The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 46 of 188

I must say something of his manner of working: one characteristic of it was his respect for time; he never forgot how precious it was. This was shown, for instance, in the way in which he tried to curtail his holidays; also, and more clearly, with respect to shorter periods. He would often say, that saving the minutes was the way to get work done; he showed his love of saving the minutes in the difference he felt between a quarter of an hour and ten minutes’ work; he never wasted a few spare minutes from thinking that it was not worth while to set to work. I was often struck by his way of working up to the very limit of his strength, so that he suddenly stopped in dictating, with the words, “I believe I mustn’t do any more.” The same eager desire not to lose time was seen in his quick movements when at work. I particularly remember noticing this when he was making an experiment on the roots of beans, which required some care in manipulation; fastening the little bits of card upon the roots was done carefully and necessarily slowly, but the intermediate movements were all quick; taking a fresh bean, seeing that the root was healthy, impaling it on a pin, fixing it on a cork, and seeing that it was vertical, etc; all these processes were performed with a kind of restrained eagerness. He always gave one the impression of working with pleasure, and not with any drag. I have an image, too, of him as he recorded the result of some experiment, looking eagerly at each root, etc., and then writing with equal eagerness. I remember the quick movement of his head up and down as he looked from the object to the notes.

He saved a great deal of time through not having to do things twice. Although he would patiently go on repeating experiments where there was any good to be gained, he could not endure having to repeat an experiment which ought, if complete care had been taken, to have succeeded the first time– and this gave him a continual anxiety that the experiment should not be wasted; he felt the experiment to be sacred, however slight a one it was. He wished to learn as much as possible from an experiment, so that he did not confine himself to observing the single point to which the experiment was directed, and his power of seeing a number of other things was wonderful. I do not think he cared for preliminary or rough observation intended to serve as guides and to be repeated. Any experiment done was to be of some use, and in this connection I remember how strongly he urged the necessity of keeping the notes of experiments which failed, and to this rule he always adhered.

In the literary part of his work he had the same horror of losing time, and the same zeal in what he was doing at the moment, and this made him careful not to be obliged unnecessarily to read anything a second time.

His natural tendency was to use simple methods and few instruments. The use of the compound microscope has much increased since his youth, and this at the expense of the simple one. It strikes us nowadays as extraordinary that he should have had no compound microscope when he went his Beagle voyage; but in this he followed the advice of Robt. Brown, who was an authority in such matters. He always had a great liking for the simple microscope, and maintained that nowadays it was too much neglected, and that one ought always to see as much as possible with the simple before taking to the compound microscope. In one of his letters he speaks on this point, and remarks that he always suspects the work of a man who never uses the simple microscope.

His dissecting table was a thick board, let into a window of the study; it was lower than an ordinary table, so that he could not have worked at it standing; but this, from wishing to save his strength, he would not have done in any case. He sat at his dissecting-table on a curious low stool which had belonged to his father, with a seat revolving on a vertical spindle, and mounted on large castors, so that he could turn easily from side to side. His ordinary tools, etc., were lying about on the table, but besides these a number of odds and ends were kept in a round table full of radiating drawers, and turning on a vertical axis, which stood close by his left side, as he sat at his microscope-table. The drawers were labelled, “best tools,” “rough tools,” “specimens,” “preparations for specimens,” etc. The most marked peculiarity of the contents of these drawers was the care with which little scraps and almost useless things were preserved; he held the well-known belief, that if you threw a thing away you were sure to want it directly–and so things accumulated.

If any one had looked at his tools, etc., lying on the table, he would have been struck by an air of simpleness, make-shift, and oddness.

At his right hand were shelves, with a number of other odds and ends, glasses, saucers, tin biscuit boxes for germinating seeds, zinc labels, saucers full of sand, etc., etc. Considering how tidy and methodical he was in essential things, it is curious that he bore with so many make-shifts: for instance, instead of having a box made of a desired shape, and stained black inside, he would hunt up something like what he wanted and get it darkened inside with shoe-blacking; he did not care to have glass covers made for tumblers in which he germinated seeds, but used broken bits of irregular shape, with perhaps a narrow angle sticking uselessly out on one side. But so much of his experimenting was of a simple kind, that he had no need for any elaboration, and I think his habit in this respect was in great measure due to his desire to husband his strength, and not waste it on inessential things.

His way of marking objects may here be mentioned. If he had a number of things to distinguish, such as leaves, flowers, etc., he tied threads of different colours round them. In particular he used this method when he had only two classes of objects to distinguish; thus in the case of crossed and self-fertilised flowers, one set would be marked with black and one with white thread, tied round the stalk of the flower. I remember well the look of two sets of capsules, gathered and waiting to be weighed, counted, etc., with pieces of black and of white thread to distinguish the trays in which they lay. When he had to compare two sets of seedlings, sowed in the same pot, he separated them by a partition of zinc-plate; and the zinc label, which gave the necessary details about the experiment, was always placed on a certain side, so that it became instinctive with him to know without reading the label which were the “crossed” and which were the “self-fertilised.”

His love of each particular experiment, and his eager zeal not to lose the fruit of it, came out markedly in these crossing experiments–in the elaborate care he took not to make any confusion in putting capsules into wrong trays, etc., etc. I can recall his appearance as he counted seeds under the simple microscope with an alertness not usually characterising such mechanical work as counting. I think he personified each seed as a small demon trying to elude him by getting into the wrong heap, or jumping away altogether; and this gave to the work the excitement of a game. He had great faith in instruments, and I do not think it naturally occurred to him to doubt the accuracy of a scale or measuring glass, etc. He was astonished when we found that one of his micrometers differed from the other. He did not require any great accuracy in most of his measurements, and had not good scales; he had an old three-foot rule, which was the common property of the household, and was constantly being borrowed, because it was the only one which was certain to be in its place–unless, indeed, the last borrower had forgotten to put it back. For measuring the height of plants he had a seven-foot deal rod, graduated by the village carpenter. Latterly he took to using paper scales graduated to millimeters. For small objects he used a pair of compasses and an ivory protractor. It was characteristic of him that he took scrupulous pains in making measurements with his somewhat rough scales. A trifling example of his faith in authority is that he took his “inch in terms of millimeters” from an old book, in which it turned out to be inaccurately given. He had a chemical balance which dated from the days when he worked at chemistry with his brother Erasmus. Measurements of capacity were made with an apothecary’s measuring glass: I remember well its rough look and bad graduation. With this, too, I remember the great care he took in getting the fluid-line on to the graduation. I do not mean by this account of his instruments that any of his experiments suffered from want of accuracy in measurement, I give them as examples of his simple methods and faith in others–faith at least in instrument-makers, whose whole trade was a mystery to him.

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