Like the dyer’s hand

Year by year during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, organic chemists fashioned transformations upon the unassuming body of a smelly liquid called aniline. Under their godmothering guidance, aniline submitted to change after brilliant change from her transparent pale yellow to a whole wardrobe of dyes, color after lovable color. Every season Cinderella would re-emerge from the laboratory to be seen anew, and the chemistry of progress made sure that she was seen with ever more excitement as the century went on.

So when the long nineteenth century ended with excitement in 1914, the Russian artist I. D. Sytin was equipped to showcase the change. For effects of the lurid he had tube after tube of bright new primary colors, but for ironic contrast he also had something delicate. Sytin’s lithograph “War in the Air,” its flame yellows and flame reds set off by midnight blue, is printed on paper tinted pink.

Thanks to the pink, the whole lithograph, in both its primary image and its explanatory text, has a ground of rosy conflagration-color. That doesn’t just make the flames in the figure seem to burn hotter; it also desaturates the no longer bright blue of the river shining innocently under starlight and consolidates the fine-print nuances of the text into a single hysterical scream in rubric red. The catalog of the Hoover Institution Poster Collection stubbornly insists that the two elements unified by pink within the image frame are still separate, and it formats its insistence as an equivalent pair of sentences in archival black-and-white: “Painting depicts aerial battle with airplanes and airships. Text underneath describes modern aerial warfare.” But what Sytin’s stones impressed on his picture wasn’t a separable pair of stimulants to sense-impression; it was an ensemble. In its presence a century later, the excitement we have been roused to isn’t archival, it’s historical.

Perhaps the distinction is that the historical sense at least hints at an idea of ensemble: a single consciousness sharable between a record and its reader. A historical record, perhaps, is a text that can be experienced as immediately as the color pink. At any rate, in the presence of this particular array of colors, the historical sense may remind us that it and we now subsist in a world no longer conceivable in black and white. Three quarters of a century before I. D. Sytin set to work, chemists began excitedly coloring in the world’s blank spaces, and it is no longer possible to see what the world was like before that moment. By 1914, says a Russian chronology written in aniline pink, the synthesized product was even filling in the sky.

Source: Hoover Institution Poster Collection (http://www.lunacommons.org/luna/servlet/HOOVER~1~1), item no. RU/SU 365. Photoshopped.

During the nineteenth century, a period of great progress in the arts and the sciences, an ancient art form slips the surly bonds of earth

Unattributed woodcut, about 1850, in the Library of Congress at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003672999/. Photoshopped. The lines of verse are by the botanist-poet Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), grandfather of Charles Darwin.

Airship with airboat

If they’re to continue bearing our consciousness through the restlessly changing universe, the forms of our knowledge will also have to change. The men of this image, for example, are enclosed in a form shaped for the knowledge of earth and water. Soon, but not yet, it will be reshaped for the knowledge of air.

But not yet because the men don’t yet have a new name for their old form. They are still bound to earth and water by the old name, and they haven’t realized yet that the form’s impending ascent into air has left the name’s primary referent behind and reduced what is left to metaphor.

The name is Gondola. On earth, Gondola signifies transit through narrow waterways in a city delimited by history and language. But when this gondola ascends through limit-disdaining air, the men it bears within will learn that it needs a new name. With that revelation, the renamed form will be changed. It will no longer be made of boat-wood and boat-rope and sailcloth, and so it will no longer have to be thought of as boat-shaped. The men in the image can’t yet speak the new form’s new name. They are still under tuition in the Venetian dialect of the old form, a dialect that includes the term gondola. But between the student Venetians and us an educational caption at the image’s front plane promises that the new name will, in time, be taught. If the men there on the other side of the caption won’t have time to learn it, at least we on our side have already been taught that it will be learned.

For now, too, the caption teaches us something we can say in our own language about the language of the men in their gondola. It has to do with the limited time available for them to learn in, it’s in history’s own aesthetic form, and in that form it repeats once more history’s own unchangingly fascinating witticism: Little do they know.

 

Source: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Ausbildung von Zeppelin-Mannschaften an dem Schulschiff Hansa.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-024d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Photoshopped. The caption translates as, “Training of zeppelin crews on the school ship Hansa.” Hansa’s period of service as a trainer (Wikipedia, “LZ 13 Hansa”) dates this photograph between early 1915 and August 1916.

With many thanks to the New York Public Library for its newly released collection of restriction-free digital images.

 

Tangent

The long history of events will need only a few extra moments to add the story of the dirigible America.

On the afternoon of October 15, 1910, under the command of the journalist-explorer Walter Wellman, America set off from Atlantic City in an attempt to fly the Atlantic Ocean. About seventy hours later, defeated by headwinds and engine trouble, the airship’s six crewmen climbed into their lifeboat, lowered themselves and their cat into the sea near the steamer Trent, and were rescued. Lightened by the abandonment, America rose back into the sky, drifted away, and was never seen again. You probably have permission to think “The End” and then forget.

New-York Tribune

But the rescue took three hours of maneuvering in heavy seas, and during that miniature epoch somebody on board Trent was busy with a camera. As he worked, his camera filled with a growing record of a shape descending over water. Looking back at that record now, we will find ourselves wanting to penetrate its silence and find words to speak of it.

On its own, the shape within the record has already acquired at least one word. From the surrounding text which provides its historical syntax, we learn that even though America was the first aircraft to be equipped with radio, the innovation that Walter Wellman was proudest of was a device he called the equilibrator: a heavy cable suspended from the airship’s keel and towing a ton’s weight of gasoline underwater. In principle, this should have stabilized America’s altitude, compensating for the weight lost through fuel consumption by lifting its load drum by drum out of the load-supporting water. In practice, it only transferred wave motion to the airship — stressing its structure, making navigation difficult, and sickening the crew. Look through the railing around Trent’s deck and you’ll see it at its mischief, leaving a wake to port as America drifts sideways. The accumulated literal detail of this portrayal – the light suspension harness holding the umbilical cord, the foamy crease where the cord has touched the water – asks to be read as a history written in satisfyingly tragic Greek. Here, says the image, is a moral record of the moment at latitude 35.43, longitude 68.18 on October 18, 1910, when nature erased a mark made in water by overweening man. Nothing remains, now, but a now meaningless word: equilibrator.

But the record of erasure also holds a mark that hasn’t been deleted. Unwritten but inscribed, this mark endures as if it were something seen once and thereafter seen forever. It seems to have become indelible, and it seems to have achieved its indelibility by self-translation: from history to geometry.

Made accessible to reason by geometry, this form is America in two dimensions. Considered as a planar artifact, it appears to be tangent to the surface of the ocean as it descends. The representation could be a visual aid for Calculus 1: the limit instant when a vessel, descending along a curve, ceases to be of the air and becomes a creature in the first throe of metamorphosis. Light and air still embrace the surface of the falling balloon, but the waves and the equilibrator’s turbulent trace all say that the embrace will now break off and end.

It’s only an optical illusion, of course. Furthermore, any sense of human meaning in what may appear to be impending touch and consummation is a mere sentimental metaphor. In an unblemished three-dimensional image with a soundtrack, it would probably be easier for us to understand that all we’re seeing is a gaseous machine in relation to a liquid surface. Given more visual information, we would see more and have a more accurate perspective. But for some reason, only the blemished, partial, still image seems to promise us that after we see what it has recorded we will have been granted the grace to remember. At any rate, the record seems to show that from this flawed grayness America has not drifted away.

Sources:

“Wellman airship from ‘Trent.'” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2004008853/. Photoshopped.

Peter Allen, The 91 Before Lindbergh. Shrewsbury: Airlife Publishing, 1984.

On board Trent in New York after the rescue: America’s engineer Melvin Vaniman with his family and Kiddo the cat. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2004008771/. Photoshopped.

Theory of flight, 1919

To form power into a lifting body, wrap it and your own body in cloth and animal skin.

 

 

Source: “deHavilland DH-4B Kelly Field 1919.” San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives, catalog number 01_00093883, https://www.flickr.com/photos/sdasmarchives/23543473579/in/photostream/. Photoshopped.