In the Beginning
The first technologies we recognize as “electrical” arose in the activities of natural philosophers who, today, might be called physicists. What distinguishes their works from scholastic philosophy, with its unresolvable debates, and from other systems of knowledge, like religion, is a reliance on experiment. Although not without faith in authorities, scientists use experiments to create and evaluate purported knowledge about empirical phenomena. Many people—including this author—would claim that experimentation is a necessary part of scientific research. 1
Of course it all depends on how experiment is defined. My definition is simple: an experiment is an activity in which the investigator manipulates a technology, in a laboratory or other setting, to make evident some empirical phenomenon or “effect. ” 2 Defined this broadly, an experiment (not unlike the French term expérience) can include activities such as observing through a microscope or telescope as well as electrifying a substance or flying a kite. In preference to the term “instrument” and in conformity with much eighteenth-century usage, I label the technology of scientific activities “apparatus. ” Regrettably, instrument implies to some people a technology that is elaborate, specialized, or expensive. 3 But electrical science prior to 1800 was mainly about producing effects using any things that were suitable. As we shall soon see, electrical apparatus included a surprising array of mundane objects and materials, everything from glass tubes to beeswax to sirloin steak.
In addition to the scientist's active participation in an experiment, assistants—usually anonymous—also had close interactions with the technology. In many eighteenth-century experiments, the human body sometimes served as a reservoir or conductor of charge and also as a sensor for