January 8, 2012

Above are variations of “The Nervous Icon,” an illustration that was copied, retouched, redrawn and reproduced in more than three dozen anatomy, physiology and biology textbooks published between 1845 and 1956. See the Nervous Icon database. Images 1, 2 and 3 digitized by Google. 4 and 5 scanned from the author’s personal collection.

“The Nervous Icon” is my name for an illustration of the human nervous system that found its way into dozens of anatomy, physiology and biology textbooks published between the mid-1800s and the mid-1900s. I began tracing its history in The Nervous Icon – Part I, where I touched on the issues of artistry, copyright, and mechanical reproduction in science textbooks. I followed up a month later in The Nervous Icon – Part II, where I went “over my head” into the history of encyclopedias and the tension caused by the conflict between the assumption that cultural artifacts were the property of the dominating imperialist power and the imperatives of the emerging global marketplace.

As I said then, “big stuff for a blog.”

I thought I had pinned down the icon’s source, a popular encyclopedia published in London in 1855, The Museum of Science and Art, edited by the “scandal-plagued but well-connected … Dionysius Lardner.”

But though it helped me tell a story, I was too quick to conclude that Lardner likely commissioned the drawing. The modern encyclopedia (or cyclopedia or dictionary) was by Lardner’s day already a 127-year old enterprise (Ephraim Chambers’ 1728 Cyclopaedia being the first) whose managers were well known for mining images rather than creating them. Though I had been unable to find an earlier conveniently scanned version online, I should have suspected one existed.

Of course that has turned out to be true.

An older “Nervous Icon,” mature and perfectly scribed, can be found in Calvin Cutter’s Anatomy and Physiology, published in Boston in 1847 (third stereotype edition). With the exception of the truncated leader lines pointing to key features, Cutter’s illustration is identical in every way to Lardner’s, which was printed in London a decade later.

Not to make the same mistake twice, let me state that it is probable Cutter, like Lardner, did not commission the icon, but rather picked it up from a previously published source. But while the question of the icon’s origin still intrigues me, hours of online searching and two-and-a-half years of additional research have uncovered the trial heads of a few more interesting paths.

First, while it is likely that Cutter’s “Nervous Icon” was lifted from an even earlier source, a bigger story may be the one suggested by the notable divide in style between textbooks published before 1840 and those published after 1845. The earlier ones are mostly text, the later ones are often chock-a-block with illustrations. Why is that? Second, this style change seems to signal a shift in publishing influence, from London to New York. Third, there are the interesting connections between the concepts of profit, partiotism and piracy in eighteenth century America that the history of priting and publishing surface. And finally, there are the many paths of Calvin Cutter, who, in addition to being the author of five very popular standard-setting anatomy and physiology textbooks, was also a physician, a widely-traveled public lecturer, an abolitionist, a gun-runner, a twice-wounded war surgeon, a POW, a husband to two heretical proto-feminists and the father of the first female casualty of the American Civil War.

Where to begin?

Well, starting at the end, and for anyone who might like to get a jump on things, Calvin Cutter’s 1845 book, Anatomy and Physiology: Designed for Academies and Families, is available online (the link leads to an 1847 “third stereotype edition.” I’ll have more on stereotyping and electrotyping in a future post). Biographical sketches of Calvin Cutter can be found here, here and here. The last one includes a brief bio of Cutter’s second wife, Eunice Powers Cutter. A bio of Cutter’s daughter Carrie, a battlefield nurse who died at 19, can be found here. More info is easily found online. There is a 1982 biography, Calvin Cutter: Zealot on the Path of Justice and Reform, 1807-1872, but I’m having trouble tracking down a copy.

To supplement this essay, in all of its parts, I have created a database of instances of “The Nervous Icon” as they appeared in textbooks from 1845 through 1956. The few notes attached to these images hint at stories yet to come. Again, to get a jump on things, interested readers might also want to check out historian Adrian Johns book, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. From Johns I have learned that piracy in the United States was once defended on patriotic grounds, framed as “retrofitting the cultural products of monarchies for readers in a republic” (303-04). Seems there is nothing new about our world of MP3s and sampling. In the early 1800s it took only a couple of days for hot titles fresh off the boat from England to be reset, printed, bound, distributed and offered for sale on the streets of New York or Philadelphia.

Finally, a great number of eighteenth century events, including but not limited to the history of popular science, the development of modern education, and maybe even the American Civil War, would have followed quite different trajectories had it not been for advances in printing technology, specifically the invention of electrotyping around 1840. This London text from 1841, The Dictionary of the Art of Printing, introduces the process and includes a couple of early examples. My ignorance of this history, despite a background in graphic arts, plagued Part I and Part II of this essay. Hopefully. Part III is better. Now I guess it is on to Part IV, Part V and probably Part VI.

Damn, this thing keeps opening doors.


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