Sunday, 5 March 2017

Gimcrack gets last laugh

They laughed at Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, a late-seventeenth-century virtuoso, for his scheme of bottling fresh air from around England, storing his stock like wine in a wine cellar, and then breaking it out on special occasions for the refreshment of special guests. Now, a company in Alberta is commercializing Gimcrack's idea, bottling air from the Rocky Mountains and selling it worldwide for $15 per bottle.
 

Gimcrack is a character in Thomas Shadwell's play The Virtuoso, performed by The Duke's Company at London's Dorset Garden Theatre in 1676. In it, Gimcrack is the butt of gibes and jokes by other characters for his many experiments and activities (including his collecting of curiosities) which very closely parallel the reported activities of members of the Royal Society of London. And London audiences laughed along at the crazy antics of this early modern egghead. Except Robert Hooke, fellow of the Society, who was not amused by the performance, clearly seeing himself behind the portrayal; however, it was probably Robert Boyle that Shadwell had in mind with this allusion. Boyle had built several air pumps and was experimenting with pressurized cylinders, and he had sent his agents to various sites to measure air pressure at different altitudes using an early form of barometer (from Tenerife to the Isle of Dogs). Shadwell's treatment of the Royal Society and the culture of curiosity is remarkably prescient in many respects, now very particularly so given a new enterprise by Vitality Air, recently reported by CBC Calgary. Like Gimcrack, who offers his guests choice of a variety of airs ("Gentlemen, what country air do you like best?" 4.3.231), Vitality Air comes in three flavours—grape, strawberry, and root beer—although it derives from only two locations, both in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, a man ahead of his time.

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