charles seymour wright

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In anticipation of Canada Day – Number 1 A+ Canadian Charles Seymour Wright!

He grew up in Toronto and did his undergrad in physics there – surveying northern Ontario in the summer – and was doing postgraduate work at Cavendish Labs in Cambridge when the call went out for scientists to join the Terra Nova Expedition.  When his friend Griff Taylor got accepted and Wright didn’t, they walked the 50 miles from Cambridge to the expedition offices in London in one day, armed only with pockets full of boiled eggs, to prove how hard they both were.  It worked.

As a New World colonial amongst Brits, he was constantly ribbed for being “American” – in fact his nickname “Silas” comes from a joke of Birdie’s:

Silas struck me one day on the ship as a typical Yankee name and in a happy moment I called him Mr Silas P. Wright of the Philadelphia Educational Seminary.  Since then he has never been called anything but Cousin Silas or Silas.

He took it in (mostly) good humour, though, and continued signing his letters to expedition veterans as “Silas P.” for years afterwards.

As his life’s work was mainly in Britain, for the British – and largely classified military work at that – he doesn’t get the credit he ought to, as an outstanding Canadian, but he was on the leading edge of radar and oceanography amongst other things.  Despite having a life in the UK, he retired to Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, and in 1975 his ashes were scattered in the sea around there, so: Canadian to the end.

Aside from that, he so perfectly embodies certain Canadian personality traits that I recognise from family and friends – ready snark, resourceful outside-the-box problem-solving, ability to step outside oneself and the situation, casual demeanour and coarse language belying serious dedicated competence, clear-headed directness, scorn for timewasters, etc etc – that it makes me wonder whether the much-debated “Canadian identity” might actually exist, beyond “not being American.”

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For a super hot Canada Day in Britain, a hotshot Canadian batting for the Brits. Charles Seymour Wright (”Silas”) was a badass physicist and straight-talking pottymouth, who took “get ‘er done” to new levels, from Antarctica, through two world wars, and back to Antarctica, with some various research posts in between.

He wasn’t actually 14 on the expedition but I was drawing without reference and I’m rusty. Bottom image based on this caricature by the invaluable Denis Lillie:

Get it? Because Deb was Australian … and … Silas, Canadian … basically I’ve been listening to a lot of shanties and feeling colonial lately.

The story goes* that no one on the expedition could carry a tune, but that didn’t stop them singing with gusto at any opportunity.  No wonder the penguins were curious; it must have sounded amazing.

Terra Nova pumping time reference photo!

*Capt. Scott, writing about Christmas 1910 (around the time this photo was taken) –

For five hours the company has been sitting round the table singing lustily; we haven’t much talent, but everyone has contributed more or less, and the choruses are deafening.  It is rather a surprising circumstance that such an unmusical party should be so keen on singing.

A party of men from the base at Cape Evans, led by ‘Atch’ Atkinson, went on a last-ditch attempt to rescue Campbell’s Northern Party from where they’d been stranded up the coast, despite the rapidly closing season and dangerously unstable sea ice.  'Silas’ Wright, Canadian physicist and glaciologist, had (in Atch’s words) 'come on this trip fully believing that there was every possibility of the party being lost, but had never demurred and never offered a contrary opinion’ – until they’d decided to turn back.

I have been going to and fro on the home beach and about the rocky knolls in its environment – in spite of the wind it was very warm. I dug myself a hole in a drift in the shelter of a large boulder and lay down in it, and covered my legs with loose snow. It was so warm that I could have slept very comfortably.

Capt. Scott’s Journal, 11 July 1911