David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Charles Hinton and His Cubes

Thanks (and happy birthday) to Michelle at Potato Benevolence for (re?)introducing me to Charles Hinton, mysterious theorist of fourth-dimensionality in the late 19th century. Aside from his forays into gunpowder-charged pitching machines (a proto-Survival Research Laboratories experiment retired after a few accidents) and bigamy, his obsession with extra spatial dimensions influenced Edwin Abbott’s better known Flatland and was celebrated by Borges, who also mentioned him in “The Secret Miracle.” It’s easy to see a connection back to Llull and Bruno in his gnostic quest for knowledge of hidden spaces. He also constructed a series of cubes designed to help train one to envision a four-dimensional hypercube (or tesseract) by envisioning the various three-dimensional views of the hypercube in a mental superimposition. Sort of like this:

But the oddest part is the letter that was sent to Martin Gardner after he wrote about Hinton in Scientific American. (Mark Blacklock has also covered the odd history of the cubes in his comprehensive site on Hinton and others.)

Dear Mr. Gardner:

A shudder ran down my spine when I read your reference to Hinton’s cubes. I nearly got hooked on them myself in the nineteen-twenties. Please believe me when I say that they are completely mind-destroying. The only person I ever met who had worked with them seriously was Francis Sedlak, a Czech neo-Hegelian Philosopher (he wrote a book called The Creation of Heaven and Earth) who lived in an Oneida-like community near Stroud, in Gloucestershire.

As you must know, the technique consists essentially in the sequential visualizing of the adjoint internal faces of the poly-colored unit cubes making up the larger cube. It is not difficult to acquire considerable facility in this, but the process is one of autohypnosis and, after a while, the sequences begin to parade themselves through one’s mind of their own accord. This is pleasurable, in a way, and it was not until I went to see Sedlak in 1929 that I realized the dangers of setting up an autonomous process in one’s own brain. For the record, the way out is to establish consciously a countersystem differing from the first in that the core cube shows different colored faces, but withdrawal is slow and I wouldn’t recommend anyone to play around with the cubes at all.

Hiram Barton

On the other hand, Theosophist Sedlak seemed to be fairly happy with the result, as chronicled by his wife:

Towards the end of his long and trying illness, when terrible coughing prevented him from sleeping at night, the long silent hours seemed interminable. On my enquiring one morning as to what sort of a night he had had, he said almost joyfully, “Oh, being awake does not trouble me now. I do the cubes, and the time flies.” So I thanked God and blessed the cubes, for which had been found a utilitarian use at a most desperate psychological juncture. Power won cannot be lost, and will some day be utilised.


  1. another math-theosophy conjunction is robert tecumtha browne, who arguably invented the term hyperspace:




    and finally

  2. Hinton’s alterable Past?
    In ‘the Secret Miracle’, Borges writes of the first volume of a fictional poet’s Vindication of Eternity as being’…a history of the diverse eternities devised by Man; from the immutable Being of Parmenides to the alterable Past of Hinton…’
    Alterable past? Charles H Hinton had a concept of an alterable Past?
    Borges continues, that the poet’s second volume, ‘denies (with Francis Bradley) that all the events in the universe make up a temporal series. He argues that the number of experiences possible to man is not infinite, and that a single ‘;repetition’ suffices to demonstrate that time is a fallacy…”
    The Ibn Arabi scholar, W. Chittick, writes
    “There is no repetition in [God’s] self-disclosure” (lâ takrâr fi’l-tajallî) ‘By acknowledging the unity of the Real, Tawhid, we recognize that it is one and unique in its every act, which means that each created thing and each moment of each thing is one and unique; nothing can ever be repeated precisely because of each thing’s uniqueness and the divine infinity.’ (W.Chittick)

    I must admit I still don’t understand the phrase ‘alterable past’- is it the notion that one can choose any past compossible with the present?

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