Edgar Allan Poe

January 19

Edgar Allan Poe (1809)

It was on this date, January 19, 1809, that American poet and short story writer Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of itinerant actors who died within two years. Edgar was reared in Richmond, Virginia, by merchant John Allan, from whom Poe took his middle name.

Poe showed great poetic skill from a young age. His first collection, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque — which included "The Fall of the House of Usher" — appeared in 1840, and by 1845 Poe became an established man of letters when his Raven and Other Poems was published. He did not dwell on his Agnosticism in his writings. Poe's biographer, G.E. Woodbery, says that "the only mention of his religion in his entire life is that the Bible was read to him when he was dying."*

Poe himself, in his prose-poem "Eureka," published the year before he died, says "... 'God,' ... stands for the possible attempt at an impossible conception."** He did not believe in life after death. Poe was found one day in Baltimore, unconscious in a gutter, and died on 7 October 1849.

* George Edward Woodberry, Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 2 vols., 1809, II, 345.
** Edgar Allan Poe, "Eureka- A Prose Poem" (dedicated to Alexander von Humboldt), 1848. You can read the full text at this link.

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Auguste Comte (1798)

It was also on this date, January 19, 1798, that the French founder of the philosophy of Positivism, Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte, was born in Montpellier. Auguste Comte was reared a Catholic, but gave that up to become a disciple of Saint-Simon. In 1824, when they had a falling out, he developed his own philosophical ideas. After recovering from a mental breakdown, Comte took a teaching position in mathematics and astronomy.

Positivism, as Comte developed the idea, denies metaphysics in favor of a reliance on sense experience as the source of human knowledge; it denies the existence of a personal God and puts humanity at the center of its concerns. Comte founded the science of sociology, and he provided the theory behind social reform. He had his detractors: Comte's Religion of Humanity, with himself at the head, caused T.H. Huxley to quip that his was "Catholicism minus Christianity."

Comte's views are summarized in A General View of Positivism (Discours sur l'Ensemble du positivisme, 1848). His ideas attracted some followers, but his descent into mysticism in later life caused him to be too lenient on church opposition to social reform. That mysticism, and his mental fragility, caused his friends to shy away from him at the end, so that when he died of cancer, on 5 September 1857, he was melancholy and alone.

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James Watt

James Watt (1736)

Finally, it was on this date, January 19, 1736, that Scottish inventor James Watt was born in Greenock, the son of a merchant. After some education in London, Watt made his reputation as an engineer in Glasgow. He radically improved the steam engine of his day and made such important contributions to industrialization, including coinage of the term "horsepower," that the Dictionary of National Biography says "his many and most valuable inventions must always place him among the leading benefactors of mankind."

Not only did his inventions make him a wealthy man, but Watt was otherwise an accomplished man. He sympathized with the French Revolution — he refused the offer of a baronetcy for his work — and knew Greek, Latin, French, German and Italian. He was friends with the freethinking French scientists Lavoisier and Berthollet. He died in Heathfield, England on 19 August 1819. Sixty-three years after his death, the unit of electrical power was called the Watt. Andrew Carnegie,* in his Life of James Watt (1905), shows that Watt was a Deist and never attended church.

* The full text of the 1905 Andrew Carnegie biography can be found at this link.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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