# 27610

Maker unknown.

[PLATYPUS] Hand-painted magic lantern glass slide with depictions of exotic animals.

$350.00 AUD

  • Ask a question

[U.K. : s.n., circa 1860]. Panorama format (45 x 235 mm sight), set within the original timber mount (70 x 260 mm), with four hand-painted designs over an opaque black-painted background, each with a caption etched by hand: Ornithorhincus (sic); Flying Squirrel; Beaver; Otter; no maker’s label or imprint; the slide is in very good condition, the glass with no chips or cracks and barely a surface scratch to the opaque background or the four designs.

One of a series of a pedagogical magic lantern slides with natural history subjects designed for children, this slide dates to the mid-nineteenth century and was probably manufactured by the London firm of optical, mathematical and scientific instrument makers Carpenter and Westley. Similar examples are held in the Francis Collection of pre-cinematic apparatus in the Museum Victoria collection.

In 1797, Governor John Hunter collected the skin of a platypus and sent it to the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle-upon-Tyne with an accompanying sketch. George Shaw used these for the basis of what was, until recently, regarded as the first published scientific description of the mysterious animal (George Shaw, Platypus anatinus, in Natural Miscellany, June 1799). Many distinguished scientists, including Shaw, entertained doubts as to the genuineness of the specimen, instinctively believing that an animal with such paradoxical characteristics could well be a taxidermist’s hoax. Early in 1800, the German naturalist Blumenbach, having examined a specimen brought from New Holland by Joseph Banks, reflected the animal’s enigmatic nature in naming it Ornithorhynchus paradoxus, although to colonists in New South Wales it was variously known as the watermole, duckbill or duckmole.

However, a German children’s encyclopaedia by J.F. Bertuch (Bilderbuch für Kinder. Weimar, 1798-1830) held in the collection of the National Library of Australia, makes the subject of who was the first to classify the platypus a matter for conjecture. The third volume of Bertuch’s work, published in 1798, contains a description of the platypus which uses Blumenbach’s taxonomy – Ornithorhynchus paradoxus –  and which is accompanied by two illustrations of the enigmatic animal. This publication appeared in print the year prior to Shaw’s description, a fact which is strong evidence to support the case for Blumenbach having described and classified the platypus well before his own account was published. Curiously, although Blumenbach refers to Shaw’s published account of the echidna (Natural Miscellany no. 36), he makes no mention of Shaw’s description of the platypus (Natural Miscellany no. 10).

The question of the true taxonomy of the platypus was one which vexed scientists throughout most of the nineteenth century. In 1802 the anatomist Everard Home was the first to recognise that the platypus possessed a cloaca (for reproduction and secretion), an unknown characteristic in any mammal. The first hearsay evidence that the platypus laid eggs was provided by George Cayley of Sydney, who reported to an inquisitive Joseph Banks in 1803 and 1804 information that local Aborigines had given him concerning the animal’s habits. Yet, since the platypus was of the piliferous (hair bearing) class – not a reptile, fish or bird – the suggestion that it laid eggs was one which confounded scientists. By the 1830s, many scientists, including the distinguished British naturalist Richard Owen, were still antipathetic to the idea that the platypus laid eggs. However, even for scientists who accepted this as fact, there was still a further distinction in classification to be made: did the animal suckle its young, as a true mammal, or did its young hatch independently and without the need for maternal secretion for sustenance, like a reptile? It would not be until 1884 that the riddle of the animal’s mode of reproduction was finally solved, when William Caldwell, a Darwinian evolutionist, established that both the platypus and the echidna are teatless, egg laying mammals which suckle their young – the evolutionary link between reptiles and mammals.