Electrifying Displays

June 11th, 2017

Our current exhibit, “Natural History :: Natural Philosophy,” includes much about that quintessential topic of 18th-century natural philosophy, electricity. On display are numerous titles depicting electrical experiments, some for a kind of home entertainment — shocking one’s friends and family.

One of the public lecturers who capitalized on the popularity of electrical experiments was Stephen Gray, noted for suspending a charity school boy from the ceiling and electrifying him by means of a glass tube (a static electric generator). Gray had worked for the Newtonian natural philosopher John Theophilus Desaguliers, whose 2-volume Course of experimental philosophy (London, 1734-1744) figures in our exhibit.

Special Collections also holds a Dutch translation, grown to 3 volumes, of Desaguliers’ textbook, De natuurkunde uit ondervindingen opgemaakt (Amsterdam, 1751), as part of the Tank Collection (call number: Tank LH D44 Cutter). In it we found a more elaborate rendition of Gray’s “flying boy” experiment:

Plate XXXVIII in vol. 2 of Desaguliers, De natuurkunde uit ondervindingen opgemaakt (1751). From the Tank Collections, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Tank Collection is perhaps better known for its works on Protestant thought; but it also includes works of history, travels, science, and philosophy more generally, including this textbook by Desaguliers. The Tank Collection came from the library of the Reverend R.J. van der Meulen, minister of the Dutch Reformed Church, as donated by his daughter, Mrs. N. O. Tank.

Desaguliers’ textbooks, along with many other works of natural philosophy, are available for you to consult first-hand in our reading room. Please note that the exhibit itself has been extended through June 23, 2017.