Narrative and Experimental History
On a brisk April morning two years ago, I followed winding medieval streets to the Edinburgh University Library, an imposing concrete slab that houses some of the rarest and oldest books in Scotland. I was there to consult a set of letters between two 17th century natural philosophers and physicians, Sir Hans Sloane and Sir Robert Sibbald. Their exchanges were eye-opening: I began reading them expecting to witness science in the making, but in reality the correspondence between the two men was dominated by frustration and failure.
The problem was simple. Mail delivery between Edinburgh and London in the 1680s was still primitive, and often their packages never even reached one another. In his very first missive, Sibbald wrote of a book whose delivery “had miscarried.” The philosopher reflected forlornly, “it is not the first tyme I have been so served. My regret is that I am frustrated of seeing these fine things I am told are in that book.” Similar refrains continued over the years: in 1712, Sibbald tried to send Sloane some “curious books,” but his courier “had the misfortune to lose them and all his papers in a storme during the Voyage to London… he traveled by land and it seems fell in a river.” (To make matters even worse, the letter informing Sloane of this unhappy accident was dated Christmas Day).
As I continued to browse, I noticed a few lines written in charcoal pencil in the margins of one letter. The handwritting — a looping Victorian cursive — was very different from the cramped Baroque lettering of Sibbald. The annotation read as follows:
On Sat. 19 Feb 1848 a special train brought the budget of ministers to Edinburgh in nine and a half hours, from London. – AH.
Tempora mutantur [‘the times are changed’]
Below this note, the author calculated the duration of the same trip in the era of Sibbald and Sloane: 100 days.