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Faraday and Table-Talk

Table-turning was among the many supernatural phenomena that caught the public’s attention during the 19th century. Similar to the movement of the planchette during a Ouija board séance, a table would begin moving among the participants sitting around it.

Michael Faraday (who is well represented in the Vail Collection) came out in public against table-turning and all supernatural séance activities. He censured both the public and the British education system for buying into it. But many continued to attribute these table movements to an invisible force, like electricity or magnetism.

Always the scientist, Faraday tried using a variety of insulators, such as wood and rubber, to interfere with the table’s movement, and observed no difference in the movement. He concluded that no special force was at work. Finally, in 1853, he conducted an experiment proving (to him and most other scientists) that table-turning was the result of participants’ ideomotor action. That is to say, participants were unconsciously moving the tables themselves. This remains the accepted explanation today.

J. Prichard. A Few Sober Words of Table-Talk About Table-Spirits, and the Rev. N.S. Godfrey’s Incantations, 1853

In his A Few Sober Words of Table-Talk, John Prichard agrees that the movement is the result of some physical phenomenon, not a supernatural force. He even refers to Faraday’s experiments, expressing his belief that “the public will not readily give up its plaything.” Prichard thinks the cause “partakes somewhat of the character of what chemists call ‘the attraction of adhesion.’” While Prichard agrees with Faraday in principle, he doesn’t buy Faraday’s explanation. In the first edition of his pamphlet, Prichard posits that table-turning is the result of this scientific attraction he calls “adhesion.” That is, until the second edition came out.

J. Prichard. A Few Sober Words of Table-Talk About Table-Spirits, and the Rev. N.S. Godfrey’s Incantations. 2nd ed., 1853

Prichard mailed a copy of the first edition to Faraday (pictured here). In addition to the author’s presentation inscription, the back of the pamphlet also bears stamps and a postmark dated October 31, 1853. On November 5, Prichard mailed Faraday the second edition (also pictured here), which contains a preface dated November 2. In his preface, he admits that since the publication of the first edition – just days earlier – “facts have been placed before my eyes which have conclusively proved the fallacy of my solution.” But he audaciously writes that he has failed in good company, since Faraday also failed to explain the phenomenon (Faraday was right, remember).

Especially interesting is that Prichard enclosed with the second edition a letter, in which he evasively blames his fallacy on some unexplained “deceit.” What’s more, he asks Faraday to endorse his theory in the Times. So even as Prichard denigrates Faraday’s explanation, he asks the famous scientist to publicly vouch for his own (wrong) explanation in London’s newspaper of record.

Letter from Prichard to Faraday, and Faraday's notes.

Prichard assures his readers, though, that his fallacy has led him to something greater yet, which he explains in the second edition. Indeed, Prichard has discovered that there is an interaction between atoms, nerves, and electricity that creates a force “antagonistic to the force of gravity.” In short, he has discovered a completely new physical law, boldly declaring that not only will the theory of gravity need to be revisited, but the very movement of the cosmos must be reconsidered.

Faraday seems to take it all in stride. His copy of Prichard’s pamphlet – and the letter Prichard addressed to him – bears his own annotations. They betray not only the attention he paid to a topic on the scientific fringe, but also a subtle sense of humor that’s missing from most accounts of the great scientist’s life.

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