Spotlight (on Books)


William T. King’s History of the American Steam Fire Engine, 1896

Everybody Likes Fire Engines . . . Don’t They. . . ?
Well, as long as they’re not having to put out a fire nearby.

But if you like fire engines, the 19th century, or just things mechanical, King’s book is for you. From the first steam fire engine, a British invention, the “Novelty,” built by George Braithwaite in 1829 to the “New American” engine of 1894, King will show you the machines, explain the detail and development of their inner workings, and describe the power of these rigs that made pumping water by hand to put out fires–at least in urban environments–a thing of the past.

As King writes:

“To England belongs the credit of conceiving the idea, and to America belongs the honor of perfecting the invention; and, as a result, the American steam fire-engine of to-day, in symmetry of parts, elegance of finish and efficiency of action stands unrivalled by any other in the world.”

John Ericsson, later of Monitor (Civil war ironclad) fame assisted Braithwaite with his design. King offers a view a Ericsson’s own 1841 design for a steam fire engine, a device whose plans were submitted to the Mechanics’ Institute of New York, where it won the prize for the best design. Whereas the “Novelty” would throw 200 to 250 gallons of water per minute to a height of 90 feet, Ericsson’s own was designed to throw 3,000 gallons a minute to a height of 105 feet.


But Ericsson’s machine was never built. Still, King offers a description of Ericsson’s drawings and reproduces a sectional view of the engine.

The combination of steam engine and pump demonstrated many forms, sizes, and capacities over the years. There were reciprocating piston pumps and rotary steam cylinders, vertical and horizontal boilers, 9,000 pound models and those weighing less than half that. First pulled by men, most were horse-drawn, a few were propelled by the steam engine onboard. A drawing of the pump used in the engine designed and built by the Knowles Steam Pump Works in 1875 shows just how complicated these machines could be.


William King’s Illustrated History will satisfy every curiosity about these macines. Here is a gallery of some of the other illustrations you will find in this book.

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So, let’s thank Mr. King for writing his book and allowing us to see the wonderful variation of invention.

. . . and, of course, if reality isn’t quite enough, there is always the look and feel of fiction:

The fire engine speeds on its way . . . from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton, first published in 1939

The fire engine speeds on its way . . . from Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton, first published in 1939

Come visit the steam fire engines of William T. King at Special Collections!

Thomas Hobbes's translations of Homer, 1684/1686

Title page prior to Hobbes’s translation of The Iliad, 1684 (bound with 1686 edition of The Odyssey)

Thomas Hobbes’s Homer

Thomas Hobbes’s first printed work, which appeared in 1629, was a translation from the Greek of History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. Hobbes was already forty years old at the time, and it was the first English translation of this work directly from the Greek text. An earlier English version had been produced from a French translation of a Latin translation. In 1676, Hobbes returned to the work, preparing a corrected and amended second edition, while a third edition was published in London in 1723, forty-four years after Hobbes’s death. As Robin Sowerby wrote in 1998 of his Thucydides:

If the evidence of library catalogues can count for anything, this translation of Hobbes’ is probably one of the very few translations of a classical prose writer, perhaps the only one, that has to some extent survived the test of time that in the judgment of Longinus and of Dr. Johnson can alone convey classic status upon a literary work. At any rate, his translation is in itself a fine work of prose that deserves to be better known.1

Writing for the University of Chicago Press for an edition of David Grene’s edition of Hobbes’s Thucydides, Joseph Cropsey says:

Thomas Hobbes’s translation of Thucydides brings together the magisterial prose of one of the greatest writers of the English language and the depth of mind and experience of one of the greatest writers of history in any language. . . .2

Hobbes’s translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, completed in 1676, three years before he died at the age of 91 have been received somewhat differently. Beginning with Alexander Pope, whose own translations of Homer appeared between 1715 and 1720, Hobbes received rough treatment. From Pope’s preface to his edition of the Iliad:

Hobbes has given us a correct Explanation of the Sense in general; but for Particulars and Circumstances he continually lopps them, and often omits the most beautiful. As for its being esteemed a close Translation, I doubt not many have been led into that Error by the Shortness of it, which proceeds not from his following the Original Line by Line, but from the Contractions above mentioned. He sometimes omits whole Similes and Sentences; and is now and then guilty of Mistakes, into which no Writer of his Learning could have fallen into, but thro’ Carelessness. His poetry . . . is too mean for Criticism.

G. R. Riddehough, writing in Phoenix in 1958 goes on to say of Pope’s comment, “Severe as this censure may be, most people who examine Hobbes’ translations for themselves will agree that Pope could with justice have said yet harsher things.” Riddehough takes the opportunity in his article to do exactly that. He concludes his article with:

Writers on Hobbes have very little to say in defence of these Homeric renderings. If they mention the translations at all, it is usually to claim indulgence for the work of a very old man who wrote them for his own amusement, and it is scarcely likely that in the history of translations they will ever be promoted to a higher place. What value they possess is as a sidelight on the tastes and the classical scholarship of one of the leading philosophers of the Seventeenth Century.3

Hobbes’s own stated opinion, which appears towards the end of his Reader’s introduction to The Odyssey, seems to anticipate, if not encourage and agree with the criticism to come:

But howsoever I defend Homer, I aim not thereby at any reflection upon the following Translation. Why then did I write it? Because I had nothing else to do. Why publish it? Because I thought it might take off my Adversaries from showing their folly upon my more serious writings and set them upon my Verses to show their wisdom.4

Title Page Hobbes's translation Homer's Odyssey 1686 Third edition

Title page prior to Hobbes’s translation of The Odyssey, Third edition, 1686

Might Hobbes’s adversaries have nearly as much do to with his translations of Homer as with the controversial views expressed in his “more serious” political and religious work? Hobbes had made enemies on many fronts, particularly after the publication of Leviathan in 1651 (Yes, that Leviathan. You remember, Hobbes’s declaration of the state of nature giving rise to “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”). But after the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660 his views, for example, on the role of religious doctrine in subverting political authority, continued to be problematic, if not dangerous. He was, for a time, concerned that he might be prosecuted for heresy. After 1662, with the passage of the Printing Act, which required that all books be licensed by church authorities prior to publication, Hobbes would, in fact, publish nothing in those fields in which his views had been seen as controversial: law, history, politics, or religion. Translations of classic works of Greek literature, however, may have provided an opening.

Thomas Hobbes: Translations of Homer; Edited by Eric Nelson

Thomas Hobbes: Translations of Homer; Edited by Eric Nelson

In 2008, Eric Nelson published the first modern critical edition of Hobbes’s translations of Homer. In his Introduction and notes, Nelson argues that these last major works of Hobbes are an attempt, via translation, to reinterpret Homer’s texts to support his own political philosophy, that “Hobbes’s Iliads and Odysses of Homer are a continuation of Leviathan by other means.”5 Nelson offers close readings of Hobbes’s translations to show how the very omissions, the rewriting of Homer for which Hobbes had been first castigated and then neglected over the centuries, can be understood as Hobbes’s attempt to use Homer as a cloak for the dissemination of his own views. Rather than a “sidelight on the tastes and the classical scholarship of one of the leading philosophers of the Seventeenth Century,” these translations may represent Hobbes’s views made public in the only way available to him at the time. The importance of the translations, as suggested by Dean Hammer in 2011, “rests in large part, then, on mistranslation.”6

As for the copy in Special Collections, it is the third edition of Hobbes’s translation of Homer’s Odysses (1686), which was bound with the 1684 printing of his translation of Homer’s Iliads. The former includes “a large Preface concerning the Vertues of an Heroick Poem; written by the Translator: also The Life of Homer.” This copy has since been rebound. Both were printed “for William Crook, at the Green Dragon without Temple Bar next, Devereux-Court.”

Inside Front cover showing bookplate from Sondley Reference Library

Inside Front cover showing bookplate from Sondley Reference Library

Inside page with inscription by F. A. Sondley, January 16, 1919

Inside page with inscription by F. A. Sondley, January 16, 1919

This particular copy belonged to Forster A. Sondley of Asheville, NC. An inscription consisting of his signature; the name of his home, Finis Viae (End of the Road); and the date, January 16, 1919 appears prior to the title page. Sondley was a lawyer, scholar, and bibliophile who accumulated a personal library of over 30,000 volumes. Upon his death in 1931, that library was bequeathed to the city of Asheville and formed the core of the Sondley Reference Library at Asheville’s Pack Library.


F. A. Sondley's personal library at home

F. A. Sondley’s personal library at home; courtesy, D. H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville, E.M. Ball Collection.

Sondley Research Library at Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville NC

Sondley Research Library at
Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville NC, ca. 1950s


1. Robin Sowerby, “Thomas Hobbes’s Translation of Thucydides,” Translation and Literature, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1998, p. 147.
2. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War: The Complete Thomas Hobbes Translation with Notes and a New Introduction by David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1959, 1989.
3. G. B. Riddehough “Thomas Hobbes’ Translations of Homer,” Phoenix, Vol. 12, No. 2, Summer, 1958, p. 62.
4. Thomas Hobbes, “To the Reader,” from, The Iliads and Odysses of Homer translated out of Greek into English by Tho. Hobbes of Malmsbury ; with a large Preface concerning the Vertues of an Heroick Poem; written by the translator, Third Edition, London, 1686.
5. Eric Nelson (ed.), Thomas Hobbes: Translations of Homer, (2 vols.), Oxford University Press, 2008, p. xxii.
6. Dean Hammer, “Translations of Homer, 2 vols, edited by Eric Nelson, Oxford University Press, 2008,” reviewed in Political Theory, 2011 39: 166.


GravitysRainbowThomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow was published
40 years ago today, 28 February 1973!

Who could possibly forget characters like Tyrone Slothrop, the Rocket Man, the Rocketenmensch himself, as he reacts in the most inopportune way to the passing of a V-2 overhead?  Or, as he infiltrates the postwar Potsdam conference to retrieve the hash that Pig Bodine had stashed there some time before. And doesn’t the octopus attack Katje Borgesius only to have Slothrop save her . . . with a crab! Major Duane Marvey, The White Visitation, Tantivy Mucker-Maffick and Teddy Bloat, the casino Hermann Goering, the Schwarzhommando, and the songs, the rhymes, the limricks. . . ! And Imipolex G, that new plastic, a component in the rocket, the V-2, an “aromatic heterocyclic polymer” developed by Laszlo Jamf for I. G. Farben, the folks who also brought you Zyklon B, the poison gas used in concentrations camps. The polymer has remarkable properties, because, you know, “They could decide now what properties they wanted a molecule to have, and then go ahead and build it.”

“A screaming comes across the sky.”

Is it too much? Forty years later? Too much acid? Too little restraint? No? Let Pynchon’s Proverbs for Paranoids swing you back to reality as you contemplate reading or rereading this mighty novel. Perhaps, I’ll even take it on again. Here they are:

Proverbs for Paranoids:
1. You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.
2. The innocence of the creatures is in inverse proportion to the immorality of the Master.
3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.
4. You hide, they seek.
5. Paranoids are not paranoid because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.

Special Collections has among its book collection the first edition of Gravity’s Rainbow, published by Viking Press, 28 February 1973; as well as the first British edition, published  by Jonathan Cape and the first Viking paperback, both  also published in 1973.

Before there was the Force (as in, May it Be With You), there was The Counterforce!


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