Interesting… but what is it? Hair and technology

Whether styled for shock value or purposeful understatement, the one thing you can generally be confident about with hair is that you know what it is, and what to do with it (well most of the time). Not so with these records. In fact, if I am honest, I am still mentally grappling with the intended use of at least one of the curious innovations featured below.

Up first is this intriguing image plucked from a series of entry forms registering copyright of photographs, images, title pages and the like at Stationers’ Hall.

COPY 1/514/567 Photo-micrograph of a transverse section of human hair

COPY 1/514/567

Before I spoil the surprise, have another look and take your best guess at what it might be. If your initial response was ‘a fossil’ or ‘a sperm cell’, you are way off, but in good company as these were some of the suggestions posited by my nearest and dearest. The picture is actually a photo-micrograph of a transverse section of human hair, registered in 1907 by Jordan Roche-Lynch Junior (COPY 1/514/567). A photo-micrograph is a photographic image taken through a microscope resulting in a much magnified image of its subject. A quick Google search reveals that photomicrography is still very much alive and kicking, with a number of competitions for the most eye-catching image currently populating the world wide web.

It is unclear, but seems probable, that the Jordan Roche Lynch who registered the above image shares a connection with physician Dr. Jordan Roche Lynch, whose death from typhus fever in 1847 claimed significant media column inches at the time and has also been written about retrospectively within the medical community. Dr Roche-Lynch was one of a number of sanitary reformers campaigning for hygiene improvements, and provided treatment for those at the lower end of the social strata whose living conditions put them at greater risk of contracting life threatening diseases such as the fever which brought about the doctor’s demise (HO 45/4364). Any evidence which supports, or throws into question, the connection I have made between the good doctor and his photo-micrograph producing namesake would be most welcome.

Going back a little further in time, the first question about the following ill-conceived invention would be ‘what is it?’- if it wasn’t for its title and caption information (BT 45/24/4659) . Nevertheless, despite a comprehensive description of the machine, I for one am still left wondering how on earth to use it?

A portable rotary hair brushing machine, BT 45/24/4659

A portable rotary hair brushing machine, BT 45/24/4659

According to Mr Beckett and Mr Griffin (yes, not one but two great minds were involved in its genesis) ‘by this machine, a ready method is obtained whereby a rotary brush can be applied for the purpose of hair brushing or any other purpose to which such a brush may be applied e.g. flesh or clothes brushing’. Now, I don’t know about you, but not only am I struggling to see the need for such a machine, but I am also less than enthused by the prospect of applying such a contraption to my head – never mind my flesh! Perhaps I simply don’t own enough follicular real-estate to appreciate the need for automated brushing. Maybe, if she were still around to comment, Mrs Alice Gertrude Dawson might offer a different view?

COPY 1/525/95  Photograph of Miss Alice Gertrude Dawson of Grays, back view on parapet showing hair that reaches to heels.

Photograph of Miss Alice Gertrude Dawson of Grays, back view on parapet showing hair that reaches to heels, COPY 1/525/95

Quite a head of hair wouldn’t you agree? Perhaps enough to validate the intended use of Beckett and Griffin’s machine after all.  Alas, if only they had co-existed things might have been very different.

Unlike the portable rotary hair brushing machine, this week’s last item required little validation when it surfaced in 1989 – the law of the land provided its raison d’etre (HO 377/260). Struggling to think of a law permitting the use of laser guns against extra-terrestrials? What if I told you that the item in question is a ‘hair sniffer’.

An assessment of an aid to the detection of cannabis – the hair sniffer, HO 377/260

The hair sniffer, HO 377/260

An assessment of an aid to the detection of cannabis – The Hair Sniffer, HO 377/260

The hair sniffer, HO 377/260

Although it took me some time to comprehend, the ‘hair sniffer’ is not intended for the sniffing of human hair, but rather was designed as a weapon in the fight against cannabis; ‘sniffing’ the tiny hairs present on cannabis plants. In the 1980s, when this machine was designed, the cultivation, transportation and use of Cannabis Sativa was illegal, and remains so today. This has been the case since the Dangerous Drugs Act came into force in 1928 (MEPO 3/432). We hold a number of records on the subject of cannabis use both in the former colonies (CO 882/5/20) and here in the UK (MEPO 3/1059). Be warned though, its myriad other names (Indian hemp, bhang and ganja – in our records alone) is enough to confuse all but the most determined researcher.

Cultivation of the cannabis plant hasn’t always been illegal  – particularly for the purpose of harvesting the hemp fibres from which cord, rope, canvas and netting can be made. In fact, in 1533, King Henry VIII issued a decree compelling landowners to apportion approximately 4% of their tillable land to the cultivation of hemp in order to provide enough raw materials to support the expansion of his navy (HL/PO/PU/1/1532/24h8n5).

From the commodification of cannabis to the commodification of hair. My next post will be exploring ‘hair for sale’ in the archives (figuratively not literally!) and at least one consequence the decision to sell hair might have had on the health of our nation. If you’re unusually hungry for hair, a condition you might want to discuss with your GP, feel free to visit the ‘Historical Hair’ Pinterest board created as part of this project to look at the many and varied records relating to hair preserved here at The National Archives.

2 comments

  1. […] Rotary hairbrushes were bizarre-looking engine-operated hairbrushes that were invented since of a uncanny faith that regulating a appurtenance to brush a hair was a pointer of progress. The hairbrushes were trustworthy to a complement of wheels and crane and powered by H2O turbines, steam engines, or gas engines, nonetheless initial versions were powered by people. The appurtenance was essentially used to brush a head, nonetheless a obvious claimed that it could also be used to brush a body (while bathing), and other sources explain that it could also be used to brush clothes. […]

  2. […] Rotary hairbrushes were bizarre-looking engine-operated hairbrushes that were invented because of the weird belief that using a machine to brush the hair was a sign of progress. The hairbrushes were attached to a system of wheels and pulleys and powered by water turbines, steam engines, or gas engines, although initial versions were powered by people. The machine was primarily used to brush the head, although its patent claimed that it could also be used to brush the body (while bathing), and other sources claim that it could also be used to brush clothes. […]

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