Hermann Sprengel’s Pumps

Hermann Sprengel’s Pumps

In 1858, a twenty-four year old man named Hermann Sprengel graduated from the University of Heidelberg. As soon as he could, he abandoned his German homeland and settled in England and becoming a British citizen. After working in a couple of different places in and around London, he settled down as a chemist in Kennington. There, he developed several noteworthy inventions. The most important was a type of explosives which used chemicals that were safe to handle until they were mixed right before detonation. His explosives were used to demolish underwater hazards and clear shipping lanes, like that in the Long Island Sound in 1885.

Sprengel’s most important innovation had nothing to do with blowing things up. It did, however, change the world forever.

During the latter part of the 19th century, there were several people of considerable intelligence working on creating durable, economically feasible electric lighting. There were plenty of applications of electricity that produced light, but all were expensive and labor intensive to maintain, and most were extremely dangerous. Everyone knew that the way to produce a good light would be to find some kind of filament that would glow when electricity was passed through it.

No one could keep a filament lit because the oxygen in the air around the filament would cause it to burn out quickly. Working independently, the English inventor Joseph Swan and the American inventor Thomas Edison would eventually master the incandescent light bulb at just about the same time, and it was Hermann Sprengel who made their work possible.

Sprengel developed a simple but ingenious type of air pump that emptied the air from a container simply by the nature of mercury. You attached the vessel you wanted to empty to a long glass tube. On either end of the tube were simple openings. The bottom drained into a receptacle, but the top was connected to a reservoir containing mercury. When the mercury reservoir was elevated above the tube, drops of mercury would form and descend to the bottom receptacle. Because of the nature of mercury as an extremely heavy liquid, the drops would trap air between them – releasing it from the bottom opening. Since air will always thin out and be spread uniformly through a vessel, the air in the vessel would continue to thin out. Within twenty minutes, a one-liter bottle could be essentially emptied of all air, with a pressure of 1/1,000,000 of atmospheric pressure at sea level.

It was a brilliant piece of work, and it was all but ignored until Swan and Edison independently realized that this type of vacuum would allow a carbon filament to glow for hundreds if not thousands of hours. Without Sprengel, there would be no incandescent light bulbs as we know them. Without incandescent lighting, we would live in a very different world.

Thomas Linacre

Thomas Linacre

Thomas Linacre, physician to King Henry VIII; a man of Greek and Latin and yet very learned in the field of medicine. He restored the aged and the sick, and even the lost soul. He translated many of the Latin works of Galen with a unique elegance. Shortly before his death, at the request of his friends, he revised the structure of the Latin speech. He was twice the public lecturer of medicine at Oxford and once Cambridge, perpetually established. He formed the Medical College of London and was elected president of it. He despised fakes, was faithful to his friends. He was a star of the brightest order. He was made a priest three years before his death. Full of years, he departed this life and is missed by many. AD 1524, 20 October. Virtue lives after funerals.

(Translation of the Latin Epitaph for Thomas Linacre at St. Paul’s Cathedral)

You have probably heard of Henry VIII, the King of England who broke from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 so he could divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon. He was the father of Queen Elizabeth I and in many ways, he was the founder of the modern English monarchy.

You may have also heard of Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch thinker and linguist who not only wrote letters in opposition to Martin Luther and the Protestants but also produced the first printed Greek New Testament and therein (ironically) aided the Protestant Reformation.

If you are a student of history, you may have also heard the name of the Medici family which ruled Florence during the 15th century and into the 16th. They commissioned many of the great works of Renaissance Art, and their scion, Giovanni de Medici, ruled as Pope Leo X – the pope who opposed Luther’s Reformation.

But you have probably never heard of the physician and thinker who was friends with all three – Thomas Linacre. He is one of the little-remembered men of the Renaissance and Reformation, but he was possibly one of the most influential men of his day.

Linacre studied the “new learning” of humanism in Florence, side-by-side with Giovanni de Medici, who would continue to write friendly letters to Linacre until his death. When he returned to England around 1490, he formed a close knit circle of humanist friends, and it was Thomas Linacre who served as tutor to Henry VIII and his older brother Arthur, as well as Henry’s daughter Princess Mary. Henry VIII admired him so much that he named Linacre the king’s physician, a post he held until his death in 1524.

And when his old classmate Giovanni de Medici became pope and wanted a new text of the Latin Bible to rival that which was being produced in Madrid under the aged Spanish cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, Giovanni turned to Thomas Linacre and his circle of friends. They pointed the pope to Erasmus, who worked feverishly with the Swiss printer Johann Froben and produced a new Latin text, with corresponding Greek, in the spring of 1516.

Beside all of this, Linacre was personally involved in the translation of a number of Greek and Latin texts into English for the first time. Erasmus considered him a master of Latin, a critical genius whom he praised with the statement, vir non exacti tantum sed sever judicii (there is no man with such exacting judgment).

Thomas Linacre was the epitome of a Renaissance man – educated and capable. He held positions of influence in multiple spheres and helped usher in the modern age.

Linacre is not completely forgotten, but outside of Oxford he is nearly so. Linacre College is a venerable institution in Oxford, the first college to be composed solely of graduate students and the first to offer courses to both men and women. Other than that legacy, you will find no contemporary chronicles of his life. As near as I can tell, the last biography written about him was published in 1835.

Fortune may favor the bold, but history favors the published.

Aetios the Eunuch


Today, let’s look at Aetios the Eunuch.

In medieval Constantinople, eunuchs often played important roles in the operation of the imperial court. They were considered pure, although in reality they were often power-hungry and greedy.

Aetios was no exception. Throughout the period when Constantinople was under the influence (and eventually rule) of Irene of Athens (792-802), he struggled with his rival Staurakios to gain the upper hand.

After Charlemagne was declared Emperor of the Romans by the Pope on Christmas Day, 800, he sent an emissary to Constantinople suggesting the possibility of a marriage between himself and Irene. Although Irene seemed open to the idea, Aetios schemed against it and eventually arranged for Irene’s downfall.

What would have happened if Charlemagne and Irene had united the empire? It is hard to say. They were both older. Irene was nearly fifty and hardly of childbearing years. Charlemagne already had four sons, three of whom were adults, and Irene had her own son blinded and deposed. Could Charlemagne’s sons have ruled the empire together?

We’ll never know – because a eunuch no one has ever heard of managed to persuade Irene to refuse the proposal, and so doing, he changed the world.


It is time for another person you’ve never heard of who changed the world. This week, let’s look at Flavius Arbogast (died 364 CE).

In 380 CE, a Roman general named Magnus Maximus was declared emperor by his armies in Britain. He sailed his armies to Gaul and defeated the sitting western emperor Gratian and made peace with the eastern emperor Theodosius I. When Theodosius I marched against Maximus, he did so with an army that was sure to destroy him. Maximus’ army mutinied and handed him over to Theodosius who promptly had him executed.

To deal with any potential threats, Theodosius dispatched his junior general, Flavius Arbogast, to Britain to deal with any potential successors to Maximus. Arbogast found Maximus’ child son Flavius Victor in Britain and strangled him. With that simple, merciless act, Arbogast reversed the fortunes of the Romo-British people who had lived largely independent of the central imperial government. Although they remained independent (and pagan) until the early Middle Ages, Britain would not see any kind of power on the mainland of Europe until the 11th century and that came from their Norman king, William the Conqueror.

Later, Arbogast would usurp the control of the Western Empire and Theodosius would be forced to wage war against his trusted general. Arbogast committed suicide, a defeated and broken rebel who never appears in history books. But his single act of assassination may have changed the course of the history of the world.

If Flavius Victor had lived, would he have been able to unite the Romo-British and build a kingdom? Maximus may have overstretched by hoping to be emperor instead of simply king of the Britons. If Arbogast had not killed Flavius Victor, would Victor have been able to rule as such?

This longing for this unity lies under so much of the Arthurian legends that sprang up later. In fact, Magnus Maximus and Flavius Victor may have been the inspiration for much of the King Arthur legend.

Chandragupta II

Welcome back to the series – People You’ve Never Heard of Who Changed the World.

Who has ever heard of Chandragupta? The Guptas ruled over what is known as the Golden Age of India and Chandragupta II was one of the most important rulers of the Gupta empire. He ruled India for 38 years (375-413 CE) at a time when the Roman Empire, Persian Empire and even Jin Empire were waning.

Chandragupta’s rule was so well-known that Chinese monks traveled to India to see his greatness – stories reflective of the Biblical narrative of the Queen of Sheba journeying to see Solomon.

He campaigned against Persia and a group the chroniclers called the Hunas. This might not seem significant except that the Huna were known as simple “Huns” in Europe. Chandragupta’s campaigns may have been what drove the Huns into Europe, displacing Gothic tribes and then eventually assaulting Rome and Constantinople.

The pressure of the Goths and the Huns were two of the deciding factors in the fall of the western Roman Empire. Indirectly, Chandragupta may have actually brought about the sack of Rome.

How is that for a Person You’ve Never Heard of Who Changed the World?

Julian the Apostate

Welcome to our new Thursday posts – People You’ve Never Heard of Who Changed the World.

History is an interesting study. Since it is often written by the victorious party, the losers are rarely known. Cumulatively, this means that hundreds of major historical people are almost completely unknown. These characters are the subjects of this series.

This morning, I want to tell you about Julian the Apostate. He was the great nephew of Constantine the Great and the successor of Constantius II whom he succeeded as emperor of the Roman Empire.

Unlike Constantine and Constantius, Julian was a pagan. He was enamored with the neoplatonic philosophy and worshiped the old Roman gods. His rule was unpopular, but his persecution of the Christians, particularly in the west, did a lot to make them realize they could not always rely on the emperor for support and created the seeds of church organization that would later carry the Western Church through the medieval period.

Constantine had sponsored the Council of Nicaea, and was a trinitarian. Constantius had been an Arian and had sponsored a counter-council. Julian was completely disinterested, and his attacks against Christianity actually strengthened the religion, which had begun to evolve immensely under Constantine. Under his rule, Nicaean Christianity developed private catechisms and even paraphrases of the Scriptures meant to clone Roman literary forms which established the form in the West.

Julian’s reign was mercifully short – only eight years compared to Constantine’s nearly thirty years (it depends when you calculate it since he was co-emperor for some of the time) and Constantius’ twenty four years. And when he died in battle in 363, he was only in his thirties, so he could have easily ruled for decades.

Although you may have never heard of Julian, if you are of European extraction and have a belief in the Trinity (even if you don’t go to church or accept it), then you have been influenced by Julian. He was not a reformer or a zealot like Constantine or Constantius. He was a persecutor; and yet his persecution still moved the Church toward beliefs that shaped much of the next thousand years.