Electrified Sheep : Glass-eating Scientists, Nuking the Moon, and More Bizarre Experiments
Welcome to some of the most weird and wonderful experiments ever conducted in the name of science--"Perfect summertime reading--preferably with a friend nearby who can be constantly interrupted with unsettling facts." --The Daily Mail (UK )
Benjamin Franklin was a pioneering scientist, leader of the Enlightenment and a founding father. But perhaps less well known is that he was also the first person to use mouth-to-mouth to revive an electric shock victim. Odder still, it was actually mouth-to-beak on a hen that he himself had shocked.
Filled with similiar stories, 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. Wildly entertaining, it is the perfect follow-up to the international bestseller Elephants on Acid.
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Thomas Dunne Books
June 05, 2012
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Excerpt from Electrified Sheep by Alex Boese
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 r�sum�, 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 caf�s. 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.