Today, a moving bit of marginalia. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I cut open the box, shake
out the polystyrene popcorn, and remove a wrapped
package from Seattle. There's a perfectly lovely
old 1832 Treatise on Mechanics. It's
one of Dionysius Lardner's Cabinet of Natural
Philosophy books. Lardner co-opted all kinds
of noted writers into working on his vast series of
books -- first technical, then literary. Mary
Shelley wrote anonymous stuff for Lardner after she
Now I turn pages, reading about matter and the
forces that work upon matter. I read about pulleys,
gears, engines, and screws. But I also discover a
philosophy being spun around the new atomic theory
of matter. What are we to make of these words:
Although we are unable by direct observation to
prove the existence of atoms ... Yet ... many
observable phenomena ... render their existence ...
probable, if not morally certain.
I look for traces of the original owner.
I want to know who entered this old portal into the
moral certainty of the Victorian world.
The book was signed by Richard Newton at the
University of Pennsylvania in 1834. History has not
forgotten Richard Newton. He was born in England in
1812. His family moved to America when he was 12.
He received some manual training, but then he went
to college. He went on to become an Episcopal
clergyman. But here we pick up echoes of a
different Newton from the century before.
John Newton, born in 1725, went to sea at 11 and
became captain of a slave ship when he was 23. He
underwent a religious conversion after a terrible
storm almost sank his ship. He repudiated the slave
trade. It was he who wrote the text of the hymn
Amazing Grace. John Newton became an
Anglican clergyman and a formidable enemy of the
Though Richard was no relation to John, he too
became a potent opponent of slavery and a strong
Union supporter during the Civil War. He wrote --
and wrote. His 18 volumes of published sermons for
children were translated into a score of languages.
He was a low-church evangelical, yet he helped to
hold the church together when others like him tried
to divide it. He was a reconciler.
For that reason, my breath catches when I spot a
bit of marginalia in this old mechanics text. He's
penciled a poem -- his own, I suppose -- under his
name. In it he says:
Full many a shaft at random sent
Finds mark the archer little meant
And many a word at random spoken
May soothe or wound the heart that's broken.
Richard Newton really was a fitting spiritual
heritor of John Newton. First he studied mechanics,
underlining passages about the moral force of the
new atomic science. Then he turned his attention to
soothing that brave new world's wounds. I've just
glimpsed the first halting steps -- that would
define an entire life.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Kater, H., and Lardner, D., A Treatise on
Mechanics. Philadelphia: Carey & Lea,
See the Dictionary of American
Biography for information on Richard Newton.
And for a nice article on John Newton, go to the
following website: http://www.flash.net/~gaylon/jnewton.htm
Richard Newton gave the name of William Wilberforce
to one of his sons. William Wilberforce was the
prime mover of the British antislavery
Title page for Richard Newton's Treatise on
Newton's stamped inscription and marginal
From the September 1896
Copyright © 1988-1997 by
John H. Lienhard. All Rights Reserved.
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