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Science as Spectacle

J.G. Doppelmayr. Neu-endeckte Phaenomena von Bewundern-würdigen Würckungen der Natur, 1744

In the 1850s, Michael Faraday’s lecture-demonstrations at London’s Royal Institution filled its halls to capacity. He may have been the first scientist who was also a genuine celebrity, his popularity comparable only to that of Charles Dickens.

But by Faraday’s time, the public’s demand for scientific spectacle was no longer new. For over a century, people eager to witness the latest developments in “natural philosophy” had been packing the salons of Paris and filling lecture halls across Great Britain and Europe.

G.M. Bose. Tentamina Electrica in Academiis Regiis Londinensi et Parisina, 1744

The early 1700s had seen the development of devices that could generate a substantial electrical charge, and this enabled widespread research on the mysterious properties of electricity. In addition to other important discoveries, British researcher Stephen Gray determined that living bodies could conduct electricity.

In his most famous public experiment, Gray suspended a boy from the ceiling via silk cords and then “electrified” him with a charged glass tube. Spectators marveled as feathers, metal shavings, and other materials defied gravity and ascended into the child’s outstretched hands.

J.A. Nollet. Essai sur l'électricité des corps, 1765

The “electrified boy” experiment was duplicated by other researchers who were interested in attracting an audience (or a patron), including the noted French physicist Jean-Antoine Nollet. Contemporaries writing books about recent developments in the science of electricity would include engravings of the boy in their publications.

The electrified boy appears repeatedly in 18th century titles from the Vail Collection, though there’s wide variation in the images’ style and content. Images range from a simple etching depicting the bare bones of the experiment, to a highly detailed scene set in a Paris salon, incorporating both the “electrician” conducting the demonstration and a group of lavishly dressed observers.

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