I covered Robert Browning Sosman, a physical chemist who died in 1967, for the June/July issue of Saveur. After receiving one of the first three doctoral degrees awarded by M.I.T. in 1907, R.B. Sosman wrote the definitive book on the phases of silica, which was crucial to the development of modern steel industry operations. He championed solar energy and was the seventh person to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.

He loved maps and in 1954, the Westfield Reader reported that his 3,500 piece collection at home contained specimens depicting the fictional Poictesme of  James Branch Cabell and Al Capp's Lower Slobbovia. Sosman also owned a rare, museum-worthy West Indies chart by Arrowsmith.

The Gustavademecum for the Island of Manhattan A Check-List of the Best-Recommended of Most Interesting Eating-Places, Arranged in Approximate Order of Increasing Latitude and Longitude  was the product of Sosman's exhaustive observational experience dining in New York restaurants. (He also designed and published a guide to Chicago's restaurants.) Its sixteen saddle-stitched pages contained a smartphone’s share of data points.

For each of the guide’s fifteen editions, Sosman considered some 900 restaurants, both high- and low-brow, worthy of inclusion. In the end, 300 are plotted next to facts like cuisine type, portion size, and cost, but also more esoteric observations like tableside lighting (in lumens) and the waiter’s estimated IQ. Each line of the guide is written in a hybrid of engineering and astrological symbols (♈ = mutton). Meanwhile σ, or sigma, means samba, while τ is for tango. There were, apparently, twenty kinds of restaurant customers, noted with single, lowercase letters. A restaurant’s memorabilia was noted according to the color schematic devised by the ornithologist Robert Ridgway. Fantastically, the “Memorabile” category points out so many details otherwise lost to time: The Hampshire House had a grove of grapefruit tree lamps, “mega-orchids” could be found at the Copacabana, Chateau Richelieu on East 52nd featured a large sugar statue of Bartholdi, while the mechanical smörgåsbord at Three Crowns Restaurant rotated at v = 0.2 r.p.m.

Above is the key; here are two pages from the guide.


Steve Sosman
03/06/2013 8:18pm

Thank you, Hugh. Lovely piece. I think you should write a biography of Dr. Sosman.

RBS was my grandfather -- there are 4 of us left, all from his son George -- and he was truly a very extraordinary man, not only for his work with the Appalachian Trail and for Gustavademecum or for becoming the 'Father of Silica Dioxide,' but for his genius in refractories, designing liners for steel furnaces for US Steel in Kearney, NJ, so NYC could be built.

Did you realize that his symbols were hand-drawn? He could print in 2 point Pica and 1 Point Elite. His eyes were different that our, I suspect, because his vision was tested as 10-5. Impossible but true. I remember from my childhood Christmas and birthday cards, which I had to look at with a magnifying glass.

In retirement he went to Rutgers to teach. There's a Sosman Award lecture series by the American Ceramic Society. There's another Sosman lecture series for his younger brother Merrill, who was a pioneer radiologist and equally famous in his field.

Perhaps I shouldn't mention it, but Grandfather Robert channeled me 12 years ago in October to say that steel girders and trusses in offices building do not EVER EVER melt with kerosene and office furniture fires. For whatever that's worth. I tried to ask a follow-up question about Building 7 but the connection was lost.

Outsiide of the Gustavadamecum and the Appalachian Trail, RBS felt his greatest achievement was to bring together scientists from around the world so that they could share info, and he made many connections in Asia and Europe -- tough to do back in those years when we were warlike. When they moved to Westfield, he held a monthly meeting for every scientist he met from the NY area, inviting them over for wine and bridge and song and my Grandma Sally at the piano -- whatever middle-aged people did back then before TV but after radio. I have his daily journals.

In 1900, when RBS was 18, there simply wasn't that much 'world information' to know -- and everything available he could read or learn he'd already devoured -- by age 6 or 7. He knew everything that the world knew that had been 'published,' for want of a better term. In 1900, there was little communication between 'scientists' in one town, let alone a country or continent or 'colony.'

I've written enuf. Did I mention simplified spelling?

Steve Henkel
06/29/2013 8:59am

I have a copy of your grandfather's Gustavademecum, eleventh Edition, St. Theodotus Day (2 March) 1954. There doesn't seem to be a full copy (16 pages) on the internet, possibly because of the copyright (1946) which may or may not have expired by now. If you would like to see the full book on the net, and can provide the proper permissions from the current copyright owner (if any), perhaps I can help.

Steve Sosman
07/15/2013 8:57am

For Steve Henkel -- I don't know much about copyright law, but even assuming that Gustavademecum is not yet in the public domain, it should be available on the Internet, especially for all the NYC restaurant historians. I have a number of issues from various years, but never have known what to do with them, so if you want to post yours, please go ahead. But I would like to retain the movie rights. :-)


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