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Sparks in the dark: the attraction of electricity in the eighteenth century

Sparks in the dark: the attraction of electricity in the eighteenth century



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Published by blue.shift8714
Endeavour, Volume 31, Issue 3, September 2007, Pages 88-93

Paola Bertucci

Electricity was the craze of the eighteenth century. Thrilling experiments became forms of polite entertainment for ladies and gentlemen who enjoyed feeling sparks, shocks and attractions on their bodies. Popular lecturers designed demonstrations that were performed in darkened salons to increase the spectacle of the so-called electric fire. Not only did the action, the machinery and the ambience of such displays match the culture of the libertine century, it also provided new material for erotic literature.
Endeavour, Volume 31, Issue 3, September 2007, Pages 88-93

Paola Bertucci

Electricity was the craze of the eighteenth century. Thrilling experiments became forms of polite entertainment for ladies and gentlemen who enjoyed feeling sparks, shocks and attractions on their bodies. Popular lecturers designed demonstrations that were performed in darkened salons to increase the spectacle of the so-called electric fire. Not only did the action, the machinery and the ambience of such displays match the culture of the libertine century, it also provided new material for erotic literature.

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Published by: blue.shift8714 on Sep 18, 2008
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Sparks in the dark: the attraction ofelectricity in the eighteenth century
Paola Bertucci
CIS-Dipartimento di Filosofia, Via Zamboni 38, 40126 Bologna, Italy
Electricitywas the craze of the eighteenth century. Thril-ling experiments became forms of polite entertainmentfor ladies and gentlemen who enjoyed feeling sparks,shocks and attractions on their bodies. Popular lecturersdesigned demonstrations that were performed in dar-kened salons to increase the spectacle of the so-calledelectric fire. Not only did the action, the machinery andthe ambience of such displays match the culture of thelibertine century, it also provided new material for eroticliterature.Electric party
‘A turkey is to be killed for dinner by the electricshock, and roasted by the electric jack, before a firekindled by the electrified bottle; when the healths of all the famous electricians of England, France, Hol-land, and Germany, are to be drunk in electrifiedbumpers, under the discharge of guns from the elec-trical battery [1].’This description of an electrical party, penned by Ben- jamin Franklin in 1749, humorously captures the eight-eenth-century craze for everything electric. In the age of Enlightenment, electricity was one of the most promising branches of experimental philosophy as well as one of themost requested forms of polite entertainment. Aristocraticladies and gentlemen delighted in experimenting with thenewly discovered powers of the ‘electric fire’. In darkenedsalons demonstrators choreographed simple electricalphenomena such as attractions, sparks and shocks so as to turn them into interactive performances thatinvolved the audience and that appealed to the cultureof the libertine century.
The new science of the Enlightenment
 Although the etymology of the word electricity testifies tothe fact that the attractive properties of rubbed amber(
in Greek) had been known since antiquity, at thetime Franklin wrote, electricity was still regarded as ayoungscience.In1767,almosttwodecadeslater,hisfriendand chemist Joseph Priestley termed it the ‘youngestdaughter of the sciences’[2]. Indeed, it was in the age of Enlightenment that electricity gained prominence both intheacademicworldandinthepublicsphere.Startingfromthe1740s,learnedaudiencesinEuropeandNorthAmericabecame familiar with a natural power as disruptive aslightning and as enchanting as the aurora borealis, aphenomenon that also promised sensational new thera-pies.Itinerant lecturers toured capitals and provinces withtheir portable electrical apparatus, offering dramaticdemonstrations of the laws effects of the ‘electric fire’ inpublic squares and aristocratic salons. Their activity madeelectricity one of the most discussed topics of polite con- versations, with the media of the time extolling instru-ments and inventors. As early as 1745 readers of the
Gentleman’s Magazine
would learn of the ‘wonderful dis-coveries’ recently made in the field, ‘so surprising as toawaken the indolent curiosity of the public’. Not only theliterate, but even ‘ladies and people of quality, who neverregard natural philosophy but when it works miracles’,became interested in electrical effects: ‘princes were will-ingtoseethisnewfirewhichamanproducedfromhimself,and which did not descend from heaven’[3].Electrical phenomena as simple as attractions andrepulsions between charged bodies were choreographedto keep audiences from boredom. Spectators could feelon their own bodies the effects of electricity: if properly connected to the electrical machine they could see theirhair raise or their hands attract small pieces of paper.Several instruments especially designed for scientific soir-e´escontributedtomakeaspectacleofelectricity(Figure1).Instrument-makers exploited what we now know as elec-trostatic induction to make paper puppets dance or met-allic bells ring, whereas the livid light of electrical sparkswasdisplayedinthedarkinordertoincreasetheatricality.Spectators could so admire spirals of sparks appearing inside glass tubes, luminescent images flashing onto woo-den boards, suggestive bluish or greenish glows filling exhausted glass vessels.In 1746 the introduction of the Leyden jar (what is nowcalled a cylindrical condenser) enhanced the dramaticcharacter of electric demonstrations by allowing storageof the electric fire and its sudden release as shocks orsparks. The instrument contributed to the design of newfashionable, though somewhat shocking, experiments. By touching the jar’s inside and outside coating with bothhands, it was possible to provoke an instantaneous electricdischarge through one’s body. The ‘Leyden experiment’, asthis phenomenon was known from the name of the townwhere it was first discovered, aroused great curiosity. AsFranklindeclared,for anumberofingeniouslecturerswhoshoweditformoney,itmeant‘meat,drinkandclothing’[4].The French instrument-maker and public demonstratorJean Antoine Nollet made the Leyden experiment collec-
Vol.31 No.3
Corresponding author:
Bertucci, P. (paola.bertucci@unibo.it). Available online 6 August 2007.
www.sciencedirect.com 0160-9327/$ – see front matter
2007 Published by Elsevier Ltd. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2007.06.002
tive by forming chains of people holding hands: they wouldbe shocked simultaneously as the first and the last personin the circle touched the inside and the outside coating of the jar (Figure 2).
Useful electricity
 Along with the Leyden jar, another innovation broughtelectricity to the fore of learned discussions and public in-terest: medical electricity. The therapeutic virtues of elec-tricity remained a debated issue throughout the century,nonetheless patientswere receptive towards the possibility that the newly discovered electric fire might also be ahealingagent.Equippedwiththemostup-to-dateelectricalinstruments, performers readily included ‘medical’ electri-cityintheirrepertoireoftheatricaldemonstrations,offering toadministershocksandsparksfortherapeuticpurposesinthe course of their performances[5].IfutilitywasakeywordoftheEnlightenment,electricity was definitely an enlightened science. Its useful appli-cations were not limited to innovative therapy. As it iswell-known, Benjamin Franklin was a fervent advocate of lightning rods, grounded metallic conductors that wereemployed for preventingbuildingsandpeoplefrom thedireeffects of lightning. Franklin based his promotion of light-ningrodsonhisowntheoryofelectricity,accordingtowhichthemovementoftheelectricfirewasresponsibleforseveraldisruptive phenomena, both in the atmosphere and in thebowels of the earth. As Priestley made clear in his
Historyand Present State of Electricity
, by the second half of theeighteenth century electricity was regarded as a naturalagent that could account for several disruptive ‘unusualappearances’. Not only lightning, but also earthquakes,whirlpools and whirlwinds were explained in terms of themotion of the electric fire. Several instruments helpeddemonstrators illustrate the implications of Franklin’stheory to the public. Thunder houses dramatically demon-strated the difference metallic conductors would make incase lightning struck a building, whereas the ‘aurora flask’reproduced the aurora borealis which was regarded as anelectrical phenomenon on a small scale (Figure 3). Suchdemonstrations contributed to the construction of an elec-trical cosmos: health, sickness, thunderstorm, earthquakesand aurora borealis, all resulted from the motions of theelectric fire.
Science in the salon
The quick reception of electrical science in the publicsphere was strictly tied to the ongoing success of exper-imental philosophy. Public lectures on natural philosophy,based on experimental demonstrations, were well-estab-lished forms of education and recreation in the mid-eight-eenth century [6]. Newtonian natural philosophy spreadwidely thanks to the courses that itinerant lecturersoffered to paying audiences. Educated ladies and gentle-men delighted in experimenting on the natural world andthe conversations they hosted in their salons – which can
Figure 1
. Portable electrical instruments used in scientific soire´es. Fig. 1 is a thunder-house, Fig. 2 is an aurora flask, Fig. 8 a friction generator (cylinder electrical machine),Fig. 10 electric bells, Fig. 12 a magic board, Fig. 13 a luminous tube. From Tiberius Cavallo (1795)
A treatise on electricity 
, London. Courtesy of the Bakken Library andMuseum for Electricity in Life.
Vol.31 No.3 89
be regarded as one of the cultural spaces of the Enlight-enment – often focused on scientific subjects. Instrumentssuch as the orrery (or planetarium), the air pump, micro-scopes and telescopes, were familiar items not only for thelearned but also for the polite. As icons of natural knowl-edge, they were included in gentlemanly collections of curiositiesandrarities,orexhibitedinespeciallydedicatedphysics cabinets. As electrical experiments gained theattention of the public, lecturers readily included thenew science in their repertoire of demonstrations whileinstrument makers promptly added electrical instrumentsin their sales catalogues[7].Electrical phenomena, on their part, lent themselvesparticularly well to the culture of public performances,whichblendedspectacleandeducation.Indarkenedsalonselectrical performers staged a repertoire of sparks andattractions that exhilarated their audiences. The electricfire revealed itself to the eyes, the ears and even the nose:itslividlightwasaccompaniedbyacracklingnoiseandlefta distinctive sulphurous smell. Audiences in search of entertainment and education were particularly impressedby the sensuous experience of the electric fire. Electricalsoire´es never failed to satisfy such expectation.In 1730 Stephen Gray, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, conceived an experiment that demonstrated theability of the human body to conduct electricity. The so-called ‘flying-boy experiment’ became one of the most pop-ular demonstrations that made the fortune of itinerantperformers throughout Europe. Suspended by silk cords,ayoungboywasconnectedtoafrictiongeneratorbyhisfeet:bythismeanshishandscouldattractsmallpiecesofpapers.In the course of the century several variations were pro-posed:theboy’selectrifiedhandsturnedthepagesofabook,or transmitted the electric fire to a young girl who wouldattractlightobjectsherself.Nolletinvolvedtheladiesintheaudience:astheyapproachedtheirfingerstotheboy’snoseabig spark could be seen and heard (Figure 4).The inclusion of the human body in electrical demon-strations increased their spectacularity and the curiosity they aroused among polite society. With the armoury of attractions, repulsions, sparks and shocks, itinerantdemonstrators could be certain of success.
Bodily attractions
Women became essential protagonists of electrical soire´es.Electrical performances staged in courts and salonscounted on their active participation and played withsexual difference. Although both men and women couldexperience the electric fire with their bodies, they wouldtackle it in different ways. The most common electricalexperiments provide a glimpse into the different rolessalon culture codified for ladies and gentlemen. One of 
Figure 2
. Anonymous hand-coloured drawing showing experiments with the Lyeden jar. Courtesy of the Bakken Library and Museum for Electricity in Life.
Vol.31 No.3

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