Smoke stacks spewing hydrogen chloride gas into the air

Day 4: Chemistry and the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution is often associated with James Watt’s work on the engine and nineteenth century advances in physics.  However, the chemical industry was a very visible, economically important part of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Research into the production of alkalis, analins, and phosphates produced a vast array of chemical bleaches and dyes and also fertilizers.  The unintended consequences of this research included the accidental discovery of aspirin but also widespread pollution in cities that were growing faster than ever before.  Through growth, modernization, and consolidation chemical conglomerates like ICI, Dow, Bayer,  BASF, and IG Farben emerged as some of the largest and most powerful companies in the world at the turn of the 20th century.  The chemicals produced by these companies would fuel the Chemist’s War.


  •  Read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for Monday.
  • In preparation for tomorrow, I want you to read a primary source on Galvanic electricity.  Rather than reading Galvani (which is in Italian), I have chosen an English presentation of Galvani’s work.  This is an appendix to George Adams’s 1799 text, An Essay on Electricity.  The appendix was added by the editor as a sort of value added extension on animal electricity.  Please read this and bring a copy to discuss tomorrow in class.
  • In the comment section below, provide one thing you found interesting about the electricity reading and one question that you have about the reading, the source, or the concept of animal electricity.

15 thoughts on “Day 4: Chemistry and the Industrial Revolution”

  1. One thing I found interesting about the reading is that they really don’t seem to know WHAT electricity is. They speak of artificial electricity, atmospheric electricity, and animal electricity; I never thought that people would consider them to be fundamentally different. However, while reading the essay, I got an idea as to why they might think that way.
    One question I did have was when he referred to the involuntary muscles and electrical stimulation; he says that only the heart would respond to a stimulus as far as involuntary muscles go, but is that true? If so, how did they determine this?

  2. What I found interesting about this article is that while it is explaining how varying amounts of electricity produce different results in the animal’s convulsions, the article really seems to focus on what it takes to make a complete circuit. To me it seemed like they were more fascinated on how they could set up the experiment in different ways to produce similar results, rather than focusing on what exactly is happening to make the muscles contract. One question that I had was how exactly they could attempt to control their experiment using the form of a lightening rod to conduct electricity. They seemed to be interested in natural rather than created electricity had a different effect, but were they able to measure the strength of the natural electricity that the used?

  3. To be honest, this article grossed me out a bit, and my main question about this article is why? The questions at the end, if answered, can perhaps give more insight into the nervous system, which needs a great deal more study. But the impact on actual electricity? I didn’t see when it was written, so perhaps it was just a new technology the scientists were experimenting with. I really tried to keep an open mind and find something interesting about the article, but it was just not an area that I personally am curious about or interested in.

  4. One thing that I found interesting in this reading was how the scientists could not comprehend why two different metals had to be used to created an electrical flow. It is easy to see that they had no idea what electricity actually was, as these experiments took place about 100 years before the discovery of subatomic particles. One question that I have from the reading is about how the flash phenomenon wasn’t perceived by all of the humans tested. If the main point is that all animals are commonly affected by the application of electricity, then shouldn’t they all have at least similar experiences?

  5. I thought the idea of lightning being used to make a frog leg or something just was interesting. I never thought about using something like that as a method of picking up things like that. I did wonder though if lightning ever hit his little antenna and what that would do to the body part he was testing. It’s not usually a good idea to stick metal poles into the air during a thunderstorm. What I had the most trouble with though was the language he was using. It’s written in a style just different enough that I was having to reread aspects of it.

  6. I as well, found how atmospheric electricity was utilized during the experiments interesting. Also, how further discoveries that were not necessarily related to the actual experiment that was being performed was interesting. As stated in the appendix, how the rumbling noise is “a quick succession of several explosions”. This shows how experiments may, by chance, bring unexpected discoveries. One question that I have is how would experiments like these relate and lead up to human electrocution/execution?

  7. I found it interesting that they designed experiments to test the effects of the electricity on their eye sight. They were measuring effects by the flashes of white light produced when connecting the two different types of metals. If the experimenters did not know what effect would be produced, I don’t understand how they were not afraid of possibly losing their eye sight. My question would be what type of knowledge were they hoping to gain from these eye sight experiments?

  8. My interest was exactly the same as your’s Kanyon. I found it interesting that they were creating a flash of white light by using a circuit that went between their eye and mouth. I also shared your concern at first, cause I know I would not be the one volunteering to have metal placed on my eye to see if it would create a spark. The main question I have isn’t exactly about the article, but actually wondering how long it took before they started using this on live humans to help with sore muscles and muscle injuries? (I assume this is what gave way to the idea of using electrical shock to help with injury recovery)

  9. I found that the use of electricity to make the limbs of animals move was some what interesting. I also though it was interesting that it said that if you put the material like a foil over your eye and a material like a spoon on your tongue you could see a flash of white light. That is something I have never seen,heard ,or read about until now, whether or not it really happens is beyond me, and I would never try to find out on my own. I would like to know how these people came up with the ideas and methods to research these particular experiments and ideas. mainly why did they choose to use frogs to test the affects electricity has on nerves and muscle movement.

  10. I found the reading very informative and descriptive. I thought that it was interesting how the experimenters were very focused on the electricity, and did not focus too much on the physiology of the animals being studied. Although what they discovered with electricity was useful, I feel like they did not take time to answer the questions like what was going on with the muscles, cells, and tissues that allowed the electricity to behave like it did. Although they did ask the questions as to how why the body needed electricity, they didn’t seem to pursue an answer. My question regards the experimentation with eye sight. Exactly why did they decide to do all of the experiments with the eye? I

  11. I found this reading very interesting in the fact that these experiments took place over a 100 years ago. I found the most interesting was how detailed their instructions and diagrams where. It was interesting to see all the intricate tools they used back in the day to get electricity to flow through only the face, eye, or leg. One thing that puzzled me the most was the fact that only a few people would experience the flash sensations while others would not.

  12. I found it interesting how they didn’t seem too hesitant about performing potentially dangerous electrical experiments on living humans. It seems in some of these experiments, they have a charge going through the air, and I would have to assume they’re in the same room observing the experiment, so maybe it doesn’t occur to them that the charge can just as easily go through them as it could the frog?

    One question I would have is how good was their understanding of charges, as in, how even a very minute difference in charge can induce an electrical current, so even the slight difference in charge between two people standing in a room touching the same frog will induce enough current to cause the frog to convulse.

  13. I found the willingness of these experimenters to shock themselves repeatedly just to observe the effects rather fascinating. But I was somewhat unclear about how exactly they were harnessing lightning for their experiments and whether or not it was actually lightening or artificial lightening.

  14. This article is packed with awesome and interesting tests that would have been extremely fun to do when this was ground breaking science. The preparation of the from and the entire general concept is extremely similar to a turtle experiment that I did several years ago in a Physiology class. Perhaps, the most interesting part of the article was when the author began to describe the test that they conducted. Inthe modern era we use terms like 50-mL beaker or Erlynmeyer flask, or perhaps testtube…. They used “wine glass”. I especially loved how the author explained why it was not such a huge thing for the frog to jump completely out of the wine glass. It made me think, did it scare the hell out of them the first time it happened? Did they sit around and do it hundreds of times to justify why it was happening or just because it was so cool?
    Several weeks back, I was watching a TED talk and the gentleman was looking at the true effectiveness of the scientific method and it’s multiple steps. The point of his lecture was that ‘Real Science” was just people screwing around, something cool happened, and they documented the results. I truly envision that this process of “nerve research” was far more enjoyable than the monotanous tests performed by lab assistants of Neis Bohr.

  15. The most interesting thing to me about the article was how the limbs of animals moved differently with the varying degrees of electricity, which seemed to be the main, if not only, area of interest. Animal physiology seemed to take a back seat in favor of writing about electricity. They were willing to basically try anything with it, even to go as far as shocking themselves. One thing I would like to know it how the use of electricity advanced to the point to where it could be used for muscle therapy.

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