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Your field guide to the Ransom Center

By Richard Oram

Plantin Polyglot Bible, 1569-1573.
Plantin Polyglot Bible, 1569-1573.
A completely revised Guide to the Collections has appeared on the Center’s website, superseding one based largely on the published edition of 2003 (now out of print). The Guide does not replace standard cataloging but supplements it, emphasizing topical access across the collections.

Changes in scholarship since the first edition of the Guide was published in 1990 are reflected in the new version. For example, there wasn’t a Gay and Lesbian chapter in the 1990 guide; one was added in 2003, and in 2010 it has expanded into a long section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer (LGBTQ) studies. The history of the book was just finding its way as a discipline back in 1990 (when it was “Book Arts”). The current version includes a much wider variety of resources. A full-blown chapter on African Studies has now grown out of a small section on African literature.

The Guide also spotlights some so-called “hidden collections” that are so much a part of the charm of special collections. Every large library has them. These are collections that are uncataloged or for various reasons hide in the recesses of the stacks, biding their time. To take one example: the elegant set of uniformly bound European letter-writing manuals (seventeenth to nineteenth centuries) assembled by a collector named H. M. Beaufroy. These are easily overlooked in the online book catalog (and difficult to find, even for me!) but now have a niche in the Guide.

Few people will understandably have much interest in browsing the full text of the Guide, but for those who do, surprises await. Who would have thought that we have a large collection of “squeezes” (papier-mâché pressed into classical inscriptions in stone) of interest to scholars (epigraphers) who study such things? Or that we own the correspondence of the Duke of Wellington with a young religious zealot that “portrays the aging general’s generosity and patience.” Or a group of Franz Liszt’s letters to his daughters, Blandine and Cosima (later Richard Wagner’s wife), “expressing his concern over their education and their intellectual and artistic development.” Not to mention the tens of thousands of pieces of sheet music used by the piano players of the Interstate Theater chain to accompany silent films.

The entire Guide text is searchable using the website’s search feature. Another notable improvement to the website is a new “portal” to the finding aids for archival and visual collections, which allows easy browsing by collection name and type of material as well as keyword searching.

Doctoral theses of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss acquired by the Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

Major and minor doctoral theses manuscripts by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Photo by Pete Smith.
Major and minor doctoral theses manuscripts by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Photo by Pete Smith.
The Ransom Center has acquired the manuscripts of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s major and minor doctoral theses. The typed theses, annotated with handwritten corrections, were presented by Lévi-Strauss at the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1948 upon completion of his doctorate in humanities. Lévi-Strauss’s major thesis, “Les structures élémentaires de la parenté,” was published in English as “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” in 1949. In the thesis, he proposed the “alliance theory,” a structuralist model for the anthropological study of relations and kinship. His minor thesis, “La vie familiale et sociale des indiens Nambikwara” (“The Family and Social Life of the Nambikwara Indians”), is an ethnography of an indigenous group of the Brazilian Amazon.

Frequently referred to as the father of modern anthropology and structuralism, Lévi-Strauss is known for works such as A World on the Wane (1955), The Savage Mind (1962) and the four-volume Mythologiques series, completed in 1971.

From the Galleries: Tycho Brahe's "Astronomiae instauratae mechanica"

By Elana Estrin

Before the telescope was invented, 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe built his own instruments to measure star and planetary positions with accuracy up to one arcminute. Brahe described these home-made instruments in his 1602 book, Astronomiae instauratae mechanica, the first edition of which is on display in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works. Mary Kay Hemenway, Research Associate and Senior Lecturer of the Astronomy Department at The University of Texas at Austin, explains why Brahe’s book is one of her favorite items in the exhibition.

The greatest observational astronomer before the use of the telescope is undoubtedly Tycho Brahe. Justly proud of his methods and the many instruments that he designed and had built, he wrote a book illustrating them in 1598—and printed less than 100 copies on his own printing press. The Other Worlds exhibition includes a copy of the first trade edition (1602) that was printed mostly from the woodblocks and plates of the private edition. The book describes his observatory, Uraniborg, on the island of Hven in Denmark and the instruments he used. These instruments measured the altitudes or angular separations between astronomical objects. This allowed him to record carefully the positions of stars, including all of those listed by Ptolemy, and make a large (six-foot) globe of the fixed stars. The most iconic illustration of the book is that of the mural quadrant that allowed the observer to measure the altitude at which celestial bodies crossed the meridian. Its great size is shown by including a life-sized portrait of Brahe himself.

Since Brahe was essentially running a research institute with the equivalent of modern-day students, post-docs, instrument makers, mathematicians who did calculations, technicians, and a library, some of these are shown in the woodcut. We see these assistants in the background—performing observations, working on the data, even doing chemical experiments. Also included are portraits of King Frederick II and Queen Sophia of Denmark—his original patrons—and his faithful dog laying at his feet. It forms a complete picture of the astronomer at work with the components necessary.

Brahe’s observations of comets were so good that they showed that comets moved throughout the solar system, dispelling Aristotle’s notion of “comets as swamp gas that exist in the space between the earth and moon.” Being able to break through the celestial spheres allowed Brahe to come up with an interesting scheme to show the structure of the universe. If we count time by years, he follows Copernicus; his plan allows the Earth to remain in the center of the universe—with the moon and sun revolving around Earth, but the other planets revolving around the sun. His data was essential for Kepler’s development of the laws of planetary motions, but he didn’t live to see the key theoretical idea of his life shot down by the very person he had hired to provide mathematical proof of his unique, Earth-centered theory.

Cassini's moon map

By Elana Estrin

Before “Where’s Waldo?” there was the “moon maiden,” a shadowy figure hiding in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works.

One of the exhibition’s highlights is a first edition map of the moon rendered by Giovanni Domenico Cassini from 1679, the rarest edition of the first published moon map. The “moon maiden,” “a tiny female silhouette,” is most likely the playful work of Cassini or his engraver. To produce this detailed map, Cassini relied on the latest telescopic observations of the moon’s craters and mountains, among other features.

Darwin and Herschel: The Fossil Record of a Relationship

By Richard Oram

2009 marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species. The Ransom Center owns several copies of the first edition, the most interesting being the one sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, a famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.”

Darwin identified Herschel in the second sentence of the Origin as “one of our greatest philosophers.” Early in his career, Darwin knew that the elder scientist had defined “the species question”—or in Herschel’s words, “that mystery of mysteries” —as being the central one for the new science of biology (the term wasn’t widely used until mid-century). In 1836, the young scientist, then only 25, was returning from his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands on board the Beagle.

From June 8 to 15, 1836, the Beagle was in port at Cape Town, and during this time Darwin visited Herschel, who had established an observatory in South Africa in order to expand the star catalogs made by his father, William Herschel.

We don’t know what was said, but very likely geology and volcanology were involved. Herschel inspired Darwin to apply the critical analysis of data associated with the physical sciences to the emerging life sciences. As University of Texas at Austin Professor Steven Weinberg recently noted in a talk at the Ransom Center, astronomy has historically led the way in the development of scientific methodology, later applied to other disciplines.

The Darwin-Herschel copy of the Origin, along with the letter of transmittal, stands behind as the “fossil record” of this remarkable meeting. The text of Darwin’s letter follows:

Down Bromley Kent
Nov. 11th. [1859]

My dear Sir John Herschel

I have taken the liberty of directing Murray [John Murray, his publisher] to send you a copy of my book on the Origin of species, with the hope that you may still retain some interest on this question.— I know that I ought to apologise for troubling you with the volume & with this note (which requires no acknowledgment) but I cannot resist the temptation of showing in this feeble manner my respect, & the deep obligation, which I owe to your Introduction to Natural Philosophy. Scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me: it made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge

With much respect | I beg leave to remain | Yours sincerely | Charles Darwin

The copy of the Origin volume mentioned in this blog is on display in the Ransom Center Reading Room lobby from November 19 through January 15, 2010, during Reading Room hours.

From the Galleries: Halley's Comet

By Elana Estrin

Halley’s Comet was last spotted by the unaided human eye in 1986, and isn’t estimated to be visible again until 2026. For those who can’t wait another 17 years, the Ransom Center’s exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works, offers visitors an early glimpse of Halley’s Comet, as rendered by John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.

Halley’s Comet was no novelty for Herschel; she discovered no fewer than eight comets in her lifetime. She drew these four illustrations of Halley’s Comet in her late eighties, after being awarded a gold medal and honorary membership from the Royal Astronomical Society. Also on display are pencil sketches of Halley’s Comet by Herschel’s astronomer nephew, John F. W. Herschel, and six illustrations of comets by various other astronomers.

How do you make the world go 'round?

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center’s Coronelli Celestial globe (ca. 1688) is almost five feet high and depicts several constellations labeled in Italian and Latin. To coincide with the current exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works, the technology and digital services department developed a virtual model of the globe for our website. Photographer Pete Smith and technology services graduate intern Ramona Broussard describe how they assembled this model:

The first challenge we encountered in creating this virtual model was moving the globe to the photography studio to capture high-quality images. The Ransom Center’s exhibition preparation department had to remove a door so that the large globe could fit inside the photography studio.

After our first test shots, we realized that the lighting would have to be polarized to clear up the glare coming off the shiny surface of the globe. The final lighting setup required five powerful flash units and numerous reflectors. For the animation to run smoothly, the globe had to be rotated the same distance for each photographed frame. After some investigation we found that the globe was marked with 72 longitudinal lines that were perfect to use as guides when we moved the globe for each frame. When photographing the globe we had to be careful not to skip a section or double up on one.

One person moved the globe and carefully stepped out of the frame so that the photograph could be taken. This process was repeated 72 times until the globe was photographed for one full rotation. When the photographing was complete, the exhibition preparation crew lifted the globe onto a type of dolly and rolled it out of the studio. They then replaced the door.

The next challenge was deciding how to stitch the photographs together and present them online in a usable and accurate way. We settled on using Flash because Flash is a widely adopted tool that most browsers support without the need for add-ons or plug-ins; the necessity of downloading add-ons often prevents people from accessing new multimedia.

We reviewed several online Flash tools and settled on one created by YoFLA because it was easy to use and provided several functions we wanted, including the ability to zoom, a customizable look, and predefined hotspots (or clickable areas.) YoFLA 3D Object Rotate is freely available for those who want to try it.

The first 3D object we created with 72 uncropped images was prohibitively large. To keep download time to a minimum, we created a smaller object with only 36 images that were cropped. Finally, we had a virtual globe that could be put online for easy viewing and close inspection.