Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A First That Didn't Last

Johannes Kelpius, the "maddest of good men"

All that's left -- the "cave"

You dodged a bullet:  yesterday I spent about 45 minutes writing a way-too-long entry which went off, in detail, in about four different directions.  Some kind of mistake made by an inaccurate right pinky finger erased it all, though, and it didn't go to "Drafts" as usual.  Probably for the best.

What I was thinking about was prompted by coming across an essay, with copious pictures, about Pennsylvanian Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion concept automobile.  Back in my museum days, I'd noticed that people responded to exhibits about themselves -- their bodies or their local environment.  I had seen the effect on visitors of an infrared camera in the Baltimore science museum:  people couldn't get enough of seeing which areas of themselves were "hotter" than others. 

No possibility of the funds being available for such a camera and a big-screen projection system (this was way before LCD flatscreens, of course), I decided to make "Pennsylvania Science" a theme for an ongoing exhibition,  beginning with five units and being further developed over time.  I thought this would educate and engage visitors of all ages and sort of brand our museum as a regional museum with a unifying idea (other than anything we could cram in there, largely copied from others).

The only representation of Mr. Fuller's appealing oddness that ended up being made was a paper geodesic dome exhibit in which one could cut out, assemble and find how well it supported weight (and thus get a free take-home:  the children liked that for 15 seconds before they got bored with it).  I had rejected the idea of making a Dymaxion model which one could get into due to lack of good information.  And now I run across this article which provided all I would have needed.  That would have been a hit, and a good candidate for a newspaper publicity article and picture.  But without the internet back then, I was limited by how much time I could give to rooting out information from books or other static media, and how lucky I was in finding such things at all.

Another exhibit was a pretty large interactive light-up panel of Pennsylvania science-related facts and firsts.  Once again, what a dream it would have been to have the internet available for the research to dig up the about 100 of these I needed.  I would have had to stick with "firsts" that were relevant, and I did finally find enough of those thanks to publications by the State Museum and their fine library.   I keep running into so many others online, and it's a little frustrating knowing how much easier all this would be now.  But it's fun discovering fun facts and "firsts" just for their entainment value now. 

So, would you have thought the first communal living experiment took place in America before 1700, and in Philadelphia? 

German mystic, scholar, Pietist and pretty brave dude Johannes Kelpius arrived in that city in 1694 with 40 followers to build a site near the confluence of Wissahickon Creek and the Schuylkill River (now in a park, then dark wilderness) to await the return of Jesus in a pristine place away from civilization -- and organized religion.  He had inherited this all-male group (called "The Society of the Woman in the Wildnerness" by others due to an obscure Bible reference) from a J. Zimmerman, and a generous grant of money and land from one of William Penn's sympathetic agents in the Netherlands.  It was not intended to be a commune with a future, however, as they (1) expected to raptured up soon and (2) it was limited to 40 maximum due to that being the number of days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai and Jesus spent in the desert, as well as the site being at 40 degrees latitude.  

When the event did not come to pass, this group employed their considerable education and talent in writing music, poetry, hymns, as well as collecting botanicals and pursuing astronomy.  In reaching out to educate and assist the small community of colonists (not too) nearby, and in establishing a school, gardens and orchards, they resembled a developing monastic order despite their intention, originally, of not hanging around very long.  They had quite a good reputation locally, despite their otherworldliness, and would trade, share or teach readily but not for profit. 

The year 1700 looked auspicious for a big cosmic event (like 2000 or 2012 more recently) and the group kept watch from their observatory for the physical descent of the Messiah from heaven.  I guess it's not a spoiler to reveal nothing much happened, and as Kelpius' health declined in the next few years, members began leaving to pursue semi-professional careers in the community outside, which was growing quickly and getting a lot closer to their woodsy hideout.

Go down Hermit Lane today, and all that is left of the Society's settlement is the "cave," which was actually a spring house also used for silent meditation. 

Wouldn't history be a little duller without people like Fuller and Kelpius inventing three-wheeled torpedo-shaped automobiles or mystic communes in the woods?


  1. You need to make the type larger for us old guys.

  2. Aaargh! That was Blogspot acting up again. I could not get out of the picture caption mode no matter how many times I tried. Will caption AFTER writing text from now on.