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The Shocking History of Electric FishesFrom Ancient Epochs to the Birth of Modern Neurophysiology$
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Stanley Finger and Marco Piccolino

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780195366723

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195366723.001.0001

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The Allure of Electric Fishes: Humboldt’s Obsession

The Allure of Electric Fishes: Humboldt’s Obsession

(p.3) Chapter 1 The Allure of Electric Fishes: Humboldt’s Obsession
The Shocking History of Electric Fishes

Stanley Finger

Marco Piccolino

Oxford University Press

Alexander von Humboldt, a young German baron with training in the sciences, became an international celebrity in the opening decades of the 19th century as a result of his exciting and dangerous travels through the New World and his magnificent illustrated volumes about his scientific explorations. Of all his writings, the material that more than any other captured his readers' imaginations was his encounter with South American eels. Humboldt believed that the eels were releasing their shocks intentionally, a contention made by others before him. He reasoned that, if the discharges were intentional, they should cease upon severing the nerves from the brain to the electrical organs. A cut from his knife confirmed this prediction. He also found that shocks could be transmitted through most of the usual conductors of electricity, including metal rods and people holding hands, and not through the standard array of non-conductors. This set up his long-awaited experiments with substances that had revealed possible differences between animal, metallic, and true electricity.

Keywords:   Alexander von Humboldt, animal electricity, electric eels, scientists, conductors

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