Onyxfeld, Late Winter 1872
In a room bathed in amber light, finely dressed house guests sit or stand, rapt with anticipation. An attractive young lady sits primly on a chair in the center, smiling nervously.
A young man approaches to kiss her, poorly concealing his eagerness towards this modest intimacy, yet upon closing his lips with hers, his amorousness is sharply punished – the audience is treated to a bright blue spark zipping between them, and the young man jumps swiftly back in alarm…
As I delve into accounts of medical history, I frequently chance across fascinating historical nuggets of curiosity, and I hope that my readers will forgive my impertinence for stepping back into the last century to explore one particularly interesting example.
You may recall, prior to the great Giovanni Aldini discovering that he could make frog legs dance to the tune of his newly discovered galvanism – innate animal electricity – the fashionable elite, well into the heady thrall of the Enlightenment, would play and frolic with electricity on a regular basis.
At prestigious parties, salons and coffee houses across Europe, experiments using the power of static electricity shocked, titillated and excited many a household gathering. Families of fair to good means would have stored away various pieces of electrical equipment, from glass spheres, that when rotated against different types of cloth would generate electricity, to the ubiquitous Leyden jar that stored this mysterious and exciting power.
Such equipment would be brought forth and utilized as party tricks and entertainment, either by ‘the patriarch of the house, eager to show his aptitude at the latest thing‘ or the thrill-seeking and alcoholically emboldened salon host. One such demonstration, performed by Johann Winkler, involved the electrification of one of his servants, followed by the suspicious yet grateful subject being offered a glass of brandy. The ensuing spark purportedly ignited the booze, to the uproarious pleasure of his dinner guests. No mention is made of the servant and whether or not his facial hair survived the incident.
It was the mildly saucy ‘Venus Electrificata’ that most entertained audiences. Equal parts vague eroticism, social taboo and scientific wizardry, Georg Matthias Bose first introduced party-goers to this peculiar phenomena known also as the ‘Electric Kiss’. An attractive lady drawn from party guests would be seated upon an insulated chair and secretly electrified via a thin concealed chain. Within the dimly lit room (no doubt to contribute to the mysterious atmosphere) it was then that a second volunteer, a young man, would be called upon to perform his part.
Nothing would appear to be happening at this stage. The young gentleman, unaware of the electrified nature of his counterpart, would be prevailed upon to plant a kiss upon her lips. How scandalous!
Yet, nobly, selflessly, with science as his driving ambition (and surely not his inflamed ardor), the young man would relent and move in to kiss the pretty young lady – only to be rebuked by bright electrical sparks flying between the lips of the two participants. He might try again, and yet again receive a painful shock – his desires were now surely tempered by this jarring natural energy.
Look, but don’t touch, taught the performance, else suffer for your desires…
Undoubtedly, at its core this demonstration was a powerful social statement about the perceived volatility and danger of female passion – her sexual instinct seen at the time as something to be feared, studied, and in some cases, a malady that should be cured. I’ll conclude with the elegant words of Joseph Hiller, given during a lecture on electricity in 1757, regarding the role of the woman in the performance:
“You are now madam filled with fire, a fire of the purest kind, it gives you no pain while you keep it in your own breast, But you suffer when you communicate it with other’s. No man can approach your hand or cheek without smarting from his presumption…”