Isaac Newton Conceived of His Most Groundbreaking Ideas During the Great Plague of 1665

Whether you’ve volunteered to self-quarantine, or have done so from necessity, health experts worldwide say home is the best place to be right now to reduce the spread of COVID-19. For some this means layoffs, or remote assignments, or an anxious and indefinite staycation. For others it means a loss of safety or resources. No matter how much choice we had in the matter, there are those among us who harbor ambitious fantasies of using the time to finally finish labors of love, whether they be crochet, composing symphonies, or writing a contemporary novel about a plague.

Many lifesaving discoveries have been made in the wake of epidemics, and many a novel written, such as Albert Camus’ The Plague, composed three years after an outbreak of bubonic plague in Algeria. Offering even more of a challenge to housebound writers is the example of Shakespeare, who wrote some of his best works during outbreaks of plague in London, when “theaters were likely closed more often than they were open,” as Daniel Pollack-Pelzner writes at The Atlantic, and when it was alleged that “the cause of plagues are plays.”




You can forgive yourself for taking a few days to organize your closets, or—let’s be real—binge on snacks and Netflix series. But if you’re still looking for a role model of productivity in a time of quarantine, you couldn’t aim higher than Isaac Newton. During the years 1665-67, the time of the Great Plague of London, Newton’s “genius was unleashed,” writes biographer Philip Steele. “The precious material that resulted was a new understanding of the world.”

In Shakespeare’s case, only decades earlier, the “plagues may have caused plays”—spurring poetry, fantasy, and the epic tragedies of King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Newton too was apparently inspired by catastrophe.

These years of Newton’s life are sometimes known in Latin as anni mirabilies, meaning “marvelous years.” However, they occurred at the same time as two national disasters. In June 1665, the bubonic plague broke out in London…. As the plague spread out into the countryside, there was panic. Cambridge University was closed. By October, 70,000 people had died in the capital alone.

Newton left Cambridge for his home in Woolsthorpe. The following year, the Great Fire of London devastated the city. As horrifying as these events were for the thousands who lived through them, “some of those displaced by the epidemic,” writes Stephen Porter, “were able to put their enforced break from their normal routines to good effect.” But none more so than Newton, who “conducted experiments refracting light through a triangular prism and evolved the theory of colours, invented the differential and integral calculus, and conceived of the idea of universal gravitation, which he tested by calculating the motion of the moon around the earth.”

Right outside the window of Newton’s Woolsthorpe home? “There was an apple tree,” The Washington Post writes. “That apple tree.” The apple-to-the-head version of the story is “largely apocryphal,” but in his account, Newton’s assistant John Conduitt describes the idea occurring while Newton was “musing in a garden” and conceived of the falling apple as a memorable illustration. Newton did not have Netflix to distract him, nor continuous scrolling through Twitter or Facebook to freak him out. It’s also true he practiced “social distancing” most of his life, writing strange apocalyptic prophesies when he wasn’t laying the foundations for classical physics.

Maybe what Newton shows us is that it takes more than extended time off in a crisis to do great work—perhaps it also requires that we have discipline in our solitude, and an imagination that will not let us rest. Maybe we also need the leisure and the access to take pensive strolls around the garden, not something essential employees or parents of small children home from school may get to do. But those with more free time in this new age of isolation might find the changes forced on us by a pandemic actually do inspire the work that matters to them most.

via The Washington Post

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Spanish Flu: A Warning from History

Two years ago historians marked the 100th anniversary of the Spanish Flu, a worldwide pandemic that seemed to be disappearing down the memory hole. Not so fast, said historians, we need to remember the horror. Happy belated anniversary, said 2020, hold my beer. And so here we are. As I write this, the President wheezed through an Address to the Nation which calmed no fears and sent Dow futures tumbling. I scrolled down my news feed to see that Tom Hanks and his wife both have it. Our god is an amoral one, and its noodly appendages touch all.

So let’s put our current moment into perspective with this 10+ minute history on the Spanish Flu from Cambridge University. Here are the numbers: it killed 20 million people according to contemporary accounts. Later scientists and historians revised that number to somewhere between 50 to 100 million.




“This virus killed more people in the first 25 weeks than HIV/AIDS has killed in 25 years,” says historian of medicine Dr. Mary Dobson. And unlike our current COVID-19 strain, this strain of flu went after 20 to 40 year olds with a vengeance. The symptoms were graphic and unpleasant--people drowning in their own phlegm, blood shooting out of noses and ears, people dropping down dead in the street.

Where did it start? Certainly not in Spain--it gained that nickname because the first cases were recorded in the Spanish press. One theory is that it started in Kansas and found its way overseas, from barracks to the frontlines. It might has come from birds or pigs, but scientists still don’t know how it jumps from species to species and how it quickly evolves within humans to infect each other.

Right now, it seems like COVID-19 can subside if countries can work quickly, like in China. But history has a warning too. As Europe and America celebrated Armistice Day at the end of the war, the flu seemed to be going away too. Instead it came roaring back in a second wave, deadlier than the first.

Some famous folks who got the virus but survived included movie stars Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford, right at the height of their fame; President Woodrow Wilson, who was so out of it (though recovering) that some historians blame the weaknesses in the Treaty of Versailles on him. Artist Edvard Munch contracted it (which seems fitting, considering his obsessions) and painted several self-portraits during his illness. Raymond Chandler, Walt Disney, Greta Garbo, Franz Kafka, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Katherine Anne Porter all survived.

Others weren’t so lucky: painter of sensuous, gold leaf paintings Gustav Klimt died from it, as did poet and proto-surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire, and artist Egon Schiele. (And so did Donald Trump’s grandpa).

The Spanish Flu never really went away. There were still cases in the ‘50s, but we humans evolved with it and it became a seasonal type of flu like many others. Flu viruses constantly evolve and mutate, and that’s why it is very difficult to create vaccines that can stop them.

If you’ve read this far, one last thing: GO WASH YOUR HANDS AND STOP TOUCHING YOUR FACE!

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

The History of the Plague: Every Major Epidemic in an Animated Map

All of us have tried to come to grips with the coronavirus in different ways. Here on Open Culture we've featured online courses to get you conversant in the science around the pandemic, but readers of this site will also have sought out the most pertinent works of history and literature. That goes especially for those in need of reading material while in states of quarantine or lockdown (self-imposed or otherwise), and any list of recommended books must include Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year and Albert Camus' The Plague. (I recently wrote about the experience of reading that last in Korea, where I live, for the Los Angeles Review of Books.) Both fictionalize local outbreaks of the bubonic plague, but how far and wide did that horrific and much-mythologized disease actually spread?

You can see exactly how far and wide in the animated historical map above, created by a Youtuber called EmperorTigerstar. It mainly covers the period of 431 BC to 1353 AD, during most of which the plague looks to have occurred in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa with some regularity. Up until the 1330s, the outbreaks stay small enough that you may have to view the map in fullscreen mode to ensure that you even see them.




But even the most casual students of history know what happened next: the best-known occurrence of the Black Death, whose peak lasted from 1347 to 1351 and which claimed somewhere between 75 to 200 million lives (including roughly half of Europe's entire population). Rendered, suitably, in black, the plague's spread comes eventually to look on the map like a sea of ink splashed violently across multiple continents.

The plague hardly died with the 1350s, a fact this map acknowledges. It would, writes EmperorTigerstar, "take years to go away, and even then there would be local outbreaks in individual cities for centuries." These Black Death aftershocks, "big in their own right," include the Great Plague of Milan in the 1630s, the Great Plague of Seville in the 1640s, and the Great Plague of London in the 1660s — the subject of Defoe's novel. When Camus wrote The Plague in 1947, the Algerian city of Oran in which he set its story had experienced its last outbreak of the disease just three years before (at least the fifth such experience in its history). Though harrowing stories are even now coming out of places like modern-day Milan, the coronavirus has yet to match the gruesome deadliness of the plagues featured in either of these books. But unless we understand how epidemics afflicted humanity in the past, we can hardly handle them properly in the present.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Take a Drive Through 1940s, 50s & 60s Los Angeles with Vintage Through-the-Car-Window Films

Many claim Los Angeles was "built for the car," a half-truth at best. When the city — or rather, the city and the vast region of southern California surrounding it — first boomed in the late 19th and early 20th century, it grew according to the spread of its electric railway networks. But for early adopters of the automobile (as well as the many aspirants close behind), its sheer size, easily navigable terrain, and still-low population density made greater Los Angeles an ideal place to drive.

After the Second World War, the days of the Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railroad, once among the finest urban rail systems in the world, were clearly numbered. Both went out of service by the early 1960s, and for the next few decades the car was indeed king. One theory holds, though with imperfect evidence, that Los Angeles lost its trains because of an automakers' conspiracy.

Whatever the cause, the long heyday of the automobile and its attendant "car culture" changed mid-20th-century Los Angeles. It left its boldest mark in the city's architecture, a category that must surely include the swooping concrete of the freeways, but more obviously includes the buildings designed to catch the eye of a human being behind the wheel cruising at speed. We notice at a different scale in a car than we do on foot, and so the structures along Los Angeles' main roads — especially boulevards like Wilshire, Hollywood, and Sunset — grew more legible to the motorist in the second half of the twentieth century.




That means Los Angeles' architecture grew ever bigger, bolder, more eye-catching — or, depending on your perspective, ever more garish, ungainly, and impersonal. You can see this transformation captured in action from the car window in the three videos featured here. At the top of the post is a six-minute drive through the downtown Los Angeles of the 1940s, which begins on Bunker Hill, an area originally built up with stately Victorian houses in the late 19th century. 

By the time of this film those houses had been subdivided into cheap apartments, and films noirs (such as Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly) were using it as a typical "bad neighborhood." That atmosphere also made it a target for a 50-year "urban renewal" project that, starting in the late 50s onward, scraped the houses off Bunker Hill and rebuilt it with corporate towers and prestige cultural venues.

A through-the-windshield view of Los Angeles in the 50s appears in the video second from the top, a 1957 drive down Hollywood Boulevard. That street and that year stand at the intersection of pre-war and post-war Los Angeles, and the built environment reflects as much the sensibility of the turn of the 20th century as it does what we know think of as "mid-century modern."

Below that we have a drive through the city so many think of when they think of Los Angeles: the Los Angeles of the 1960s, a seemingly limitless realm of palm trees, brightly colored billboards, and Space Age-influenced towers that pop out even more from their low-slung surroundings when seen from the freeway — in other words, the Los Angeles Quentin Tarantino recreates in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.

To get a sense of the greater sweep of change in Los Angeles, have a look at the New Yorker video above (previously featured here on Open Culture) that puts the downtown drive from the 1940s alongside the same drive replicated in the 2010s. Popular culture may associate Los Angeles with the willful erasure of history as much as it associates Los Angeles with the automobile, but traces are there for those — in a car, on foot, on a bike, or going by any form of transportation besides — who know how to see them.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch 85,000 Historic Newsreel Films from British Pathé Free Online (1910-2008)

The “pivot-to-video” moment of a few years back devastated writers everywhere with mass layoffs as companies scrambled to attract projected millions of nonexistent viewers. It’s a story about predatory media monopolies and the proliferation of news, documentary, and opinion video content online. While the sheer amount of video can feel overwhelming, we might remember that people have been getting their news from screens for well over a hundred years.

First came the newsreels. Thousands were produced from the end of the 19th century into the 1960s, when TV became the dominant screen of choice. These were ephemeral, often fragmentary films, not usually preserved in the way of great cinema.




But while “the newsreel may be history,” notes the National Endowment for the Humanities, "vast collections of it remain, much of it unseen.” One such collection resides at the archives of British Pathé, “a treasure trove of 85,000 films unrivaled in their historical significance.”

British Pathé has digitized their collection and made all of it—including more than 136,000 items from the Reuters historical collection—freely available online at their website and on YouTube. You’ll find there exactly the kind of variety Richard Eder described in The New York Times in 1977, a year when people also felt “flooded” by news:

Most of the time [newsreels] were patchy views of a rather scatterbrained reality. Sneezing contests would alternate with politicians cutting ribbons and South Americans rioting.But once in a while there was something unforgettable: the Hindenburg floated loftily into sight and suddenly settled on the ground like burning tinsel; a middle-aged Frenchman wept at Toulon when the fleet was scuttled. The newsreel cameras and the big screen provided an authority to these things that television equipment couldn't manage. Also there was the effect of waiting a day or two to see a disaster you had read of. World events were discrete, individual, weighty. They did not flood us.

British Pathé produced short documentary films on every possible subject around the world from 1910 to 2008 and might lay claim to capturing more unforgettable historical moments than most any other newsreel service of the era. A tiny sampling of newsreels in their massive digital archive includes the Beatnik makeover from 1963 at the top; a very brief film on Tolstoy; a longer featurette on the Titanic, with interviews from survivors; and a short on the psychedelic Mellotron.

Among the many “British Pathé Unissued” videos, we find the filmed interview clip below with H.G. Wells in the 1930s, in which he proposes disarmament, international cooperation, full public employment, and the nationalization of industry as antidotes to the rising tides of World War and devastating social inequality. The interview was “unused by Pathé editors and not screened in cinemas,” explains a title added at the beginning. One significant shift from the newsreel to the digital age is the unprecedented ability to bypass the censors.

“Before television” and the internet, as the archive description points out, “people came to movie theatres to watch the news. British Pathé was at the forefront of cinematic journalism, blending information with entertainment to popular effect.” If this blend sounds somewhat akin to the mass media world we inhabit today—one filled with proliferating video explainers, short documentaries, talking head conspiracy theorists and every other possible use of the form—perhaps it’s useful to remember that we’ve been living in that world a very long time. It has produced many thousands of artifacts that can tell us where we’ve been over the past 120 years or so, if not quite how we got to where we are now.

Enter the British Pathé collection on YouTube or their website.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Scenes from Czarist Moscow Vividly Restored with Artificial Intelligence (May 1896)

In May of 1896, Charles Moisson and Francis Doublier traveled to Moscow on behalf of the Lumière Brothers company, bearing with them the newly developed Lumière Cinématogaphe camera. Their purpose: to document the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II—the last Emperor of Russia, though no one would have known that at the time. The coronation was an extraordinary event, soon to be overshadowed by even more extraordinary events in the Revolutionary years to come. An enormous celebration followed, with gifts, bread, sausage, pretzels, beer, and a commemorative cup to revelers. The promise of these gifts led to what was later called the Khodynka Tragedy.

Hundreds of thousands descended on the city. Rumors that food was running short—and that the cups contained a gold coin—sent crowds rushing for the Khodynka Field. Overcoming 1,800 police officers, they caused a stampede that killed 1,389. That evening, Nicholas and the Empress Alexandra attended a ball, then visited wounded in the hospital the following day. One of the Tsar's valets, Alexei Volkov, who survived the Revolution and lived to write his memoirs, described walking “along the Khondinka” and meeting “many groups of people coming back from that site and carrying the Tsar’s gifts. The strange thing, though, was that not one person mentioned the catastrophe, and I did not hear about it until the next morning.”




The stampede seems a testament to the poverty and desperation among ordinary Russians at the end of the 19th century. That history does not enter the frame in the minute of footage shot by Moisson and Doublier, which you can see recreated above in stunning detail—with both color added and in original black and white—by Denis Shiryaev. The footage is simply dated May 1896 and might have been shot either before or after the coronation. As Peter Jackson has done with footage from WWI in the feature-length documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, Shiryaev makes the grainy, blurry past come alive with the help of an “ensemble of neural networks,” as he writes on the video’s YouTube page.

The enhancements to the video transfer of the original film include:

1) FPS boosting – to 60 frames per second

2) Image resolution boosted up a bit with ESRGAN (general dataset)

3) Resorted video sharpness, removed blur, removed compression "artefacts"

4) Colorized (optional) – due to high request I have decided to include both versions of the processed video: colorized and black and white.

Boosting the frame rate to 60 fps especially gives these bustling and/or sauntering Moscow denizens of Tverskaya Street a lifelike appearance. (See here for a comparison of various frame rates). Whether you prefer color or black and white, it may be easy to imagine strolling down this cobblestone avenue yourself, dodging the dozens of horse drawn carriages passing by.

It may be harder to imagine that perhaps days or hours before or after this slice of Moscow city life, the last tsar of Russia was crowned, and a crowd of somewhere around half a million people rushed through the streets for a glass of beer and a free bite to eat. See more of Shiryaev's AI-assisted film restorations at the links below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Paris Had a Moving Sidewalk in 1900, and a Thomas Edison Film Captured It in Action

It's fair to say that few of us now marvel at moving walkways, those standard infrastructural elements of such utilitarian spaces as airport terminals, subway stations, and big-box stores. But there was a time when they astounded even residents of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. The innovation of the moving sidewalk demonstrated at the Paris Exposition of 1900 (previously seen here on Open Culture when we featured Lumière Brothers footage of that period) commanded even Thomas Edison's attention. As Paleofuture's Matt Novak tells it at Smithsonian magazine, "Thomas Edison sent one of his producers, James Henry White, to the Exposition and Mr. White shot at least 16 movies," a clip of which footage you can see above.

White "had brought along a new panning-head tripod that gave his films a newfound sense of freedom and flow. Watching the film, you can see children jumping into frame and even a man doffing his cap to the camera, possibly aware that he was being captured by an exciting new technology while a fun novelty of the future chugs along under his feet."




Novak also includes hand-colored photographs from the Paris Exhibition and quotes a New York Observer correspondent describing the moving sidewalk as a "novelty" consisting of "three elevated platforms, the first being stationary, the second moving at a moderate rate of speed, and the third at the rate of about six miles an hour." Thus "the circuit of the Exposition can be made with rapidity and ease by this contrivance. It also affords a good deal of fun, for most of the visitors are unfamiliar with this mode of transit, and are awkward in its use."

Novak features contemporary images of the Paris Exhibition's moving sidewalk at Paleofuture, found in the book Paris Exposition Reproduced From the Official Photographs. Its authors describe the trottoir roulant as "a detached structure like a railway train, arriving at and passing certain points at stated times" without a break. "In engineers' language, it is an 'endless floor' raised thirty feet above the level of the ground, ever and ever gliding along the four sides of the square — a wooden serpent with its tail in its mouth." But the history of the moving walkway didn't start in Paris: "In 1871 inventor Alfred Speer patented a system of moving sidewalks that he thought would revolutionize pedestrian travel in New York City," as Novak notes, and the first one actually built was built for Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition — but it cost a nickel to ride and "was undependable and prone to breaking down," making Paris' version the more impressive spectacle.

Still, the Columbian Exposition's visitors must have got a kick out of gliding down the pier without having to do the walking themselves. You can learn more about this first moving walkway and its successors, the one at the Paris Exhibition included, from the Little Car video above. However much these early models may look like quaint turn-of-the century novelties, some still see in the technology genuine promise for the future of public transit. Moving walkways work well, writes Treehugger's Lloyd Alter, "when the walking distance and time is just a bit too long." And they remind us that "transportation should be about more than just getting from A to B; it should be a pleasure as well." Parisians "kept the Eiffel Tower from the exhibition" — it had been built for the 1889 World's Fair — but "it is too bad they didn't keep this, a sort of moving High Line that is both transportation and entertainment."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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