Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained: Lightning and Enlightenment in the Gazeta De Literatura De México (1788-1795)

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained: Lightning and Enlightenment in the Gazeta De Literatura De México (1788-1795)

Article excerpt

THE INTRODUCTION OF ANY NEW IDEA into a society, especially one that challenges common or long-held beliefs, often involves a finely balanced presentation of the potential risk versus the probable gains involved in the process. The individual or group propounding the new idea must seek to place their arguments in a recognizable context, present an acceptable basis for their authoritative stance, and underline the possible ramifications of any form of rejection. Such was the situation in late-colonial Mexico as the secular priest and editor José Antonio Alzate y Ramírez (1737-99) struggled to find acceptance among the reading public of the Gazeta de Literatura de México ( 1 788-95) for what was, i? the opinion of some, the highly suspect introduction of an instrument known as a lightning rod (barra eléctrica or pararayo)} The arguments and criticism ringing out from the pages of the periodical paint a picture of a society that was torn between the fear of natural elements (linked in part to superstitious beliefs) and the unknown and untested powers of the new technology. This fear, as Alzate is quick to point out, was no greater than the fear evident on occasion among the inhabitants of some of the greatest cities in Europe, including Paris.2 It was an assessment that placed the Spanish American reaction to more extreme natural phenomena on a par with their European contemporaries. Yet by the mid 1790s it seems possible that the only lightning rod existent in Mexico City was the self-constructed model belonging to Alzate y Ramírez.1

The appearance of the lightning rod in Mexico was not the result of a spontaneous discovery or even the passive adoption of an idea into a scientific vacuum. It formed part of an established history of studying natural resources, building upon long-used skills, and transforming ideas to suit the particularities of Mexican reality. As Antonio Lafuente has argued regarding the globalization of science through the process of adaptation, from the point of view of the receiver, "the pre-existing cultural base has been enriched (and deformed) by something different and external."4 It is the interactive, not die passive, nature of the process that allows for "novelty" to be accepted and used to advantage. In line with this argument, recent scholarship has demonstrated an increasing interest in the use of language, methods, and structures in studies of the history of science in the so-called peripheral regions of the world. Terms such as "western" and "nonwestern" or "colonial" and "metropolitan," long used as opposing forces and frequently portrayed as antagonistic and incompatible by nature, are now being opened up for broader discussion in an attempt to understand the intricacies of the spread of knowledge in the early modern period.5 Within the wider field of Spanish American history, the work of such figures as Patricia Aceves Pastrana, David Brading, Jorge Cañizares Esguerra, Juan José Saldaña, and Alberto Saladino García, to name but a few, have continued to address the many issues arising from the complexities of understanding scientific movements within their local and international contexts. This essay builds upon die arguments developed within this recent scholarship on the Spanish Americas to show how Alzate, working within an international framework of scientific exchange, used the Gazeta de Literatura as an interactive vehicle for renewal on a local level.

The lightning rod is only one aspect of the scientific discourse taking place in Mexico in die eighteenth century falling under the broader banner of "physics" or the "new philosophy." Evidence of interest in the new theories in this field can be seen from the early seventeenth century onward with references to Copernicus, Galileo, and Descartes, among others. By the mid-eighteenth century, a small group of Creole scientists was working to propagate new ways of approaching education in this area, with particular interest in the natural world. …

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