Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 710:
FRANKLIN AND MESMER

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 710.

Today, Ben Franklin will not be Mesmerized. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

It's 1784 in Paris. A Royal Commission submits its report on Mesmerism. The report is a masterpiece of clean, rational, scientific analysis. But then, look who wrote it!

The Chairman of the committee is our ambassador to France, Ben Franklin. He's the reigning expert on electricity. Here's the French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier. He first isolated oxygen. Ten years later he'll lose his head on the guillotine. The guillotine's inventor, Dr. Guillotin, is also on the committee.

For six years, Franz Mesmer has swept Parisian society with his magnetic and hypnotic cures. He's formed a theory of "animal magnetism." Illness occurs when the flow of our natural electromagnetic force becomes blocked. The wealthy flock to Mesmer's salon to be cured by magnetic fluxes.

Mesmer is a German who came to Paris in 1778. He'd been a close friend of Mozart's. In fact, we find Mozart using Mesmer's magnets to cure one of his characters in Così Fan Tutte.

Now these rationalists put Mesmer under their lens. Stephen Jay Gould tells us they know they can't look at animal magnetism directly. Mesmer claims it has no material properties.

Nor can they study Mesmer's cures. No doubt he cured many people just by keeping them out of 18th-century doctors' hands. What they can do is look for the effects of animal magnetism.

So they replicate Mesmer's sessions -- over and over. Franklin, Lavoisier, and the rest sit for 2½ hours at a time around a container filled with magnetized rods. Like Mesmer, they play eerie music on a glass armonica. The glass harmonica, ironically enough, was something that Franklin had developed.

Still, this strict and sober adherence to the ritual fails to cure Franklin's gout -- or any other illness in the committee.

Mesmer also made his cures available to the public. He claimed to've magnetized certain trees in Paris. You can cure yourself by hugging them. So they take a Mesmer disciple to five such trees at Franklin's home. He embraces one at a time. At the fourth he falls in a swoon. But they've tricked him. They've applied magnets only to the last tree, the one the man never reached.

These rationalists finally did Mesmer in. Yet they didn't end the belief that drove the fad. How could they? We know perfectly well there's more to healing than rational science can tell us.

Who on that committee could've foreseen the magnetic dimension of modern scanners? What modern doctor knows the dimensions, yet unseen, of future healing? In the end, we catch a glimpse of Mesmer's ghost -- riding in laser beams, X-rays, and ultra-sound.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Gould, S.J., The Chain of Reason Versus the Chain of Thumbs. Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991, Chapter 12.

Some time after I did this episode I learned from William Wilde Zeitler who made the point that Ben Franklin's glass armonica was not to be confused with the familiar mouth harmonica, which wasn't invented until after Franklin's death. The glass armonica is a kind of mechanization of the old trick of producing different tones by rubbing the rims of wine glasses filled to different depths. Glass armonica player Zeitler offers a fine website in which he describes the instrument and its history in some detail:
http://www.glassarmonica.com/
I subsequently found Franklin's original letter describing this remarkable instrument, in his 1769 book on electricity, and did Episode 1386. Zeitler also includes a complete transcript of Franklin's letter.




The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.