Meiji Meth: the Deep History of Illicit Drugs

Robert Hooke, the short-tempered genius who discovered cells, was also the author of the first academic paper on cannabis. In the fall of 1689, Hooke ducked into a London coffee shop to purchase the drug from an East Indies merchant, and proceeded to test it on an unnamed “Patient.” It was evidently a large dose. […]

Medicinal Cannibalism

As the picture above hints, substances like human fat or powdered mummy were once so common that hundreds or perhaps even thousands of antique ceramic jars purpose-built to contain them still exist in antique shops, museums and private collections. This is no secret, but it remains more or less the domain of specialists in early […]

Cabinets of Curiosity

The Web as Wunderkammer “We moderns tend to associate boxes and cabinets with the mundane. They hold a single type of item. They order and sort. They serve as metaphors for the banal, the ordinary, the pedestrian. Our public figures frequently endeavor to “think outside” them and occasionally offer to blow them up. Yet imagine a […]

Tempora Mutantur

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 […]

A Spaniard in Samarkand

On September 8, 1404, the Castilian diplomat Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo reached the Silk Road city of Samarkand. He had travelled over five thousand miles by foot, sail, horse and camel; passed through steppe, deserts, seas and mountains. Now he had reached his destination: the capital of a vast new empire created by a military genius, mass murderer […]

Sputnik

Sharp-eyed stargazers on the night of October 4, 1957, would have noticed a tiny unblinking point of light moving silently across the night sky, its glow waxing and waning. The world in those days was far less polluted by background light than it is today: interstate freeways were still a theoretical idea, electric lighting had […]

Early Modern Alchemy

Last year I came across some of the book plates from Khunrath’s occult work Ampitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae (Hamburg, 1595), or “The Amphitheater of Eternal Knowledge,” and was floored by their complexity and beauty. Remarkably, only three copies of the first edition of this work are known to exist. The University of Wisconsin Library has been good enough to scan […]