Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Excerpt #4 from "Years of Change and Suffering"! - Chapter 2 - "A Multiplicity of Ingenious Articles"

Continuing with excerpts from Years of Change and Suffering: Modern Perspectives on Civil War Medicine (Edinborough Press, 2009), I am pleased to offer the following from my chapter, "A Multiplicity of Ingenious Articles."

Having written about the general history of Scientific American magazine in the Civil War as a chapter in my first book, Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War (Edinborough Press, 2008), in this chapter for Years of Change I concentrate specifically on the subject of Civil War medicine as revealed in the wartime pages of Scientific American. Just as it did for weapons, Scientific American played an equally important role in fostering the "healing arts" by advising soldiers and their leaders how to maintain the health of the army, urging inventors to give attention to unmet medical needs, and reporting on advances in medical technology. I also address recent historical scholarship in the economics and social impact of invention in the mid-1800s.

Enjoy the excerpt!


Chapter 2 - "A Multiplicity of Ingenious Articles" (Excerpt)

by James M. Schmidt
(Copyright 2009, the author)

When viewed through the lens of the American Civil War, George Bernard Shaw’s oft-quoted aphorism — “In the arts of life man invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself, and produces by chemistry and machinery all the slaughter of plague, pestilence, and famine” — is poetic, but it is also unnecessarily pessimistic. While the inventive genius of the country certainly aroused itself to improving the “arts of death,” the “arts of life” were not ignored. The Civil War witnessed innovations in ambulances, surgical implements, medicines, and especially prosthetics.

As America’s oldest continuously published magazine, Scientific American has delivered opinion and news about developments in technology for more than 150 years. Founded as a weekly broadsheet in 1845 by Rufus Porter, Scientific American of the nineteenth-century was primarily targeted towards inventors and machinists — more like today’s Popular Mechanics than its own modern counterpart, which expertly reports on the cutting edge of theoretical science. During the Civil War, Scientific American played an important role by fostering and reporting on innovations that had an impact on the battlefields and waters.

Scientific American has been used to great effect as a resource in modern studies of mid-nineteenth century military technology. Less attention, however, has been paid to it as a resource in examining patterns of medical-related invention during the era. In fact — just as it did for weapons — Scientific American played an equally important role in fostering the arts of life by advising soldiers and their leaders how to maintain the health of the army, urging inventors to give attention to unmet medical needs, and reporting on advances in medical technologies. Study of the magazine’s wartime pages also supports recent historical scholarship in the economics and social impact of invention in the nineteenth century.(1)

“Promoting Health and Comfort”

Still, the genius of the magazine’s subscribers was not entirely devoted to designing implements of death and destruction. As one reader eloquently wrote:

"While many of the inventive minds of our country are devoted to the production of the most effective and destructive weapons . . . others are endeavoring to render the hard and monotonous life of our soldiers as comfortable and pleasant as possible, by furnishing them with a multiplicity of ingenious articles adapted to these purposes. Thus all are exhibiting a desire to add something to the one grand object in view, of restoring unity of States and submission to the laws. In this way those who, for various good reasons, remain at home, contribute their mite in a great many ways." (14)

Scientific American reported with “no small degree of pleasure” that its readers were also devoting their inventive faculty “in promoting the health and comfort of our soldiers and marines.” Much had been done “to improve firearms and other implements of war” but also to better “those articles and agencies which tend to promote the health of man, mitigate the privations of war, and render the army and navy more efficient.” To spur innovation (and perhaps, its own patent agency business?) the magazine often provided seeds of thought for aspiring inventors. (15)

For example, within weeks of the firing on Fort Sumter, Scientific American published a short notice entitled, “Inventions of War Wanted Immediately,” with the primary suggestion of a “simple, effective machine for cutting out bandages and making lint for army purposes.” Also needed was a “flexible india-rubber tube, fitted with a metallic mouthpiece, with some substance . . . to filter and purify the water,” so that soldiers on the march could “slake their thirst with fresh water at every running brook, without the danger of swallowing tadpoles or lizards.” (16)

In a November 1861 column entitled “Subjects for Invention,” the editors endeavored to suggest “a catalogue of subjects or problems that may, we think, be advantageously conned over with a view to further discovery of improvement.” Not surprisingly, many of the suggestions were for military use (an armor clad war vessel, “light of draft, cheap, and quick of construction”; a “pocket telegraph;” armored dress; and a tent “that could be quickly converted into a substantial boat” to carry troops across rivers), but the list also included implements for the surgeon and hospital: a “pulse indicator,” which the magazine described as a “small instrument for the sick room, capable of application to the wrist of the patient, to show and record the number of pulse beats,” and a “saddle ambulance” for mules or horses that was “capable of ready adjustment so as to remove the wounded from the field of battle.” (17)

A similar list a few months later called for more devices still, including a “simple and compact device for stretching and supporting fractured limbs” and surgical instruments, especially an improved implement for “extracting balls from wounds.” (18)


“The Fatal Calamities of War”

War could be a camp-to-grave proposition, and inventors met that grim reaality with more than thirty improvements in coffins, caskets, biers, embalming implements, and Dr. Thomas Holmes’s “Improvement in Receptacles for Dead Bodies,” a body bag made of India rubber and intended to “facilitate the carrying of badly-wounded dead bodies . . . as the boxes or coffins cannot be so easily handled or transported on the field of battle.” In introducing one such innovation, the editors of Scientific American solemnly stated, “In the present condition of the country, when the fatal calamities of war render it a duty incumbent on fathers, mothers, wives, sisters and brothers to seek their dead upon the battlefield and to bring home for burial the remains of their kindred, any invention which will tend to ameliorate these afflictions and assist in the performance of this sad duty is worthy of special notice.” (30)

In a February 1863 issue, Scientific American featured Dr. G. W. Scollay’s “Patent Air-Tight Deodorizing Burial Case.” The long article outlined — rather graphically — the chemical and biological processes of decomposition, then described Scollay’s invention, and concluded with details of a successful experiment conducted by the Sanitary Commission for the Surgeon General. The article also featured an engraving of Scollay’s case with a fallen soldier as its occupant. “Especially at the present time is its introduction to be desired,” the editors declared, “when desolation and grief exist in almost every home in the land.” (31)


(1) See “The Present Day Use of Nineteenth Century Scientific American,” in Michael Borut, “The Scientific American in Nineteenth Century America,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (New York: New York University, 1977), 285-88; uses of the Scientific American specific to Civil War technology include Robert V. Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956) and Brent Nosworthy,The Bloody Crucible of Courage: Fighting Methods and Combat Experience of the Civil War (Berkeley, CA: Carroll & Graf, 2003).

(15) Scientific American, August 17, 1861, 388

(16) Scientific American, May 11, 1861, 299

(17) Scientific American, November 30, 1861, 346

(18) Scientific American, March 29, 1862, 204

(30) “facilitate the carrying of . . . .” in United States Patent No. 39,291, “Improvement in Receptacles for Dead Bodies,” to Thomas Holmes, Washington, DC, USPTO, July 21, 1863; “In the present condition . . . ” in Scientific American, February 28, 1863, 136

(31) Ibid

1 comment:

Coast said...

hi, i am trying to track down that unpublished dissertation by michael borut you mention on your blog, about nineteenth century scientific american. do you happen to know where to find it? thanks so much. you can email me at dmost68@gmail.com