Banvard's Folly
Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck

A book by Paul Collins

The irony of it is that I actually found this book in the bargain bin of the bookshop. It is ironic because this is a book about discarded genius.

Paul Collins tells the tale of thirteen individuals who rose to fame and notoriety in their time, but have been forgotten by the selective process of history.

There is John Banvard, who in the 1850s became the richest and most famous artist of his time. He painted moving panoramas in huge stretches of canvas, including his most famous "three mile painting" of the banks of the Mississippi river. The panorama, stretched between rollers, would slowly roll by in front of a paying audience over a period of hours. His works were the first moving pictures of their kind, predating film by several years. Yet he died penniless and forgotten.

Then there is the story of Jean Francois Sudre, who dedicated most of his adult life to the development of a universal language made entirely of musical notes, called Solresol. In Solresol, words were composed of a number of syllables. Each syllable could be spoken as a musical note. For example, the word Solresol was made up of the notes sol (E), re (D), and sol (E) played in succession. This meant "language". Makes sense. Actually, a lot about this musical language made a lot of sense. For example, reversing the order of a word also reversed its meaning: misol (good) and solmi (evil). Sudre worked hard at developing it, and trying to convince anyone who would listen of how good it would be if people around the world could talk musically to one another. He even showed that it could be easily learnt, and his students could have fluent conversations through their instruments. Many people liked the idea, and he gained some notoriety, but in the end no one wanted to fund Sudre's work - it had no commercial or military applications. Only a handful of people today know about his work.

I found all the other stories to be equally compelling. The rise and fall of the great pneumatic underground trains of Alfred E. Beach was another of my favorites. It seems that, for a stroke of bad luck, we could today travel from A to B being propelled along sealed underground tunnels in bullet-like carriages, powered only by a difference in air pressure.

This book is lovingly and painstakingly well researched, and at the same time clearly written and utterly engaging. Each story is rich in context. At the cost of a small amount of artistic license, Paul Collins provides a rich backdrop to the life of these thirteen characters. But most importantly, the book leads by example in showing that there is another way to look at and write about history. Maybe it is important to remember the failures as well as the successes, and perhaps history can be about more than dates and facts.

Collins, Paul. "Banvard's Folly. Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck" Picador USA, 2001. ISBN 0 330 48688 8