Blog

Natural phenomena in words and pictures

By: Emma Gray, Category: Museullaneous, Date: 29 Oct 2012

The mid nineteenth century was a fascinating time when science and religion were of equal, and not always conflicting, importance in explaining the wonders of the world.

Natural Phenomena Will-o-the-wisp

Emma Gray © Australian Museum

This beautifully illustrated volume is a second edition (1849) of a work called Thirty plates illustrative of natural phenomena, etc. with a short description annexed to each plate.

It was published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge – the third oldest publishing house in the UK (after Oxford and Cambridge University Presses).

The Society is an Anglican organisation dating from 1698. From its beginnings, when it produced religious tracts and pamphlets, the Society grew into a flourishing and wide-ranging publisher. During the nineteenth century it published widely not only on religious topics, but on science, history, education, biography, literature and philosophy. Its works were aimed at a variety of audiences, from children, to teachers, prisoners, farmers and sailors.

Thirty plates illustrative of natural phenomena... was produced by the Society’s Committee of General Literature and Education and was probably aimed at older children. Each of the natural phenomena is illustrated with a vivid hand-coloured woodcut. The text below describes the phenomenon in basic scientific terms, often quoting from explorers, scientists and literature. Most of the descriptions include references to divine creation.

On the rainbow: ‘The beauty of this phenomenon is not the only reason why we should look upon it with great interest. The Rainbow was appointed by God himself as the sign of the covenant of mercy, made with Noah and with all mankind after the Flood.’

On the aurora: ‘The cause of the Aurora has never been satisfactorily explained... This is still, therefore, one of those wonderful displays of Divine Power which we must admire, without being able, in the present state of our knowledge, to explain or understand.’

On halos: ‘In former ages such appearances produced great terror; but their cause is now known. In cold regions, the vapour of the atmosphere becoming frozen, innumerable particles of ice, of an angular form, fill the air, and refract and sometimes decompose the rays of the sun and moon.’

On coral reefs: ‘ “Every one,” says Mr. Darwin, “must be struck with astonishment when he first beholds one of these vast rings of Coral rock...” ‘

The Research Library’s copy is not in great condition, some of the plates have been torn and pasted back together, but it is one of only three copies known in Australian libraries.