The Color Dictionary Darwin Used to Describe the Natural World, Pre-Pantone

Spencer Arnold/Getty Images
Spencer Arnold/Getty Images

Today, naturalists who want to capture the precise color of a certain specimen can rely on color photography, safe in the knowledge that the hues can be preserved for exact recreation or reference. But in centuries past, naturalists and others working out in the field would consult a color dictionary—a sort of pre-Pantone reference guide—to accurately describe a specimen they were sketching. That way, even if the color of the drawing might fade, the shade from the shared nomenclature of colors would remain as a guide for illustrators recreating the image back home.

One of the most famous and widely used color guides was Patrick Syme’s Werner’s Nomenclature of Colors, first published in 1814 and recently reissued by Smithsonian Books. Abraham Gottlob Werner was a German geologist who, toward the end of his long and distinguished career, threw himself into creating a new color dictionary with which to describe the cornucopia of hues found in rocks and minerals. Scottish botanical artist Patrick Syme was entranced by Werner’s work, which had been published at the end of the 18th century, and felt he could improve it further by adding painted color swatches—Werner used only written descriptions—and examples from flora and fauna alongside the mineral comparisons.

The cover of the reissue of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours
Smithsonian Books

Not all colors received an example from each kingdom in Syme's work, but many did. For example, brownish orange was noted as existing in “the eyes of the largest flesh-fly,” the “style of the orange lily,” or in “dark Brazillian topaz.” Blueish green was recorded as existing in “egg of thrush,” “under disk of wild rose leaves,” and the mineral beryl. Ash gray was to be seen in the “breast of long-tailed Hen Titmouse,” “Fresh Wood ashes,” and “Flint." Syme ultimately created a reference work of 110 named colors, providing a whole new language with which to portray nature.

It was Werner’s Nomenclature of Colors that Charles Darwin took on his round-the-world voyage on the HMS Beagle from 1831–36. During the trip, Darwin spent a great deal of time collecting and recording natural history specimens, many of which would be dried and pressed or pickled in vinegar for preservation—processes that often caused the true colors to fade. Darwin consulted Werner’s Nomenclature frequently, confiding in fish expert Leonard Jenyns that “a comparison was always made with the book in hand, previous to the exact color in any case being noted.” Darwin’s written descriptions of the animals and plants he encountered are littered with color terms from the book, as when he describes the shades pulsating across the body of a cuttlefish as "varying in tint between a hyacinth red and a chestnut brown.”

A page from Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours
A page from Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours
Smithsonian Books

It was not only the specimens that Darwin described using the color dictionary, but also the ever-changing hues of the sea. On March 28, 1832 he wrote, “During this day the colour of sea varied, being sometimes black ‘Indigo blue’, in evening very green.” Numerous other naturalists, such as Arctic explorer Sir William Edward Parry, botanist Sir William Hooker, and explorer and naturalist Sir John Richardson, also used Werner’s Nomenclature to standardize their description of color, with the evocative names like Orpiment Orange, Verditer Blue, and Gallstone Yellow adding a certain poetry to an otherwise functional description.

The reissue from Smithsonian Books recreates Syme's work in CMYK printing, bringing new vibrancy to the original and sometimes-faded shades. The book provides modern readers with an exploration of color through the eyes of 19th-century naturalists, whose perception of each hue would have been informed by the natural world around them. The lyrical descriptions offer a now-almost-forgotten language for color—less useful, perhaps, than a Pantone number, but a little more evocative.

Celebrate the Encyclopedia Britannica's 250th Birthday by Checking Out Its First Edition Online

Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Mario Tama/Getty Images

While those gold-embossed, multi-volume sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica were a feature of many an American childhood, the origins of the venerable reference work actually lie in Scotland. Two hundred and fifty years ago—on December 10, 1768—the first pages of the Britannica were published in Edinburgh. To celebrate the anniversary, the National Library of Scotland has put a rare first edition of the encyclopedia online.

The first edition was the brainchild of printer Colin Macfarquhar, engraver Andrew Bell, and the editor William Smellie. It was published in 100 weekly sections over three volumes (completed in 1771), but explicit engravings of midwifery scandalized some subscribers, and were ripped out on the orders of the Crown. The entries of the first edition—some of which ran to hundreds of pages—reflect the biases and preoccupations of their time: woman is defined as "the female of a man," while there are 39 pages devoted to horse diseases. Nevertheless, the work was a significant accomplishment that drew on at least 150 sources, from essays by famous philosophers to newspaper articles. It also featured 160 copperplate engravings by Bell.

The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica
The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

In a statement from the National Library of Scotland, Rare Books Curator Robert Betteridge said, "By the 20th century Britannica was a household name throughout the English-speaking world, and what is especially interesting about this publication was that it had a distinctly Scottish viewpoint. The first edition emphasized two themes—modern science and Scottish identity, including ground-breaking and controversial articles on anatomy and Scots Law."

The first edition (which includes those ripped-out midwifery pages) will appear as part of an exhibit on the Scottish Enlightenment at the National Library of Scotland this summer. For now, you can view all three volumes of the first edition, from "A—the name of several rivers" to Zygophyllum, a genus in botany—online here.

[h/t American Libraries]

The Time German and Russian WWI Soldiers Banded Together to Fight Wolves

iStock.com/567185
iStock.com/567185

During the winter of 1917, Russian and German soldiers fighting in the dreary trenches of the Great War’s Eastern Front had a lot to fear: enemy bullets, trench foot, frostbite, countless diseases, shrapnel, bayonets, tanks, sniper fire. Oh, and wolves.

In February of that year, a dispatch from Berlin noted that large packs of wolves were creeping from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia into the interior of the German Empire, not far from the front lines. Like so many living creatures, the animals had been driven from their homes by the war and were now simply looking for something to eat. “As the beasts are very hungry, they penetrate into the villages and kill calves, sheep, goats, and other livestock,” the report, which appeared in the El Paso Herald, says. “In two cases children have been attacked by them.”

According to another dispatch out of St. Petersburg, the wolves were such a nuisance on the battlefield that they were one of the few things that could bring soldiers from both sides together. “Parties of Russian and German scouts met recently and were hotly engaged in a skirmish when a large pack of wolves dashed on the scene and attacked the wounded,” the report says, according to the Oklahoma City Times. “Hostilities were at once suspended and Germans and Russians instinctively attacked the pack, killing about 50 wolves.” It was an unspoken agreement among snipers that, if the Russians and Germans decided to engage in a collective wolf-hunt, all firing would cease.

Take this July 1917 New York Times report describing how soldiers in the Kovno-Wilna Minsk district (near modern Vilnius, Lithuania) decided to cease hostilities to fight this furry common enemy:

"Poison, rifle fire, hand grenades, and even machine guns were successively tried in attempts to eradicate the nuisance. But all to no avail. The wolves—nowhere to be found quite so large and powerful as in Russia—were desperate in their hunger and regardless of danger. Fresh packs would appear in place of those that were killed by the Russian and German troops.

"As a last resort, the two adversaries, with the consent of their commanders, entered into negotiations for an armistice and joined forces to overcome the wolf plague. For a short time there was peace. And in no haphazard fashion was the task of vanquishing the mutual foe undertaken. The wolves were gradually rounded up, and eventually several hundred of them were killed. The others fled in all directions, making their escape from carnage the like of which they had never encountered."

Afterward, the soldiers presumably returned to their posts and resumed pointing their rifles at a more violent and dangerous enemy—each other.

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