This paper examines the shifting cultural place of galvanic experiments at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It surveys the ways in which political readings of galvanism by radicals and Tories during this period had an important role in determining the ways in which these kinds of experiment, and galvanism in general, were understood later in the century. The paper examines the attitudes of Humphry Davy, Thomas Beddoes and Giovanni Aldini to galvanism and suggests that there was a good deal of contemporary interpretative flexibility about the ways in which galvanic experimentation might be understood. It argues in particular that Humphry Davy's rejection of his earlier views on galvanism after his arrival at the Royal Institution can be regarded as emblematic of a broader shift in the culture of experimental natural philosophy at the end of the English Enlightenment.
In his Satirical View of London the author John Corry cast a beady eye over the metropolis's intellectual culture. The city was, he said, the ‘attractive centre of science, intelligence, and opulence’ and ‘the emporium of commerce, knowledge, and elegance.’1 Two natural philosophers in particular bore the brunt of Corry's heavy-handed wit as he turned his attention to the pretensions of contemporary science. One of them, a ‘late physician’, had ‘made a gigantic stride towards immortality. His oxygen gas, if taken in sufficient quantity, will counteract the decays of nature; and as there is little doubt that a man will live as long as he can breathe this pure ether, this wonderful discovery bids fair to restore the longevity of the antediluvians.’ Even this scientific miracle was put in the shade by the effects of galvanism, however. Through its agency the ‘most wonderful distortions’ could be produced, and ‘in an experiment made on malefactor who was executed at Newgate, he immediately opened his mouth:—doubtless, another application would have made him speak; but the operators, Aldini, Wilkinson, and Co. were so much affrighted that they threw down their instruments and took to their heels.’ In case there was any room for misunderstanding, a footnote identified the late physician in question as Thomas Beddoes.2
Corry's attack is interesting for two reasons. The first reason is the way in which he culturally brackets both pneumatic chemistry and galvanism. The second reason is because of who Corry was—or rather of who he was not. The discussion of Beddoes's and Aldini's supposedly fantastical practices took place under the heading of ‘quack doctors’. Corry's view was that the two natural philosophers were not merely charlatans but self-deluded charlatans. They believed their own nonsense. This meant that they were fit subjects for ridicule as much as for censure. From the satirist's point of view, at least, it appears that pneumatic chemistry and galvanism belonged together. They belonged together because both were simultaneously the products of self-delusion and of sharp practice. These kinds of attack on experimental natural philosophy usually emanated from Tory ideologues associating their target with revolutionary excess. Corry is interesting because he appears to have been no such thing. Little is known of him except that he was active as a writer in Dublin before moving to London in the 1790s. He published prolifically, including a number of biographies and works aimed at children. There appear to be no indications of Tory leanings. Significantly, he wrote a laudatory biography of Joseph Priestley, which also contained several barbed remarks aimed at Thomas Beddoes and his pneumatic chemistry.3
Joseph Priestley might in many respects be taken as the epitome of the radical natural philosopher and certainly not a likely subject for biography by Tory hacks. His famous challenge is often taken to define the place of electricity—and particularly its political place—in the English Enlightenment: ‘the English hierarchy (if there be anything unsound in its constitution) has equal reason to tremble, even at an air-pump or an electrical machine.’4 What Priestley meant was that by exposing the real economy of nature's laws, electrical experiments and instruments also exposed the iniquities of a corrupt state. The English Enlightenment itself is difficult to pin down, and the Enlightenment more generally has come to appear increasingly unpromising as a description of a coherent historical movement. It is certainly unlikely that many (if any) contemporaries would have recognized any such unifying category. Nevertheless, the English Enlightenment can still serve as a useful shorthand for historians, identifying a particular constellation of related attitudes and practices that were prevalent in certain sections of English society during the second half of the eighteenth century.5 The dissenting science that Priestley promoted treated experimental natural philosophy as a political and religious weapon that could be used to combat the prevailing social order. His vision of a natural philosophy that was activist, politically engaged and radical clearly resonated with some of his contemporaries.6
When Priestley wrote those words in the preface of his Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air in 1790, Thomas Beddoes was still Reader in Chemistry at Oxford, Humphry Davy was an indolent grammar-school boy in Penzance, and Edmund Burke was penning his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke's vitriol-charged pen would also have an important role in defining the place of electricity—from Tory perspectives at least—over the coming few decades. Electricity, as far as Burke and fellow-travelling Tory hacks were concerned, was a dangerous revolutionary spirit like mesmerism or pneumatic chemistry. Experimental philosophers such as Priestley who dabbled with the seductively dangerous fluid were as dangerous as revolutionaries themselves. Burke thought the revolution was electric too, after all, and its supporters the ‘true conductors of contagion to every country’.7 The practice of experimental philosophy in general was itself deeply suspect. Curious philosophers who took nature apart to see how she operated were all too likely to do the same to people and to the social fabric as well. It was precisely their cast of mind that made them particularly susceptible to dangerous ideas. The French revolutionaries and their English supporters were like ‘geometricians’ and ‘chemists’ who ‘consider men in their experiments, no more than they do mice in an air pump, or in a recipient of mephitick gas.’8
The view that Burke and others promulgated about electricity and experimental natural philosophy's place and associations was clearly both seductive and effective. It can be seen at work in John Corry's satire, even if Corry himself had no particular sympathy with the ideological underpinnings of such a perspective. Even as late as the 1830s, the portrayal of Priestley and his like as natural philosophers who had compromised their integrity by dabbling in political controversy continued to resonate. When metropolitan chemists and natural philosophers gathered to celebrate the centenary of Priestley's birth in 1833 they still felt obliged to dissociate themselves strenuously from his politics. They argued that their science was superior to that of the ‘founder of pneumatic chemistry’ precisely because they had not allowed themselves to become prey to party politics as he had done. Their science was therefore uncontaminated.9 A decade later, Henry Brougham portrayed Priestley as a fallen idol who had betrayed his calling as an ‘experimental inquirer after physical truth’ by succumbing to ‘rooted and perverted prejudice’.10 Much of the way in which early Victorian gentlemen of science carefully positioned their practices can be understood as a repudiation of what they regarded as the fatal linkage of experimental natural philosophy and radical political ideology that Priestley (and Beddoes)—as seen through Burkeian eyes—represented.
That Thomas Beddoes was an easy target for these kinds of attack from political opponents is clear. The pneumatic project he established at Bristol after his enforced departure from Oxford in 1793 lent itself to satire. The spectacle of sober philosophers turning themselves anything but sober by inhaling copious quantities of the ‘mighty pneumatic’ looked like a gift to anti-Jacobin caricaturists and pamphleteers, and they took full advantage of it. Priestley and his electrical researches made a similarly attractive butt for anti-Jacobin jokes. There is a characteristic cast to these Tory satires. Attacks such as these worked by raising questions about bodily discipline, self-control and sociability. If Priestley or Beddoes could be pictured as being out of control, that raised the spectre of hidden powers behind them, pulling at the puppet-strings. Demagoguery and charlatanery were common accusations levelled at radical philosophers, too. Both electricity and the products of pneumatic experiments could be made to look like stratagems that could sway the emotions of the mob, making them easily seduced by the unscrupulous. Radicals were pictured as simultaneously hopelessly deluded and deviously manipulative quacks and hucksters unable to see the mismatch between their own utopian fantasies and the world around them. They were living in an experimental dream.11
In this paper I wish to take this Tory clumping of categories, ideologies and practices as a starting point for raising some questions about radical galvanism and its places and contexts at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. In particular, I am interested in the impact of this portrayal of galvanism's cultural place on galvanism's future trajectory. In this respect it does not matter to what extent this Tory view was accurate or not. What matters and is interesting is how the perception came to be accepted in large part as accurate. Even if Beddoes had not been interested in galvanism—and he was—he would have a place in this account simply because his political enemies put him there. The point I wish to make is a relatively simple one—just that galvanism, like pneumatic chemistry and other novel late Enlightenment experimental practices, was subject to a great deal of interpretative flexibility. There was no fixed meaning for galvanic experiments at the end of the Enlightenment. What galvanic experiments might mean tended to depend on where they were conducted and by whom. Even there, they could be differently read by the various participants. Significances might be quite local as much as universal in their scope. Galvanic experiments often meant different things to different groups and individuals. Galvanism's radical and materialist implications were certainly not self-evident. They had to be argued for—both by supporters and by detractors.
The radical supporter of the French revolution and leading member of the London Corresponding Society, John Thelwall, certainly made electricity political (if Priestley had not done so already) with his forthright attack on John Hunter's vitalist outlook, in a lecture to the members of Guy's Hospital Physical Society in January 1793. By the 1790s, Thelwall was a well-known London radical. He was a prolific writer and lecturer, having made a name for himself as a political speaker in debating societies such as the Society for Free Debate, meeting at the Coachmaker's Hall. He was a close friend of veteran radicals such as Horne Tooke. The London Corresponding Society was largely made up of politically active working men, but it also included several physicians and surgeons among its members. During the early 1790s Thelwall had added natural philosophy and medicine to his own list of interests. He attended the radical surgeon Henry Cline's anatomical lectures and was a friend of Astley Cooper, himself notorious during the 1790s for his republican sympathies. It was probably through his links with Cooper that Thelwall became a member of Guy's Physical Society and a frequent contributor to their meetings. In 1794, Thelwall, along with Horne Tooke and other London Corresponding Society stalwarts, was tried for treason, and Cline's evidence for the defence was a key factor in their acquittal.12
In his lecture to the members of Guy's Physical Society, Thelwall had lambasted John Hunter's view (or, rather, the view he attributed to Hunter) as ‘completely incomprehensible’. It made no sense to think of life as something superadded to matter—it was either matter or it was nothing at all. Thelwall argued that life was simply a particular state of organized matter that only needed some specific stimulus to set it in motion. The most likely candidate for being that stimulus was electricity:
what can we discover so competent to the task—so subtile, so powerful, so nearly approaching to that idea of an ethereal medium, which some philosophers have supposed necessary to complete the chain of connection between the divine immortal essence, and the dull inertion of created matter, as the electric fluid?13His performance at the Society attracted significant attention. Any attack on the ailing John Hunter (who died later that year) would have appeared heretical to some of his audience, let alone an attack that promoted the kind of blatant materialism that Thelwall seemed to advocate. Thelwall, who later in the 1790s was to contemplate joining Coleridge and Southey in their projected utopian enclave in the West Country, on the fringes of Thomas Beddoes's Bristol circle, continued to fulminate against those ‘hireling plunderers’ who had set out to ‘declare open, inveterate, irreconcilable war … not only against the lives, properties, and liberties, but against, the opinions, feelings, inclinations’ of the common man.14
This, then, was galvanism's political context for Thelwall's fellow-travellers in the radical circle surrounding Thomas Beddoes as he transited from Oxford to Bristol and the Pneumatic Institute. Beddoes's first biographer noted that even as he was being ousted from his Oxford sinecure for his heterodox politics Beddoes was enthused by Galvani's discoveries, entering into the experiments ‘with his characteristic ardour.’ He told one correspondent that he hoped that galvanism might prove the foundation of a ‘new system of medicine’.15 The youthful Humphry Davy, attracted by Beddoes from Penzance to Clifton, was similarly enthusiastic. In his first effusion as Beddoes's new protégé, Davy took for granted the identity of the electric fluid and the nervous influence, arguing that electricity itself was in fact ‘condensed light’, providing ‘another cogent reason for supposing that the nervous spirit is light in an ethereal gaseous form.’ Life, in that case, was ‘a perpetual series of peculiar corpuscular changes’, and ‘perceptions, ideas, pleasures, and pains, are the effects of these changes’.16 Other members of the circle, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, were enthused by the latest discoveries and by Davy's involvement. Southey speculated to Davy that Volta's experiments showed that ‘as the galvanic fluid stimulates to motion, that it is the same as the nervous fluid; and your system will prove true at last.’17 Davy's early writings are often dismissed as juvenilia (not least, as we will see later, by Davy himself) to be discarded when more mature and sober experimental judgement supervened. We nevertheless need to remember that they represent Davy as he was at the turn of the new century, with views on natural philosophy and its culture that meshed comfortably with those of others in Thomas Beddoes's circle.
When Coleridge learned that his friend was about to lecture on galvanism at the Royal Institution, after his move to London, he wrote to Davy that his ‘motive muscles tingled and contracted at the news, as if you had bared them, and were zincifying their life-mocking fibres.’18 Their mutual friend Southey seems to have recognized that Coleridge and Davy had a great deal in common in their attitudes to galvanism and its metaphysical significance. He complained that ‘Coleridge and [Davy] have a knot of union in their metaphysics, a foul weed that poisons whatever it clings to.’19 What Southey meant was that the two enthusiasts were more interested in the woods than the trees. They liked grand unifying theories and were impatient of mere facts. Southey, although he disliked Beddoes personally, did not think that he shared Coleridge's and Davy's weakness for wild speculation. He wrote to a friend after his death that ‘Beddoes's mind was so rapidly progressive, so quick in out-growing error and so indefatigable in the acquirement of facts, that his books became imperfect representations of their author's opinion and knowledge—almost before they were thro the press.’20 The remark highlights the ephemeral and malleable nature of the ideas and connections that were being toyed with in Beddoes's circle during the 1790s—and galvanism's place in their political philosophies.
Even as Southey was complaining about Davy's ‘knot of union’, Davy himself was rapidly reassessing his own view of galvanism as he moved from Bristol, and Beddoes, to London and a new coterie of patrons. John Davy's Memoir of his eminent elder brother makes it clear just how sensitive Davy was in later life on the topic of his youthful galvanic speculations. He certainly went out of his way to make quite clear how thoroughly the mature Davy disavowed his younger self's enthusiasm. The excuses that John Davy made for his sibling's excesses are themselves significant. As he put it:
the period of his youth was one of peculiar excitement and innovation: the leaven of the French revolution was still fermenting; the mysterious phenomena of galvanism had recently been brought to light; the muscles of animals, apparently dead, had been made to contract by the new influence, as if reanimated; and pneumatic chemistry had just then been called to the aid of medicine, with a confident expectation of wonderful effects, which deluded men of the soundest minds, and which could be corrected only by experience.21Davy, in other words, had been deluded by forces that had left strong men reeling. He had been a victim himself of the revolutionary mania, temporarily infected by what Edmund Burke had called an ‘epidemical fanaticism’.22
Just as Davy arrived in London in March 1801 to take up his position as Thomas Garnett's assistant at the recently established Royal Institution, the announcement of Volta's spectacular new invention was reviving the metropolis's instrument-makers' and natural philosophers' interest in, and enthusiasm for, galvanic experimentation. Galvani's experiments had already captured the imagination of natural philosophers interested in investigating the connections between electricity and the nervous fluid. Ironically enough, Volta's challenge and his invention of the voltaic pile in his efforts to see off animal electricity served to keep Galvani's ideas alive and kicking. Interested natural philosophers, doctors and instrument makers such as John Cuthbertson, William Nicholson and Joseph Carpue were industriously tinkering with their apparatus as well, improving Volta's design and looking for new experiments with which to impress the public and their fellow philosophers. Over the next decade, Davy would make his reputation as the doyen of the metropolis's natural philosophers by making the voltaic pile his own particular province. This was, as we shall see, in the face of competing views of galvanic experiments' significance. Natural philosophical journals, gentlemen's magazines and newspapers alike were awash with news of the latest developments in galvanism. Nicholson in his Journal of Natural Philosophy and Alexander Tilloch in his Philosophical Magazine rushed to print the latest galvanic news from the continent. There was plenty of meat here to fuel materialist speculations as well as Tory diatribes.
When Giovanni Aldini visited London in late 1802 and early 1803 in an effort to defend the reputation of his uncle, Luigi Galvani, and the latter's claims concerning the existence of a distinct animal electricity, the kind of satirical context noted at the beginning of this paper certainly informed some of the ways in which his experiments were contextualized by contemporaries.23 Aldini performed his repertoire several times during his visit to London. He gave public lectures and dissections at the Great Windmill Street Anatomical Theatre, at Guy's Hospital and at the physician George Pearson's lecturing rooms in Hanover Square. Some, at least, of the Royal Society's Fellows were suitably impressed. ‘Here then we have the most decided substitution of the organized animal system in the place of the metallic pile: it is an animal pile; and the direct production of the galvanic fluid, or electricity, by the direct or independent energy of life in animals, can no longer be doubted’, enthused one of them: ‘Galvanism is by these facts shewn to be animal electricity; not merely passive, but most probably performing the most important functions in the animal economy.’24 The highlight of his visit, nevertheless, was his public electrical dissection at the College of Surgeons of George Forster, hanged for murder at Newgate, on 17 January 1803.25
I wish to devote some space to discussing Aldini's experimental performance on the corpse of George Forster for a number of reasons. In the first place, Aldini's galvanic performances represented just the kind of electrical excesses that Thomas Beddoes's opponents also detested. Whether Aldini knew it or not, he and Beddoes had enemies in common, as John Corry's linking of the two as objects of mutual ridicule attests. Aldini's galvanic experiments during his London visit provoked quite similar reactions from both opponents and supporters, as did Beddoes's pneumatic trials at Bristol. In some respects at least, therefore, for friends and enemies alike, they occupied a similar place in experimental culture. Aldini's experiments also bear discussion in this context because of Humphry Davy's own response to them. Davy, as we shall see, regarded Aldini's experiments with Forster in particular as, at best, irrelevant and tangential to the mainstream of galvanic investigation as he regarded it. I wish to suggest that Davy's rejection of Aldini is emblematic of his broader rejection of Beddoes's own experimental approach and the broader project of Enlightenment sensationalist experimental philosophy more generally.26 Davy's disavowal of Aldini's experimental practices therefore stands at the root of his own espousal of galvanism as disembodied, insulated from the culture of sensation and subsequently re-embodied in the new and powerful instrumentation that he developed during his early years at the Royal Institution.27
Newspaper accounts described the gruesome experiment on Forster as having been performed ‘under the inspection of Mr. Keate, Mr. Carpue, and several other professional gentlemen’.28 Thomas Keate was there to represent the College of Surgeons in what was, after all, a judicial ceremonial proceeding. According to Joseph Carpue, he and the instrument-maker John Cuthbertson had active roles in the experiment. He describes how, after the body had been cut open, ‘Mr. Cuthbertson and myself immediately, by the desire of Sig. Aldini, applied the conductors to the heart, Mr. C. to the right ventricle, and I to the left.’29 It seems likely (if Corry is to be believed, if for no other reason) that the surgeon Charles Wilkinson was also a participant. Aldini wanted to use his experiments on Forster to demonstrate a number of points concerning the interaction of electricity with the body. The application of electricity to the heart described by Carpue, for example, was an attempt to see whether galvanism had a distinct effect on that organ—a point over which Aldini was in dispute with some of his Italian colleagues, with Aldini denying and they affirming that galvanism could cause the heart to resume beating. Although Carpue thought he had detected movement, Aldini and all others present concluded that electricity had no effect in this instance.30 Other effects were rather more spectacular however. The Times described how ‘the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.’31
Aldini, writing about the experiment much more than a decade later, clearly resented some of the more lurid descriptions of his experiment. He described it as ‘a prostitution of galvanism, if it were only employed, to cause sudden gestures, and to convulse the remains of human bodies, as a mechanic deceives the common people by moving an automaton by the aid of springs and other contrivances.’32 It seems hard to resist the conclusion that this was nevertheless partly what he was engaged in doing with what was left of George Forster. This raises the question of just how flexibly Aldini's performance might be read and represented by others. The Times's correspondent certainly appeared intent on underlining its more grisly and sensational aspects. Carpue, in his account of the proceedings, emphasized the attempts to get Forster's heart moving again, writing as he was in the context of an interest in resuscitation. The Times described how it ‘appeared to the uninformed part of the bystanders as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life’ and suggested it demonstrated the potential use of electricity in cases of drowning ‘by reviving the action of the lungs, and thereby rekindling the expiring sparks of vitality.’33 This was a common reading. In 1819, Aldini described the experiment on Forster as part of a series of attempts ‘to make an application of galvanism to persons apparently drowned, or in the state of asphyxia’.34 There were plenty of alternative readings as well, nevertheless, particularly in the context of political radicals' efforts to turn galvanic experimentation and electrical bodies to their own purposes. Aldini's experiments on Forster were routinely trotted out by radical writers as evidence of the material and electrical basis of human life.35 Galvanism was at once the plaything of fashionable dilettantes, the hope of radical firebrands and the bête noire of conservative ideologues. The performance remained susceptible to multiple representations, nevertheless. What Aldini had done could be regarded as anything from an exercise in the possibility of artificial resuscitation, to an effort to resurrect the dead, to a conclusive demonstration of the electrical and material nature of the vital principle.
It could also, of course, simply have been another show to whet the jaded appetites of aristocratic pleasure seekers. When Aldini performed at the Great Windmill Street Anatomical Theatre, for example, his audience included General Andreossi, the French ambassador, along with his entourage; Argyropoli, the chargé d'affaires of the Ottoman Porte; and the ubiquitous antiquarian Sir William Hamilton. A subsequent performance was attended by no fewer than four peers of the realm, including the rising political star Lord Castlereagh. The Prince Regent patronized one of his performances. The dissolute George certainly had not the slightest interest in the politics of galvanism (although Lord Castlereagh might have done). He was there simply to be amused. For such onlookers, performances such as Aldini's were simply one more in the range of entertainments that the capital city offered. They went to see Aldini's electrical dissections in much the same spirit as they went to the theatre, were pleasurably titillated at the phantasmagoria or seduced by the latest panorama.36 The Prince enjoyed Aldini's show enough that he brought his brothers along for an encore. The instrument-maker John Cuthbertson described how he ‘had the honour of performing in the presence of their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales, Duke of York, Duke of Clarence, and Duke of Cumberland’ on the decapitated head of a dog, ‘appearing as if the animal was restored to life and in a state of agony’.37 In this respect, if in no other, there was nothing even remotely radical about galvanism. On the contrary, Aldini's experiments were conducted with the full blessing of the English state. When Aldini performed his galvanic dissections on the body of George Forster, he was quite explicitly performing a role that was designed to underline and reinforce the judicial power of the state. His experiments on poor Forster were part of the climactic last act in a performance that had begun with the conviction, proceeded with the brutal public execution and concluded with the eventual dismemberment of the criminal's body once Aldini was done with it.38
The mutability and revisability of Humphry Davy's view of galvanic ideas and practices and their contexts is clear in his shifting of focus as he moved from the Pneumatic Institute to London. With radical Bristol behind him and the aristocratic Royal Institution beckoning, Davy ditched his radical past with some alacrity. In notes added later to his 1799 experimental notebooks, Davy drew a clear line between his present and former selves. He had started his ‘pursuit of chemistry’ with ‘speculations and theories: more mature reflection convinced me of my errors, of the limitations of our powers, the danger of false generalisations, and of the difficulty of forming true ones.’39 In retrospect he thought that he ‘was perhaps wrong in publishing, with such haste, a new theory of chemistry. My mind was ardent and enthusiastic. I believed that I had discovered the truth. Since that time my knowledge of facts is increased,—since that time I have become more sceptical.’40 By 1801, in ‘Outlines of a View of Galvanism’, one of his first publications in the Journal of the Royal Institution, he was only prepared to say that ‘some phenomena similar to galvanic phenomena, may be connected with muscular action, and other processes of life.’ The connections were nevertheless ‘at present very indistinct, and they ought to be considered of importance only so far as they are likely to lead to the discovery of new instruments of experimental investigation’.
In 1803 Davy contributed an anonymous review of Aldini's Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism to the recently established and decidedly Whig-leaning Edinburgh Review. The dross of early and unfounded galvanic speculation needed to be swept aside, he suggested: ‘every new light thrown upon natural knowledge, at first dazzles and confuses. … it is only by degrees that the just appearances of the objects of discovery are perceived, and their relations ascertained.’ Aldini was clearly still dazzled, in Davy's view. He was ‘so perfectly satisfied as to the existence of the etherial animal fluid, that he employs several propositions in attempting to demonstrate its relations to common electricity, and the electricity produced by metals. His reasonings on this subject appear to us to be very inconclusive indeed.’ Davy acknowledged that
whilst the production of muscular contractions, by the combinations of animal organs, to all appearance dead, is a very curious circumstance, we cannot allow that it affords any proof of the presence of a peculiar electricity in living bodies, or that it tends, in the slightest degree, ‘to explain the sensations and contractions in the animal machine.’ It appears capable of being referred to the general law of the production of electricity, by the agency of conducting bodies on each other.And as for Aldini's experiments on Forster's corpse, they were simply ‘rather disgusting than instructive.’41
In fact, Aldini's experiments, and galvanism more generally by the early years of the nineteenth century, lent themselves to a multiplicity of meanings. Opponents argued that animal electricity was a chimaera, and its practitioners were either dupes or deceivers. Even some of Aldini's supporters, such as the surgeon and galvanic lecturer Charles Wilkinson, doubted some of the experimental evidence he had gathered. Even among those who agreed about the identity of galvanism and the nervous fluid—or at least agreed that there was a strong analogy between them—there remained large scope for disagreement. Wilkinson, for one, argued for a special relationship between galvanism and the nervous fluid. For him, galvanism was ‘an energising principle, which forms the line of distinction between matter and spirit, constituting in the great chain of the creation, the intervening link between corporeal substance and the essence of vitality.’42 But even Wilkinson had to admit that claims like this really did very little towards establishing just how galvanism operated on the body. As he put it:
On the supposition that galvanism is the intermediate principle between matter and spirit, I cannot, I must confess, conceive the mode in which the agency is effected. To comprehend the essence of our own animation, requires the powers of a principle superior to that we possess. Infinite as I regard the difference between common matter and our vital principle, still we may suppose another infinitude, between our spring of life and that source that comprehends all.43Arguments for the identity of electricity and vitality did nothing to establish just what those mysterious principles really were, and carried a range of meanings in different contexts. Speculations such as Wilkinson's about the precise ontological place of galvanism and its significance would be at the heart of the notorious Lawrence–Abernethy debates a decade or so later, as John Abernethy's explicitly vitalist recapitulation of Wilkinson's argument came under furious attack from the materialist William Lawrence.44
For the Tory satirists, Aldini's experiments, just like Beddoes's pneumatic chemistry, were symptoms of delusion. Beddoes featured largely in Christopher Caustick's satirical defence of Elisha Perkins and his tractors in Terrible Tractoration. Caustick—in reality the American writer Thomas Green Fessenden, who was acting as Perkins's agent in London—suggested that natural philosophers such as these certainly had no claims to superior virtue or knowledge over his employer. If Perkins was a quack, then so were they, and they had no basis on which to claim the moral high ground.45 Beddoes had given him some of his gas, said Caustick:
This precious gas, sirs, is the pink
Of pure philosophy,—the link
With which great metaphysicians bind
To worlds of matter, worlds of mind
The chymick basis of an ens,
A demi-animus, or mens,
A non-descript, terrene-etherial,
But, like some people's souls, material!46
Aldini and galvanism made just as good targets as Thomas Beddoes and pneumatic chemistry for this kind of joke. The Italian philosopher's experiments cast even the fraudulent American charlatan into the shade:
For he (‘tis told in publick papers)
Can make dead people cut droll capers;
And shuffling off death's iron trammels,
To kick and hop like dancing camels.
To raise a dead dog he was able,
Though laid in quarters on a table,
And led him yelping, round the town,
With two legs up, and two legs down.47
Caustick's doggerel assembled a rogue's gallery of atheists, charlatans and materialists and explained exactly why Aldini and Beddoes both deserved their places in this disreputable pantheon.
From one perspective, at least, galvanism's unsavoury reputation as the plaything of radical philosophers was the outcome of these kinds of carefully calculated representation. Aldini's galvanism or Beddoes's pneumatic enthusiasms were useful sticks with which to beat political enemies, simply because they could be made to look ridiculous with relative ease. By forging chains of connection between radical political philosophies, galvanism, pneumatic chemistry, medical quackery and demagoguery, Tory critics sought to damn their political enemies by association. None of this changes the fact that galvanic and pneumatic experiments were indeed embedded in politically radical, heterodox and utopian ideologies as far as at least some practitioners were concerned. Beddoes clearly regarded his pneumatic experiments as parts of a wider project of reform, and it seems likely that he regarded galvanism, at least for a period during the 1790s, in the same kind of light. But even in radical circles, galvanism's place was contingent, malleable and negotiable. There was nothing self-evident about the connection. Galvanism occupied other places, too. When we see pictures of country gentry electrifying themselves for amusement then we can be relatively sure that, in these kinds of context, nothing remotely radical was perceived to be going on, although no doubt the participants’ knowledge of electricity's dangerous reputation elsewhere added its own frisson to their activities. Galvanism, like pneumatic experiments and mesmerism—or spiritualism later on in the nineteenth century—sometimes and for some people simply was no more than an amusing and titillating pastime.48 Galvanism's (and natural philosophy's) nineteenth-century fate seems to make it clear, nevertheless, that by and large the Tory mud-slinging worked. It was in response to just these kinds of representation that Davy and his successor at the Royal Institution worked so hard to divorce both chemistry and galvanism from the dangerous taint of radicalism.
Beddoes's role in galvanism's history is peripheral and usually off-stage. Michael Neve remarks that one way of thinking about Beddoes is to see him as ‘a kind of actor-manager in the early political history and fortunes of English Romanticism.’49 The same can be said about his role in the history of galvanism. He may not have been a player himself, but he was surrounded by people who were. He moved in the same circles and was often tarred with the same brush. He is nevertheless an important and significant reference point. In some ways, the divide between the experimental culture and practices that held sway at Beddoes's Pneumatic Institute, as well as those exemplified during Aldini's visit to London, and the instrumental concerns that became more central to Humphry Davy's galvanic practices at the Royal Institution, is the divide between the experimental culture of the English Enlightenment and the institutional practices of later Victorian laboratory culture, with its particular emphasis on individuals and instruments.50 Beddoes, Aldini and the younger Davy reckoned that bodies were an important part of their experimental repertoire. The older Davy was at pains to keep bodies at arms' length. We can see Davy's disdain for Aldini's ‘disgusting’ galvanic manipulations as being close to the origins of efforts to remove the sensational from experimental natural philosophy that remained a preoccupation in some circles for much of the nineteenth century. One way of understanding that preoccupation is to see it as a continuing response to the perceived failings of the English Enlightenment's model of experimental culture fostered and represented by Beddoes and the Pneumatic Institute. In the end, this is what really interests me, as a historian primarily of nineteenth-century experimental cultures, about Beddoes and his context. The kind of sensational experimental life that he practised and represented forms a vital backdrop to the later nineteenth century—and one against which most of that new generation of natural philosophers who would become the gentlemen of science quite resolutely set themselves. It was their efforts to get away from all that backdrop that produced the disciplinary life of Victorian natural philosophical culture.
↵1 John Corry, A Satirical View of London at the Commencement of the Nineteenth Century: Comprising Free Strictures on the Manners and Amusements of the Inhabitants of the English Metropolis; Observations on Literature and the Fine Arts; And Amusing Anecdotes of Public Characters, sixth edn (J. Ferguson, London, 1815), p. iv. The first edition was published in 1801.
↵2 Ibid., p. 60.
↵3 John Corry, The Life of Joseph Priestley, with Critical Observations on his Works (Wilks, Grafton & Co. Birmingham, 1804).
↵4 Joseph Priestley, Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air (Thomas Pearson, Birmingham, 1790), p. xxiii.
↵5 Roy Porter, Enlightenment: Britain and the creation of the modern world (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 2000). This is probably the best recent effort to provide a coherent account of a distinctly English Enlightenment.
↵6 Simon Schaffer, ‘Priestley and the politics of spirit’, in Science, medicine and dissent: Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) (ed. Robert G. W. Anderson & Christopher Lawrence), pp. 39–53 (Wellcome Trust, London, 1987).
↵7 Edmund Burke, ‘Letters on a Regicidal Peace’, in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (Holdsworth & Ball, London, 1834), vol. 2, p. 282.
↵8 Edmund Burke, ‘Letter to a Noble Lord’, in The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (Holdsworth & Ball, London, 1834), vol. 2, p. 270.
↵9 ‘Commemoration of the Centenary of the Birth of Dr. Priestley’, Phil. Mag. 2, 382–402 (1833).
↵10 Henry Brougham, Lives of Men of Letters and Science, who Flourished in the Time of George III (2 volumes) (London, 1845–46), vol. 1, p. 402.
↵11 Jan Golinski, Science as public culture: chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760–1820 (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
↵12 Gwyn A. Williams, Artisans and sans-culottes: popular movements in France and Britain during the French Revolution (Edward Arnold, London, 1968); Michael T. Davis (ed.), The London Corresponding Society (Pickering & Chatto, London, 2002).
↵13 John Thelwall, An Essay Towards a Definition of Animal Vitality (London, 1793), p. 41.
↵14 John Thelwall, The Rights of Nature Against the Usurpations of the Establishments (Norwich, 1796), p. 4.
↵15 John Edmonds Stock, Memoirs of the Life of Thomas Beddoes (London, 1811), p. 72.
↵16 Thomas Beddoes (ed.), Contributions to Physical and Medical Knowledge (Biggs & Cottle, Bristol, 1799), p. 141.
↵17 Robert Southey to Davy, 26 July 1800, quoted in John Davy, Fragmentary Remains, Literary and Scientific, of Sir Humphry Davy, Bart. (London, 1858), p. 44.
↵18 Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Davy, 4 May 1801, quoted in Davy, op. cit. (note 17), p. 89.
↵19 Robert Southey to Charles Danvers, 2 December 1801, in New letters of Robert Southey (ed. Kenneth Curry), p. 261 (Columbia University Press, New York, 1965).
↵20 Robert Southey to Charles Danvers, 4 January 1809, in Curry, op. cit. (note 19), p. 497.
↵21 John Davy, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy (2 volumes) (London, 1836), vol. 1, p. 79.
↵22 Giuliano Pancaldi, ‘On hybrid objects and their trajectories: Beddoes, Davy and the battery’, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 63 (2009) (this issue). Pancaldi similarly identifies a clear break in Davy's approach to galvanism that coincides with his move from Bristol to London.
↵23 For a detailed dissection of the debate between Galvani and Volta over animal electricity, see Marcello Pera, The ambiguous frog: the Galvani–Volta controversy on animal electricity (Princeton University Press, 1991). A recent and authoritative overview of Galvani, his context and impact is Marco Bresadola and Giuilano Pancaldi (eds), Luigi Galvani International Workshop Proceedings (Università di Bologna, 1999).
↵24 ‘Abstract of the Late Experiments of Professor Aldini on Galvanism’, Nicholson's J. Nat. Phil. 3, 298–300 (1802).
↵25 ‘Galvanism’, Tilloch's Phil. Mag. 14, 364–368 (1802); The Times, 22 January 1803, p. 3.
↵26 William Clark, Jan Golinski and Simon Schaffer (eds), The sciences in Enlightened Europe (University of Chicago Press, 1999).
↵27 Golinski, op. cit. (note 11).
↵28 The Times, op. cit. (note 25).
↵29 Joseph Carpue, An Introduction to Electricity and Galvanism (London, 1803), pp. 91–92.
↵30 Ibid., p. 92.
↵31 The Times, op. cit. (note 25).
↵32 John [sic] Aldini, General Views on the Application of Galvanism to Medical Purposes; Principally in Cases of Suspended Animation (London, 1819), p. 26.
↵33 The Times, op. cit. (note 25).
↵34 Aldini, op. cit. (note 32), p. 16.
↵35 See, for example, Thomas Simmons Mackintosh, The Electrical Theory of the Universe (London, 1838).
↵36 For the range of London entertainments during the first half of the nineteenth century, see Richard Altick, The shows of London (Belknap Press, Cambridge, MA, 1978). For scientific entertainments more specifically, see Iwan Rhys Morus, Simon Schaffer and James Secord, ‘Scientific London’, in London—world city, 1800–1840 (ed. Celina Fox), pp. 129–142 (Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1992).
↵37 John Cuthbertson, Practical Electricity and Galvanism (J. Callon, London, 1807), p. 263.
↵38 Ruth Richardson, Death, dissection and the destitute (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1987).
↵39 Davy, op. cit. (note 21), p. 80.
↵40 Davy, op. cit. (note 21), p. 82.
↵41 [Humphry Davy], ‘An Account of the Late Improvements in Galvanism … By John Aldini’, Edinb. Rev. 3, 194–198 (1803), at pp. 195 and 196.
↵42 Charles Henry Wilkinson, Elements of Galvanism, in Theory and Practice (London, 1804), p. 298.
↵43 Wilkinson, Elements of Galvanism, p. 470.
↵44 Stephen Jacyna, ‘Immanence or transcendence: theories of life and organization in Britain, 1790–1835’, Isis 74, 310–329 (1983).
↵45 James Delbourgo, A most amazing scene of wonders: electricity and Enlightenment in early America (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2006).
↵46 Christopher Caustick, The Modern Philosopher, or, Terrible Tractoration!, 2nd American edn (Philadelphia, 1806), p. 6.
↵47 Ibid., p. 130.
↵48 For mesmerism's nineteenth-century trajectory, see Alison Winter, Mesmerized (University of Chicago Press, 1998).
↵49 Michael Neve, ‘Beddoes, Thomas (1760–1808)’, in Oxford dictionary of national biography (ed. H. C. G. Matthew & Brian Harrison) (Oxford University Press, 2004), http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1919 (accessed 11 May 2009).
↵50 Simon Schaffer, ‘Scientific discoveries and the end of natural philosophy’, Social Stud. Sci. 16, 387–420 (1986).
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