RWO Kestel: a man ahead of his time?

My curiosity was piqued while listing KESTEL, R.W.O. Radiant Energy, a Working Power in the Mechanism of the Universe. Port Adelaide [printed by F. Cockington] 1898. The Tasmanian antiquarian bookseller Richard Neylon had this to say about it:

The frontispiece of experimental apparatus must be one of the best examples in the history of Australian scientific illustration: a new theory explaining the workings of the universe can be tested with a decapitated corrugated iron water tank, two rules and a ball on a string. It also, just in graphic terms, has a radiant energy of its own. This is a stylish little book and has a stylish and reasoned generosity not always present in such works: “the difference in the two theories does not at all effect the accepted laws of the force of gravity, as given us by Newton”. As to considerations of a Newtonian universe he points out that “of two theories, if one can be demonstrated by … experiment and the other cannot, I prefer the former.” An humane execution. I wonder if R.W.O. is the Ralph Kestell [sic], mason of Port Adelaide, that appears in the directories but can’t add any more to that.

The picture of the apparatus is charming…what can one add except ‘Cern, eat your heart out!’

I poked about the internet for a bit and came up with a fascinating picture of the author.

Ralph Wheatley Odgers Kestel 1838-1903 landed in South Australia from Cornwall as a youngster with his parents and immediately, at age 10 was working in the mines of Kapunda and Burra. At the age of 14 he started going to the gold diggings interstate and worked as a builder in Adelaide as well involved in various notable buildings. He was prominent in Port Adelaide, mayor at one point, and a contemporary record has it that:

He was instrumental in doing much good for Port Adelaide during his councillorship. He introduced a drainage scheme for the sanitary improvement of the town, but, although it was not adopted, it found much favour and led to prompt action by the civic body. He took a prominent part in the purchase of the land for the Corporation Wharf, and also in securing 1,000 feet of wharf frontage to Tam o’Shanter Creek, and strongly supported Mr. H. W, Thompson when mayor in introducing asphalt footpaths Notable South Australians; Or, Colonists, Past and Present (1885) Author: George E. Loyau

Kestel, R. W. O. (Ralph Wheatley Odgers)
Kestel, R. W. O. (Ralph Wheatley Odgers) A man ahead of his time?

He was of a period where anybody who was a good thinker could become engaged in considerations which are now the purview of a tiny number of people around the world academically engaged as ‘cosmologers’. His book Radiant Energy, a Working Power in the Mechanism of the Universe attracted a review in Nature, no less, which is worth reprinting in full:

Nature 69, 101-101 (03 December 1903) |
Radiant Energy A Working Power in the Mechanism of the Universe
F. S.
THE loose and unscientific use of terms, such as force, the curious absence of ordinary mechanical conceptions, as, for example, inertia, and the almost puerile objections raised against the Newtonian theory of planetary motion, sufficiently proclaim this book to be the work of the untrained amateur with original ideas. In consequence, none but a discerning reader will profit by its perusal.

Yet the closing sentence— “Radiant Energy is a Working Power in the Mechanism of the Universe”—is a remarkable one, considering that the book is dated as having been published five years ago. The researches of Nichols and Hull in America, and Lebedew in Russia, on the pressure due to radiation have established the author’s contention.

In the chapter on comets some of our present notions of the cause of comets’ tails are clearly anticipated, but in applying the same idea to other parts of the mechanism of the universe, the author has fallen into the error of imagining a repulsion from the sun “just thirty thousand million times too large.” The main idea is that “a repelling force radiating from the sun” “partakes of the sun’s motion of rotation,” and “is carried round in the direction the sun is revolving.” The author justifies himself by mechanical analogies, and uses the idea to account for the origin of both the orbital and axial motions of the planets. By the aid of a model in which the repulsive force is represented by a stream of horizontal water jets emanating from a rotating nozzle, many of the phenomena of planetary motion, it is claimed, can be demonstrated experimentally.

The idea, although so crudely expressed, when applied to our present knowledge does seem to possess a real value. Light, radiating from the sun, should, it seems, be affected by the rotation of the sun, in such a way that the resultant of the pressures from all parts of the solar surface which reach a planet passes through a point displaced from the centre in the direction of the edge approaching the planet. The same would apply to pressure exerted by normally projected corpuscles or electrons. The effect is to produce a positive acceleration of the planet in its orbit. Whether there is also a couple acting to produce rotation suggests a nice problem for the astronomer. Is it possible that these infinitesimal pressures acting over infinite time could originate the motions of the planets? Could these pressures maintain the planet in uniform motion through a resisting ether? These problems should now admit of a definite answer, and seem worthy of a more competent analysis than the reviewer is able to give.

It is quite clear from other evidence we can glean here and there, that Kestel was a person of substantial intellect who had applied himself in original and notable ways to solving the mysteries of the universe despite his seriously deficient education. Or one wonders if that last sentence should read somewhat differently: because of his lack of education, rather than despite it. There is a record from the Astronomical Society of South Australia 1901 minutes described on its site thus:

In 1901 there was another controversial lecture, accompanied by a demonstration, this time by a Mr Kestel. There was no doubt that he believed in what he said, which was that Newton hadn’t quite got it right and there was a force of repulsion as well as attraction. Since the secretary records Mr Kestel’s uniform courtesy under trying conditions, and at one stage in the discussions, before beginning his reply, Kestel obtained a promise that members would not interject unduly, it seems as if the audience may have remained unconvinced. Astronomical Society of South Australia

Unfortunately we don’t know exactly what his idea, as brought to this meeting, was, but we do know that the general sense of it was eventually vindicated. There is indeed a force of repulsion.

What a pity that Kestel died before he could read the rather positive review he received at the hands of Nature. As it is, in bringing it to the attention of Adelaideans via a Letter to the Editor of The Advertiser, the main broadsheet of Adelaide until Murdoch took possession at which point it became a tabloid, first in nature and next in shape.

The Advertiser Friday 8 January 1904
The Late Mr RWO Kestel To the Editor. by JC Kirby
Sir-The late Mr. R W O Kestel, of Port Adelaide, was much given in the intervals of business to the study of astronomy, and especially of celestial physics. Eventually he published a work, “Radiant Energy: A ‘working power in the mechanism of the universe ” This has been reviewed in Nature of –December 1903, a copy of which came from the publishers to the home of the deceased gentleman by sea mail, and, on the whole, bears remarkable testimony to the originality of his ideas and their substantial truths. For the honor of the memory of one of the most worthy men and able thinkers South Australia has produced, allow me to call attention to certain statements in Nature [quotes at length from the review]……

From the above it appears that Mr Kestel was a foremost pioneer in celestial physics, and that without the advantages to be found in Universities and the great centres of knowledge he made distinct acquisition to the volume of the world’s science. It is pleasing to remember that he received much sympathetic encouragement from Sir Charles Todd, and also from Mr Russell, the Government Astronomer of New South Wales Both these gentlemen felt that there was a large measure of truth in Mr. Kestel’s speculations, and that they were worthy of the attention of men of science. The instrument, which in so many respects has no parallel in the world, is still at Port Adelaide. It would be a pity for it to be broken up, as it sheds remarkable light “upon celestial mechanics, and I believe in all mechanics.

Kirby then goes on to a personal reminiscence of Kestel, which sent shivers up my spine as I read it:

Our deceased fellow-citizen had a great sense of righteousness. One day he told me, I have had a great temptation from the devil, for in the course of my investigations, I saw, as in a moment, how a machine could be made, and forces used, which would be capable of destroying men men ten thousand at the time, and make ordinary artillery useless. I felt he said, that if I revealed it to one of the Great Powers I should have large money, but I should bring great calamity on mankind, and so I have resolved never to reveal what I have found out. and content myself with the machine I have made, which, while it will never give me pecuniary profit, will help the world in good knowledge. In Mr Kestel, Port Adelaide and South Australia lost a citizen of genius.


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