The panopticons of Cuba

In a few places, Bentham's vision was realised. Then it became commonplace.

In 1786, Jeremy Bentham (the philosopher and social theorist who made great inroads in the fields of ethics, jurisprudence and political philosophy, as well as being the "spiritual", if not actual, founder of UCL) visited his brother Samuel in Russia, who was working for Prince Grigory Potemkin helping administer the new provinces the country had won in the Russo-Turkish War. There, Samuel suggested to him the idea of a circular building at the core of a larger compound, by which a few guards could oversee a much bigger group of workers.

Jeremy took the idea and ran with it, eventually publishing his plans five years later under the title Panopticon; or, The Inspection-House. He laid out his idea for a great building, focusing specifically on the application of his ideas to a prison, but emphasising the flexibility with which they could apply to hospitals, schools or "mad-houses". As his brother suggested, it would be circular building, with a glass lantern in the middle where the guards would keep watch, "roughly the size of Ranaleigh [sic]", meaning the rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea:

The Ranelagh Rotunda, as painted by Canaletto. The picture now hangs in the National Gallery

But Jeremy improved his brother's idea in one crucial way. As well as allowing just a few guards to administer an entire prison, his plan involved concealing the inspectors from the view of the prisoners, "by blinds and other contrivances". The idea then is that the prisoners are forced to act as though they're being watched, even if there's no one in the watchtower at all.

In practice, this element of the idea was too cumbersome to pull off. It was one thing, with 18th and 19th century technology, to obscure where someone was looking; but it was quite another to obscure whether they were even present at all, in a building which must, to be effective, allow occupants to look out from 360 degrees.

Philosophy students, on learning about Bentham and the panopticon, tend to assume it was a thought experiment, designed to elaborate some aspect of the human psyche. It wasn't; he actually spent the better over a decade trying to get it built, before billing the government £700,000 (just under £50m in 2012 pounds) for his time. They paid him £23,000.

But the fact that Bentham's panopticon was never built doesn't mean it never existed. In fact, prisons around the world incorporated his ideas, although few of them attempted to implement the hidden-observance aspect of it, even after inventions like two-way mirrors would have made it practical to do so. The two best-known (and photographed) ones are in the Americas.

Image from a period postcard.

The Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois (above) has the circular building, central guard tower and stacked cells, and the Encyclopaedia of Chicago confirms the Benthamite influence. The prison itself is still open, and the roundhouse block is now used to segregate inmates from the general population, as well as holding prisoners awaiting trial or transfer.

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

The Presidio Modelo, a Cuban "model prison" built on an island off the country's south coast in the 1920s, was also built to a panopticon design. Tourists can now visit the prisons, which have four panopticon blocks, and a fifth where speaking was banned.

Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

It's not hard to see why the panopticon idea has fallen out of fashion. For one thing, it was a surprisingly inefficient way of holding prisoners; the large central area required means that the jails based on the idea take up a lot of room compared to more traditional designs. And the real problems with prison discipline have never been prisoners in their cells, but in communal areas – which a panopticon design can't really help with.

But the biggest reason is obsolescence. Where technology initially prevented actual prisons from employing the continuous observance aspect, it's now standard thanks to CCTV. And not just in jails, either. For most of us in our daily lives, we're never quite sure whether anyone else is watching. Even if we aren't moving, our electronic communications could be being observed. Bentham's vision arrived, two hundred years late. And he's still owed £677,000 for his time.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times