Not Dead Yet

Anthony Grafton

On 22 May 1724 James Logan, a wealthy Philadelphian fur trader, scientist and bibliophile, took a day trip with friends from London to Windsor. Big crowds accompanied them, and no wonder: they were making their way to a dramatic public occasion – a scientific counterpart to the hangings at Tyburn that drew enthusiastic spectators in droves in the same period. A solar eclipse was about to take place. Two rival astronomers, William Whiston and Edmond Halley, had predicted where it would reach totality. As he had done once before, in 1715, Halley published in advance a map of the shadow that the eclipse would project on the earth, as seen from above – a brilliant feat of visual imagination and a superb disposal of quantitative data. Whiston held that the eclipse would not be total anywhere near London. Halley, by contrast, included Windsor in the zone of totality.

Who won? No one knew for certain. ‘Expecting to see the sun wholly obscured,’ Logan recalled, ‘we returned in a state of frustration. For the heavens favoured Halley, since they were covered by clouds. Still, we considered it certain that the moon did not block off all of the sun’s light, as Halley had predicted.’ Four days later, attending a meeting of the Royal Society, Logan heard Isaac Newton ask Halley to discuss the eclipse. Logan, who thought that Halley seemed quite happy to ‘conceal his error’ by invoking the cloud cover, was sure that Whiston’s work was superior, and that totality had not been reached while he was in Windsor. He even wondered, sticking his bent nib a little deeper into Halley, if Halley had delayed publishing his astronomical tables because of the failure of his model. Both the scene Logan describes and his response to it seem vividly modern: it is the same early Enlightenment London, buzzing with gossip about the rival geniuses of the Royal Society, that fascinated Voltaire when he arrived two years later. So does the fact that Logan entered his account in a proof copy of Halley’s tables, obtained directly from the publisher, William Innys, who, Logan complained, ‘took a guinea of me’, long before the author released them for publication.

There’s only one fly in the ointment, but it’s a big and noisy specimen. Logan told the story of Halley and his eclipse in elaborate literary Latin, his preferred language, though he also used English, Greek and Arabic for annotating the books in his immense collection, now preserved in the Library Company of Philadelphia. Logan was a hard-driven businessman, the Montgomery Burns of the 18th-century fur trade, and an up-to-date philosophe. He corresponded with eminent figures in Britain and Europe, wrote with insight about the sexuality of plants and built a splendid Georgian country house at Stenton, near Philadelphia. His chosen city, Quaker Philadelphia, housed no institutions of traditional learning, and many Quakers had deep misgivings about the pursuit of erudition. Logan’s close friends included such passionate enemies of pedantry as Benjamin Franklin. Why then did he choose Latin, rather than his own vigorous English, as the medium in which to tell this and other tales?

Even in Philadelphia, it turns out, Latin could do a lot for an ambitious person. It created bonds. One of Logan’s friends, the German Quaker Francis Daniel Pastorius, attracted the attention of the great William Penn when he put a grandiose Latin inscription over the door of his cabin: ‘Parva domus sed amica bonis, procul este prophani’ – ‘It’s a little house but welcoming to good people: profane men, keep your distance.’ While riding by, Penn saw the text and recognised that it contained a quotation from Book VI of the Aeneid. The incongruity charmed the Proprietor of Pennsylvania. According to tradition, he laughed when he saw it – one of only two occasions in his life when he laughed. Shared Latin learning cemented the friendships between Logan and both the other men.

Latin also enabled Logan to play a role – if a modest one – in the international republic of letters. Correspondence in Latin with the great bibliographer of the classics in Hamburg, Johann Albrecht Fabricius, brought Logan not only cordial greetings but a rare edition of Ptolemy and seven other books – a generous gift that he repaid by sending the German scholar ‘an Indian drest Buffalo skin’. Logan’s articles in Latin appeared in European scholarly journals and established his reputation for encyclopedic, precise learning in many fields.

In writing about Halley in Latin, Logan made a perceptive choice. Logan was a passionate reader of the new philosophy and science. He owned and annotated the first copy to reach the colonies of Newton’s Principia, which he seems to have bought on the Wissahickon Creek from the family of a deceased German mathematician and visionary. The book contained a Latin poem by Halley, a clever piece in which he mimicked the diction and even the syntax of Lucretius, in order to praise Newton’s work as the beginning of a new age. Even as Logan advertised his low estimation of Halley’s attainments, in other words, he did so in a learned language that he shared, as he knew, with the astronomer.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in