I am preparing slides for a lecture I am giving in mid-August on "Yellow Fever, Galveston, and the Civil War" (details coming to the blog soon!).
In doing some research I turned to one of my favorite 19th century sources on science and technology: Scientific American magazine. Indeed, Scientific American has been the subject of many posts on this blog and its Civil War history is featured with dedicated chapters in two of my books.
Keyword searces for "yellow fever" in the "Making of America" collection of Scientific American did not disappoint. It yielded results that are witness to all of the misunderstanding of the causes (and purported cures) of yellow fever in the mid-19th century. Yet for all the misunderstanding it's ncouraging to realize - and we should not forget - that they were at least trying to understand and come up with explanations and cures for this dreaded scourge.
I will feature some of the theories and remedies in my next post. In this post, though, I wanted to feature a particular invention: a cooling/ventilating system designed for ships that could lower the temparature sufficiently to "freeze out" the virus in the holds. As you'll see in the hilighted text below, it's based on the mistaken premise of "foul air" being the cause of yellow fever (rather than a virus caused by the bite of an infected mosquito). Still, the mechanics of this machine are very impressive for the period.
Scientific American - February 22, 1862
"Apparatus for Ventilating Ships, Hospitals, &c."
"It is also particularly desirable, in hospitals or sick rooms, to keep the air in the room cool and to supply each patient with a certain quantity of fresh air. But by the ordinary fan neithe of these onjects can be accomplished, as the warm foul air in the oom is merely stirred up, when, by an equal amount of labor properly directed, a fresh and cool current might be passed constantly through the room.
"We have often wondered that some of our enterprising inventors did not devise a simple and efficient appartus for this purpose, and thus render a valuable service to the community, and at the same time dervive a pecuniary benefit themselves. We have at lngth the satisfaction of illustrating such an apparatus, represented in the accompanying engraving.
"A fan, running in the box, A, drives a current of air hrough the shaft, B, spiral channel, C, around this shaft, and into the room to be ventilated. The worm, C, runs in an ice box, and is surrounded by punded ice to cool the air in its passage; the channel being made in a spiral form to secure a long passage for the air amid the cooling material. The worm is kept constantly turning in order to stir the cooling mixture and constantly change the points of contact.
"The apparatus is represented in the engraving as designed for ventilating infected ships, especially those infected with yellow fever. It is well known that the virus - whatever it may be - that causes the yellow fever is instantly and completely destroyed by frost or by a reduction of the temperaure below the freezing point. Consequently, to eradicate yellow fever from a ship it is only necessary to reduce the temperature of the interior below 32 degrees.
"The patent for this invention was granted through the Scientific American Patent Agency, April 9, 1861, and further information in relation to it may be obtained by addressing the inventor, Alois Peteler, proprietor of "Peteler's Hotel," at New Brighton, Staten Island, N.Y."
Galvestonian Gail Borden - of condensed milk fame - had given thought to large-scale refrigeration as a means of mitigating yellow fever more than ten years before Peteler's invention. Borden's experiments were no doubt inspired by the fact that he lost his wife Penelope to yellow fever in Galveston in 1844.
More on yellow fever reports in the Scientific American in the next post.