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Nishq Ravindranath

HPSC20022 Final Essay

Student number: 689291

To what extent was electrical science in the eighteenth century shaped by the public
nature of electrical experiments?

Of all the different branches of natural philosophy that blossomed during the Age of Enlightenment
in the 18th century, electrical science emerged as the most interesting and unique. At the heart of
this branch of science was a strange new phenomenon that marvelled all of Europe – electricity. To
the average person, the discovery of electricity was an exciting one. Its unknown nature and
properties made it a mystery for all those who interacted with it. And thanks to its prominence in
the public domain, many interacted with it – not just those who researched or applied it, as was the
case with most other branches of natural philosophy1. Electrical science in the 18th century was a
public spectacle – it was a fashionable form of entertainment for all classes of society, with public
lectures, experiments, demonstrations and debates just to name a few2. In this essay I argue that
this public nature of electrical experimentation significantly shaped the perception and development
of electrical science in the 18th century.
Experimental philosophy was revolutionized by the advent of electrical experimentation. Prior to
this, early experiments in science and philosophy included those on anatomy, optics, vacuum and
heat, which could be seen by the audiences and was the only way to perceive them3. The change
that electrical experiments brought about was the way in which audiences – the public could
interact with electricity. Not only could they see, but also hear and feel it, allowing them to
participate in the experiment. Whether it was the production of sparks, the feeling of a simple static
discharge on their fingertips, the attraction and repulsion of charged bodies, the electric
beatification resulting in a glowing halo, or the electric kiss, there was no shortage of ways to
interact with the phenomena4.
This ability of electricity to be intelligible to such depth allowed more people to delve further into
the nature of it. Every individual’s interaction with electricity had the possibility of being different
from others, due to the individuals themselves being the experiments. This meant that each
experience was different, and thus there were many discussions and debates on the true nature of
electricity. Prior to this, opinions on experiments in natural philosophy were only valuable if they
belonged to a scientist or an academic in that field, but electrical experiments opened up electrical
science to everyone5. This promoted a sense of inclusivity – every individual’s opinion was equally
valuable, an ideal that was in line with the changes that were taking place to the public sphere in
Europe at the time.

1

Murphy, C., 2013. Shocks and Sparks: Participatory Electrical Performances in the Enlightenment Period.
In Theatre, Performance and Analogue Technology (pp. 161-182). Palgrave Macmillan UK.
2

Bertucci, P., 2007. Sparks in the dark: the attraction of electricity in the eighteenth century. Endeavour, 31(3),
pp.88-93.
3

Murphy, C. Shocks and Sparks.

4

Bertucci, P. Sparks in the dark.

5

Schaffer, S., 1983. Natural philosophy and public spectacle in the eighteenth century. History of science, 21(1),
pp.1-43.

Nishq Ravindranath

HPSC20022 Final Essay

Student number: 689291

The new types of public spheres that transpired in major European cities towards the end of the 17th
century were ones that rendered every person equal – regardless of their social distinctions. Like
electrical science in the 18th century, these public spheres were inclusive6. Coffee houses, public
houses, and salons are just a few examples of public spheres where electric experimentation was
prominent7. In a sense it was a perfect match – the bourgeois notion of equality and inclusivity was
conducive to fuel the popularity of electrical experimentation. The bourgeois public sphere
encouraged diversity of opinion and experience, which was something that electrical experiments
could deliver, paving the way for even the average person to indulge in electrical science in some
way or the other.
This indulgence of the average person into electrical experimentation took many forms. Some
amateurs would group together and experiment with electricity as a hobby, others would present
the experiments in front of large audiences for money, moving from town to town like a circus8.
However, this information presents us with a question – how does this indulgence relate to the
development of electrical science? Thanks to its ease of replicability, as well as its compatibility with
the bourgeois beliefs at the time, electrical science gained significant popularity. And this popularity
resulted in more and more people devoting time and attention to it, more so than any other branch
of natural philosophy at the time9. Which in consequence boosted the development of electrical
science, and even shaped the way it was developed.
This public nature of electrical science resulted in its development being swayed into Baconian
territory, rather than shaping it into a quantitative and mathematical science for the duration of the
18th century10. This is evident from the reception to Franz Aepinus’ work Tentamen Theoriae
Electricitatis et Magnetismi (Attempt at a Theory of Electricity and Magnetism). It was criticized for
including too much quantification11, showing that electrical science in the 18th century was favoured
if it was more investigative. However, this investigative property of the study of electrical science
does not necessarily entail from its public nature. While the method may not be quantitative, most
discoveries in electrical science were made by researchers and academics who published papers on
their findings. Amateurs and itinerant philosophers didn’t contribute to the development of
instruments and discoveries the way real academics did12. While they were successful in engaging
the public and bringing the science to the mass, primarily private research was still the key to
shaping electrical science.

6

Habermas, J., 1991. The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois
society. MIT press.
7
Bertucci, P. Sparks in the dark.
8

Hochadel, O., 2003. A Shock to the Public: Itinerant Lecturers and Instrument Makers as Practitioners of
Electricity in the German Enlightenment (1740-1800). Nuova Voltiana: Studies on Volta and his Times, 5, pp.5367.
9

Heilbron, J.L., 1979. Electricity in the 17th and 18th centuries: A study of early modern physics (pp. 18). Univ of
California Press.
10

Kuhn, T.S., 1976. Mathematical vs. experimental traditions in the development of physical science. The
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 7(1), pp.1-31.
11

Home, R.W., 2015. Aepinus's Essay on the Theory of Electricity and Magnetism. Princeton University Press.

12

Hochadel, O. A Shock to the Public.

Nishq Ravindranath

HPSC20022 Final Essay

Student number: 689291

While the public nature of electrical science has been discussed here, it is also important to consider
the private nature, particularly in the domain of universities. Experimental lectures had gained
popularity in universities in the 18th century, which had a direct impact on the income of lecturers.
Public experimental lectures, which were free, presented instruments and phenomenon that only
served as a precursor to what they had in store for private lectures, where most of the money was
made. Better instruments and experiments in private lectures were advertised in the public lectures,
which students and observers would pay the lecturers to see. The revenue from private lectures
offset the high price of instruments, without which many researchers and academics may have been
unable to practice and work on electrical science at all.
While it can be argued that without these public lectures the private lectures would not have been
marketed as well, and that both go hand in hand in the development of electrical science, it was still
the private practice from experts that resulted in the major discoveries. Instruments such as the
lightning rod, Leyden jar, electrophorus and the voltaic pile were all invented by academic
practitioners in the field of electrical science13. Their method may have been investigative, but the
sphere that they operated in while developing their instruments was private. This shows that the
public nature of electrical experimentation may have only covered the aspect of being a spectacle,
or a presentation, whereas the private nature determined the contents of this spectacle, thus
steering the development of electrical science.
However, it should be noted that this public nature of electrical science extended beyond just
lectures and presentations. Discoveries that were made privately led to fierce contention among the
masses when made public. A great example of this is the Volta-Galvani debate over the existence of
animal electricity. The publication of their differences in opinion sparked a sort of fanaticism in the
public sphere, with some “Galvanists” siding with Galvani, and others with Volta. This contention
lasted years with many counter arguments going back and forth. Both scientists, in a bid to outdo
and disprove each other, made stronger arguments which was accompanied by newer discoveries,
like the Voltaic Pile14. It can thus be argued that there was more at stake for each of them given the
public nature of their contention, and thus it fuelled them to work even harder.
The public nature of electrical science was also responsible for many natural philosophers switching
their focus from their respective fields to that of electrical science15. Natural philosophers such as
Benjamin Franklin, Giovanni Battista Beccaria, Alessandro Volta, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, and
Sir Humphry Davy are just a few noteworthy characters that pursued electrical science, switching
over from their respective fields. Whether it was infatuation, scientific exploration, or the desire to
get in on the monetary value that electrical experiments were yielding, the public nature of electrical
science drew in not only the public looking for a spectacle, but also great minds already working on
different branches of natural philosophy. Other branches of natural philosophy even benefitted from
the surge of electrical science, some even merging to form entirely newer branches altogether16, a
good example being electrochemistry.

13

Hochadel, O. A Shock to the Public.

14

Pancaldi, G., 2005. Volta: Science and culture in the age of enlightenment. Princeton University Press.

15

Keithley, J.F., 1999. The story of electrical and magnetic measurements: from 500 BC to the 1940s. John Wiley
& Sons.
16

Keithley, J.F. The story of electrical and magnetic measurements.

Nishq Ravindranath

HPSC20022 Final Essay

Student number: 689291

Electrical experimentation in the 18th century was popular, which rendered it within the public
domain. This mass infatuation with the phenomenon of electricity resulted in people from various
backgrounds indulging their time and attention to this new branch of natural philosophy. From
peasants to noblemen, electricity was a sort of “fashion” during periods of the 18th century. Its
inherent nature made it an ideal fit for the core values of public spheres in Europe at the time. And
this popularity boosted its development significantly. With so many people experimenting and
taking part in discussions and debates, electrical science arguable got the most amount of attention
of all the branches of natural philosophy. While generally an investigative, Baconian science in the
18th century, it would soon become a quantitative science in the centuries to follow, and
revolutionize human civilization. Without its public nature in the 18th century, it is hard to say that
electrical science would be the same today.

Nishq Ravindranath

HPSC20022 Final Essay

Student number: 689291

Bibliography


Bertucci, P., 2007. Sparks in the dark: the attraction of electricity in the eighteenth
century. Endeavour, 31(3), pp.88-93.



Habermas, J., 1991. The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of
bourgeois society. MIT press.



Heilbron, J.L., 1979. Electricity in the 17th and 18th centuries: A study of early modern physics (pp. 18).
Univ of California Press.



Hochadel, O., 2003. A Shock to the Public: Itinerant Lecturers and Instrument Makers as Practitioners
of Electricity in the German Enlightenment (1740-1800). Nuova Voltiana: Studies on Volta and his
Times, 5, pp.53-67.



Home, R.W., 2015. Aepinus's Essay on the Theory of Electricity and Magnetism. Princeton University
Press.



Keithley, J.F., 1999. The story of electrical and magnetic measurements: from 500 BC to the 1940s. John
Wiley & Sons.



Kuhn, T.S., 1976. Mathematical vs. experimental traditions in the development of physical science. The
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 7(1), pp.1-31.



Murphy, C., 2013. Shocks and Sparks: Participatory Electrical Performances in the Enlightenment
Period. In Theatre, Performance and Analogue Technology (pp. 161-182). Palgrave Macmillan UK.



Pancaldi, G., 2005. Volta: Science and culture in the age of enlightenment. Princeton University Press.



Schaffer, S., 1983. Natural philosophy and public spectacle in the eighteenth century. History of
science, 21(1), pp.1-43.


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