Uncovering Edgar Allan Poe - the science buff

At least two experts believe Edgar Allan Poe is sitting on the right in an 1840s photo taken inside the Academy of Natural Sciences, then on Broad Street. The identities of all three men are in dispute.
At least two experts believe Edgar Allan Poe is sitting on the right in an 1840s photo taken inside the Academy of Natural Sciences, then on Broad Street. The identities of all three men are in dispute.
Posted: October 14, 2010

In 1844, readers of the New York Sun were treated to a sensational feature story in which an adventurer flew across the Atlantic Ocean in a lighter-than-air balloon. Though it was presented in exquisite technical detail as news, the story's author, Edgar Allan Poe, had made it up.

But the master of the macabre had to know a thing or two about science to have pulled off such a persuasive hoax, said John Tresch, a University of Pennsylvania historian of science. Indeed, Poe, who wrote about cosmology and the origin of the universe, is sometimes considered one of the earliest writers of science fiction.

"Poe was completely in tune with everything that was happening with the science of his time," said Tresch, who will speak about "The Experiments of Edgar Allan Poe" on Thursday night at the Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia.

"One thing most people don't know about Poe is he actually knew something about science," said Susan Glassman, director of the Wagner, a historic, Victorian-era science museum.

Poe even published a textbook on amateur shell collecting - one of his more lucrative projects.

"We thought it was a perfect October topic," Glassman said. "It combines the two parts of our mission - history and science."

It was Poe who steered Tresch toward the history of science. Like many people, Tresch had read and loved Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," the story of a murderer who buries his victim and thinks he hears the heart continuing to beat.

But then, in college, Tresch came across several French authors raving about this brilliant philosopher Edgar Allan Poe.

"I realized that Poe was doing things much broader than just tales of horror and insanity," said Tresch. Some credit Poe with the founding of modern science fiction - citing such stories as "The Masque of the Red Death," which describes an unnamed epidemic, and a story about a comet's hitting the Earth.

In graduate school, Tresch said, he studied Poe's balloon hoax. Poe described the feat in rich detail in a story for the newspaper. That article reportedly helped sell thousands of extra copies before the Sun editors retracted it the next day.

Poe's knowledge of science and engineering probably came from his studies at West Point, where he was a cadet in 1830. Poe also lived in Philadelphia for six years, starting in 1838.

Besides perpetrating his own hoaxes, Poe was known to expose those of others, most famously a claim that someone had built a robot - an automaton, in the vernacular of the time - that could beat the masters at chess. Tresch said that he didn't want to give away the trick behind that hoax, but that he would reveal it Thursday night.

It would take 150 years or so before IBM created a real computer, Deep Blue, that beat the world's best chess player.

Poe wasn't a complete skeptic, said Tresch. He was fascinated by mesmerism, a now-discredited form of hypnotism that was popular in Poe's time. Mesmerism involved a mysterious substance known as ether, which believers claimed pervaded space and could be manipulated to influence people's minds.

Plenty of real science also was going on at the time - people were fascinated by electricity and magnetism and the use of telescopes to explore the universe.

Before the big bang theory, 19th-century astronomers came up with nebular theory, according to which the stars and planets were born in cloudy nebulae, such as the one visible in Orion's belt.

The idea was scandalous for running counter to the biblical picture of creation, said Tresch. In nebular theory, the solar system was one of many that were born and would die, he said.

In Poe's detective story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," his Sherlock Holmes-type character stares at the Orion nebula, now known as a birthplace of new stars and probably new solar systems.

Poe's work is full of such science references, Tresch said.

Beyond that, he said, Poe's stories are deeply infused with a 19th-century conflict between the mechanistic view of the universe that the era's science presented and a more holistic picture espoused by the so-called Romantic movement.

In the 19th century, Romanticism was seen as a backlash against science, proposing that human beings were connected to everything else in the universe and that the universe acted like one big organism. Romantics disliked the reductionism they saw in science and instead prized understanding through intuition.

As today, people in the 1840s struggled to understand what science was telling them about determinism, free will, and the nature of God.

Poe was born in the same year as Charles Darwin - 1809 - but didn't live long enough to see the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species, in which Darwin used science to show that the Romantics were right at least about the connection between humanity and all other living things.

In 1848, near the end of Poe's short life, he published his own natural history - a work called Eureka. "It was a straight-up cosmological, scientific work," said Tresch. In it, Poe tried to reconcile Romanticism with a pro-science, pro-technology world view. Eureka, however, wasn't very well received.

It weaves pseudoscience and speculation, and stirred up some controversy by attempting to paint a new picture of God, not as the entity described in the Bible but as a great poet - something like Poe himself.


The Experiments of Edgar Allan Poe

What: A free, illustrated lecture presented by John Tresch of the University of Pennsylvania.

When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday. Visitors can view the collection between 4 and 7 p.m.

Where: Wagner Free Institute of Science, 1700 W. Montgomery Ave.

For more information:

Call 215-763-6529 or go to www.wagnerfreestitute.org


Contact staff writer Faye Flam

at 215-854-4977 or fflam@phillynews.com.

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