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Category: Research

Posts in which we talk about research

Did you know the first “photograph” was made during the late “extended” Regency period? Its inventor, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, is the second of my “real Regency heroes” to hail from France rather than England. My justification is that scientists who studied and experimented with technological advances at this time worked and shared on both sides of the channel.


Niépce developed other innovations as well, but according to correspondence with his brother, he captured the first permanent live camera image in 1824. This first effort was lost in further experimentation. But in 1826, Niépce created the same image again—a view out of the window from his studio—and this image still survives today, the world’s first (if rather indistinct) photograph. 


Buckle in for a story that shows how luck and timing and good PR, or the lack of them, make a huge difference in scientific success.

Born in 1765, Niépce was the second son of a wealthy lawyer. He and his older brother Claude excelled in studying science and after graduating Niépce became a professor at the Catholic Oratory college where he studied in Angers. The order’s colleges were shut down in 1792 by the Legislative Assembly of France’s New Republic, and some teachers became active supporters of the revolution. Niépce briefly joined the army under Napoleon and served as a staff officer in Italy and Sardinia until ill-health forced him to resign and accept a position as the Administrator of the district of Nice. He also married at this time.

 In 1795 at the age of 30, Niépce left that position in order to pursue his scientific interests, partnered with his brother Claude. They researched ideas for an internal combustion engine, living in Nice until they returned to their family estate in Chalon in 1801. Reunited with other family members, they lived there as gentlemen farmers while exploring a variety of scientific interests. In 1806 they presented a paper to the Institute National de Science, the French National Commission of the Academy of Science, which explained the workings of their engine, which they called a Pyréolophore.

A color cut-away diagram showing the internal combustion engine invented by Niepce and his brother.

Diagram of the first internal combustion engine, the Pyreolophore, of 1806. (public domain)

In 1807 they built a working version of their engine and demonstrated its success by powering a boat up the River Saone. They received a ten-year patent from Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

Unfortunately, in the same year Swiss engineer François Isaac de Rivaz also built an internal combustion engine. The de Rivaz engine was hydrogen-powered, whereas the Niépce engine ran on various experimental fuels such as mixtures of Lycopodium powder (the spores of clubmoss) and coal dust, or resin, all of which proved expensive.

France under Napoleon was at war for nearly all of the years of the Niépce patent. During those years, the brothers also developed a hydraulic pumping machine (but too late to obtain the government contract they aimed for) and the first fuel injection engine. But they were not able to attract sufficient investments or subsidies for their Pyreolophore, so their engine patent expired in 1817.

Unwilling to release the project, brother Claude traveled to England and settled at Kew. He obtained a patent consent from the British Crown in December of 1817, but for the next ten years he pursued many ill-advised and unsound schemes to promote the engine. He was said to have “developed delirium” (probably some form of dementia) and squandered most of the family fortune.

Meanwhile, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce had already turned to new interests, among them building a velocipede (early bicycle) that he rode around Chalon. Starting around 1816, another interest was combining the process of lithography, invented in 1798, with the idea of capturing photographic images using a camera obscura. Today the process he invented is known as photo-lithography.

The problem with camera obscura images, long used as an aid to artists, was that no one had found a way to capture them in a permanent form other than drawing them. Dissatisfied with the results obtained with silver oxide-coated paper, Niépce turned to bitumen, used on the copper plates for making engravings. He developed a process he called heliography, which allowed him to copy existing engravings by laying them in the sun on a lithographic stone or a sheet of metal or glass that had been thinly coated with bitumen dissolved in lavender oil, leaving a reproducible impression on the plate.

Attempting to capture a camera image on such a plate was not a huge leap. Niépce set up a camera obscura in the window of his studio and in his first try, projected the image onto bitumen-coated stone. His second version was projected onto bitumen-coated pewter, and that is the image that survives to this day. At one time the exposure time was thought to have been eight hours but further recent research has shown in fact the exposure took several days, which is why the sunlight in the image does not come from only one direction!

Enhanced image of the buildings, light and shadows captured in Niepce’s original photograph.

Niépce traveled to England to see his seriously-ill brother late in 1826. While he was at Kew, he met botanical illustrator Francis Bauer and showed him the heliography prints and the photograph. Bauer encouraged him to share his discoveries with the Royal Society. However, the paper Niépce presented to the Society was rejected because he was too reluctant to divulge the details of his work.

Niépce left his samples and his paper with Bauer and returned to France, where he partnered in 1829 with Louis Daugerre, who was also investigating ways to capture camera images. But Niépce died suddenly of a stroke in 1833, so impoverished that the French government paid for his burial. When Daugerre presented his own process, the “daugerreotype” to the world in 1839, he claimed the recognition as the inventor of photography, over the protests of Niépce’s son. Bauer managed to have Niépce’s work exhibited at the Royal Society, but nonetheless Niépce was mostly forgotten until the modern age.

In 1952, a pair of photography historians, Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, managed to track down what had become of Niépce’s photograph and acquired it. Their collection was purchased in 1963 by the University of Texas. Niépce’s reputation has finally been restored, and his original first photograph can be seen today on display at the university’s Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. Did you have any idea that photography had such an early beginning?

(all images used with this post are public domain)

In story-telling, we are always warned not to start with the weather. That is exactly the recurring joke in the Peanuts cartoon when pup Snoopy’s novel always begins, “It was a dark and stormy night”(although doesn’t that at least make you expect something dramatic is going to happen?). But weather plays an important role in story settings, and can be an effective tool to drive events in plot. Ignore it and your story can fall flat.

Weather forecasting today is a fine science we all rely on and I dare say also often take for granted until storms or other potential disasters threaten. Obviously, in the Regency period there was no such service anyone could turn to. And given the agricultural basis of Great Britain’s economy at that time and the importance of sailing ships, weather played a very crucial role in the daily lives and the prosperity of the nation.


The Industrial Revolution had begun by Regency times, but it would not reach full sway until Queen Victoria’s era. Weather might not affect the factories springing up in the north counties, but farming the land was still the backbone of both the economy and society at this time. Landowners and tenant farmers alike were dependent on getting the greatest yield they could from the acres under their care. That was very much tied to weather along with the fertility of the soil. And weather could certainly affect the transportation of goods from those factories in the north, or the safety of anyone in the path of floods or storms.

Were a reliance on folklore beliefs and an ability to “read” current conditions the only methods they could employ to predict what weather might lie ahead and to plan accordingly?

Research for my current wip, Book Four in my Little Macclow series set in Derbyshire (HIS LADY TO LOVE), has led me down a new rabbit hole to share with you—private weather diaries. There is a fine collection of these hand-written volumes that have been digitally preserved in the library archives of the UK’s Meteorological Office:

My initial interest was specifically a diary by one John Thomas Swanwick of Derbyshire kept 1793-1828. (My story happens in August of 1815). Comparing the August weather recorded in flawless handwriting across all those years gave me a good view of what it should be in my story. But I quickly became more interested in the diary itself, the man who kept it, and what it said about his discipline and daily habits. Also, this particular diary has what are clearly custom-printed templates, for both the yearly comparisons and the monthly observations. Was keeping a “weather diary” a special hobby, or a regular part of normal record-keeping? (click on photos to enlarge)

Sample page and printed headings in the Swanwick weather diary

I wanted to know–did Mr. Swanwick design this book and have it privately printed, or were such blank diaries available from printers for customizing? If the latter, then keeping weather diaries was something enough people did for printers to make a profit by offering such books. If the former, then Swanwick had to be a man of enough means to be able to afford such a bespoke product.

These questions led me to examine some of the other diaries in the Met Office archive collection that are available at the link above.

The earliest one dates from 1755-1775 in Exeter. A typewritten note in the front says it is probably the earliest extent account of twice-daily barometer and thermometer readings. The 12-column format of all the pages suggests that it might have been a type of readily available accounting book that the diarist, one S. Milford, adapted to his own use.  Milford’s headings are: day, hour, bar., ther., wind, and “weather” (i.e. fair, cloudy, stormy, showery, rain), a much simpler system than Swanwick’s. Milford fit two days’ data across a single page.

Exeter Weather diary Aug 1756

Barometers and Thermometers

It is interesting to note that Milford and the other diarists generally owned both expensive barometers and thermometers and had the education to interpret them. Some seem to have also had hygrometers and sophisticated wind-measuring instruments. The barometer was invented in 1643 by an Italian physicist to measure atmospheric weight or pressure. Improvements by several more scientists turned it into the first “weather globe” and ultimately the more familiar barometer. The first thermometer was invented by Galileo, but a mercury-filled one similar to modern ones was invented in 1714 by physicist and inventor Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit. Jean-Andre Deluc, Swiss scientist who lived in England from 1773 until his death in 1817, was an advocate of the mercury thermometer over Galileo’s earlier alcohol-based versions. We don’t know which kind the diarists were consulting.

The next oldest diary goes from 1771-1813. Observations kept by Dr Thomas Hughes at Stroud, Gloucestershire, include other noteworthy events such as “storms, floods, earthquakes, aurora sightings and other geophysical data and occasional phenological remarks,” all indicating a man of some education. The book’s columns are ruled by hand, and the pages are set up to run vertically across two pages of the horizontal book turned sideways. The summary says his casual notes (kept in a dedicated column at the far right) “include reference to a number of historical events including the victory at Trafalgar and subsequent death of Admiral Nelson in the action.”

Sample page from the Stroud weather diary

More often, those notes expand on the “weather” observations. For instance, on January 3, 1771, he recorded cool and cloudy in the morning, then stormy with thunder and wind. The casual note says “a vessel on the Severn damaged by lightening.” On April 6, he noted snow still on some hills, the ground dry and grass withered “except in some moist places.” Hughes possessed a hygrometer in addition to his other instruments, reporting humidity readings among his other data.

From 1781-1825 a set of diaries was kept at Gordon Castle in Moray Speyside, Scotland, “complete except for June and July 1812.” Who made the notes, the (original) 4th and 5th Dukes of Gordon themselves or more likely staff members assigned to the duty? This book, too, is hand-ruled, set up with five narrow columns at the left and a large space more than 2/3rds of the page reserved for the actual weather observations. Perhaps it is not surprising, given the Scottish location, that this diary includes first among its narrow standard columns the one labeled “Rain,” used to record the measured amounts.

Gordon Castle  By John Claude Nattes 1804- National Library of Scotland Digital Gallery Shelfmark ID J.134.f, Public Domain, Rebuilt in 1769 for the fourth Duke of Gordon, the central four-storey block incorporated a six-storey medieval tower called the Bog-of-Gight, and was flanked by a pair of two-storey wings.

Also interesting—for the first year there is no barometrical data, and only wind direction. But starting in January of 1782, seven columns report date, rain, barom., therm (at 8am), wind (divided into direction and “force”), and therm again at 3(pm). Perhaps a barometer and some new wind measuring instrument had been gifts or purchases at the end of the previous year?

Gordon Castle diary sample page

There is a note at the end of this first month mentioning an “alteration” in when some of the data is noted and the addition of the wind force, but no mention is made of adding the barometric readings. By the next month, the 8am thermometer readings are marked “in” and “out” –did they acquire more thermometers, too? If “in” means inside, it is notable that the temperature in the castle runs generally only about 7-8 degrees warmer than outside, until the summer months when it is about the same, or cooler on the warmest days.


In Part Two (DEEP rabbit hole!): more diaries, more equipment, and investigations into the diary writers themselves. (will be posted on Thursday March 16)


Winter brings us the flu season (and COVID is still a threat), but with vaccines and modern medicine, the vast majority of us take it for granted we will survive.

In the Regency era, though, influenza and other infectious diseases were often fatal. In 1775, an epidemic killed 40,000 people. It is not entirely clear if all the deaths were from what we know as influenza. Similar illnesses went by such names as the grippe, putrid fever, putrid infection, putrid sore throat. They might have included illnesses we know today as typhus, strep throat, Scarlet fever, pneumonia, diphtheria, or others.

Whatever illness, though, there was no effective cure for it.

Medicines like Edinburgh Powder or Daffy’s Elixir were advertised as cures, but were ineffective.

Regency era science had not yet learned exactly what caused the infectious diseases, nor exactly how they were spread. For example, it was not until 1909 that French microbiologist, Charles Nicolle, discovered that typhus was spread through body lice. Concepts of bacteria and viruses were unknown, although some illnesses were believed caused by breathing in “bad air.” It was also understood that one person could catch the illness from proximity to the sick person. In fact, the concept of quarantining was used as early as the 14th century to protect against plague.

In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, when Colonel Brandon rescues the rain-soaked, feverish Marianne, it sends pregnant Charlotte Palmer, the lady of the house, fleeing the house along with her husband and her servants, for fear of catching whatever fever from which Marianne suffers. Austen obviously realized illness could be contagious.

In addition to lack of effective medical treatment during the Regency, sewage was dumped in the streets, water was contaminated, and rodents and lice spread disease. In our modern age, we don’t worry about such things.

Thank goodness!!

Recently, an article about whether or not Mr. Darcy’s fortune was based on slavery set my Twitter feed alight. And I thought, well of course it was (in one form or another). This is the dark side of our wealthy, aristocratic characters that romance sweeps under the rug. It is certainly possible that the Darcy family fortune was based entirely on the profits of the mines in Derbyshire (harsh as those conditions might have been, they were NOT akin to slavery), but it’s much more likely that those profits were then put to use in ways that almost certainly have ties to slavery.hip0210043WHH%20v2

How so, let us tally up the ways …

1) Directly. Many families owned plantations in the West Indies (see this fascinating account of how the Earls of Harewood built their fortune on slavery, the products there of, and the overseeing of same).

2) Being paid off. When slavery was abolished in 1833, the British government spent a staggering amount of money to compensate the owners of slaves for their losses (good article about that here). Some families got the equivalent of millions of dollars. There were over three thousand claims, which lets you know how widespread slavery was and what its impact must have been on the fortunes of the top families.

3) Via investments. People invested in specific ships and ventures (sometimes called consortiums or syndicates). Many of those would have been involved in producing or importing some kind of product that was produced by slaves in either America, the West Indies, or India (sugar, rum, cotton, opium, tea, rice, etc.).

4) The East India Company. It’s worth noting that when Britain abolished slavery, supposedly throughout its empire, it made an exception for slavery in India. So all those fortunes made in India by younger sons, all those tea plantations, and cotton farms, and military careers, existed because of slavery (good summation on Wikipedia).

I’m sure Janet would have even more insightful things to say on this topic, but I wanted to bring it up for discussion given the timeliness of the article. I know romance is generally seen as escapist, and I don’t want to ruin that for anyone, but I do think it does history a disservice to gloss over these sorts of things to the point where they no longer seem to exist.

So what do you all think? Do you want to topics like this addressed in romances, or do you think it makes it too hard to enjoy the HEA and heavy topics are best left to those writing straight historical fiction?


75As is often the case, today’s post is brought to you courtesy of Twitter. After the first episode of Wolf Hall aired, there was a raging debate about the colors used in the costumes. I think the main thing that set people off was Henry’s brocade doublet and his bright red schaub coat (how sad is that I only know the German name for that garment, because I’ve spent all my time in that period studying Landsknecht costuming?).

Several people said they were simply too bright, too vivid, etc. to be historically accurate. They landed particularly on the reds as being impossible to achieve in that era (and then purple got brought up, which I’ll tackle next time I post). When I was done scraping my jaw off the floor, the tweets were fast and furious.

madderTo put it in a nutshell: YOU DO NOT NEED ANILINE DYES TO GET DEEP, BRIGHT, INTENSE COLORS! (and anyone who’s ever looked at extant textiles should know this)

Let’s outline the dye options open to Henry VIII (c. 1525, when he was trying to divorce Catherine):

First and foremost, there was madder root. Madder was cheap and plentiful. It produces decent reds, but is probably not what is being used to produce fancy brocades for the KiWall Hanging 16thCng of England. Top left you can see Dharma Trading’s madder root swatches, and as you can see, madder is pretty vivid on silk (and would be so on wool).

The next option is kermes, a red dye made from the body of a Mediterranean insect. It was used    throughout Europe and was a highly desirable (and very expensive) dye stuff. If you had money, fabrics made with kermes dyes were readily available. They were widely in use by the Church and by the nobility (and the wealthy in general; we know they were widely cochinealavailable, because they had sumptuary laws about red in some places). The detail of a 16thC wall hanging to the right is most likely dyed with kermes.

After the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, you also have Mexican cochineal (first shipment in 1523, so it’s entirely possible that fabrics made with cochineal would have already joined those made with kermes on the open market). Bottom left you have Dharma Trading’s cochineal swatches, which on my compter are trending a little more purplish than they do in real life.

So, while I may have quibbles with the costuming on Wolf Hall (none of Anne’s gowns fit properly which I think is due to the fabric choices being too light for those style gowns; why are some of the men running around in jerkins with no doublets?!), I don’t have any qualms about the color of Henry’s brocade doublet or his overcoat.

For more examples of naturally dyed red clothing, see my post from last year about red Georgian era gowns.

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