Science Fiction Studies

#108 = Volume 36, Part 2 = July 2009


Everett F. Bleiler

John Leonard Riddell, Pioneer

For Hugo Gernsback and his successor, T. O’Conor Sloane, science fiction was to be written by “leaders of thought.” Historically, this has not often been the case, but John Leonard Riddell would qualify as such an author. He was professor of chemistry at the University of Louisiana, a pioneering microbiologist, a nationally recognized botanist and geologist, an amateur theoretical physicist, and an important inventor. He was also the author of what seems to be the first hard science-fiction story: Orrin Lindsay’s Plan of Aerial Navigation, with a Narrative of His Explorations in the Higher Regions of the Atmosphere, and His Wonderful Voyage Round the Moon! (1847).                

John Leonard Riddell (1807-1865), the son of a schoolmaster/justice of the peace/farmer, was born in Leyden, Massachusetts, a small town in the Berkshire Mountains. When Riddell was a small child, the family moved to a log cabin near Preston, Chenango County, in Upstate New York. After attending local schools and academies, he received a bachelor of arts degree from Rensselaer School (now Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) in Troy, NY (1829), followed by a Master of Arts (1832). At Rensselaer he studied under Amos Eaton, one of the foremost American scientists of the day.  

After some unhappy experiences at “little red schoolhouse” teaching, Riddell decided to become a “philosopher”—i.e., natural scientist—and earn his living as an itinerant lecturer.1 A contemporary cultural pattern supported him and, indeed, did much to shape his approach to science: the Lyceum Movement. Founded in Massachusetts in 1829, the lyceums constituted a loosely organized network of centers for adult education.2 Interested citizens could obtain a charter from the state, rent or build a suitable meeting place, and hire lecturers. In the early stages of the movement, subjects were usually in the physical sciences and earth sciences, but in later years history and literature were included. Visiting notables as well as teachers from nearby universities took part. Thoreau and Emerson lectured at the Concord Lyceum (Bode 162), while P.T. Barnum and William Makepeace Thackeray entertained listeners at the New Orleans Lyceum (Bode 46). The governing body of the lyceum usually provided demonstration equipment and charged a minimum fee—perhaps 25¢ for an individual lecture or $200 for a series. While prices varied greatly, a lecturer might receive $100 for a series (Bode 185-200). It is noteworthy that Rensselaer, where Riddell attended, was the only college in the country that offered training for lyceum lecturers.3

The system spread rapidly throughout the northeast, where about a thousand lyceums were active in 1831, but had little effect on the rest of the country, except where New Englanders had settled in large numbers, as in San Francisco and New Orleans.                 

Riddell traveled through upstate New York, Ontario, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, making a scant living by lecturing, enlarged by the sale of botanical and mineral specimens that he prepared. Sometimes he used the lyceum network; other times he worked independently. On entering a suitable town, he might contact a local notable for a recommendation, hire a hall (perhaps a church basement), and place up bills or advertise in the local newspaper. The lectures, which included chemistry, physics, geology, meteorology, and botany, offered spectacular demonstrations when possible. Riess quotes figures from Riddell’s lectures in Kingston, Ontario: “For a series of twelve to fifteen lectures ... twenty shillings for one ticket; one pound, ten shillings for two tickets ... or two shillings sixpence for a single lecture” (11). A series of lectures in Ogdensburg, NY, brought him a profit of $38.42, after expenditure of $25 for demonstration apparatus. He seems to have been regarded as a very brilliant young man, but a little difficult.                

From 1832 to 1836 Riddell lived mostly in Ohio, lecturing and botanizing. By now recognizing that he needed a more stable income and a permanent position, he enrolled in the Ohio Reformed Medical College at Worthington, where he also taught chemistry. As his journals record, resources at the college must have been scanty, for the students planned to raid the grave of a recently deceased black man in order to get a cadaver for dissection (Waller 345). Later Riddell finished his medical training at Cincinnati College of Medicine. He does not seem to have practiced medicine, but his studies were undoubtedly useful in his later biological work, as well as providing credence in the world of higher learning.                

The intellectual climate in Cincinnati was stimulating and congenial, given the rise of scientific bodies, private library associations, and multiple lyceums. According to Bode, in the period from 1831 to 1845 in Ohio, sixty lyceums received state charters (92). By 1836, when he had prepared his Synopsis of the Flora of the Western States (the first complete flora of the area) and his Geological Survey of Ohio, Riddell was beginning to be recognized as a leading botanist and geologist and had been elected to several scientific societies. He had also been appointed adjunct professor of chemistry and lecturer on botany at Cincinnati College of Medicine.                

In 1836 Riddell married a young woman who had a small, disputed inherit-ance in Louisiana that required her presence. By coincidence, at the same time he was offered the position of professor of chemistry and pharmacy and co-professor of materia medica at the newly founded Medical College of Louisiana (later part of the University of Louisiana, currently part of Tulane), a position that he accepted. Since there were also personal reasons for leaving Cincinnati, he and his wife traveled down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where he spent the rest of his life, apart from geological surveys in Texas and occasional travel.4                

When Riddell came to New Orleans, it was a booming city. It was the major port for the Southwest, second only to New York nationally, and was both the end and beginning of trade on the Mississippi drainage. Between 1830 and 1840 its population had doubled, what with immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and New England, who greatly changed the native Creole culture of the area. Indeed, the Second Municipality, where most of the new citizens lived, was practically a Yankee sub-city (Bode 84-85). Like the Northeast, this Second Municipality was greatly interested in cultural activities. Its members founded the first public library, an opera house, theaters, a new university, and the most important lyceum in the South.               

Although New Orleans justifiably had the reputation of being Sin City and the Sodom of North America, it also celebrated a small scientific renaissance, with recognized work in biology and geology.5 The New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, founded in 1844, printed many scientific articles apart from medicine; the New Orleans Academy of Science, founded 1853, with J.L. Riddell as president in 1859, maintained contact with other learned societies around the United States.6 J.L. Riddell, who was a founding member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, fitted well into this background as a very versatile, if occasionally fulminating scholar.                

On April 30, 1847 Riddell delivered his annual lecture to members of the New Orleans Lyceum. In this case the subject was not exactly popular science, but a didactic, fictional description of a lunar voyage based closely on the scientific knowledge of the day (with one fantastic assumption). This was Orrin Lindsay. The reading, which probably took about two hours, was enthusiastically received, and lyceum members urged Riddell to publish it.                

It is not clear, though, how closely the present text follows the lecture, for it seems unlikely that Riddell would have read the fairly technical footnotes or the scientific tabulations within the printed text. Riddell’s lecture notes preserved in the Peabody Library in Essex, Massachusetts, reveal that his oral presentation was followed by a discussion period and/or a supplementary piece in which he described Lindsay’s second interplanetary voyage, now to Mars. According to a brief summary given by Dexter (187-88), this material, as yet unpublished, describes Mars as an Earth-like planet with humanoid inhabitants more advanced than we are. The mode is both semi-utopia and mirror for the contemporary United States. While such a mode parallels island/hermit kingdom ideal societies, Orrin Lindsay seems to be the earliest physical visit to a human-habitable Mars. So far as is known, the lunar voyage is Riddell’s only attempt at fiction.                

Riess, who had access to Riddell’s journals held by Tulane University, states that Riddell had been speculating about interplanetary travel since his early twenties.7 His interest, unlike that of most other early selenographers, was not satire or humor or adventure, but the scientific possibility of space travel. He came to the conclusion at an early stage that direct cancellation of gravity was a possible means of reaching the moon. In later life, as Orrin Lindsay indicates, he found fictional support for the concept of antigravity in the work of Michael Faraday, who discussed magnetic and diamagnetic materials (including mercury) and suggested an identity of a sort among electricity, magnetism, light, and gravity.8 Citing Faraday, to put Lindsay into space Riddell postulated that a magnetized amalgam of steel and mercury would serve as a shield against gravitation and that navigation could be effected by remote-controlled shutters accepting or rejecting gravitation, as needed.               

It is not possible to say whether Riddell was aware of earlier fictional lunar voyages. Riess and Dexter do not mention references to such works in his journals, and his story has no real community of idea with earlier stories.9 Riddell’s bent was scientific, and while he read a few classics, on the whole he seems to have had little interest in literature. On the other hand, he could hardly have escaped knowing about Richard Adams Locke’s Celebrated Moon Hoax (Discoveries on the Moon, 1835), which achieved national attention and was reprinted several times.10 Orrin Lindsay shares with the Celebrated Moon Hoax the narrative strategy of the half-hoax: a fictional work posing as undramatized historical narrative, with imitation of scientific exposition (in this case), all with the intention of fooling anyone naive or ill-informed enough to accept it. Several of Poe’s stories fit the same category.                

Although there was no concept of science fiction as such in the 1840s, Riddell intuitively followed the strategy of a single extrapolation of science out of which, or accompanying which, an unorthodox scientific position emerges. The story’s motifs, however, are heavily indebted to historical accounts of early ballooning. Emphasis is placed on the visual aspects of an ascension, with accompanying recording and reflection.11 Like the Montgolfier brothers, Orrin Lindsay tested his apparatus on an animal before venturing into it himself. The Montgolfiers used domestic animals; Riddell used a dog that floated away.               

Details of publication are not known, but it is probable that Orrin Lindsay was a vanity publication, paid for by the author, printed in a very small edition, and distributed mostly to the author’s friends. It received almost no critical attention. It is not listed in Allibone, nor is there any hint that it was known to early writers of science fiction.12 (Possible exception to follow.) The only science-fiction reference to Orrin Lindsay that the present writer has found is a brief mention in a letter from Charles P. Mason, an editorial worker at Gernsback enterprises, in the Summer 1931 issue of Wonder Stories Quarterly. Mason, who did not recognize the significance of Riddell’s work, probably discovered it in the same manner as did the present writer, by working through the card catalogue of the New York Public Library.                

While Orrin Lindsay escaped the reference books, one wonders whether H.G. Wells may have been acquainted with it. In The First Men in the Moon the antigravity substance Cavorite, like Riddell’s antigravity substance, is “opaque to gravitation [and manufactured] out of a complicated alloy of metals and something new—a new element—I fancy—called, I believe helium....” (399; emphasis in original). Just as Lindsay’s antigravity plates are controlled by shutters, Wells’s are controlled by “section[s] capable of rolling up after the fashion of a roller blind” (408). Wells’s sphere, with entry mechanism and survival materials, is simply Lindsay’s “balloon” modernized. Some of this resemblance between the two stories is undoubtedly thematic. The construction of the spaceship and its equipment could easily occur independently to two writers, but the physical nature of the antigravity material, its theoretical equation of magnetism and gravitation, and the mechanical operation of shutters would seem less likely to arise independently. There is no documentary evidence, however, that Wells knew Orrin Lindsay, and so far as the present writer has been able to check, no copies of Riddell’s pamphlet were available in British libraries in the nineteenth century.                

Like the character Orrin Lindsay, Riddell was a significant inventor. Today he is remembered mostly as the inventor of the compound microscope, the first microscope to show stereoscopic, three-dimensional images (Riess 55-59). There had been earlier attempts to construct such a device, but none had been successful, in part because of inadequate optics (see Bradbury). In 1851 Riddell described the optical basis for his microscope and had an example constructed in 1852. For a time, it seemed that Riddell had copied a French source (M. Nachet) or was anticipated in concept by the British physicist Charles Wheatstone, but it has been established that both the French parallel and Wheatstone’s proposal were based on the announcements of Riddell’s invention.                

Riddell’s fertile imagination produced other inventions. He devised an improved barometer, achromatic telescope lenses, achromatic condensors, and various laboratory apparatus. A missed opportunity came when he described a possible typewriter in his journals, but never bothered to have an example constructed. According to the description quoted by Riess (40), with its keyboard and striking keys, Riddell’s apparatus seems much closer to the modern machine than the primitive devices of a generation later that are considered ancestral typewriters.                

More controversial in their day were Riddell’s explorations in microbiology and the bacterial origin of disease. The historical focus for an important insight came in 1853 and 1854.

New Orleans, one of the unhealthiest cities in the United States, was repeatedly hit by epidemics of various sorts—cholera, yellow fever, and typhus—of which the most severe was probably the great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853 and 1854.13 During this episode, somewhere between 10,000 and 13,000 persons out of a population of approximately 100,000 died of yellow fever. The vagueness of the above figures may be due to the exodus of citizens en masse from New Orleans once the epidemic began, a large transitory population, and slipshod records.14               

After the epidemic had subsided, the City of New Orleans Sanitation Department established a committee to study the epidemic and suggest ways to prevent future epidemics. Riddell, as a professor at the university who had also worked on various sanitary proposals for the city, was a member of this blue-ribbon group. The long official report, edited by Dr. Edward G. Barton, concluded that the disease arose spontaneously from environmental conditions:

the emanations [miasmas] arising from the upturning and exposure of the original soil in the summer season, together with filth, under certain determinate atmospheric conditions [hot, sticky weather] has [sic] been the main, if not the special cause of every epidemic yellow fever that has ravaged not only this city, but the Southwestern part of the United States for more than half a century! (Sanitary Commission 320-21)

Riddell refused to accept this explanation. Although he was not assigned space to develop his views, he stated disagreement with Barton in a footnote.15 In a paper of 1836 he had advanced a bacterial cause for certain illnesses. He developed this concept later in papers attributing the epidemic to bacteria.16 (Actually, yellow fever is viral, but the concept is still valid.)

In these papers Riddell was a pioneer. Histories of bacteriology assign the origin of medical bacteriology to Jakob Henle (1840) and Agostino Bassi (1844).17 While it has been said that recognition of bacterial causation of disease was in the air, the fact remains that Riddell either anticipated or paralleled advanced European science.                

Riddell based his conclusions about yellow fever partly on the demography of the disease and partly on theoretical conclusions about the nature of disease in general. He puzzled about a vector and thought of windblown bacteria as well as direct contagion, but he did not consider mosquitoes, although local reports commented that “musquetoes [were] tenfold more numerous than ever known before” (Sanitary Commission 266).                

Continuing microscopic work, Riddell examined hospital specimens of various diseases, discovering the bacilli of cholera and tuberculosis a generation before Robert Koch (Riess 69). He illustrated these bacteria in plates printed by a lithographic method he developed, but did not follow up his discoveries. Surprisingly, Riddell did not photograph his findings. There is no mention of photographic experiments in the literature about him, although one would have expected a man of his background to have applied himself to the new art.                

During much of his middle life Riddell’s chief interest lay in theoretical physics: structure of the atom, conservation of energy and matter, gravitation, and other topics that were important in the 1840s.18 It is difficult to establish his historical position, since documentation is not very solid or not available, and the question of primacy is clouded by the near contemporaneity of his work and that of his European parallels. The present writer says a little about this in an Appendix to this paper.               

University teaching, geological and botanical surveying, and private scientific theorizing and experimenting were only part of Riddell’s life. After arriving in New Orleans he worked actively in politics for the Democratic party, as a result of which he was awarded two important patronage positions.                

In late 1839 President Van Buren appointed him “melter and refiner” at the newly established Branch Mint at New Orleans, with a salary of $2,000 (CPI, 2008 c. $57,000, but probably higher local value) and living quarters for his family. (He retained his teaching position at the University of Louisiana and still delivered lectures.) His work consisted of refining the mixed gold and silver that entered the mint as foreign coinage, then preparing ingots suitable for coining. He describes the processes clearly in his short paper “United States Branch Mint: The Mint at New Orleans.”               

Riddell’s early experiences at the mint were unfortunate, for he botched his first gold melt. Mixing the proper amount of copper with gold to create an alloy hard enough for coins is apparently a tricky operation, and he did not receive adequate instructions from the Philadelphia Mint. The working situation, too, was unpleasant at first, since feuds and favoritism permeated the work force. Riddell probably did not make matters easier for himself by persisting in trying to use the mint coiner’s equipment for private experiments. After several appeals to Philadelphia, however, some amity seems to have been attained.                

Before being removed from the Mint in 1848, possibly for political reasons, Riddell had demonstrated his usual inventiveness. He redesigned and rebuilt the cauldron for melting silver, which continued in use until 1902. He also invented a rotary ingot machine, a casting device that almost tripled production of ingots. Counterparts of this machine were placed in the other mints.19 Another product of his years at the mint was his numismatic study A Monograph on the Silver Dollar, which remains the definitive study of such early coinage. He illustrated it by means of intaglio castings of his own devising, a method that is said to have been superior to any other until the development of numismatic photography a generation later.20              

As a second political position some years later, in August 1860 President James Buchanan appointed Riddell Postmaster of New Orleans. The appointment was again a matter of patronage. He retained his professorship at the university, but worked seriously and conscientiously at his new position.                

After Louisiana seceded from the Union in January 1861, Jefferson Davis attempted to replace Riddell, but of two replacements, one died (Waller 358) and the other did not accept the position. Riddell remained. Thus, Riddell, a New York Yankee who was strongly against Southern secession, held an important position in the Confederacy until New Orleans was occupied by General Benjamin Butler’s troops in May 1862.                

Establishing martial law, Butler fired all government employees, including Riddell. Riddell protested, but without success, since his position was weak. He had been a Democratic appointee; the Federal government was now Republican, and Riddell, technically, had collaborated with the Confederacy. He had gone so far as to work out postal routes to evade the Union blockade of the port of New Orleans.21 He was not important enough politically to be in serious trouble, but he did require a presidential pardon, which arrived not long before his death.                

During his period as Postmaster, Riddell operated under great difficulties. Since the Confederacy had no postage stamps at the time of Secession, Riddell created special stamps and later a scrip redeemable at post offices, but both stamps and scrip had little value outside New Orleans. Such stamps and franked envelopes signed by Riddell are now philatelic rarities.22
                The standard history of the New Orleans post office, by Huber and Wagner, states: “Whatever his motives, Dr. Riddell’s work as Postmaster is outstanding. His ingenuity and ability to make decisions for the benefit of the postal service mark him as one of the ablest officials ever to fill the office of postmaster in New Orleans” (157).                

Later during the occupation of New Orleans, Riddell and others were greatly concerned with reestablishing civilian government in the western states and bringing them back into the Union. The first step was the proposed election of a Louisiana governor and congressmen. General Butler and his successors denied requests for permission to hold such an election, and an appeal to President Lincoln, whom Riddell visited, failed. Nevertheless, in November 1863 the Constitutional Union Party of Louisiana (a new splinter group) held an election. Riddell was elected governor of Louisiana. He assumed the post and conducted correspondence with Washington, trying to achieve recognition. He was rejected by both Congress and the courts, and the congressmen whom Riddell sent to Washington were refused seats (Bartlett 580-83).               

The above brief description, while accurate, is somewhat misleading. The election was not legitimate since the state constitution had been suspended and Louisiana was under military law. In addition, the voting took place only in a few parishes outside New Orleans and was far from satisfying requirements of the former constitution. Outside Louisiana the disputed election was ridiculed and taken as a joke. It has been suggested that the election was a ploy to force the Federal Government to permit real elections, but Riddell, though called a phantom governor, seems to have taken it seriously.               

Riddell’s end came through politics. On October 2, 1865, the state Democratic organization held a meeting with Riddell as chairman. He astonished the audience with a very strong speech in which he declared that Louisiana’s secession “was worse than a crime—it was a blunder.” In a later inflammatory speech, he “characteriz[ed] the acts of the State of Louisiana as criminal and treasonable, thereby ... cast[ing] a stigma” on the members of the convention. Booed and nearly assaulted, he left the hall, promising a defence of his speeches. He “went to the office of the Daily Southern Star to write it ... was left alone in the office; presently the noise of a heavy rattling fall was heard” and Riddell was found lying on the floor, the victim of a stroke.23 He died three days later. The statement, found in some reference sources, that he died in 1867 is incorrect.               

With Riddell’s many attainments, the question must arise of why his name is not familiar in histories of American science and technology. Apart from historical entries on the compound microscope, he is now almost forgotten except to philatelists and local historians. Even if some of his speculations in theoretical physics are without merit, they were no worse than those proposed by many of his better known contemporaries.                

The present writer can make several suggestions. First, Riddell was not a member of the international European oikoumene. A hermit scientist, he published in obscure local journals and never acquired a powerful sponsor. He had no William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) or Michael Faraday to recognize the importance of his work, as happened with James P. Joule, who worked in the same area of theoretical physics (Steffens 102ff). Nor did he have any peer review, which might have ironed out troublesome lumps.                

Second, all too often Riddell did not follow through on his insights or plans but was content to record them in his journals, while he went on to something else. This is certainly the case with his typewriter and bacterial discoveries. It is tempting to call many of his discoveries half-discoveries, since he did not exploit them.                

Third, he did not seem to be able to distinguish between important and minor work. For example, he spent much time working out chemical nomenclature in terms of a symbolic logic. Even a layman can regard this with suspicion.                

Fourth, his presentation of his ideas and speculations was inadequate. Although he is said to have been a very fine teacher in his chemistry classes, his published writing can be choked and unclear. In Europe, scientific writing had taken the form of the “paper” or monograph, which was often unitary in subject matter and precise in exposition. Since to a large extent it grew out of laboratory situations, it buttressed its generalities with solid documentation. Riddell had the habit of making a general statement, which might be controversial, promising details later, but never giving them. Thus, Riddell gives his vibratory theory of heat in a dozen or two words; Joule, on the other hand, presented his theory on the basis of hundreds of experiments, many fully described.                

Fifth, although he was a man of enormous drive and energy, he spread himself too thin in his most productive years. At roughly the same time, he occupied a Federal post; conscientiously conducted classes at the medical school; ran geological and botanical surveys; experimented in his laboratory; speculated on cosmology; performed sanitation consultations for the city; served actively on committees; corresponded with several learned societies of which he was a member; worked politically for the Democratic party; traveled to Ohio, New York, and Washington; built up friendships with US presidents; engaged successfully in real estate speculation and other forms of making money; established his younger siblings in life; ran a household with a wife and eight children; and maintained a mistress with two children.                

It was more than enough for one man.

                In his paper “The Probable Constitution of Matter” (1846) Riddell covers many topics in theoretical physics and chemistry. The present writer is not qualified to judge this material, not all of which is relevant here, but will mention a few points that either are important for Orrin Lindsay or are germane to Riddell’s position in the history of science.                

As the first footnote in Orrin Lindsay, Riddell prints an excerpt from “Probable Constitution” dealing with gravitation (600-01, not 602 as cited). He probably hoped that his listeners or readers would refer to his article for additional text. Unfortunately, the excerpt is more confusing than enlightening. Some of the arguments seem sophistical; others raise points not answered until general relativity.                

When Riddell speaks of “inherent gravitation,” he is referring to classical Newtonian gravitation. For Newton, the essence of gravitation was universal attraction, which is unalienable from matter. All bodies attract one another; gravitation acts at a distance; and gravitation is transmitted across the universe instantaneously.                

Like many of his contemporaries (Gondhalekar 132, 184), Riddell rejected instantaneous transmission and action at a distance, which were avoided by the concept of the aether/ether, a particulate substructure or substructures that permitted the passage of waves. Riddell, obviously, did not reject the mathematics in the Principia or its application.                

Where Riddell differed from Newton was in the nature of gravitation. Newton avoided this question, with his well-known “hypothesis non fingo” and limited himself to describing the action of the phenomenon, although there were obvious implications in his work. Riddell, on the other hand, attempted to explain gravitation as a force emerging from atomic motion, notably repulsion, or impulse.24 For Riddell, gravitation was not an attracting force inherent in matter but a generalized impulsive force that is omnipresent, indestructible, but convertible.25 Why this force existed is just as unanswerable a question as why attraction existed in the Newtonian universe. “I do not intend to inquire physically into the origin of either matter or motion. Such inquiries infinitely transcend the limits of human philosophy” (“Probable Constitution” 604). Riddell thereupon set out to use this assumption to create a system encompassing much of physics and physical chemistry. In some ways this harks back to the scientific thought of the Romantic period with its cycles, interlocking chains of being, and microcosm-macrocosm relations.                

With momentum (mass times velocity) being all pervasive, the structure of matter would occlude one body from another, just as one body shades another from light. This screening action would prevent either stasis or turmoil.                

In his concept of the structure of the atom, Riddell differed markedly from his contemporaries. Throughout most of the nineteenth century John Dalton’s atomic theory was generally accepted (Gregory 65-94). This postulated a point atom surrounded by a mist (or globe) of electric and/or caloric (heat) particles. Riddell did not accept solid billiard-ball atoms, but postulated a compound atomic structure with subatomic particles. The outer particles and the atomic nucleus were all composed of subatomic particles, which in turn were composed of smaller units. Through the empty space around and between the various particles various energies pass.26               

This atomic theory, stated verbally, is essentially modern. As Riess says, “[Riddell’s theory of atomic structure] is indeed unique because it is our present-day picture predicted many years before the discovery of atomic particles” (41-42). The planetary atomic system was not worked out until the beginning of the twentieth century, and subatomic particles not until the last fifty years.              

Riddell’s speculation, alas, was not backed by experiment or higher mathematics, both of which would have been inadequate in his time, but partly by analogy with the solar system. (Throughout his paper he pursues macrocosm-microcosm parallels.) It was thus an inspired speculation and of no great importance in the history of science—a right answer for the wrong reasons.                

The question of heat—its nature, its relation to force, and particularly its practical use in steam engines—was an overpowering matter of interest in the 1840s.27 Such men as Michael Faraday, James P. Joule, and William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) were active in Great Britain, while in Germany Dr. Robert Mayer and Hermann Helmholtz were preeminent. Riddell, too, had things to say.                

In the 1840s the prevailing theory was that of caloric-heat, set forth mostly by Joseph Black in the eighteenth century. This theory held that heat was a separate substance (called caloric) that circulated in atomic orbits and could be squeezed out by various means. This theory was so strongly held that when Mayer and Joule’s discoveries to the contrary were presented, they were either ignored or scoffed at. Yet within a decade and a half caloric was discarded and the modern theory, that heat is a matter of molecular vibration, prevailed.28               

Joule’s basic papers were presented from 1843 to 1848. In a paper delivered in Cork in 1843, Joule declared, “We consider heat not as a substance, but as a state of vibration” (Steffens 40; emphasis in original). In “Probable Constitution” Riddell states clearly “heat ... is that appreciable condition of ponderable bodies, immediately and mainly dependent upon the greater or less intensity of molecular oscillation; and subordinately upon the luminiferous medium” (614). Riddell is referring to the ether, a concept almost universally accepted until the Michelson-Morley experiments and special relativity.                

Riddell also concerned himself with the question of absolute zero. In his paper he set it as “near -421º Fahr.” In 1845 Joule set absolute zero at -448 Fahrenheit. Considering earlier figures, which were vastly different, and the sometimes primitive equipment of the day, the two estimates are not so far apart as they might seem at first glance. It should be marked that Joule used a different method for obtaining his figure than did Riddell.29               

The classical theory of the time held that matter and energy were destroyed during work. The modern understanding is that neither matter nor energy are so destroyed, only transformed; this is the First Law of Thermodynamics. In Riddell’s paper we find “Matter is indestructable ... uncreatable and indestruct-able” (594). And “Motion [force] may be transferred from matter to matter, can never, as nature is constituted, be lost or destroyed, as I shall hereafter attempt to make apparent” (595). Joule made much the same point in his paper of 1843.30 

The question arises whether Riddell worked independently of European scientists and arrived at roughly the same results, or whether he was a very early convert to their views. Two men were pioneers in Germany and England: Dr. Robert Mayer, a German physician, and James Prescott Joule, a British brewer and amateur physicist. Both men proposed that heat was due to molecular motion, Mayer in 1842 and Joule in 1843 and later years.                

As a matter of communication, it seems almost impossible that Riddell could have known of Mayer’s work, which passed largely unheeded until later, and in any case was in German. It is also very improbable that Riddell was aware of Joule’s experiments or conclusions, which attracted little attention until several years later. He does not mention either man, although he mentions other European scientists.                

In several ways Riddell’s work differed from that of Mayer and Joule. Mayer and Joule worked with gases and liquids. Riddell worked partly with metal rods and partly by reasoning. Riddell went no farther than general statements about the nature of heat and conservation of energy and matter. The European scientists, on the other hand, continued their experiments, discovered the principles of transformation of matter and energy, and eventually, with Helmholtz, arrived at the Three Laws of Thermodynamics. This, of course, is the important part of these early experiments, and it is likely that if Riddell had known of the European advances he would have followed them through. All in all, it is a reasonable conclusion that Riddell’s work on energy and heat was independent and that he was a partial pioneer in an important branch of physics.

                1. “O Heavens, for my existence sake, deliver me from the thankless task of teaching a room full of hard-headed, thick-pated, mischief-making boys” (Riddell, Long Ride 5).
                2. “Thus the lyceum was a socially approved institution. Translated into concrete terms, that meant that the townspeople both could and should attend it. If there was ever an American dogma during these decades, it was the desirability of personal improvement” (Bode 32).
                3. “Rensselaer Institute ... offered training for lyceum lecturers—the only place in the nation where this was done” (Bode 64).
                4. A Long Ride in Texas, Riddell’s journal of his geological/geographical expedition into the Texas Hill Country, is a fascinating document. A geological survey, indeed, was one intention of the expedition, but a stronger purpose was finding the “lost” San Saba mine. According to legend, this was a rich Spanish colonial silver mine. The mine seems to have been imaginary, but in any case the presence of Comanches, who resented white trespassers, frightened off the explorers.
                5. Reinders gives a fascinating account of the palatial saloons, luxurious bordellos, beautiful octaroons, institutionalized concubinage (plaçage), gambling dens high and low, and other such features that attracted rich and poor (165-71).
                6. See Johnson (152-71) and Reinders (144-45).
                7. “Send an expedition to the moon. A wonder that in the present age of enterprise no expedition should have been projected to the moon which is so near to us” (Personal Journal, Vol. I, [Ogdensburg, NY, 1831], qtd. in Riess 45).
                8. Riddell is probably referring to Papers 2286 (“Series XX”), Dec. 1845, and 2427 (“Series XX”), Dec. 1845, in which Faraday extensively discusses experiments with magnetism in various substances. In these papers the concept of diamagnetism is advanced: “The assertion ... has sometimes been made, that all bodies are magnetic. Those who hold this view, mean that all bodies are magnetic as iron is, and say that they point between the poles. The new facts give not a mere negative to this statement, but something beyond, namely an affirmative as to the existence of forces in all ordinary bodies, directly the opposite of those existing in magnetic bodies, for whereas those practically produce attraction, these [termed diamagnetic] produce repulsion” (paper 2286, Experimental Researches, III, 38). “As already stated, the magnetic force is so strikingly distinct in its action upon bodies of the magnetic and diamagnetic class, that when it causes the attraction of the one it produces the repulsion of the other” (paper 2427, Experimental Researches, III, 72).
                Faraday also states that in his belief electricity, magnetism, the chemical force, and gravitation are all essentially the same force. “This [long-range extension of gravitation] seems to fall in very harmoniously with Mossotti’s mathematical investigations and reference of the phenomena of electricity, cohesion, gravitation, &c. to one force in matter.... But it is no part of my intention to enter into such considerations as these....” From “A Speculation Touching Electric Conduction and the Nature of Matter.” (London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine, 1844, Vol. 24, 136 ff. Experimental Researches, II, 293).
                Faraday, at a date later than Riddell’s paper, develops this idea in much greater detail (cf. paper 2702, “Series XXIV,” “On the possible relation of Gravity to Electricity”). 
                Riddell thus held, for fictional purposes, that a union of opposites could produce a stasis or negation of such phenomena as light, electricity, magnetism, and gravitation.
                9. Riddell was not the first to use antigravity as means for space travel. In the anonymous “Tale of a Chemist” (1843 text cited, but probably of earlier origin), gravitation—and by implication antigravity—are a matter of chemistry. “At length I discovered the actual ingredients of this omnipresent agent. It is little more than a combination of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and azote [nitrogen], but the proportions of these constituent parts long baffled me ... the next easy step from the discovery of the elements was the decomposition of gravity.... I constructed a gravity pump....” (Bell 220).
                Jonathan Swift’s aerial island of Laputa floats through the use of a gigantic lodestone, which can be shifted around to control the movements of the island. It functions because of a gigantic deposit of iron that seems to be contiguous with the kingdom itself. The mechanism is thus not really antigravity. George Tucker’s A Voyage to the Moon (1827) shows the beginnings of a technological approach to a lunar voyage, but he adopts a fanciful metal (lunarium) as a propulsive device. Lunarium is repulsive to earth, attractive to the moon. No concept of antigravity is involved; indeed, lunarium may well have a metaphorical significance.
                10. “A Complete Account of the Late Discoveries on the Moon. From a Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal.” [New York] Sun, August 25-31, 1835. The account claims to be a popular description of telescopic discoveries made by Sir John Herschel at the Cape of Good Hope, showing humanoid inhabitants of the Moon. The hoax was accepted as true by many readers.
                11. This visualism is anticipated in his 1831 discussion of aeronautics: “Describe an ascent from a hill overhanging a village. Meteorological discoveries—enter thunder clouds—visit the airy and misty regions where rain, hail and snow is [sic] made and those regions prolifick with fireballs, shooting stars, meteors and the aurora borealis. Cross ocean. Explore the course of the Niger. Survey Ethiopia, Siberia and see the wild dangerous animals of the hot desert while cooly [sic] seated at an enormous height above them. Explore the dismal precipices of ice around the Himmalah mountains....” (qtd in Riess 45).
                12. The two important nineteenth-century interplanetary novels involving antigravity show no awareness of Orrin Lindsay. In Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac (1884), the phenomenon of antigravity arises from a force called apergy, “the existence of a repulsive force in the atomic sphere had been long suspected and of late certainly ascertained.... Till lately, no means of generating or collecting this force in large quantity had been found. The progress of electrical science had solved this difficulty” (22). In John Jacob Astor’s Journey in Other Worlds (1894), apergy is a compensatory force opposed to gravitation. Its composition is electrical: “With this force, obtained by simply blending negative and positive electricity with electricity of the third element or state, and charging a body sufficiently with this fluid, gravitation is nullified” (29). It also was associated with religion: “We know that Christ, while walking on the waves, did not sink, and that he and Elijah were carried up into heaven. What became of their material bodies we cannot tell, but they were certainly superior to the force of gravitation” (87).
                13. In the 1850s New Orleans had the “unenviable character of being the most unhealthy [city] in the world. Illness and death were ever present and uncomfortably familiar spectres, as yellow fever, cholera, typhus, and lesser plagues scourged the city with terrifying frequency” (Reinders 87). “In the antebellum era it was widely regarded as ‘The graveyard of the Southwest,’” says Breeden’s introduction in Riddell’s Long Ride (26). For more on the Yellow Fever epidemic, see Duffy; see also Sanitary Commission.
                14. Accounts of the Epidemic of 1853 give very different figures for the population of New Orleans and the number of fatalities. Duffy gives the population as around 75,000 and deaths at 10,739 (104-105). Sanitary Commission gives the population as around 125,000 and fatalities as around 8,100 (253, 255).
                15. “The undersigned members of the Sanitary Commission, dissent from this assertion, denying the positive certainty alledged. J.L. Riddell, J.C. Simonds” (Sanitary Commission xi).
                16. Riess (26, 63-70).
                17. See, for example, Foster (7-9); Bulloch (161, 164); Lechevalier (44, 65).
                18. Riddell offers this theory in “Probable Constitution.”
                19. “Around 1844, in an effort to streamline ingot production, Riddell invented the rotary ingot machine, which was put into use by the late 1840s. Cool water passed through the machine and rapidly hardened the bullion. Depressing a foot lever allowed the molds to rotate after each pour and the previous ingot to be removed, greatly speeding the process. The machine almost tripled the average silver melt (from 3,000 to 8,500 ounces) and reduced the number of workers needed to do the job.” Lambousy, “The Mint” (40).        The machine is visible in a contemporary photograph reproduced in Lambousy, “Riddell’s Plan” (4).
                20. A Monograph of the Silver Dollar, Good and Bad, Illustrated with Facsimile Figures of Four Hundred and Twenty-five Varieties of Dollars, and Eighty-seven Varieties of Half Dollars, Including the Genuine, the Low Standard, and the Counterfeit, Giving Their Weight, Quality and Exact Value, and Enabling the Inexperienced to Detect Those Which Are Spurious. (New Orleans: Norman, 1845). A rare book, a copy recently sold at auction for $825.
                21. An October 1861 newspaper cited by Huber and Wagner: “With advice and approval of J.L. Riddell Postmaster, at New Orleans monthly mail between New Orleans and Tampico on the British mail steamer.”
                22. Huber and Wagner give details about the operation of the post office. Riddell’s stamps and franked envelopes are so desirable to collectors that counterfeits are common. Huber and Wagner illustrate genuine stamps and counterfeits.
                23. Excerpted from Riess, 79-80.
                24. “Gravitation, as well as the attraction among the particles of liquids, etc., has its origin in the transference of momentum from media of the more refined terms of matter” (599).
                25. Riddell, “Probable Constitution” (599-600, 619).
                26. “Matter exists aggregated into spheroids or atoms ... in which each atom is composed of an aggregation of an indefinitely great number of atoms subordinate in the series in respect to size. Fixing the attention upon one atom of each term, they present in their relative dimensions, a decreasing or increasing series” (“Probable Constitution” 595).
                27. See Stephens and Taylor (250-323).
                28. “The first ten years of Joule’s scientific career proceeded without public recognition of his work..... When scientific and public recognition were finally lavished upon him in the years around 1850, it was realized that Joule’s work formed a well- constructed foundation upon which to build the full mathematical expression for the concept of energy” (Steffens x).
                29. Riddell, “Probable Constitution” (617). Steffens (95). Joule, Scientific Papers, Vol. 1 (204).
                30. Riddell (“Probable Constitution,” 598). “Joule had demonstrated in 1843 that heat was produced by ‘the passage of water through narrow tubes.’ He was sufficiently satisfied ... that ‘wherever mechanical force is expended, an exact equivalent of heat is always obtained.’ Descending weights heated water by rotating paddle-wheels in the liquid, and heated it proportionately to their mass and descent” (Gregory 154).

Unless otherwise acknowledged, the biographical material in this paper has been taken mostly from Dr. Kahlem Riess’s authoritative study of Riddell’s life and work. The present writer has added cultural background and data from other sources.
Astor, John Jacob. A Journey in Other Worlds. A Romance of the Future. New York: Appleton, 1894.
Bartlett, David W. Cases of Contested Elections in Congress, from 1834 to 1865, Inclusive. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1865.                
Bell, Robert, ed. The Story-Teller; or, Table-book of Popular Literature. London: William Tegg, 1843.
Bode, Carl. The American Lyceum: Town Meeting of the Mind. New York: Oxford UP,  1956.
Bradbury, S. “The Quality of the Image Produced by the Compound Microscope: 1700-1840.” Historical Aspects of Microscopy. Ed. S. Bradbury and G. L’E. Turner. Cambridge: W.H. Heffer for the Royal Microscopical Society, 1967. 151-73.
─────, and G. L’E. Turner. Historical Aspects of Microscopy. Cambridge: W.H. Heffer for the Royal Microscopical Society, 1967.
Bulloch, William, M.D. The History of Bacteriology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1960.                 Darling, David. Gravity’s Arc. The Story of Gravity from Aristotle to Einstein and Beyond. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006.
Dexter, Ralph W. “The Early Career of John L. Riddell as a Science Lecturer in the 19th Century.” Ohio Journal of Science 888, vol. 5 (1988): 184-88.
Duffy, John. Sword of Pestilence. The New Orleans Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1966.
Faraday, Michael. Experimental Researches in Electricity. New York: Dover, 1965.
Foster, W.D. A History of Medical Bacteriology and Immunology. London: Heinemann, 1970.
Gondhalekar, Prabhakar. The Grip of Gravity. The Quest to Understand the Laws of Motion and Gravitation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.
Greg, Percy. Across the Zodiac. The Story of a Wrecked Record. London: Truebner, 1880.
Gregory, Joshua C. A Short History of Atomism from Democritus to Bohr. London: Black, 1931.  
Hamilton, James. A Life of Discovery: Michael Faraday, Giant of the Scientific Revolution. New York: Random House, 2002.
Huber, Leonard V., and Clarence A. Wagner. The Great Mail. A Postal History of New Orleans. State College, PA.: American Philatelic Society, 1949.
Johnson, Thomas C. Scientific Interests in the Old South. New York: Appleton-Century, 1936.
Joule, James Prescott. “On the Calorific Effects of Magneto-Electricity, and on the Mechanical Value of Heat.” Philosophical Magazine Ser.3, Vol. 23 (1843): 263, 347, 435. (Read before the Chemical Section of Mathematical and Physical Science of the British Association meeting at Cork on August 21, 1843.)
─────. The Scientific Papers of James Prescott Joule. London: Physical Society of London, 1884-1887.
Lambousy, Greg, “The Mint in New Orleans.” Numismatist (Mar. 2003): 36-43.
─────. “Riddell’s Plan for the Melting Room at the New Orleans Mint.” Gobrecht Journal 91 (Nov. 2004): 3-8.
Lechevalier, Hubert A., and Morris Solotorovsky. Three Centuries of Micro-biology. New York: Dover, 1974.
Numbers, Ronald, and Todd L. Savitt, eds. Science and Medicine in the Old South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989.                             
Reinders, Robert C. End of an Era. New Orleans, 1850-1860. New Orleans: Pelican, 1964.
Report of the Sanitary Commission of New Orleans on the Epidemic Yellow Fever of 1853. Published by Authority of the City Council of New Orleans. New Orleans: Picayune Office, 1854. (Editor and principal author, Edward G. Barton, M.D.)
Riddell, John Leonard. A Long Ride in Texas. The Explorations of John Leonard Riddell. Ed. with an introduction by James O. Breeden. College Station, TX: Texas A&M UP, 1994.
─────. “Memoir on the Nature of Miasm and Contagion.” Western Journal of Medical and Physical Science, Vol. 9, Cincinnati, 1836. Rpt in Animalcular and Cryptogamic Theories. Ed. Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz. New York: Arno, 1977. 401-19.
─────. Orrin Lindsay’s Plan of Aerial Navigation, with a Narrative of His Explorations in the Higher Regions of the Atmosphere, and His Wonderful Voyage around the Moon! Ed. J.L. Riddell. New Orleans: Rea’s Power Press Office, 1847.
─────. [Personal papers.] Riddell left extensive journals, notebooks, and letters, which are preserved in Tulane University and the Essex Library in Salem, Massachusetts. Excerpts are printed in Dexter, Riess, and Waller.
─────. “The Probable Constitution of Matter, and Laws of Motion, as deducible from and Explanatory of, the Physical Phenomena of Nature.”New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal 2 (1846): 592-623.
─────. “United States Branch Mint. The Mint at New Orleans.” [Debos] Commercial Review of the South and West 7 (1847): 528-35.
Riess, Karlem. John Leonard Riddell Scientist-Inventor Melter and Refiner of the New Orleans Mint 1839-1948 Postmaster of New Orleans 1859-1962. New Orleans: Louisiana Heritage Press, 1977.
Rosenkrantz, Barbara Gutmann, ed. Animalcular and Cryptogamic Theories. New York: Arno, 1977.
Steffens, Henry John. James Prescott Joule and the Concept of Energy. New York: Science History Publications, 1979.
Stephens, Lester D. “Scientific Societies in the Old South: The Elliott Society and the New Orleans Academy of Sciences.” Science and Medicine in the Old South. Ed. Ronald Numbers and Todd L. Savitt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989. 55-78.
“Tale of a Chemist.” The Story-Teller; or, Table-book of Popular Literature. Ed. Robert Bell. London: William Tegg, 1843. 220-25.
Taylor, Lloyd William. Physics, The Pioneer Science. 2 vols. New York: Dover, 1959.
Tucker, George. A Voyage to the Moon. 1827. Boston: Gregg, 1975.
Waller, Adolph E. “The Vaulting Imagination of John L. Riddell.” Ohio History 54 (Oct.-Dec. 1946): 331-60.
Wells, H.G. Seven Famous Novels by H.G. Wells. New York: Knopf, 1934.

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