Jenny Bennett’s Fab Five: An Amateur Who Changed The Skies, The Definition of Incompetence & More

Luke Howard, by John Opie, date unknown.

Luke Howard, by John Opie, date unknown.

This is the sixth part in our weekly Fab Five Series, where I ask other bloggers, writers, podcasters and friends to give their five favorite historical figures. The criteria is up to them…so is the work!

Hello, I’m Jenny Bennett. A long-time blogger, I’ve just launched a new blog called “1870 to 1918”. This gives me the chance to delve into a fascinating period when the world’s major European empires swelled to their largest expanse, only to come to crisis and cataclysm in the First World War. It takes off from posts about the Boer War on my eclectic “Endless Streams and Forests” blog, which veers wildly from hiking to history and many other topics.

As you’ll see, my Fab Five people are not all people I admire. There are so many I could name that I have to admit the following five are simply ones that popped into my head this morning.

Luke Howard (1772 – 1864): Amateur meteorologist known for coming up with the classification of clouds into cumulus, stratus, and cirrus in his work Essay on the Modification of Clouds. Why is this so interesting to me? Because it was based on gazing at the sky, not performing any rigorous experiment, and yet his categories have such a rightness about them that they will likely be used indefinitely. His observations about the shifting shapes in the sky were an inspiration to the poet Goethe.

American soldier and Confederate General Gideon Pillow by WB Cooper. Date unknown.

American soldier and Confederate General Gideon Pillow by WB Cooper. Date unknown.

Gideon Pillow (1806 – 1878): The most gloriously incompetent general I’ve ever come across. His deeds of ineptitude started in the Mexican-American War, when he wrote anonymous letters to newspapers describing himself as a hero. In fact, he became lost on the battlefield, subjected his men to needless danger, and claimed victory that actually was due to Winfield Scott. In the Civil War, he was famous for a peculiar decision at the Battle of Fort Donelson: his men had advanced successfully, but he pulled them back, allowing Union troops to surround the fort. Rather than surrendering to Grant, Pillow escaped in the night across the Cumberland River and left Simon Bolivar Buckner to cede victory to Grant. Here is an introduction.

Oscar Wilde, circa 1882, by Napoleon Sarony.

Oscar Wilde, circa 1882, by Napoleon Sarony.

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900): I read The Picture of Dorian Gray when I was growing up and found its depiction of the impossible quest for eternal youth to be morbidly fascinating. The Importance of Being Earnest has always been a delight, full of puns and pithy sayings and just plain silliness. The man was a treasure trove of wit. “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

Statue of Ernest Shackleton, Exhibition Road, London. Photo by Michel Val, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Statue of Ernest Shackleton, Exhibition Road, London. Photo by Michel Val, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Shackleton (1874 – 1922): Antarctic explorer most famous for the expedition of the Endurance, 1915 – 1916, when the ship became trapped in pack ice and sank. For two months he and his crew camped on an ice floe. When the floe disintegrated, the men got into lifeboats and rowed for five days to the uninhabited Elephant Island. From there Shackleton and five others rowed for fifteen days to South Georgia Island, 800 miles away. Once landed, they had a perilous journey across icy crags to a whaling station. From there the men left behind on Elephant Island were rescued. I picture Shackleton and the crew on the sinking Endurance, playing music on a hand-cranked gramophone as the ice made grinding noises against the hull.

Roland Schikkerling, author and date unknown.

Roland Schikkerling, author and date unknown.

Roland Schikkerling (1880 – ?1964): A fighter in the Boer War and author of Commando Courageous: A Boer’s Diary. Going to battle at the age of 19, he stayed in the field until the war ended in 1902. He fought bravely but never boasted of it. His diary is full of humor, for instance when he tries to manage in battle on a horse “that had evidently spent many years in the dray-cart service.” Toward the end of the war, he and his companions hid near a small village in a remote area. One evening they were invited to a party in the village where young ladies were to be present. As he shaved himself, the razor broke halfway through, so he had to keep just one side of his face toward the company, “like the phases of the moon.” When the war ended, instead of surrendering his rifle to the British, he surrendered a half-used bar of soap that he had stolen a year earlier from an Australian camp. Here is an account of one of his battles.

To check out more posts from the series visit its page here. It gives the rules for playing (none, really) and links to the previous posts.

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4 thoughts on “Jenny Bennett’s Fab Five: An Amateur Who Changed The Skies, The Definition of Incompetence & More

  1. seanmunger says:

    Cool that you mentioned Luke Howard. Part of my professional academic research, which focuses on climate change in the early 19th century as well as the development of meteorological science, involves Howard and his writing of the “Climate of London” in 1819. Yes, he was an amateur meteorologist–there was no other kind in 1819!

    Great article, great picks.

  2. Jenny says:

    Thanks for your comment. I wonder if, these days, it would be possible for anyone to observe the shapes of clouds without having to “prove” their existence. It seems that in Howard’s “amateur” days he was able to observe something important without having to come up with a specific empirical proof. When he saw “stratus” or “cumulus,” it was in my opinion a kind of deductive vision, not inductive as required by the current scientific method.

  3. Good list – I am still trying to get mine down to 5!

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