William Johnson of Scalloway and the earth tides

The Domina and I visited Scalloway recently. It’s a very attractive harbour town on a beautiful coastline, and the bar menu in the Scalloway Hotel is worth checking out. Geo-geek as I am, though, what caught my eye was this peculiar inscription on the side of a house in New Street.

William Johnson's inscription (upper part) William Johnson's inscription (lower part)The Geograph website gives an accurate transcription of the text. The main part reads:

This diagram illustrates the cause of the so called Earth Tides. Also each alternate Ocean Flood, the cause of which has never yet been understood.

RE EARTH TIDES: we are told that the Moon raises the solid surface of the Earth under it about 8 inches and raises the OPPOSITE SIDE 8. This I hold to be impossible. The phenomenon called EARTH TIDE IS CAUSED BY E-H’s WEIGHT PULLING …

[The remainder of this stone has worn but the Geograph contributor was informed that it ended: AGAINST THE SUN’S ATTRACTION.]

The water flows back when att’n over & forms a heap on opposite side of E. to balance att’n flood. There is no … [and here, frustratingly, it ends.]

The white inset reads:


Section at EQUATOR
Favoured of Heaven.


We asked about this inscription in the Scalloway Museum (which is also worth a visit, though be prepared to have a lump placed in your throat by the heroics of the Norwegian resistance fighters of the Shetland Bus), and the staff there were able to give us a little more information. It dates to 1910, and it’s the work of a local stonemason named William Johnson. They weren’t able to tell us a great deal about Johnson, except that as well as being a mason he was a gifted sculptor; apparently one piece of his work, a large concrete angel, stood for many years in the surrounds of Scalloway Castle but has long since disappeared. What they weren’t able to tell me, though, was what provoked him to carve his inscription in the first place, and in particular what gave him such a strong sense that the earth tides were a “German theory”. Since returning to base I’ve done a bit of rummaging round the internet, and I think I can now answer these questions.

As I’d suspected, research on the earth tides goes back to the work of William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, in the 1860s; his contribution is summarised in Thomson & Tait’s Treatise on Natural Philosophy, vol. 2, sections 798-848 (1889). Kelvin was interested in the problem both as part of his interest in fluid and solid dynamics and because the magnitude of the earth tides could be used to deduce something about the interior structure of the Earth. Kelvin firmly rejected the theory widely held by geologists that the Earth consisted of a thin solid crust over a liquid interior (see e.g. his lecture to the British Association in 1882), and in fact his celebrated estimates of the age of the Earth (e.g. Trans. Royal Soc. Edinburgh, Vol. XXIII, pp. 167-169, 1864) relied on treating it as a solid body. Indeed, Kelvin argued that since the Earth palpably didn’t deform as a fluid body — if it did, the ocean tides should be barely perceptible since land and sea would rise and fall together — either the crust must be implausibly rigid or the interior must not be fluid. Whether or not this argument is flawed, the point is that for Kelvin, earth tides were not merely a curiosity but part of the artillery with which he attacked geological science and the still more disturbing theories that relied on its chronology. (It’s mildly ironic that Thomson and Tait’s principal sources of observations seem to have been two of the Darwin brothers, George and Horace.)

Although the question had arisen well before the first decade of the twentieth century, there was certainly an upsurge of interest in the topic at that time, even though by this point Rutherford had provided the necessary get-out clause to escape Kelvin’s objections to geological time. In particular, the classic analysis of the deformation of the solid Earth by tidal forces was published in 1909 by the English mathematician AEH Love, of “Love waves” fame, then the Sedleian chair of natural philosophy at Oxford [Proc. Royal Soc. London A 82: 73-88, 16 February 1909]. As well as Kelvin’s original work, Love’s analysis builds on that of a number of German researchers (W. Schweydar, G. Herglotz, E. Wiechert), and his citations certainly give the impression that Germany and England were the two centres of interest in the problem.

A particularly important contribution was made by Oskar Hecker, then a professor at the Preußischen Geodätischen Institut, part of the Potsdam Observatory complex in Berlin. (Hecker hasn’t been much biographised online, but this article from the Mitteilungen of the Deutschen Geophysikalischen Gesellschaft gives an account of his career.) Hecker had carried out a series of observations over several years using a specially designed “horizontal pendulum” device; he published some results in 1907, which were cited by Love in support of his analysis. In February 1909, Hecker announced, apparently with some fanfare, that he had discovered conclusive evidence of the earth tides. His announcement was carried by both Reuters and the Press Association, and made it into newspapers around the world. For example, on 26 February 1909 the Dominion of New Zealand carried several paragraphs, beginning




Berlin, February 25.

Professor Hecker, of Potsdam Observatory, as the result of six years’ observations, claims to have measured the diurnal oscillations of the solid earth, which he considers analogous to the tides of the ocean. He states that there is a rise and fall each day in the surface of the earth of eight inches…

I’ve not been able to find a mention in the Scottish press, but the story was certainly picked up by the Times of London, which carried a brief paragraph on February 22, 1909 (p. 8):


PARIS, FEB. 21.*

M. Camille Flammarion, the eminent astronomer, in a letter published to-day, makes what he himself describes as the almost incredible announcement that it has been established as the result of recent observations that the earth twice every day experiences general undulations corresponding to the tides of the ocean. This discovery is due to observations made at the Potsdam Observatory by the astronomer Hecker, who, by means of special instruments, has ascertained that this apparently solid earth is subject to daily oscillations analogous to the tides, rising and falling twice in every 24 hours some 20 centimètres, or about 8 in.

* Through Reuter’s Agency.

Evidently there was enough public interest in the discovery, at least in some parts of the world, for an American magazine to carry an article a year later giving a popular account of the discovery [The Harpers Monthly, April 1910, 710-715].

Both the Reuter’s and Press Association versions of the story carry the estimate that the Earth’s surface rises and falls by about eight inches, the same figure quoted by William Johnson in his inscription. Given the timing, I think we can be fairly sure that it was the fanfare surrounding Hecker’s announcement in 1909 that provoked William Johnson to record both his own theory and his sentiments about German scientific exceptionalism. I also suspect that Johnson was unaware of Love’s work, and indeed of Kelvin’s; Hecker’s discovery seems to have been presented as both novel and theoretical, rather than precise measurement of a phenomenon that had been known, or at least postulated, for half a century. Although Love’s analysis had been published a couple of weeks before Hecker’s announcement, it’s not referred to in the newspaper accounts that I’ve seen, and as it’s a rather highly technical analysis in an academic journal it would probably not have entered the orbit of a Shetland stonemason, no matter how interested he was in scientific advances. From his perspective, then, the entire notion of earth tides probably did appear to be a novel “German theory” — and a Prussian theory to boot — and it’s easy to see why it might have prodded his Edwardian British patriotism in a sore place.

So where does this leave us, and what do we make of William Johnson? From the scanty evidence available, I suspect he was one of that hardy breed known to Augustus De Morgan as paradoxers. Indeed, although the circle-squarers were his particular quarry, in the introduction to his Budget of Paradoxes De Morgan makes special mention of tidal paradoxers:

Take the speculations on the tides as an instance. Persons with nothing but a little geometry have certainly exposed themselves in their modes of objecting to results which require the higher mathematics to be known before an independent opinion can be formed on sufficient grounds.

Certainly, Johnson seems to fit the usual profile of a paradoxer: a combination of intelligence and technical expertise, with a keen interest in scientific developments but without the higher education or the access to scientific literature that might have enabled him to develop his gifts and interest more fully. Being a paradoxer myself in a small way, I’m not going to mock the breed: infuriating as they can be to deal with (especially in the classroom), and dispiriting as the waste of intelligence always is, they have at least the virtues of attempting to think for themselves. The world, on the whole, might be better for a few more independent paradoxers.

In the case of William Johnson, it seems that without knowing it his independent speculations had become enmeshed in something of a scientific publicity contest — at least assuming that Hecker’s PR splash was either a response to or anticipated by Love’s appearance in the Proceedings — and that he had interpreted what he saw of that publicity through the lens of his own political convictions. It’s perfectly understandable, and yet another warning to those of us who assume that we can read our contemporary scientific press objectively, especially those parts of it driven by press releases and public announcements. (There is also, it seems, a parallel to be drawn with many modern paradoxers, such as the climate-change deniers who see climate science identified with the political left and dismiss it as a socialist conspiracy. I’m not going to exaggerate that parallel, but it’s there.)

I think, in the end, the fairest response to Johnson and his tidal theories is neither mockery nor pity, but a kind of wry sympathy — tinged, if we are lucky, with an element of humility. The wrong end of the stick he may have had, but it seems he made a manful attempt to grasp it. To take right out of context the words of Richard Fanshawe’s famous sonnet,

Brasse Tombes which justice hath deny’d t’his fault,
The common pity to his vertues payes…
Much Doctrine lyes under this little Stone.

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3 Responses to William Johnson of Scalloway and the earth tides

  1. Since writing this, I’ve heard a little more about William Johnson, and he emerges still more clearly as a paradoxer. In particular, he appears to have published a little book called “The Law of Universal Balance. Discovery of the motive power in the heavens. A new philosophy for the new century. By a Shetlander”, the only archived copy of which that I can locate is in the British Library. Apparently he postulates that the solar system is held in balance by a force called Attraction operating in opposition to gravity — so beneath that little stone was not only a doctrine but, by the sound of it, an entire cosmology…

    • Allen Fraser says:

      Was he the first to realise the necessity of Dark Matter in the universe?

      • With due deference to Mr Johnson, I think that’s too much of an anachronism — remember that he was writing in 1901, before even special relativity and well before general relativity, and it’s only in a general-relativistic framework that (as I understand it) the evidence for dark matter arises. It’s always tempting to look for historical precursors of modern theories — one of the reasons why the “who was the first?” question irritates my friends in history of science so badly — but it tends to impose a set of ideas that would have been entirely alien to the supposed precursor him/herself. He was certainly an original thinker, but I think that this probably isn’t the lens through which I’d view his thought.

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