Month: February 2019

The countdown is on!

Three weeks to go… You can hear more about it and see a couple of hints of what will be on show here.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Living in the technologically focused 21st century, we have access to more information than any generations before us. The answer to a question is often “just google it” and we hit the internet to search for our response, bearing in mind a good proportion of the information published online is not always accurate.

Before internet, a researcher could go to the library, or ask a knowledgeable friend, or consult the trusty set of encyclopaedias on the bookshelves at home. Coming from the Greek words enkyklios (general) and paideia (education), the books were designed to offer a comprehensive set of knowledge on a range of subjects. They differ from dictionaries, which only provided the origin and meaning of words.

The earliest surviving encyclopaedia was Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. Published in the 1st century AD, it included 37 chapters on natural history, medicine, geology, geography and many other topics. Pliny stated he sourced the 20,000 facts published in the series from consulting 2,000 works by over 200 authors.

Encyclopaedias were out of reach for most people for centuries, remaining in the realm of academia and intended to impress writers and wealthy patrons, rather than educate the general public. Attitudes began to change in the 18th century when printing was easy and literacy was rising. General-purpose encyclopaedias began to be more commonly distributed.

1. Map of New Zealand

 A map of New Zealand and the Pacific Islands appearing in the 1903 Encyclopaedia Britannica. WRM ref: 1969.32

One of the classics of the encyclopaedia world is the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It was first published in 1768, making it the oldest English language encyclopaedia still in production.

The first set was printed in Edinburgh, Scotland, and comprised three volumes of general knowledge with the first engraved illustrations completed by Andrew Bell. The encyclopaedia was very popular and the second edition covered 10 volumes, growing to 20 volumes by the time the fourth edition was produced between 1801 and 1810.

With a reputation as a scholarly work, the publication attracted more eminent writers and contributors. The ninth and eleventh editions, produced between 1875 and 1889, and 1911 respectively, are considered landmarks of scholarly literary style.  After being purchased by an American company, however, Britannica began to shorten articles in order to meet the requirements of the North American market. Despite being produced in the USA, it retained British English spelling.

The fifteenth edition, published in 2010, was the last printed version of Encyclopaedia Britannica. This set spanned 32,640 pages of information in 32 volumes. Now it is solely produced online, with the help of over 4,000 contributors.

2. Britannica with revolving bookcase

 The tenth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, with a custom made rotating bookshelf and reading ledge. WRM ref: 2015.52

The Whanganui Regional Museum holds two sets of Encyclopaedia Britannica, including a set of the prestigious ninth edition, at its scholarly peak. The second set is a tenth edition published in 1902, and belonged to Fred Symes, a Whanganui banker and prominent Mason. This set was donated with a custom built rotating wooden bookcase, specifically designed to hold the 35-volume set, and is complete with a foldout shelf on which to rest the volumes while reading.

 

Sandi Black is the archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

When the Mystery Airship Came to Town

At the start of the twentieth century, flying was the latest in a number of new technologies to capture public imagination. The American Wright Brothers are recognised as first to invent and fly a heavier-than-air craft in 1903, although Canterbury’s Richard Pearse is said by some to have beaten the Wrights at taking to the air. In Europe, German Count Zeppelin’s airships were flying from 1900.

Between June and August of 1909, a wave of mysterious aircraft sightings were reported in New Zealand. Beginning in Southland and travelling up the country, making stops both urban and rural areas, the craft was described as egg or cigar-shaped, equipped with lights and an undercarriage, and flew completely silently. Reflecting concerns of the time, hundreds of onlookers and the media speculated the machine and its crew may have been local inventors, Martians, or German intelligence-gatherers.

In a July report, children and adults at Kelso School in Otago saw the craft with crew in broad daylight one Friday lunchtime, and it was also seen the next day. Scientific explanations (fire balloons, flocks of birds) failed to quell what was becoming a frenzy. The Reverend P W Fairclough’s letter calling for calm was published nationally. “The airship craze is getting beyond a joke. There is a danger of our level-headed community becoming a laughing-stock not only to New Zealand, but to Australia and even to the greater world beyond… I hope this extraordinary popular delusion will speedily sink”. In Whanganui, the Chronicle took a dismissive tone, noting “there is nothing convincing to report”. But within weeks, the airship arrived in local skies.

On the evening of 3 August, “two wild-eyed youths dashed into the Chronicle office” reporting a “huge airship” passing over Mosston. Another eyewitness on the Town Bridge reported seeing an airship fly down river from Aramoho towards Castlecliff: “It was flying at a height of about two hundred feet and I could distinctly see its two large wings, which made a hissing sound … Sir, seeing is believing”. Two members of the telephone exchange had watched lights travel over Durie Hill the night before, and Feilding residents also saw them.

Letter

Charlie Baker’s letter regarding his sighting of the airship.  Wanganui Chronicle, 13 August 1909, p.7.

 

On Wednesday 11 August at 3.25am, Charlie Baker of Taylorville was “waiting for a lady friend coming from a party” when he saw a well-lit airship travel towards town from Maxwell, stop over Durie Hill and return the same way. Travelling to where he thought the airship stopped, he found no trace of its visit, aside from a milkman who saw it as well, but concluded, “I am quite satisfied now there is something in these strange sights after all”.

Letter 2

Airship Fever took hold of a lot of people, including the young, as outlined in this news snippet.  Wanganui Chronicle, 6 August 1909, p.4.

Suddenly, in mid-August, sightings in New Zealand ceased. From September 1909, the mystery airships moved to Australia, and a large wave of sightings in Britain was reported in 1913 amidst fear and rumours of war with Germany. There were also sightings in Canada and South Africa.

New Zealanders struggled to explain the phenomenon in 1909, and an explanation has never been found. The likeliest is that most people saw nothing at all, and were influenced by current events and the exaggerated reports of others. The timing of the sightings is interesting; they took place only months after a rare meteorite landed off the coast of Castlecliff, and less than a year after the massive impact event in Tunguska, Siberia. In a period when humans were taking to the skies – and the skies were coming to humans – airship visitors from parts unknown were not as far-fetched as we might think!

Airship visit Christmas 1914

An airship of the kind spotted by Whanganui residents delivers Christmas presents to a New Zealand house. Auckland Weekly News, 17 December 1914.

 

Scott Flutey is a Collection Assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Fossil Giant Crab

In 1990, a local Whanganui resident captured a giant crab in the Ahu Ahu Valley, inland from Whanganui. That’s a curious creature to find so many kilometres from the coast. It was, however, not a potential family feast. It was a large fossil embedded in a spherical boulder, known in geological terms as a concretion. A concretion is a hard rock that forms around an object such as a fossil, protecting it from damage. Concretions can often be found weathering out of soft mudstone. If a concretion is cut open very carefully, it may reveal an interesting fossil, well preserved within the boulder. Because mudstone is very soft, it can be generally be cleaned off the fossil using water and a stiff brush.

2003.42.1

Tumidocarcinus giganteus, giant fossil crab. WRM ref: 2003.42.1

This particular fossil crab was alive approximately 15 million years ago, during the middle of the Miocene period, when the Ahu Ahu Valley, along with the rest of the Whanganui region, was under the sea. It is an example of the extinct species Tumidocarcinus giganteus, a deep-water crab that lived along the seabed in warmer waters than we enjoy today, on the Whanganui coast. During the middle of the Miocene period, which lasted from 24 million years ago to 5 million years ago, temperatures are estimated to have been four to five degrees warmer over most of the planet than they are today, and the sea level was correspondingly much higher.

Large numbers of Tumidocarcinus giganteus fossils have been recovered from the soft papa rock that is characteristic of the hills between Taranaki and Whanganui. Papa is formed from thick muddy sediments accumulating in the ocean around the western coast of the North Island. The numbers of these crabs found indicates that they were a reasonably common species in New Zealand seas during the Miocene. An interesting feature of the Tumidocarcinus giganteus is that the right pincer is usually much larger than the left. On males, the right claw could grow up to twice the size of the left claw. It was probably used for fighting and perhaps for attracting female crabs, as well as feeding.

By discovering fossils, such as this giant crab a very long way from the ocean, we can get a much clearer picture of what the land-masses we now inhabit might be like if the earth’s climate became similar to the middle Miocene again. It is challenging for us to imagine what the planet might be like if temperatures throughout the world continue to rise at the current rate. It is clear, however, that seas will be significantly higher, and much of the New Zealand land mass, especially coastal regions, will probably be under water.

The Whanganui region probably won’t be so great for humans, but giant crabs and other enormous sea creatures might be plentiful again.

Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum