approach, start up, struggle violently to escape, and shriek pitiably, from terror and the pangs occasioned by their struggles.” We naturally feel more compassion for a timid and harmless animal, such as a rabbit, than for vermin, but the actual agony must be the same in all cases. It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the suffering thus endured from fear, from acute pain, maddened by thirst, and by vain attempts to escape. Bull baiting and cock fighting have rightly been put down by law; I hope it may never be said that the members of the British Parliament will not make laws to protect animals if such laws should in any way interfere with their own sports. Some who reflect upon this subject for the first time will wonder how such cruelty can have been permitted to continue in these days of civilisation; and no doubt if men of education saw with their own eyes what takes place under their sanction, the system would have been put an end to long ago.
Tragically these traps are still used in parts of the US. Finally, a university student wrote Darwin concerning evolution and religion. The student received a response from Darwin’s wife Emma but apparently did not like the answer so he wrote Darwin a second time, apparently asking what Darwin thought of the supernatural. This was in June of 1879.This is Darwin’s, rather cranky, response:
Sir,–I am very busy, and am an old man in delicate health, and have not time to answer your, questions fully, even assuming that they are capable of being answered at all. Science and Christ have nothing to do with each other, except in as far as the habit of scientific investigation makes a man cautious about accepting any proofs. As far as I am concerned, I do not believe that any revelation has ever been made. With regard to a future life, every one must draw his own conclusions from vague and contradictory probabilities. Wishing you well, I remain, your obedient servant,
Darwin died in April of 1882 and I can’t help but feel a little bit of sympathy for the, very human, person revealed in that letter. Some might interpret it as a crabby “get off my grass” kind of statement, but I see someone at the end of a long interesting life asking to be left alone during the few remaining years he has left.