Smell, Latin, and Authority

by Aron Ouwerkerk

Besides the analysis of historical texts written in several different European vernaculars (see for example Sanne Steen’s post about annotating Dutch texts), Odeuropa also looks at Latin sources dating between the sixteenth and eighteenth century. When hearing Latin, most people will immediately think about the ancient Romans, and perhaps recall the names of famous classical authors like Virgil, Ovid and Cicero. The authority of these writers looms large over the literary history of Europe. This especially holds true for Neo-Latin literature, that is the texts that were written in Latin during the early modern period (between c. 1500 to around 1800).

The Neo-Latin texts that we study nicely illustrate the widespread importance of these literary giants from antiquity. Not only in literary texts like Erasmus’ Adagia (1536) do we encounter their names and (sometimes hidden) references to antiquity, but also in medical and scientific treatises many authors use their work to show their learnedness and support their arguments when it comes to smell. In a rather technical and dull treatise by Andreas Repplerus (Disputatio physica de odoratu, 1703), for instance, the author points out that “between so many thousands of people we seldom find two people who look exactly the same, like once in the story Amphitruo looked similar to Jupiter, and Sosia to Mercury” (inter tot hominum myriades, rarissime conspiciantur duo, ita prorsus sibi similes, ac olim in fabula Amphitruoni erat Jupiter, & Sosiae Mercurius). He refers to a comedy by Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (254 – 184 BCE), in which the gods Mercury and Jupiter change their appearance to deceive the friends and relatives of two mortal men. The author then continues to make his point about smell: “therefore, it automatically follows that emanations that for one cause a light trembling and tickling in the olfactory organs, for another could cause a more vehement sensation” (Posito autem eo, […] sponte sequitur, quod eadem effluvia, quae apud unum hominem lenem tremorem & titillationem in odoratûs organis excitant, apud alium e contrario vehementiorem motum […] producere […] queant).

Apart from referring to classical texts, our medical and scientific authors often use the authority from other writers too. This way, they try to make their arguments more convincing. On the excellent sense of smell of dogs, for example, an author named Fridericus Koeler writes in 1794:

“Here follows an example told to me by the eminent teacher Blumenbach [Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, 1752-1840]. About two hundred years ago, a noble Swiss man named De Zollikofer who was traveling from Altenklingen Castle to Paris, ordered his beloved dog to be locked up at home. After two weeks, however, the dog got free, and followed his boss for a hundred and twenty leagues (60 miles) on the roads, until he found him in Paris.”

Exemplum mihi hic adferre liceat, quod ex ore Ill. Blumenbach, praeceptoris pie colendi hausi. Ante ducentos circiter annos nobilis quidam Helvetus De Zollikofer ab arce sua Altenklingen ad Lutetias Parisiorum iter faciens, canem dilectissimum domi includere iussit. Iste vero duabus elapsis septimanis libertatem nactus, per viarum trivia dominum centum et viginti leucis (60 Meilen) distantem persecutus est, donec Parisiis illum invenit.

While science from the seventeenth and eighteenth century (the period of the Enlightenment) is often thought of as moving away from traditional authority and toward empiricism, passages like these from above ask for some nuance. The earlier mentioned author Repplerus certainly valued experiments, as he wrote somewhere: “But this is my own conjecture, and if anyone could demonstrate that it opposes healthy reasoning  and experiments, I will reject it more easily than I accepted it” (Sed haec mea saltem est conjectura, quam si ullo modo cum sana ratione, & experimentis pugnare, aliquis mihi demonstraverit, majori facilitate rejiciam, quam admisi). At the same time, however, many early modern scientists still engaged with classical authors when analyzing and thinking about smell. Moreover, the authority of ‘eminent scholars’ continued to be used to turn anecdotes into arguments. We may end with a final passage from the same ‘empiricist’ Repplerus:

“If the wind is blowing in the opposite direction, we perceive smells breathing forth from opposite regions with more ease and strength than with tailwinds. This is what the most eminent Kenelmus Diby, a courtier of England and chancellor of Great Britain, said. Sailing by the coastline of Spain, he had observed three or four times that the sailors could flawlessly grasp that they were still another thirty or fourty miles away from certain regions, by the most fragrant smell of rosemary. He also added that he himself had perceived this smell equally strong, as if he were holding a plucked twig of rosemary in his hands. But note that the most illustrious man also pointed out that he enjoyed headwinds.”

Contrario nobis vento, odores e regione opposita spirantes, facilius & validius percipimus, quam vento nobis secundo. Sic illustrissimus Kenelmus Digby, Angliae quondam Comes, & Magnae Britanniae Cancellarius, refert: se maritimas Hispaniae oras praeternavigando, ter vel quater observasse, nautas, duobus vel tribus ante diebus, quam in conspectum istarum terrarum proveherentur, ex fragrantissimo rorismarini odore, ad unguem quasi tenuisse, quod triginta vel quadraginta adhuc milliaribus ab istis regionibus remoti essent additque se ipsum quoque hunc odorem aeque valide percepisse, ac si avulsum rorismarini ramum manibus tenuisset; hoc tamen simul notat illustrissimus vir, quod vento tum temporis usus sit adverso.

In conclusion, the Neo-Latin olfactory literature included in Odeuropa displays an enormous wealth of historical anecdotes, (pseudo-)scientific arguments, emotions, and attitudes toward smell. As a language that was used widely across Europe until fairly recently, this literature therefore proves an invaluable source to incorporate in our ongoing effort to collect, analyze, and safeguard our European olfactory heritage.


Two types of rosemary (rosmarinum silvestre and rosmarinum silvestre minus). From: Pietro Andrea Mattioli, Commentarii in VI libros Pedacii Dioscoridis Anazarbei de medica materia (1598), p. 576


Workshop: Malodours as Cultural Heritage?

Caption: Strawberries by Klaus Pichler- Sort: Strawberries ‘Elsanta’ / Place of production: San Giovanni Lupatoto, Verona, Italy / Cultivation method: Foil greenhouse / Time of harvest: June – October / Transporting distance: 741 km / Means of transportation: Truck Carbon footprint (total) per kg: 0,35 kg / Water requirement (total) per kg: 348 l / Price: 7,96 € / kg; photo courtesy of Klaus Pichler.

Odeuropa and the Berlin Center for Cold War Studies invite you to join us on the 15th & 16th of December for an online workshop on malodours as cultural heritage.

Sensorial perception is as much a cultural phenomenon as a physical and biological function. Fragrances, aromas, and the mouth-watering smells of foods are defining elements of our social  perception, building memories, and situating us into particular cultural contexts.  But, what about the unpleasant or foul odours? Heritage and museum initiatives tend to shy away from malodours,  focusing on pleasant fragrances from the past, warping ideas about olfactory history. In this Odeuropa Workshop: Malodours as Cultural Heritage?, an interdisciplinary group of scholars and museum professionals will explore and challenge the topic of stench, dealing with the specifics of historicising malodours. The border between the malodorous and the pleasant is not only individually, but also collectively, culturally and historically defined. What do malodours tell us about transitions and advancements within urban, social, cultural, and environmental contexts? How can the sense of smell act as a measurement of analysis for histories of the past and present? How can we locate malodours, intangible by definition, within the cultural heritage sector and how can they be used as a storytelling technique?


Date: December 15-16, 2021 (9:45-17:00 CEST)
Streaming from: Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin at the Humboldt Forum in Berlin
Organizers: EU-research network Odeuropa & Berlin Center for Cold War Studies (BKKK) of Leibniz-Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ)
Format: live and pre-recorded lectures
Participants: Open for virtual participation; live-stream link will be publicly available


Please fill out this form to register for the event.

Full Programme:

Please click here to download the final programme as a PDF file.

Invited Speakers:

Ally Louks (University of Cambridge)

Ally Louks is currently a PhD student in English Literature: Criticism and Culture at the University of Cambridge. She holds a first class degree in English Literature from the University of Exeter and a Masters degree with distinction in Issues in Modern Culture from UCL. Her PhD research, entitled ‘Olfactory Ethics: Smell and Discrimination in Modernity’, examines the role of olfactory language and perception in the construction of personal and group alterity in interdisciplinary contexts.

Anton Philip van Harreveld (Guest Researcher at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences)

The scientific career of Anton Philip van Harreveld has focussed on quantitative description of odour and malodour since 1980. As convenor of a CEN European standardisation working group TC/264/WG2 ‘olfactometry’ he was closely associated with developing international standard methods for odour measurement to support environmental regulations to limit odour nuisance. He remains interested in human behaviour and smell and representing odour in numerical and semantic ways.

Aude Hendrick (Historian (PhD)), museologist and curator at the Sewer Museum,Brussels)

Aude Hendrick is a historian (PhD) and museologist and has been working as a curator of the Sewer Museum in Brussels since 2016.

Bodo Mrozek (Berlin Center for Cold War Studies at the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History (IfZ))

Bodo Mrozek is a contemporary cultural historian currently working on a transnational olfactory history of the 20th century. He has published on sound history and popular culture and is the editor of “Sensory Warfare in the Global Cold War. Propaganda, Partition and Covert Operations” (coming out in 2022). 

Caro Verbeek (Kunstmuseum, The Hague, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

Dr. Caro Verbeek (1980) is an art historian, curator, maker and teacher with a focus on smell, touch, synaesthesia and recently rhythm. She is an education innovator both within museums, art academies and universities. Her aim is to (re-)construct a more inclusive and democratic history of art by re-narrating it from and through a sensory perspective. For this reason she is often described  as an ‘artistic scholar’ or ‘academic performer’, a label she first resisted but now embraces. Since June 2021 she is also a curator of Mondrian & De Stijl at the Kunstmuseum The Hague, where she is developing more sensory approaches to abstract art. She just finished her fourth book “A small cultural history of the nose” which will appear in English next year.

Cecilia Bembibre (Odeuropa, University College London)

Cecilia Bembibre developed a framework to identify and preserve historic odours using a heritage science approach for her PhD project, Smell of Heritage. Working with The National Trust, St Paul’s Cathedral and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, she has preserved historic scents from a historic library, a 17th-century pot-pourri and the smell of mould in historic churches. Having previously researched smell at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Buenos Aires, Cecilia is interested in an interdisciplinary approach to smell and the preservation of olfactory heritage. She also collaborates with industries exploring the potential of GC-O characterisation of historic odours. Cecilia is a Lecturer in Sustainable Heritage at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage and part of the Horizon 2020 project Odeuropa, working on the preservation, reconstruction and communication of European heritage smells.

Claire Dobbin (Freelance Museum Curator)

Claire Dobbin is a freelance museum curator and interpretation specialist, passionate about inclusive design and the creative use of collections to engage and develop audiences. She has worked and advised on a broad range of museum and heritage projects, in the UK and Middle East, with current exhibitions at The Museum of London Docklands and The Media Majlis in Qatar. She is a Trustee of Wiltshire Museum and a Lecturer in Museums, Galleries and Contemporary Culture at the University of Westminster. Her recent publications and conference contributions focus on the benefits and impact of multisensory visitor experiences.

Clara Muller (Nez, the olfactory magazine)

Art historian, critic, and curator, Clara Muller is pursuing research on the politics of breathing in contemporary art, the diversity of art and design practices using scent as a medium, as well as on the presence of smell in 19th and 20th century French literature.

Emily Cockayne (School of History, University of East Anglia)

Emily Cockayne is a cultural historian, focusing on interpersonal relationships, material culture, nuisances and domestic and street environments in England. I have three published books: Hubbub. Filth, Noise & Stench in England (2007), Cheek by Jowl. A History of Neighbours (2012), and Rummage: a History of the Things we have Reused, Recycled and Refused to let go (2020). I consider smells in various contexts in these publications. I am an Associate Professor in Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Inger Leemans (Odeuropa, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

Inger Leemans is a professor of Cultural History at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the principal investigator of the NL-Lab at the KNAW Humanities Cluster. Her research activity is concentrated on early modern cultural history (1500-1850), the history of emotion and smell, the history of knowledge, cultural economy, and digital humanities. She is the project lead of Odeuropa.

Jean-Thomas Tremblay (English Department, New Mexico State University)

Jean-Thomas Tremblay is an assistant professor of English at New Mexico State University. They are the authors of the forthcoming Breathing Aesthetics (Duke University Press, 2022) and, with Andrew Strombeck, a co editor of Avant-Gardes in Crisis: Art and Politics in the Long 1970s (State University of New York Press, 2021). Their writing is tallied at

Josely Carvalho (Independent Artist)

Josely Carvalho is a multimedia artist, born in São Paulo and maintains studios in Rio de Janeiro and New York. In the last four decades, her artwork embraces several mediums and seeks to highlight memory, identity, women issues and social justice while consistently challenges frontiers between artist and public and art and politics.In 2019, she received the International Art and Olfaction Sadakichi Award in experimental olfactory artwork category for her installation Glass Ceiling: Resilience presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art in São Paulo in 2018. Among her latest exhibits highlights are: Suspensio: An interruption in Time, at Art Olfactory Keller Gallery, New York, 2021; Diary of Smells: Anoxia, Harvestworks, Governors Island, New York 2019; Diary of Smells: Affectio  at Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 2019; Diary of Smells: Glass Ceiling at the Museu de Arte Contemporânea, São Paulo, Brazil, 2018.

Lara Salmon and Regina Mamou; Joes Segal (Independent artists, The Wende Museum of the Cold War, Los Angeles, California) 

Research for the Bermuda Triangle (RBT) is the duo-collaborative of artists Lara Salmon and Regina Mamou. Together they create experience-based art events both nationally and abroad. RBT undertook their first scent-related project in 2018 when they began working with hydro-distillation in Marrakech, Morocco.

Liam Findlay (AromaPrime)

Liam is a consultant and designer for AromaPrime, a company which provides themed scents for educational and immersive venues. Past projects have involved everything from the design of a museum’s Egyptian mummy smell-pump to the creation of nostalgic, olfactory kits for people with dementia. AromaPrime’s customers include notable venues such as The British Museum and National Trust sites, as well as entertainment brands like The Dungeons and Madame Tussauds.

Lizzie Marx (Odeuropa, University of Cambridge)

Lizzie Marx is a member of Odeuropa, where she collaborates on mining olfactory imagery in digital collections, and its impact in museum and heritage organisations. She is also a PhD candidate in the History of Art at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, where she is completing her dissertation, ‘Visualising Smell in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art’. In 2018–2019 she was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and she was the Research and Exhibition Assistant of ‘Fleeting – Scents in Colour’, the 2021 summer exhibition at the Mauritshuis, The Hague, about smell in seventeenth-century art, and co-author of the exhibition publication. 

Mathias Zinnen (Odeuropa, FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg, Department of Computer Science)

Mathias Zinnen studied Philosophy and Computer Science in Mainz, Berlin, and Erlangen. Currently, he is pursuing his Ph.D. in computer science at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. While studying philosophy, he was (and still is) particularly interested in the philosophy of science and epistemology. In the field of computer science, he is enthusiastic about machine learning, artificial intelligence, and their applications. For the Odeuropa project, he works on the automatic recognition of olfactory references in historical artworks.

Michael Philipp (Museum Barberini, Potsdam)

Michael Philipp is the chief curator at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam.

Nadjib Achaibou (Symrise Mexico)

Nadjib Achaibou is a Symrise Perfumer creating consumer products in Latin America. He is passionate about using fragrance as a storytelling tool in concerts, theatre and multisensory virtual reality.

Raphael Troncy (Odeuropa, EURECOM)

Raphael Troncy is an associate professor in computer science in the Data Science Department of EURECOM. His research interests include knowledge engineering, ontology modeling, knowledge graph, natural language processing and understanding and recommender systems. He is applying his research in the Cultural Heritage sector as well as with the culture, tourism, creative and media industries.

Rebeca Ibáñez Martín (Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences)

Rebeca Ibáñez Martín is an anthropologist and Science and Technology Studies (STS) scholar. She  focuses on the topics of food and agricultural multispecies relations, and waste and wastewater infrastructural innovations. 

Ruben Verwaal (Institute for Medical Humanities, Durham University)

Ruben Verwaal is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Medical Humanities, Durham University, and curator of the medical collections at Erasmus MC, Rotterdam. His research focuses on early modern medicine, deafness, and bodily fluids. He recently published ‘Bodily Fluids, Chemistry and Medicine in the 18th-century Boerhaave School’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), and ‘Fluid Deafness: Earwax and Hardness of Hearing in Early Modern Medicine’, Medical History 65 (2021), 366–383. 

Shivani Kapoor (O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India)

Shivani Kapoor is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Writing Studies, O.P. Jindal Global University. She has a doctorate in Political Science from Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her work is located at the intersection of caste, sensory politics and labour and examines the relationship between caste and the senses in the leather industry in contemporary India. 

Sofia Ehrich (Odeuropa, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences)

Sofia Collette Ehrich is a sensory art historian and curator of scent experiences. As a Los Angeles native, she studied art history at University California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She recently finished her Masters at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in Comparative Arts and Media studies where she wrote her thesis, Orchestrating the Senses onto Virtual Reality Narratives: Confronting the limitations of media and exploring the importance of crossmodality within virtual digital environments. Her research interests include approaches, challenges, and limitations to multisensory storytelling within varying environments but especially in cultural heritage institutions. She is also interested in detecting the visual representations of the senses (especially smell) in art history and connecting these with sensory impressions in the museum. Within the Odeuropa project, she will assist in organizing and curating events and exhibitions around smell.

Stephanie Weismann (University of Vienna)

With a background in cultural studies, comparative literature and Slavic studies, Stephanie Weismann is currently working on an olfactory urban history of the Polish city of Lublin in the 20th century. The study is sniffing out different odours and malodours that defined the city’s atmosphere and asks how political, social, cultural and economic processes and tensions in Eastern Central Europe have found expression in olfactory experiences.

Tasha Marks (Independent Artist)

Tasha Marks is an award-winning artist, food historian and founder of AVM Curiosities, a creative practice that addresses how the senses can be incorporated into the gallery and museum space. Since founding her practice in 2011, she has  worked with a number of high profile cultural institutions in the UK, including; The British Museum, The National Gallery and the V&A. Projects range from olfactory curation and scented installations to interactive lectures and limited-edition confectionery.

Tina Asmussen (German Mining Museum Bochum, Ruhr University of Bochum)

Tina Asmussen is an assistant professor of early modern mining history at the Ruhr University of Bochum and head of the mining history research department at the German Mining Museum Bochum. Previously she held an Ambizione fellowship by the Swiss National Science Foundation at the Chair for Science Studies at ETH Zurich and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Her main research interests are early modern history of science and knowledge, environmental and economic history, especially the history of natural resources. Currently she is working on a book project entitled: “Subterranean OEconomies: Mining and Resource Cultures in Early Modern Europe.”

Victoria-Anne Michel (Odeuropa, Anglia Ruskin University)

Victoria-Anne Michel is a PhD student in the European H2020 project, Odeuropa. She is interested in understanding how people experience smells in a space and how these smellscapes participate in making sense of place. She has a background in Social and Human sciences and specialized in Urbanism for her Master degree at the Institute of Political Studies in Bordeaux, France. She also completed a professional training in Perfumery and holds a certificate of “Olfactory Designer” from Cinquième Sens Institute in Paris.

William Tullett (Odeuropa, Anglia Ruskin University)

William Tullett is  an Associate Professor in Sensory History and a researcher on the Odeuropa project. His work has focussed on the sensory history of the west from the 1600s to the present. His first book, Smell in Eighteenth-Century England: A Social Sense, was published with Oxford University Press in 2019.



Odeuropa Team Milestone: Our First In-Person, Hands-On Meeting


Parisian street art: “Pendre au nez. Les murs ont des oreilles” or “Hang onto the nose. The walls have ears.” Photo: Inger Leemans.

After more than nine months of remote working due to the pandemic, we finally brought part of the Odeuropa team together. This October, 11 Odeuropa team members, representing all work packages and almost every project partner, met in Paris to smell things, co-create annotated data, bridge gaps between core concepts, and even challenge each other to a game of foosball. This lockdown period has been a burden for all research teams, but for a project researching smells and olfactory heritage, the audiovisual-biased world of online working has been a severe challenge.

Odeuropa team members Lizzie Marx and Victoria-Anne Michel smelling books during the smell walk at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Photo: Inger Leemans.

We approached this first in-person gathering ‘nose-first’ with the help of our PhD student, Victoria-Anne Michel who organized an olfactory workshop and smell walk for the team. During the workshop, we were able to smell perfumes and raw materials which we then categorized and made associations with through our sense of touch. During our smell walk through the different spaces within the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (site Richelieu) we stuck our noses into a few books, old and new. While walking around the place, we first inhaled the general atmosphere, which sensory researcher Kate McLean calls “smell catching.” We then went “smell hunting” in specific spots. Through this exercise, we felt the contrasts of olfactory atmospheres, or “smellscapes”; from the sleek and modern Performing Arts reading room, the wax wooden rotunda, the futuristic corridor leading to the old-fashioned Manuscripts reading room, and, finally, the impressive, bright, cathedral-looking Labrouste reading room. The discussions that followed were a mix of poetic impressions, technical considerations like the different types of air control systems, and personal scent memories. With this, olfaction functions as both an emotional and spatial sense! Special thanks to the curators Sylvie Bourel, Hervé Grosdoit-Artur and Mathieu Lescuyer, without whom this smellwalk would not have been possible.

This trip not only allowed us to get to know each other and train our noses, but also to truly invest in interdisciplinary knowledge exchanges within Odeuropa and beyond. Throughout the few days, we were able to  meet with researchers, heritage groups and other parties involved in the perfume and scent culture industry.

Cecilia Bembibre in the flamingo room at the press launch of the Sensory Odyssey experience. Photo: Sofia Ehrich.

Some highlights from our trip:

  • We received a warm welcome at the Osmothèque – the historic perfume conservatory based in Versailles – discussing future collaborations around olfactory heritage with the President, Head of Scientific Committee and Communications director of Osmothèque (and smelling some of the nose-boggling perfumes and odorants safeguarded by the institute);
  • We attended the press launch of Sensory Odyssey, a multisensory immersive event in the Natural History Museum of Paris;
  • We met with the representatives of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux to discuss olfactory approaches to heritage representation;
  • We had drinks with the acclaimed French historian Annick Le Guérer, to discuss her participating in one of our future Smellinars, among other things (more to be announced later);
  • We visited the Voyages Immobiles exhibition to see how smells were presented and communicated in an event for general publics
  • We annotated 371 perfumed gloves in paintings;
  • Lastly, we had four trips together to the supermarket, ate loads of croissants and had some adventures with Vélib bikes.

Alas, three days was surely not enough for all our ambitions – so much is going on in the realm of olfactory heritage in France. So: we’ll be back!


Part of the Odeuropa team having lunch together at a Parisian restaurant. Photo: Marieke van Erp.

Annotating the Smell of Lightning

by: Sanne Steen

One of Odeuropa’s goals is to extract relevant smell references in historical texts. An early step of this process is creating annotated texts for a language technology benchmark, i.e. we mark up texts with information which terms refer to smells to evaluate the performance of automatic tools on detecting smell references in texts. As an annotator, I read Dutch fragments of early modern texts about topics ranging from travel and science to poetry and theater. These sixteenth- to nineteenth-century text fragments were selected because they contained one or more smell words such as lucht (air), neus (nose), and rook (smoke/smelled). My task was to trace the smells and annotate anything related to these smells, such as quality, perceiver, location and smell source. Context is often very important for this task. For example, the small phrase “he smells” can mean that he emits smell, or that he is using his sense of smell. Another difficulty appeared once, in a scientific text describing the smell of electricity and lightning. This snippet described not only the actual smell but also falsified previous explanations about the origin of the smell which poses a new hypothesis about the true nature of this smell. As the argument proceeded, words recurred as very different smell elements:

The text fragment about lightning in the annotating tool with my annotations. The English translation is as follows:

4) In order to prove the smell of electricity, it is often argued that, in buildings and other places where lightning hit, even when it did not generate fire, people sense a sulphurous smell, often for a long time.
5) This is easy to explain, because in these cases the lightning did not bring the sulphur-like smell but found the sulphur at the place it struck.
6) In the ironwork of buildings, in building bricks, cement and chalk, sand, et cetera, everywhere are sulphur particles, which, where the lightning hits them, burn and as such spread the sulphur-like smell.

Let’s dive into this smell fragment. The text originates from an essay about peat vapour, which was published by Jan Sasse in the Vaderlandsche letteroefeningen in May 1861. Sasse writes that peat vapour was believed to be composed of dissolved lightning, because both the vapour and lightning smelled like sulphur. The smell of lightning was experienced in places where lightning hit, even when it did not catch fire (line 4). Therefore, people believed that the lightning itself carried the smell. Indeed, in his Natuurlyke historie van Holland (1769), which is also in the benchmark, the Dutch natural scientist Johannes le Francq van Berkhey cites his colleague Pieter van Musschenbroeck who characterises the smell of lightning as similar to that of burning sulphur. Van Musschenbroeck argued that the lightning is composed of sulphur: “Because the places where lightning hit spread a smell of burning sulphur, one can hardly doubt that the major substance of lightning is sulphur.” (“Dewyl de plaatsen van den Blixem geslagen eenen reuk van brandenden Zwavel van zich verspreiden, kan men naauwlyks twyfelen, of de voornaamste stof welke den Blixem maakt, zal Zwavel zyn”)

) Sasse contests this statement, however, arguing that the odour carrier is the place where the lightning hit (line 5). The lightning strike is instead the circumstance which exposes the smell (line 6).

Sasse was heading in the right direction when explaining the smell of lightning. He was correct in describing the lightning as a circumstance rather than odour carrier. However, he may be wrong when identifying the odour carrier and the smell source. In his book Nose Dive (2020), Harold McGee attributes the origin of the smell of lightning to ozone (O3), which is experienced as fresh and pungent. Ozone is created from dioxygen (O2) when the air is struck with electrical charge. Thus, if I were to annotate McGee, I would annotate lightning as circumstance, ozone as smell source and completely omit the odour carrier because the ozone does not exist before the lightning strikes the air.

Fortunately, I have never actually experienced the smell of lightning before. Nevertheless, the text fragments awakened my very first smell memory. Growing up, my family had a big bulky television. When we would sit down and watch a TV show, I greatly enjoyed getting as close to the screen as possible. Distinguishing the red, green and blue pixels, I was surprised by how these three colours created a moving colour image. I could feel the minimal sparks that came from the screen and, importantly, smell the warm material and hot dust. More than modern screens, older televisions were sensory feasts. The description of the smell of lightning made me think of this particular smell and brought me back to childhood. In Odeuropa, we want to make it easier for people to access such ‘smell memories’ which is why we are developing technologies to extract smell references from text and putting them into an openly accessible database.

We’re hiring! Odeuropa is looking for a Language Technology & Semantic Web researcher

We’re looking to strengthen our language technology and semantic web research teams with a 2-year postdoc position based at KNAW Humanities Cluster in Amsterdam in the Digital Humanities Research Lab. The Amsterdam team is responsible for leading the task on language technology development of historical olfactory information extraction, i.e. detecting references to smells from old texts. Together with the other project partners in the Text Work Package, you would ensure that the language technology developed in Odeuropa can deal with historical language variation and that it is properly represented and findable in the Olfactory Knowledge Graph that is being developed as part of the Semantic Web Work Package.

Besides the Odeuropa tasks, you will be able to advance your own research line and supervise graduate students. Find out more about the vacancy and how to apply on the KNAW Humanities Cluster vacancies web page. The deadline for applications is 25 October 2021.