Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

CHAPTER 10: Electricity Sparks the Imagination

Academic journal article Consciousness, Literature & the Arts

CHAPTER 10: Electricity Sparks the Imagination

Article excerpt

As a medical remedy, electricity was somewhat controversially deployed [in the 18th century] in the cure of various diseases, ranging from common toothache to palsy, dropsy, tetanus and gout. It was put forward especially as a rather less painful therapy than many of the crude surgical treatments then common. "Medical electricity" was promoted by natural philosophers and instrument makers, as well as by surgeons, apothecaries, and self-trained practitioners, with instruments used in other aspects of experimental practice being modified and adapted to medical purposes. All approaches to the medical applications of electricity, however different, shared a common rhetoric of the usefulness of electricity as a complement to its entertaining aspects.

PAOLA BERTUCCi, Sparks in the Dark (1998)

Historical Summary

One of the dilemmas historian's face is that the need to provide a condensed story requires the slicing and dicing of the complex cadences of any historical period. A good example is the way that the last few chapters looked at the 18th century and yet seem largely removed from the excitement about electricity at that time. Indeed, the ways in which the phenomenon captured the imagination then in effect begs the question: what were the early sparks and why the later bonfire?

Given that electricity's rich history also extends back much further than the 18th century we must additionally ask why the broad scope of electricity is not as thoroughly integrated into popular parlance historically as that of light. Perhaps the difference derives from the obvious ways in which light is involved in perception and our daily reality, with day following night regularly. Although we take electricity for granted today, its versatility only began to become striking in the 18th century, when it served as a form of entertainment, community education, and a subject for scientific research (Bertucci 2007). Electric eel parties, for example, were all the rage. Attendees might do "experiments" to see how many people could feel a shock if they linked themselves by joining hands. These events were not simply a way to pass the time. When John Walsh, one of John Hunter's collaborators, turned his talents to electricity, he even brought this popular party game to the Royal Society in London (Fig. 45). During a 1776 demonstration to convince members that electric eels do, in fact, generate sparks that could be seen across a small gap in a wire, Walsh asked his fellow members to form a human chain in a darkened room to prove his point (Finger and Piccolino 2011).

Delving into the rich historical trajectory of experiments with electricity helps frame the evolution of interest in this physical phenomenon. Chapter 3 noted that the Ebers Papyrus of ancient Egypt (c. 1500-1700 вс) is one of the oldest medical documents we have discovered. It also contains the first known account suggesting an awareness of the therapeutic possibilities of the electric fish, in the form of a salve for headaches and migraines. It is hard to say definitively how well the treatment worked, if at all, since dead fish would hardly have the same effect on the body as a living one. We can merely conclude that the medication is likely tied to early awareness that electric fish had the capacity to produce stiffness, numbness, and paralysis when handled. Since fishermen were in contact with the fish, a likely scenario is that they detected the ability of the fish to influence the body without direct contact and this knowledge resulted in the recipe for the concoction. Even if the salve prescription was not truly effective it is historically interesting because it speaks of an effort to apply known properties of the electric fish to healing.

We also know that the Ionian philosopher Thales of Miletus (624 - c. 546 вс), a pre-Socratic Greek long acknowledged as one with an empirical bent, made studies of static electricity. He observed that rubbing fur on various substances, such as amber, would cause an attraction between the two (¿e. …

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