Ishmael Cleaning Pequod's Try-Pots


John Bernoulli, in 1696, published a mathematical challenge called the brachistochrone problem. The problem is to determine the shape of a curve that has the property of the fastest decent.

Bernoulli allowed six months for the solutions but none were received during this period. At the request of Leibniz, the time was publicly extended for a year and a half.[9] On 29 January 1697 the challenge was received by Isaac Newton, who found it in his mail, in a letter from Johann Bernoulli,[10] when he arrived home from the Royal Mint at 4 p.m., and stayed up all night to solve it and mailed the solution anonymously by the next post. Upon reading the solution, Bernoulli immediately recognized its author, exclaiming that he recognizes a lion from his claw mark. This story gives some idea of Newton’s power, since Johann Bernoulli took two weeks to solve it.[4][11] Newton also wrote, I do not love to be dunned [pestered] and teased by foreigners about mathematical things

Ishmael is cleaning the Try-Pots , used for rendering oil from blubber, on the Pequod and this task brings to mind the Cycloid.

It was in the left hand try-pot of the Pequod, with the soapstone diligently circling round me, that I was first indirectly struck by the remarkable fact, that in geometry all bodies gliding along the cycloid, my soapstone for example, will descend from any point in precisely the same time. - Moby Dick

From Wikipedia: A cycloid is the curve traced by a point on the rim of a circular wheel as the wheel rolls along a straight line without slippage. A cycloid is a specific form of trochoid and is an example of a roulette, a curve generated by a curve rolling on another curve.

Also mentioned in the Wikipedia article is the Cycloidal pendulum which was discovered while searching for a more accurate chronometer.

@Emrobu -


<3 <3 <3 !

I saw a brilliant video by one of my favourite vloggers and that guy from mythbusters about brachistochones a couple of months ago. Its not intuitive, but so fantastically beautiful and elegant when you see it.

I /think/ it is this one:

But I can’t be sure, because youtube doesn’t work for me right now. Skip to the end if you don’t have time for all the geekjaculations (but they’re worth it).


Crud, I now have a browser full of Wikipedia tabs. This is why I don’t wiki, weird esoteric trivia fascinates me and I get click happy. Interesting stuff though, especially about the chronometer pendulum. Just wish I understood calculus better to make sense of some of the formulas for all this stuff.


I’ll have to wait for a better internet connection as well. I thought the brachistochone problem was interesting. Easy to understand on the one hand but complicated enough to keep Newton up all night on the other. Of course Newton had to make his own tools as he went along,

The try pots part of the story was interesting as well. I read that putting try pots on vessels was an innovation that allowed the success of the New England whaling fleet.

Melville described the construction of the try pots in Moby Dick. I was going to find and post it but the name of an Inn is the first “hit” my search of the text came up with:



It was quite late in the evening when the little Moss came snugly to
anchor, and Queequeg and I went ashore; so we could attend to no
business that day, at least none but a supper and a bed. The
landlord of the Spouter-Inn had recommended us to his cousin Hosea
Hussey of the Try Pots, whom he asserted to be the proprietor of one
of the best kept hotels in all Nantucket, and moreover he had assured
us that Cousin Hosea, as he called him, was famous for his chowders.
In short, he plainly hinted that we could not possibly do better than
try pot-luck at the Try Pots. But the directions he had given us
about keeping a yellow warehouse on our starboard hand till we opened
a white church to the larboard, and then keeping that on the larboard
hand till we made a corner three points to the starboard, and that
done, then ask the first man we met where the place was: these
crooked directions of his very much puzzled us at first, especially
as, at the outset, Queequeg insisted that the yellow warehouse–our
first point of departure–must be left on the larboard hand, whereas
I had understood Peter Coffin to say it was on the starboard.
However, by dint of beating about a little in the dark, and now and
then knocking up a peaceable inhabitant to inquire the way, we at
last came to something which there was no mistaking.