Laurence Scales on the subtle intrigue, hidden beauty, and baffling complexity of a model of a farm gate: a personal favourite from the Ri collections.
One favourite object among the Ri Heritage and Collections team is not an item on which the history of the world has turned - and so it usually resides in the tender folds of tissue paper in an acid free cardboard box. Beautifully executed, it is a model of a farm gate - at first glance a toy, complete with metal hinges in detailed miniature. It has its original tailored wood and velvet lined carrying case and a brass label.
Chancing upon the accompanying book on-line recently (How cool is that?) has prompted this blog. It is hardly something expected to quicken the pulse, being called An Essay on the Construction, Hanging, and Fastening of Gates (2nd edition, 1804) by Thomas Netherton Parker (1772-1848). A book of some hundred pages, in antiquarian terms it gives provenance to the object - the Royal Institution is mentioned by name as being offered ‘a complete set of specimens’. But it also personalises the object. Parker was a landowner and a magistrate of Oswestry in Shropshire.
But what exactly was on his mind when he went to such lengths over such a commonplace object as a gate, something that must rank with the wheel as one of the most ancient inventions?
‘The perseverance and success with which horned cattle and horses assail the hinges and latches of gates must be readily admitted; and the consequent mischief, by their devouring and trampling under foot crops which had been destined for the sickle or the scythe, is not easily to be calculated: for the occupiers of land grow callous to losses which are familiar to them, as the magnitude of an evil becomes less obvious from the frequency of its recurrence.’
His model gate dates from the very earliest days of the Royal Institution. At that time there was no thought of electromagnets or greenhouse gases but it is difficult to think of a better example of something so completely in tune with the proclaimed Charter of the young institution: ‘for diffusing the knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life.’
Inside, we learn that the first edition of his book received favourable mention in the Anti-Jacobin Review. This was a British government funded propaganda sheet. It pilloried those Britons who sympathised with the regicides of France, or just wanted a republic, and reminds us that agricultural improvements would have been prominent in the mind of the gentleman founders of the Ri and many others as the French Revolutionary upheavals of the time had limited food imports from much of the continent.
In the 1950s, when food was scarce, the BBC radio serial The Archers, set in the English countryside, was used as subtle encouragement to farmers to accept innovation and increase productivity. (Every now and then some physics still intrudes in The Archers. When Nigel Pargetter fell off the roof of Lower Loxley Hall, a modest country house, someone calculated from the length of his cry that he must have tumbled from the height of York Minster.) One could imagine the dialogue, over the gate into the lane, turning to the better sorts of hinges.
Parker’s main ambition for the gate, I think, after solid construction, was that it should close itself under its own weight ‘excepting in high winds’. It should also be able to open both inwards and outwards if so desired.
The text is abstruse. Even with Parker’s diagrams in your hand (What are they exactly?) it makes the assembly instructions for a flat-pack barbecue seem luminous and precise. Here is a sentence from Parker, getting into his stride, but where I stumble at the hurdle.
'In adjusting the hinges it is necessary, that the upper thimble should incline ¼ inch from its centre towards the hanging post, as at fig. xiv., and that the lower thimble should be screwed into the heel of the gate ¼ inch out of the straight line, inclining in the opposite direction, that is, from, instead of towards, the hanging post, both thimbles together making a variation of the 6/12 inch expressed in fig. ii.: and to correspond with this variation, the upper hook fig. xii. should measure from the centre of the pin to the shouldering about half the thickness of the heel of the gate, as the ¼ inch inclination of the upper thimble will allow sufficiently for the gate hanging clear of the post.'
Not for the first time since the invention of language and printing, progress in experimental philosophy has nearly been lost through opaque prose. And sadly I think there are too many cosines for The Archers.
Parker concludes with a low bow to his readers.
'And as every individual must in some degree be interested in a scheme which unites convenience to passengers, with protection to agricultural produce; I indulge myself in the wish, that the foregoing directions may be found to deserve the good opinion of the public: while those who adopt my plan may be convinced, that I have neither raised their expectations too high, nor overrated its pretensions to their approbation.'
We may tire of Parker. But we still love his little gate.
Laurence Scales is a volunteer working with the Ri Heritage and Collections team. He also leads unique and eclectic London tours focused on the curious history of science, invention, medicine and intelligence. He is a graduate in engineering and has worked in various technological industries.