Reverend Tindall’s Tellurian

January 21, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

Tindall's tellurian demonstrated an irregularity in the Earth's rotation.

Tindall's tellurian demonstrated an irregularity in the Earth's rotation.

Eleven years into an exhausting workload for a big congregation, in 1874 Presbyterian minister George Tindall was tired. He maintained a grueling schedule of ministerial duties for one of Ypsilanti’s largest churches.

“The Presbyterian is the second church society in regard to age,” said the Ypsilanti Commercial in an 1874 article that summarized business and cultural institutions in town. “The present church building, situated on Washington Street, was dedicated in ’57. It is of brick, and is 55 x 96 feet, with a lecture room in the rear, 23 x 50 feet. The spire is one hundred sixty two feet high. The property belonging to the society is worth $30,000,” (today, over half a million dollars). “Rev. Geo. P. Tindall is pastor, having been called to the position in 1863. The present church membership is four hundred fifty.”

Ypsilanti’s population at the time was around 5,000, so Tindall’s flock represented almost ten percent of Ypsilanti residents. He was responsible for home visits to the afflicted, he officiated at weddings and funerals, and held private meetings to counsel parishioners, aside from three Sunday services for which he wrote sermons every week. He also was expected to attend numerous social functions, such as the annual Christmas celebration.

“The Sabbath school of the Presbyterian Church held a festival in their church on Christmas eve which was the finest affair of the kind ever witnessed in Ypsilanti,” said the January 5, 1867 Commercial. “The exercises were lengthy after the audience were seated but highly interesting to both old and young. . . Rev. Mr. Tindall and [his wife Louisa] were remembered with a magnificent tea set . . . ”

It was all getting to be too much. But for all his work with godly matters, Tindall still found time to analyze God’s creation with a scientific eye. His mind was on the motion of planets. He pondered the Earth’s multiple simultaneous vectors of rotational and orbital movement. One such vector was a phenomenon whereby the Earth, caught between the gravitational pull of the Sun on the Earth’s equator and the force of the Earth’s rotation, wobbles slightly, like a spinning top.

This wobble is called “the precession of the equinoxes,” and in June 6 of 1874 Tindall filed a patent for his tellurian. He had invented a model of the Earth’s rotation that demonstrated the precession of the equinoxes.

The precession of the equinoxes, says EMU physics and astronomy department assistant professor Patrick Koehn, is the slow wobble in the earth’s axis that over 26,000 years, traces an imaginary cone in the sky.

“Usually, when I’m talking to my astronomy students,” said Koehn in a personal email, “I pull out a bicycle wheel that has an extended axle–that is, I can hold onto this axle like a handle and get the wheel rotating fairly quickly. I then place it on the ground in the classroom, and we chat about it. The spinning wheel will eventually start to tip a bit, and the axis of rotation (the axle) will start to sweep out a cone. It looks like the axle is wobbling.”

Explaining that this wobble slowly shifts astronomical navigation points in the sky that are marked by the spring and autumn equinoxes, Koehn said that it “causes the rotational axis of Earth to sweep out a cone in the sky. Since the Pole Star (currently Polaris) is the star that the axis of the Earth points nearest to, if the axis moves, the Pole Star will change with time. It takes 26,000 years for the axis of the Earth to sweep all the way through the cone, so in 26,000 years, the Pole star will again be Polaris. When the Egyptians were building the pyramids, for example, the star called Thuban (in the constellation Draco) was the Pole Star.”

On a more terrestrial note, aside from his weightier duties George likely heard many petty parishioner complaints and dealt with difficult people. However, his imagination was not a small one confined by such quotidiana. His was a mind that ventured to explore subtle celestial motions occurring over vast expanses of space and time.

On October 27, 1874, Tindall’s patent was approved. Just as the patent concerned the Earth’s axis, this approval became a pivot that altered the course of his life. A little over a year later, Tindall submitted his resignation to the church. In it, he said that in October of 1874, he had a physical breakdown due to overwork. He also said that he was leaving the church to take an easier job in Flint. There was more to the story: rumors, origin unknown, said that his small salary had been decreased.

“The report that was circulated that the pastor’s salary was cut down is not correct,” said a December 25, 1875 Ypsilanti Commercial article that included both Tindall’s resignation and the church board’s response. “The facts are that [the church board] fixed the limits that it should not go under nor exceed given amounts.”

In his resignation, Tindall, wielding graceful and calculated language honed through years of sermons, said, “I have been persuaded that I have overworked, and must in some way gain relief. . . the way is open for me to withdraw to the field to which I am invited, where I may, under changed conditions, more nearly meet all the demands of the pastorate.” Tindall made what appears to be one opaque reference to salary when discussing his labors. “[W]ith a church membership of about 500 most of the time, and about 300 families or calling places, [this] has seemed to require all one’s time . . . These more than ordinary, and unremitted labors, year after year . . .”

Tindall left for Flint. It was to be the last pastorate he held before his retirement. He later went to California, and when he died there in 1894, he was remembered in Ypsilanti. Whatever squabbles may have contributed to his leaving Ypsi were not mentioned in the affectionate obituary printed here.

“Many of his parishioners of 30 or 40 years ago are still here,” said the September 21, 1894 Ypsilanti Commercial, “and all hold him in affectionate remembrance for his earnest and beautiful Christian character and the tender sympathy and faithfulness which characterized all of his pastoral and social duties.”

Tindall’s mortal remains were buried in California. His immortal soul—if humans have one–was now free to forever wander the universe, one he had contemplated in quiet moments in his home long ago in Ypsilanti.

Laura Bien is a local history writer. You are invited to visit her Ypsi history blog Dusty Diary and contact her at [email protected]

Power out in Downtown Ypsilanti, UPS driver trapped inside truck

January 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Breaking News, News

A driver from UPS/Overnite is trapped inside his truck after a powerline fell. This happened on South Huron next to Ypsilanti City Hall around 1:15p this afternnon. YpsiNews reporters saw a bright flash from a transformer behind City Hall. The damage resulted in a power line falling across the road and landing on the truck. The driver is OK, but Ypsilanti Fire Department has asked the driver to stay in the vehicle until crews from DTE can make sure the line is not energized.

Ypsilanti police have closed off South Huron at Ferris. The power outage has snarled traffic in every direction as drivers look for alternate routes. Traffic lights are out at Huron and Michigan Ave as well as Washington and Michigan Ave.

Power is out for businesses and residents in about a 6 block area.

Predicting the Internet in 1885

January 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

An early airplane flies over Recreation Park, circa 1914.

An early airplane flies over Recreation Park, circa 1914.

“In a paper published every minute, I read that a Prof. Stoneborn had created quite a sensation at Icetown, at the North Pole, by his success in attracting the new comet by electricity . . .” That’s what 18-year-old Vee Cornwell imagined newspapers might be like in her talk “America in 1985,” given at an 1885 city youth talent show.

She described falling asleep while reading Jules Verne, and traveling to the future. Her “paper published every minute” prediction was only a handful of years off from the rise of online newspapers and blogs. Of the other predictions Vee made in her talk, the most interesting ones are those she got wrong; they expose the memes and culture of her day.

Vee Cornwell may have inherited a futuristic imagination from her father, Clark Cornwell, the son of Cornelius Cornwell, who founded the city’s first paper mill. An “early adopter” of technology (and mayor from 1886-1888), Clark was the first person in Ypsilanti to have a phone installed in his home, in 1878. It was linked to Clark’s paper mill at Lowell, northwest of the city, and to another at Geddes.

The phone created a sensation. Even Ypsilanti Commercial editor C. R. Pattison was impressed. “The other day we were in Cornwell & Co.’s paper office, in this city,” he said in the March 2, 1878 paper, “and witnessed the wondrous power of the telephone. Mr. Cornwell held a conversation with the mill at Lowell, giving his orders verbally and receiving immediate audible replies. Great is the telephone.”

Vee predicted another communication breakthrough, as reported in the “paper published every minute.” “I also read that the whole length of the lunar wire had been laid, and that a message from the moon was daily expected.” Her word choice seems odd: “laid” instead of “extended” or “raised.” But just 19 years earlier, the transatlantic cable had been laid. It seems likely Vee modeled her moon wire on the transatlantic cable.

Vee also posited devices that suggest television and radio. While walking in the world of 1985 with her companion, “I did not observe any theaters or churches, and inquired what part of the city they were in. ‘Oh!’ replied my friend, ‘theaters and churches are abolished now, only the stages of the theaters being retained, and by means of an electric dioscope all that takes place on the stage can be distinctly seen and heard by people in any part of the city. Sermons are read in the minister’s study and transmitted to houses by telephone.’”

Vee suggested two methods of high-speed aerial transport, neither of them airplanes. “At last we came to a wide river, and I was looking for a ferry, when my guide pointed to an immense metal sphere and said, ‘Step in’ . . . An authoritative voice now cried, ‘All right! Fire!’ A tremendous concussion followed, and when I regained my breath the door was opened and my fellow passengers were getting out. We had crossed the river.” Astonished, Vee asked a companion “‘I suppose you have railroads still?’ ‘No!’ she replied. ‘Short distances are traversed by bombshells, fired by a substance called chloro-nitrogen, which superceded dynamite thirty years ago. Electric balloons are used for longer distances. The mail balloon starts from New York and arrives in San Francisco one hour and forty-five minutes ahead of the sun.’”

Over a century before Vee’s talk, the Montgolfier brothers had flown over Paris in their balloon, the first men to experience a successful untethered flight in a man-made craft. And although theoretical designs for aircraft dated back for centuries, it would be 13 years after Vee’s talk before Augustus Herring made what is regarded as the first powered “airborne condition,” halfway between gliding and true flight.

Herring flew his compressed air-powered hang glider in St. Joseph, Michigan in October of 1898, several years before the Wright Brothers’ flight. Airplanes were not a reality to Vee, but balloons were, and it made perfect sense to her to add the then-novel power of electricity to create what seemed like futuristic science, the “electric balloon.”
Continuing the scientific theme, Vee took a poke at eccentric Ohio scientist John Cleves Symmes, who proposed in 1818 that the Earth was hollow, inhabitable, and accessible by a hole at the North Pole. “I also learned that an expedition to the north pole had found Symmes’ Hole, and had explored the inside of the earth and annexed it . . . to the United States.”

Vee’s talk also reflected the social movements of her time, which included the often overlapping causes of temperance and suffrage. These were combined into one when she and her companion stopped in a saloon for refreshment. “I rather hesitated, but as she seemed very well bred, I said nothing. We entered an elegantly furnished room, and were handed a bill of fare.” The menu offered water—89 different kinds-that included “Water Charcoal Filtered,” “Mineral Water,” and “Rain Water.” Vee asked her companion, “‘Do they not have any wine, beer, or champagne?’ ‘Hush!’ said my companion, ‘there is a fine of $5 for the mere mention of any of the old poisonous compounds. All intoxicating liquors were abolished when women were admitted to the house of representatives.’”

Towards the end of her talk, Vee discussed an antigravity machine. “Being tired with our long walk, I expressed my surprise that my companion seemed to feel no fatigue. ‘Why!’ said she, ‘I don’t believe you have a negative gravity machine.’ She then told me that this useful article” had been invented by Frank R. Stockton, a popular late 19th-century humorist, novelist, and writer of short stories, some of which were fantastical.

“‘No one ever gets tired walking now,’ said my companion. ‘Don’t you notice that we have no carriages or street cars? Let us go into this store and buy a machine for you.’ I chose one which consisted of a small battery enclosed in a watch charm. No sooner had it been adjusted to my weight than I hardly seemed to touch the ground.’”

Vee was fitting in nicely to the world of 1985 when tragedy struck, according to her talk’s conclusion. “I lost all sense of fatigue, and was stepping lightly along, when—-Crash! I awoke. My book had fallen from my lap.”

Laura Bien is a local history writer. Contact her at [email protected]