Earlier this year ago I shared the secrets of a machine for putting the bloom back onto cucumber, grapes and other fruits. It was one of the products of the fertile imagination of Robert Gauen, an early 19th Southampton nurseryman.
To catch up on that post see:
In this post I’m going to take a brief look at two more of Gauen’s inventions, and apologies in advance that there aren’t as many colourful images as usual.
So…any guesses as to what this strange looking device this might be?
Read on to find out more….
Robert Gauen obviously impressed John Claudius Loudon the great early 19thc garden writer [amongst other things]. In the September 1827 issue of The Gardener’s Magazine Loudon informed his readers that “Mr Gauen, the author of the plan for blooming fruit, is about to bring forward a very ingenious invention” that had been well trialled, and would be available for purchase that November.
Take a careful look at the illustration above….
If I tell you that Gauen was attempting to use solar power perhaps you will be able to work out what the device was intended to do and how it was supposed to work.
But where on earth did a Hampshire nurseryman get the idea from in the first place?
Although the contraption was almost certainly of Gauen’s own devising, the basic principles behind it were quite well known from the 1750s onwards. However, attempts from then on to make practical use of them had been unsuccessful.
In 1799 for example Dr James Anderson in his [sadly unillustrated] Recreations in Agriculture wrote of how more of the heat from the sun could be used to prevent “an immense source of waste of that benign element”. He argued that “all that is necessary is to confine the air that is once heated by the sun, and so to distributed as to make it produce a genial influence through every part of the house, while we still retain the power of regulating it at pleasure.” Although Anderson was talking mainly about maximising the efficiency of the sun’s heat on hot-walls and in hot-houses the principle was the same in Gauen’s contrivance, and indeed for much of Loudon’s own work on improving the construction of greenhouses [for more on Loudon & greenhouses see post ] Anderson then went on to write an entire book on the subject: A Description of a Patent Hot-House which operates chiefly by the heat of the sun, in 1803. Anderson’s books can be found at :
Loudon’s own book on greenhouse technology also contains a run-down of the various late 18thc patents and ideas for using steam, to heat rooms and particularly greenhouses, but these were almost all based on stoves rather than solar heat. It can be found at:
What Gauen was proposing was novel. It was applying the same principles but to entirely outdoor use. The use of air warmed by the sun had been suggested by Anderson for heating walls, but Gauen took a further step and applied it to free standing fruit trees where there was no wall to convey or retain the heat. His article in the Gardeners’ Magazine was entitled Concentration of the Sun’s Rays for the Purpose of Accelerating Vegetation and the Maturation of Fruits and this is how it worked:
“The effect is produced by concentrating the sun’s rays by means of lenses (labelled a), which may be self-adjusted by watch machinery, on a hollow cast-iron ball ( labelled b), with an opening at the lower extremity (labelled c), to admit the air to be heated in the ball, and another on the upper surface (labelled d), to allow the heated air to pass off through iron tubes, which it heats in its passage.”
“These tubes (labelled e and f) are distributed at pleasure among the trees or plants on which it is intended to operate. In the case of a wall tree (as in the figure 31), the arrangement would be very simple, and consist of one main tube ( labelled e), with a number of branch tubes (labelled f) of different lengths, so as to distribute that the air over the surface of the tree and wall.”
Loudon then adds his editorial comment:
James Kewley was another inventor, this time from the Isle of Man, and his ‘machine’ was a new form of thermometer! In fact he devised two versions of it – Kewley’s alarum- thermometer and Kewley’s regulating thermometer or automaton gardener. These were patented in 1816, but as you can probably tell from the illustration below, its too complicated here to go into the way they worked
but if you’re interested in the minutiae then either check Kewley’s own account in his patent or Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Gardening where they are explained in great detail!
Loudon editorial comment ended by heaping more praise on Gauen and his enterprise…
His words seem to have inspired Gauen to extend the principle of solar heating even further. Take a look at this ingenious device. Any idea what it might be?
It was published to illustrate another article just a couple of months later : Notice of a Revolving Frame for Forcing, and the Culture of Exotics. Loudon appears to be a little more sceptical of this device and wrote that “Mr Gauen has sent us little more than drawings of this invention, by which it appears to be an oblong box of wood or metal, the cover of glass like a cucumber frame, and the whole balanced on, and revolving by means of, iron balls placed in a circular group (a). The elevation (b) and section (c) of such a frame may be easily conceived.”
But, believe it or not, Gauen was not the only person working on such a device. Mr Alexander Bisset, gardener to Robert Smith Esq.,of Methven Castle, Perthshire got in touch when he saw Loudon’s coverage of Gauen’s invention.
Bisset seems to have been another highly ingenious gardener. In the same year he had won a commendation from the Caledonian Horticultural Society for his skill in keeping fruit,
Then there was his paper on raising pineapples without heat, while Loudon also reported his medal-winning work on using turf as a means of forcing early crops. Again its too long and complex to go into his ideas at great length now, but if you want to know more follow the link under the next image
I’ve been unable to trace much more about Mr Bisset or his inventions any further, so please get in touch if you know anything else about him.
The potential applications of all these devices clearly interested Loudon greatly, and he called for a large number of experiments to be carried out to determine their effectiveness. Since his particular interest was in the construction and running of hothouses he was interested in the various ways they could be heated. These included using gas to heat water in spiral ‘kettles’, but he also suggests that water could be heated by the concentration of the sun’s rays.
Loudon was, as always, nothing less than ambitious since he “could see no difficulty the thing but the expense” and so ” it would be an easy matter, not only to heat hothouses, but to raise the temperature of an entire garden, or even an entire country”
And how was this miracle to be achieved? Being Loudon the answer was simple. It was merely necessary to “sink wells or cisterns, at regular distances, all over the garden or country, and place over each concentrating apparatus so contrived as to operate upon the ball ( a). This ball being connected with a plate (b), the change of temperature of the water in the ball would cause the water to ascend in successive portions, and thus the pipe without like a siphon, and draw the water up from the bottom of the well water tank, to be heated in the ball and return it to the top of the well water tank, there to give out its heat to the earth above.”
But this was nothing…”If, instead of a series of wells in a garden, we imagined the whole garden to be supported over one large tank of water, it is easy to conceive that the temperature of the surface soil be so much increased as not to be frozen even in winter, and consequently the climate of the garden,both in winter and summer, will be as much improved as far as heat is concerned.”
Loudon foresaw the consequences of this – some form of global warming!
And so he goes on … and on … and on at some length. If you want to know more about how houses in London could do away with their fireplaces, or how streetlights or shop lighting could be used to heat the water of public and private baths, or how even large churches could be warmed for Sunday services you’d better read the full article at…
Loudon concludes that the only question concerns ” the expense of the concentrators, and the machinery requisite to keep them continually at the proper angle to the sun’s rays. We wish some person of leisure, ingenuity, and a little spare money, would communicate with Mr Gauen on this subject.”
So why is the name Robert Gauen unknown to modern horticulture? Why did his devices, ingenious as they clearly were, not sweep all the horticultural awards and revolutionise food production. Probably for much the same reason the machine for blooming cucumbers did not take off. They were incredibly complex, labour-intensive things to set up, required constant maintenance and probably didn’t work very well at all in the first place! I looked almost in vain for other mentions of Robert Gauen in Loudon’s work but as far as I can see news of him disappears almost without a trace from the pages of the horticultural press.
A few articles about his cucumber blooming machine appear in other publications – plagiarized of course from Loudon. The Friend, an American religious journal picked it up almost immediately in 1827 in a surprisingly amusing piece. James Rennie’s The Magazine of Botany & Gardening, British and Foreign carried a report as late as 1834, and The Farmer’s Magazine another in 1835. These can be found in full at:
However, the main reason Robert Gauen almost disappears from the scene is probably quite simple.
In 1832 he went bust, and I can only suppose that it was because he spent money trying to perfect his inventions which was not recouped from any sales. So it looks very much as if Loudon’s pleas for someone with spare cash to invest in Gauen’s experiments fell on deaf ears.
Gauen may have been penniless but he did not give up on trying to promote his inventions. In 1836 he could be found lecturing about them to the Southampton Mechanics Institute, and then the following year a note appeared in The Gardener’s Magazine, with Loudon reporting that ” A Treatise on the Concentration and Reflection of the Sun’s Rays, as applied to Horticulture and Agriculture, by Mr Robert Gauen, is in the press, and will shortly be published by subscription.”
Another announcement in 1838 repeats this and adds ” Mr Gauen, our readers will recollect, is the author of an interesting article on this subject in volume 3, page 101.”
I cannot find any trace of this actually being printed so it looks as if he didn’t raise enough subscription money to proceed….so looks as if it was a sad end to a sad story and that Gauen’s invention disappeared without trace, almost like Gauen himelf.
Any further information about Robert Gauen gratefully received.
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