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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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Torpedoes in the Greco-Roman World: Pt. 2. From Therapeutic Shocks to Theories of the Discharge

Torpedoes in the Greco-Roman World: Pt. 2. From Therapeutic Shocks to Theories of the Discharge

(p.45) Chapter 4 Torpedoes in the Greco-Roman World: Pt. 2. From Therapeutic Shocks to Theories of the Discharge
The Shocking History of Electric Fishes

Stanley Finger

Marco Piccolino

Oxford University Press

This chapter shows how torpedo shocks began to be used in medicine as a form of “electrotherapy” ante litteram. It discusses what the ancients speculated about the nature of the discharge and its transmission in the absence of any idea at all about the force now known as electricity. In addition, it comments on how these numbing fishes appeared in the arts during Greco-Roman times. With regard to the fine arts, the chapter examines some of the pottery and mosaics depicting torpedoes, and relates what is illustrated to dietary ideas and significant events. It considers how the torpedo is featured in the poetry of the epoch. It shows how verses describing the “chilling” effects of their discharges mirrored the science and theories of the day. Thus, the chapter continues to show how these unusual fish entered into multiple aspects of the culture of the epoch (e.g., medicine, physiology, physics, food, and poetry). It also shows how the ancients could only speculate about their powers, based largely on analogies and the physics of the day. The benumbing powers of live torpedoes were paradigmatic of a class of physiological and physical phenomena that were both extremely challenging and of immense importance to philosophers and physicians interested in science.

Keywords:   torpedoes, electrotherapy, electricity, poetry, Greco-Roman period

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