Tuesday, August 27, 2013

William J. Turkel's "Spark from the Deep"

William J. Turkel is an associate professor of history at the University of Western Ontario and is author of The Archive of Place: Unearthing the Pasts of the Chilcotin Plateau.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Spark from the Deep: How Shocking Experiments with Strongly Electric Fish Powered Scientific Discovery, and reported the following:
In 1803, a satirical poem called Terrible Tractoration became popular in London. Published as an octavo pamphlet, it was attributed to "Christopher Caustic, MD" but was actually the work of Thomas Green Fessenden. Fessenden had been paid to promote the metallic tractors of the American physician Elisha Perkins. These were metal rods that were passed over a patient's body to draw off imagined electrical fluids and thus relieve pain. Cures attributed to the tractors were decried at the time by other physicians as an instance of already-discredited animal magnetism, and are now usually read as an example of the placebo effect.

In the poem, the effectiveness of Perkins' tractors was said to be supported by the demonstrations of the Italian researcher Giovanni Aldini, who was caricatured as using electricity to "make dead people cut droll capers."
To raise a dead dog he was able,
Though laid in quarters on a table,
And led him, yelping, round the town,
With two legs up, and two legs down. [from page 99]
In fact, Aldini's exploits had been in the papers for many months, and were, if anything, milder in parodic form than they were in the flesh. In public demonstrations he used powerful electric batteries to shock the cadavers of recently executed criminals: making their eyes and jaws quiver, fists clench, legs rise in the air, and so on, in response to electrification of mouth, ear and rectum. By showing that the bodies of people and other animals responded to this treatment in exactly the same way, by showing just how mechanical the responses of both living and dead subjects really were, Aldini's demonstrations elided boundaries between human, animal and machine.

We now spend our entire lives surrounded by electrical and electronic technologies, and they seem to us to have relatively little to do with the domain of the living. We might describe a computer, battery or light bulb as 'dead', but that is just a metaphor. An ibis is a proper subject for natural history; an iPad is not.

Electricity was not always so lifeless, however. For most of the human career, the only reliable and repeatable way to experience an electric shock was by handling one of the strongly electric fish: the African electric catfish, the marine torpedo or the South American electric eel. People were familiar with each of these animals long before writing was developed. They used the shock of electric fish therapeutically, and tried to find ways to harness it. In the 1600s the shock of strongly electric fish was still considered to be an occult force, like the attraction between iron and lodestone. With the creation of the Leyden jar in the mid-1700s, people had an artifact that could shock exactly like an electric fish. When Volta announced his electric battery in 1800, he described it as an 'artificial electric organ'. Electric currents could be used to harm and heal, to resuscitate, to reanimate, perhaps even to bestow life on inert matter. Spark from the Deep tells the story of how our long experience with strongly electric fish stimulated us to discover and colonize electric worlds of our own.
Learn more about Spark from the Deep at the Johns Hopkins University Press website and William J. Turkel's website.

--Marshal Zeringue