Make-believe science stamps


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26 April 2013
imports_CCGB_animaginedusastamp_49261.jpg An imagined USA stamp
Using stamps from the British Library Philatelic Collections, artist Nathan Cohen has created an alternative history in which postage stamps took on new designs, values and meanings. Read his stamp stories in this exclusive feature ...
Using stamps from the British Library Philatelic Collections, artist Nathan Cohen has created an alternative history in which postage stamps took on new designs, values and meanings. The stamps are on display at the British Library until the end of September.

Read a full interview with Nathan and a review of the philatelic exhibition in the July issue of Stamp & Coin Mart (opens in new window).

Here, we reveal the imagined stamp stories the artist created for his altered stamp designs, which include a stamp with an 'infinity' value, and a special issue for Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.

Japanese Post Office ‘√ 2 Square Package’ proof 1872
Baron Maejima Hisoka (?? ?, January 24, 1835 – April 27, 1919) visited Great Britain in 1870 to study the workings of the General Post Office, and upon his return to Japan the Japanese Post Office began operation in April 1871 with a daily service linking Tokyo with Osaka. Baron Maejima personally coined the Japanese word for postage stamp (kitte).

In Japanese language counter words or counters (josushi ???) are used along with numbers to count things. Depending on the form of an object different counter words are used. When devising the Japanese Post Office system consideration was given to calculating the fee in relation to the type of object being sent. This resulted in a test variation on the 200 sen stamp design of 1871 which was created for square letters and parcels, with the cost denominated as a measurement of the diagonal length across the item multiplied by a scale in sen value (a unit of money like the British pound or US dollar).

Given that a square of sides 1 x 1 has a root 2 (√ 2) diagonal measurement this was incorporated into the stamp value and can be seen printed in black in the centre. To further distinguish this issue from the standard 200 sen issue the proof displayed arranges the stamps in a sheet of 8 x 8, with those to the top left of the diagonal across the sheet printed upright, and those below the diagonal printed inversed, intended to assist the post office in selecting the correct postage stamp.

Unfortunately, it was realised that being an irrational number the root 2 would lead to complications in offering the correct change and this resulted in the stamp not being released. This is the only known copy of the original complete proof sheet printed on washi (??) paper.

‘Infinite’ value King Edward VII proof 1908
In the relatively short reign of King Edward VII (1901-1910) only one set of stamp designs were issued modelled on the 1880s and 1890s surface printed issues of Queen Victoria. The highest value postage stamp released was £1 although an earlier Queen Victoria issue (1867-83) had included a £5 postage stamp. Consideration was therefore given to a higher value stamp that would anticipate the perceived demands of a new century.

Mindful of recent discoveries in the fields of physics and astronomy which redefined perceptions of space and time, the post office was keen to create a stamp that would embrace the potential for travel and the distribution of goods across an expanding universe. Consequently, a proof stamp was created modelled on the Queen Victoria £5 design but replacing the value with an infinite one intended to offer greater flexibility in the use of the stamp. The proof example is displayed here but was never released for public sale.

Subsequently, it was learned that the United States Postal Service were also contemplating a similar issue, and as a precaution the original proof was also over stamped with +£1, thus ensuring the superior value of the issue in perpetuity, although this was probably not necessary as the value of the pound sterling was worth considerably more at this time than the US dollar.

Sir Hans Sloane 2/- Issue proof 1873
On his death Sir Hans Sloane, 1st Baronet, (16 April 1660 – 11 January 1753), President of the Royal Society and physician, bequeathed to the nation his collection including books, manuscripts, prints, drawings, medals, coins, cameos and other curiosities. The bequest was accepted by an act of parliament passed the same year, and the collection, together with King George II’s Royal Library, was opened to the public at Bloomsbury as the British Museum in 1759.

In 1873, 120 years after his death, a proof issue of the two shillings (2/-) Sir Hans Sloane stamp was created, examples of which are presented here in the original blue-green with a secondary printing in ‘Sloane’ chocolate brown. The design derived from the Queen Victoria surface printed issue of 1867-80. An error in the corner numbering of the proof sheet resulted in the perhaps fortuitous lettering of BL BL (instead of BL LB) to be seen on the block of four stamps displayed. An example of the trial ‘bar’ printed sheet format is also displayed (printers Cadbury & Sons).

This issue was not published and no examples are known to have been released for public use. 100 years after this proof edition the British Library was founded.

United States Postal Service ‘Special Relativity’ Issue 1916

Following the publication of Albert Einstein’s ‘Special Relativity’ paper of 1905 and the subsequent ‘General Theory of Relativity’ in 1916 the US Post Office intended to release a postage stamp celebrating these discoveries. The 10-cent ultramarine series 1902 bicycle messenger design was adapted with Einstein’s famous equation prominently incorporated into the artwork, together with a rewording of the stamp from the original ‘Special Delivery’ to ‘Special Relativity’. The series is also dated 1916.

Unfortunately an over enthusiastic type-setter included a 3 and not a 2 resulting in the incorrect equation being reproduced on the stamp (instead of E = mc² the issue read E = mc³). Although an extra dimension might be useful the post office decided to correct this with the addition of a +2c (2 cents) over print which obscured, to some extent, the offending number 3. This led to a humorous interpretation on the part of some physicists consulted by the Postal Service on the original design who dubbed the intended issue the ‘AE’ IOU (AE being Albert Einstein’s initials). As the stamp was immediately withdrawn few examples now survive and none are known to be in private collections.

Read a full interview with Nathan and a review of his philatelic exhibition in the July issue of Stamp & Coin Mart.

Nathan’s stamps remain on display in the British Library Philatelic Collections display cabinets (No 8, frames 31, 32) until the end of September. The artworks on display now belong to the British Library Philatelic Collections, and numbered editions are available for purchase through the website:
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