‘Capital Deceptions’: Science and Magic in the 18th Century

When we think of types of entertainment in the 18th century, the most immediate things that probably leap to mind are those such as the society ball, with all its rituals, costumes and elaborate dancing, the exhausting round of visiting and tea drinking, or perhaps perusing the latest Paris fashions and trinkets in the elegant shopping streets of places like London and Bath.  But there was another popular – and perhaps slightly surprising – pastime which many ladies and gentlemen found diverting. Increasingly popular in this period was attending public demonstrations of science. 

The eighteenth century saw a rising interest in science and technology. Part of this was the new enlightenment focus on experiment and observation. But it wasn’t just ‘natural philosophers’ who were involved…increasingly, an interested lay public (at least those of middling and elite status) were also taking part. Public lectures were one part of this. Here, the enthralled audience was treated to a full philosophical discourse about new theories, ideas and practices. 

The growing interest in understanding and measuring the natural world kick-started a new vogue for collecting scientific instruments. If you could afford the high prices charged by expert makers, what better to show off your status as a dilettante scientist than to fill your study with microscopes, telescopes and orreries. In fact, instrument makers were busy producing beautifully-crafted and elegant machines, especially for collectors.  

The ‘Palermo Circle’, an instrument for astronomy designed by Jesse Ramsden (1735-1800: Image from Wikipedia)

But to show was even better than to tell, and there was another way in which people could participate in this new and exciting culture of ‘natural philosophy’ – what we today call ‘science’- which was to attend one of the many public events during which some of the latest technological marvels were showcased.  

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1766 – Image from Wikipedia

A good example of some of the more formal events is that of ‘Mr Warltire’s Philosophical Discourses and Experiments’, held in Northampton in 1799. John Warltire was a renowned ‘lecturer in natural philosophy’ and correspondent of Joseph Priestley, and the author of a book of ‘Concise Essays Upon Various Philosophical and Chemical Subjects’. Here, attendees were able to see demonstrations of ‘optical instruments and vision’, changes of colour ‘by chymical mixture’ and different kinds of air’, the ‘first principles of chymistry’ and the ‘properties of metals, earths and salts’. Mr Warltire also assured those wishing to pay the not-insubstantial sum of 10s for the whole course of lectures that ‘the apparatus is very complete and the experiments numerous’. 

But as well as the more highbrow lectures, also came events which were dedicated to entertainment, as much as education. Here audiences could see anything from card tricks to seemingly-magical events. Visitors to ‘Bunn’s Rural Pavilion’ in Norwich in 1787, for example, could see a demonstration of ‘Mechanical and Philosophical Experiments’ by ‘Mr Martinelli’. In Dublin in 1784 the ‘Celebrated Mr Dinwiddie’, an astronomer, scientist and technologist, offered a lecture on the ‘new discovered airs’ (gases) and how they could be put to practical use in hot air balloons. At the end of the lecture, it was promised, he would fill balloons with air and fire ‘in the space of a few minutes’. 

Also on the subject of balloons, excited viewers were invited to see the departure of ‘Mrs Sadler and a Gentleman’ in a large balloon from Mrs Dodswell’s gardens in Surrey, where they would ascend to a great height, armed with instruments for ‘philosophical experiments’. According to a report in the Northampton Mercury they ‘rose in a very majestic manner’ and continued in sight for over an hour and a half…although what sort of landing they had, and where, isn’t recorded!

Image copyright Lewis Walpole Library

One particular advertisement for an exhibition in London, though, gives us a glimpse into the sorts of wonders that curious Georgians could see for themselves. In 1789, an advertisement appeared in newspapers across Britain for ‘Breslaw’s New-Invented Capital DECEPTIONS’. Breslaw was a German-born magician, demonstrator and ‘equilibrist’ (acrobat or rope walker) who moved around England and Ireland, giving public demonstrations. For six evenings a week, spread between the ‘Great rooms in Panton St, Haymarket’ (‘fitted up in the most elegant manner’), and the King’s Head Tavern in the Poultry, and for the modest terms of half a crown, Breslaw hosted an evening showcasing all manner of wondrous ‘mechanical apparatus’ and ‘philosophical experiments’. 

The first part of the evening was a magic show by Mr Breslaw himself. According to the advertisement, he would ‘exhibit various deceptions with cards, in a manner entirely new’. This included cunning sleight of hand tricks, changing cards from black to red and back again, seemingly by magic. After this he moved on to a demonstration of psychic abilities, promising to ‘communicate the thoughts from one person to another without asking any questions &c’, followed by some ‘new experiments with caskets, dice, letters &c’, and finishing with a display of ‘several new invented mechanical watches’, in a ‘most extraordinary manner’. But this was only the start.

Giuseppe Pinetti at work on a show! Image from Wikipedia

Part two of the evening turned to the ‘philosophical experiments’ of ‘Sieur Pinetti’. This was Giuseppe Pinetti de Willeda, a French conjuror and author described in a letter by the American statesman John Quincy Adams (who saw Pinetti in Paris) as ‘a very great quack, and his Experiences, are nothing but a parcel of jugglers tricks, which every mountebank of a fair, performs as well for 12 sols, as he does for 6. Livres’. (https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/03-01-02-0007-0005-0015)

Amongst Pinetti’s wonders were ‘an experiment on numbers, consisting from ten to One hundred…performed in a surprising manner’; a ‘mechanical chest with three different divisions, displayed in a surprising manner’; ‘two little friars’ who would appear in (guess what!) a surprising manner’, one of whom would apparently jump out of a little silver cup in the middle of a table. 

Audience participation was encouraged, for example, by a ‘mechanical pistol’, which was loaded with a special coin by a lady volunteer, then fired into the air by a gentleman, after which it would miraculously appear in a previously empty gold box on the table in front of onlookers. If the other demonstrations were anything to go by, this too was likely ‘surprising’!

Now the audience had been whipped into a natural-philosophical frenzy, and as if all this were not enough, the climax of the evening was still to come, in the form of an exhibition of ‘Monsieur Barlow’s Mechanical apparatus’, including ‘silver and glass machineries’ and all manner of other mechanical wonders. 

Public demonstrations like these of science, instruments, mechanics and experiments were clearly partly for entertainment, combining genuine new instruments and discoveries with the age-old sleights of the card trickster. But it is worth noting that they were an important source of education, as well as entertainment. Such events were popular amongst men and women and, in fact, have been argued to have been important sources of education for women, giving them access into an otherwise restricted male world. Scientific demonstrations thus offer us an alternative perspective on Georgian pastimes, and reveal both the popularity of ‘natural philosophy’, and the genuine wonder with which people viewed the world. 

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