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Ice and Snow

January 8, 2016

Although winter weather arrived in Wisconsin rather late this year, we now have our share of ice and snow, prompting a fresh look at an 18th-century publication on ice, snow, and glaciers: An account of the glacieres [sic] or ice alps in Savoy, in two letters, one from an English gentleman to his friend [Mr. Arlaud] at Geneva; the other from Peter Martel to the said English gntleman [sic].  The title page of this work (call number: D 8 H5 v. 1, no. 5) hints at the complexity of this slim publication of 1744:

Title page of An account of the glacieres or Ice Alps in Savoy (1744). From the Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Title page of An account of the glacieres or Ice Alps in Savoy (1744). From the Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The cast of characters included

  • Peter Martel, described on the title page as an engineer and known as well for his maps of St. Petersburg, Ostend, Tournay, Geneva, Antwerp, Marseille, and Amsterdam;
  • an English gentleman, in fact one William Windham (1717-1761), who visited Switzerland in 1741 with Richard Pococke (per the entry in the Oxford DNB for William Windham his son);
  • Richard Pococke (1704-1765), described by Elizabeth Baigent in the Oxford DNB as “traveller and Church of Ireland bishop,” who “and on 19 June 1741 with an armed party explored the Mer de Glace in the valley of Chamonix. The Savoy Alps at this time were neither frequently visited nor safe and it was typical of the indomitable Pococke that he reached the Mer de Glace.” Celebrated as a “pioneer of mountaineering,” Pococke was nonetheless described elsewhere as “the dullest man that ever travelled.”

The work itself, which ran to only 28 pages plus the folding plate, was published, as we learn from the title page, for Martel himself, and consisted of

  • “A LETTER from an English gentleman [Windham] to Mr. Arlaud, giving an Account of a Journey to the Glacieres, or Ice Alps in Savoy, written in the Year 1741. Translated from the French.”
  • “An ACCOUNT of a Journey to the Glacieres in Savoy [in August 1742], in a LETTER addressed to the English Gentleman, Author of the foregoing Letter by P. Martel, Engineer. Translated from the French.”
  • “Comparison of our [Martel’s] Observations with those of Mr. Fatio de Duillier [etc.]”

It was accompanied by a map and “two views of the place,”; and one of the folding plates was entitled “View of y. Ice Valley, & Mountains that Surround it, from Mount Anver, R. Price delin.’ Vinares [Vinceres?] Sculpsit.” The scene included two men, each wearing a hat and wielding a long stick or pole, against the background of what appear to be huge ice formations.

View of the "Ice Valley" in An account of the glacieres or Ice Alps in Savoy (1744). From the Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
View of the “Ice Valley” in An account of the glacieres or Ice Alps in Savoy (1744). From the Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Martel, who described himself as “M. Peter Martel of Geneva, Engineer,” showed his interest in scientific instrumentation and measurement throughout his account, and took advantage of the publication to advertise his own services and wares. He was available to teach applied mathematics “(in French) both at Home and Abroad, according to the best and most expeditious Methods,” and made and sold “Pocket and other Thermometers, with several improvements,” permitting comparison of the scales of Fahrenheit, Newton, Reaumur, Hales, and others.

Martel and his party made good use of the instruments he brought along. He recounted that one of his thermometers en route recorded 2 degrees above freezing (this in late August), which “made us cloath ourselves warmer”; and the party set out from Chamonix (p. 16) “to go up the Mountain, … having with us seven Men both to assist us in climbing, and to carry Provisions.” When they “saw the Ice Valley,” they were “struck with Astonishment….” After taking measurements, they  “descended towards the Ice,” this “in order to find a Place to Dine” (p. 17), but “were not able to stay [there] long by reason of the Cold, which obliged us to get into the Sunshine, altho’ we were dressed as in the Middle of Winter….”

Although the title page made reference to laying the account (or the illustrations) before the Royal Society of London, the work left but a slight trace in the Philosophical transactions: John Fothergill, M.D., cited the “Account of the Glacieres in Savoy,” by “P. Martel, Engineer,”printed at London 1742 [?], in his “An Account of Some Observations and Experiments Made in Sibiria [sic], Extracted from the Preface to the Flora Sibirica, Sive Historia Plantarum Sibiriae Cum Tabulis aeri Incisis. Auct. D. Gmelin. Chem & Hist. Nat. Prof. Petropoli 1747. 4to. Vol. 1,” Philosophical transactions, 45 (1748), 248-262,  in a footnote on 257.

The work appeared again in 1747, this time “Printed by W. Craighton” in Ipswich and without advertising Martel’s teaching and instruments. Both editions (1744 and 1747) are available to subscribers to Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO).

A review of 19th-century works about Mont Blanc in the North American review, 42 (March 1865), 70-80, identified Windham and his companions as the “discoverers of Chamouni [sic]” and referred to a small quarto pamphlet containing Windham’s account and published in 1743 (not 1744), in English, “which appears to be rare” (p. 70). The reviewer gave slight mention to Martel, crediting him with publishing an account of the visit of the Genevan party in 1742, but slammed the plates, including the scene reproduced above, as “grotesque” (p. 72).

The publication received considerably more attention in William Windham et Pierre [sic] Martel: Relations de leurs deux voyages aux glaciers de Chamonix (1741-1742), with original French text and introduction and notes by Théophile Dufour (Geneva: Imprimerie Bonnant, 1879), As Dufour noted, these accounts of 1741 and 1742 — in French — circulated at first in manuscript copies, and were published in English translation by Martel in “une mince brochure” (p. 6). The edition of 1879 is now available through Gallica.

The English version of 1744 (not 1794) was reprinted as an appendix (beginning on p. [327])  in Charles Edward Mathews, The annals of Mont Blanc: A monograph (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1898), available in digital form from the Bodleian Library through Europeana.

— Robin Rider