Monday, 12 August 2013

Historic figures- not as classy as you think

One of my favourite parts of working in collections research is getting to learn more about historical figures. And not just the stuff they'd like you to remember, the actual facts of their life and genuinely ridiculous things they said and did. The main thing I have discovered is this: past people are just as stupid, bitchy and generally hilarious as modern ones

Take for example a man named Henry Perigal. You probably have never heard of this person and it doesn’t really matter. He was a Victorian mathematician famous two things: creating a new proof for the Pythagorean theorem and believing that the Moon does not rotate. So, off to a pretty good start.

I like him already. 
If you were to Wikipedia this man, you’d find out he wrote some books, was in some societies, and made some things that wound up in the Science Museum. All fairly standard gentleman scholar stuff. But when you research his life slightly more, it gets more interesting.

First of all, this person lived to be 97 years old. We are talking across the 19th century, from 1801-1898. How did he manage that? Shockingly impressive longevity for the Victorian era. If you read the Death Register with him listed its covered people who didn’t make it past 28, let alone 97! 

You’d also find from an 1871 census that even at the age of 70 he was un-married and living as a lodger in a house full of strangers. Maybe this accounts for his surprisingly long life? Perhaps even more interestingly, when he was asked for the census to list his profession, he did not provide a standard one or two word reply. Oh no, not Henry Perigal. He filled in: ‘Author, Scientific, Kinematic, Fellow of the Astronomical, Meteorological and Mathematical Societies’. Alright, calm down now Henry we know who you are, you crotchety old man.

Probably the most important thing you need to know about this man is that his nick-name was Cyclops. Why on Earth would you want to be eternally remembered as Cyclops? I have no idea, he clearly had two eyes. At any rate, he liked it enough to put it on his tombstone, which reads:

SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF HENRY PERIGAL
( CYCLOPS ) F.R.A.S. F.R.M.S. M.R.I.
40 YEARS TREASR OF R MET S&C BORN 1ST APRIL 1801. DIED 6TH JUNE 1898. CREMATED AT WOKING
HIS ASHES LIE BENEATH
DESCENDED FROM A HUGUENOT FAMILY
WHO ESCAPED FROM FRANCE TO ENGLAND AFTER THE REVOCATION O
F THE EDICT OF NANTES IN 1688.
A LEARNED AND INGENIOUS GEOMETRICIAN HE INVESTIGAT
ED AND ILLUSTRATED THE LAWS OFCOMPOUND CIRCULAR MOTION.


Oh Cyclops, you certainly were a learned and ingenious man.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly like to imagine good old Cyclops at home, in his dressing gown, shouting at kids in the street and lovingly stroking his Meteorological Society letterhead, all the while ruminating over how he can be remembered as the word’s most ingenious geometrician. Just wait until they send the next census form, he thinks, and then I’ll show them…

Written by one of the Ministry who still cannot tell you exactly what they do or who they work for. Assume that they just stalk historical figures all day long. 

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