‘Electrick Communication everywhere’

Jenny Wilkes

As part of the York Festival of Ideas, last week CECS held a pair of public lectures titled “‘Electrick communication everywhere’: Order and chaos in the arts and sciences”. The lectures explored connections between the arts and sciences in the Romantic period.

poster 1 festival of ideasThe first lecture was ‘Transpennine Enlightenment: The collision of mind with mind in the North 1760 to 1830’ by Jon Mee. Jon explored the increasing popularity of literary and philosophical societies during the period, with a particular focus on those in Manchester, Newcastle and York. Rather than thinking of these societies in terms of the binary relationship between the arts and sciences, Jon argued that it would be more helpful to think about how they engaged in different modes of knowledge production, namely lectures, libraries (or ‘repositories of books’), and conversation (or ‘collision of mind with mind’). Societies often felt that conversation was more conducive, and inclusive, to learning than passive, solitary reading. But during this period, the relationship between these different modes was often fraught with tension. So when the founder of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, William Turner, became concerned that the society would become a mere ‘repository of books’, he created a club within a club for the purpose of literary conversation. Paradoxically, his attempt to increase engagement had to come about by excluding others.

poster 2 festival of ideasThe second lecture was by Mary Fairclough, titled ‘Electrical itinerants: Science, showmanship and sedition 1745-1830’. Mary talked about the itinerant lecturer Adam Walker (1730/1-1821). A self-taught man, he spent some years as a teacher in Manchester, before buying a set of scientific apparatus and taking it on tour. Mary’s talk focused on his time in York, where he lived for several years in the 1770s. From a series of newspaper advertisements we got a glimpse of his captivating lectures. For the sum of one guinea (“Ladies half a guinea”), audiences were treated to a course of lectures illustrated by a dizzying array of apparatus: these included globes, spheres, centrifugal machines, a ‘thunder house’, and Walker’s own invention, the celestina, “which has all the Perfection of the Organ, Harpsichord, Piano-Forte, Harmonica or Viol d’Amour”. As Mary showed, lectures such as Walker’s were a popular mixture of science and spectacle, between the known and the unknown, at the very forefront of new discovery.

Both of last week’s lectures provided a wonderful insight into an electrifying period of social and political change, and the new ways in which people began to think about science, the arts, communication, and education.

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