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Frank’s Ordinary Day
An excerpt from Gavan Tredoux’s forthcoming multi-volume biography of Sir Francis Galton.
Note: This is an excerpt from Gavan Tredoux’s forthcoming multi-volume biography of Sir Francis Galton. You can find an earlier excerpt here:
And Gavan’s Aporia podcast appearance here:
Written by Gavan Tredoux.
‘Your bath is ready, Mr. Galton’. Gifi withdrew his head from the doorway to let his master perform his ablutions in private. Things had been happening, but the manservant pretended not to notice. A slim balding man, tall for his day at nearly six foot, rose and slipped on his dressing gown. On the way to the bathtub he picked up a pair of diving spectacles and a copy of the Times. Would those new adjustments work? Sitting comfortably in the warm water, he pressed the spectacles firmly on his nose, sealing them. Grasping the newspaper in both hands, he kept it safely in the air as he steadily sank down, until his head was covered with water. He stared up through the water at the newsprint, aided by the optically-correcting goggles.
Though he was well below the water, Galton found that he could now read the headlines clearly. Flipping to the scheduled events of the day, he verified that Dr. Livingstone’s letters would be discussed at the Royal Geographical Society that evening. He had promised to attend, for the first time in years. Turning to other news, he glared at the usual distortions of fact. Holding the paper fully at arms length, the smallest print could still be read. By now a minute had passed, and an alarming feeling developed. After considering this for a while, the cause was apparent. He had forgotten to breathe. Bursting up into the air, some deep breaths restored his equilibrium. But now the newspaper was damp.
After his bath, Frank proceeded in his bathrobe to the water closet, tucked away at the top of a steep flight of stairs. When the door was latched from the inside, a semaphore deployed on the outside. Visitors on the ground floor could see that the room was engaged before bothering up the steps. Aged sisters contemplating the ascent from the ground floor were grateful.
Breakfast at 42 Rutland Gate was sparse when visiting explorers were not in town. Louisa, thin and pinched, had perennial gastric complaints and was not much of an eater. Her husband conformed without complaint. The teapot attracted most of his interest. Taking a notebook out of his pocket, he carefully noted the steeping time and took the temperature of the brew, deploying a large thermometer. There were a dozen entries from prior experiments, converging on a result.
The instrument was a Negretti & Zambra, recently tested at the Kew Laboratory, to which Frank had more or less retreated. The device worked well, provided it was not bumped, making it too delicate for use in African exploration. A sip suggested the emulsion was on the strong side, which suited his own taste. Duly noted. The mystery of the teapot would soon be cleared up. Louisa grimaced. These domestic experiments had amused her at first, but one of her week-long headaches was coming on.
For once it was not raining, suggesting a brisk walk to nearby Hyde Park while ‘Lou’ retired to her room. Perhaps there would be a procession to observe. Into a coat compartment dropped an object resembling a parcel wrapped in brown paper and string. Into a trouser pocket, a piece of paper resembling a cross with asymmetric arms joined a thimble with a needle protruding discreetly from the end, just enough to penetrate the paper but no more. A thumb could assume the thimble inside the pocket without attracting the least public attention. Hat and walking stick completed the ensemble, and Frank stepped out into the clear autumn day.
As he walked up through Knightsbridge, heading toward Kensington Road and over to Hyde Park, the emerging scientist surveyed the other pedestrians drawn out by the mild weather. Before he passed the fenced copse of grass and trees in the middle of Rutland Gate, two women bustled past in the opposite direction. Galton was ready for them. The thimble grasped the paper cross and inserted two marks next to each other on the short arm. They were both hideous—trout in crinoline. Possibly visitors from Aberdeen. Before he got to Kensington Road, a Brougham trundled past. Were the horses spying on him? It was hard to completely shake the feeling of paranoia he had worked for weeks to establish, until he was satisfied that he could reflexively suspect a blinkered horse of surveillance.
On the outskirts of Hyde Park a throng of people pressed behind an advance guard of young women, each of whom wore a green piece of clothing: a hatband or feather, perhaps a glove, scarf or rustic stole. Undecided about these specimens, marks were placed near the middle of the paper cross. The throng surged into the park, sticking as close to each other as Damara cattle worried by lions. Street horrors were clambering into the trees to see events from the top branches. On a slight promontory, the lead-ox was already warming to his theme. Amnesty for Fenians! Galton paused at a distance to survey the reaction of the crowd as the speaker took command of them. A pinkish flush of cheeks intensified with the excitement, then slowly dissipated. Taking out a notebook and pencil, Galton noted down ‘Tints for measuring aggregate mood’. But what colour scale would do?
In order to get a closer look at the Fenian speaker, the geographer walked up to the edge of the crowd. Hats and the odd tall person got in the way. People were getting progressively taller, ever since his days as an undergraduate at Cambridge, when he was able to comfortably see over the heads of a crowd of his fellow students. Now as he watched impassively—Amnesty for Fenians! Unconditional release!—the scientist slowly slipped his hand into his inner coat pocket and took out the brown parcel. Keeping it concealed, he let the attached string unravel. The parcel descended unseen within his coat, until it came to rest in front of his shoes. Then he slowly stepped forward onto the wooden block disguised by the wrapping paper, rising comfortably above the hats.
A mixture of types. The thimble made a succession of marks on the trousered paper cross. The ox began to grow a stalactite of saliva on his beard, which would occasionally twinkle in the mild sunlight, swelling and threatening to disburse its contents onto his green scarf. Satisfied, Frank stepped back and deftly reeled the parcel back up into his coat compartment. For some time he had been working on a less troublesome shift to deal with such situations: his periscopic stovepipe hat. But that still needed a lot of refinement to make it less conspicuous. The best gazing was anonymous. Over in the distance another crowd was gathering.
Mr. Punch was suffering a welter of blows to his prominent nose from Judy, a muscular figure with a jaw like a pickle jar. The modest audience roared. Urchins ran past. Snatching a purse, they provoked a hue and cry. Blighters! Galton kept his focus on Punch. Could he come to worship the hideous figure if he deliberately trained himself to do so? After the performance ended, he walked over to the performers and asked a small unshaven man in a dirty coat how much he wanted for the puppet. Leaving a note for Gifi with Mr. Punch’s minder, he arranged for payment on delivery to Rutland Gate.
Finding a park bench, the inquisitive scientist sat back to survey passers-by. After a desultory number of surreptitious pin pricks—was London turning into an outpost of Aberdeen?—he turned instead to the long avenue of trees leading away from the bench past the lawns. They reminded him of Bushey Park, beyond Richmond, where he had amused himself a few weeks ago by counting the flower stems of the famous blooming chestnuts. Now he tried the same technique on the leaves.
By fixing on some points of reference—a lamp post, a deformed branch, a distant monument—he progressively divided one tree into twenty portions. Then he carefully counted the leaves in one portion. Then another. A few more. A narrow notebook and pencil kept score. Repeating the process on more portions, chosen at random, he averaged the results—wonderful things, averages!—and multiplied by 20 to produce an estimate for one tree. Carefully totalling the number of trees, he multiplied to get the leaf count for the avenue. No more than 60,000! A million leaves would require miles of trees. Numbers are just like old friends.
Walking on, a church showed briefly through the houses at the edge of the park. In Venice he had counted the pigeons at the basilica of St Mark with Louisa. Thunder concentrated his inspection. The church doorway offered itself, and he hurried over. Just in time. While the rain hammered down within inches of his face, he pondered—dogs, Sir, do a good deal of pondering—over a conundrum that had been bothering him for some time. If churches were protected by divine favour, why did they all have lightning conductors? How many times were they struck, really? And what about clergymen, did they live longer, in consequence of their devotions? Perhaps prayer for oneself was not effective. But what about prayer for others? Without data, a hopeless question. Sovereigns received endless prayers on their behalf, but did they live longer? Pencil to diary: lives of the sovereigns, compare lifespan to national averages of the same class. Who receive few prayers.
As the rain softened, disappointed with the dearth of female passers-by, the sheltering observer decided to walk over to Regents Park Zoo, there to continue some experiments that he had been conducting on more dependable subjects. Pedestrianism, that Regency obsession, was a tradition in the family. His maternal uncle, the strongman Captain Robert Barclay-Allardice, had once walked a thousand miles in a thousand hours for a wager, then shipped off to fight in the Napoleonic wars the next day. Today’s route was less complicated, since Captain Barclay’s nephew did not have to worry about paid thugs waylaying him to swing the outcome of the swollen side-wagers. Specially installed gas lights had deterred them then, and had allowed Barclay’s manservant to aim the welter of blows that he launched to keep the Captain awake when he appeared to fall asleep on his feet, in between draughts of port wine. But the street lights were not lit now, and Frank, who was not at all sleepy, was diverted by the idea of Gifi emerging from an alley to set about his shoulders with a stick.
Preferring to grapple with ideas rather than servants, Frank busied himself along the way with some mental exercises that were proving difficult to work out, but might lead somewhere. As ordinary street objects succeeded one after another, he forced himself to tackle the very first mental association that came to mind for each one, silently keeping score as he walked. Extreme self-discipline was required to grab and inspect an association immediately. Faint and fickle, they could still be distinguished if seized quickly enough, like pedestrians surprised by a Regency footpad. Developing immediate revulsion to the onset of an idea helped. Today’s ideas were more or less the same writhing knot he had bagged some weeks earlier when first trying the exercise. A puzzle. They were mostly scenes from earlier days, as if he was a guest in the Earl Stanley’s menagerie at Knowsley, wandering off among exhibits of images but somehow always landing back at exactly the same spectacle.
The Zoo was thronged with curious visitors, including regulars long known to Galton. They too had grown used to the sight of the scientist pausing in front of the enclosures, peering intently at the animals while gently squeezing the knob at the head of his walking stick. An India-rubber pipe forced air through a whistle hidden inside the staff, emitting sounds audible only to keen-eared animals. The monkeys paid no attention at all, but lions started, elephants shuffled uneasily, and zebra panicked. In Berne, where dogs of all descriptions overran the city, he had noticed that lapdogs were far more acute than the St Bernards who booby-trapped the pavements. Insects did not seem to hear the notes at all (or so he thought). Several visitors to the Zoo shot looks in his direction—there was obviously dramatic variation between individuals in hearing ability. Where could the sounds be coming from? Faintly embarrassed, the shy scientist left the Zoo and proceeded through the park to its welcome lawns.
Resting his stick on a grassy patch, well clear of the crowds, Galton was reminded of a dodge suggested to him some time ago at the Athenaeum—was it his philosophical friend Herbert Spencer?–on the subject of his recurrent breakdowns. Giddiness and nausea invariably accompanied these, which had persecuted him since his days at Cambridge nearly thirty years earlier. Firmly grasping the stick, he leaned forward, placing his forehead on his hands. Shutting his eyes, he walked round in a circle three times, keeping to his right-angled position. As he straightened up to walk off, giddiness overwhelmed him. Tumbling onto the grass, he took several minutes to collect himself again, relieved that nobody in the park seemed to have noticed. Would the trick work for everyone? Perhaps he could persuade Tyndall to try it.
Working his way back to Pall Mall, the still-giddy scientist was forced more than once to stop and lean against doorways, to regain his balance. Regiments of brilliant sunbeams—never common in England—brought forth from an auxiliary coat pocket the heliostat which always travelled with him. It was his own design. By placing it to the eye one could aim flashes of light by fixing on the mock-sun projected by a system of internal mirrors, showing where the signals were visible. Distant office workers were intrigued by the repeated flashes they saw coming from a long way down their street. They could not decipher the rules of arithmetic that the flashes were encoding; that would have required an audience of inquisitive and exceptionally well-born Martians. And so Galton’s unsteady figure made its way by stages to the Athenaeum Club. A quiet afternoon in its well-stocked library tempted.
A few months earlier, Captain Richard Francis Burton had been ensconced every day in the neo-classical building designed by his namesake Decimus. Battlements of folio volumes in front of him were rapidly reduced. The Hadji had stopped over briefly in the capital after a long absence in South America, en route to the Ottoman domains in Syria. Wife Isabel had begged a consulship in Damascus for her vexed husband, who had been menacing swathes of South America in the company of the Tichborne Claimant. A slight nod of heads on those awkward afternoons acknowledged a friendship ended by the ambiguous death of Burton’s Nile foe, John Hanning Speke. Once, they had discussed the characters of Africans and Indians for hours within these walls. Today the Hadji was beyond reach in the Levant, having run out of leave to stretch.
After puzzling over that quarrel, while catching his breath, Galton approached Tedder, the Athenaeum librarian, to ask for the latest number of Notes and Queries on China. Over the last year he had ransacked biographical dictionaries, compiling tables of relatives of outstanding judges, scientists, writers, painters, oarsmen and wrestlers. Eminence appeared to breed eminence, but international evidence was wanted. The long-standing examination system in China for civil service mandarins promised rich data. Unfortunately there were still no replies to the plea he had placed in Notes and Queries, so his attention returned again to calculating the number of relatives a person could be expected to have on average. Galton already had a good estimate for how many eminent relatives his eminent subjects had, but were they overrepresented in the crowd? A difficult problem to be sure, but his friend the Rev. H. W. Watson, a high Wrangler at Cambridge, would soon send him some ideas.
Over in the easy chairs, Herbert Spencer was glaring at a new periodical calling itself Nature. ‘Norman Lockyer! I gave him the idea after the collapse of the Reader’. Galton was resigned to Spencer’s insistence on priority. News of the Regent’s Park giddiness and subsequent tumble drew dour satisfaction from the philosopher, followed by a minute account of recent ailments. Galton eventually wearied, leaving behind the comforts of the club and his deductive friend—in so many ways his opposite—for a stroll over more solid ground. He would go to the evening meeting of the Royal Geographical Society.
In Hyde Park, the Fenians had long since dispersed. A rabbit flashed past, pursued by a spaniel towing an elderly gentleman in obvious distress. An explorer would have unleashed the dog by now. Galton had been slowly gathering the nerve to ask his cousin Charles Darwin to procure a warren of rabbits for some experiments to test the naturalist’s theory of inheritance by Pangenesis. The idea was to transfuse blood between does with different coat colours. If all went as expected, the colours would be transferred when they bred. Then, as the veteran of Damaraland paused at an anastomosis of paths, ruminations of rabbits and blood transfusions were supplanted by memories of Speke and the memorial to Nile explorers, still unbuilt. The subject simply had to be taken up again that evening.
At the Geographical, Livingstone’s letters and dispatches from Africa were being read aloud, while most of the attendees dozed or shifted uncomfortably. The Nile was old hat. The missionary was determined to get as lost in the wilds as possible. Now he was far beyond the reach of geographical sponsors not under divine guidance. In the middle of a long communication to Sir Bartle Frere, Galton lost all interest in the coy Scotsman and scanned the elderly audience instead. At times the bored gentlemen dropped their guard and swayed from side to side—some rather more than others. Randomly selecting an audience section of about 50 people, Galton began to count the number of fidgets per minute, using his heartbeat as a metronome. About 45. Intermissions of heightened interest reduced the number of movements by half, muting their amplitude and period, smartening their slow and sluggish yawing. The slim pocket journal now recorded additional readings. A more-than-usually-boring performance, but there were still only only spotty records to compare with.
The rain had been been goaded by news of Livingstone and the lakes into a tropical downpour. Buttonholing Sir Roderick Murchison about building a memorial to Speke in Hyde Park produced more of the same vague sympathy and studied inaction. ‘Sir Roddy’ had not forgotten the blonde explorer’s paranoid concoctions and threats to reclaim the trackless interior for the glory of the French. Relief came when the dark arts of city clubmen conjured a cab. The driver was nearly Nilotic himself, barely visible in the dusk. Stepping into the vehicle, Galton took care to request ‘Rutland Gate, 42’, an address that he often alternated with ‘42 Rutland Gate’. Through the hansom’s window the moon showed a rich yellow. During the day it was always white. At twilight it was purple. Why had nobody bothered to explain that before? On arrival, the time taken was discreetly noted: ‘42 Rutland Gate’ was well ahead of ‘Rutland Gate, 42’.
Oblivious to the colours of the moon, ‘Lou’ had already retired for the night to nurse her head and delicate digestive tract. Some absorbing hours of leisure time could be invested in the workshop then. Herbert Spencer had recently suggested identifying ideal types by superimposing transparent images, but Galton’s new photographic equipment offered better alternatives. What if one repeatedly exposed the same plate for brief moments, capturing successive images and forming an aggregate type of face? He set about it.
Gavan Tredoux is Chief Technical Officer at Traitwell. Previously he was a Principal Data Scientist at Bayer and a Senior Scientist at Xerox PARC. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he is the author of Comrade Haldane is Too Busy to Go on Holiday: the Genius Who Spied for Stalin (Encounter: 2018), about JBS Haldane. His Book of Burtoniana (burtoniana.org, 2016) collects the correspondence of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) in 4 volumes. He is currently in the final stages of proofing his biography, Francis Galton: a Lifetime of Exploration (in 2 volumes with 7 supplements). He created and maintains galton.org, containing the complete works of Francis Galton (1822-1911), including all his published memoirs. Likewise, his burtoniana.org collects Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton. Sometimes he blogs over at renostercations but more often tweets @gtredoux.
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