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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/April 1878/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 12‎ | April 1878


THE story of electricity forms the most romantic chapter in the history of science. The curious thing about it is, that it has been a progress from utter and absolute ignorance to the most familiar and extensive practical results. In all the other sciences—mechanics, optics, physiology, astronomy—there was a basis of common knowledge, consisting of many familiar facts to start with, and there is ever a rudiment of science in the loose observations of uninstructed people concerning things that fall within the range of ordinary experience. But electrical science had no such starting-point—nothing was known by common people of any such agent. Lightning was hardly regarded as a terrestrial thing. It was the bolt of Jove, a minister of God's wrath, or a malign agency of the prince of the powers of the air, a kind of preternatural phenomenon; and, when amber was rubbed and found to attract light bodies in a mysterious way, it was assumed to have a soul and to be a sacred thing. This little seed of the science did not germinate for thousands of years. It was an instructive test of the culture of the human mind, and shows what an enormous amount of preliminary mental activity had to be expended before men were prepared to engage in the study of Nature. The natural world was filled with this force which we now call electrical; all things were pervaded by it, but it was beneath the surface; it did not strike the senses, and compel attention; it could be discovered only by thought, and the investigation could not commence until the human intellect had been turned in a systematic way upon natural things. But when experimental inquiries in electricity were once begun, their results were so curious and peculiar that they exerted a powerful fascination over the wonder-loving, and by this stimulus the science grew rapidly. It has given rise to a brilliant series of electrical and magnetic discoveries, inventions, and useful applications, of the widest range and the highest utility to civilization, such as no other science has afforded. The intellectual movement has here been from the zero of total ignorance, through long observation and experiment, up to the richest harvest of wonderful works.

It is interesting to note how fully this science belongs in its development to civilization, and how widely its discoveries are to be apportioned among different nations, and it is not to be overlooked that the New World shares, these honors conspicuously with the Old. The Englishmen Gilbert and Gray were prominent in laying its foundations; the German Guericke contributed essentially to the work, and Du Fay, the Frenchman, gave early form to its theoretic structure. The next, and by far the most brilliant step yet taken, was made by the American Franklin in demonstrating the identity of lightning and common electricity, and in the invention of the lightning rod. The Italians Galvani and Volta then followed, giving us the electrical batteries that bear their names; the Englishman Davy soon made an epoch in electro-chemistry; and Oersted, the Dane, came next with the discovery of electro-magnetism. This paved the way for the era of the successful establishment of the telegraph; and here our countryman Morse was a leader, whose name is everywhere indissolubly linked with the system.

All these achievements in the progress of the science were regarded with incredulous astonishment when they were made; but the recent exploits in the field of electrical invention and discovery surpass, if possible, in their wonderful results, all that has gone before, and here the work is exclusively American. The musical telephone of Elisha Gray, and the speaking telephone of Graham Bell, together with the Phonograph of Thomas Edison (which, although not an electrical machine, grew out of the telephone), were all invented in this country, and they nobly "crown the first two years of our new century." The import of these devices is being increasingly appreciated by scientific men as their powers are developed, and eminent foreign electricians have pronounced them the most extraordinary productions of the present century. Experimenters abroad may be expected to contribute to the elucidation of their conditions and principles, but they will do well not to overlook what has been accomplished here. Already, they are taking credit for contrivances which are but repetitions of American work. Dr. William F. Channing, of Providence, who, with other gentlemen of that city, have taken an active interest in the telephone from the outset, and contributed valuable aid to Prof. Bell in perfecting his invention, thus writes to the Journal of the Telegraph in reference to things done on the other side, that had been anticipated here:

"A considerable flourish has recently been made over the multiple telephone of M. Trouvé in Paris. As the speaking telephone is entirely an American discovery, it is worth while to keep the credit of what we do at home.

"The multiple telephone, that is, a cubical or polyhedral chamber, every side of which, except the front, is occupied by telephone-plates with magnets, etc., behind, was made last summer, by Henry W. Vaughan in Providence, before the speaking telephone had been seen in France.

"In a recent lecture upon the telephone before the Franklin Society of Providence, I had the pleasure of using a pair of sympathetic or rather responsive tuning-forks, made many months ago by Prof. E. W. Blake, of Brown University. These tuning forks were of the same musical pitch, and each mounted on a sounding-board. They were also tempered and magnetized, so as really to constitute permanent U magnets. Between the poles or ends of the prongs of each of these magnetic tuning-forks, a short soft-iron core, surrounded with a coil of fine insulated wire, was supported, very near, but not in contact with, the prongs of the tuning fork. These instruments were placed in a common telegraphic circuit a sixth of a mile apart. When the distant instrument was struck, the other responded so as to be heard throughout the lecture-room. This is a form of the responsive tuning-fork, much more beautiful than that figured in Nature, and ascribed to W. C. Röntgen; and it anticipated European application by several months."


We have followed up the controversy that grew out of the publication of Dr. Carpenter's lectures on spiritualism, and, having printed in the Monthly an adverse review of that book by a leading representative of the spiritualist party in this country, we have republished in successive numbers of the Supplement the replies to Dr. Carpenter made by those eminent scientists, Mr. William Crookes and Mr. A. R. Wallace. We supposed, from intimations in this last and shorter installment, that the discussion was ended; but Mr. Wallace comes on again in the last Athenæum, and, as the logomachy may prove interminable, we, at all events, shall have to stop. Nothing would be gained by printing Mr. Wallace's last letter in full, but some notice of his positions may be desirable.

The relation of official French inquiry into mesmerism, animal magnetism, and clairvoyance, has been a prominent question in this controversy. The main facts seem to be these: In 1784 the French Government ordered the medical faculty of Paris to investigate the theories of Mesmer, who had been making a great stir in that city, and report upon them. A committee was appointed, of which Franklin and Lavoisier were members, and their report was adverse to the validity of Mesmer's claims. In 1825 the believers in animal magnetism applied for a new commission, which was appointed by the Academy of Sciences, and consisted of five members, who made a favorable report upon the subject in 1831; but this report was neither adopted by the Academy nor regularly printed in its memoirs. In 1837 the French Academy appointed a new commission of nine members, who reported adversely upon the doctrine of animal magnetism, and their report was adopted by the Academy; and still another commission was afterward ordered by the same body, and with the same result. Mr. Wallace complains that Dr. Carpenter, in his historical sketch of the subject, ignored the report of 1831, which was on the side of mesmerism, and was not accepted by the French Academy, and he devotes his last letter to a statement of the points made in that report. Mr. Wallace assures us that the commission "obtained absolutely conclusive facts, which have subsequently been often confirmed, but have never been satisfactorily explained away." Among these is the proof of clairvoyance. The committee say that "prevision of organic phenomena, knowledge of the internal conditions of other persons, and true clairvoyance, had been demonstrated to them." Mr. Wallace adds: "One of the somnambulists determined correctly the symptoms of M. Marc, a commissioner; and also the disease of another person, the accuracy of the diagnosis being confirmed by postmortem examination. Clairvoyance was proved by one of the patients repeatedly reading and naming cards while four of the commissioners successively held his eyes closed with their fingers—a test, the absolute conclusiveness of which each one may satisfy himself of."

The term clairvoyance means literally clear sight. But everybody with good eyes has clear sight; the alleged vision is, therefore, not of the ordinary kind. It claims to be an extraordinary kind of seeing, a seeing through opaque objects—through the eyelids, through bandages, or through the back of the head, and into objects not penetrable by ordinary vision. The term "clear," as applied to this kind of sight, is intended to denote especial or remarkable clearness, or a transcendental vision, which opens to sight things not sensible to the normal eye. In short, clairvoyance affirms an extra endowment for making things visible which goes beyond the range of that sense which is our usual source of knowledge.

Now, Mr. Wallace says that this is an "absolute fact," which has been conclusively proved and known for forty-seven years, or since the report of 1831, that declared it to be demonstrated. As, therefore, this remarkable endowment of human nature has been established as a fact for nearly half a century, we are fairly entitled to ask, What have been its results? If it be true, no discovery ever made in science can for a moment bear comparison with it in importance; and if it be true, we have a right to demand the legitimate results that must flow from it, as we expect and require the natural results of all other genuine discoveries. Of course, the objection may be interposed that we must not be premature in anticipating the fruits of discovery, because the history of all science shows that the interval between the dawn of a new principle and its developments and applications may be very long. This is true; yet, in every case, we demand at once the effects that flow immediately from the quality of the discovery; in fact, we only know it by these results. It would, of course, have been absurd to expect from the invention of the spy-glass the great results of the modern telescope, which has grown out of it; but it would have been proper to expect from the spy-glass that which was properly claimed for it, and which it at once compelled all men to yield. All scientific discoveries, in fact, are new procurable effects, and are, therefore, their own witnesses. Clairvoyance must give us the new results of a marvelously-sharpened vision; the extra faculty implies extra disclosures. And again we ask, where are they? With a new capacity for seeing, what new thing has been seen? The limitations of vision restrict and measure the usual sphere of knowledge, and with every increase in the power of optical instruments, as the microscope and telescope, in aiding the eye, knowledge has been extended, novel facts brought to light, and it is these that attest the instrumental improvements. But with a power of vision so mysteriously sharpened that opaque objects become transparent, with the barriers actually taken away, what has been revealed? There are thousands of perplexing and unsettled questions, regarding the constitution of material things, which might be cleared up by another increment of visual penetration; but clairvoyance has given no help in conquering these difficulties. If it has been a demonstrated reality these fifty years, it ought long ago to have vindicated its claims by unveiling some of the obscurities of material objects. Yet, claiming to be a superior means of laying open the inner constitution of things, it has not even proved equal to ordinary sight, and has, in fact, done nothing whatever toward extending the boundaries of knowledge. It may, perhaps, be objected that clairvoyant power of seeing through opaque things no more implies a revealing of their inner nature, than looking through the air with the eye implies the recognition of its physical and chemical constitution. But this plea for seeing nothing, with a preternatural gift of sight, is futile, and the advocates of clairvoyance understand well enough that the validity of the claim must turn on what is recognized; accordingly, the French commissioners say it had been demonstrated to them that clairvoyance gave a knowledge of the internal condition of other persons. The body was not looked through as we look through the air, where nothing is seen; but it is claimed that things were seen, internal conditions perceived, morbid actions identified, and features of disease described, that were confirmed by post-mortem examination. Why, then, should this power be confined to the identification of things already ascertained by the common resources of inquiry? The new way of getting into the mysteries of the organism should have attested itself by results not accessible by ordinary means. It is significant that the clairvoyant reports only as far as normal knowing had already reached. Yet the human system is filled with physiological and pathological enigmas and obscurities, the clearing up of which would be priceless to science. Why, then, did not the physicians of the French commission close the investigation at once and forever by throwing light upon organic processes not before understood, and thus vindicating the new method, by showing that it could do, in a direct way, at least as much as we are now able to do indirectly, though only by long and difficult processes of investigation?

This is certainly a dictate of common-sense. The test of clairvoyance is what the alleged exceptional clearness shows. The question is, Can the clairvoyant actually do what he pretends to do? And the proof is not the mere testimony of a few parties, who say they have seen extraordinary things, but what has been positively, and demonstrably, and openly gained to science? This is the test in the case of all other scientific discoveries. M. Burdin, a member of the Academy of Sciences, put the claims of clairvoyance to very simple and decisive proof in 1837, when the real "evidence" signally failed. He placed 3,000 francs in the hands of a notary, subject to the order of the Academy, to be given to any one who would read writing placed in an opaque box, a committee of the Academy being appointed to supervise the experiments. The conditions were modified in various ways to suit objectors, the only point being to determine whether the clairvoyant could actually see through an opaque substance, and the time allowed to find a party who could do this, at first two years, was extended to three. Numerous trials were made, but none succeeded. The result, however, of the carefully-conducted experiments was to detect, in several instances, the fraudulent mode in which the alleged previous successes had been obtained.



M. Janssen, the eminent director of the observatory at Meudon (France), has for some time been giving his attention to solar photography, and with singular success. The very remarkable photographs he has lately produced have hardly yet reached this country; but, from the examination of one, sent by him to the Allegheny Observatory, and which we have had the opportunity of seeing, we find that the praise bestowed abroad upon these new results is fully deserved.

The surface of the sun itself has been described by recent observers as consisting of a relatively dark background, thickly starred in every part by those strange objects called technically "granules," or "rice-grains," and which constitute the real source of the solar light. These, which have hitherto only occasionally been seen by good telescopes, are now definitely fixed for us by the camera, and we may see for ourselves that they, with their surrounding gray, do resemble—to compare great things with small—rice in a plate of soup, though the photograph shows that they are not in general elongated, but nearly round, with an irregular outline, as described by careful observers. We must leave, however, to special students the study of these details, and only observe that the photograph, besides confirming previous optical observations as to the remarkable fact that the light and heat of the sun come from but a small part of its surface, adds otherwise directly to our knowledge, by presenting new facts, such as the evidence of storms upon the solar surface (quite away from the spots), which have never yet been distinctly observed by the telescope.

These admirable photographs can hardly fail to soon become known, by copies to the scientific public, for they constitute a most essential step in the study of the sun, and one on which M. Janssen is certainly to be congratulated.



In a certain sense, this "acoustical marvel of the century" is as simple as a grindstone; but, in a scientific point of view, there are subtile questions about it that only trained physicists can appreciate. Prof. Mayer's article upon the subject, in the foregoing pages, besides accurately explaining the mechanism and its operation, points out the delicate complexity of its effects in a way that will interest all curious-minded readers. Mr. Edison, by this invention, has done for sound what Daguerre did for light—made it possible to fix and permanently retain the most fleeting impressions. We pointed out, last month, the marvelous capacities of cold iron, magnetism, and an electric wire; but the capacities of the phonograph are still more marvelous, for, with only a vibrating plate, a sheet of tin-foil, and a crank, it is possible to arrest and fix all kinds of sound, and, having preserved them as long as metals will hold their properties, to give them forth again in all their original qualities. The voice, indeed, is somewhat muffled and minified when returned from the iron tongue of the phonograph; but its intonations, inflections, pauses, and quality, are rendered with surprising fidelity. By the simple turning of the crank, the machine talks, sings, shouts, laughs, whistles, and coughs, so naturally and distinctly, that the listener can hardly believe his senses, or escape from the suspicion that there is some ventriloquist hocus-pocus about it, or a little fellow concealed somewhere about the arrangement. But the fact is established, and must be made the most of. A machine, as simple as a coffee-mill, hears a speech or a song, and gives it back as perfectly as it was at first uttered by the living organs of voice. And so, again, we have the lesson repeated, with still greater emphasis, that we must raise our estimate of the powers and potencies of "mere dead matter."