Dazzling finale to the science & technology auction year
The technology and science history auction year drew to a close last week with major auctions in London and New York by Christies and Sotheby's. Both auctions contained some important and spectacular specimens of mankind's most important discoveries.
Darwin's autograph corrections to On the Origin of Species
Few scientific treatises in history had such a profound public impact as Charles Darwin's publication on November 24, 1859 of his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Immediately challenged by religion, Darwin's theory of evolution was championed so successfully by Thomas Henry Huxley that he was dubbed "Darwin's bulldog" by the media.
Huxley, who gave us the terms "agnostic" and "agnosticism", ensured that the debate was characterized as "religion versus science" and he used Darwinism to campaign against the authority of the clergy in education.
One of the many spectacular lots that went to auction in the last week of the auction year was the long-lost copy of Darwin's sheets of the third edition of his landmark book, complete with his autograph revisions. The one-time existence of these sheets has long been known, but their whereabouts and even survival remained a mystery until they recently surfaced.
No other example of Darwin's autograph revisions to the text of this important work have ever been offered publicly, so it is no surprise that they sold for more than US$1 million.
Check out our listing of the The most valuable scientific documents of all-time and you will see how very few scientific manuscripts have ever broached the million-dollar mark.
The final sale price of Darwin's autograph correction was £788,750 (US$1,054,100)
Luca Pacioli's first edition Divina Proportione
Given the sale by Christies of Leonardo DaVinci's Salvator Mundi for $450,312,500 on November 15, 2017 (above left), I thought perhaps that some of Leonardo's magic might rub off on his friend and collaborator Luca Pacioli in the sale of a first edition of Pacioli's Divina Proportione in London on December 13.
Franciscan friar Luca Pacioli was the man who taught mathematics to Leonardo da Vinci, a title that in itself makes him very special. Indeed, the pair appear to have had a meeting of the minds that saw them become incredibly close for a decade, collaborating on many projects and actually living together for many years. The best known portrait of Pacioli (below) has a young Leonardo looking on from the background.
Pacioli's book Summa di Aritmetica Geometria Proporzioni e Proporzionalita was the first work on general mathematics ever printed and contained the first detailed description of the double-entry accounting system, moving many people to acclaim Pacioli as the "Father of Accounting," though double-entry accounting was in use in Florence for 200 years and in Korea for 500 years before Pacioli documented it in a widely distributed book.
Nonetheless, Pacioli was an undoubted polymath, and when the first three copies of Divina Proportione were created using amanuensis, Da Vinci and Pacioli were sharing a home in Milan and Da Vinci illustrated all three copies. When this first edition was printed in 1509, the illustrations were derived from Da Vinci's artwork, some more closely than others.
The record price for a first edition of Divina Proportione was achieved last year when Christies sold an exquisitely preserved copy for £194,500 (US$256,940 – see entry #24), though this latest first edition fetched just £175,000 (US$233,870), indicating that perhaps not enough people appreciate that the man who created the two most valuable paintings in history also created much of the artwork for this book.
The Ripley Scroll
Not all that long ago, alchemy was a legitimate science, and many of science's best known early names studied the subject prior to it branching off to become chemistry: Roger Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Aquinas and Sir Thomas Browne, among many.
There's still a tendency for us to dismiss the subject as nonsense, even though it was an embryonic attempt to define scientific method and to understand the make up of our world by people who intuitively knew they were on the right track. Substances may not have been made of earth, wind, fire and water, but the knowledge that substances were made up of the same fundamental elements, could be transformed and were soluble, was a step in the right direction. Robert Boyle became the father of modern chemistry through seeking the truth and his exploration of alchemy did not detract from his ultimate achievements.
Two of the best known and most authoritative early works on the protoscience of alchemy are attributed to Sir George Ripley (circa 1415-1490), one being The Compound of Alchemy and the other, the Ripley Scroll, a 3.7-meter-long (12-ft) illustrated manuscript of which there are 23 known copies. Twenty-two of those copies are in museums and libraries, with just one copy in private hands, and that copy went to auction in London at Christies Valuable Books and Manuscripts Sale on December 13, 2017.
A mix of English and Latin verse and images, the scroll supposedly details the process of how to manufacture the Philosophers' Stone, (the means of converting base metals into noble metals, (not necessarily gold, though that became the default goal as success brought infinite wealth), though a close look at the illustrations (the above image depicts increasing magnification of just one frame) shows them to be equally as cryptic as the verse.
This particular copy of the Ripley Scroll was produced on vellum around 1624, and went to auction with an official expectation between £200,000 and £300,000. As the only copy in private hands, it understandably exceeded its estimate with a final price of $781,460 (£584,750).
The auction site has a great article explaining Alchemy and the importance of the Ripley Scroll by Kay Sutton, Christie's director of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts. And if you'd like to view a genuine Ripley Scroll, the British Library's copy is on display until February 28, 2018 as part of an exhibition entitled Harry Potter: A History of Magic.
The estate of a noted cryptography historian goes to auction
Cryptography (aka cryptology) is now one of the most important areas of science thanks to the ubiquity of the internet, and the impact of the 2014 hit movie, The Imitation Game, which highlighted the mathematical legacies of Alan Turing, Arthur Scherbius, Marian Rejewski, Bletchley Park et al. There are many organizations that have preserved the history of cryptology, among them the National Cryptologic Museum Foundation, the U.K. National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, and the NSA's Center for Cryptologic History, and many people who have sought to educate on the subject, one of whom passed away earlier this year.
Some key parts of historian David Hamer's estate went to auction at Sotheby's History of Science and Technology sale on December 12 and a number of important versions of the Enigma and other cryptographic machines were among them (pictured above).
Foremost among the offerings was a rare M4 Enigma, which narrowly failed to break the world record price. The Enigma M4 was the final iteration of the German encoding machine and was built in 1943 for Admiral Doneitz's Kriegsmarine to send secret messages to the German U-boat packs at the height of the war. Fully operational, this latest M4 to reach auction sold for US$435,000, well shy of the world record price of US$547,500 set in June, 2017, though it went close to the previous world record price of $463,500 set in December 2016.
What is a Nobel prize worth?
Nobel Prize Medallions were once considered the embodiment of a monumental contribution to mankind, but of little monetary value. That was until Francis Crick's Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA crossed the auction block in April 2013. The Nobel Prize medal won by Crick (alongside James Watson and Maurice Wilkins – that's Crick holding court above with a young James Watson watching on in the image above), sold at Heritage Auctions in April, 2013 for $2,270,500, fifty times more than any prior Nobel Prize medal had fetched. That price was then doubled 20 months later when Christie's sold James Watson's medal for $4,757,000 in December, 2014.
Despite the understanding of the structure of DNA being one of a handful of scientific discoveries which truly has changed the world, those remarkable prices immediately catalyzed a new marketplace in Nobel Prize medallions, with prices above $100,000 becoming the norm, and auction bidding now regularly going above $500,000.
In many ways, the commercialization of the Nobel Prize medallion is in keeping with what the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, had intended. His legacy was structured to reward those who traditionally had gone unrewarded financially for their inventions with a substantial sum of money and a medal ... and it worked. His legacy successfully transformed a pile of cash into a power for good, and with this subsequent marketplace for the medallions, it became a gift that gave twice – once to the recipient, and again to their family once they had passed on.
Doris Lessing's Nobel Prize for Literature
Doris Lessing might one day be considered one of the most influential women in history. Read her obituary and you'll understand why she was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, and why she declined an OBE and a damehood as "honours linked to a non-existent Empire." Best known for her novels such as The Grass Is Singing, Children of Violence, The Golden Notebook, The Good Terrorist, and Canopus in Argos, she produced a magnificent body of work spanning eight decades, all of it supporting the underdog.
After her novels made her a feminist icon in the 1960s, she opened a speech in 2001 with "I find myself increasingly shocked at the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed. Men seem to be so cowed, that they can't fight back, and it is time they did."
When Lessing won this Nobel prize in 2007, she became the oldest winner of the Literature prize, the third-oldest Nobel laureate in any category, and only the 11th woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Only two Nobel prizes for literature had crossed the auction block previously, with Andre Gide's 1947 prize for literature fetching €361,500 (US$406,380) at a Christies auction in Paris last year, and Sotheby's passing William Faulkner's 1949 Nobel medal in 2013, with an estimate of $500,000 to $1,000,000. The result for Lessing's Nobel Prize fell within Christies expected range, selling for $250,575 (£187,500).
The "Polio" Nobel Prize
Few diseases have attacked the public consciousness as effectively as Poliomyelitis. Though polio has been present throughout history, being depicted on the walls of Egyptian tombs of the Pharaohs, when the regular epidemics reached pandemic status in 20th century Europe and the United States, this disease that primarily targets children became the nightmare of every parent.
This week the 1954 Nobel Prize Medal For Physiology Or Medicine went to auction. The medal was awarded to Frederick C. Robbins for his work leading to the development of the Polio vaccine, and the medal sold with the accompanying Diploma and related materials, including an image of him accepting the award 63 years ago. The medallion and associated certificate sold for $200,000.
Einstein's copy of Principia
Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is the Latin title of Sir Isaac Newton's famous work on the laws of motion and universal gravitation. Often referred to as "the greatest work in the history of science," Newtonian physics was all we knew until roughly a century ago when Albert Einstein's theory of relativity advanced our understanding in one quantum leap. Einstein was a huge fan of Newton and once referred to Newton's theories as "perhaps the greatest intellectual stride that it has ever been granted to any man to make," so it was a privilege to be able to see Einstein's personal copy of Newton's book go to auction last week.
Though a third edition of the work, the auctioned copy would have been published during Newton's lifetime, and the bookplate it contained (above) indicates that it was Einstein's personal copy and would have been repeatedly handled by the quintessential modern genius. If there was ever an object "touched by genius," this is it.
It sold for $87,500, which is considerably cheaper than many of the Einstein letters and postcards that reach auction. Two geniuses for the price of one. A bargain!
The earliest dated glass celestial globe
This glass celestial globe by John Cowley is the earliest glass celestial globe known, estimated to have been made between 1730 and 1740.The only known glass celestial globes to predate this one are both lost and the nearest extant, dated 1739, is in the Science Museum London. As the auction description states, "the current globe is a remarkable survival" as "the difficulty of making a glass globe, added to the fragility of the material used to represent the crystalline heavens explains their low preservation rates."
Cowley's oldest surviving glass celestial globe sold for £162,500 (US$217,165).
For lovers of fine machinery
Perhaps not science in its purest form, but every time I see one of these aero engine coffee tables, I just know that hundreds of thousands of our readers will also covet them as I do. The R-1820 Cyclone 9 motor is a radial nine-cylinder engine by Curtiss-Wright (the company formed by Glen Curtiss and the Wright Brothers) and came from a B-17 Flying Fortress, though the engine configuration is not uncommon, having been licensed to Lycoming, Pratt & Whitney, Studebaker, Russia's Shvetsov and Spain's Hispano-Suiza.
Expected to sell for between $10,000 and $15,000, it failed to make reserve. If this coffee table appeals to you as a "must have" for the man cave, it may still be available via the auctioneer. As I reported last year, there are a number of places where you can obtain radial engines made into coffee tables, though the cost is usually double the price range above. Just for the record, the nine-cylinder supercharged air-cooled engine displaces 29.88 liters, and the most powerful variant produced 1,525 hp.
The first electric sound synthesizer
Electronic music is a relatively recent genre in the history of music, given that flutes made from animal bones have been dated to be at least 40,000 years old. Most electronic and electro-mechanical histories of music begin around 1950, but there was one pioneer, who like Charles Babbage in the computer world, pre-dates everyone else by more than a century.
Brilliant German physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz would be recognized internationally in many fields, and his work even influenced Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone, but in the field of music, his 1863 publication Sensations of Tone, influenced musicologists into the 20th century and he designed the world's first electronic synthesizer more than 150 years ago. 120 years, a site that has meticulously chronicled the history of electronic music, puts the importance of this machine in perspective.
Hence I find it astonishing that a near perfect example of the world's first electronic synthesizer, a Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer manufactured 112 years ago, went unsold at Sotheby's New York auction.
Purists might dream that mechanical and electromechanical instruments will continue to be the mainstay of music for centuries to come, but just as digitization has revolutionized and democratized every other human endeavor, it will do so with music too.
Computer-generated music will prevail and this instrument is a fine specimen of THE FIRST sound sythesizer and no-one had the foresight to push bidding into the estimated $25,000 to $35,000 sale price range.
... but wait, a genuine Theramin
While Helmholtz was not really in the business of music, Léon Theremin most certainly was, and the Russian inventor who was championed by revolutionary Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin gave us the ground-breaking eponymous instrument, the Theremin, and a life story that reads like fiction.
Theremin invented the instrument in the early 1920's while conducting research on proximity sensors for the Russian government, and after Vladimir Lenin sent him on a promotional tour to demonstrate the instrument for audiences worldwide, Theremin found fame and fortune with the device. He was subsequently kidnapped, returned to Russia and disappeared for another 50 years. The Theremin's distinctive sound was used more frequently for sound effects in films than as a musical instrument, and seemed to become the default sound for flying saucers in sci-fi films. The Theremin became one of history's first viable music synthesizers, and sold for $25,000.
Charles Babbage & Ada Lovelace Autograph Letters
English polymath Charles Babbage conceived his Difference Engine no. 1 in 1821 and his Analytical Engine in 1834, becoming the inventor of the computer, albeit a steam-powered computer, some 150 years before the microchip.
Equally as captivating as Babbage was his assistant, Augusta Ada Lovelace. Lovelace was the daughter of English poet Lord Byron, a gifted mathematician in her own right, and would subsequently become perhaps the only person who understood Babbage's work at a detailed level.
As his assistant, she performed many of the functions recognizable from the modern-day start-up. She sought and received funding and grants from the British Government on several occasions, and she played a public relations role in that she communicated the benefits of the machines to the public.
Ada became friends with Babbage when she was just 18 years of age, became involved in his Difference Engine project and worked alongside him throughout the development of both machines.
Babbage's goal was to remove the human element from calculations. At this time, mathematical tables, such as logarithmic and trigonometric functions, were generated by teams of mathematicians. Babbage (1791-1871) became frustrated with the many mistakes in these tables that were used for navigation, engineering, banking and insurance and dreamed of creating a machine to perform these calculations flawlessly.
Lovelace is credited with having written the first algorithm for Babbage's Analytical Engine, essentially the first algorithm ever specifically intended to be used on a computer, and she is hence recognized as the first computer programmer in history. The programming language ADA was named in her honor. Beyond writing the first computer algorithm, Lovelace appeared to grasp, moreso than Babbage, the possibilities of his Analytical Engine beyond calculations.
Letters from both Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace were sold last week for $4,000 and US$32,500, respectively. I hesitate to attempt an explanation as to the vast discrepancy in the market's perceptions of value, as Babbage was a man so far before his time that it is almost incomprehensible that someone could invent a steam-powered computer 200 years ago.
Ada Lovelace's daughter Anne became the 15th Baroness Wentworth and as Lady Anne Blunt, owned the Stradivarius violin that fetched a world-record price of £9.8 million (US$15.9 million) at auction in 2011. Even with Lovelace's enormous contribution to computing well known, Lady Blunt was still universally recognized in the media at that time as the granddaughter of Lord Byron. One day in the future, I suspect she will be best known as Ada Lovelace's daughter.
The 1920s "Death Ray" controversy
The number of new technologies and highly lethal weapons systems that appeared for the first time in World War I provided an ideal environment for charlatans and con men during the 1920s. One such weapon system that never materialized was the "death ray."
The above artwork from a 1924 newspaper cartoon captures the media hype around the "death ray", a weapon system claimed to have been invented by Harry Grindell Matthews and the above Pathe cinema newsreel from the day details Matthews' claims. Those claims were given further credibility when both Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla claimed to have also invented "death rays."
The artwork was sold with a letter from Rear Admiral C.C. Bloch of the US Navy addressed to Dr. Whitney, head of the research lab at General Electric, enquiring about the "death ray." The artwork and letter fetched $4,000.
Not just another beautiful desk ...
... and finally, though the objects from these auctions aren't always science or technology, some are endlessly fascinating. This William IV mahogany library table [c. 1835] has a revolving top lined with tooled green-leather and was used by British literary giant Charles Dickens. Indeed, according to a plaque inside one of the drawers of this table, it was part of the furniture of Dickens' writing room at Gad's Hill Place, near Rochester in Kent. This was the room in which Dickens wrote Great Expectations, and the room famously captured by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes in his paining "The Empty Chair", painted following Dickens' death.
Dickens' work in general and Fildes' painting in particular became a fascination for Vincent Van Gogh, leading to Van Gogh's Two Chairs. Dickens' writing desk from the same room sold for £433,250 (US$894,000) in 2008, seven times its pre-sale estimate, while the above desk also sold for seven times its estimate, fetching £65,000 (US$87,000). Fildes' painting now resides in the Charles Dickens Museum at the author's former home in London, and the desk was recently acquired from the 2008 purchaser by the museum too.