Mercury Observed

May 8, 2016

Our colleague Jim Lattis (of UW-Madison’s Space Place) has alerted the campus to a rare transit of Mercury, and to a special opening of Washburn Observatory on Monday, May 9, to permit public – and safe – viewing of the event.

We take this opportunity to explore other metaphorical aspects of Mercury – bringer of news, fleet of foot, lively, volatile, inconstant – in our holdings.

The Anglican clergyman, later bishop, John Wilkins (1614-1672) invoked the speed of Mercury, messenger of the gods in ancient Rome, in his anonymous treatise on cryptography: Mercury, or, The secret and swift messenger: Shewing, how a man may with privacy and speed communicate his thoughts to a friend at any distance (London: Printed by J. Norton for John Maynard and Timothy Wilkins … , 1641). Call number: Thordarson T 2597.

Title page of Wilkins' Mercury (1641). From the Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Title page of Wilkins’ Mercury (1641). From the Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

John Gadbury (1627–1704), astrologer and author of many ephemerides showing the positions of astronomical objects, called attention instead to this “mercurial age,” referring to the revolution and restoration that rocked England in the 17th century. Witness the title page of his Ephemerides of the celestial motions and aspects, eclipses of the luminaries, &c. for XX years: beginning anno 1682 and ending an. 1701. Calculated according to art from new tables, agreeing to the most correct observations of the ablest astronomers in this mercurial age. Accommodated to the meridian of the honourable city of London; and for the service and benefit of all the sons of Urania, now made publick (London: Printed by J. Macock, for the Company of stationers, 1680). Call number: CA 9879.

Gadbury's Ephemerides, published in 1680, noting "this Mercurial Age."
Gadbury’s Ephemerides (1680), advertising “the most Correct Observations of the ablest Astronomers in this Mercurial Age.”

Nearly 250 years later, H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan borrowed the term mercury, title of many a newspaper, for their American mercury, a monthly magazine published by Alfred A. Knopf beginning in January 1924: “… the Editors cherish the hope that it may be possible, after all, to introduce some element of novelty … and upon that hope they found the magazine.” The American mercury kept publishing until 1981, though with dramatic – even mercurial – changes in owners, editors, and editorial bent.

Volume 1, no. 1 (January 1924) of Mencken and Nathan's American mercury.

Robert M. Green paid tribute to Mencken’s early efforts with the American mercury in the initial issue [1983] of The mercury as published by the Maryland Writers’ Council: a publication, declared Green, “dedicated to furthering the literary arts,” “fierce in our determination to keep the liaison between writers and readers intimate and provocative.”

The mercury, published in Baltimore in 1983.

Both Mencken’s American mercury and the later Maryland Mercury figure in the Little Magazines collection in Special Collections.

Also from the early 1980s, Jonis Agee’s Mercury, a short story (West Branch, Iowa: The Toothpaste Press, 1981), chronicled a Mercury, “too large to fit in the single car garage,” its parts featured in drawings by Robert Ferguson.

Cover illustration by Robert Ferguson for Jonis Agee's Mercury.

The promise of speed, certainly, given the 390 horsepower engine. The copy in our Private Press Collection is signed by the author and the illustrator.

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To be sure, the rare book holdings in Special Collections also include much about astronomy per se, including observations of planetary transits across the face of the sun. An exhibit in 2013 entitled “On the Sunny Side” showcased some of those rare books, along with other sunny sources from Special Collections and the University Archives. A few years earlier, “Looking Up: An Exhibit of Astronomical Books 1500–1800,” honored the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first observations through the telescope.

We invite you to come explore all these holdings in our reading room.