The shadow of the volcano

What do the bicycle, Marmite, Mormonism, and Frankenstein have in common? A volcano in Indonesia.

Mount Tambora
NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1816, popularly known as the Year without a Summer, had some strange and far-reaching effects on our modern world. The volcano Mount Tambora, located in modern Indonesia, erupted in 1815. It was one of the largest volcanic explosions in recorded history: the sounds of the explosion were heard more than two and a half thousand kilometres away, hundreds of cubic kilometres of ash and tephra were thrown into the air, and the mountain itself lost its top kilometre and a half. Yup, Mount Tambora went from 4,500 metres high to 2,851 metres high in a matter of hours. The giant crater pictured above is the result of that most momentous of explosions.

All that ejected material went up into the air and spread out across the world, dimming the sun and sending the planet into a period of significant cooling. The year after the explosion, 1816, average world temperatures had dropped half a degree and most of the Northern Hemisphere (including Europe, Asia, and North America) was plunged into a murky, famine-ridden season – now known as the Year Without a Summer.

The immediate impacts of this cold period were obvious: famine and death on a massive scale. But the long term impacts of the eruption of Mount Tambora stretched further, and into strange corners. Four creations – so disparate that you would never expect them to share anything – all had their genesis in the events of 1816: the bicycle, Marmite, Mormonism, and Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is perhaps the best known consequence of the Year Without a Summer. Shelley, her partner Percy Bysshe Shelley, Byron, and Byron’s personal physician John Polidori had all galavanted off to Switzerland for a holiday, a lot of opium, and a meeting of minds. The cold weather pushed them indoors and into murky ghost stories by the fireplace, and Byron suggested that they try to write their own. Frankenstein was one of the results of that context, as was Polidori’s The Vampyre (often considered the first modern vampire novel).

Famine in Germany killed off many of the country’s horses. The prolific inventor Karl Drais – who also invented the meat grinder and thus indirectly the hamburger – designed a method of transportation that did not involve horses: the Laufmaschine. Imagine a bicycle without pedals, pushed along by your feet, and you’ve got a good picture of this curious device. His idea was that it could replace horses for transporting moderately heavy goods over short distances. The Laufmaschine was the first device with two wheels one in front of the other; the modern bicycle evolved from this invention.

Also in Germany, a thirteen-year-old named Justus von Liebig witnessed the devastation of the volcanic winter and (it is thought) began thinking about what could be done about it. Liebig went on to be one of the founders of modern organic chemistry, particularly how it related to agriculture. He proposed nitrogen fertilisers as a way to increase food production, for example. One of his contributions to food science was a method of extracting and concentrating foods that he considered especially nutritious: Oxo cubes (concentrated meat juice!) and Marmite (concentrated extracts of brewers’ yeast!).

Finally, 1816 was also a cold year in Vermont, in the United States. The next year, in response to repeated crop failures in Vermont, the family of young Joseph Smith (at the time just twelve years old) left the state and set up in upstate New York. There, he became immersed in the Protestant religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening… and that is thought to have led directly to Smith’s creation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons.

It is quite incredible to me that these four distinct developments all tie back to a single volcanic eruption on the far side of the world.

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