Inspired by the spectacular properties of electricity, early experimentalists devised some ingenious and bizarre ways to use it.
There’s a proposal in the 1755 issue of the General Magazine of Arts and Sciences for “perpetually electrifying the plants and trees of an artificial garden”. Although never realised, the scheme used two glass globes to generate a constant electric field for an irrigated garden.
Martin Benjamin, inventor of the ‘electrified garden’, and editor of the magazine, notes that electricity is “well known greatly to promote Vegetation in Plants”.
Martin was one of a group of itinerant electrical lecturers and demonstrators who emerged in the 1740s, as the scientific understanding of electrical phenomena increased. Eighteenth century provincial towns, with their theatres, libraries and assembly rooms, provided a flourishing cultural scene where spectacular electrical demonstrations drew large crowds. Despite some religious misgivings about tinkering with the forces of nature, audiences were intrigued by experiments in which objects were moved by invisible forces that could be made visible, heard and directly felt as electric sparks and shocks.
Electrical demonstrations were often based on experiments first done at the Royal Society, but, because lecturers such as Martin made a living from their shows and drew a popular audience, they were often viewed with suspicion by the establishment. Martin entered into an pamphlet debate with surgeon John Freke after publishing his Essay on Electricity. Freke believed that electricity, or ‘vivacity’ as he called it, was a manifestation of the life force, and to “get money by showing these Experiments” was wrong.
The spark of life
Electricity had little practical use in the 18th century, but was generally believed to exercise a positive influence on living things. It was closely linked to the theory of vitalism – the belief that living organisms were fundamentally different from inanimate objects because they contained some vital principle, which some equated with the soul.
The Italian experimentalist Luigi Galvani believed that the innate animal electricity he discovered in 1780 was somehow different from electricity in the outside world, and may even have been the mystical ‘vital principle’. But his compatriot Alessandro Volta challenged this vitalist view by showing that the electricity generated by his chemical generating device, the voltaic pile, produced the same effects as animal electricity. Such debates about the nature of electricity continued into the 19th century.
Vitalism also impacted on the physician’s approach to medicine. Vitalists tended to believe that the body healed naturally, and that their role was to enable this natural process. Other physicians with a more mechanistic view of the world tended to be more interventionist, using medicines and other treatments to heal their patients.
Even into the 19th century advertisements for electrical devices often hint at the link between electricity and vitalism, offering electricity as an alternative cure to medicine or ‘physic’. “Stop taking medicine and try Nature’s own remedy: electricity!” was the slogan on a metallic medallion worn around the neck.
Many of the devices claimed to restore or supplement the body’s animal electricity, thus imparting “new life and vigour”. At a time when many patent medicines might contain dangerous amounts of opiates, or arsenic and other toxins, a device that claimed “weakness overcome and health restored without physic” might seem very attractive.