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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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Sparks in Darkness and the Eel’s Electrical Sense

Sparks in Darkness and the Eel’s Electrical Sense

(p.281) Chapter 19 Sparks in Darkness and the Eel’s Electrical Sense
The Shocking History of Electric Fishes

Stanley Finger

Marco Piccolino

Oxford University Press

Walsh (1773) never produced a spark indicative of electricity with his French torpedoes. No sparks seemed to occur naturally; none jumped even the smallest gaps he could make in tinfoil; and there was not even the expected crackling sound when the fish emitted a shock. Additionally, the living torpedo did not attract pith balls or other light objects, and his Lane electrometer provided no evidence for electricity. Hence, although Walsh felt sure he was dealing with an electrical phenomenon, not all of the proofs he hoped to present to Franklin and the Royal Society on the French torpedoes fell into place. The absence of a spark or an electrometer measurement had two effects. One was on his colleagues, some of whom demanded more evidence before accepting animal electricity, even after he and others, most notably Henry Cavendish, did their best to explain the absence of a spark or why the pith balls would not move. The other effect was on Walsh himself. He still wanted to complete the job he had started. He knew that lingering doubts about the electrical nature of the fish discharge would dissipate if he could just show an accompanying spark. It was with this mindset that Walsh now focused on the more powerful eel.

Keywords:   John Walsh, electric eels, electricity, French torpedoes, Lane electrometer, Henry Cavendish

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