Monday, January 09, 2006

Fiske on Steam and Rumours

John Fiske provides some interesting insight and de Caus and his role in the steam engine. This passage is taken from his "The Unseen World and Other Essays" (October, 1998). Specifically, the Project Gutenberg text is quoted (

We have devoted so much space to this problem, by far the most
considerable of those treated in Mr. Delepierre's book, that we
have hardly room for any of the others. But a false legend
concerning Solomon de Caus, the supposed original inventor of the
steam-engine, is so instructive that we must give a brief account
of it.

In 1834 "there appeared in the Musee des Familles a letter from
the celebrated Marion Delorme, supposed to have been written on
the 3d February, 1641, to her lover Cinq-Mars." In this letter it
is stated that De Caus came four years ago [1637] from Normandy,
to inform the King concerning a marvellous invention which he had
made, being nothing less than the application of steam to the
propulsion of carriages. "The Cardinal [Richelieu] dismissed this
fool without giving him a hearing." But De Caus, nowise
discouraged, followed close upon the autocrat's heels wherever he
went, and so teased him, that the Cardinal, out of patience, sent
him off to a madhouse, where he passed the remainder of his days
behind a grated window, proclaiming his invention to the
passengers in the street, and calling upon them to release him.
Marion gives a graphic account of her visit, accompanied by the
famous Lord Worcester, to the asylum at Bicetre, where they saw
De Caus at his window; and Worcester, in whose mind the
conception of the steam-engine was already taking shape, informed
her that the raving prisoner was not a madman, but a genius. A
great stir was made by this letter. The anecdote was copied into
standard works, and represented in engravings. Yet it was a
complete hoax. De Caus was not only never confined in a madhouse,
but he was architect to Louis XIII. up to the time of his death,
in 1630, just eleven years BEFORE Marion Delorme was said to have
seen him at his grated window!

"On tracing this hoax to its source," says Mr. Delepierre, "we
find that M. Henri Berthoud, a literary man of some repute, and a
constant contributor to the Musee des Familles, confesses that
the letter attributed to Marion was in fact written by himself.
The editor of this journal had requested Gavarni to furnish him
with a drawing for a tale in which a madman was introduced
looking through the bars of his cell. The drawing was executed
and engraved, but arrived too late; and the tale, which could not
wait, appeared without the illustration. However, as the
wood-engraving was effective, and, moreover, was paid for, the
editor was unwilling that it should be useless. Berthoud was,
therefore, commissioned to look for a subject and to invent a
story to which the engraving might be applied. Strangely enough,
the world refused to believe in M. Berthoud's confession, so
great a hold had the anecdote taken on the public mind; and a
Paris newspaper went so far even as to declare that the original
autograph of this letter was to be seen in a library in Normandy!
M. Berthoud wrote again, denying its existence, and offered a
million francs to any one who would produce the said letter."

From this we may learn two lessons, the first being that utterly
baseless but plausible stories may arise in queer ways. In the
above case, the most far-fetched hypothesis to account for the
origin of the legend could hardly have been as apparently
improbable as the reality. Secondly, we may learn that if a myth
once gets into the popular mind, it is next to impossible to get
it out again. In the Castle of Heidelberg there is a portrait of
De Caus, and a folio volume of his works, accompanied by a note,
in which this letter of Marion Delorme is unsuspectingly cited as
genuine. And only three years ago, at a public banquet at
Limoges, a well-known French Senator and man of letters made a
speech, in which he retailed the story of the madhouse for the
edification of his hearers. Truly a popular error has as many
lives as a cat; it comes walking in long after you have imagined
it effectually strangled.


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