Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Esperanto at Harvard

The latest fad in Boston
The Congregationalist and Christian World paid scant attention to Esperanto, even though its place of publication, Boston, was something of a hotbed of early Esperanto activity during the time when it was published, during the early days of the twentieth century. However, when Harvard, which had been founded to train Congregationalist minsters, started an Esperanto group, maybe that’s what it took to get the attention of The Congregationalist. And so, on January 20, 1906, The Congregationalist and Christian World reported on Esperanto at Harvard University.

Harvard’s Esperanto group has an impressive forebear. While Wilhelm Ostwald did not found the Harvard Esperanto Society, as Ostwald visited Harvard the year before the group was founded, he did provide prize money for speeches in Esperanto. A March 21, 1906 article in the Harvard Crimson notes that the prizes will be “an Esperanto dictionary and Esperanto literature to the value of $5.” (Which seems strange because in March 1905, it was noted that the Ostwald prizes were worth $50.[1])

It is not clear for how long the Harvard Esperanto Society persisted. A search of some scanned early texts in and about Esperanto shows that some of the books in the Harvard libraries were previously the property of the society. The Congregationalist and Christian World wrote the following:
A class for the study of Esperanto, the latest and simplest of the artificial world languages, has been formed at Harvard and there are some signs that it may for a season become one of the Boston fads. There are twenty-five journals now published in different parts of the world in this tongue. In Paris there is a society devoted it its use which as 3,000 members.
Their news was slightly stale, since the group was founded in the November 1905. Its president was Dr. Harry W. Morse, who had the claim-to-fame of collaborating with Ostwald on the book Elementary Modern Chemistry (1909). Morse graduated from Stanford University in 1897 with a degree in chemistry. Morse had probably begun his association with Ostwald before Ostwald arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, since Morse spent some time in Leipzig prior to that. At Harvard, they had engaged him to teach physics, although given that one of his other books was Storage Batteries; the chemistry and physics of the lead accumulator, maybe his area straddled the two fields.

When he was head of the Esperanto Society, Dr. Morse was an assistant professor and lecturer (in physics) at Harvard, and despite collaborating with Ostwald, by 1920, he was no longer employed by Harvard, but had returned to his native California. He was a lecturer in chemistry at the University of California (Berkeley) in 1912. After that, his attempts at an academic career seem to have come to an end and he went to work in industry.

Perhaps what brought Dr. Morse’s group to the attention of the Congregationalist and Christian World was an item published in the Harvard Illustrated Magazine for January 1906, titled “A Universal Language — Esperanto,” written by none other than H. W. Morse. It’s too long (two pages) to include in full, but it begins:
The want of a universal language is a serious one, not only to the traveler and the scientist, but to persons of average attainments as well. The present limitations of language make international intercourse difficult even for well educated persons, and quite impossible for those of the great majority who have only an average education.
Does he mean those who haven't been to college, or those without degrees from elite institutions? This is dreadfully elitist.

It’s not clear how long the Harvard Esperanto Society persisted, though the Crimson does report on further attempts to start Esperanto groups at Harvard in 1936 and 1961. There does not seem to currently be an Esperanto group in the sanktigitaj haloj de Harvardo, hallowed halls of Harvard.

  1. I have a feeling that in 1905 you could buy just about every book in Esperanto in existence for $50.  ↩

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