Irish born Mr William Sheridan Wall served as Curator of the Australian Museum in Sydney during the 1840s and 50s. He personally collected and preserved many native birds, but his greatest legacy to the institution was a creature from the deep.
On December 5 1849 the schooner Thistle came upon a dead sperm whale and towed it into Sydney Harbour. When Mr Wall heard the news, he suggested to the Museum Committee that it would be a wonderful addition to the collection. There were a couple of problems. One of course was the very size of the creature. The other was that it was summer, and putrification would be rapid.
At first Mr Williamson, the master of the vessel, said he wanted to retain the lower jaw (for the teeth) , but it was explained that a toothless whale would hinder scientific study of the specimen , not to mention disappointing the museum’s visitors. When an agreement was reached, all the blubber was removed to be boiled down and the carcass handed over. In a slim volume he published on the subject, Mr Wall wrote;
I proceeded to adopt proper measures for cleaning the bones. After considerable difficulty in finding persons willing to encounter so unpleasant, and as they imagined, so unhealthy, a task – I at last succeeded in engaging four Portuguese sailors. It was, however, then discovered that a portion of the tail, containing ten of the caudal vertebrae, and also a fin, were deficient.
The tail had inadvertently been sent off with the blubber, but Mr Wall located it on Hughes’ Wharf, in Sussex Street. He arrived in the nick of time, because it was so ‘ripe’ that local business people were about to dispose of it at sea.
With the fin presumed lost, the rest of the carcass was taken to Pinchgut Island (now Fort Denison). Lime was used to clean the bones and they were left to bleach for a couple of months.
There was more good news when two little boys found a ”strange fish’ washed up in Woolloomooloo Bay. It turned out to be the missing fin. The crew of a fishing vessel had nabbed it for the oil, but luckily the wind got up and they had to cut it loose.
Unfortunately there were still two pelvic bones missing. In the end, the rotting carcass of another whale came ashore at Port Hacking. Off went Mr Wall and despite almost being washed away, he ventured into the stinking mess. Eureka – he found his missing bits.
TRIBUTE TO WILLIAM WALL AND HIS WHALE
Mr George Strong, violinist and composer, was one of many Sydney residents who collected and donated items of natural history to the museum. He was particularly fascinated by Mr Wall’s sperm whale, (named Catodon Australis) so much so that he was inspired to compose a polka (then much in vogue), dedicated to the Curator.
The piece was performed at The Victoria Theatre, in Pitt Street (since burned down).
Would you like to hear it? CLICK HERE
WILLIAM WALL AND HIS WHALE OF AN IDEA – 1854
Mr Wall, in the course of his dissections of various specimens of the whale, determined that the powerful locomotion generated by its tail might be applied to boats.
Mr Wall proposes a simple piece of machinery, formed chiefly of elastic wire, similar in its shape and action to the spiral process of the whale, with artificial sinews of strong gut communicating with a tail of gutta-percha, the motion being primarily communicated by means of a small horizontal wheel. The inventor is of the opinion, by a very slight effort of muscular power there might be attained a degree of speed more rapid, beyond all comparison – Sydney Morning Herald.
Gutta-percha is a rigid, natural latex produced from the sap of a tree.
I would love to provide a diagram of William’s design, but regretfully a prototype was never constructed. His idea was ridiculed, but in his defense, he was 150 years ahead of his time. Here is a 2015 photo from a marine development company in Norway;
Well done Mr William Wall!
1854 was a very big year for our Curator. The Museum held its first public exhibition. One of the exhibits was gold found with the gizzards of a duck….haha! This is of particular interest to me, because my grandfather found some in one of his ducks fifty years later. Here is a link to a story on The Exhibition
FOR PART ONE OF MR WALL’S STORY CLICK HERE.
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