Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/March 1885/Popular Miscellany


Electric Lighting in America.—At the meeting of the Society of Arts on December 3d, Mr. W. H. Preece read a paper in which he stated that electric lighting is flourishing in America much more than in England. There are probably ninety thousand arc-lamps alight every night in the United States. He had found it a dismal experience to be transferred from the brilliantly illuminated avenues of New York to the dark streets of London. On the evening of October 21st he drove from the Windsor Hotel, New York, to the Cunard wharf, a distance of about four miles, through streets entirely lighted by electricity. On arriving in London, he drove from Euston to Waterloo without seeing a single electric light. In Montreal, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Boston, he found the principal streets and warehouses, as well as stores and places of public resort, lighted by arc-lamps. Police supervision of the streets is rendered far simpler when they are brilliantly illuminated by the electric light. It is with arc-lighting that the greatest advances have been made in the States. In Chicago the number of arc-lamps installed has doubled during the past twelve months; it is now two thousand, and increases daily. More than one electric light company pays dividends to its shareholders, and all of the manufacturers of supplies are busy. The great ferry-boats of the Pennsylvania Rail-road are lighted by electricity; those magnificent hotel-steamers that ply between New York and Fall River, those on Lake Superior, on the Mississippi and other large rivers, are cither so lighted or are gradually being fitted for the lamps. Mr. Preece said that electric wires carried overhead, in the unsightly fashion which prevailed in the United States, were hideous in the extreme, and the only advantage he had found for them was that they afforded a welcome shade from the fierce glare of the sun. He had counted 144 wires on one post in New York, and six lines of posts might be found on Broadway, there being thirty-two companies in the city carrying wires on poles. There was no necessity for it at all, for it was found by the English Post-Office that, whenever the number of wires through a town exceeded fifteen, it was cheaper to put them underground than overhead.

The Oldest Land-Animal.—Mr. Lindstrom, of Stockholm, has described a fossil scorpion which has recently been found in the Upper Silurian strata of the Island of Gottland, Sweden. According to photographs forwarded to the French Academy of Sciences, the specimen is fairly well preserved, with the chitinous cuticle still visible. The cephalothorax can be distinguished, together with the abdomen with seven dorsal laminæ, and the tail of six segments, the last of which is contracted into a point and forms the poisonous sting. The superficial structure of the animal is quite similar, with its tubercles and longitudinal keels, to that of recent scorpions. One of the stigmata is visible on the right, to indicate that the animal was an air-breather, and the whole organization shows that it lived on the land. Mr. Lindstrom regards this as the oldest land-living animal yet discovered, the fossil dragon-flies of Canada having been found in the Devonian. It is remarked of this animal that the large and pointed character of the four thoracic paws is characteristic of the embryos of several other Tracheata, and had disappeared from fully-developed scorpions as early as the Carboniferous period. A similar fossil scorpion has just been found in the Upper Silurian of Scotland.

Parasites in Domestic Fowls.—On dissecting a fowl which had died from sickness, Thomas Taylor, M.D., of the Department of Agriculture, found reddish markings on the rib-muscles and the lungs, which under the microscope were seen to consist of numerous mites, closely resembling Cytoleichus sarcoptoids (Mégnin), a species not hitherto reported in America. When the skin was removed from another fowl, great numbers of small, white, opaque specks were seen in the cellular tissue, and by means of the microscope mites were found, of the species Laminosloptes gallniorum (Mégnin). The opaque specks were of a calcareous substance, and many contained the remains of one or more of these mites. In the same fowl Dr. Taylor found thousands of encysted nematoids, resembling, under a microscope of low power, Trichina spiralis, but under a power of about 500 diameters they seemed to be of an undescribed species. A third fowl also contained mites of the species gallinorum. Dr. Taylor deems it probable that a considerable amount of disease prevailing among American domestic fowls, and not referable to any known type, may be due to such parasites. He suggests that carbolic acid, or other disinfectants, sprinkled about henneries, might prove useful as an antidote to these, and to external parasites.

The Ferment-Organism in Plant-Growth.—Professor Storer, of the Bussey Institution, in reporting upon his experiments with vegetable mold as a fertilizer, suggests that the activity of the development of the organism or ferment of nitrification is a very important factor in the action of manures, which deserves careful study. Indeed, he says, one of the first things now to be done in seeking to explain the agricultural value of the nitrogen in vegetable mold is to determine precisely what the ferment-organism is, and to study its habits and the history of its development. When this knowledge has been gained, "it will doubtless be practicable for the farmer to employ the soil-nitrogen in a much more intelligent way than has been customary hitherto. He will then be able to count definitely upon the soil-nitrogen as a resource in a sense that was hardly to be thought of by his predecessors. Many methods of tillage and of manuring, and some modes of mulching—the conduct of which is now purely empirical—and the whole subject of composts made with peat and loam, will undoubtedly then be brought into the domain of reasonable practice. For example, the question is now open whether the power of clover and root-crops to supply themselves with nitrogen may not depend upon the comfort and shelter these crops offer to the nitrifying ferment. It is not unlikely that the ferment-organism may prosper exceedingly beneath the dense shade of clover and other large-leaved plants, in the comparatively moist surface-soil which is peculiar to such fields. Perhaps even the manner in which the roots of those plants act upon the soil may have a favorable influence upon the life of the ferment. . . . So, too, in the case of Indian corn, a plant which grows vigorously in hot weather, it is probable that its observed power of utilizing the soil nitrogen to better advantage than the small grains can will be found in some peculiarity of the crop which promotes the growth of the nitric ferment in the soil beneath it, and so makes the nitrogen of the vegetable mold available as plant-food." On this point, Jared Eliot, writing in 1747 on the importance of tilling Indian corn thoroughly, observed: "What is still more remarkable, if the Indian corn be well tilled, the next crop, whether it be oats or flax, so much the bigger and better will that succeeding crop be, so that the land must have gained strength and riches; if it were not so, why did not the Indian corn exhaust and spend the strength of the land, especially when we consider how large corn is made to grow by the good tillage?" Professor Storer predicts that the making of composts may, if his hypothesis Is true, soon cease to be regarded as a subject of technical chemistry, and the consideration of the theory of composting may pass from the chemist's hands into those of the botanist or biologist.

Importance of cultivating the Eye-sight.—Dr. R. Brudenell Carter has published a paper urging that the culture and improvement of the eye-sight should receive a share of the attention that is given to physical development in other directions. He believes that it is not school-life alone, but the general conditions of civilization that have diminished our capacity of vision, and cites instances of sharp sight and long sight in savages, that were not regarded as at all unusual, where white men were exceedingly dull of vision. "Is there any reason," he asks, "why perfection of sight should not be made a point of physical excellence in all athletic contests? The example might be fitly set by the volunteers, who might thereafter in time diminish the diameter of the bull's-eyes of their targets; and it would soon be followed by common schools and by athletic clubs. The tests would be easy of application, the value and uses of superiority would be unquestionable. A first effect would be to make people understand what they ought to be able to see, and a counteracting influence would be brought to bear against those conditions which at present render it difficult for the dwellers in large towns ever to look at a distant object. Important good results would not be immediate, nor could they be fully attained except in more than one generation; but I think it can not be doubted that they would ultimately follow. . . . The games which require close attention to a flying object, such as tennis, battledoor and shuttlecock, and in a less degree cricket, are among the most powerful agencies by which the muscles in question can be strengthened and improved."

Industrial Uses of Mica.—Mica has the invaluable properties of being proof against the attacks of every acid, totally incombustible, and impervious to the action of air and water, and of being indefinitely divisible into thinner and thinner plates. In consequence of these properties it is applicable to a great variety of purposes, and much attention has recently been given to its industrial use. Its manufacture into various articles has been carried on at Max Raphael's establishment in Breslau, Germany, for nineteen years, and has been constantly marked by improvements and new applications introduced from time to time. Its transparency makes it highly available for the glazing of microscopic preparations and the preservation of plant specimens. In England it is employed in the windows of machine-shops, where glass is liable to be broken by splinters of metal. More recently it has been employed in the membranes of phonographs and the diaphragms of telephones. Tablets of it arc frequently inserted in the doors or walls of smelting-furnaces, to permit a view of what is going on inside without exposure of the eye. The dials of compasses and the window-lights of war-ships have been made of mica, to avoid the shattering of glass by the cannon-shots of hostile vessels. The mineral has been found extremely valuable for incombustible lamp-shades and screens. Being a poor conductor of heat, mica has been applied with great advantage to use in screens to be placed before open fires, by the aid of which the heat is more evenly distributed through the room without any part of it being subjected to an extreme exposure, while the cheerful light of the fire can be enjoyed at the same time without inconvenience. One of the most valuable applications of mica has been found in the making of spectacle glasses from it, to be worn by workmen in foundries, machine-shops, and other places where hot metal has to be handled, or where the eyes are exposed to the intense glow of the furnaces. Mica in small scales or coarse powder is worked up into a mica brocade or pearl-glazing, for the decoration of articles of fancy. These goods are made in silver and other colors in considerable quantities, at shops in several German towns. The silver brocade is the natural white mica, pounded up, treated with hydrochloric acid, washed, dried, and assorted into grades of fineness by passing it through sieves. The colored varieties are dyed with aniline colors. The mica is applied to the articles it is intended to ornament by sprinkling it upon them, after they have been covered with gum, or a sticky earth, and then varnished, when very fine effects may be produced. The mica brocade is now preferred to the brocades formerly made with bronze, because it is not affected by the sulphuretted hydrogen in the atmosphere, by which the latter always, sooner or later, becomes tarnished.

Forbidden Numbers.—Dr. Goldziher, an eminent student of Semitic lore, remarks upon the peculiar dread that some Mohammedan communities exhibit in respect to particular numbers. In Morocco, five is an object of terror, and it is not permissible, says Höft, to speak of five in the presence of the king; but we must always say four and one, fourteen and one, twenty-four and one, etc. The superstition may have originated in the fact that the hand, which may be laid upon the king, or which is raised to forefend the evil-eye, and which is supposed in Northern Africa to have great magic power, has five fingers. According to the traveler, Ibn Batûta, the people at Sarmin, near Aleppo, will not speak of ten, but always of nine and one, and a mosque at that place has only nine cupolas. The Shiites in India take the greatest pains to avoid the number four, some of them going so far as to use six-legged instead of four-legged bedsteads; and if one of them inadvertently pronounces the number he will immediately clear his throat as if to spit it out.

The Oldest Geographical Society.—The Paris Geographical Society, the oldest existing society of that kind, was founded on the 15th of December, 1821, when 217 persons recorded themselves as members. Among these original members were men of great eminence in their respective fields of science. Of them, M. Vivien de St. Martin is the only survivor. The "Bulletin" of the society has been issued regularly since its institution, and the series now forms in itself a library of 120 volumes. It has published several volumes of accounts of travel, many of them of great value, and has awarded 150 prizes for geographical research. Its library includes more than 25,000 volumes and pamphlets, 3,000 maps, and 600 portraits of famous geographers and travelers. Most of the learned professions and departments of public service, and nearly all important nations, are represented in its list of members, in which also seven royal personages—among them King Norodom I, of Cambodia, and Sultan Syied Barghash, of Zanzibar—have had themselves enrolled. Since the Franco-German War, the society has paid particular attention to the study of geographical questions bearing on trade, to the exploration of newly-opened regions, and to the popularization of geographical knowledge.

Tastes for Strange Meats.—The fact, which is made evident by the condition of the remains, that the cave-men on occasion ate wolves, foxes, and similar animals, has been supposed to show that they were often reduced to great misery; but observations among living men prove that there are tastes in such matters that are often as potent as want. Some of the tribes of Alaska are capable of eating with relish things that it is disgusting even to mention in that connection. There are tribes in Kamchatka, Siberia, and Mongolia, according to travelers in those regions, that are fond of the flesh of wolves, foxes, and badgers, and some believe that it brings them luck in hunting. The Moquis Indians are said to esteem wolf's meat; and the Earl of Southesk, in the Saskatchewan, said that the flesh of the large wolf was "very good eating," that of the small one uneatable. Heusser tells of Indians in Brazil who find the meat of two species of this family much to their taste. Chapman says that jackal-meat is considered a great delicacy by the Balalas of South Africa, and that they were surprised to learn that the English did not like it. The striped hyena is believed to confer magic powers, and his flesh, hair, and teeth are objects of contention. According to Schweinfurth, the people of Charzch, of Berber descent, eat all game, including hyenas. According to Livingstone, while the Maqua reject the flesh of hyenas and leopards, their neighbors, the Manganja, on Lake Nyassa, regard the flesh of the animals that "make discords in the chorus of the spheres" at night as delicious viands.

An Ascetic Indian Tribe.—Sir J. n. Lefroy speaks of the narrative reports of the officers of the Indian Survey as being full of ethnographic and other curious information. Take, for example, the account given by Mr. G. A. McGill, in 1882, of the Bishnoies of Rajpootana, a class of people who live by themselves, and are seldom to be found in the same village with the other castes: "These people hold sacred everything animate and inanimate, carrying this belief so far that they never even cut down a green tree; they also do all in their power to prevent others from doing the same, and this is why they live apart from other people, so as not to witness the taking of life. The Bishnoies, unlike the rest of the inhabitants, strictly avoid drink, smoking, and eating opium, this being prohibited to them by their religion. They are also strictly enjoined to monogamy and to the performance of regular ablutions daily. Under all these circumstances, and as may be expected, the Bishnoies are a well-to-do community, but are abhorred by the other people, especially as by their domestic and frugal habits they soon get rich, and are the owners of the best lands in the country."

Wild Birds in Cities.—About fifty-five species of wild birds make themselves at home in the city of Paris and find their living there. All of the orders, except perhaps the climbers, are represented among them. One bird of prey, a pelerine falcon, established himself on the towers of Notre Dame a few years ago, whence he hunted the pigeons of the quarter, and a fisher martin, leaving the marshes he was accustomed to frequent, when the water became too low for him, came to hunt insects and little fishes in the midst of the city, near the Pont des Arts. A number of woodcocks and rails, a season or two ago, haunted the ponds of la Glacière, and a few pairs of water-fowl made their nests in the same place. But these wading birds will probably soon have to seek another abode, for their domains are being reduced every day, and there will shortly be no trace left of the old marsh. A brace of quails are installed in the same region, whose presence is revealed every June by the well-known call of the male. The pigeons form, during the pleasant season, numerous colonies in the public gardens, where also establish themselves numbers of woodpeckers, linnets, red-tails, blackbirds, green finches, chaffinches, sparrows, and rooks; while swallows, martins, and jackdaws build their nests under the cornices of the houses or conceal them in chimneys, in the holes of old walls, and in church-towers. No species live on terms of closer intimacy with the human inhabitants than the sparrows, which everywhere seek the neighborhood of man. No bird has been more calumniated; but, admitting that they have mischievous traits, it is certain that they are most active and efficient destroyers of noxious insects. The English ornithologist Macgillivray asserts that without them the kitchen-gardens around London would not be able to furnish the market with cabbages; and M. Châtel, of Vire, regards them as the most useful of insectivorous birds. They are noisy and pugnacious, and seem better suited with city than with country life. They have multiplied wonderfully in all the European and in the American cities. M. Nérée Quépat, author of the "Ornithologie Parisienne," believes that there are three times as many sparrows in Paris as there are of human inhabitants, and, in view of the innumerable flocks of them to be seen in all parts of the city, it is easy to credit the assertion. The pigeons also are nearly as well domesticated as the sparrows, but are less constant in their attachment to their home, for they leave the city in the fall, to winter in a southern climate. They are exposed to capture and destruction during their journey by the people of Southern France, and their numbers are diminishing; so that, unless precautions are taken to save them from this persecution, Paris will in time know them no more.

Spider-Threads for Economical Uses.—We have already mentioned some of the efforts that have been made to spin threads and weave cloths of spiders' webs. They have so far fallen short of success, on account of the difficulty of getting enough of the fiber, and of the lack of strength of most spiders' threads. A few species of spiders encourage the hope that the manufacture of spider cloth may yet become something more than a dream. Sir Samuel Baker describes a spider in Ceylon, two inches long, that spins a beautiful yellow web two feet and a half in diameter, so strong that a walking-stick when thrown into it is entangled and retained among the meshes. Sir. F. W. Burbridge, in "The Gardens of the Sun," describes a larger spider which spins a web strained on lines as stout as fine sewing-cotton. Dr. Walsh tells from personal observation of a still larger spider, the Aranca maculata of Brazil, whose web, ten or twelve feet in diameter, very sensibly entangled his head and forced him to leave his hat behind when he came out from it. Lieutenant Herndon, of the United States Navy, confirms this account, and estimates the diameter of a web he saw at ten yards. The furnishing of cross-lines for telescope-glasses can hardly be the only use to which these beautiful threads are adapted.

Testing Lighthouse-Lights.—Experiments have been begun by the corporation of Trinity House, at the South Foreland, England, to determine the relative value of the electric, gas, and oil lights as illuminants for lighthouses. The two lighthouses already established on the Foreland are illuminated by electricity, and are known as the high light and the low light. Near them have been erected three experimental light-houses: one, provided with electrical lights that have a total power of 30,000 candles; a second, furnished with gas-burners, of Mr. Wigham's design, that may give a total of 12,000 candles; and the third, with the oil and gas burners invented by Sir James Douglass. Three stations have been fixed for testing the lights, at distances respectively of half a mile, a mile and a quarter, and two and a half miles, at which huts have been fitted up as photometric observatories. Measurements will be taken for determining the penetrative power of the several illuminants in different states of the weather, and for ascertaining to what extent the principle of superposition of lights may be applied. One of the questions to be determined is relative to the comparative value of a large area of low illumination and a small area of high illumination.

New Pests in exchange for Old.—The Australasian colonies have suffered greatly from the multiplication of rabbits, which were originally introduced there from England. Now, they are crying out against a plague of dogs, which, increasing rapidly, and semi-wild, have become very destructive to the sheep, and rewards are offered for their destruction. It is proposed to import stoats and weasels into New Zealand to put down the rabbits; but, if this is done, there is danger that the latter estate of the colony will be worse than the present one. The sugar-planters of Jamaica have suffered greatly from the depredations of rats among their canes, and mongooses have been imported to destroy them, with apparent general benefit so far. "But the new importation continues to multiply and spread, not only on sugar-estates, but on the highest mountains, as well as along shore, even amid swamps and lagoons; and, when the sugar-cane rat is wholly exterminated, the mongoose will still go on increasing, and what then? Must the colonists find something else to exterminate the mongoose, and save their poultry, and so on ad infinitum?" As it is, many of the harmless indigenous fauna of the island are already diminishing under its attacks.