Travelling Showmen - Electricity, Entertainment, and the Construction of Scientificality

1. Title and Key Words

Travelling Electrifiers - Electricity, Entertainment, and the Construction of Scientificality.
(Episode 5 in the Series - Historical Introduction to Electricity)
Static Electricity, Lichtenberg, Berschitz, Electrifiers, Demonstrations, Scientificality, Scientific Community, Controversy

2. Authors and Institutions

Andreas Henke, University of Bremen, Germany
Dietmar Höttecke, University of Hamburg, Germany

3. Abstract

This case study, on the public performances of travelling showmen in the 18th century, is the fifth in a series on the history of electricity. With the help of this important chapter in the history of electricity, pupils can recreate the processes with which electrical science differentiated itself from ‚unscientific’ professions such as amateur scientists, showmen (’electrifiers’) and instrument makers. Extensive materials, experiments and creative methods such as short demonstrations, pictures or exchanges of correspondance allow pupils to obtain a feeling for the characters of two key figures of the time and the relationship between them. These were the scientist and university professor Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and the famous Martin Berschitz, demonstrator of spectacular electrical performances. This case study allows pupils to glimpse the social organization of the sciences (scientific communities, journals, peer review) and the ways in which it distances itself from other fields The case study presents scientists as people, with understandable motives and sometimes problematic reactions It also shows that the concept of science and scientificality does not fall from heaven, but must constantly reinvent itself through processes of negotiation and demarcation of borders. Together with the Enlightenment and ‚Enlightenment Ideals’ it is thus possible to take an interdisciplinary approach to teaching science.

4. Beschreibung und Ablaufvorschlag

4. Description and Suggested Course of Action

This episode can be utilized for science teaching in multiple ways. Section 7.2 presents various ideas for the methodical realization of this case study, which do not have to be limited to teaching the natural sciences.s Pupils can take on the roles of formerscientists and electrifiers in order to present known phenomena and concepts of electricity to different publics. Here, a deepened understanding of the material can take place in a motivating setting. Space for dealing with topics in science can be arranged as needed – pupils playing the role of scientists should emphasize a scientifically accurate and comprehensible presentation, while those playing electrifiers will emphasize their showmanship as well as trying to make the information as interesting and entertaining as possible.
In addition, working in these roles and with key examples from the controversy around the ‚scientificality’ of physics demonstrations and demonstrators promotes a deeper understanding of the characteristics of scientists and electrifiers. Various sensational experiments are presented in section 7.1, which can be included in the course of the case study. A great deal of visual and text material (Sections 5.1.1-5.1.3) in connection with suggestions for the methodological setup of instruction offer space for the material to be worked on following the wishes and according to the skill level of the pupils.

electrified puppet  headthe electrified bed - medicinal electricitythe electrical kiss (electric venus)shocks against toothache - medicinal  electricity
electrical cannonGeorg Christoph Lichtenbergein elektrisierer bitete kleine elektrische  schläge feilthe flying boy  experiment

ignition through electricity

5. Background

5.1 History

It is important to know that in the beginning of the 18th Century there was a great deal of interest in electrical phenomena. This applied to educated people and researchers as well as the general public, and in reality, one cannot make a clear distinction between these two groups – in those days, research was often carried out as a hobby, side job, or simply to gain prestige. The concept of a scientific community with (relatively) clear rules for obtaining results and a coherent idea of what a scientist is, as an ideal which members of this community sought to achieve, did not yet exist, nor, in this regard, did the profession of scientist as such. The key figures of this time (ca. 1740-1800) are the itinerant demonstrators (electrifiers), local instrument makers, amateur scientists and professors. Prior to this time, experimental physicists hired themselves out as court employees to kings, emperors, or local nobility, conducting prestigious demonstrations.

Who performed where, and how each actor behaved during a particular performance, was dependent on his financial sitution, his appearance, and the social customs and norms of his target audience. The peculiarity that this kind of public science had many faces was instrumentalized by increasing pressure from educated people and members of scientific societies, who sought to improve their image as scientists by differentiation.
As electricity became a fashionable science, some very singular personalities appeared, who decided to improve the legitimacy and the self-image of science by differentiation from other pursuits. These personalities (the ‚other practicioners of natural history) chiefly include the itinerant electrifiers who lived from fascinating the public through electrical demonstrations in marketplaces, at festivals and in lecture halls. This aforementioned differentiation, between scientists and ‚other practicioners,’ was mostly promoted by professors or members of scientific societies or academies who necessarily sought a differentiated explanation of the properties of the‚colleagues from the country road’ or ‚conjurers’, whom they as ‚real scientists’ disdained and attempted to avoid.
Hochadel (1) wrote on the subject:
Which characteristics and skills are ascribed to him (the scientist) that make him ahead of other practicioners of natural history? (...)What manner of behavior and idiosyncrasy disqualify a practicioner from being a scientist? (...)

The fact that electrifiers as a negative example come off badly in the eyes of scientists, shoud be thematized and criticized while using this case study.
An impression of the kinds of spectacular experiments can be given, for example by those conducted by Martin Berschitz:
he carried out experiments with explosions, some of them under water, igniting black powder with help of an electrical spark. Berschitz exploded and sunk a sailboat he had prepared specially for the purpose. In order to show how dangerous lightning is, he used sparks to ignite models of houses or powder towers. Berschitz could not demonstrate the electrical cannon, a favorite toy, where a mixture of explosive gas is ignited by a spark and the explosion shoots out a ball or a cork, since he did not have the equipment or, more importantly, the knowledge for the production of hydrogen. He often asked Lichtenberg to instruct him but Lichtenberg did not allow Berschitz to convince him. For more on the progress and success of his experiments in Kassel in the presence of the sovereign, see
Material I.

5.1.1 G. C. Lichtenberg

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, born in 1742 near Darmstadt, was the seventeenth child of the minister Johann Conrad Lichtenberg. Because of a fall as a small child, Lichtenberg suffered his whole life from a progressive deformity of the spine, leading to a noticeable hunchback and a small overall body size. Later, this deformity also made breathing more and more difficult. Until he was ten years old, he was taught privately at home. He later went to school, graduated in 1761, and from May 1763 until 1766 he studied mathematics, natural history, and astronomy at the University of Göttingen. Until 1774 he conducted astronomical observations at the Observatory in Göttingen.
In 1770 Lichtenberg became professor for Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy at the University of Göttingen, but he first held regular lecures starting in 1776. In his travels in the years between 1770 and 1776 he got to know people who had travelled with James Cook on his sailing trip around the world, and also met important scientists such as James Watt and Joseph Priestley. In 1793 he was named a member of the Royal Society in London.
Lichtenberg dealt with all kinds of scientific themes, including geodesy, meteorology, astronomy, and chemistry. He died on the 24th of February 1799 in Göttingen.

As a teacher the demonstrations during his lessons often were of a similar quality to those of the electrifiers, necessitating that he must always justify his way of experimenting.
„In lectures on experimental physics one must always play a little bit; the sleepy are awakened and the awake see this playfulness as an opportunity to observe things from a different perspective.“

As a researcher - following in the footsteps of Benjamin Franklin - he introduced the concepts of positively and negatively electric into his teaching, and our modern concept of positive and negative electrical charge comes from him.
He developed the so-called electrophorus, a machine containing a reinforced resin plate, that could create very high amounts of charge through induction. In 1777 he discovered star-shaped patterns in the dust on the resin plate, which today are still called Lichtenberg figures. These figures, which appeared in two distinct forms, were the basis for his idea of two different kinds of electricity. He was the first to use Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rods in Göttingen, and was one of the first people in Germany to use them on his garden shed. He nicknamed them ‚terror rods’ (Furchtableiter )

Above and beyond his scientific discoveries, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s critical thought processes and the importance he placed on experimentation in physics makes him one of the most important founders of the modern scientific method:
When through research on nature, experiments and results increase, theories become more and more uncertain. However, it is always good to not immediately give up just because of this. Because every hypothesis that was good serves at the very least to help organize ones results. One should expecially record non fitting results until enough have collected to form a new hypothesis.“

As a writer, Lichtenberg published many small books, starting in 1764 (the so-called. „Sudelbüchern“ ), which contained many sarcastic comments, spontaneous ideas, and scientific observations.
Some examples:
"Since preaching occurs in churches, lightning rods on the roof are not completely unnecessary."
"Nothing is more harmful to scientific progress than when one believes that one knows what one does not not yet know.“
"I believe that there is only one true science in the strictest sense, and that it is pure mathematics. There, we need nothing more than our intellect.“
"The tendency of humans to see small things as important has brought us many great things."
"It is strange that people so like fighting with swords for their religion but at the same time so dislike living according to its instructions."
"Some of the fame of the famous comes from the stupidity of their admirers."

5.1.2 Martin Berschitz

Not much is known about the details of Martin Berschitz’s life except that he was born in 1750 in Vienna and died there some time after 1800. He began his career as an untrained assistant („helper“, as Lichtenberg wrote) in electrical demonstrations at the emperor’s court in Vienna. He announced his retirement publicly in a newspaper announcement in the year 1800, but continued to offer a great deal of his services, as they had become known through his travels – the repair and sale of electrical apparatus o medical-electrical cures.
He is one of the most well known of the electrifiers, above all because of his spectacuar and innovative demonstrations, for which even Lichtenberg recognized his achievements.
Berschitz’s encounter and constant acquaintance with Lichtenberg was not always an advantage for him, even when he profited from Lichtenberg’s recognition and Lichtenberg, at the beginning, was eager to teach him. Lichtenberg wrote:
„All his experiments are ones I have already carried out myself “
Over time, Lichtenberg became, for Berschitz, too self-satisfied, pompous, and dishonest in his behavior, (see: “Honesty“) and Lichtenberg soon stopped answering Berschitz’ In addition, Lichtenberg recommended to the City of Hannover that they should not make themselves ridiculous by installing Berschitz’s lightning rods. Berschitz himself used the same tactic against his competitors in selling lightning rods. (see „Collaboration“).

5.1.3 The Demarcation of Science from Amateurs and Practicioners - Science Against Non-Science

There are many areas in which researchers are different from practical workers, amateurs, and electrifiers. Here is a list of characteristics which researchers use for this differentiation as well as which activities have been used to promote this separation.

Methods of Active Differentiation of Science From Laypeople, Amateurs, and Charlatans
  • Doubting their competence: important tasks (for example lightning rods) are only for experts
  • Ridiculing them as „Technicians“ „Conjurors“ „Charlatans“ „Windbags“ „Vagabonds“
  • Assigning them negative characteristics: greedy, decieving, dishonest, lazy, uneducated, not creative, self-important
  • Preventing their shows: fake leaflets, reporting them to the authorities
  • Avoiding collaboration: no support for electrifiers
  • Scientific Societies
    • Testing candidates before they are permitted to join the societies (for criteria see below)
    • Examining submitted articles and books (spectacular is not enough)
    • List of „noble“ works
    • Bad reviews of „unimportant“ works

Possible Criteria for Demarcation – who belongs and who does not
  • Title, degree, recommendation, fame
  • Education and length of time doing research
  • Theoretical knowledge (skilled at handicrafts is not enough)
  • Settledness (no travelling demonstrators)
  • Places where lectures are held
  • Audience
  • Style of lectures /behavior
  • Honesty
  • Enlightenment (no magic or similar mumbo-jumbo)
  • Openess (no secretiveness about instruments and research)
  • General usefullness (not just for entertainment, but also practical use)
  • New knowledge about nature

The Ideal Scientist
Further properties appear again and again in the description of the ideal scientist. For the electrifier, this list must have looked like an insult, since it contained all the things he could not do.
A real scientist:
  • has good skills of observation
  • learns quickly
  • has an eye for the big picture
  • is perserverant
  • does not get easily frustrated
  • behaves in a calm and reserved way

The Science Police
In order to discern themselves from all practitioners who do not fulfill the criteria of scientificality, those who see themselves as real scientists act quickly:

  • Scientists such as Lichtenberg recommended not using lightning rods sold by those who did not fully understand the the field: „such people cannot be responsible for the protection of public buildings and powder magazines. Instead, one should seek advice from those have completed an appropriate course of study in electricity.“ (that is, real scientists)
  • Lichtenberg often ridiculed electrifiers:
 they are“ ...wandering physicists, who should be called, in analogy to street musicians, the buskers of science.
  • Since scientists saw their reputation as being endangered by the electrifiers, they turned to using trickery:
Lichtenberg hung up fake announcement flyers for electrifiers, which promised completely unbelievable performances (for example the severing of heads which would then be reattached with the help of electricity). The electrifiers, who were thus seen as ridiculous, could not perform again in that city..
  • Researchers came together in scientific societies – in order to be a member of such a society, a scientist first needed the recommendation of colleagues and then the approval of the heads of the society
  • The amateur scientists and electrifiers felt excluded and ignored by the presumptuous scientists: „everywhere I found disbelief in my profession, and the more learned and well-known the men were, the more unfriendly the resistance was.
  • The members of the scientific societies set the standards for their publications higher and higher and refused to print articles of „lesser importance.“ Articles about particularly spectacular experiments which contained no new scientific knowledge were rejected. („whoever seeks amusement here will not find it“)
  • In order to make the task of finding important articles and books easier, lists were published, such as the „Directory of the Most Distinguished Writings on Electricity“. Authors did not want to be connected with the recommendation of a non scientific work, even at the expense of friendship: „Despite our good relations, he did not even do me the kindness of mentioning my contribution in the latest edition of his list.“
  • Contributions from amateur scientists or electrifiers which were published in other books or journals were shamelessly put down. The reason: „even when they are nothing but the worst „babble“ it is necessary to write and warn people about them, since they are directed at the world at large and can cause a great deal of damage.“ For example, the minister and self-taught electrical researcher Gottlieb Christoph Bohnenberger had to give up the printing and sale of his journal „Contributions on theoretical and practical electrical training“ because of bad reviews based on missing theoretical knowledge and limited importance of the printed articles. The reviews were mostly anonymously written by physics professors – Lichtenberg also headed such a journal for some time and could thus reject many articles.

An Exaggerated Representation of the Difference Between Electrifiers and Scientists from the Point of View of the Scientists


  • The entry price for the demonstrations carried out by scientists were quite high. Thus only well-off people could afford to attend. Lectures usually had to be booked in advance and as a whole series.
  • The entry price for the demonstrations carried out by electrifiers were moderate, so that many people could afford to attend. Watching a show in the marketplace or allowing oneself to be electrified was affordable for everyone. (see Figure V)

  • Scientists had Laboratories and lecture halls in their city, and often also their own instrument makers and assistants available at all times
  • Electrifiers often travelled around for decades at a time and conducted their demonstrations or lectures in many different places. They appeared in marketplaces, parks or fields, streets, churches, etc – thus they always needed approval from the city authorities.
  • Over time professors offered longer and longer lecture series in which the experiments were presented with an overarching theoretical connection between them. They attempted to present and explain all known electrical phenomena. Demonstrations were merely a break between educational components of a lecture. As 
Lichtenberg wrote: "a physics experiment that makes noise is worth much more than a quiet one."
  • The demonstrations carried out by electrifiers were one-time occurrences and lasted a few hours at the most. In marketplaces, these were often short ‚shows’ or the entertaining demonstration, for money, of single devices. They often contained only single, unconnected exhibits and only few principles or phenomena were covered.
  • In scientific lectures or demonstrations, the audience were curious based on their thirst for knowledge; they were often learned colleagues of the scientists presenting who sought to prepare their own experiments and update their own research with the latest information.
  • The audience for electrifiers’ demonstrations sought entertainment, astonishment, or just wanted to pass time. They had no deeper or broader interest in connections, causes, or scientific theories. Only the masses, the lowest classes of the population, attended such demonstrations. (Or at least this is what scientists imagined.)

  • The electrifier often behaved in a self-important, loud, attention-grabbing way (for example to attract an audience in the marketplace). He made jokes and double entendres (for example the electric kiss). It was a good sign if the public was very restless and excited, because the goal was entertainment. )
  • The scientist behaved in a calm, considered way. He did not exaggerate and was humble. A quiet public was a sign that they were thinking. Astonishment is good, but understanding ist he goal. 
Lichtenberg, however, admitted:„it is necessary to be a little bit playful, since this wakes up the sleepy“

Real and False Titles

  • Electrifiers often honored themselves with made-up titles (High Noble Mechanicus, Emperor’s Court Electricus, Professor).
  • Scientists had real academic degreessuch as „Professor“ or were really employed by nobility or by the city government.


  • Electrifiers usually did not have a University education and had not dealt with electricity for a longer period of time.

  • They often came from families without any particular wealth, and thus could often not afford school, university courses, and special scientific instruments.
Lichtenberg wrote about an amateur scientist: „he could have been Germany’s best physicist if he had studied electricity from childhood onwards. “

  • Electrifiers had not read the important articles and books about electricity.
Lichtenberg: „he knows nothing but the titles of writings on physics “
    Because of their lower levels of education, it would have been difficult for them to understand these articles or books. Furthermore, books were an expensive investment in those days. Scientific journals were only available to the members of the scientific societies who published them..
    Books were also available which were aimed at electrifiers, such as the „Collection of electrical games for young electricians“ which was published in ten volumes, each with over 100 pages. It contained many pictures and thorough descriptions. This book was seen as ‚not particularly valuable’ by scientists and as such not recommended further.

  • Scientists usually had a good school education (often also with private tutors) and had attended university. This was only possible because parents or relatives had enough money to pay for such an education. Furthermore, well-to-do families often had their own library or enough money to buy specialized books.
    Scientists believed they had a grasp on the entire field of electrical research.
    Firstly, while they could read enough old and new articles and books to keep themselves informed about current research in the field. Secondly, because they had already been involved with science their entire lives.

Skilled Craftsmanship

  • Electrifiers are like the instrument makers of very good mechanics who work well with instruments and can produce reliable effects with them. 
Berschitz’s large and complicated setups were not only expensive but required that he posess a high degree of craftsmanlike ability. 
 They often did not understand any more than what they needed for their demonstrations and often knew only very little about electrical theory. („Their knowledge is only pieced together or is deception; real physicists understand all of nature.“).

  • Scientists were often very dependent on their instrument makers and assistants, who themselves were very skilled craftsmen. Lichtenberg was very helpless when his longtime assistant left him, and he had to quickly find another.

Learning Effects

  • The demonstrations carried out by scientists always had theoretical components and the goal that something would be learned and remembered. They should have a lasting effect on the audience.
  • The demonstrations carried out by electrifiers delivered only short-term entertainment. Any kind of learning was not the goal, and the demonstrations were not set up in this way. In addition, they contained no special scientific terms, except as used to impress the public.

Developing New and Improving Old Experiments

  • Demonstrations carried out by scientists at least, as a means to educate,are always repeatable.
    Educational experiments carried out by scientists were continually improved in order to produce certain results and to provide the audience with new perspectives on and deeper insights into knowledge they already have. New Experiments are developed in research, in order to arrive at new knowledge, to test conjectures, to measure, etc. – they are, according to Lichtenberg „very important for theory, but not very striking for the public“.
  • The demonstrations of the electrifiers are used up when too many people have already seen them.
  • Electrifiers change already-known (teaching) experiments of scientists and make them more spectacular – but the basic principle remains the same. Electrifiers often have few experiments, which they demonstrate again and again. They are dependent on new ideas from science or on „byproducts“ of research which play no real role there, but are interesting to the public.
Lichtenberg accused electrifiers and amateur scientists:they either do nothing or occupy themselves with shenanigans and repeat things that have been repeated a hundred times.“


  • While researching, ascientisthas the idea ofgeneral usefulnessin mind. He hopes that his new knowledge will be helpful in improving peoples’ lives.
  • Anelectrifier’s demonstrationshave no general usefulness, since they do not contain new scientific knowledge. Electrifiers are not seeking to create usefulness, rather to impress people.


  • Competition for the most spectacular demonstrations and for the largest audience cause many electrifiers to keep the mode of operations of their setups as secret as possible so that no one else can copy them.
  • For scientists it is supposde to be very natural to be able to explain their processes or the results of particular experiments to other researchers. Scientists can work together when they have differing results, in order to explain possible causes.


  • In order to achieve particularly astounding effects, electrifiers did not shy away from fraud. An example: supposedly sparks could burn entire pictures into an oil-covered metal plate. In reality, the picture had already been scratched into the plate and was only visible at the end of the experiment, after the plate had been washed.
  • In order to sell the instruments they built themselves, electrifiers also used the lack of knowledge of their buyers. For example, an electrification machine in a house should supposedly protect the house from lightning strikes. The audience is supposed to believe that this is a lightning rod, which they may have already heard of. The danger of lightning was greatly exaggerated in electrifiers’ demonstrations, so that they could later more easily sell lightning rods to the audience.
  • Electrifiers used electrical shocks to heal all kinds of illnesses, without any clear indication if the shocks helped or harmed. (see Material F and J)
Commentary from scientists on this subject: 
„Daily I hear things that prove to me what a windbag this Berschitz is.“
„He attempts to thoroughly fool his audience and lets them pay for being fooled “
  • Many Electrifiers made use of their audience's superstitions and pretended that the effects had something to do with magic or „supernatural phenomena,“ in order to increase excitement or because they could not explain the effects themselves. For example seances were held in order to communicate with the dead (very popular in the middle of the 18th Century). As a sign of contact, the participants received electrical shocks. The electrification machine was hidden but connected to the rug or table. Scientists reject magical or supernatural explanations. When scientists speak of something supernatural, then it is only to demonstrate that that which previously appeared to be supernatural is now able to be explained through science.


  • Electrifiers take every opportunity to draw attention to their demonstrations. They led parades with all their devices and assistants, passed out handbills and published advertisements in local newspapers.
 In the advertisements and on the handbills they always pointed to the fact that they had already been well known and famous for some time and that they had already demonstrated their knowledge before nobile or even royal audiences. In every town, they asked for letters of recommendation
from the town government, which they could then use in the next towns in order to get preference over those electrifiers who did not have as many recommendations.
  • Scientists advertised their lectures through handbills and advertisements in local papers. Mostly, these were the papers that were read by educated people (for example the Allgemeine Litteratur-Zeitung in Jena). Apart from that, they relied on word of mouth or sent letters to colleagues and friends to announce private demonstrations.

Money, Money

Scientists as well as electrifiers relied on an audience for their demonstrations, since, for both, fees earned from their demonstrations were important. However:
For Scientists, money earned from demonstrations was mostly secondary earnings. Without this income they would have to forgo assistants or expensive instruments, so their research was dependent on it.
For Electrifiers, demonstrations and the sale of devices were usually their only source of income. Often, they had to support themselves and their families from these earnings.

5.2 Learning about the Nature of Science

5.2.1 The construction of ‚scientificality’ – who is a scientist and what is scientific?

Most pupils have a feeling for the concept that „carrying out scientific work“ or „researching“ is a very special kind of activity. However, what exactly it is that makes it so special about it is either unclear to them or they tend to have naive ideas about it.
This stage makes it possible to occupy themselves with a time period in which it was slowly made clear what is and is not scientific, and how a scientist is characterized, using research on electricity as an example.
The first clear criteria for something like ‚scientificality’ and serious research arose through the conflict between the electrifiers and electricity researchers. This conflict is a conflict between entertainment and education, between charlatanism and believability. The criteria did not arise out of nothing but, rather through a negotiation process that was not completely rational; for example, electrifiers being called charlatans, their audiences being vilified as rabble, their appearances being prevented by scientists who feared for the reputation of their craft.
After these beginnings, certain rules had to be adhered to when ‚carrying out scientific work’, when someone wanted to be a ‚scientist’ or with regards to what constitutes ‚scientific knowledge.’ First and foremost, these rules are not set in stone, but must continuously be tested for their usefulness and function.

5.2.2 The Scientific Community – Delineation and Collaboration

The rise of a further important characteristic of (natural) scientists which is widely accepted today can be observed through this controvery – the existence of a scientific community – a community of scientist which is sometimes represented as a parallel world of science and research. This community has its own forms of communication as well as its own unique media (professional journals, conferences, books, scientific mailing lists etc.) Scientists meet at international confererences, work together on interdisciplinary research projects, and create their own networks. They know one another and advise one another through the communication media of the scientific enterprise – national borders play a very limited role nowadays. In the 17th and 18th Centuries educated people were proud to be part of a ‚Republic of Letters’ . They communicated through written letters and undertook long journeys in order to visit and advise one another. These loose communities of researchers, which existed before the controversy with the electrifiers, allied themselves more and more closely thanks to the role played by scientific societies and professional journals – not everyone was allowed in. What was to be seen as serious science was negotiated within the borders of this scientific community and defended against outside attacks – the ideals of the good scientist and how he was to behave with regards to electrifiers and amateur scientists emerged as guidelines.

6. Target Groups, Curricular Benefits, and Didactic Considerations

6.1 Learning Goals and Skills

Depending on the choice of experiments and how they are presented, the entire spectrum of subject-related skills can be called upon. For some pupils, the unconventional context of this case study offers the first opportunity for them to use and understand some of the relevant concepts in a sustainable way.

Nature of Science

The students...
  • can name some quality criteria have been applied to scientists (and/or science in general) formerly and nowadays
  • describe the role of communication among scientists for professional science
  • describe the rise of criteria for ‚scientificality’ as controversial, emotional, and that these criteria are never definitively decided upon.


The students...
  • differentiate between information-oriented and show-oriented forms of presentation and are capable of preparing and presenting appropriate lectures for each.


The students...
  • recognize that appearance and behavior do not necessarily have anything to do with the quality of research, but may in reality play a certain role in assessing arguments brought forward by scientists
  • describe the role played by external factors such as previous education, financial situation, origins etc. for the business of science
  • differentiate between informative and show-oriented forms of presentation and realistically evaluate their respective functions within science and society.
  • can separate personal arguments against a scientist as a person from arguments about the quality of his research

7. Resources for Teaching and Learning

7.1 Experiments


A number of small experiments, which can be demonstrated with the participation of several pupils, lend themselves well to this subject.
The basic principle of all experiments is always the same: a person stands on an electrically insulated stool. If such a stool is not available, a styrofoam block can also be used.

The Electric Kiss (see Material ):
Next, the person on the stool is electrically charged (making the person’s hair stand up can be another experiment).
She or he then gives a grounded person his or her hand or they kiss (there are couples in almost all classes) and both get an electric shock.
Electrical fire (see Material ):
In order to ignite an "electrical fire“ it is advisable to fix a spoon in a stand and to ground the spoon. Next a small amount of diethyl ether is applied to the spoon. The electrified person brings their index finger closer to the spoon. When a spark jumps the gap, the liquid on the spoon catches fire. For this reason, it is not recommended to allow a pupil to hold the spoon, since they can drop the spoon out of shock at the suddenly burning fluid.

Required Material

  • Insulated stool or styrofoam block, or other insulating material sturdy enough to hold the weight of a pupil
  • Electrostatic generator
  • Stand, spoon
  • Diethyl ether (can be substituted by alcohol, which is, however, much harder to ignite)

7.2 Activities/Tasks

The following tasks can be used in order to give the pupils an understanding of the conflict and its stakeholders. They allow the pupils to experience the social and emotional sides of carrying out scientific work and thus to get a better picture of the human side of science.

7.2.1 Conceptualizing the Delineation by the Scientists

In Section 5.1.3 the most important categories for differentiating and characterizing scientists and electrifiers have been elaborated. They are then adapted and condensed for the use of the pupils.

The pupils can either read Material I or selected passages from Section 5.1.3. In order to gather and make certain of the results of the conceptualization, the instructor can use the mind-mapping method (
The central concept could be „Electrifier versus Scientist". The guiding question for the development of a ‚mind map’ could be "What do scientists like Lichtenberg do in order to differentiate themselves from the electrifiers?" and "What makes a good scientist, what makes a bad scientist?".

7.2.2 Role Profiles/Role Texts/Letters

In small groups, pupils compose texts on a particular subject from the point of view of an historical person who could have experienced the controversy over the electrifiers.

These short texts could be based on a short lecture by the teacher on the subject of electrifiers or amateur scientists versus scientists, in which an overview of both sides and of their conflict is given, and/or Material For Pupils I. The teacher can, for preparation, present the experiments presented under „experiments“ in the style of an electrifier of of a scientist .The texts could be constructed as journal entries or as letters.

The following examples can serve as inspiration. In each example there are references to the appropriate sections in the material which pupils can use for further information and to help them formulate the texts.
  • A person who wanted to cure his or her headaches through electrical-medical treatment but instead became paralyzed in the face.
    • see Section 5.1.3 „Honesty“
    • Material J can serve as an introduction from the point of view of the „doctor“
    • Pictures of electrical treatments: Material F
  • Berschitz, who was made a fool of by Lichtenberg’s fake notices (or the warnings about his lightning rods) and is now in danger of going bankrupt;
    • see Section 5.1.3 „Money, Money“, „On Berschitz“, „The Science Police“
  • An amateur scientist, who feels that he and his results on the improvement of electrical machines are not taken seriously, although they could help in further research.
    • see Section 5.1.3 „The Science Police“, „The Ideal Scientist“, "Methods of Differentiation"
  • Lichtenberg, who complains that his audience has been influenced by the electrifiers and only wants entertainment, contrasted with Berschitz, who complains that he cannot answer the questions posed by his audience because the path to further education is and remains blocked for him.
    • see Section 5.1.3 „Training“, „Learning Effect" "Usefulness“, „The Science Police“, „Demonstrations“
    • see Section 5.1.1 „G.C.Lichtenberg“
Subsequently, pupils will introduce the situation and its background in a detailed way and present their texts while acting out the corresponding role.

7.2.3 Living Statues / Freeze Frames

The pupils receive information about the main actors, Berschitz and Lichtenberg, and about the controversy surrounding the electrifiers (Material I or Sections 5.1.1 and 5.1.3). Then, in groups they create living statue tableaus, with the main actors in poses and situations that are typical for them. It is possible to select other situations and actors, for example, those recommended in Section 7.2.1.
Information on the living statue method can be found in Section 9.1.

7.2.4 Short Performances

Pupils plan and conduct a short performance on a brief episode from a demonstration by a electrifier and a demonstration by a scientist (for example the introduction and the first experiment).
For preparation a short lecture by the teacher should be given on the conflict between electrifiers/amateur scientists and scientists, in which representatives of each side, Lichtenberg and Berschitz , as well as some details on them and their peculiarites are introduced. The section entitled Material for Pupils I can also help serve this function.
Next, for example, the pupils can create and present an introcution to a) a series of lectures of a scientist such as Lichtenberg and b) a demonstration by an electrifier such as Berschitz.
The following key questions, which can be expanded at will by pupils during their preparation, will make the task easier.
The pupils can use the blackboard as a stage set in order to sketch the most important properties of the place where the demonstration is held.

Questions Ideas on how to perform
How do I behave? Quiet, loud, thoughtful, hectic, fibbing, exaggerating, intimidating, presumptuous...
Where do I conduct my demonstrations? Market stand, lecture hall,public demonstration in front of the entire city, in side streets, in private rooms…
Why can I be taken seriously?
From where am I known?
Collaboration with other scientists, books, other demonstrations, important discoveries, scientific articles in journals, handbills, word of mouth, recommendations from others (from whom?), ...
What do I think about electrifiers, amateur scientists, or about scientists? Too theoretical/boring, too little theory, charlatans,self-important, are unfair, maintain clear boundaries, harm a reputation, promote superstition, does not produce any new knowledge, contribute to progress, are uneducated...
Who is my audience? (How do I speak with them?) Students, other scientists, the mayor, marketgoers, large audience, educated, uneducated, nobility...
Which kinds of terms do I use? What can I (what do I want to) say about electricity? very abstract terms, very simple terms, explaining what is happening or only presenting it, electricity as magic, electricity is explainable, usefulness of electricity, dangers of electricity
What am I trying to accomplish with my audience and the demonstration? Communicating knowledge, impressing people, intimidation, astonishment, frightening people, entertaining them...
Do I offer further services? If yes, what kind? Repair, sales, medical treatment, further lectures, further demonstrations...
... ...

7.3 Material for (older) Students

"The Business of Experimental Physics: Instrument Makers and Itinerant Lecturers in the German Enlightenment" by Oliver Hochadel.
This document describes the important role of instrument makers in the 18th century, how they lived and what connections they had to travelling showmen like the electrifiers. It is shown how they, too, were used to distinguish themselves from by the earnest and reputable natural philosophers.
See section "Attachments"

7.4. Pictures and Media

  • Fig. I: The electrical kiss ("venus electrificata")
  • Fig II: Electrical Fier - ignition of a flammable liquid
  • Figure III: The beer glass electrifying machine
  • Figure IV: Demonstration in a Paris salon.
  • Figure V: "Electrifying for a shilling"
  • Figures VIa and VIb: The electrical bed
  • Figure VII: Treating dental problems with electricity
  • Figure VII: Electrical demonstrations in front of an evening gathering at an English art gallery.
  • Figure IX: Anatomy lecture with practical demonstrations in a lecture hall
  • Figure X: The lecture hall of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington
  • Figure XI: Electrifier's stand at the harbor
  • Figures XIIa, XIIb, XIIc: Different constructions of electrical cannons and pistols.

Fig. I: The electrical kiss ("venus electrificata")
the electrical kiss  (electric venus)

Fig II: Electrical Fier - ignition of a flammable liquid with the finger or a dull metal instrument. Following Mathias Bose, circa 1737.
The spark from the rapier point ignites the alcohol which the lady at the left of the picture is holding ready in a spoon.

ignition through  electricity

Figure III: The beer glass electrifying machine - a favorite object for sale by electrifiers. From J.H. Winkler, circa 1744. For the fixing of normal glasses, which are then spun and have a hand laid on them. Beloved of amateur scientists who could then experiment at home.
bierglas  elektrisiermaschine

Figure IV: Demonstration in a Paris salon. The boy hung from the silk cords is a good example of an experiment that electrifiers took over because of its high entertainment value. As a scientific experiment, this demonstration was first carried out by Stephen Gray some time around the year 1720.
the flying boy experiment

Figure V: "Electrifying for a shilling" - representation of a traveling market electrifier, who electrifies people for low prices, offering "healing charges". He is quite possibly also offering to sell this electrification machine or looking for repair jobs.
ein  elektrisierer bitete kleine elektrische schläge feil

Figures VIa and VIb: The electrical bed - the sick person, (right hand side in a, right upper corner in b)lying in his or her insulated bed, is electrified. An 'electrical doctor' checks the strength of electrical attraction/repulsion of various body parts and thus can make predictions about the location and the type of sickness. Attendants often had to service the device.
a) the electrified bed - medicinal  electricity b) the electrical bed - doctor  electricus at work
Figure VII: Treating dental problems with electricity
shocks against toothache - medicinal  electricity

Figure VII: Electrical demonstrations in front of an evening gathering at an English art gallery. The audience is distributed irregularly throughout the room and appear to not fully be paying attention, indicating that the demonstrator is probably an electrifier. The location, although it shows aesthetic sense, does not correspond to the unwritten standards for scientific demonstrations.
english evening party  enjoying electroical demonstration

Figure IX: Anatomy lecture with practical demonstrations in a lecture hall (circa 1780). The audience as well as the location and the context of the demonstrations correspond to the unwritten standards for scientific demonstrations.
anatomical lectures in a 1780 lecture hall

Figure X: The lecture hall of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington around 1860. Extreme types of demonstrations were permitted, but these should always have a strongly scientific character.

smithsonian lecture hall 1860

Figure XI: Electrifier's stand at the harbor - sketch by Henry Ritter (1816-1853) [].
The sign at the left reads 'Large New Electrical Machine.' It is likely that the picture shows the racist tendencies of the time, since the dark-skinned person on the right-hand side seems to be about to unknowingly recieve an electric shock.
electrifying stand  at the harbour. shocking sailors for a few pennies

Figures XIIa, XIIb, XIIc: Different constructions of electrical cannons and pistols. They were fired off for entertainment purposes, and most of the time gas was ignited with a spark behind the projectile.

a) electric cannon
b) electric cannon
c) electric pistol

a)thunder  house and thunderstorm analogy
b)thunder house

lightning rods for hats and umbrellas around 1778

a)frontpage  philosophical transactions 1770b)frontapage "electrical  playthings for young electricians" by G.C.Seiferheld 1787

8. Obstacles to teaching and learning

The students will interpret this conflict based on their own experience, since each of them has already experienced some kind of argument with parents or friends. It can be that they interpret the controversy around electrifiers as ‚just an argument’ and thus neglect to see the causes as well as the consequences of this controversy. It is important to constantly emphasize that this is not simply just a conflict between scientists and electrifiers, but that only through this conflict did it become clear what characterizes a scientist.

9. Pedagogical Skills

9.1 Building a human sculpture

What is a human sculpture?
A human sculpture is a depiction of a problem, subject, or social situation which a learning group creates with their bodies. Above all, relationships between people as well as their body language, habits and opinions, and feelings can be depicted – all without words.
Thus, a living statue is a metaphorical activity, in which the poses of the pupils represent something typical of the situation being presented. Metaphorical activities require a re-conceptualisation of known properties, events, situations or relations in a different context, where they have to be expressed as “standing-for” known things. Students need to analyze and evaluate a situation very thoroughly for example to create a human sculpture portraying all relevant aspects of this situation. Relating to the history and philosophy of science, the students may mime for themselves or (collaboratively) sculpture a schoolfellow allegorizing a past scientist. He may just have trouble with anomalous data or be preparing for an important presentation. Social situations involving more than one scientist like arguments or colleagueship are possible, too. This method is a powerful tool to visualize attitudes, emotions and social interactions in science, conveying elements its human nature.

The living statue in the classroom
A „director“ („Sculptor“) creates, step by step, a living statue out of the bodies of his or her fellow students.
Thus the director brings to life the way s/he sees and interprets the problem. The students being formed into the statue act like movable dolls and take on the body language, expression, and gestures assigned to them.

Course of Events
  1. A director is chosen who will take on the task of creating a living statue according to her/his understanding of the situation. S/he should be properly prepared for this.
  2. Thus s/he chooses pupils who fit the picture s/he has in his/her head (appearance, size, clothing, gender).
  3. S/he then puts the pupils into the correct position. Without speaking, s/he makes it clear to them which posture, gestures, and expressions, they should take on. The attitudes of each person towards one another are also arranged. Objects from the classroom can be used as stage sets or props.
  4. The players and the audience behave completely passively. They are not to speak
  5. When the living statue is ready, the players will, on command of the director, freeze in the places and attitudes they have been assigned for approximately thirty seconds.
  6. The audience observes the living statue and allows it to sink in.
  7. Then the living statue will be discussed. First, the audience describes the picture and interprets it. Next, the players report on their reactions and interpretations.
  8. Finally, the constructor will be asked about her/his ideas. S/he should take into account what fellow pupils have said.
  9. The public can then present their suggestions for how the various ideas can better be expressed by changing the living statue

"The Business of Experimental Physics: Instrument Makers and Itinerant Lecturers in the German Enlightenment" by Oliver Hochadel.

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