The apparatuses of science, entertainment and belief in colonial Australia

The paper I read and powerpoint I showed at the conference Imagineers in Circus and Science: Scientific Knowledge and Creative Imagination, ANU, 3-5 April, convened by Dr Anna-Sophie Jürgens

Introduction

The 1870s was a big decade for the colony of Victoria. The money flowing from the gold fields had led to rapid growth in its size and sophistication. By the early 1870s passengers could reach Melbourne from England in as little as two months, and Morse code messages could be relayed from London in just seven hours. Victorian colonists were feeling themselves more connected to the rest of the world than ever before. They too were part of the tension between traditional religion and the great scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century. They too craved novelty and modern experience. But their place in the world meant that they engaged with these ideas in ways that were distinctly their own. During the decade three events cast emerging ideas of ‘science’, ‘belief’, ‘entertainment’ and ‘technology’ into new configurations for the colonists of Victoria.

Spiritualism

Modern Spiritualism, the belief that human personality survived beyond death and that the dead could communicate with the living, was an integral part of the general foment of 1870s Victoria. It was part of the broader Free Thought movement, reconciling the terrifying divisions that seemed to be opening up between religion and science.

In the powerful experience of the séance the Spiritualist believer, suffering from what psychologists would now call apophenia, or cognitive confirmation bias, was gradually enmeshed into a seductive relationship with a ‘medium’, who used techniques of misdirection learnt from stage magic to convince them of what they wanted to believe — that their dead could return to them.

In 1870 William Terry opened a shop as a bookseller, Spiritualist medium, and magnetic healer. Customers could buy imported herbs for the ailments which Terry had clairvoyantly diagnosed, they could buy the latest copies of spiritualist journals and pamphlets published in Australia or imported from the US and the UK, and they could buy factual evidence of Spiritual truths in the form of carte de visite spirit photographs.

Spiritualists thought they were at the forefront of progress, leading the way for the rest of the world. They embraced rational scientific methods, which they thought were equivalent to the methods that were leading to the other great technological breakthroughs of the age. Terry claimed that:

spiritual intercourse can be proved as conclusively as telegraphic communication, postal delivery, or any other fact know to one section of the world’s inhabitants, and not to others.

In late 1873 visitors to Terry’s shop may have perused the latest copy of the London magazine The Spiritualist and read that the medium Florence Cook, a young girl of 17, had produced what was known as a ‘full body materialization’ of the spirit Katie King. Florence materialized the Spirit at a séance while supposedly entranced and tied to a chair in a curtained-off cabinet. On 7 May the spirit was photographed by the ignition of magnesium powder. The Spiritualist reproduced an engraving produced directly from one of the photographs. The magazine advised its readers:

The efforts of the experimentalists have been successful, and the large engraving […] is about a faithful a copy as wood-cutting can give […] In the photograph itself the features are more detailed and beautiful, and there is an expression of dignity and ethereality in the face, which is not fully represented in the engraving, which, however, has been executed as nearly as possible with scientific accuracy, by an artist of great professional skill.

There was at least one enthusiastic Melbourne reader of this amazing account. He was William Denovan, a successful gold miner, parliamentarian and chairman of a séance circle in Bendigo called The Energetic Circle. There were many séances held in the goldfields during this period. They successfully produced Spiritualistic phenomena because, it was reasoned, the deposits of quartz running underground along the veins of gold were acting as crystal concentrators for spiritual forces.

As the Energetic Circle held hands, prayed, and sung hymns, they slowly began to experience more and more manifestations of spirit communication. After a period, the male medium began to levitate, they smelled delicious perfume, felt cool breezes, and spirit lights appeared. Then the sitters began to brushed by spirit lips and spirit hands, then they began to see disembodied arms. Then, finally, in June 1874, the Bendigo female medium fully materialized the beautiful spirit Katie King, almost a year after she had been photographed in London. She stood in the middle of the séance room illuminated only by the dying embers of the fire, and clothed head to foot in ‘robes of white muslin or gauze’. Denovan marveled how:

… those who saw the face of Katie King on Sunday evening state that she wore a turban on her head just as she appears in the photograph of her published in the London Spiritualist of the 15th of May 1873. […] The face appeared to some of swarthy colour, to others fair, with fair hair, and parted down the middle; but to me it appeared copper coloured, with drapery round it and over the head similar to the photograph of Mrs MacDougal Gregory, of London, and her spirit sister. […] as [Katie] made herself visible to all present — distinctly and unmistakably visible — all became deeply impressed, and several sobbed audibly. None who were present will ever forget what they saw on this occasion, and the feeling of solemnity and awe to which the sight gave rise, and all inwardly offered up their thanks to Almighty God for his goodness in thus having by his great natural laws vouchsafed to them by positive demonstration, the reality of another life. It was a solemn yet joyous moment never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it. And it is just the beginning.

But Denovan and his circle hadn’t only witnessed a modern miracle, they had witnessed it in Bendigo. The Spirit of Katie had instantaneously travelled to where the mediumistic power was concentrated. Denovan declared:

I have now the satisfaction of informing you that we have no need to go to England or America to see the spirits in mortal from, as they are here in our midst.

To you or I, the fact that the materializations in Bendigo wore the same style of drapery as seen in the photographs and magazines sold in Terry’s shop may be evidence that the huckster mediums were simply copying the photographs. But to the Spiritualist believers it was corroborative. It was powerful proof that it was the actual Katie King they were seeing, who was able to travel from a séance in London to a séance in Bendigo even faster than an electric telegraph message.

While these extraordinary Bendigo visions were being reported, a new spirit photograph was also being discussed in Melbourne. The Melbourne Spiritualist Dr Walter Lindesay Richardson had attended a photographic séance in London. He wrote back to Victoria:

… a draped figure projected itself beside my likeness. I send you specimens. During the process [the photographer] afforded me every facility for scrutiny, allowing me to clean the glasses myself, to follow them through several stages, and to see them developed.

Terry tried to wrap his head around exactly what he was seeing:

… a Gothic chair is standing before the sitter with its back in close proximity to his knees; a female figure which is kneeling in front of him seems to permeate the chair, portions of the chair being visible through the form, as though the matter of the chair offered no obstruction to the more refined material of the Spirit form

So, this form must be a transition stage to full materialization.

As far as we understand it, the Materialized Spirit form which appears on these occasions, is a condensation of sublimated matter, brought about by a scientific process known to Spirits who have studied Chemistry. The power used is Electricity, brought to bear through the magnetic emanations of the Medium.

Professor Pepper’s Scientific Festivals

One of the major figures of the London entertainment scene was Professor Henry Pepper who had become synonymous with the popular Royal Polytechnic Institution. In the 1850s and 60s Pepper developed a spectacular lecturing style incorporating many new ‘scientific’ entertainments that demonstrated the principals of physics, chemistry and optics, while also feeding the audience’s appetite for illusion, wonder, and even the occult.

At the Polytechnic he patented an illusion that directly fed into the public’s appetite for gothic and spiritualist effects. The ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ illusion required the use of a new technology developed for shop windows, plate glass, and a magic lantern. The angled glass reflected a concealed figure brightly lit against a black background, while the audience could still see the scene behind the glass. As the original inventor of the illusion said:

Mesmerism throughout all its harlequinade, down to its present disguise under spiritualism or spirit rapping … has never had nerve enough or nous enough to produce such thorough full-length ghosts as are now every day to be seen.

Pepper’s Ghost was both a theatrical illusion and a scientific curiosity at the same time. In one of the first illustrations of the illusion Professor Pepper himself stands off to one side, observing the materialization with cool detachment. Pepper was therefore caught in a paradox. He needed to protect the secret of his illusions to maintain audience interest, but to also be a ‘scientific’ professor he needed, at some point, to explain the scientific principles behind the illusion.

Pepper eventually left the Polytechnic, but increasingly found it hard to get audiences. There was even criticism of what had come to be seen as his ‘ponderous and didactic’ delivery style. He developed another mirror illusion, the Metempsychosis. But even this wasn’t enough to revive Pepper’s flagging British career so, in 1879, he decided to lecture in Australia.

He arrived with ‘a large amount of scientific exhibition apparatus and full staff of professional assistants’. ‘Pepper’s Scientific Festival’, billed as an ‘ILLUSORY ENTERTAINMENT’ featured all of his Polytechnic hits, with the added excitement of an electric light. Like the many other touring celebrities, Pepper’s fame preceded him. Shortly after his arrival, Melbourne’s St Georges Hall was crammed with people ‘evidently anxious to hear the wonders of Nature unfolded and explained by the lecturer, who for more than a quarter of a century has amused and at the same time instructed thousands in London.’ Unlike in London, where his oratorical style had seemed ponderous and didactic, in Melbourne, ‘[h]is luminous and genial mode of elucidating the various phenomena which he exhibited rendered the lecture a genuine treat.’

Judging by newspaper reviews, for his new audiences Pepper was able to rebalance the tension between ‘illusion to entertain’ and ‘illusion to demonstrate scientific truths’. On the one hand ‘one might be tempted to believe that he possessed supernatural powers’. On the other hand ‘[he] is a man of science [who recognises] that the time has passed when the secrets of nature were explained only in the cloister’.

Some even recognized that Pepper’s doubling of the idea of ‘the marvelous’ could be a weapon against the errors of Spiritualism. The journalist Marcus Clarke wrote:

[A]mid the nonsense being talked and written on all sides concerning “Spiritualism” and miraculous intervention, it might be a good thing if the Government would suffer the children it educates to see some of the marvels which can be produced by human ingenuity. A course of Pepper would give a tone to the youthful stomach, and brace it to the withstanding of tales of dancing tables and hovering apparitions of dead children.

Conversazioni

Pepper’s arrival was greeted with well-orchestrated fanfare. However, the press noted:

Not that we have no scientific men amongst us; on the contrary, they are as plentiful as in other civilized lands; but our scientists have neither the time nor the opportunity of coming before the public as Professor Pepper does in the cause of natural philosophy.

This comment must have come as an insult to the Royal Society of Victoria, which had in fact been promoting science to the public since the early 1870s. They had even held a ‘conversazione’ a year before Pepper arrived. Conversazioni were mixtures of entertainment and education, where gentlemen and ladies could promenade, have hands-on interactions with new technologies, listen to lectures, and talk to individual ‘proficients’ who were drawn from science, academia, government and commerce.

At each conversazione the President of the Royal Society summed up the previous year’s progress in colonial science. In 1878 he commented on the pace of technological change:

In my last address I referred […] to the then recent invention of the telephone. Since then this wonderful little instrument has been greatly improved, and is now in actual use in Melbourne, not only as a scientific toy, but as a means of communication. We had no sooner become familiar with the telephone than we were astounded by accounts of a still more wonderful apparatus, the ‘phonograph’, […] Still later we heard of the ‘microphone’ […] although their practical applications are as yet limited, there can be but little doubt that they will eventually become of great value […].

Two years later he noted approvingly that the sophistication of the colonists was keeping pace with this heady technological change:

… the subject of science attracts in this community the same keen attention, and is pursued with the same ardour, given to it in all intelligent communities. We are at least able to show that the intellect of the colony perceives the importance of scientific investigation; that the Government and the public are liberal in its support …

But people went to conversazioni to see inventions. In 1878 a phonograph played Rule Britannia and He’s a Jolly Good Fellow which ‘sounded as if it was being sung by an old man of 80 with a cracked voice.’

The phoneidoscope reproduced the vibrations of words sung into its mouthpiece as an ‘an endless variety of exquisite designs, resembling those observed in the ordinary kaleidoscope’, on a film of soap water and glycerine.

The microphone, powered by a galvanic battery, amplified the sounds of a telephone so that a ‘[t]he ticking of a watch could be heard at the other end of the room.’ Ammonia gas was liquefied under pressure, and microscopes showed rock sections, algae and invertebrates from across the colony, while the siren produced ‘melancholy and discordant’ sounds throughout the night.

In his address the President of the Society had speculated about the future offered by these inventions. But, once they had tried them themselves, the ordinary visitor to the conversazione found they could speculate about the future just as well as he could. The ‘remarkable nature’ of the displays ‘was productive of much wonderment’, but they also ‘gave rise to varied speculation as to their ultimate development’.

1000 people, including many ladies, attended the 1879 conversazione. An Edison phonograph was displayed, and a working printing press. But the magic lantern was the central apparatus. Amongst other things, the magic lantern showed some striking experiments with vortex rings and astronomical views.

Many of the ladies and gentlemen caught in the newspaper illustrations of 1880 look remarkably contemporary, like customers at an Apple Store Genius Bar, as they confidently manipulate the various devices on offer. Technology had gone from ‘philosophical toy’ to ‘personal device’

Conclusion

The people in these three case studies thought they had very little in common with each other. Although he flirted with the occult, Professor Pepper ultimately regarded the Spiritualists as gullible dupes. He and his audience knew that his illusions were just that — illusions — and that if he chose to, he could scientifically explain how they were created. If you had asked them, the members of the Royal Society would have most probably looked down on Pepper’s broadly popular audience. To these middle class consumers of knowledge, science didn’t need Professor Pepper’s carnival effects. To them the effects of science were being felt in the actual utilitarianness of its inventions, which were usefully recording invisible phenomena such as sound or performing real actions at a distance.

At face value these three case studies could therefore be seen to be following a familiar developmental trajectory: from the observer being tricked by hucksters into believing something that isn’t true, and in any case is no longer necessary; to observers willing ‘suspending disbelief’ for the duration of a scientific entertainment, and experiencing an occult illusion in order to have it deconstructed into its scientifically knowable components; to, finally, observers becoming individual operators of new technologies, and rehearsing their forthcoming role as consumers of technological devices as future customers of Bell Telephones, IBM, and Apple.

It is tempting to see a millennium’s worth of progress refracted into the decade. But although we can easily arrange these case studies into a single developmental line, we can also arrange them into at least two different constellations that are perhaps more illuminating.

The first constellation is phenomenological. Although there are epistemological differences between the three case studies, there are also deep phenomenological similarities. There is an identical sensation of science that persists through the arc of progress. Through seeing Spirits with their own eyes, and then correlating their vision with the photographic proofs sent from England, the Spiritualists knew the truth of Spirit return. Through having their eyes willingly ‘tricked’ by Pepper’s machinery and then being shown how it ‘really’ worked, attendees at Pepper’s shows felt they knew a little bit more about the nature of light and reflection. By placing their mouth to the mouthpiece, or their ear to the earpiece, or their eye to the eyepiece, and then seeing, hearing or feeling the invisible, conversazioni participants felt the future enter their own bodies.

In each case a single observer is instantiated as the ground for belief and understanding. To reach forward into a future where they would routinely converse with the dead, as the Spiritualists expected; or routinely call each other up on the telephone, as visitors to the conversazioni expected, each visitor was asked to stand on no other evidential ground than themselves. But in each case, the human test subject of perception is only instantiated through, and within, the apparatus.

The second constellation is geographical. It interests me that all of the experiences from my three case studies are in some sense ‘airy’. They happen up in the air in some virtual space in front of the observer, which is sort of still ‘in Victoria in the 1870s’, but sort of ‘all over the world’ as well. And all of my examples — spirit materializations, wonderful illusions straight from London, telephones, microphones and phonographs — collapse time and space. Although they were seven hours ‘behind’ via the telegraph, or two months ‘behind’ by ship, in some sense these colonial audiences were ‘ahead’ of the rest of the world in this new experience of the globe. I think that the experiences of instantaneity, simultaneity, immediacy and proximity were more powerful for colonial audiences, who were part of the same currents of modernity as everyone else, but who joined hands in Bendigo, or bought a ticket to St Georges Hall or attended a conversazione, in Melbourne, at the outer edge of the modern world itself.

Martyn Jolly