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"Perfect summertime reading—preferably with a friend nearby who can be constantly interrupted with unsettling facts.” —Daily Mail (UK )
Benjamin Franklin was a pioneering scientist, leader of the Enlightenment, and a founding father of the United States. But perhaps less well known is that he was also the first person to use mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on an electric-shock victim. Odder still, it was actually mouth-to-beak ...
"Perfect summertime reading—preferably with a friend nearby who can be constantly interrupted with unsettling facts.” —Daily Mail (UK )
Benjamin Franklin was a pioneering scientist, leader of the Enlightenment, and a founding father of the United States. But perhaps less well known is that he was also the first person to use mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on an electric-shock victim. Odder still, it was actually mouth-to-beak resuscitation on a hen that he himself had shocked.
Welcome to some of the weirdest and most wonderful experiments ever conducted in the name of science. Filled with stories of science gone strange, Electrified Sheep is packed with eccentric characters, irrational obsessions, and extreme experiments. Watch as scientists attempt to nuke the moon, wince at the doctor who performs a self-appendectomy, and catch the faint whiff of singed wool from an electrified sheep.
"A strangely compelling look at some of the bizarre, outlandish and peculiar experiments that have been attempted in the name of science." —Penny Le Couteur, coauthor of Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History
"Electrified Sheep quite brilliantly explains some of the more bizarre experiments performed in the name of scientific discovery with lashings of intellectual humour and a surprising amount of quality storytelling." —Chemistry World (UK)
“Perfect summertime reading—preferably with a friend nearby who can be constantly interrupted with unsettling facts.” —The Daily Mail (UK )
"Laugh out loud funny.” —Publishers Weekly
“Boese’s fascination with obscure details makes the book frightfully interesting. It’s packed with enough material to challenge any would-be science-fiction writer, and proves truth in a lab coat is stranger than fiction.” —The Saturday Evening Post
“Boese, a historian of science, once again takes readers on a romp through some of the weirder detours on the road to scientific progress. Here, short, lively sections follow groups of mad scientists in a range of fields, from nuclear physics to developmental psychology.”—Boston Globe
“Delves into the extremes some will reach for the sake of science…. Mr. Boese reveals just how far some will go to appease their empirical curiosities.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Praise for Elephants on Acid
"The short, witty, ceaselessly amusing entries should delight anyone with a healthy sense of morbid curiousity." —Publishers Weekly
"Very well researched and delivered in an engaging, breezy, wink-wink tone similar to thtat of Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg's Why Do Men Have Nipples?...One of the finest science/history bathroom books of all time." —Kirkus Reviews
In the ghostly subatomic world, an electron flickers in its orbit around an atomic nucleus. Then, from out of the empty void beyond the atom, comes the distant tug of an attractive force. The electron twitches and leaps, spanning distances billions of times greater than its own size until it comes to rest again around another atom. Out of such microcosmic forces emerges the human-scale phenomenon of electricity. We feel it as an electric shock that jabs our finger, or we see it as lightning in the sky. The mastery of electricity has been arguably the most important achievement of modern science. Our lives today depend in so many ways upon access to electrical power that it would be difficult to imagine survival without it. But the history of electrical research hasn't been limited to the search for technological applications of this force. The urge to understand electricity has been matched by a desire to find increasingly spectacular and unusual ways of displaying its power. In particular, researchers have demonstrated an enduring fascination with exploring the dramatic effect of electricity on living bodies.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - 23 December 1750. The turkey eyes Benjamin Franklin suspiciously from across the room. Franklin - middle-aged, balding, and slightly plump - makes a final inspection of hiselectrical apparatus as a group of men standing behind him watch with interest. The equipment consists of several six-gallon glass jars wrapped in tin. Metal rods protrude from the necks of the jars, and copper wire connects the rods. Franklin straightens up and nods his head appreciatively. As he does so, the turkey, tied to the leg of a table, looks from Franklin to the men and clucks apprehensively.
'The bird isn't happy,' one of the men says.
'But I'll be happy when she's in my stomach,' Franklin replies, and everyone laughs. 'You'll see. Fowls killed by the electrical shock eat uncommonly tender.'
'Then hurry, by all means,' another man says. 'I'm ready to eat!'
At this, the turkey clucks again.
Franklin smiles. 'Soon enough. We're almost prepared. The jars are charged. The only ingredient we lack is the bird.' They all turn to look at the turkey, which stares back at them warily.
Franklin picks up a chain lying on the ground and holds it up for the men to see. 'This chain communicates with the outside of the jars. We need to attach the loose end to the turkey. Philip, if you would, could you fetch the bird here?'
Philip separates himself from the group and walks over to the turkey. He unties it, and, using the rope around its neck, pulls it towards Franklin. The turkey clucks indignantly.
'Good. Now hold it by the wings so I can wrap the chain around its thigh.'
Philip pulls the bird's wings back behind its head, and Franklin kneels down in front of it. The bird glares angrily at him. Just at that moment Franklin's wife, Deborah, enters the room.
'My word, gentlemen. Are you still occupied with that turkey?'
Franklin, distracted, stands up, the chain still in his hand. 'Almost finished, my dear.'
'Well, hurry. The fire is roaring nicely. We shall want to get the bird roasting soon.'
'As soon as we have electrified it, I shall remove its head and bring it in to be plucked and dressed.'
'What times we live in!' one of the men says. 'To celebrate the Christmas season with an electric turkey.'
'And roasted by the electrical jack!' another adds.
The group continues to converse. Keeping one eye on the turkey, Franklin listens to the friendly banter. There's a burst of laughter, and he looks over and chuckles. Absent-mindedly, he reaches his free hand out towards the copper wires connecting the jars. Suddenly there's a flash and a loud bang like the firing of a pistol.
'AAAArrrggh!' Franklin cries out and staggers back several feet before collapsing to his knees. His arms and chest start to tremble violently.
'Ben!' Deborah cries out. The men rush around Franklin to stop him from falling over as convulsions shake him.
'He touched the jars. Took the full discharge!' Philip says.
'Give him air to breathe,' another man orders.
Deborah pushes through the crowd and grasps her husband, holding him as the seizure gradually subsides. 'Ben! Are you all right?'
Franklin looks up at her, stunned, his face ashen.
'Ben, speak to me. Are you hurt?'
His eyes are glassy, unfocused.
'Ben!' Deborah cries out again.
He opens his mouth but no words come out. 'What ... What happened? ' he finally gasps.
At that moment, as if in reply, the turkey emits a loud, self-satisfied cluck.
During the first half of the eighteenth century, an electrical craze swept Europe. Experimenters discovered they could manipulate inanimate pieces of matter, such as glass rods and metal poles, to produce all kinds of spectacular electric effects. Charged objects mysteriously attracted feathers and small pieces of paper. Sparks flew from fingertips. Electrical fire ignited alcoholic spirits and gunpowder. Crowds flocked to see the latest stunts - back then, this was great entertainment - and experimenters competed to dream up ever more dazzling demonstrations. Out of this electrical enthusiasm developed the electrified world we live in today, with our televisions, computers, and brightly lit homes. The story of the birth of thescience of electricity has been told many times before, but what people seldom appreciate is the contribution made by the unsung heroes of the eighteenth-century electrical revolution: the birds. These creatures - chaffinches, sparrows, chickens, turkeys, etc. - had the bad luck to be the favourite research animals of early electricians.
The Amazing Electrified Flying Boy
The first electrical experiment truly to capture the imagination of European audiences was Stephen Gray's 'charity boy' demonstration. A young orphan hung suspended from the ceiling, his charged body producing sparks and attracting objects such as brass leaf and pieces of paper. But there, at the beginning, was also a bird, since Gray conducted the same experiment on a 'large white cock'.
Gray worked most of his life as a fabric dyer, but by the 1720s he was a retiree living at London's Charterhouse, a home for down-on-their-luck gentlemen. Being a fabric dyer hardly made him a gentleman, but during his career he had struck up friendships with members of England's Royal Society, with whom he shared an interest in science. These friends used their influence to secure him a place at the Charterhouse, and with little else to occupy his days there, he decided to conduct electrical experiments.
Almost nothing was known about electricity at the time, except that if you rubbed certain substances, such as glass or amber, they acquired the ability to attract light materials - feathers, small pieces of paper, chaff, etc. Substances that acquired an attractive power when rubbed were known as 'electrics'. The term came from the Greek word for amber, elektron. Intrigued by these electrics, Gray sat in his room desultorily rubbing a glass tube and picking up feathers with it. But he soon noticed something strange. When he put a cork in the tube, it too acquired the ability to attract feathers. Somehow the attractive power had been transmitted from the glass to the cork, even though cork, on its own, was not an electric.
Realizing he was on to something, Gray explored how far he could transmit this 'electrical virtue'. He inserted a metal rod intothe cork, tied packing thread to the rod, and secured a kettle to the end of the thread. Amazingly, the kettle now also attracted feathers when he rubbed the glass tube. He searched for other objects to electrify and found the trick worked on a fire shovel, a silver pint pot, and an iron poker, among other things. Intrigued, he cast his net even wider. The Charterhouse was full of old men. They seemed like problematic subjects for electrification, but then an orphan boy wandered in.
Gray fashioned a harness out of silk and hung the 47-pound boy from the ceiling of his room, parallel to the floor. The boy held his arms out. Gray rubbed the glass tube and touched it to the boy's bare foot. Dust motes and pieces of down floated up towards the boy's hands. To the crowd of old men standing around, the effect must have seemed magical.
Gray shared his discovery with Granville Wheler, a member of the Royal Society, and together they continued experimenting. They strung up Wheler's footboy and learned that if you reached out a finger to touch the electrified boy, you received the prick of a shock. The trick was getting better and better. Curious as to whether the phenomenon only worked with humans, they next tried another species - the white cock. They tied the bird into the silk harness and carefully applied the glass rod. To their delight, the effect was the same as on the boy. The two men circled the rooster, reaching their fingers out towards it as the bird squawked anxiously. They drew sparks from its beak, comb, and claws. The unnamed rooster had become the world's first electrified research animal.
In the interests of science, the two men next killed the bird to determine if its body could still produce sparks. It could. Even plucking it didn't affect this ability. Presumably the researchers concluded that day's work by eating the bird for dinner, though they didn't report that detail to the Royal Society.
For his discoveries, Gray was made a full-fledged member of the Royal Society - a rare honour for a fabric dyer. Word of Gray's flying boy experiment soon spread to the Continent, where aspiring electricians (as electrical researchers were called back then) stagedversions of it for delighted audiences in salons and lecture halls. By the end of the 1730s, the stunt had become so popular that it was possible to buy flying-boy electrical kits from instrument makers. These came complete with silk straps and glass rod - like something you'd now buy in an adult catalogue. You had to supply your own boy. Gray's flying rooster had become a mere historical footnote, but electricians had not forgotten about birds. Their interest in them was just warming up.
Bigger Bangs, Leyden Jars, and Eunuchs
Between 1730 and 1745, electrical innovation advanced rapidly. Inventors set to work trying to produce larger amounts of charge in order to achieve even more exciting effects. They replaced the glass rod Gray had used with electrical machines consisting of glass globes or cylinders turned by a crank. Experimenters rubbed their hands on the rotating glass to generate a charge. They discovered that if a metal rod - such as a gun barrel, sword, or empty telescope tube - was hung beside the globe, almost touching it, it collected the electricity, allowing for the accumulation of stronger charges. This allowed for stunts such as the 'Venus electrificata', in which an attractive young woman, electrified via a hidden wire, stood on a non-conducting piece of wax which prevented the charge from escaping to the ground. When a would-be Romeo tried to steal a kiss from her, he felt the tingle of a shock jump from her lips to his.
As the years passed, and the machines grew in power, the subjects of such experiments began to complain that the shocks were actually becoming quite painful. By 1745, electrical machines packed enough of a punch to allow Andrew Gordon, a Scottish Benedictine monk teaching in Saxony, to kill a chaffinch. This bird was the first reported animal killed by human-produced electricity.
The next year, 1746, was an important date in the history of electricity because it marked the invention of the Leyden jar, a device that allowed experimenters to produce, for the first time, shocks of truly formidable power. The instrument took its name from Leyden,Holland, the place of its discovery, where Pieter van Musschenbroek, a professor, and his friend Andreas Cunaeus, a lawyer, invented it while trying to figure out if it was possible to store electricity in water. Working alone in the lab, Cunaeus ran a wire into a glass jar half-filled with water. Thankfully he didn't have much scientific experience, so instead of keeping the glass jar on an insulated surface, as a competent electrician would have done, he held it in his hand. By doing so, he inadvertently grounded the outside of the glass, turning the jar into a capacitor. When he innocently touched the wire leading into the glass, he created a path between the highly charged interior of the jar and the grounded exterior. The resulting shock knocked him off his feet. He told Musschenbroek what had happened, and the professor tried it himself. He too felt a violent, explosive blow. It was so strong he swore never to repeat the experiment. He urged no one else to try it either.
Of course, that advice was ignored. The Leyden jar astounded scientists. Before that time, electricity had been a mere curiosity, a phenomenon that produced intriguing little sparks and slightly painful shocks. But now, almost overnight, it had become a force strong enough to strike down a grown man. Researchers across Europe scrambled to build their own Leyden jars, and the first thing they did with them was to test the device's killing powers on birds.
The French physicist Jean-Antoine Nollet, who considered himself Europe's leading electrical expert, tested a Leyden jar on a sparrow and a chaffinch simultaneously. He attached the two birds to either end of a brass ruler that had a wooden knob in the middle, allowing him to hold it. He then touched the head of the sparrow to the outside of the jar and the head of the chaffinch to a rod connected with the inside. John Turberville Needham, who witnessed the experiment, wrote to the Royal Society describing what happened next:
The consequence, upon the first trial, was that they were both instantaneously struck lifeless, as it were, and motionless for a time only, and they recovered some few minutes after; but,upon a second trial, the sparrow was struck dead, and upon examination found livid without, as if killed with a flash of lightning, most of the blood vessels within the body being burst by the shock. The chaffinch revived, as before.
Nollet expanded the idea of electrifying a chain of bodies into an even more spectacular demonstration, using humans. As the King of France looked on, Nollet instructed 180 of his majesty's royal guards to hold hands. The man on one end of this human chain touched the rod connected to the interior of a Leyden jar. The guard on the other end waited, and then, when Nollet gave the word, touched the outside of the jar. As soon as he did so, a shock raced through the chain, causing all 180 guards to leap simultaneously into the air. Next Nollet repeated the trick with an entire convent of Carthusian monks. Again, as reported by Needham, 'The whole company, at the same instant of time, gave a sudden spring, and all equally felt the shock.'
A subsequent attempt to replicate Nollet's human-chain experiment yielded an unexpected result. Joseph-Aignan Sigaud de Lafond tried to send a shock through sixty people, but the current consistently stopped at the sixth man. The man is impotent! gossips at the king's court tittered. He blocks the discharge! Sigaud put it more delicately, suggesting the man couldn't conduct electricity because he didn't possess 'everything that constitutes the distinctive character of a man'. All agreed the phenomenon warranted further testing. So Sigaud gathered three of the king's musicians (all confirmed eunuchs), made them hold hands, and then exposed them to the shock of a Leyden jar. They leapt vigorously into the air! It turned out it hadn't been a lack of virility that blocked the discharge in the original experiment, but rather a puddle the man had been standing in, which directed the current into the ground.
Meanwhile, in Poland, the mayor of Gdansk, Daniel Gralath, built a Leyden jar he used to zap beetles. Then, like Nollet, he killed some sparrows. Curious about the limits of the jar's lethal power, he next tried it on a goose, but at last the jar had met its match. Thebird flopped over, as if dead, but soon revived and ran away honking. However, Gralath's experiments weren't fruitless. During the course of his killing trials, he figured out that Leyden jars could be wired together to create shocks of ever greater power, limited only by the number of jars available. He called jars wired together in this fashion a 'battery', because when they discharged their contents the explosion sounded like a battery of cannons going off.
Of course, experimenters weren't shocking birds merely because they thought it was fun. They did so because they had no other way of measuring electrical force. Today we can drive down to a hardware store and buy a voltmeter, but in the 1740s this option wasn't available. The man after whom volts would eventually be named, Alessandro Volta, had only just been born in 1745. So the birds served as a convenient way of approximating force. That is, experimenters could say the force was strong enough to kill a sparrow, but not a goose. It wasn't a very precise form of measurement, but it was descriptive, and it got people's attention.
Not everyone agreed, however, that shocking birds was morally justifiable. Professor John Henry Winkler of Leipzig wrote to the Royal Society in 1746, 'I read in the newspapers from Berlin, that they had tried these electrical flashes upon a bird, and had made it suffer great pain thereby. I did not repeat this experiment; for I think it wrong to give such pain to living creatures.'
Winkler was nevertheless curious about the effects of the Leyden jar, so instead of using a bird he tested it on his wife. He reported that she 'found herself so weak after it, that she could hardly walk'. A week later she seemed to have recovered, so he zapped her again. This time she 'bled at the nose'. The experience was certainly unpleasant for her, but at least no birds were harmed.
Benjamin Franklin vs the Turkey
Across the Atlantic, the electrical experiments delighting Europeans eventually came to the attention of a man who would soon become one of the most famous figures of the eighteenth-centuryEnlightenment, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin first saw a demonstration of electrical phenomena in 1743, when he attended a show by an itinerant Scottish lecturer, Dr Archibald Spencer. He was instantly hooked, so he bought Spencer's equipment and began conducting experiments of his own.
Franklin's rise to fame was due, in great part, to his electrical research. Many historians argue that he was, in fact, the greatest electrical scientist of the eighteenth century. It was Franklin who came up with the 'single-fluid' theory of electricity, arguing that electricity was a single force that displayed positive and negative states - terms we still use today. He was also the first to suggest an experiment to prove that lightning was an electrical phenomenon, and, to round off his résumé, he invented the lightning rod. But in the late 1740s, when Franklin first applied himself to electrical research, most European scientists regarded him as little more than a colonial upstart. They believed the most important contribution he could make to science would be to tell them what happened if a large electrical shock was given to that uniquely American bird, the turkey.
Franklin set himself up for the turkey expectations. In 1749, he wrote a long letter to Peter Collinson, a Quaker merchant and member of the Royal Society, excitedly describing his electrical research, most of which involved the systematic investigation of Leyden jars. Franklin ended the letter on a humorous note. Since summer was fast approaching, when electrical experimentation grew difficult because of the humidity, Franklin told Collinson he intended to finish off the season with an electric-themed 'Party of Pleasure' on the banks of the Schuylkill River. The main event of the festivities would be the electrification of a turkey:
A Turkey is to be killed for our Dinners by the Electrical Shock; and roasted by the electrical Jack, before a Fire kindled by the Electrified Bottle; when the Healths of all the Famous Electricians in England, France and Germany, are to be drank inElectrified Bumpers, under the Discharge of Guns from the Electrical Battery.
An 'electrical jack' was a kind of primitive electric motor that would be used to rotate the turkey in front of the fire. The 'electrified bottle' was a Leyden jar. 'Electrified bumpers' were electrified glasses, which would give those who attempted to drink from them a shock. And the 'electrical battery' was a group of Leyden jars.
Collinson read Franklin's letter to the Royal Society. They ignored most of it, but the part about electrifying the turkey piqued their curiosity. They asked Collinson to tell Franklin they would be 'glad to be acquainted with the result of that experiment'.
It's not clear whether Franklin had actually been serious about the electric turkey-killing party. His tone suggests his proposal might have been tongue-in-cheek, and there's no other evidence to indicate the unusual banquet occurred. But if Franklin's 'pleasure party' was just a joke, then the Royal Society called his bluff. Franklin now felt obliged to shock a turkey.
Rather than tackling the challenge of electrifying a turkey head-on, Franklin started with hens and worked his way up to the larger bird. First he assembled two large Leyden jars, put a hen in position, and touched its head to the jar. The jars discharged with a bang, and the hen flopped over dead. The experiment had gone off without a hitch, and to his delight Franklin then discovered that the flesh of the bird cooked up 'uncommonly tender'. He speculated this was because the electricity forcibly separated the fibres of the hen's flesh, softening them, though it was actually because the electricity relaxed the bird's muscles and interfered with rigor mortis, which is why poultry farmers today still shock birds before slaughtering them.
Franklin next knocked down a second hen with the Leyden jars, but instead of letting it die he tried to revive it by picking it up and 'repeatedly blowing into its lungs'. After a few minutes, the bird groggily regained consciousness and let out a little squawk.Delighted, Franklin carefully placed it down on the floor, whereupon it ran straight into a wall. It was alive, but the electricity had blinded it. Nevertheless, this was the first recorded case of the use of artificial respiration to revive an electric shock victim - an accomplishment Franklin seldom gets credit for. People are happy to picture the future founding father of the United States flying a kite in a lightning storm, but giving mouth-to-beak resuscitation to a hen probably doesn't seem as dignified.
Following his success with the hens, Franklin moved on to turkeys. These, however, presented more of a challenge. In fact, in trying to kill a turkey with electricity, Franklin almost killed himself.
It was 23 December 1750, two days before Christmas. A crowd had gathered at Franklin's house to witness the grand turkey electrification. His guests were in good cheer. The wine flowed freely; the conversation was animated. Amid these festivities, Franklin readied two Leyden jars. Finally he called everyone around to see the big event, but by his own admission the merriment of his guests distracted him. He reached out with one hand to touch the top of the jars, to test if they were fully charged, forgetting that in his other hand he held a chain attached to the exterior of the jars. His body completed the circuit. The shock, he wrote two days later to his brother, was like a 'universal Blow throughout my whole Body from head to foot which seemed within as well as without'. His body shook violently. For several minutes he sat dazed, not knowing what had happened. Only slowly did he regain his wits. For several days afterwards his arms and neck remained numb. A large welt formed on his hand where he had touched the jars. If he had taken the shock through his head, he noted, it could very well have killed him.
In the battle of Birds vs Electricians, the birds had scored their first victory. However, Franklin wasn't about to give up. After all, the Royal Society expected results. So, when he had fully recovered, he diligently returned to his turkey experiments, though now with far more caution.
Franklin discovered that two Leyden jars were insufficient to kill a turkey. The birds went into violent convulsions and then fell over, as if dead, but after fifteen minutes they poked their heads up again, looked around, and returned to normal. So Franklin added three more jars to his battery, and in this way succeeded in dispatching a 10-pound turkey. The Royal Society was happy. They congratulated Franklin on being a 'very able and ingenious man'.
Dr Abildgaard's Franken-Chicken
After Franklin, electricians continued to regularly shock birds, but nothing particularly novel was added to such experiments until 1775, when Peter Christian Abildgaard, a Danish physician, reported to the Medical Society of Copenhagen that he had not only killed birds with electricity, but had succeeded in bringing them back to life in the same way.
Abildgaard used hens in his experiment. Employing what was, by now, the established bird-killing technique, he exposed a hen's head to the shock from a battery of Leyden jars. The bird collapsed, seemingly dead. In fact, it really was dead. Abildgaard confirmed this by letting the bird lie there overnight. The next morning it hadn't moved and was stone cold. So Abildgaard tried again with another bird. As before, the bird fell over after receiving the shock, as if lifeless. But this time Abildgaard gave it another shock to the head to see if he could revive it. Nothing happened. He tried again. Still no response. And then yet again. Finally he tried a shock to the chest. Suddenly the bird 'rose up and, set loose on the ground, walked about quietly on its feet'.
Abildgaard was ecstatic. It was the Lazarus of Birds! He was so excited that he immediately killed it and brought it back to life again - not just once, but 'rather often'. After enough of this treatment the hen seemed stunned and could only walk with difficulty, so Abildgaard finally let it be. It didn't eat for a day, but eventually made a full recovery and, to the physician's great delight, laid an egg.
Abildgaard next experimented with a rooster. He shocked it through the head and, like the hen, it fell over, apparently dead. He then revived it with a shock through the chest. The rooster, however, wasn't about to let himself be treated in the same manner as the hen. After returning to life, 'it briskly flew off, threw the electric jar on the ground and broke it'. That was the end of the experiment.
What Abildgaard had discovered was the principle of cardiac resuscitation through defibrillation, though he didn't know this at the time. It wasn't until the twentieth century that doctors realized the full significance of Abildgaard's discovery and electrical defibrillation became a standard part of emergency medicine. To eighteenth-century scientists it seemed instead that electricity contained the power of life itself. Forty-three years after Abildgaard's experiment, Mary Shelley published her famous novel about a mad doctor who used electricity - or, at least, so Shelley strongly implied - to bring a man back to life. If she had been more interested in scientific accuracy, she would have modelled Frankenstein after Abildgaard and made his monster a chicken.
Galvani's Frogs and Tesla's Pigeons
It was the frogs who finally saved the birds from further harm by leaping in to take their place as the preferred research animal of electricians. In 1791 an Italian physician, Luigi Galvani, announced he had discovered a remarkable new phenomenon: 'animal electricity'. The movement of muscles, he declared, was caused by a 'nerveo-electrical fluid' generated within muscles. He demonstrated its existence in frogs, showing how he could make the legs of a dead frog twitch either by exposing them to a spark or by touching them with a pair of metal rods. Galvani's announcement triggered a new electrical craze, of which frogs were the star attraction. The unlucky amphibians were given a place of honour in labs, their bodies poked and probed by researchers eager to summon signs of electrical activity from them. The birds were happy to let them get all the attention.
Although the spotlight shifted away from birds, they didn't disappearentirely from electrical research. Throughout the nineteenth century, occasional reports surfaced of experiments featuring birds. In 1869, for instance, the British physician Benjamin Ward Richardson used the massive induction coil at London's Royal Polytechnic Institute to generate a six-inch spark that he directed at pigeons. They didn't survive.
However, the most prominent reappearance of birds in electrical research occurred during the early twentieth century, and it assumed an unusual, enigmatic form involving the eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla. Tesla was a giant of the modern electrical age. He almost single-handedly designed the technology that made possible the widespread use of the alternating current power that runs through wires in homes today. He then made fundamental contributions to the study of (among other things) high-frequency electromagnetic waves, robotics, neon lighting, the wireless transmission of power, and remote control. It's not an overstatement to say that, without his inventions, the modern world would look very different. But as he aged he developed an obsessive interest in the care and feeding of pigeons. He could frequently be seen around New York City, a thin man in an overcoat and hat, surrounded by huge flocks of birds that he fed from bags of seed. But Tesla didn't merely feed pigeons. He went much further. He believed he had a spiritual connection with the feathered inhabitants of the sky - a connection from which, so he suggested, his scientific creativity flowed.
Tesla spoke of one pigeon in particular - a brilliant white bird with grey tips on her wings - who, for lack of any better term, was his creative soul mate. They spent many years together, but eventually the bird died, and as it did so, according to Tesla, a dazzling white light consumed it, 'a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory'. The bird's death left Tesla feeling lost and aimless. He told a reporter: 'When that pigeon died, something went out of my life. Up to that time I knew with a certainty that I would complete my work, no matter how ambitious my program, but when that something went out of my life I knew my life's work was finished.'
The story of Tesla and the white pigeon is difficult to interpret. The religiously inclined find mystical significance in it. Freudian psychologists read it as Tesla's Oedipal yearning for his mother. Or perhaps it was just the ramblings of a lonely old man. Whatever the case may be, it's curious that a man with an intuitive understanding of electricity as profound as that of any other person throughout history simultaneously developed such a passion and appreciation for birds.
In the present day, birds continue a relationship with electricity that is tense but close, although the electrical utilities are more likely to describe it as an outright war. Every year the utilities spend billions of dollars constructing new transmission lines. The birds respond by raining down excrement on all of them. The white faecal matter oozes its way into delicate insulators causing short circuits that plunge cities into darkness. The utilities send up crews, at enormous expense, to wash the lines clean; the birds drop more poop; and the war goes on. So the next time you're sitting at home reading, or watching television, and the lights flicker and then go out, think of the electrical world the eighteenth-century experimenters bequeathed to us, and then remember the birds.
The Man Who Married His Voltaic Pile
Jena, Germany - February 1802. Outside the clouds shift, revealing the face of the moon. Its light shines brightly through the window of a dark attic apartment, falling on a metallic column that stands on the floor of the room. Caught in the sudden illumination, the column glows like a living creature possessed of an internal source of energy.
The column consists of numerous flat metal discs piled on top of each other. Three tall rods, joined at the top by a wooden cap, press the discs together, as if in a cage, and prevent them from toppling over.
Johann Wilhelm Ritter kneels on the floor in front of the column. He's in his mid-twenties, though years of rough living have aged his delicatefeatures. He wears only a pair of white, ankle-length drawers. The chill of the room has raised goose bumps on the thin flesh of his chest and arms, but he doesn't seem to notice.
His dark eyes flicker with anticipation as he gazes at the column. He runs his hand along the smooth length of it, from top to bottom, caressing it. In response to his touch, the column seems to throb and pulse, glowing, for a moment, even more brightly, though this could just be a trick of the moonlight.
'My dear battery,' he says in a soft voice. 'Are you ready to dance?'
He wets both hands in a bucket of water beside him. Two wires, terminated by metal handles, snake out from the column, one from the top and another from the bottom. Ritter grips the handle of the lower wire with one hand. He reaches for the second wire with his other hand, but before gripping it he hesitates. An expression of doubt, perhaps even of fear, briefly passes across his features but is quickly replaced by a look of iron-willed determination. He grabs the wire.
Immediately he gasps and flinches backwards as if struck by an invisible assailant. The wires don't escape his hands, but he struggles to control them. His arms jerk up and down, fighting with the force that pulses through the wires and into his body. The force twists and bites like a cobra, but finally, slowly, by sheer force of will, he brings it under his control.
Still his hands tremble. The trembling creeps up his arms until it reaches his shoulders.
Both limbs shake now. His lips move, muttering a barely audible prayer, 'Mein Gott, mein Gott, mein Gott.' A line of drool trickles out of his mouth.
For what seems like hours, but is only seconds, he continues to wrestle with the wires. Then, at last, with an explosive motion, he flings them away and collapses backwards onto the floor. He lies there, panting, curled into a foetal position, clutching his arms against his chest. Minutes pass. His breathing gradually calms, and he pushes himself up off the floor.
He gazes at the column, which is still bathed in a pale white glow. 'Quite a lively kick you have, my dear,' he says.
He smiles wryly and hooks his thumbs around the waistband of his cotton drawers, lowering them down, off his slender frame. He pushesthem away and stands fully naked, shivering slightly in the cold air, in front of the moon-illuminated column.
'Shall we dance again?' he asks.
Johann Wilhelm Ritter is a name you might encounter in science textbooks. However, you're unlikely to run into his name anywhere else, because, outside of a few obscure academic articles, little has been written about his life. Textbook references to him are often framed discreetly within a sidebar to indicate the information is of historical interest, a small garnish to supplement the weighty prose of the main text. Ritter, you'll be told, is considered by some to be the Father of Electrochemistry, since he suggested, as early as 1798, that chemical reactions can generate electricity. He's also been called the Father of Ultraviolet Light, since he discovered in 1801, through the use of a photosensitive solution of silver chloride, that invisible rays exist beyond the violet end of the spectrum of visible light. A number of other firsts are also attributed to him. He was one of the first to split water into hydrogen and oxygen using electrolysis, and he was the very first to discover the process of electroplating, as well as to build a dry-cell battery and to observe the existence of thermoelectric currents. An impressive list of accomplishments!
Sidebar treatments rarely do justice to any subject, but in Ritter's case the disconnect between such brief biographical treatments and the actual details of his life yawns wider than in most. These accomplishments were only credited to him years after his death, as historians, with the benefit of hindsight, realized the significance of his work. During his lifetime he achieved little recognition beyond a small circle of his ardent supporters. In fact, his contemporaries viewed him as a strange, difficult man - brilliant, but troubled. What he was really notorious for while alive was not any scientific firsts, but rather his bizarre, masochistic methods of self-experimentation with electricity: methods that disturbed his friends and shocked his colleagues.
A Young Dreamer
Ritter was born on 16 December 1776 in the small town of Samitz, Silesia, in what is now modern-day Poland. His father, a Protestant minister, did his best to encourage young Johann to pursue a respectable career, but the boy must have caused him concern. Johann was smart, that was obvious, but he was also a dreamer. He always had his nose in books reading about the strangest things - astronomy, chemistry, and who knows what else. In 1791, when Johann turned fourteen, his father arranged for him to apprentice as a pharmacist in the neighboring town of Liegnitz, but although Johann mastered the necessary skills in no time at all, there were rumblings of complaint from his employer. Couldn't the boy be nicer to the customers? Why was he always so brooding and taciturn? Couldn't he be tidier? The minister feared for his son's future.
If only Ritter senior had known what thoughts were tumbling through his son's head, he would have been far more worried. All kinds of book learning had poured into the boy's mind - science, history, poetry, mysticism - and there they'd swirled together into strange, exotic fantasies. Johann had no interest in preparing lotions and powders to ease the medical complaints of the bourgeois townsfolk of Liegnitz. Instead, he burned with an intense desire to peer deep into the mysteries of Nature. He dreamed of being a scholar, or a poet, steeped in arcane, hidden forms of knowledge. Such ambitions, however, were completely impractical for a minister's son of modest means.
Luigi Galvani's experiments with frogs, which had demonstrated an intriguing link between electricity and the movement of muscles, had particularly inflamed young Johann's imagination. Galvani's work suggested to Ritter that electricity might be the animating fluid of life itself. The same idea simultaneously occurred to many others, for which reason the closing years of the eighteenth century saw researchers throughout Europe busy dissecting frogs and making the limbs of amphibians perform macabre electric dances in their labs.
The form of electricity Galvani had uncovered, a kind that seemed to flow within (and perhaps was created by) bodies, became popularly known as Galvanic electricity or Galvanism, to differentiate it from static electricity. To Ritter, it was a mystery that called out to him. He yearned to know more about it, but as long as he was stuck behind the counter of a pharmacy in Liegnitz, he was powerless to satisfy his hunger for knowledge.
Then fate intervened. In 1795, Ritter's father died, leaving him a small inheritance. Ritter promptly quit his job, packed his bags, waved goodbye to his mother, and took off for the University of Jena in central Germany to fulfill his dreams.
At the time, Jena was an artistic and intellectual Mecca. Poets, scientists, and scholars filled its cafés. It was the perfect place for a young man with Ritter's ambitions. However, when Ritter first arrived he scarcely took advantage of the city's resources. He was so excited by his newfound freedom, and so eager to pursue his galvanic studies, that instead he holed himself up in a rented room with his books and a smattering of scientific equipment (frogs, metal rods, etc.) and began conducting self-guided experiments. There was no separation between his living space and his laboratory. Dishes, dirty clothes, dead frogs, and empty bottles of wine - they all cohabited together. By his own admission, he barely left his room for months at a time since he 'didn't know why he should and who was worth the bother to visit'.
To conduct his experiments, Ritter used the most sensitive electrical detection equipment he could find - his own body. He placed a zinc rod on the tip of his tongue and a silver rod at the back of it. When he did so, he felt an acidic taste, indicating a reaction was occurring. Next he created a circuit that connected his extended tongue to the metal rods and then to a pair of frog's legs. Again he felt an acidic taste, and simultaneously the frog's legs twitched away, proving the presence of a galvanic reaction. He performed similar experiments on his eyeballs (he saw lights dance in his vision), and his nose (he experienced a sharp pain and a prickling sensation).
In 1798, two years after arriving in Jena, Ritter published hisresults in a book with the wordy title Proof that a Continuous Galvanism Accompanies the Process of Life in the Animal Kingdom. At this point, his future looked promising. The book was well received by the scientific community, gaining him a reputation as a skilled experimenter and an expert on galvanism. Professors at the university, such as the famous Alexander von Humboldt, reached out to him to seek his scientific opinions, treating him as a peer, not a student.
Ritter had also finally ventured out of his room and met some of the artists and intellectuals of Jena. At first they didn't know what to make of him. He completely lacked the social skills of the cosmopolitan town's cultured residents. He was really more at home with dead frogs than with people, but there was something about him - his brooding intensity combined with his encyclopedic, self-taught knowledge - that intrigued them. Soon he acquired a reputation as Jena's resident tortured genius and, undeterred by his eccentricities (or perhaps attracted to them), a number of prominent intellectuals befriended him, including the poets Friedrich von Hardenberg (more widely known by his pen name Novalis) and Friedrich Schlegel. This was lucky for Ritter, since he had quickly burnt through his inheritance, leaving him penniless and reliant on handouts from his new friends to survive.
Ritter could never do anything in moderation. His behaviour always went to extremes, and tales of his strange habits became legendary. There were stories about his epic bouts of partying, followed by his equally gruelling stints of complete isolation during which he submerged himself in his work. He was constantly begging for money, and yet whenever he came into funds he spent lavishly on books, scientific equipment, and gifts for his friends. Once he didn't change his shirt for six weeks, until the odour of it became overpowering, and then he wore no shirt at all while it was being laundered. His lack of hygiene was so severe that his teeth started to fall out. And yet, despite this behaviour, he remained incredibly productive, churning out scientific articles that regularly appeared in journals such as Ludwig Gilbert's Annalen der Physik.Even as his lifestyle teetered on the edge of chaos, his scientific reputation was growing steadily.
The Voltaic Pile as Mistress and Bride
In 1800, the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta made an announcement that changed Ritter's life. In fact, it changed the entire direction of electrical research. Volta unveiled a device he called an 'artificial electric organ'. It quickly became more widely known as a voltaic pile, though it did look rather like a tall, phallic organ. It consisted of a vertically stacked column of pairs of silver and zinc discs - or copper and zinc discs - separated by pieces of brine-soaked fabric or paper. The combination of the metals and the brine (the electrolyte) triggered a chemical reaction that produced an electrical current.
If a person placed his hands on the top and bottom poles of this pile of discs, he felt the tingle of an electric current. Stack up more discs, and the current became stronger; the tingle turned into a painful shock. Discs could be stacked ad infinitum, causing the current to become ever more powerful. What Volta had created was the world's first battery, allowing for continuous, steady, and strong discharges of electrical current over long periods of time.
The invention of the voltaic pile opened up numerous new avenues of electrical investigation. Within months of its debut, researchers in England used the device to electrolyse water into hydrogen and oxygen, a feat soon replicated by Ritter. More gruesome experiments were widely conducted on corpses. The bodies of recently executed criminals were transported to surgical theatres, where, under the rapt gaze of audiences, researchers used wires leading from a pile to make the features of corpses twist into horrific grimaces, or caused their limbs to twist and jerk like a marionette.
Ritter immediately fell in love with the voltaic pile. He set to work building his own and busied himself tinkering with it and finding new applications for it. The next two years were the mostproductive time in his life, as if the pile had energized his intellectual abilities. This was the period during which almost all his 'firsts' occurred, including his discovery of the process of electroplating, his observation of thermoelectric currents, and his construction of a dry-cell battery (a variation of the voltaic pile).
But for Ritter the most exciting aspect of the voltaic pile was that it allowed him physically to experience galvanism. It was like a portal into an invisible world of energy that buzzed and vibrated all around him. He couldn't resist the temptation to plug into that world and discover its secrets, to expose himself to the stinging bite of its current.
Ritter had previously used his body in galvanic experiments, such as when he connected his tongue in an electrical circuit with a dead frog, but the voltaic pile generated far more force. In fact, it was a punishing mistress, though he was willing to endure its lash. The language of romantic play is not simply an affectation. Ritter used it himself. In January 1802, shortly before commencing work on the construction of a massive, 600-disc pile, he wrote to his publisher: 'Tomorrow I marry - i.e., my battery!' His publisher probably didn't realize, at least initially, how literally Ritter meant that phrase.
Ritter began his voltaic self-experiments by stacking between sixty and one hundred discs in the column - an amount that generated a powerful jolt. Then he systematically touched the wires from the pile to each of his sensory organs.
First he clenched both wires in his hands, allowing the current to tingle all the way up to his shoulders. His arm muscles twitched and jerked. He was intrigued by how the positive and negative poles of the pile produced different sensations. For instance, the longer he remained within the closed circuit - sometimes for up to an hour - the more the hand connected to the positive pole grew warm and flexible, whereas the negative side chilled and stiffened, as if exposed to a cold draught.
Next he carefully placed the wires on his tongue. The positive pole produced an acidic flavour - after a few moments his tonguefelt as if it were bursting out with welts - whereas the negative pole tasted alkaline and produced an empty feeling, as if an enormous hole had formed in the centre of his tongue. Sticking both wires up his nose caused him to sneeze. When the wires were in his ears, he heard a sharp, crackling buzz on the negative pole and a muffled noise, as if his head was full of sand, on the positive pole. Finally, he touched the wires gingerly to his eyeballs. Strange colours swam in his vision. In one eye, shapes bent and warped. He saw blue flashes. Objects shimmered and bowed outward. In the other eye, everything he gazed at became sharper and smaller, veiled in a red haze.
However, Ritter wasn't done with his testing. There was a sixth sensory organ, that part of the body, as he wrote, 'in which the personal sense of self comes to a peak in its concentration and completeness'. This was his zeugungsorgan - his genitals. Ritter was far too thorough a researcher to neglect them.
He waited for darkness to conduct these experiments. Carefully he locked the door. This was not only so that no acquaintance would burst in and catch him in a compromising position, but also, so he said, because he needed to be in a complete state of relaxation to allow him to focus entirely on the interaction between himself and the battery.
His organ began in a state of medium swelling. He wrapped it in a piece of cloth moistened with lukewarm milk - he must have thought milk would be gentler on his skin than brine. Then, delicately, he touched the wire from the positive pole to the cloth, while, with his other hand (moistened for better conduction), he closed the circuit on the other side. A shock jolted him, followed by a pleasant tingling. Not surprisingly, his zeugungsorgan responded by swelling. And then it swelled more. The sensation, he admitted, was rather agreeable. Warmth spread out from his groin. Soon he reached a state of maximum tumescence, but dutifully he kept the current flowing. The pleasure built and built, washing over him in waves, until finally - consummation. At this point, he terminated the experiment. He judged it a resounding success.
If Ritter had stopped there, his self-experiments might be remembered as merely a little eccentric, somewhat beyond the pale of normal scientific practice. But given his habit of always going to extremes, he didn't stop. He pushed onward, piling more and more discs onto his voltaic pile - 150, 175, 200. At these strengths, he was able to do serious damage to his body, and he did.
As a result of his brutal self-experimentation, his eyes grew infected. He endured frequent headaches, muscle spasms, numbness, and stomach cramps. His lungs filled with mucus. He temporarily lost much of the sensation in his tongue. Dizzy spells overcame him, causing him to collapse. A feeling of crushing fatigue, sometimes lasting for weeks at a time, made it difficult for him to get out of bed. At one time, the electric current paralysed his arm for a week. But instead of stopping, he merely expressed frustration at the inability of his body to endure more, and despite the difficulty of the experiments, he noted, 'I have not shrunk from thoroughly assuring myself of the invariability of their results through frequent repetition.'
At one point he briefly diversified and dreamed up a punishing experiment that didn't directly involve the voltaic pile. He wanted to test his theory that sunlight was a form of electrical energy, so he decided to compare the experience of staring into the sun with the colours he saw when he placed a wire from the voltaic pile on his eye. With grim determination, he held one of his eyes open, and then he exposed it to the sun for twenty minutes. He stared and stared. A purple dot appeared in his vision. It deepened in colour, and then, after many long minutes, dissolved into a uniform yellow blur. He lost vision in that eye for a month, but before his sight had fully recovered he repeated the experiment with the other eye.
Ritter not only exposed himself to the current of the voltaic pile at greater strengths, but also for longer periods of time. His idea was to use his body as a detector to observe and record the fluctuating cycles of the voltaic pile itself, as if it were a living creature whose strength waxed and waned according to its changing moods. He carefully charted the daily and hourly fluctuations of its power, andas the months passed he was able to create an annual calendar of its capricious temperament, concluding that it grew stronger in the winter and weaker in the summer.
His obsessive relationship with his voltaic pile monopolized increasingly large amounts of his time. Like a lover in a dysfunctional romance, he was always by its side, tending to its every need. However, his lover hurt him, so to ease the pain he self-medicated with alcohol and opium. This in turn fed the self-destructive cycle, allowing him to endure even more time with his metal partner. He noted once in his journal that he had just completed a stretch of five continuous days 'in the battery'.
Ritter had once been the golden child of German science. But when people heard of his self-experiments, they shook their heads disapprovingly. He seemed to have crossed an invisible line past which no one should go, and from which there was no turning back. His behaviour might have been tolerated if it hadn't affected his scientific productivity, but his submissions to journals had grown increasingly incoherent, requiring the heavy intervention of editors to tease out any meaning. 'Never has a physicist experimented so carelessly with his body,' one reviewer later remarked and warned others not to follow his example. Ritter himself noted, with the pride of a masochist, that there was little likelihood of this happening since few people would be willing to replicate the torments he had put himself through.
Recovery and Relapse
In 1803, Ritter had a chance encounter. During one of his rare excursions out of his room, a young woman caught his eye. She was eighteen and beautiful. Her name was Dorothea. Excitedly he wrote to a friend, telling him of the 'girl of delightful quality' he had recently met. The historian Dan Christensen notes that Dorothea was, apparently, a prostitute. Nevertheless, Ritter genuinely loved her. Slowly, under her influence, he began to shake off the voltaicpile's sinister spell. As if rising from the murky depths of a dream, he returned to a semblance of a normal life.
The university administration, however, had grown increasingly unhappy with Ritter. His self-experimentation was disturbing enough, but the faculty had begun to wonder whether he ever planned to graduate. It was now 1804. He had been a student for eight years! It was time, the administrators decided, for him to leave. Recognizing Ritter couldn't afford to pay his graduation fees, they offered to reduce them by half. At first, Ritter resisted. He didn't want to go. He liked his carefree lifestyle. But as the pressure from the university mounted, he reconsidered. Perhaps it was time, he thought, to move on and start a new chapter in his life. After all, many of his friends had already left Jena. Perhaps it was time to become a responsible member of the community, now that he had someone he wanted to spend his future with. So he accepted the university's offer. Then, to prove his commitment to a new way of life, he married Dorothea and began looking for gainful employment.
Ritter's self-experiments hadn't completely damaged his reputation. There were still many who thought he had potential, and on the basis of this hope, and his old accomplishments, he landed a position at the Royal Bavarian Academy in Munich. It paid 1,800 gulden per year, which was a fortune to him, and had the added bonus of no teaching requirements. Joyfully the couple packed their bags and headed off to Munich, with a newborn baby to round out the happy scene.
The one portrait that exists of Ritter dates from this period. It's a woodcut depicting a young man dressed in a ceremonial military uniform, made on the occasion of his entry into the Royal Bavarian Academy. In it he looks clean-cut and respectable. His mouth is curved in a slight smile. He probably hadn't looked that presentable in years.
But the old ways weren't so easy to leave behind. In Munich, Ritter found it harder than he had anticipated to change his lifestyle. Little things started to bother him. He disliked theconservative attitudes of the Bavarians. Many of his colleagues didn't share his radical views, nor did they tolerate his eccentricities. Living expenses were more than he had expected. Even with a regular salary, he struggled to make ends meet. Then another child arrived. Ritter grew restless.
A strange new idea began to itch inside his head. What if, he wondered, all the phenomena dismissed by science as supernatural were manifestations of the galvanic force? What if magic was actually a form of electrical interaction between objects? He heard about a young Italian peasant who claimed to be able to detect water and metals beneath the earth with a dowsing rod. Ritter thought it was worth investigating. The twitching of the dowsing rod, he mused, resembled the twitching of a frog's leg in response to electrical stimuli. He petitioned the Bavarian Academy to allow him to travel to Italy to meet this peasant. They were hesitant. They doubted it was real science, but Ritter persisted and finally they relented. In 1806 he departed, full of hope. Once again he was on a voyage of discovery into unexplored new territory.
Ritter returned a year later, bursting with excitement, convinced that the supernatural was a form of electrical activity. 'Here I stand at the entrance to great secrets,' he proclaimed. Eagerly he demonstrated his discoveries to his colleagues, showing them how a hand-held pendulum mysteriously swayed when held over various parts of the human body. His colleagues cast sceptical glances at each other and whispered behind his back: 'What is Ritter up to? If we let him carry on with this, he'll make a laughing stock of the Academy!'
Ludwig Gilbert, the former publisher of many of Ritter's articles, led the attack against him. He published a scathing critique of Ritter's pendulum experiments, dismissing them as pseudo-science, commenting cynically that the only knowledge they could ever produce was knowledge of how the senses can be deceived. Ritter found his colleagues no longer willing to talk to him. He became a scientific outcast.
Chastened, Ritter cast about for a way to redeem himself. In his desperation, he reached out for something that made him feel safe.Something he knew well. The pendulum had betrayed him, but his old love, the voltaic pile - that had always been true.
His wife must have had reservations when he raised the subject of more voltaic pile experiments. Not on yourself, she might have pleaded. But he assured her that he had a different plan. He had always been curious about the presence of galvanism in plants. Now he had a chance to pursue that question. There would be no danger at all.
So the voltaic column moved back in to Ritter's house - like the third member in a bizarre love triangle. Ritter threw himself back into his work. He wrote to a friend that he returned to his experiments 'con amore'. He spent his days exposing Mimosa pudica plants to the stimulation of the voltaic pile, recording how their leaves bent or their stalks twisted in response to the galvanic force. In the long hours he spent with the plants, he began to imagine that they sensed his presence and reacted positively to it - especially, he noted somewhat ominously, if he were sober.
But despite some intriguing results, his colleagues continued to spurn him. His scientific reputation seemed beyond repair. Old aches and pains from his years of self-experimentation also troubled him. To ease them he drank more heavily and increased his opium intake. Debts piled up. He realized he couldn't afford life in Munich with a family.
The breaking point occurred in 1809 when the Napoleonic Wars arrived in Bavaria. The general disruption prompted the Academy to suspend his salary, which hit him brutally hard. With no resources to fall back on, he had no means to support his family. He grew desperate. He didn't know what to do. Finally he sent his wife and children away to live with friends in Nuremberg, while he moved into a small apartment with whatever books and scientific instruments he could carry. He was alone again with the voltaic pile, just like in the old days.
Ritter retreated into the darkness of his room. In December 1809, an old acquaintance, Karl von Raumer, paid him a visit. What he found shocked him.
I came upon Ritter in a vile and dismal room in which everything possible: books, instruments, wine bottles - lay indiscriminately about. He himself was in an indescribably agitated state, full of sullen hostility. One after another he guzzled wine, coffee, beer, and every sort of drink, as though he were trying to extinguish a fire inside of him ... . I felt the deepest sympathy to see this once so gifted man in such torment, in such bodily and mental suffering.
Ritter was starving. He fell sick with tuberculosis and couldn't drag himself out of bed to beg for food. He wrote to members of the Academy, pleading for their help: 'At noon I'll have nothing to eat, unless some relief shows up.' And then again, 'Please have mercy with me, and please don't be cross, because I call upon you again before receipt of your undoubtedly kind answer.' His letters went unanswered.
On 23 January 1810, a rescue party pounded on his door. 'Ritter! Johann! Open up!' There was no answer. By some means, the door was opened. Holding their sleeves over their noses to ward off the smell, the men entered, picking their way across soiled garments, wine bottles, and scattered pieces of paper. In the midst of this disorder, they found Ritter's body, cold and lifeless, lying sprawled on the bed.
It's not known if Ritter's voltaic column was in the room. Perhaps he had sold it to raise money, but it seems more fitting that he would have kept it to the end, one final link to that magical, galvanic world he longed to explore. If so, we can imagine it there as his rescuers might have seen it - standing guard jealously beside his dead body, gleaming softly and enigmatically in the light that filtered through the shuttered windows.
Electrocuting an Elephant
Coney Island, New York - 10 February 1904. Tony steps out of the workmen's quarters and quietly shuts the door behind him. The night is cold. A wind blows from the east, carrying the scent of the ocean. He lights a cigarette and takes a long drag.
He looks down the avenue towards the amusement park. In the summer, it would be brightly lit, radiating with the glow of thousands of newly installed electric lights. But now, during the off season, it's mostly dark. Above the park, the sky is full of stars. Suddenly Tony tenses. He leans forward, peering into the darkness.
'Madonna mia,' he murmurs. He looks more closely, his eyes opening wide with fright. Then he starts screaming, 'She's back! She's come back!'
The door opens and a dark-haired man pokes his head out. 'Hey, Tony. What's all the screaming about?'
'She's back. Topsy's back!'
The dark-haired man, Jimmy, comes outside, followed by Marco.
'What are you talking about? Who's Topsy?'
'The elephant electrocuted last year! She's back.' Tony points down the avenue, his voice tinged with hysteria. 'Don't you see her? She's right there.'
Jimmy and Marco look down the avenue. Jimmy shrugs his shoulders. 'I don't see nothing.'
Tony's face is pale and his arm trembles. 'We burned her! We did a terrible thing. She's come back for revenge.' He gasps and clutches his mouth, his eyes rolling back in his head as he collapses into a heap on the ground.
'Tony, you OK, man?' Jimmy rushes to Tony's side and looks up at Marco. 'Run and get some help!'
But Marco is staring down the avenue, a look of horror on his face. 'I see her too, Jimmy.' His voice is quiet, almost a whisper. 'It's awful. Her trunk is shooting sparks. Her eyes ... they're like burning coals.'
'You gone crazy too?'
'Her skin is all on fire. It's terrible. She's real mad. She wants revenge ... Wait ... She's fading now. She's fading. I can't see her any more.'
'What's going on with you two?'
Marco puts his finger to his lips. 'Shhh! Listen. Can you hear her?'
'I don't see or hear nothing,' Jimmy bursts out, but then he stops. He did hear something. He shakes his head, as if to clear his ears. It must have been his mind playing tricks on him, he thinks. It was probably just the noise of the surf crashing on the beach several blocks over. But for a second, just a second, he could have sworn he heard the faraway sound of an elephant trumpeting in anger, her cry rising and dying on the night wind.
Topsy the elephant arrived in the United States in 1875 as an involuntary immigrant, imported from India by the circus owner Adam Forepaugh. She was already eight years old when she walked off the ship, but Forepaugh nevertheless promoted her as a baby elephant, parading her down main streets atop the 'gorgeous moving Temple of Juno', a structure 30 feet high. The showman's competitor, P. T. Barnum, pointed out that Topsy wasn't really a baby, but was, rather, a young Asian elephant, a species smaller than its African counterparts. This distinction, however, was lost on audiences for whom all elephants were alike.
Soon Topsy grew too large to pass off as an infant to even the most gullible crowds, and so she no longer enjoyed the status of a headliner. She became just another trick-performing circus elephant. An audience favourite was when Topsy and her companions did the quadrille, a kind of square dance performed by four couples. Their trainer would call out, 'Gentlemen to the right, swing your partners,' and the elephants would lumber through the steps. But even at a young age, Topsy was known for acting up. During the performance, she would often mischievously smack the other elephants on their rumps with her trunk and shower them with sawdust. This penchant for misbehaviour brought unpleasant consequences for her. One time Forepaugh grew so mad at her anticsthat he struck her on the backside with a stake. The blow broke her tail, gaining her the nickname 'Crooked Tail'.
Life in the circus was hard for the elephants. They were shipped from town to town, kept in small cages, and had to endure screaming crowds and abusive keepers. As the years passed, Topsy soured with age. Finally, in 1900, she snapped and killed two of her trainers. The first one she stomped to death in Waco, Texas. The second one she sat on and crushed in Paris, Texas.
Killing two people earns an elephant a bad reputation, but elephants represent a significant financial investment for a circus, so she was kept on - at least, she was until 1902, when she killed again. Josiah Blount, another trainer, came to wish her good morning. She responded by seizing him with her trunk, throwing him to the ground, kneeling on him, and collapsing his ribcage. At first it wasn't clear why Topsy attacked him, but her other trainers later found a burn mark on the tip of her trunk and speculated that Blount had fed her a cigarette.
Topsy was sold to the owners of the Luna Park amusement park on Coney Island. There she was put to work hauling construction material. Accompanying her was her trainer of many years, Frederick Ault, aka 'Whitey'. He was just about the only person she would listen to, but his presence, in hindsight, wasn't a stabilizing influence, since Whitey was a mean drunk on his own personal path towards self-destruction. Unfortunately, he decided to drag Topsy down with him. In November 1902 the police cited him for animal cruelty for prodding Topsy with a pitchfork, wounding her near the eye. A month later, on 5 December, he led Topsy on a rampage through Coney Island.
Whooping loudly and waving a pitchfork over his head, Whitey rode Topsy down Surf Avenue as a crowd of terrified residents followed at a safe distance behind. Finally she came to a stop in front of the entrance to the exclusive Sea Gate community and refused to go any further. A policeman then led Whitey at gunpoint to the station, but when the inebriated trainer was taken into headquarters, Topsy tried to follow, smashing the front door off its hinges and wedging herentire six-ton body in the frame. Policemen scattered in terror as she began trumpeting loudly and timbers creaked ominously.
Whitey got out of that adventure with a warning in return for leading Topsy back to her stable and promising to behave in the future. But a few weeks later he was back to his old tricks. He released Topsy from her stable, pointed her towards a crew of Italian workmen, and told her to 'Sic 'em.' The workmen fled in terror.
The Luna Park owners decided Whitey had to go, but without Whitey, Topsy was a liability. No zoo would take her, and no other keeper could control her. There seemed to be no other option but to put her down. It was this decision, ironically, that brought Topsy into the history books, because it drew her into a much larger story - a battle being fought between two industrial giants to decide what form of electrical transmission would be used throughout the United States.
The Battle of the Currents
By the end of the nineteenth century, electricity was no longer just a scientific curiosity. It was becoming what we know it as today - an indispensable feature of everyday life. A key factor in this transformation was Thomas Edison's development of a cheap, reliable electric light, which he debuted to an awestruck public in 1879. Of course, an electric light is useless without electricity, and Edison had a plan to provide that too. His company, Edison Electric, opened its first power plant on New York's Pearl Street in 1882, and was soon illuminating much of the city's downtown area. Other cities clamoured for Edison's services. The success of his electrical system seemed assured.
Edison's market dominance, however, didn't go unchallenged for long. He soon faced a powerful rival - George Westinghouse. Westinghouse had made a fortune inventing a new braking system for railroads. The old method had required brakemen to apply brakes individually on each car, jumping between cars to do so. Westinghouse developed a compressed air system that allowedevery car to be braked simultaneously. Flush with cash, he decided to enter the electrical business in 1885, having been convinced - largely by Edison's success - that it was too lucrative a market to ignore. Also, he thought he knew a way to beat Edison.
There are two methods of transmitting electricity: direct current (DC), in which power flows in only one direction, or alternating current (AC), in which the current flows back and forth, constantly reversing direction many times per second. Edison's system used DC. This was a proven, reliable technology, but it had one major drawback. It couldn't be transmitted over large distances. The power plant needed to be quite close - within a mile - of the end user. This didn't worry Edison, however, since he imagined each city and town having its own power plant.
Westinghouse decided he could beat Edison with a system designed around AC. The technology was more complicated and poorly understood - Edison believed it was so complicated it could never be made to work - but Westinghouse gambled that if his engineers could get it working, it would prove much cheaper since AC could be transmitted economically over large distances. So one power plant could service a huge geographical region. Also, Westinghouse had a secret weapon. He had recently hired a brilliant young inventor, Nikola Tesla, who promised he had solutions to many of the technical challenges posed by an AC system. (The same Tesla, pigeon-lover, that we met earlier.)
So the sides were drawn up in what would prove to be an epic struggle for control of the electrical market. It would be AC vs DC, with Edison's forces lined up behind DC and Westinghouse's industrial might positioned behind AC. Historians describe it as the Battle of the Currents.
The first victory in the battle went to Westinghouse. Tesla delivered on his promise, and by 1888, Westinghouse had built his first power plants and was facing more demand for his business than he could supply. This sent jolts of concern through Edison, as well as everyone whose business relied on DC transmission. Had they attached themselves, they wondered, to a soon-to-be-obsoletetechnology? But the backers of DC weren't about to go down without a fight. Perhaps DC couldn't best AC on technical merits alone, but there were other, more unorthodox methods of tilting the balance of public opinion back in DC's favour. A letter published in the New York Post on 5 June 1888 signalled the start of a new, more bloodthirsty phase of the struggle.
The author of the letter was Harold Pitney Brown, a virtually unknown, thirty-year-old, self-educated electrical engineer. He pulled no punches. 'The alternating current,' he thundered, 'can be described by no adjective less forceful than damnable.' It was true, he conceded, that AC could be operated at lower cost than DC, but by allowing AC wires to run through neighbourhoods, he argued, people were unknowingly putting their lives at risk. An AC wire overhead, he warned, was as dangerous as 'a burning candle in a powder factory'. Someone's death was inevitable. But a DC wire, he insisted, was perfectly safe. Were people really willing to trade lives for a few dollars in savings?
The letter stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy. The backers of AC dismissed his accusations as groundless, but Edison sensed opportunity. Perhaps, he reasoned, Brown was on to something. Perhaps customers could be scared away from AC by convincing them of its dangers. The strategy was worth a try. At the very least, it couldn't hurt to discreetly push a little money in Brown's direction and allow him to be his attack dog. Brown, basking in his new-found notoriety, gladly took the job.
Death-Current Experiments in the Edison Lab
With Edison's encouragement, Brown launched an anti-AC campaign that, to this day, marks a low point in the annals of corporate public relations. Since the public seemed unwilling to accept the danger of alternating current based on his word alone, Brown decided to prove his argument scientifically. He came up with the idea of conducting experiments in which he would test the ability of animals to withstand high voltages of alternating and directcurrent. The public could then see for itself which current was more lethal.
Brown began his 'death-current experiments' in July 1888 at Edison's corporate laboratory in Orange, New Jersey. He worked late in the evening when the regular employees had gone home. His subjects were stray dogs bought from neighbourhood boys for 25 cents apiece.
Night after night, with grim determination, Brown arrived at the lab, carefully calibrated his equipment, and then proceeded to electrocute dogs. The pitiful howls and cries of the creatures echoed through the building. Scientifically his experiments were little more than a farce, though his results nevertheless appeared in electrical journals. He made no attempt to control for variables such as the weight of the dogs, their physical condition, or the amount of voltage. He simply kept electrocuting dogs until he got the results he wanted, and he ignored any contradictory data.
At times his brutal methods proved too much even for the assistants assigned to help him. One night Brown was giving a 50-pound half-bred shepherd repeated jolts of direct current. The animal had already withstood 1,000 volts, then 1,100, 1,200, 1,300, 1,400, and finally 1,420 volts, but Brown decided to see if it could survive longer exposures, so he gave it 1,200 volts for two-and-a-half seconds. The dog wailed in agony and tried to escape its harness. 'Enough,' an engineer in the room cried out. 'This one's had enough.' He scooped up the dog and took it home. It was one of the few dogs to make it out alive from Brown's laboratory.
After a month, Brown felt he was ready for a public demonstration. He invited electrical experts and members of the press to attend a presentation at the Columbia University School of Mines, at which he promised to illustrate the 'comparative death-dealing qualities of high tension electric currents, continuous and alternating'. On the day of the event, the audience gathered expectantly. Brown walked onto the stage and made some opening remarks. 'Gentlemen,' he announced. 'I have been drawn into this controversy only by my sense of right. I represent no company, and nofinancial or commercial interest.' This, of course, was a lie. Nevertheless, Brown proceeded to explain that he would prove a living creature could withstand shocks from direct current much better than from alternating current.
Brown's assistants led a 76-pound dog onto the stage. Sensing danger, the dog tried to bite the men as they muzzled it and attached electrodes to its legs. Brown then told the audience he would demonstrate how the dog could easily withstand shocks of direct current. He gave the animal first 300 volts, then 400, 700, and finally 1,000 volts. The New York Times reporter, appalled by the spectacle, wrote that the dog 'contorted with pain and the experiment became brutal'. However, it remained alive.
'He will have less trouble,' sneered Brown, 'when we try the alternating current. As these gentlemen say, we shall make him feel better.' Brown gave the dog 330 volts of AC. The weary creature, exhausted by the ordeal, jerked with pain and fell over dead.
There were cries from the audience. Westinghouse's representatives shouted out that the test was unfair. The dog had been half dead already when it was given the alternating current. Brown started to get another dog, but at that moment an agent from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals jumped onto the stage, showed his badge, and demanded an end to the experimentation. Reluctantly, Brown complied. As everyone filed out of the lecture room, a spectator was overheard saying that a Spanish bullfight would have seemed like a 'moral and innocent spectacle by comparison'.
Brown's killing spree wasn't over. Four months later, on 5 December 1888, he was back in Edison's lab, having decided to extend his experimentation to even larger animals - two calves and a horse. The calves proved no match for 750 volts of alternating current. The horse, however, presented more of a problem. When Brown first banged the hammer down to close the circuit, nothing happened. The horse looked around, bored. So Brown banged the hammer down again. Still nothing. In frustration, Brown smashed the hammer down repeatedly until smoke rose from the sponge-coveredelectrodes, but the horse didn't flinch. Carefully Brown checked the connections and tried again. This time it worked. The horse took 700 volts of AC for 25 seconds and collapsed lifeless on the ground.
For Westinghouse, the horse and calf electrocutions, and the publicity they attracted, were the final straw. Enraged, he sent an open letter to the newspapers denouncing Brown's experiments. 'We have no hesitation in charging that the object of these experiments is not in the interest of science or safety,' he declared, 'but to endeavor to create in the minds of the public a prejudice against the use of the alternating currents.'
Brown responded with a brazen proposal. If Westinghouse felt so confident in the safety of alternating current, Brown asked, would he be willing to back up his words with his own life? Would he participate in an electric duel? Brown detailed the conditions of the contest he proposed:
I challenge Mr. Westinghouse to meet me in the presence of competent electrical experts, and take through his body the alternating current, while I take through mine a continuous current. The alternating current must not have less than 500 alternations per second (as recommended by the Medico-Legal Society). We will begin with 100 volts, and will gradually increase the pressure 50 volts at a time, I leading with each increase, each contact to be made for five seconds, until either one or the other has cried enough, and publicly admits his error.
Westinghouse ignored the proposal, which was just as well for Brown. Westinghouse was a big, husky man - by far the larger of the two - so he probably could have withstood more current.
However, despite Westinghouse's protests, Brown's experiments served their purpose: soon after they helped him score a publicity coup when the State of New York voted to adopt electrocution as the method by which all condemned prisoners would be executed. Influenced by Edison's lobbying, the politicians selected AC as theofficial 'death current'. In August 1890, William Kemmler, a grocer convicted of murdering his common-law wife with a hatchet, became the first man executed with electricity. Brown and Edison made sure a Westinghouse AC generator was used to kill him.
The combination of Brown's experiments and the introduction of the electric death penalty stirred the public's curiosity. Imaginations started to run wild. How much current, people wondered, could other large animals withstand? What would it look like to see them electrocuted? The showman P. T. Barnum, ever mindful of the public's desires, stepped in to satisfy its curiosity. In February 1889, he arranged for electrical engineers to visit the winter quarters of his circus in Bridgeport, Connecticut. There he gave them free rein to electrocute his collection of exotic animals. The engineers made themselves busy. They zapped a seal, hyena, leopard, ibex, wolf, hippopotamus, and several elephants. They didn't use enough current to risk harming the animals; Barnum wasn't about to damage his property. It was just enough to get a reaction. The elephants, in fact, seemed to enjoy the sensation. The Baltimore Sun reported, 'They rubbed their legs together, caressed keepers and visitors and squealed with delight.'
This merely whetted the public's appetite. An elephant tickled by current wasn't enough. People wanted more. They wanted to witness the full power of man-made electricity unleashed in the most sensational way possible, in a grim contest of strength with the mightiest creature in Nature. They wanted to see a fully electrocuted elephant.
The dream of electrocuting an elephant was an old one. In 1804, Grimod de la Reyniere, in his Almanach des gourmands, wrote of a Monsieur Beyer who owned a giant electrical machine powerful enough to kill an elephant. Grimod was certainly exaggerating, but the fascination with a showdown between man's technology and brute creation was real enough. At the close of the nineteenth century,as workers stretched electrical wires across the countryside to provide the power that would fuel a new industrial revolution, it seemed that man's technology was finally powerful enough to win such a contest. The act would be a symbol of mankind's mastery over the natural world. The editors of Forest and Stream magazine, writing in 1896, disparagingly remarked that the American public reminded them of the Roman crowds of old, yearning for 'the spectacle of brute suffering at the hands of man ... the experiment of killing a vast animal by an untried device.'
Owners of rogue, man-killing elephants were quite willing to provide the public with the spectacle it craved, but for one reason or another, events kept conspiring to deprive everyone of the thrill. An elephant named Chief, advertised as the biggest in America, was the first to be slated for electrocution after he killed three men in 1888. His owners, the circus men John and Gilbert Robinson, announced that electrocuting him would be interesting 'for the novelty of the thing and the scientific possibilities'. But first they granted Chief a temporary reprieve, and then they changed their minds about the electrocution. They eventually used a powerful gun to put Chief down.
Gypsy, in 1896, had a much closer brush with electric execution after she killed two of her keepers. Chicago's Harris Circus applied for a permit to electrocute her, and was ready to sell tickets to the event, but the Humane Society objected to her death being made into a public show. This argument convinced the police commissioner, who denied the permit, citing 'the effect which a public electrocution might have on public morals'. Having failed to electrocute her, the Harris Circus sarcastically offered to ship her to Cuba instead, where, so they suggested, the island's rebel fighters could put her man-killing talents to good use by allowing her to 'trample down the ranks of the Spaniards'.
In November 1901, Jumbo II, who attempted to kill two of his keepers as well as an eleven-year-old girl, got so far as to be wired up with electrodes at Buffalo's Pan-American Midway Stadium. Over 1,000 people paid admission to see him die, but after a last-minuteobjection by the SPCA - again on the grounds that such a public spectacle was unseemly - the stadium returned everyone's money and sent them home. However, once the crowd was gone, the execution proceeded. An engineer pulled the switch and ... nothing happened. Jumbo II happily played with a plank. The engineer concluded something was wrong with his equipment, but he was unable to figure out what the problem might be. Eventually Jumbo II's trainers untied him and returned him to his quarters. The New York Sun joked, 'He can stand an electric shock of this kind every day.'
It seemed as if people would never have the gruesome satisfaction of seeing an elephant electrocuted. But then, in December 1902, Whitey led Topsy on her rampage through Coney Island, and this time all the planets were in the proper alignment for the public to get what it wanted.
The Death of Topsy
The owners of Luna Park originally planned to hang Topsy, which was a common way to kill circus elephants since it allowed gravity to do the work. They even built a scaffold over the small lake in the centre of the park for this purpose. But the SPCA, as was its habit, objected. For some reason, which went unexplained, the society now felt that electrocution would be more humane than hanging, and it voiced no concerns about the event being witnessed by the public. The green light was given for the electrocution to proceed.
When Edison learned what was to happen, he immediately volunteered to help. By this time the Battle of the Currents was over, and he'd lost. Despite all the scare tactics and electrified dogs, the public had voted with their money, choosing AC over DC. In 1895, Westinghouse had completed construction of a massive power plant at Niagara Falls, which was soon supplying power to western New York. The obvious success of the Niagara Falls plant established, beyond all doubt, the viability and practicality of AC power transmission. So Edison truly had nothing to gain by assisting inthe execution of Topsy, but he was still nursing old wounds. In his heart of hearts he honestly believed AC was a death current, unsuitable for anything but killing, and he couldn't resist the opportunity to stick it to Westinghouse one more time.
Edison offered Luna Park the services of three of his top engineers. He also sent along a cameraman to record the entire spectacle. The motion picture camera was Edison's great new invention, the perfection and promotion of which had occupied much of his time during the past decade. He guessed (accurately) that people would flock to view the electrocution of an elephant caught on film.
The only thing Edison didn't send was Harold Brown. By 1903 the two men had drifted apart. Brown was desperately trying to maintain the illusion of a continuing partnership by peddling an invention he called the 'Edison-Brown Plastic Rail Bond'. Edison, however, had sued Brown to stop him from using his name.
The execution was scheduled for 1.30 p.m. on 4 January 1903. A crowd of over 1,500 people gathered in the cold weather to witness the scene. The scaffold over the lake had been converted into an electrocution platform. Several long copper wires snaked out to it.
With all the pomp and circumstance that could be mustered, Topsy's handlers led her out to the platform, but when she arrived at the small bridge that led to the scaffold, she stopped. No amount of force or cajoling could persuade her to go further. A murmur of astonishment rippled through the crowd. And then, as the minutes dragged by, something unexpected happened. The mood of the crowd shifted. They had come to see a death, but Topsy's show of resistance stirred their sympathies. Her behaviour revealed to them an intelligent creature with emotions, deserving of pity. 'Give 'em hell, Topsy!' someone shouted, and a ragged cheer went up.
Worried that the crowd was growing unruly, the Luna Park management sent a message to Whitey, pleading for his help. He replied haughtily that he wouldn't betray his old chum for any amount of money - a noble sentiment, though he hadn't seemed as concerned about her welfare when he led her on the rampage through ConeyIsland. Still, the owners were determined to go through with the execution, so they ordered it to be transferred to the open yard. The engineers started to relocate the equipment. They moved quickly, since the crowd was becoming increasingly restless. An hour later everything was ready.
Again Topsy's handlers led her into place. This time she made no protest. At 2.38 p.m. a veterinarian fed her two carrots stuffed with cyanide - insurance to make sure she definitely would die. No one wanted a repeat of Jumbo II's botched electrocution. The engineers attached electrodes that looked like copper sandals to her feet. Then, at 2.45 p.m., they gave the signal to proceed. All of the electrical power for Coney Island, except that needed to operate the trolley cars, had been switched off and diverted into the electrical apparatus. D. P. Sharkey of the Edison Company pulled the switch; 6,600 volts went coursing through Topsy.
The Edison movie camera caught the entire scene in grainy black and white. In film footage that can still be viewed today - do a keyword search on the Internet for the title of the clip, 'Electrocuting an Elephant' - we see Topsy led across the open yard, past stacks of lumber and construction material. The crowd, huddling in their coats, look on from the background. Then there's a jump in the film, and the next frame shows Topsy already standing in place, electrodes attached. She paws the ground with her front foot, as if impatient for the event to proceed. Suddenly she goes rigid. Smoke rises from the ground. She slowly topples over onto her side, and a cloud of smoke completely envelops her. For a few seconds we can hardly see her, but then the wind blows the cloud away, and she lies there, unmoving.
It was all over in ten seconds. Determined to suppress a negative reaction from the crowd, the Luna Park owners immediately began moving people towards the exits and allowed Hubert Vogelsang, a New York merchant, to start carving up Topsy's body. Vogelsang had bought the rights to her remains and hoped to make a profit by selling them off. Her feet became umbrella stands; her organs went to a Princeton professor; and her skin went to theMuseum of Natural History. Edison's film proved to be the most enduring reminder of her existence. In the following years it was shown repeatedly throughout the country, usually bundled together with other short clips such as 'A Locomotive Head-on Collision' and 'An Indian Snake Dance' in order to provide audiences with a full evening of entertainment.
There was nothing new about killing an animal with electricity. Throughout the history of electrical research, almost every variety of creature had fallen beneath the sting of the wires: birds, cats, dogs, cows, horses. Some people had expressed discomfort at these deaths, but few paused to shed any tears, and the animals were quickly forgotten. But Topsy's execution felt different - unusual. Perhaps it was a sense of collective guilt at the sacrifice of an innocent creature of such intelligence to satisfy the whims of industry and popular entertainment. Whatever it was, people found it hard to forget about Topsy after she was gone.
A year after her death, people began to report seeing Topsy's ghost wandering the windswept avenues of Coney Island. Antonio Pucciani, a Luna Park ditch digger, was catching some air late at night outside the workmen's sleeping quarters in February 1904, when he claimed to see her apparition, her eyes blazing with an angry light. Several of his colleagues also witnessed the visitation. The next night a hot-dog vendor saw her, and in the following weeks other staff members reported similar sightings.
It wasn't only humans who were sensitive to Topsy's lingering presence. In 1905, Pete Barlow, trainer of the six new elephants Luna Park had acquired, noticed that his animals refused to walk past a particular spot of ground behind the stables. As they approached it they would trumpet and shake and then come to a halt. Finally he decided to dig there to see what might be troubling them. He discovered the skull of Topsy, buried a few feet beneath the surface. Apparently Vogelsang had left it behind. It was reported that as workmen lifted the skull out of the ground, the elephants trumpeted sadly, and then walked in silence into their quarters.
Two years later, in July 1907, a fire swept through Coney Island.The fire started in Steeplechase Park, then burned its way up Surf Avenue. Losses were estimated at over $1,000,000. The police determined the cause of the conflagration to be a cigarette discarded in a pile of trash, but other, more sinister theories circulated. Many suspected it was the work of the Black Hand, or Mano Nera, a secretive Italian criminal organization known to threaten business owners with ruin if they refused to meet their financial demands. The more superstitious whispered it was the work of Topsy, come back to exact fiery revenge.
The fascination with Topsy, and sense of regret at her passing, only strengthened as the years went by, continuing right up to the present. The past two decades have seen a steady flow of scholarly articles about her, as well as artistic tributes including short stories by Joanna Scott and Lydia Millet, and songs by indie-rock groups Piñataland and Grand Archives. A high point of this popular interest occurred in 2003, on the 100th anniversary of her death, when artists Gavin Heck and Lee Deigaard joined forces to install a memorial to Topsy at the Coney Island Museum. The memorial allows visitors to stand on copper plates resembling the electrodes used to kill her and watch the film of her death through a 'mutoscope', a coin-operated, hand-cranked viewing device.
It's difficult to find anything worthwhile in Topsy's death. It was a senseless act, designed only to showcase mankind's newfound industrial might by using the power of science to strike down one of Nature's mightiest creatures. If electrical engineers of the time could have figured out how to electrocute a blue whale, they probably would have. However, Topsy's sacrifice did have one positive effect. It seemed to sate the public's urge to view the spectacle of a vast animal killed by electricity. At least no more elephants were ever executed in that manner in the United States - nor, quite possibly, in the rest of the world. Other elephants have died of electrocution, but always accidentally, usually by wandering into power lines. It's a small victory, but certainly the best tribute of all to Topsy.
From Electro-Botany to Electric Schoolchildren
London, England - August, 1912. The first thing the reporter notices as he enters the laboratory is a dark-haired young girl sitting on a stool inside a tall, square cage. She wears a white dress, has a gap-toothed grin, and appears to be no more than five years old. The next thing he notices is the electrical apparatus positioned next to the cage: coils, levers, wires, switches, and other gear whose purpose he couldn't begin to guess.
A man wearing a bow tie and an ill-fitting grey suit approaches. He's no more than thirty years old, slightly built, and has Mediterranean features - dark hair, olive skin, and brown eyes. He extends his hand. 'Greetings. You must be John Sloane, the London Mirror man. Thomas Thorne Baker at your service.'
'Pleased to meet you,' Sloane replies as he shakes Baker's hand.
'And in the cage is my daughter, Yvonne. Say hello, Yvonne.'
'Hello, Mr Sloane,' Yvonne says, with a faint hint of a lisp.
'Hello, Yvonne!' Sloane answers, waving to her awkwardly, unsure of the proper way to greet a girl in a cage. She waves back enthusiastically.
Baker immediately takes charge of the interview. 'Let me explain the principle of my experimentation, and then I shall give you a demonstration. My previous work, as you may be aware, has demonstrated the stimulating effect of high-frequency electromagnetic currents upon the growth of chickens.'
'Chickens?' Sloane asks, as he reaches into his jacket pocket for a notebook.
'Yes, chickens,' Baker confirms. 'I've found that chickens exposed to high-frequency currents not only grow faster and larger than their non-electrified counterparts, but are calmer and easier to handle. I reasoned that if it works for chickens, well, why shouldn't it also work for children!'
Sloane nods as he writes in his notebook: 'Works for chickens ... children also?'
Baker gestures at the apparatus beside the cage. 'To generate the high-frequency currents, I use a coil of the kind designed by the Americaninventor Nikola Tesla. When I activate the current, the atmosphere inside the cage is saturated with incalculable millions of infinitesimal electric waves moving hundreds of thousands of times a second.'
'And this isn't harmful in any way?'
'Quite the opposite. The high-frequency currents stimulate the circulation by lowering the viscosity of the blood, thereby increasing vitality. I would not use Yvonne as my subject if I were not certain of this.'
Yvonne grins at the mention of her name.
Baker continues, 'Once I have collected enough data with Yvonne, I will be able to offer treatment to babies who are thin, anaemic, or underweight. Many medical men have already expressed an interest in my work.'
Sloane arches an eyebrow. 'I wonder what an old-fashioned mother would say if she could see your method of strengthening babies?'
Baker laughs - a short, bark-like sound. 'What would she say, indeed! It is progress, Mr Sloane. Progress! But please, allow me to give you a demonstration.'
Baker turns towards the electrical apparatus and makes a quick visual inspection of it. 'Are you ready, Yvonne?'
Yvonne nods her head. 'Yes, Daddy.'
'Mr Sloane, I am now turning on the current.' A loud electric hum fills the room. Blue sparks flash from a tightly wound coil of copper wire.
Baker picks up a sealed glass tube and holds it out towards Sloane. 'This is a helium vacuum tube,' he explains, raising his voice to speak over the noise of the equipment. 'Observe what happens when it is placed in the electrified atmosphere.' He moves the tube near the bars of the cage, and as he does so it emits a soft yellow glow. He moves it away and the glow fades. Baker places the tube back on his lab bench.
'What would happen if someone touched the bars?' Sloane asks.
'You are welcome to try.'
Sloane extends his hand, but as his fingers near the metal a spark leaps from the bars to his skin. 'www!' Sloane cries, pulling his hand back and shaking it.
Baker laughs again. 'It is not powerful enough to do any damage, I assure you.'
Sloane, holding his injured finger, turns to Yvonne. 'Tell me, Yvonne. How does the electricity make you feel?'
Yvonne considers the question for a moment, then gazes up at the ceiling and replies, with a dreamy expression, 'I feel lovely all the time. It makes me feel very happy.'
'That's wonderful. But are you not concerned at all?'
Yvonne shakes her head. 'No. It is so comfortable. I should like to go to sleep here.' At that moment the electric coil emits a loud, crackling pop. Yvonne adds, as if for emphasis, 'I love having 'lectric currents!'
A flicker of concern passes over Sloane's features. He smiles, a little warily. 'So I can see,' he says. 'So I can see.'
The pursuit of electric growth began during a cold Edinburgh winter at a boarding school for young women. It was December 1746. Stephen Demainbray, master of the school, took a myrtle bush from the greenhouse and placed it in the front room, near the door. He then electrified the plant every day for seventeen days. Unfortunately, we don't know for how long he electrified it each day (one hour? Five hours?), nor do we know the exact method he used - whether he touched wires to the leaves or stuck them in the soil. However, we can guess at the kind of machine he used because the electricity-generating machines of that era typically consisted of glass globes that a researcher spun by means of a crank. He rubbed either his hand or a leather pad against the moving glass to produce a static charge. To produce a continuous charge, one had to keep cranking the machine, and this laborious task often fell to an assistant. In Demainbray's case, the assistant was probably one of his young female students.
Although Demainbray was vague about the details of his experiment, he was clear about the results. In a letter sent to The Gentleman's Magazine, he excitedly reported that the myrtle had produced several new shoots, the largest one measuring a full three inches. This was in spite of the cold weather and the gusty draughts in the room as his students opened and closed the door. Myrtles left in the greenhouse, on the other hand, didn't grow at all.Demainbray concluded that electricity must have a stimulating effect on plant growth. He suggested his discovery could be of great benefit to society 'if the hint be rightly taken'.
Electrical researchers needed little urging to take the hint. In the following decades, they devised all manner of ways to electrify seeds, shrubs, and shoots in search of the elusive combination that would supercharge the growth of plants. They stuck lightning rods in fields, buried electrodes in the ground, and stretched webs of iron wires over crops in order to collect 'atmospheric electricity'.
There were tantalizing reports of success. In 1783, the clergyman Abbé Bertholon claimed his lettuces had grown to a remarkable size when he watered them with an electrified watering can. Even more exciting was the widely circulated, though dubious-sounding, tale of a dinner party hosted by Henry Paget, 1st Marquess of Anglesey. It was said that before Paget served his guests dinner he had them place a few seeds of cress in a pot that contained a mixture of sand, oxide of manganese, and salt. Paget then electrified the pot. By the end of the main course, the cress had supposedly grown to full size and was served to the guests in their salad.
No one knew why electricity should have a positive effect on plant growth, but then the nature of electricity itself was a complete mystery, so confusion was to be expected. Some theorized that the current increased the flow of sap. Others suggested it caused vibrations, thereby loosening the earth. But the most prevalent hunch was that electricity might be the animating force of life itself. Therefore it made sense that, if applied in judicious quantities, it would increase vitality.
Of course, not all researchers agreed that electricity did, in fact, invigorate plants. Many would-be electro-horticulturists were rewarded with nothing but withered flora for their efforts. Others could discern no effect at all. But the true believers didn't succumb to doubt. They were sure that electricity must have a stimulating effect on vegetation, even if some researchers seemed unable to replicate their results.
Dr Poggioli's Electrical Gymnastics
It was in 1868 that the leap from plant growth to human growth was first made. Dr Poggioli, the official physician of the Italian Music Academy in Paris, presented a paper to the French Academy of Medicine titled 'The Physical and Intellectual Development of Youth by Electricity'. Poggioli observed that if electricity quickened vegetable growth, then it might also boost the physical and intellectual powers of children. In support of this theory, the doctor described the case of a boy who had recently come under his care. The child, said Poggioli, had been 'a phenomenon of deformity and stupidity'. But after only one month of electrical treatment the boy had grown an entire inch and had become the top student in his class. Poggioli, like Demainbray before him, didn't elaborate on exactly what this treatment involved - he later referred to it mysteriously as 'electrical gymnastics' - but it seems to have involved the use of a powerful battery to shock various parts of the body. It's safe to assume this was painful.
Poggioli proposed a test of his theory. Give him the bottom six students in any school, let him loose on them with his electrodes, and they would soon, he promised, be among the top in their class - and taller to boot! It's not recorded whether Poggioli ever got a chance to conduct his experiment on any unlucky children, but the next year he was back in the news with a new proposal. He wanted to straighten all the hunchbacks in France. Once again, it was his electrical gymnastics that would do the trick. He estimated there were over 50,000 hunchbacks in the country, so he had his work cut out for him.
Electromagnetic Chicken Coops
After Poggioli, interest in electrical child growth languished for the next forty years. Then, in 1912, the idea experienced a revival. It was the height of what historians call the Golden Age of Electrification - the period when electricity became the driving force ofthe industrial economy. Transmission wires were being strung throughout the countryside. City streets were suddenly ablaze with electric lights. Electric motors hummed in factories. The public embraced electricity as the symbol of everything modern, new and vital. Its potential seemed limitless and inevitably beneficial. Physicians, jumping on the bandwagon, promised 'electric' cures for everything from baldness to fatigue to impotence. Given this great swell of enthusiasm for electricity, it seemed only natural to wonder whether its positive effects extended also to small children. At least, it seemed natural to the English researcher Thomas Thorne Baker to wonder this.
Baker was a young British electrical expert eager to make a name for himself. He got his first big career break in 1907 when the Daily Mirror hired him to help develop a method of sending photographs over telephone lines. He built what he called the electrolytic telectrograph, which could transmit a grainy but recognizable image in about ten minutes. It was a primitive version of a fax machine. However, his invention wasn't the only one of its kind in existence - researchers had been experimenting with the electrical transmission of images since the 1880s - and the Daily Mirror soon decided that the operating costs of his telectrograph were too high for it to have much practical use. But meanwhile, Baker's mind teemed with other ideas. He invented an electrical lock that opened in response to specific musical tones. He imagined selling it to chapels so that they could automatically fling open their doors whenever the notes of a wedding processional were played. Then he turned his attention to high-frequency currents, a phenomenon made famous by the brilliant, eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla.
Tesla had made a fortune during the 1880s by inventing much of the technology underpinning the use of alternating current to transmit power - when he was working for Westinghouse, as we saw earlier. With this money, he opened a laboratory in New York, where, during the 1890s, he developed new electrical technologies including an oscillating transformer, or 'Tesla coil', that allowed him to amplify electrical signals to ever higher frequencies and voltages.These high-frequency currents, he found, displayed unusual and dramatic effects. For instance, his coil could send bolts of high-voltage lightning arcing across a room. It also created powerful electromagnetic fields that caused gas-filled tubes to glow brightly, even though no wires were connected to the tubes.
It was these electromagnetic fields that interested Baker. A person felt nothing when standing inside such a field. In fact, the energy seemed to have no effect on living tissue, but Baker suspected this couldn't be true. All that electromagnetic energy saturating the atmosphere must be doing something. He theorized that being washed by invisible electric waves might actually have a positive influence - just as the sun's rays were health-giving. He decided to explore the phenomenon further in the hope of finding a way to make money from it.
Baker started his high-frequency experimentation with peaches and Camembert cheese, since the food industry seemed like the most obvious customer for any discovery he might make. He exposed the fruit and cheese to electromagnetic fields, and both seemed to ripen faster. Encouraged, he soon moved on to a larger, potentially more profitable organism: chickens. In his backyard he built an electrified coop, large enough to house twelve chickens. The birds perched on insulated wires that, for one hour each day, he charged with 5,000 volts. The English correspondent for Scientific American visited Baker to examine the electro-coop, and out of curiosity reached out to touch one of the chickens. A spark leapt from the bird's beak to the reporter's hand. The reporter was taken aback, having never been shocked by a chicken before, but oddly the chicken seemed unfazed. Baker told him the chickens actually quite liked the electricity. Whenever they heard the characteristic 'zzzzzz' of the current being turned on, they cocked their heads to one side, as if listening, and then eagerly hopped on the wires.
Baker reported that his electric chickens made spectacular progress. Soon they weighed 13 per cent more than their counterparts in a non-electrified coop. They did seem a little sluggish - stunned, perhaps - but Baker figured this was a good thing. It meantthey ate less food and were easier to handle. So he managed to persuade a commercial chicken farmer, Mr Randolph Meech of Poole, to allow him to conduct a full-scale trial on his farm. He wrapped an entire chicken building, housing some 3,000 chickens, in insulated wire, and was soon boasting that the birds inside it grew 50 per cent larger in half the time.
Despite such remarkable results, chicken farmers, being cautious by nature, didn't rush out to electrify their coops - though there was one report of a Brooklyn dentist, Dr Rudolph C. Linnau, who became so excited by what he heard that he gave up pulling teeth and went into the electro-chicken trade instead. Nevertheless, Baker forged ahead, moving on to a larger and even more ambitious subject: young children. He reasoned that what worked on a chicken should also work on a child. His plan wasn't to fatten the children up for consumption, of course, but rather to find a way to treat underweight children by saturating them with health-giving electric energy. He also imagined there might be significant financial rewards if he found a cure for shortness.
In his London laboratory, Baker constructed an electrified cage, through which hummed and pulsed thousands of volts of high-frequency current. A London Mirror reporter who interviewed Baker described wires snaking across the laboratory floor, blue sparks crackling from a giant coil, and electrical apparatus that radiated a 'sense of mystery and unknown power'. Into the cage in the centre of this buzzing electromagnetic environment, Baker placed his five-year-old daughter, Yvonne. A photo accompanying the London Mirror article showed her seated in the grim-looking contraption. The cage resembled the kind used in courtrooms to house violent criminals, though Yvonne, wearing a frilly white dress, looked the very picture of innocence. She had a slight grin on her face as if she found the entire experience a fun game.
Unfortunately we don't know what results Baker achieved - whether Yvonne shot up in size, or developed remarkable mental powers - because Baker never published any updates about his experiment. Most likely he abandoned it after he realized he'd beenupstaged, because at around this time, the summer of 1912, stories began to appear in the press about a similar but far more elaborate study conducted in a Swedish classroom by Svante Arrhenius, winner of the 1903 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Breathless press reports detailed an elaborate experiment conducted by Arrhenius in which he concealed wires in the walls and ceiling of a classroom, turning it into a giant solenoid, or electromagnet. Twenty-five students and their teachers sat in the room, unaware of the 'magnetic influence' surrounding them. There was, however, said to be a lingering smell of ozone in the air, which must have alerted them to the fact that something strange was going on - that and the constant electric buzz. After six months, Arrhenius compared the students' progress to a similar group in a non-electrified room. The electrified students reportedly scored higher on all counts. They grew almost 50 per cent more and earned higher marks, on average, on their tests. The teachers also benefited from the treatment, remarking that they felt 'quickened' and that their powers of endurance increased.
The Swedish experiment made headlines around the world, but it particularly caught the attention of Tesla in New York, who complained to the press that Arrhenius's electrical apparatus 'was in all essentials the same as the one I used in this city many years ago when I had an installment of that kind in continuous use'. Except that Tesla hadn't electrified any children. But he spied an opportunity in the Swedish study. Since the 1890s, his financial situation had deteriorated. An ambitious effort to broadcast electricity wirelessly around the world had fallen apart, erasing much of his wealth with it. By 1912 he was desperate for new sources of funding, and electric growth, he thought, might be just the thing to restore his finances.
Tesla scheduled a meeting with William Maxwell, the New York superintendent of schools, and urged him to repeat Arrhenius'sexperiment with American children. He assured him there would be no risk of danger, and the benefits might prove great. Tesla noted he had once employed a rather dull assistant who had developed 'remarkable acumen' under the influence of the electromagnetic fields permeating his lab. Of course, exposure to high-frequency currents hadn't appeared to hurt Tesla's intelligence either.
With the support of Dr Louis Blan, a Columbia University psychologist, and S. H. Monnell, a Chicago doctor, Maxwell agreed to proceed. But he decided the American study would differ in one significant way from the Swedish one. Instead of regular schoolchildren, mentally handicapped students would be used as subjects. His reasoning was that mentally handicapped students were more in need of help. 'Electricity For Defectives', declared a non-politically correct New York Times headline. 'The brains of the children will receive artificial stimulation to such an extent that they will be transformed from dunces into star pupils,' the Times reporter gushed.
Tesla, who was to be in charge of the experiment, eagerly held court with the media, painting a picture for them of a time in the near future when every home would have its own in-wall Tesla coil. Living rooms, he envisioned, would become electric cages pumping their occupants full of nourishing electromagnetic energy. The Times paraphrased his bullish prediction of how this would transform society: 'Ordinary conversation will then be carried on in scintillating epigrams, and the mental life of the average adult will be so quickened as to equal the brain activity of the most brilliant people living before the time when a generator of high-frequency currents was a household essential.'
Everything was ready to go. Tesla had even priced out the equipment. Then disappointing news arrived from Europe. The details of Arrhenius's experiment, it turned out, had been seriously misreported. The British psychiatrist James Crichton-Browne had written to Arrhenius, seeking more information about the study. Arrhenius had responded, informing him that almost all the facts in the newspapers were wrong. He had exposed a group of children to high-frequency electromagnetic currents. That much was true. But theyhad been newborn infants in an orphan asylum. So the claims of boosted intelligence were fictitious. Initially his results had been promising. He had observed a rapid weight gain among the electrified children, but when he examined the study's methodology more closely, he discovered that an overzealous nurse had placed all the healthiest children in the electrified group, and the weakest ones in the control group. Upon repeating the study with stricter oversight, the apparent benefits of electricity disappeared.
Arrhenius's discouraging results took the wind out of the sails of the electric growth movement. Superintendent Maxwell quietly shelved the plans for electrifying schoolchildren. After all, if it didn't work in Sweden, he wasn't going to risk trying it in New York. Tesla went back to looking for other ways to make money, though he focused increasing amounts of time on his true passion: caring for pigeons. Thomas Thorne Baker returned to his work on the electrical transmission of images - work that eventually helped pave the way for the development of television broadcast technology. Arrhenius himself, frustrated in his efforts to improve infants by electrifying them, turned to alternative methods of boosting the stock of Sweden. He became an ardent supporter of eugenic 'racial hygiene' policies and lobbied for compulsory sterilization laws.
Liquid Sunshine and Pigs in Space
Although electric growth cages were assigned to the dustbin of medical history, the underlying thinking that gave rise to them - the conviction that invisible energy rays must have a wholesome influence - proved far more resilient. There was a seductive logic to the idea that being bathed in energy should have an uplifting effect. As the physicians Hector Colwell and Sidney Russ wearily lamented in 1934, 'For some reason or other there appears to be a widespread tendency in the public mind to regard everything connected with "rays" as on that account conducive to health and vitality.' Offshoots of this enthusiasm for invisible energy kept popping up in new settings.
For instance, during the early decades of the twentieth century, as prospects for the health-giving effects of electrical energy waned, enthusiasts transferred their hopes to a new, even more promising phenomenon: Radium Energy! Pierre and Marie Curie first isolated radium in their lab in 1902. This mysterious metal appeared to produce a limitless amount of energy. The Curies noted with amazement how it always remained hotter than its surroundings. If they tried to cool it down, the metal simply heated up again of its own accord, as if in defiance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It kept pumping out energy month after month, year after year. And where there is energy, medical entrepreneurs noted, there must be health!
Physicians swung into action, promoting the beneficial effects of 'radiumizing' the body to an eager public. Retailers sold radium-treated water, describing the faintly glowing solution as 'liquid sunshine'. The marketers for Hot Springs, Arkansas, whose natural springs were found in 1914 to contain high natural levels of radium, prominently featured this finding in their advertising literature, noting that 'radioactive substances, unlike any other electro-therapy, are able to carry electrical energy deep into the body', thereby invigorating the 'juices, protoplasm, and nuclei of the cells'. Even Thomas Thorne Baker briefly latched onto the craze. He reported to the Royal Society of Arts in 1913 that he had obtained a 400 per cent increase in the size of radishes by growing them in radium-treated soil.
The radium craze persisted well into the 1930s. Marie Curie herself insisted on the metal's health benefits, maintaining this belief right up until 1934, when she died of overexposure to radiation. It was only the atomic bomb and fears of nuclear fallout that finally cast a permanent shadow over radium's reputation.
Still, a faith in the positive impact of invisible energy has endured in popular culture. The historian Carolyn Thomas de la Peña has noted how revealing it is that fictional comic-book superheroes frequently gain their powers by exposure to radiation or electrical energy. For instance, Barry Allen turns into the Flash aftera lightning bolt shatters vials of chemicals in his lab. A radioactive spider bites Peter Parker, transforming him into Spiderman, and the Fantastic Four gain their abilities after accidental exposure to cosmic rays in outer space. The logic of radiation-powered superheroes can be traced back to beliefs in the benefits of electromagnetic growth therapies and radiumized bodies.
A curious descendant of the invisible energy enthusiasm can even be found in the present day in a rather unlikely place - the Chinese space programme. Chinese scientists, from the very start of their space programme, have expressed great interest in the effect of cosmic rays on plants, hoping that such rays might produce Super Veggies to feed their growing population. At first they used high-altitude balloons to fly seeds up to the edge of space. Now seeds are taken aboard the Shenzhou spacecraft. The resulting crops, grown back on earth, are occasionally served in Shanghai restaurants. Space spuds, it's reported, taste more 'glutinous' than terrestrial varieties.
On 12 October 2005 the Shenzhou VI spacecraft blasted off carrying a particularly special cargo - 40 grams of pig sperm to be exposed to cosmic rays. Whether or not the experiment generated positive results is unknown, because, after the initial announcement, a shroud of official state secrecy descended upon the mission. But maybe, somewhere on a farm in China, a giant, cosmic-ray-enhanced pig is rolling happily in the mud. When Mr Demainbray electrified his myrtle plant back in 1746, he certainly could never have predicted that it might one day yield such a strange progeny.
Lightning, Churches, and Electrified Sheep
Pittsfield, Massachusetts - 1923. The village presents a bucolic scene as it slumbers in the late-afternoon glow. A general store stands at the crossroads. Clustered nearby are a handful of houses. Trees line the side of the road. Further out stands a single church, its spire reaching into the sky.Beyond this, meadows roll towards the horizon, their green expanse interrupted only by several cows standing placidly, chewing on grass.
Abruptly the air darkens. A few raindrops fall. Then it turns into a steady downpour. There's a flash of light. Lightning forks through the sky, zigzagging in its search for the ground, and finds the steeple of the church. As it does so, a crashing boom echoes across the landscape. The church shivers as the fiery streak of electricity grazes it, but it holds its own.
The rain now falls even harder, and lightning again splits the sky. Once more it smashes down on the church steeple, accompanied by the percussion of thunder. Then lightning flashes and strikes the church a third, fourth, and fifth time. Each time, the wooden structure shudders, but doesn't collapse.
Suddenly a voice rises above the sound of the storm. It seems to emerge out of the sky itself, broadcasting over the entire village and speaking in an upper-class British accent. 'I say, fellows, don't you think that's somewhat sacrilegious?'
Immediately the rain stops, and light comes back. Its harsh glare reveals a towering array of electrical apparatus surrounding the miniature model village. Metal crossbars loom on either side. A network of wires criss-crosses the sky. Above it hangs a rain machine, still dripping water.
A group of men, five standing and one in a wheelchair, watch the scene from 20 feet away. Giuseppe Faccioli, the man in the wheelchair, is leaning forward, as if eager to see more of the simulated lightning storm. His crippled body looks frail, an impression accentuated by his slightly effete fashion choices: bow tie, hair parted carefully in the middle, thin moustache. However, his eyes, magnified by his thick, round glasses, sparkle with a boyish excitement. He shifts in his chair to look at the man who spoke. 'Mr Walker,' he says with a heavy Italian accent, 'you have a question?'
Walker, an English visitor to the lab, frowns unhappily. 'I'm sorry to have interrupted, Professor Faccioli, but must the lightning always hit the church? It seems somewhat sacrilegious to me.'
Faccioli leans back in his chair, a contemplative look on his face. Finally, he nods. 'The steeple attracts lightning.'
'But can't you make it hit the trees, or the other houses?'
Faccioli shakes his head. 'We do not aim the lightning. But do not worry, Mr Walker. Our lightning arresters will protect your church.' He gestures towards the model, where the small church stands unharmed.
Walker harrumphs. 'It just seems downright peculiar to me that the church is always hit.'
'I agree. Lightning is a peculiar phenomenon, Mr Walker. Very peculiar. That is why we study it. But rest assured, we hold no malice towards the church.'
Walker scowls. 'I see.'
Faccioli continues, 'With your permission, may we proceed with the demonstration?'
Walker frowns again, but after a moment nods his head. 'Yes, of course.'
Faccioli turns his head and nods at an engineer sitting at a control panel. As he does so, he rolls his eyes, ever so slightly. The engineer notices the gesture and begins to laugh, then catches himself and turns away from the group so they can't see his grin. He busies himself adjusting the switches and gauges.
The lights dim again. Rain starts to fall on the village. There's a hum as giant capacitors charge. Then a fork of lightning leaps down and crashes onto the spire of the tiny wooden church.
Tens of thousands of years ago, when lightning flashed through the sky and thunder rumbled across the land, early humans cowered for shelter in caves or hid beneath trees, gazing up with rain-streaked faces at a force that was awe-inspiring and seemed impossibly powerful - a weapon of the gods. But human nature being what it is, it didn't take long for fear and awe to turn into desire and envy. Men dreamed of wielding that fearsome power themselves. They yearned to hurl lightning bolts and make the ground tremble like the gods.
Greek mythology describes one of the earliest attempts to make this fantasy a reality. Salmoneus, King of Elis in southern Greece, was said to have built a brass bridge over which he rode his heavy chariot to simulate the crashing of thunder. As he did so, he hurledlit torches at his subjects, as if casting down lightning bolts. His soldiers ran along behind him and speared to death anyone whom his torches hit. The whole display must have been scarier than real lightning to the terrified citizenry. But it seems the gods weren't amused by Salmoneus's encroachment on their power. They struck him dead with a well-aimed lightning bolt of their own.
Centuries later, the mad Roman emperor Caligula imagined himself a living god. To encourage others to share this belief, he paraded around wearing a golden beard and carrying a brass rod fashioned to look like a lightning bolt. He also tried to create real thunder and lightning. The Roman historian Cassius Dio wrote that Caligula had 'a contrivance by which he gave answering peals when it thundered and sent return flashes when it lightened'. What this contrivance might have been is anyone's guess. The modern historian Steven Scherrer speculates it probably involved 'some sort of rapidly combustible mixture'. However, for all his pretensions to being a lightning god, Caligula didn't fare any better than Salmoneus. His guards stabbed him to death.
Lightning = Electricity!
For almost 1,700 years, no one improved on Caligula's lightning contrivance. Then, in 1708, an English clergyman, William Wall, made a serendipitous discovery that led to new insights into the nature of lightning and ultimately paved the way for scientists to create lightning of their own. The discovery happened while Wall was searching for a way to manufacture phosphorus.
Phosphorus had only recently been discovered, and the substance fascinated researchers because it glowed in the dark. Strong demand for it meant that anyone willing to manufacture it could sell it for a nice profit. However, the only known way to produce it was through a laborious (and smelly) process of boiling and distilling large amounts of urine. Wall was hoping to find an easier and less noxious method of manufacture. Dried faeces, he had already found, also contained phosphorus, but this only exacerbatedthe gross factor. Hoping to avoid excreta, he started to test other materials to determine if they had phosphoric qualities.
One of the first substances Wall examined was amber. He obtained a long rod of it and, while sitting in a darkened room of his house, rubbed it vigorously with a woollen cloth, 'squeezing it pretty hard with my hand'. As he did so, the amber gave off brilliant little sparks that popped and snapped with a sound like burning charcoal. This wasn't exactly like the glow of phosphorus, but in a way it was even more interesting, because Wall noted that the tiny sparks looked like miniature lightning. What Wall didn't realize was that the sparks were a form of electricity, and that his amber rod represented the first step towards artificial lightning.
Other researchers soon made the connection that Wall missed - that the sparks were electrical - and when they did it seemed logical to conclude that lightning must also be an electrical phenomenon. However, it wasn't until 1752 that an experiment devised by Benjamin Franklin confirmed this hunch.
Franklin proposed that a researcher should raise an iron rod 30 or 40 feet in the air, insulate it at the bottom to prevent current from running into the ground, and then wait for bad weather. The rod would serve as an atmospheric electricity collector. If it became electrified as a storm cloud passed overhead - evidenced by drawing sparks from the rod - this would prove the electrical nature of lightning clouds. The experiment was relatively simple, but also incredibly dangerous. It was like asking to be hit by lightning. Franklin downplayed the danger, but he didn't rush out to stick a pole in a lightning cloud. Instead, it was two French gentlemen, Comte de Buffon and Thomas François Dalibard, who read about his idea and decided to make it happen.
Buffon and Dalibard arranged for the experiment to be conducted in the town of Marly-la-Ville, just outside of Paris. Carefully following Franklin's plan, they erected an iron rod, 40 feet high, that rose out of a sentry box in which a researcher could stand protected from the elements. But like Franklin, they opted not to expose themselves to unnecessary danger. Instead, they found anold, agreeable, and presumably expendable local resident, Monsieur Coiffier, and told him what to do. They patted him on the back, and cheerily said, 'Tell us if it works!' Then they returned to the safety of Paris.
Obediently, day after day, Coiffier sat by the sentry box waiting for bad weather. Finally, on 10 May 1752, his patience was rewarded. Grey clouds rolled in, and he heard a loud clap of thunder. Immediately he rushed into the sentry box and carefully held out an insulated brass wire towards the rod. He heard a crackling noise and a large spark leapt from the rod to the wire. Excitedly, he screamed, 'It worked! It worked!' The prior of Marly heard the screaming and feared something awful had happened. He dropped the book he was reading and sprinted to Coiffier's aid, followed close behind by a crowd of his parishioners. To the prior's great relief, he found the old man unharmed, and the two of them spent the next fifteen minutes enthusiastically drawing off sparks from the pole until the storm passed.
Franklin, to his credit, conducted a version of the experiment soon after, famously substituting a kite for the iron rod. Despite many illustrations that show his kite being struck by lightning, this never happened. Like the French rod, his kite acquired a charge from the presence of atmospheric electricity. Franklin said he detected this charge by extending his knuckles towards a key he had tied to the bottom of the string and receiving a sharp electric shock. He was lucky he didn't suffer more serious injury, but others didn't share his good fortune. In August 1753, a lightning bolt killed Professor Georg Wilhelm Richmann while he was conducting a version of the experiment in St Petersburg, Russia. In his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin noted that Richmann's death was a tragedy, but added, 'The new doctrine of lightning is, however, confirmed by this unhappy accident.' A few years later, the chemist Joseph Priestley remarked that any scientist should feel lucky to die 'in so glorious a manner'.
The confirmation of the electrical nature of lightning made Franklin famous throughout the world. Praise and awards showereddown on him. The Royal Society awarded him their Copley Medal, which was the eighteenth-century equivalent of winning a Nobel Prize. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant even declared Franklin to be a 'Prometheus of the modern age'.
Thunder Houses and Copper Bladders
Now that men knew the secret of the gods' fire, they lost no time in unleashing their own inner lightning gods. They did this by reigning down terror on miniature villages. The miniatures were called 'thunder houses'. They were essentially dollhouses, often made to look like little churches. Add some fake lightning, supplied by the spark from an electrical device such as a Leyden jar, and BOOM! The charge would cause a wooden insert to come flying out as if the house was exploding. Even more dramatic versions included gunpowder to create actual explosions. Miniature people were sometimes added for extra fun. For instance, in 1753, Franklin's friend Ebenezer Kinnersley advertised a new thunder house he had built which featured an artificial flash of lightning 'made to strike a small house, and dart towards a little lady sitting upon a chair, who will, notwithstanding, be preserved from being hurt; whilst the image of a negro standing by and seeming to be further out of danger will be remarkably affected by it.'
Thunder houses allowed researchers to demonstrate the effects of lightning in a sensational fashion, but they also let them show off their newly acquired ability to shield structures from danger, thanks to another one of Franklin's inventions: the lightning rod. One spark exploded a thunder house, but touch a spark to a miniature house protected by a tiny lightning rod and the charge escaped harmlessly to the ground.
The sets and models quickly became more elaborate. In 1772, a London draper and electrical enthusiast, William Henley, thought it would be a nice touch if the lightning came from an actual cloud - or something that looked like one - so he fashioned a fake cloud from a 'bullock's bladder of the largest size', which he obtainedfrom his 'ingenious friend' Mr Coventry. The ingenious Mr Coventry gilded the bladder for him with leaf copper, and then suspended it from a wooden beam. Henley gave the gilded bladder a strong electrical charge, and then brought a brass rod close to it. When he did so, the bladder threw off its electricity 'in a full and strong spark'. It gave new meaning to the phrase 'discharging the contents of your bladder'.
Along similar lines, the Dutch scientist Martin van Marum created artificial clouds out of hydrogen-filled bladders that floated around his laboratory. He charged one cloud positively and another negatively. When they drifted close together, a spark leapt between them. Sometimes, for the amusement of audiences, he placed a third (non-charged) bladder cloud between the two charged ones. When a spark passed through it, it produced a satisfying explosion.
The high point of this model mania arrived in 1777, when the London-based researcher Benjamin Wilson constructed a lightning-creating apparatus that was 155 feet long and hung five feet off the ground, suspended by silk ropes. He housed it in the Pantheon, an Oxford Street dance hall. Because the lightning machine was too big to move, he rolled miniature houses towards it, pushing them closer with a stick until a forked tongue of energy leapt out and smashed into them.
The Surge Generator and the Modern Jove
As elaborate as the eighteenth-century lightning models were, researchers were keenly aware that their simulations were mere firecrackers compared to the mighty roar of the real thing. They simply didn't know how to produce bigger bangs, but gradually, as the nineteenth century passed by, the advance of electrical science addressed this shortcoming. In the 1830s, the first electromagnetic generators were invented, capable of producing far more power than the electrostatic devices of the eighteenth century. In 1882, Thomas Edison, as we've seen, opened the first commercial power plant in New York City. Then, in the 1890s, Nikola Tesla, after severing his relationshipwith Westinghouse and striking out on his own as an independent inventor, constructed a massive transformer capable of throwing 100-foot-long electrical arcs across his laboratory.
A famous photograph shows Tesla calmly sitting in a chair next to his transformer, nonchalantly reading a book as a fiery storm of electrical sparks dances overhead. Unfortunately, the scene isn't real. It was created using multiple exposures. Being that close to the arcing electricity would have killed him. Also, although Tesla's arcs looked impressive and were high voltage, they were low amperage, and therefore not equivalent to real lightning. A machine capable of producing blasts on a par with lightning still eluded scientists. Mankind's mastery of Nature was incomplete.
The next two decades witnessed the Golden Age of Electricity. Power lines snaked across the countryside, directing current along carefully planned routes into cities and towns. Electrical devices - ovens, lights, and radios - appeared inside homes where they buzzed and hummed reassuringly. The demon of electricity had been tamed and transformed into a domestic servant. The symbolic climax of this achievement occurred on 2 March 1922, when the General Electric Company unveiled the world's first true artificial lightning machine inside its lab in Schenectady, New York.
The machine, whose technical name was a surge (or impulse) generator, towered two storeys high, looking like something pieced together by a mad scientist from spare parts found at a power plant. There were racks of foil-covered glass plates held up by metal crossbars, banks of vacuum tubes, insulators, and other mysterious-looking equipment. Front and centre stood two imposing brass globes mounted on wooden posts. These were the 'sphere gaps' between which the lightning jumped.
Beside the surge generator stood its proud inventor, Charles Proteus Steinmetz. He was a curious-looking man, especially when placed beside such an imposing piece of machinery. He suffered from dwarfism, barely reaching four-and-a-half feet in height. He also had a hunchback and hip dysplasia, causing his torso and legs to bend at an awkward angle to each other. To complete his look,he sported a thick, bushy beard, wore pince-nez glasses, and always had a large cigar clamped in his mouth. Though Steinmetz's body was twisted and crippled, his mind was brilliant. After emigrating to America from Germany in 1889, he became General Electric's most valuable employee when he devised the mathematical equations that allowed engineers to understand the transmission of alternating current. There were rumours that GE didn't even pay him a salary: they just handed him cash whenever he asked for it. The rumours weren't true, but he was very well paid. His wealth just added to the contradictions that surrounded him, since he was simultaneously a staunch socialist who once offered his electrical services to Vladimir Lenin.
Inside the Schenectady lab, Steinmetz paraded in front of his lightning machine as reporters scribbled in their notebooks and photographers snapped pictures. He boasted to the audience about his invention's power:
In our laboratory, we have built a lightning generator that can produce a discharge of ten thousand amperes, at over a hundred thousand volts; that is, a power of over a million horsepower, lasting for a hundred-thousandth of a second. Although this is only one five-hundredth the energy of a natural lightning bolt, it gives us the explosive, tearing and shattering effects of real lightning.
A true showman, he rubbed his hands together as he stepped forward to demonstrate its capabilities. He pulled a lever, and the giant machine emitted a loud buzz as it charged up. The reporters stepped back nervously. Some placed their hands over their ears. Suddenly there was a blinding flash of light, and forked bolts of energy leapt out from the sphere gaps and smashed into a large wood block placed between them. A deafening crash shook the laboratory, and a cloud of dust billowed up. When the dust settled, the reporters could see the block of wood had disappeared - vaporized by the lightning bolt. Chunks of it had landed up to 25 feet away.
Other objects were blown up: a small tree, pieces of wire, and a model of a village. The next day, in the breathless reporting of the event, almost every newspaper hailed Steinmetz as a 'modern Jove'. The New York Times even included the epithet in its headline, 'Modern Jove Hurls Lightning at Will'. Benjamin Franklin had only been a Prometheus. Steinmetz had gained the status of Zeus himself. Again, this only added to his contradictions, since he was an outspoken atheist.
Steinmetz died the following year - not from a lightning bolt like King Salmoneus, but due to a heart attack in his sleep. The Italian-born researcher Giuseppe Faccioli continued his research at GE, soon doubling the output of the lightning machine to generate 2,000,000-volt bolts. Like Steinmetz, Faccioli was physically handicapped, but whereas Steinmetz could walk (with difficulty), Faccioli was confined to a wheelchair. A personal attendant pushed him everywhere he needed to go. The New York Times thought it a curious coincidence that the two modern masters of lightning were both handicapped. 'As with Steinmetz,' it noted, 'his physical infirmity seems to accentuate rather than diminish the intensity of his mental energy. Both men seem to have taken something vital and tremendous into them from the gigantic forces which they control.'
Despite his handicap, Faccioli was a bit of a daredevil. He liked to get as close to the lightning machine as possible during its operation. He told reporters, 'It is interesting to feel your mustache rise up from the electricity when you are that close.' At GE's Pittsfield laboratory in Massachusetts his engineers constructed an entire model village, and then pounded it with artificial rain and lightning. The lightning whipped back and forth, repeatedly striking a miniature church until, at last, a British visitor stepped forward, believing Faccioli had somehow rigged the church to be hit as a protest against religion. 'But, I say,' the visitor complained, 'don't you think that is somewhat sacrilegious?' None of the surviving accounts of Faccioli mention his religious beliefs, but he had been a close friend of Steinmetz, so it's possible he shared his scepticism. Nevertheless, he hadn't rigged the miniature church in any way. Heexplained to the visitor that the church spire was repeatedly struck simply because it offered the lightning the quickest path to the ground.
Year after year, the power of man-made lightning grew. By 1929 the Pittsfield laboratory was producing 5,000,000-volt artificial lightning. At the 1939 World's Fair in New York, GE unveiled a machine capable of discharging 10,000,000 volts across a 30-foot gap. It towered 34 feet high, and was housed, as a tribute to its original inventor, in Steinmetz Hall. It proved to be the most popular exhibit at the fair, attracting 7 million visitors who sat on wooden benches and watched the booming and crashing of the energy bolts. Among the visitors was Helen Keller, who, despite being deaf and blind, came away deeply moved. She later wrote, 'It impressed me as nothing else had with a sense of man, frail yet indomitable, mastering the dread smithies from which fiery bolts are hurled. As I sat there, taut but exultant, another wonder befell. The lightning spoke to me! - nay, it sang all through my frame in billowing, organlike tones.'
Descendants of Steinmetz's surge generator can still be found in industrial labs throughout the world. They're regularly used to test anything that needs to be engineered to withstand lightning strikes, such as insulators, aeroplane parts, and church steeples. But in recent decades the generators have also been directed against a more unusual target: sheep.
Sheep and lightning have a long and intertwined history. The animals were (and still are) frequent victims of lightning strikes. In 1939, a single strike in Utah's Raft River Mountains felled 835 sheep that were huddled close together on a hillside. When such scenes occurred thousands of years ago, they must have created a connection in the minds of men between sheep and lightning. Ancient people evidently concluded that the lightning gods had a taste forsheep, because in many cultures sheep became the sacrificial animal of choice to appease lightning deities.
Among the Atuot of southern Sudan, if lightning struck a home, a sheep would be thrown into the burning hut. The Kikuyu of eastern Africa treated people struck by lightning by slaughtering a sheep at the place where the strike happened, and then smearing the afflicted person's body with the contents of the sheep's stomach. Ancient Etruscan priests, the haruspices, held a ceremony of consecration wherever lightning hit: they piled up the objects struck or scattered by the divine fire, and then sacrificed a lamb. Even the Bible mentions the sheep-lightning connection. The Book of Job (1:16) tells us, 'The fire of God is fallen from heaven and hath burned up the sheep.'
It was during the eighteenth century that scientists first took over from their religious counterparts in the business of lightning-related sheep sacrifice. On 12 March 1781, members of the British Royal Society gathered at the home of Rev. Abraham Bennett to witness a sheep exposed to a simulated lightning strike. The men crowded around three sides of a table on which a sheep lay. At the head of the table stood John Read, holding a pair of metallic rods attached to a large battery of Leyden jars that would supply an electrical shock - the faux lightning strike. (The setup was similar to, but scaled up from, the bird experiments discussed earlier.) Read pressed one of the rods tight against the sheep's head, so that its wool wouldn't obstruct the charge. Then he completed the circuit with the other rod. Immediately there was a loud report. Read later wrote, 'Although my situation in so doing [i.e. holding the rods in his hands] was judged dangerous, yet I did not feel the least sensation. ' The unfortunate sheep wasn't so lucky. It didn't survive. The experiment demonstrated that scientists could generate enough electricity to kill a large animal, but as a lightning simulation it was useless, since the Leyden jars couldn't muster enough power to come close to replicating even a fraction of the force of the real phenomenon.
The problem of inadequate power plagued all simulated lightning-strike experiments until Steinmetz invented the surge generator in 1922. Once invented, it was inevitable that someone, sooner or later, would decide to stick a living creature inside of one.
As gruesome as such an experiment might sound (and, to be sure, it sounds pretty bad), researchers felt there was compelling medical necessity to justify it. Lightning kills more people every year than any other natural disaster, and yet by the 1920s very little was known about the physiology of lightning injuries - such as how lightning travels through the body, why lightning strikes can be fatal, or, even more mysteriously, why they often aren't. So doctors had scant knowledge to guide their treatment of lightning-strike victims. They couldn't simply apply what they knew about electric shocks to lightning injuries, because it was known, even then, that the two were significantly different. Lightning exposes a body to massive voltages, but only for a very brief amount of time, whereas electric shocks typically involve lower voltages and more prolonged exposure.
The first biological experiments with a surge generator took place in 1931, when Johns Hopkins researchers Orthello Langworthy and William Kouwenhoven investigated whether the route lightning travels through a body makes any difference to its lethality. Rats served as the unlucky victims - mercifully they were etherized, fully unconscious, so they felt nothing.
Langworthy and Kouwenhoven posed the rodents in various positions on the plate of a surge generator, either lying down or hanging upright, and then unleashed a blast of electricity. They discovered that the route of the current made a big difference. When lying down, the animals often survived the experience with little or no signs of damage. It was only when the rats hung vertically, and the shock passed through the entire length of their body from head to tail, that they invariably died. It would be easy to conclude from these results that if you find yourself in an open field during an electrical storm, you should lie down flat, but that would be a mistake. Doing so could expose you to current travelling across the surface of the ground, and you'd end up like the vertically hung rats. Thebest strategy is to reduce your height by crouching, but touch the ground only with your shoes.
It was another thirty years before lightning researchers turned their attention to sheep. The impetus came in 1961, when a group of insurance companies in the American Midwest approached James Raley Howard, a veterinarian at Iowa State University, with a curious problem. Farmers were filing claims for dead sheep that, so they said, had been struck by lightning, but the insurance companies suspected fraud. Their investigators were pretty sure the sheep had actually died from uninsured conditions such as infectious diseases, but they had no way of proving this. The companies asked Howard if there were any forensic guidelines for identifying lightning injuries and differentiating them from other causes of death. Howard admitted there weren't, so with some financial help from the insurance companies, he set out to create some.
The first stage of Howard's research was non-experimental. For months he remained on twenty-four-hour dead-sheep alert, driving out to remote farms, trying to arrive as soon as possible after a reported strike to examine the animal's injuries. This eventually yielded a checklist of typical signs of lightning injury that included rapid putrefaction, exudation of bloody fluid from the nostrils, singeing of the hair, branched or straight streaks of raised frizzled hair extending from the back to the foot, and lesions in subcutaneous tissue including haemorrhages and dark-brown arboreal patterns. Of course, the surest indicator of death by lightning was a big hole blown in the ground surrounded by dead animals for 50 yards around.
In order to verify that lightning was the cause of the subcutaneous lesions he had noticed, Howard next moved on to experimental research. This involved placing sheep in a custom-built surge generator, housed inside a concrete-block building on the Iowa State campus. Members of the physics department who came by to look at the machine expressed concern that Howard might accidentally blow himself up with the device, but, undaunted, Howard forged ahead.
The sheep stood in a crate between the electrodes of the generator. When Howard activated his machine, 1,000 amperes pulsed between the electrodes, travelling through the sheep. It's hard not to feel sorry for the animals, though Howard noted they were old ewes that would otherwise have been put down by other means anyway - such is the fate of farm animals. At least the end was swift. The process reportedly created 'one hell of a racket', and it invariably destroyed the instruments that monitored the sheep's vital signs. In Howard's words, 'The sheep would die and so would the machine.' But after sixteen sheep, he had collected enough data to verify that lightning does indeed produce the lesions he had noticed in the farm animals. And he managed not to blow himself up.
Howard's research proved to be a good investment for the insurance companies. Their payments for claims related to livestock lightning fatalities dropped by over a third.
These experiments answered the question of what lightning injuries look like, but it wasn't until the 1990s that researchers determined exactly why lightning strikes can be fatal (and why they're often not). Again, it was sheep that helped to provide the answers.
Chris Andrews of Australia's University of Queensland set out to explore the puzzle of lightning fatality using several Barefaced Leicester sheep as his subjects. Like Howard before him, Andrews built his own, custom-designed surge generator. He described it as a 'multiple pulse high voltage impulse generator' that generated six pulses of power, fifteen milliseconds apart. He designed it to mimic the fact that a single lightning flash often consists of multiple strokes of energy, sometimes as many as twenty or thirty.
Andrews' sheep lay fully anaesthetized on a table. Their shaved rumps, wetted with saline solution, rested on a metal plate through which the current could run to ground. Cords wrapped around the animals' stomachs and heads prevented them from moving - and also, presumably, stopped them flying across the room from the force of the discharge. When Andrews turned the generator on, aloud hum filled the room as the capacitors charged, and then, for a split second, a white-hot radiance engulfed the body of the sheep.
Through careful postmortem examination, Andrews discovered that most of the charge from the strike passed over the exterior of the body, in what is known as the 'flashover' effect. But current also entered through open orifices, such as the eyes and mouth, and there it disrupted the functioning of the brainstem, causing cardiac and respiratory failure. However, Andrews concluded that heart failure was not the primary cause of death - although this had long been widely assumed to be the case in lightning injuries - because the heart can restart itself, and often does. Instead, respiratory failure was the greater danger because the lungs can't restart themselves. Andrews advised doctors that even if a lightning strike victim appears to be dead, there's a good chance he or she can be saved if lung function is restored.
Since 1993, researchers have no longer been confined to creating lightning in a lab, because in that year scientists succeeded in triggering lightning strikes in storm clouds by firing rockets into them. The rockets trailed thin strands of wire that connected the clouds to the ground, thereby initiating a strike, and vaporizing the wire in the process. Unfortunately the process was far from perfect. The rocket had to be launched at just the right moment, so that it struck when the cloud was almost ready to release its charge.
But an even more impressive technology is currently under development - laser-triggered lightning. A high-power laser is used to create a plasma channel in the air, which initiates a discharge of energy from clouds. It's like a very sophisticated version of Franklin's idea of sticking a pole into thunderclouds. With such high-tech tools at their disposal, researchers are sure to dream up ever-more ambitious lightning experiments in the future. Sheep beware!
ELECTRIFIED SHEEP. Copyright © 2011 by Alex Boese. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Posted August 4, 2012
No text was provided for this review.