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Etienne-Gaspard Robert, aka Robertson

Etienne-Gaspard Robert, better known by his stage name Etienne Robertson, was a Belgian-born professor of physics and a painter. However, in the 1790s he became enamored with phantasmagoria, a form of theater that used a modified magic lantern to project frightening images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts onto walls, smoke, or semi-transparent screens, frequently using rear projection. Invented in France in the late eighteenth century, it was popular through most of Europe and the United States throughout the nineteenth century. Regarding his phantasmagoria shows, he said, I am only satisfied if my spectators, shivering and shuddering, raise their hands or cover their eyes out of fear of ghosts and devils dashing towards them Robertson was also a renowned balloonist and made 59 ascents, including one flight that set an altitude record for a hot-air balloon.

The Robertson tomb is composed of three distinct parts: a base fitted with a door, a rectangular stone block that contains frieze panels and a majestic multi-festooned sarcophagus surrounded by batwinged skulls. The frieze panel on the west face appears to be a depiction of the Dance of Death, but closer inspection reveals that it illustrates one of Robertson’s phantasmagoria shows. A child cowers, some people shield their eyes and others look on, fascinated as monsters, skeletons and ghosts parade and fly across the tomb. On the east side of a tomb, the frieze panel depicts onlookers as they watch a balloon. The figure on the far left is American Benjamin Franklin, who was ambassador to France from 1776 to 1785. Indeed, on August 27, 1783 Franklin witnessed the flight of the world’s first unmanned hydrogen balloon (the small balloon carried about 20 pounds and was attacked by peasants when it landed). Franklin was so enthused by the flight that he contributed funds for a manned flight. The frieze panel on the tomb supposedly depicts Franklin and other onlookers as they witness the manned flight as it rises from the Jardin des Tuileries on December 1, 1783.

The disadvantage of colonial isolation for more theoretically inclined physicists can be seen in the work of Franklin’s New York contemporary Cadwallader Colden. Newark Subway Map Colden’s An Explication of the First Causes of Action in Matter; and the Cause of Gravitation (1745) showed little awareness of work in mechanics and physics since Newton, and the book was harshly reviewed when it appeared in Europe. Colonial scientific communities began, by the late eighteenth century, to emphasize their separateness from Europe. The study of local natural history could contribute to the sense of a separate colonial identity, as could scientific disputes with Europeans. Mexican naturalists attacked the Royal Botanical Expedition’s attempt to impose the European Linnaean system of classification on Mexican plants.

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