The BBC journalist Sarah Cruddas asked me to talk about some neglected heroes of science last week with the idea of airing the results on Radio 5. Now I half-suspect that my late-night broadcasting slot will do more to cure insomnia than help anybody’s scientific reputation, but Sarah gamely stayed upright during the interview, so maybe the interesting science won through.
The individuals I chose to talk about (John Herschel, John Lubbock, Thomas Edward Thorpe and Elsie Widdowson) were actually remarkably well-known national figures in their day and remain very familiar to historians. Sarah’s Victorian forerunner, the journalist Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) reported that Herschel was lionised in London’s literary world while his current Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry is substantial. Apparently people can do too much when we tend to latch onto single associations. Charles Babbage’s failure to develop fully his number-crunching engines is somehow more memorable than Herschel’s lifetime of achievement (we Brits love a good loser) and so it was Babbage’s face that appeared on the recent Royal Mail stamp series. From this perspective “forgotten” really only means too unfamiliar to be stuck on an envelope.
It is hard to be forgotten when researchers post all kinds of unlikely information on the web. We have been asking visitors to our current Royal Society exhibition to nominate their own scientific heroes and there is an impressive spread of smart-alecks who aren’t household names – think Oswald Tavery or Vera Rubin (okay Google them, I’m not helping). But are there any genuinely forgotten people in science, medicine or engineering who did unique things? I’d like to nominate one.
If you’ve read Charles Darwin’s Beagle accounts of his work in Tierra del Fuego “one of the most inhospitable countries in the world”, you’ll have an idea of quite how desolate and remote Southern Chile and Argentina were at that time. It was the setting for the late Jules Verne novel The lighthouse at the end of the world (1905) but there were real lighthouses that inspired the fiction. Their main builder was a Scot, George Henry Slight (1859-1934), who came from a lighthouse-engineering family (as did his more famous contemporary, Robert Louis Stevenson). If anything, Slight’s genuine endeavours out-did anything that Verne and Stevenson could come up with. From 1892, at the request of Chile’s President, he built lighthouses along the most forbidding of coasts – 68 of them in total. For one, at Cabo Raper, Slight had to construct a viaduct-borne light railway just to get to the construction site and he and his team frequently operated beyond supply. They were simply dropped off ship with what they needed and picked up the same way once finished – it must seemed like being on Mars.
I wonder how many owed their lives to this forgotten man? Well not quite forgotten. In Chile, a rescue ship was named in his honour, the George Slight BRS-63. I think he would have liked that more than a stamp.
Google Earth this location: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/3311511