Release the kraken! (1790)

Jul 24 2010 Published by under General science, History of science

This is a science topic that isn't really my field, but it's just so charming that I had to post about it.  While browsing through the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh from 1790, I found a note titled, "letter relative to the kraken", which describes an alleged sighting of the beast!  I quote the short note in full:

At the same Meeting, a letter was read from John Ramsay L'Amy, Esq; one of the Justices of Peace for the county of Forfar, and Mr. John Guild, one of the Magistrates of Dundee, inclosing an affidavit made before them, of Jens Anderson, master, and Mads Jenson, mate of a Norwegian ship, relating to the appearance of a supposed kraken or sea-worm, on Sunday, August 5. 1786. about 15 leagues to the eastward of the coast of Scotland, in north latitude 56.16.  The appearance was that of three low islands or sand-banks of a grayish colour, within less than a mile's distance from the ship, and extending about three miles from the one extremity to the other.  It remained in sight about fifty minutes, and upon the springing up of a breeze, gradually sunk into the water.  The account contains no further particulars worthy of notice, and is perfectly consistent with the idea of this being nothing more than a fog-bank, of which the appearances are familiar to mariners.

Today, it is generally recognized that the legend of the kraken was inspired by actual sightings of the giant squid, genus Architeuthis, a deep ocean cephalopod that can reach over 40 feet in total length!  Giant squid are one of those rare natural phenomena that were widely believed in long before they were formally recognized by the scientific community (another example is the phenomenon of freak waves, which I discussed in a recent post).

Formal recognition of the giant squid only seems to have began in the mid-1800s, with the recovery of a partial carcass by the French warship Alecton in 1861, the characterization and naming of the species by Japetus Steenstrup in the 1850s, and a mass beaching that occurred in Newfoundland between 1870 and 1880 that provided many specimens.  It is not surprising, then, to see that the Royal Society of Edinburgh was skeptical of the 1786 sighting described above.

At least in this case, though, the Society was right to be skeptical -- whatever the mariners saw on their voyage, they certainly didn't see a 3-mile long giant squid!  It is somewhat odd to think that they simply saw a fog bank, however, as the Society itself notes, "of which the appearances are familiar to mariners."

I have no other comment about this letter, other than to say again that one can find really interesting stuff by browsing the old scientific journals!


"Letter relative to the kraken," Trans. Roy. Soc. Edinburgh 2 (1790), 16-17.

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