Bright sparks of the Enlightenment who enjoyed lodes of pulling power

Fatal Attraction
February 10, 2006

At the beginning of this stylishly written, entertaining little book, the historian of science Patricia Fara makes a thought-provoking observation. Today, everyone knows that electricity and magnetism are closely related phenomena. But in the 17th and 18th centuries, "magnetism and electricity had not been joined together. That happened only in the 19th century" - with the experiments and theories of Michael Faraday in the 1830s and 1840s. Even Sir Isaac Newton contributed little to the explanation of magnetism. When he first grappled with the orbits of comets, Newton favoured a magnetic, rather than a gravitational, force.

Thus Lord Rayleigh, the first British physicist to win a Nobel prize, while lecturing at the Royal Institution on its centenary in 1899, could amuse his glittering audience with a knowing comment on the century-old work of the brilliantly polymathic natural philosopher Thomas Young, one of the many figures discussed by Fara. "(I)t was seldom that he was wrong; but just to show that he was, after all, human, a passage might be quoted from his book" -Young's far-reaching A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts (1807) - "in which he declared that there was no immediate connection between magnetism and electricity!"

Nevertheless, during the Enlightenment, there was money and prestige in magnetism, and Fara weaves together revealing examples of both. The most obvious is the magnetic compass used in navigation, albeit with variable degrees of effectiveness. Compasses, and the strange attractive and repulsive properties of magnetic materials, made lodestones prized by the aristocracy. In 1756, hoping to get her husband elected chancellor of Oxford University by King George II, the Countess of Westmorland presented the Ashmolean Museum with a giant lodestone set in a copper coronet. This bizarre object is now in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford and is one of the many fascinating, little-known illustrations in Fatal Attraction .

Three people dominate the book. Part one, "Halley's holistic hypotheses", describes the life and work of Edmond Halley, now famous for Halley's comet but once celebrated for his maps of terrestrial magnetism and some far-fetched speculations about the Earth's interior. Part two, "Knight's navigational novelties", concerns the career of the little-remembered Gowin Knight, the first principal librarian of the British Museum and an inventor of magnetic devices, who helped to establish the feasibility of science as a salaried profession conducted by "scientists" (a term introduced only in 1833 to describe men such as Faraday). Finally, part three, "Mesmer's magnetic medicine", deals with the so-called animal magnetism of Franz Anton Mesmer, the Viennese physician who "mesmerised" pre-revolutionary France with his magnetic healing powers until he was accused of charlatanry by a commission led by Benjamin Franklin and the chemist Antoine Lavoisier.

All three figures give ample scope to Fara's talent for mixing science with society, and for allowing us to enter the 18th-century world-view, rather than simply enjoying the spectacle of wrong-headed theories ridiculed with the power of 21st-century hindsight. Though she sometimes pokes fun at her subjects, Fara is sparing with her mockery, which makes it both effective and enjoyable. Halley, she says, "conducted the fellows of the Royal Society on a magnetic mystery tour." Knight, though respected, was clearly much disliked at the British Museum, where he lorded it over his staff. "Blocking up the corridor to a museum's lavatory is not the way to win friends and influence people." Mesmer had some genuine insights into his patients' problems but was also a shrewd self-publicist. "Although Mesmer never managed to speak good French, he soon learnt about the psychology of rich Parisians."

My only quibble, apart from the lack of an index, is with the assumption that the early Royal Institution discourses were fashionable for the middle classes. James Gillray's scathing caricature of a discourse on laughing gas by Young and Humphry Davy in 1802 actually shows an audience containing many identifiable members of the upper classes, including the lecturers' unfortunate guinea pig, baronet Sir J.C. Hippisley, a manager of the Royal Institution and a well-known snob.

Andrew Robinson, literary editor of The Times Higher , is the author of The Shape of the World and, most recently, of The Last Man Who Knew Everything , a biography of Thomas Young.

Fatal Attraction: Magnetic Mysteries of the Enlightenment

Author - Patricia Fara
Publisher - Icon Books
Pages - 206
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 1 84046 632 4

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