Electricity & Medicine

In the Counting House

In the Museums

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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the February 6,

2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

From the Laboratory to the Parlor

Princeton is now widely recognized as one of the

nation’s

key sites for technological and scientific innovation. But in colonial

days and the early Republic, Philadelphia was this country’s center

of invention, as well as the political and intellectual capital of

North America. And in Philadelphia’s heyday, the American

Philosophical

Society was the city’s pre-eminent scholarly organization. Founded

by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 "to promote useful knowledge,"

it served for almost a century as the young nation’s academy of

science,

its national library and museum, and even its patent office.

New Jersey is now known for breakthroughs in pharmaceuticals,

alternative

energy sources, fiber optics, and HD-TV. But as an exhibit now showing

at the APS makes clear, early American scientists were struggling

to lay the groundwork for the country’s later advances, trying to

crack the malignant secrets of disease, fathom the mysteries of the

stars, and advance earthbound commerce.

The landmark exhibit, entitled "From the Laboratory to the Parlor:

Scientific Instruments in Philadelphia, 1750-1875," presents the

tools and captures the ambitions of America’s pioneering scientists

— men and women who were the intellectual forebears of Princeton’s

community of scientists and entrepreneurs.

"From the Laboratory to the Parlor" marks the first time the

APS has opened a display to the public since 1811. That was the year

that Charles Willson Peale’s famous natural history museum here —

with its Native American artifacts and mastodon bones — closed

down. Much of Peale’s collection was later sold to P.T. Barnum and

scattered. The APS, meanwhile, entered a more cloistered phase,

maintaining

its elected membership and scholarly library but keeping its superb

collection of early American instruments and materials away from

public

view.

Such reclusiveness was surely far from the minds of the Society’s

early members, for whom avid scientific inquiry was open to everyone.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, "science" as we know

it — with separate dominions of biology, chemistry and physics

— didn’t really exist. Instead, any endeavor that pertained to

the study of the natural world was known as "natural

philosophy"

— hence the Society’s name. America’s "philosophers,"

both amateur and professional, were just as anxious to become part

of the international scientific community, and help solve the great

scientific puzzles of their day.

According to Sue Ann Prince, the exhibit curator, there were at that

time no rigid distinctions between scientific fields, or between

amateurs

and professionals. Early APS members included merchants and clergymen

as well as physicians and naturalists.

Nor was there a strict division between science and the humanities,

or between science and religion. In fact, pursuing natural philosophy

was considered essential to moral and religious education. "People

then believed that you had to get to know the natural world to

understand

the divine," Prince says. "Scientific inquiry not only

revealed

natural laws and principles, but God’s order as well."

Modelling themselvesd after London’s Royal Society and other European

organizations, early members included founding fathers George

Washington,

John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, while APS’ activities ranged from

a 1796 competition for the best-designed fireplace or stove

improvement

(first prize: $60, and winning models are on display), to counseling

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their explorations of the

Louisiana

Territory.

The new APS exhibit presents the tools and captures the ambitions

of America’s pioneering natural philosophers. The exhibit’s one-room

display of 100 artifacts — including catalogs, maps, almanacs,

diaries, and portraits, as well as instruments — reveal natural

philosophy’s role and significance in the commercial, social, and

technological aspirations of a booming city and a restless age.

In the 18th century, scientific instruments were both

tools and toys. For most of the 1700s, Americans had to import many

of their instruments from Europe — though by the 1850s, instrument

makers were flourishing in Philadelphia (as catalogs displayed here

attest), eager to catch up to their European colleagues.

As proof of the collaboration between "philosophers" and the

scientific community, here is the copy of the "Instructions

Relative

to the Observation of the Ensuing Transit of the Planet of Venus"

sent to the APS in 1758 from England’s Astronomer Royal Nevil

Maskelyne.

Venus is visible passing across the sun only once or twice each

century

(upcoming transits are in 2004 and 2012), and Maskelyne wanted to

make sure that observations of the phenomenon in 1769 were recorded

uniformly in both Europe and North America. Maskelyne was the

real-life

villain of Dava Sobel’s engaging, widely popular science book,

"Longitude."

(Those observations, it was believed, would help determine the measure

of the "astronomical unit," the mean radius of the earth’s

orbit around the sun and the standard measure for the solar system.)

One who followed Maskelyne’s instructions was John Ewing, a

Presbyterian

minister whom the APS set up with a telescope in the adjacent State

House (now Independence Hall) yard to observe and record the transit.

His beautifully detailed rendering of the planet’s passage is on

display.

Another who heeded the call was David Rittenhouse, a self-educated

Philadelphia clockmaker (and former APS president) who crafted his

own mathematical and optical instruments. On display is the

astronomical

transit telescope he made for his Delaware observatory to follow

Venus’

passage, as well as the (still ticking) astronomical clock he used

in his observatory.

But astronomy wasn’t limited to observatories. Middle class families

often owned hand telescopes, several of which are displayed. They

also amused themselves with simple solar microscopes that projected

images on the wall, or examined flowers and insects under the drum

microscopes that London instrument makers started selling in the

1740s.

Before radio or television, scientific instruments were used in the

home for entertainment, and by the woman of the house to teach

children

natural history. Scientific instruments were also a clear mark of

status. The wall of an upper-middle class home might have been graced,

for instance, with a banjo barometer, introduced in the U.S. from

England in the 1780s. (A late-18th century English one is on display.)

Or a well-off natural philosopher might boast of owning one or both

of a gorgeous pair of globes, made in London and sent to the APS in

1799. One is of the earth, showing the latest explorers’ routes and

discoveries, while the other is of the constellations.

One of the more curious instruments here is testament to the age’s

driving passion to fathom electricity. The "electrical

machine"

is a mounted wooden wheel with a hand crank that turned a glass globe

against a piece of cloth.

In the home, an electric machine’s static charge would be made to

travel down a metal rod to "shock" someone’s waiting arm,

or ignite a flask of alcohol as seen here in a French print of the

1700s.

In a lab, electrical machine charges could be stored in the displayed

battery of glass Leyden jars, named for the German city where they

were developed in the mid-1700s, and used to experiment with magnetic

attraction and repulsion.

Top Of Page
Electricity & Medicine

Many natural philosophers also sought a medical role

for electricity, text accompanying the exhibit explains. They believed

that the body’s own electrical impulses could be manipulated through

manufactured charges, or that electricity might be harnessed to help

disperse the airborne "miasmas" then thought to cause disease.

Indeed, Philadelphia’s Ebenezer Hazard, the secretary of The Insurance

Company of North America, claimed in 1793 that the proliferating use

of the lightning rod — invented by Philadelphia’s most illustrious

merchant-savant — was drawing off too many naturally-occurring

electrical charges. (A 1753 edition of "Poor Richard’s

Almanack"

on display contains the first published ad for lightning rods.) Hazard

reasoned that the rods might be preventing the disinfecting,

miasma-dispersing

effects of thunder, and thus be helping to spread disease.

Further, "it is well known," reads an ad here from the 1800s,

"that wherever any disease becomes epidemic, there is no Ozone

in the atmosphere." The illustrated American Ozone Generator can,

the sheet continues, control scarletina, cholera, and yellow fever,

and is available for sick rooms in two sizes, one for $3.50 and the

other for $5.

While the instruments are quaint, the need to fight disease was not.

Before the role of microbes in disease was discovered, the medical

profession — which relied on herbal remedies as well as leeches,

purging, and bleeding — was desperate to halt the epidemics that

swept through cities, killing thousands of residents in a matter of

weeks.

One displayed broadside for two of Philadelphia’s biggest parishes

records the number of baptisms and burials between Christmas Day 1797

and Christmas Day 1798, when more than 3,500 souls perished from

yellow

fever.

That ghastly year followed the epidemic in 1793, when more than 5,000

Philadelphians — out of 45,000 residents — succumbed to the

disease. A small publication on display illuminates the racism that

attended the epidemic. Written in 1794 by Absalom Jones and Richard

Allen, two of the city’s African-American leaders, the pamphlet

carries

this lengthy title, "Narrative of the Proceeding of the Black

People during the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia in the year

1793 and A Refutation of Some Censures Thrown Upon Them in Some Late

Publications."

It answers charges made by Mathew Carey in his "Short Account

of the Malignant Fever," which accused Philadelphia’s black

community

of profiteering from the epidemic by earning money as nurses and

pallbearers.

Believed to be immune to yellow fever, the city’s African-Americans

had nursed the sick and buried the dead. Their "immunity"

was of course a delusion, and while 17,000 white Philadelphians fled

the city (escaping the infected mosquitoes actually spreading the

virus), the city’s black citizens stayed — so Jones and Allen

wrote — and died in droves.

Learning how to fight disease would not only save lives, the exhibit

makes clear. It would also boost commercial success in a nation eager

to do business. On display is a letter dated 1806 in Thomas

Jefferson’s

tiny, meticulous hand to Caspar Wistar, a prominent Philadelphia

physician

and grandson of the famous glassmaker of the same name.

Jefferson is sending by ship, he writes, a wooden press (one is

displayed)

that when filled with hydrochloric acid may prove to be a powerful

disinfectant. Wistar should engage Society members to experiment with

it to see if the device could disinfect ships from infected ports.

If successful, the process would allow ships to avoid quarantine —

and prove to be, wrote Jefferson, "invaluable to our

commerce."

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In the Counting House

If scientific instruments were valued in the young

nation’s

homes and observatories, they were essential to American business.

The early Republic, text explains, lacked basic commercial standards:

There was no official currency, for instance, nor common units to

measure cloth. Congress needed to vote standard measurements into

law — and craftsmen had to build and use instruments accurate

enough to support the nation’s economy.

Sextants — there are two here from the 1800s — helped ships

steer a brisk and more profitable course. (One box sextant on display

is believed to have accompanied Robert Peary on his expeditions to

the North Pole between 1886 and 1902.)

The displayed bathometer helped sound waters’ depth in rivers and

along the coast, making it possible to fully develop America’s sea-

and river ports. (Depth information was also used against Southern

ports in the Civil War.)

The theodolites and compasses — including Rittenhouse’s own

surveyor’s

compass — illustrate the young nation’s intense need to build

roads, draw maps, and carve wilderness into parcels of property. Also

displayed are the surveying tools used in 1763 by Royal Surveyor

Charles

Mason and Jeremiah Dixon to help resolve one of the colonies’

bitterest

disputes. The two spent four years laying out the line that bears

their names, surveying all but 36 miles of the Pennsylvania-Maryland

border when they were stopped by the presence of "hostile

tribes."

The hydrometers on exhibit were developed to gauge the relative

density

of liquids. Shopkeepers in the late 1700s used them to determine the

proof of alcohol, the purity of sugar and salt, and the potency of

drugs.

And scientific instruments were especially needed to ensure the value

of money. Here is one other instrument crafted by the versatile

Rittenhouse:

the balance he built and brought with him when, in 1792, he became

the first director of the U.S. Mint. He used it to verify that each

new penny held the same amount of copper, while each new dime

contained

the same measure of silver.

When the nation’s capital moved to Washington, D.C., in the 1790s,

Philadelphia’s political clout began to wane. Government functions,

and the scientific instruments that made them possible, shifted south,

and by 1850, the APS was being eclipsed by the newly-established

Smithsonian

Institute and others.

The Society remained an organization of elected members, falling on

some hard times in the next 150 years. Its library — which houses

Jefferson’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence and

a vast collection of Franklin’s papers — has remained a great

resource for scholars, and the Society continues to hold symposia

and award fellowship grants.

The APS still boasts of many luminaries among its more than 800

elected

members, including Princeton resident Toni Morrison, I.M. Pei, Yo-Yo

Ma, Marian Wright Edelman, Walter Cronkite, Nelson Mandela, and former

president Jimmy Carter. In the 20th century, more than 200 Society

members received the Nobel Prize.

"From the Laboratory to the Parlor" was a long time coming,

but certainly worth the wait. It is hoped, the Society won’t wait

another 190 years to share its outstanding collection — and its

very useful knowledge — with us all.

From the Laboratory to the Parlor: Scientific Instruments

in Philadelphia, 1750-1875, The American Philosophical

Society,

105 South 5th Street (next to Independence Hall), Philadelphia,

215-440-3400.

Open Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. (at other

times by appointment), to March, 2003. Free.

Top Of Page
In the Museums

Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum , Cadwalader Park,

609-989-3632.

"Artsbridge to Trenton," an invitational exhibition by members

of Artsbridge, a New Hope and Lambertville artists’ organization.

Exhibiting artists include Paul Matthews, Gail Bracegirdle, Vincent

Ceglia, Joy Kreves, George Radeschi, and Tomi Urayama. Open Tuesday

through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. To February

24.

Michener Art Museum , 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown,

215-340-9800. "Stylish Hats: 200 Years of Sartuorial Sculpture,

a multitude of high-style creations that reflect the changing fashions

of designer hats from 1780 to 1970; to April 14. Open Tuesday to

Friday,

10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and

Wednesday

evenings to 9 p.m. $6.

Zimmerli Art Museum , George and Hamilton streets, New

Brunswick, 732-932-7237. "The Baltics: Nonconformist and Modernist

Art During the Soviet Era," major survey of modernist art produced

in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during the post-World War II Soviet

period. The show features 150 works from the Zimmerli’s Dodge

Collection.

To March 17. Also "The Victor Weeps: Photographs by Fazal Sheikh

of Afghan Refugees, 1996-98;" to March 31. "St. Petersburg,

1921," to March 10. "Efim Ladyzhensky," to July 31.

Museum hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.;

Saturday

and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Admission $3 adults; under 18 free; museum

is open free to the public on the first Sunday of every month.

Spotlight

tours every Sunday at 2 and 3 p.m.

Firestone Library, Milberg Gallery , Princeton University,

609-258-3184. "Not for Myself Alone: A Celebration of

Jewish-American

Writers," the debut show for the Leonard L. Milberg ’53 Collection

of Jewish-American Writers that ranges from the early 19th century

to the present day and includes Yiddish-language writers as well as

writers in English. A two-volume catalog accompanies the exhibition.

Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and

Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. To April 21.

The exhibit includes manuscripts, such as a draft of a poem by Stanley

Kunitz, letters by Hannah Arendt, Nathanael West, Clifford Odets,

Lionel Trilling and Susan Sontag, and photographic portraits of the

writers.


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