By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today, we’re getting creative – as part of the CreateICG event. Check out the playlist at the end of this video to see more great videos on the theme of “CREATE”. And now, let’s take a closer look at the word “Create” itself.
The word create comes from the Latin verb creare, with more or less the same range of meanings. But if we go back further, we come to the Proto-Indo-European root *ker- which means “to grow”. So Latin creare actually comes from a suffixed form of the root with the sense of “to cause to grow”. We can see that sense of “to grow” in a different suffixed form which leads to the related Latin verb crescere. But it’s from these two ideas, the base sense of growing and the causative sense of creating that we can find an interesting insight into the act of creation more generally. Creation isn’t always a deliberate act, sometimes it’s a more organic process of growing, and can therefore involve the influence of one’s surroundings and build on what has come before. No one creates in a vacuum.
Well, except in many creation myths from different cultures around the world, which sometimes describe the creation of the cosmos from chaos, which originally meant “gap” or “void”, so creation out of nothingness. One story of creation is the Judeo-Christian biblical narrative (you know, the “let there be light” story), which was creatively retold in musical form in the 1799 oratorio The Creation composed by Joseph Haydn. The text of Haydn’s oratorio draws not only on the biblical account but also on the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton. Milton’s poem, which actually focuses mainly on the story of the fall of Adam and Eve and of the rebel angels led by Lucifer, was a very influential work, also in part inspiring the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Frankenstein is the story of the creation of life as well, how the scientist Victor Frankenstein fashions and brings to life a creature, which has since become an icon of gothic horror. Note that word ‘creature’ — it comes, of course, from ‘create’, and thus meant something created by God; here, Frankenstein tries to play God, but the thing he creates turns out to be a monster, giving us the common modern meaning of ‘creature’ as ‘monster’. Think ‘creature feature’. In the novel, the creature sees himself as a sort of Adam, but out of spite at being abandoned by his creator turns to evil and becomes, like the rebel angels in Milton’s poem, a sort of devil. Another inspiration for Mary Shelley in writing the novel was the Greek myth of Prometheus. According to one version Prometheus created the human race on the instructions of the chief god Zeus. However, he went against Zeus’s wishes in also giving to human beings the secret of fire, the metaphorical light of invention, and for that he was punished with continual torture, just like Lucifer is punished by being cast into hell in Paradise Lost. And Mary Shelley had one last source of inspiration for her story about the creation of life, some experiments that Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of evolutionary scientist Charles, made when investigating the theory of the spontaneous generation of life, though the exact nature of the experiments are a little unclear as she recalled it involving Darwin causing spontaneous movement in a piece of, believe it or not, vermicelli, so a sort of spaghetti monster. And that’s a little taste of how the lines of creative inspiration can work.
But turning from the taste of pasta to the taste of breakfast, that Latin verb crescere also gives us the word crescent, from the idea of the waxing or growing moon, and from there the word croissant, that crescent-shaped breakfast pastry. But even more breakfasty is another word we get from that same “growing” root, cereal, from the Roman goddess of agriculture Ceres. Cereal basically means grain, but of course the eating of cooked grains as a breakfast food (think porridge or oatmeal) goes back hundreds if not thousands of years. One of the first cold breakfast cereals as we know them today was cornflakes, invented by John Harvey Kellogg in 1894. Kellogg, who ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a kind of 19th century health spa, was a bit of an oddball, who in addition to having rather unsavoury views about eugenics and genital mutilation, also believed that a bland vegetarian diet would suppress the urge to masturbate, which he thought was just about the worst thing you could do and would lead to a myriad of health problems, not least of which was blindness. Kellogg was experimenting with a breakfast gruel made from a variety of grains, but accidentally allowed some to go hard. In an attempt to rescue the situation, he passed the muck through rollers and then toasted the resulting flakes, and voila, the cornflake was born, leading eventually to the multi-million dollar breakfast cereal industry. And as we know, what every breakfast cereal needs to catch the eyes of consumers is a mascot. The famous cornflake rooster was suggested to Kellogg by his Welsh friend, harpist Nansi Richards, as a pun on his name, since the Welsh word for rooster is ceiliog. Richards was a student of harpist John Thomas, who himself was admitted at the age of 14 into the Royal Academy of Music in London through the influence of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of poet Lord Byron, today celebrated as the creator of computer programming for her work with Charles Babbage on the first mechanical computer ever designed, the Analytical Engine. Lovelace was introduced to Babbage by her tutor, Mary Somerville, who was also a highly celebrated scientist, in fact arguably the very first “scientist”, as the word itself was first coined by William Whewell in his glowing review of Somerville’s book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, which was one of the best selling science books of the 19th century. Somerville was also one of the first two female members of the Royal Astronomical Society, being jointly inducted along with Caroline Herschel, sister of famed astronomer William Herschel, the discoverer of the planet Uranus. William Herschel was often pestered by visitors, including composer Joseph Haydn, who it turns out was a bit of an astronomy fanboy, and included a section in his oratorio The Creation on the creation of the planets.
But getting back to breakfast, the etymology of the word itself will prove instructive for our story of creation. You see breakfast, which is first recorded in the 15th century, literally means to break one’s fast, fast here in the sense of not eating overnight. The funny thing is, so does the earlier 13th century word dinner. The word dinner comes through French from the Latin elements dis- (basically a negative prefix) and ieiunus meaning “fasting or hungry”, so literally dinner means “to break one’s fast” or “breakfast”, the first meal of the day. And indeed in the middle ages, dinner really was the first big meal of the day, and was eaten around noon. So dinner meant breakfast, but was eaten at lunch, and now often refers to the last meal of the day. Confused yet? These shifting mealtimes have a number of causes including the working day, which originally followed the daylight hours, assuming you were a farmer working the fields, for instance. But with the shift to indoor factory work during the industrial revolution, often with artificial lighting, the major meal, dinner, would have a tendency to move later in the day after working hours, with a light lunch (meaning originally “lump”, so a small bit of handheld food one could eat quickly) in the middle of the day. Another factor influencing the mealtimes of the non-working class was the various social obligations of the 18th & 19th centuries. The afternoon was taken up with social calls one was expected to pay and repay, so again dinner had the tendency to slip later and later in the day to accommodate this. But perhaps the most interesting social activity of the leisured class that had an impact on mealtimes was the ever creative world of the theatre. You see in Shakespeare’s day, theatres were open air, like the famous Globe Theatre, and relied on the natural lighting of the sun. But later on as the theatre moved indoors with artificial lighting, theatre hours were no longer fixed. We can see this also reflected in the word matinee, which we now think of as an afternoon performance. Etymologically speaking matinee, from French matin meaning “morning”, originally referred to a morning musical performance, from the French phrase matinee musicale. So for instance you might go to see a performance of Haydn’s Creation in the morning as a matinee. But as the main performance slipped later and later, so too did the matinee, giving us the afternoon performance we think of now. Once again, all thanks to artificial lighting.
The history of artificial lighting of course goes back a long way with such technologies as oil lamps, burning fuels like olive oil in ancient Greece and Rome, and candles made from animal fats in the medieval period, but there were no real advances in artificial lighting for thousands of years. In the theatres of the 17th century, stages were lit with large chandeliers, which had the disadvantage of dripping hot grease on theatregoers and actors alike. The first creative breakthrough came with the advent of footlights, putting the candles at the front of the stage with reflectors in front of them to cast the light back on the actors and shield the direct light from the audience. To this day the word “footlights” still means the theatre even though they’re no longer used. The famed 18th century actor and theatre manager David Garrick is sometimes claimed to have imported the new lighting techniques into England from France, and though they may predate him, Garrick certainly was responsible for dispensing with the chandeliers at his Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and adopting new stage lighting techniques, including lighting from the wings.
The next technological breakthrough came with the invention of a new type of oil lamp called the Argand lamp patented by its inventor Aimé Argand in 1780, which featured a hollow circular wick and glass chimney, allowing for a much brighter light with less smoke (though requiring a considerable amount of oil), and these were quickly adopted by theatres such as Drury Lane (though after Garrick’s time).
Another big innovation was gas lighting, pioneered by William Murdoch in 1792, who produced combustible gas by heating up coal and designed a lamp to burn it in. The process of producing the coal gas was actually originally discovered by accident by one Archibald Cochrane who was trying to produce tar to preserve the wooden hulls of ships, and in passing mentioned the flammable gas to James Watt, inventor of the steam engine. As for Murdoch, he claimed the idea as his own and brought it to Matthew Boulton, industrial revolution bigwig and partner of James Watt (big coincidence), at whose firm Murdoch worked, and soon Murdoch’s coal gas lamp was lighting the Boulton and Watt Soho factory. Boulton, by the way was a good friend of Erasmus Darwin (remember him). In any case, these new gas lights were a boon to the industrial revolution, allowing for better factory lighting, and also had knock on social effects such night classes and popular science lectures (which further bolstered creativity and innovation) and evening social functions, like the theatre and musical concerts. Drury Lane and other theatres were quick to adopt the new gas lights by the early 19th century. It was around this time, by the way, that Haydn’s Creation was first performed in London, and coincidentally enough, Thomas Linley, who was in charge of oratorios at Drury Lane, may have had a hand in writing the first English text of Haydn’s great work. Small world.
But getting back to artificial lighting innovations, next up was limelight, produced by using an oxyhydrogen flame to superheat quicklime (in other words calcium oxide) which then incandesces producing a tremendously bright light. The effect was originally discovered in the 1820s by a surgeon and chemist by the name of Goldsworthy Gurney, but was put into practise in a viable lamp by Scottish civil engineer Thomas Drummond, who, after hearing about the effect in a public lecture by the famous scientist Michael Faraday, invented his lamp initially to aid in the surveying work he did as a civil engineer. But it wasn’t long before the lighting technology was adopted in the theatre world (by around the middle of the 19th century), especially for spotlights, and to this day we still have the expression “in the limelight”, though nowadays of course spotlights are all electric.
The first kind of viable electric light invented was the carbon arc light, which essentially works by causing an electric current to jump between two pieces of carbon, which very slowly combust producing a brilliant light. As it turns out the arc light was invented in 1809 by Humphry Davy, sometime employer of Michael Faraday. But of course the type of electric light we most likely think of today is the lightbulb “invented” by Thomas Edison. I say “invented”, but it was really perfected by him in 1879, as there were numerous other creators of versions of the lightbulb before Edison. But through trial and error with various materials for the filament, Edison and his team made the technology viable. And again this is very appropriate for understanding how the creative process works, often through accidental discovery and never working in a vacuum, unless you’re putting a filament in a vacuum to make a light bulb! And this is appropriate too given that the lightbulb has become the standard iconic representation of creative inspiration. What’s more this story has come just about full circle, as Edison happened to be a patient of John Harvey Kellogg—though there’s no word on whether or not he ate the cornflakes. Let there be light!
As I mentioned at the beginning, this video was part of the CreateICG event, a week-long celebration of online creation, and of the Internet Creators Guild, a non-profit organisation that supports and connects online creators. To find other takes on the theme of “Create”, check out the playlist or search the hashtag #CreateICG on your social media of choice.
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