Mysterylights Group Message 0432

Subject: Phipson's Phosphorescence
From: "Sean B. Palmer" <sean@...>
Date: 22 Mar 2007 16:10

When I first started digging through the archives for Will-o'-the-wisp
information, one of the first pieces that I found was a letter by Dr.
T. L. Phipson to The Times. He mentioned "eight to ten pages" in a
book of his called Phosphorescence devoted to the wisp, and his letter
showed that he'd done a goodly amount of research on the subject. But
though I found out that his full name was Thomas Lamb Phipson, and
that the book had been published in the same year as his letter
(1862), I wasn't able to find the book in my library, and for some
bizarre reason I didn't give it precedent in my list of things to
track down.

So, I was quite pleased to find today that Google have digitised it,
and as is my wont I've turned it from bitmap into ascii by hand.
Here's my thousand word transcription:
- T. L. Phipson (1862), Phosphorescence, pp.63-9

Phipson starts by giving the common theory that ignes fatui are caused
by "phosphuretted hydrogen", but then interestingly adds a skeptical
note stating that nobody has actually been able to yet synthesize the
mechanism. In this manner he prefigures Dr. Allan A. Mills's
observations from 1980 and 2000. He then debunks the secondary theory
of luminous insects (later to rise again in the luminous owl theory of
the early 20th century), citing Derham's observations as proof
against; though he admits that it may account for some percentage of
the sightings.

He also mentions a sighting by Weissenborn who talks of a light that
travelled "half a mile in less than a second", being rather redolent
of the Hessdalen report of the early 1980s, where a light was tracked
at unbelievable speeds on radar.

Betwixt mentions of Blesson and Priestley, common figures in wisp
literature from the 19th century, he talks about the season wherein
the wisp is most likely to show: he thinks autumn, into November. He
notes that Priestley's informant saw it in December, however, and I
know that Allies saw it in mid-winter. The transcription I made
earlier today of Henry Duncan also mentions winter as being the time
for wisps. It might be a good idea to do a more comprehensive survey
about this, on the scant documentary evidence that we have (I already
made a start on this in the form of a characteristics table, which
some of you may have seen).

After mentions of Beccari and Shaw, he returns to an interesting
so-called artificial wisp that Priestly talks about; he says that it
followed the experimenter around, in contradistinction to the natural
wisp behaviour of receding upon approach.

Overall he thinks that the observed phenomena are down to two separate
causes: ignited streams of gas, and something to do with electrically
luminous mists. I think this is quite forward thinking for his time;
we can't really do much better with our theorising now. I'd say that a
small percentage of the sightings were down to misidentifications of
insects and so forth, but the majority of sightings do indeed seem to
settle into "natural lit gas" and "electrical" categories, with
varying levels of dynamic behaviour from the latter category, whereas
the former category (seen by, e.g., Blesson) are always fixed to the
ground. I personally think of these as the ignis fatuus minor and
ignis fatuus major, or Lesser Wisp and Great Wisp.

But again, this is dangerous. All we can say for sure is that the
mapping of observational names to characteristics to phenomena is as
yet very tentative, though we can at least start on the first part of
the mapping (names to characteristics) from the anecdotal documentary


Sean B. Palmer

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