Thank Jevons

As a practiced poster, I now find myself spinning inane puns for my headlines, like any good subbie. Be that as it may, I happened upon an interesting post by our Troppodillian friend and sometime colleague Rafe Champion over at Catallaxy on William Stanley Jevons. I have been meaning to post on him for a good while.

I had dinner at the ANU after Paul Frijters gave an honorary lecture last year and I was seated next to an English Economic methodologist/philosopher. She mentioned the Jevons exhibition at the Power House Museum. I managed to go to the exhibition quite a bit later, but was not disappointed.

For those who want to go, its just round the back of the locomotive and carriages you can see as you go in. It’s quite small – about ten windows.

As I said in the comment on Rafe’s post.

Jevons is a big fave of mine. . . . He was a very very remarkable man and we were lucky to have him for the few years he was here. He may have taken the first press photograph in Australia. Was the first to provide systematic analysis of the droughts and flooding rains that feature in the national psyche and which subsequently got called the El Nino effect. He studied clouds in Australia building strange apparatus to try to figure out why different classes of clouds were different, how they formed and so on.

Documented the social stratification of Sydney Cove a little over half a century after it got going. And later returned to England where he founded modern (neoclassical) economics and built a ‘logic machine’ which incorporates some of the logic that remains in computers today. Jevon’s machine is made of wood(!) and in the Powerhouse.

Jevons died at 47. This is often written up as “Jevons drowned while swimming”. However, on refleciton his death is more likely to have been associated with not swimming. Keynes showed his usual class as does Wikipedia by commenting that Jevons drowned “while bathing”.

I have a book proposal with a few chapters done, and it begins with Jevons looking over Sydney harbour in the 1850s. This is what he said.

Standing in many parts of Sydney, noting the bright sky above, the clear blue waters below, the varied form and slope of the land, the solid dry base of sandstone, the wide country which lies open before us for the free use of all, one is compelled to acknowledge how much Nature has done for us; how little we have done for ourselves.

Jevons’ musings recall one of the oldest themes of Australia’s history our luck and whether in our hands it becomes a blessing or a curse. A century after Jevons’ visit, Donald Horne’s ironic and iconic book The Lucky Country raised the same question. In fact the question went right back to the beginning of white settlement; back to 1788. The reading from the first sermon ever preached in Port Jackson was from Psalms 116 verse 12. It asked, “What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits toward me?”

You can see the monument to that sermon somewhere not far from Circular Quay. And you should go see Jevons at the Powerhouse – before the Poms take back the wooden logic machine which belongs to them – I think Oxford University.

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18 Responses to Thank Jevons

  1. Jason Soon says:

    Perhaps you should leave the punning to Homer Paxton, Nicholas. But a fascinating compendium of facts – I had no idea Jevons was such a polymath.

  2. Rafe Champion says:

    Yes, Jevons along with R G Collingwood deserve a revival of interest. If only I could raise the energy to get another edition of Revivalist on line. Among the subjects of The Revivalist series so far – Jacques Barzun, Yvor Winters, James McAuley, Liam Hudson, Karl and Charlotte Buhler, Rene Wellek, Peter Bauer, Ian Suttie.

  3. meika says:

    the first thing we should do in thanks is, “Do no harm.”

  4. Steve Edney says:

    “You can see the monument to that sermon somewhere not far from Circular Quay”

    The Richard Johnson monument is on the corner of Hunter and Bligh Streets.

  5. Homer Paxton says:

    A tenor says it was a soap opera!

    Was it Jevons that thought the business cycle was associated with changes in the planets?

  6. Gaby says:

    It must be Jevons week!

    A little tangentially, but Brian Weatherson has an interesting post on the future of philosophy and whether it will the trend of increasing specialization will continue on his blog, “Thoughts, Arguments and Rants” uses Jevons’s intellectual work to exemplify his argument as to how specialization in philosophy may continue in the future:

    Well worth a read.

    In fact, Weatherson’s blog is itself worth reading.

  7. Homer Paxton says:

    Thanks Nicholas,

    It has been a long time since I read that.

  8. James Farrell says:

    What moved me most in the Powerhouse exhibition were the photos Jevons took of the bush, which looked just the same 150 years ago. They brought it home to me that he really was in Australia, not just in some quaint ‘Colony of New South Wales’ one reads about in books.

  9. Yes, they were great pictures. There’s a hundred or so of them in the National Library. What he got done in 5 years was amazing not just in terms of his studies but just in terms of charging round the place meeting all and sundry (even if, like Charles Darwin, he was somewhat dismayed by how rough those Orstralians were.

  10. Tony.T says:

    Apparently Jevons name is pronounced Jee-vons. I heard it from his great nephew’s butcher’s offal supplier.

  11. Homer Paxton says:

    Jevons was not feeling well and went to his boss and said I keep on seeing sunspots.
    his boss asked if he had see a doctor?

    No just sunspots!

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