Five and more surprising things about the past

Sometimes people ask me to tell them some charmingly entertaining thing about the past. I’m not very good at trivia and at procuring astonishing tidbits but there are plenty of strange things I come across that make me go ‘whaaaaaat?!’ Here are five and more random things. 1. There was no email.

Robert Hooke was a technician for the Royal Society in the late seventeenth century and he came up with an idea for quickly conveying messages across long distances: hold up large letters on the roofs of buildings which form a code which can be read at a distance through a telescope. (1)IMG_0719

Hooke was fascinated by optics. Here's his image of a period as seen through a microscope. (2)

2. Rocks went to the doctor.

‘It is important to note that materials we now think of as inanimate were not regarded as such in the pre-industrial world. Minerals and metals grew in the earth and they had to be purged and tempered in order to bring them into a healthy state. Books of secrets often indiscriminately mix medical recipes for human health with instructions for pigment, dye and metallurgical recipes. This should not be seen as a random combination, for all these recipes operate on the basis of the same coordinates of the four humours and qualities and the same principles of tempering in order to bring about balance (and thus health).’ (3)


This is an image from a sixteenth century mining treatise of the blood of Christ working through the seven planets (sun, moon, and five planets then known) and then into the seven metals (illustrated by the horizontal and vertical bands) at the center of the earth. (4)

3.a. We are only recently lucky enough to be plagued by repetitive, identical ads.

As Adrian Johns argues in The Nature of the Book, ‘it has been widely claimed that the deployment of identical texts and images on a very large scale is central to the experience of modern life.’ (5)

3. b. What people did when they said they were reading in the past was different.

Johns: ‘Almost all historians put themselves in the place of early modern readers and assume that their own act of reading replicates that of their historical counterparts. But this substitution may not be entirely innocuous. A rather different approach is suggested if one identifies reading itself as a skill, just as historically specific as the more obvious dexterity involved in experimentation. If reading has a history, then assuming that modern readers’ responses to a printed page accurately reproduce those of seventeenth-century men and women becomes problematic.’ (6)

3. c. You had to do more than write to be an author.

Johns argues that in the seventeenth century, ‘An author is taken to be someone acknowledged as responsible for a given printed (or sometimes written) work; that is, authorship is taken to be a matter of attribution by others, not of self-election. A writer is anyone who composes such a work. A writer therefore may or may not attain authorship. A text is the content of any written or printed work, considered apart from its particular material manifestation.’ (7)

4. The geography of the earth is in our minds!

Continental divisions and the organization of oceans that we now see as normal were formalized in the nineteenth century and serve specific political interests. Continents and oceans are just one way or organizing our knowledge of the physical world, among others. Our understanding of continental divisions as natural glosses the historical production of geographic divisions and leads to environmental determinism. This is the argument of Lewis and Wigen’s influential 1997 book The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography.

5. In a little town in early modern Spain, acorns were infinite.

‘The acorn harvest must have been an exciting and impressive time. According to the council of Montánchez (Cáceres), the local oak woodlands produced an ‘infinity’ of acorns which supported numerous herds of swine and other large and small animals.’ (8)


  1. R. Iliffe, ‘Material Doubts: Hooke, Artisan Culture and the Exchange of Information in 1670s London’ in The British Journal for the History of Science, 28.3 (1995), pp.285-318.
  2. A. Johns, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (2000), p.430
  3. P. Smith, ‘Ch.2: What is a Secret? Secrets and Craft Knowledge in Early Modern Europe’ in E. Leong and A. Rankin, eds., Secrets in Knowledge in Medicine and Science, 1500-1800 (2011), pp.47-68.
  4. P. Smith, ‘Ch. 1. Making as Knowing: Craft as Natural Philosophy’ in P. Smith, A. Meyers and H. Cook, eds., Ways of Making and Knowing: The Material Culture of Empirical Knowledge (2014), p. 17- 47.
  5. Johns, p. 629.
  6. Johns, p 46.
  7. Johns, p xxi.
  8. D. Vassberg, Land and Society in Golden Age Castile (1984), p.37-8.