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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 Electrical World of Benjamin Franklin

The Electrical World of Benjamin Franklin

Chapter:
(p.163) Chapter 10 The Electrical World of Benjamin Franklin
Source:
The Shocking History of Electric Fishes
Author(s):

Stanley Finger

Marco Piccolino

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195366723.003.0010

The previous chapter showed how theories involving rapid muscle contractions replaced ancient ideas about cold vapors and venoms, and vague notions of occult (hidden) forces, when accounting for the effects of torporific fish. These mechanical theories emerged in the final decades of the 17th century, and with Réaumur in France, they continued to have substantial backing in the first half of the 18th century. The first suggestions that these fish just might function in another way, by electricity, would first appear around 1750. This significant change in thinking would emerge in the context of the tremendous attraction that electricity held for academic scientists and even amateurs in the 1740s and 1750s. In this Zeitgeist, a wide variety of phenomena, in both the animate and inanimate world, would be increasingly perceived as electrical. This chapter examines this phase in the history of electricity, and by so doing it sets the stage for the understanding of how torpedoes, a family of African catfish, and the South American eel, literally became electrical. It also introduces a number of technological innovations and introduces Benjamin Franklin, who would not only play a major role in understanding the nature of electricity, but would also be influential in showing that torpedoes are, in fact, electrical. The chapter also presents historical information about the Royal Society of London, emphasizing its commitment to overthrowing falsehoods with experiments, and its belief that even the smallest facts might lead to useful knowledge.

Keywords:   electric fish, electricity, torpedoes, catfish, electric eels, Royal Society of London, Benjamin Franklin

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