Recreational technology in 19th century

peppersposterroyalpolyinstAdvertisement from a representation of the illusion called “Pepper’s Ghost” at the Royal Polytechnic Institution, London.

At the very beginning of the 18th century, lecture demonstrations in “experimental philosophy” (what today we would call practical physics) started to develop in England, soon extending to other European countries. This event was inspired by the interest for experiments and demonstrations which had emerged in some 17th century institutions such as the Royal Society of London, Cimento’s Academy in Florence, or Leiden University.

A large amount of these activities would take place in both public and private places to amuse the public and to promote the dissemination of scientific and technical knowledge among all kinds of people. In cities like London they used to take place in the coffee houses or in the shops of instrument makers; in the provinces, they were given by itinerant lecturers; in private houses, lectures were initially associated with men of wealth and position, owners of large cabinets of antiquities and curiosities which were aimed, beyond delighting illustrious and literate visitors, at bearing witness to the wealth, prestige and reputation of its holder.

Soon the collecting vogue spread well down the social scale, giving place to an expansion of interest in scientific knowledge to all sorts of people (Turner, 1987, 380).

As Robert John Thornton wrote in 1813:

[…] the age in which we live, seems to me, of all the periods in history, the most distinguished for the sudden and extensive impulse which the human mind has received, and which has extended its active influence to every object of human pursuit. The diffusion of a general knowledge, and of a taste for science, over all classes of men, in every nation of Europe, or of European origin, seems to be the characteristic feature of the present age. The study of the sciences principally has expanded the mind, and laid it open for the reception of every kind of truth. […] in no former age, was ever the light of knowledge so extended, and so generally diffused. Knowledge is not now confined to public schools, or to particular classes of men (Thornton, 1813, 53).

Lecturers thus popularized science, to the point that, for example, in Britain the movement became institutionalized by the founding of the Royal Institution in 1799 or by the lecture-demonstration in Mechanics’ Institutes (Turner, 1987, 381, 383).

These events continued taking place well into the 19th century, also in other countries. An Spanish example is provided by this advertisement:

Nueva Pitonisa. Dentro de pocos dias llegará á esta corte, acompañado de su hija la jóven sibila Elena, el célebre doctor Nicolay, físico de las cortes de Europa y del Brasil. La prensa de Francia, Rusia y América, háse ocupado con justos elogios en distintas ocasiones de aquel notable doctor y de su bella hija, que han causado la admiración por sus extraordinarios experimentos de física y de magnetismo. Como suponemos que el público de Madrid tendrá en breve ocasión de aplaudir á las dos personas que hemos mencionado, no apuntamos ninguno de los ejercicios y juegos de prestidigitacion y de magnetismo que han obtenido el aplauso general, causando extrañeza hasta á los mismos maestros del arte.

La iberia, 7/9/1877

At that time, audiences were prone to visit different types of exhibits which sometimes combined illusions, magic or spiritism with science, automatons or other mechanisms. Scientific shows became part of the public culture: they usually came into play in or near other places socially and culturally interesting, so that audiences could relate them to the activities already existent in those spaces (Morus, 2006, 10 5-107). Natural philosophy thus became part of consumer culture through its visual product. Scientific lectures and shows provided a chance to teach consumers how to see science, how to look at the scientific and technical artefacts and displays in an appropriate way. The lectures helped configure a specific idea about science and technology, and contributed to the rise of a visual scientific culture.

These sorts of encounters were primarily visual, and this, therefore, was how such audiences understood natural philosophy. Natural philosophy was a way of producing spectacular effects that demonstrated both the workings of nature and the power of the showman to control that nature (Morus, 2006, 1 10).

For some Art historians (Jonathan Crary (1999), Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press), optical illusions provide interesting information about how industrial society and modernity brought about new ways of seeing as an active and cultural process.


Illustration of a recreational scientific lecture showing how the “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion was carried out. Image from “The Richard Balzer Collection. (

Indeed, vision was the main sense in the process of learning science in the 18th and 19th centuries, so the scientific shows performing projections and optical illusions developed an important role. For Brewster the eye was “the sentinel which guards the pass between the worlds of matter and spirit, and through which all their communications are interchanged”, it helped to establish “the relationship between the inner mind and outer reality” (Morus, 2006, 102). Optical illusions were the result of the interpretation made by our minds of the external world, but projection apparatus highlighted the fallibility of human judgement; in this case, the greater the knowledge, the bigger the illusion’s effect.

Some of the exhibits employed dazzling experiments and effects aimed at producing in the public feelings of both surprise and admiration. Trying to find a balance between, on the one hand, what was shown to produce admiration and meet audience’s expectations and, on the other hand, what was hidden to keep alive the mystery, many lecturers were deeply interested in offering to the audiences truthful information. Not only they wanted to transmit scientific knowledge in an amusing way, they also sought to educate the eyes and the minds of the audiences and to inform the public, so that they could prevent them from being deceived by charlatans (Morus, 2006, 105). A good example of this is provided by the following text from a 1803 leaflet of a Philipstahal show:

This SPECTROLOGY, which professes to expose the Practices of artful Impostors and pretended Exorcists, and to open the Eyes of those who still foster an absurd Belief in GHOSTS or DISEMBODIED SPIRITS, will, it is presumed, afford also to the Spectator an interesting and pleasing Entertainment; and in order to render these Apparations more interesting, they will be introduced during the Progress of a tremendous Thunder Storm, accompanied with vivid Lightning, Hail, Wind, &c.


Leaflet from a 1807 Philipsthal representation at the Theater-Royal, in Norwich

Over the years, a large part of the knowledge and objects associated to these types of spectacles were introduced in the houses and, as we will see later, in the schools. As Gerard L’E pointed out,

The scientific lecture-demonstrations to literate audiences from about 1700 set a pattern for the demonstration of the fundamentals of science that is still with us. Some of the set pieces used by the early lecturers passed into recreational use during the Victorian period, and became toys in the twentieth century (Turner, 1987, 377).

As a matter of fact, many of the instruments used in the lectures were sold (and are still sold today) as entertainment devices, some of them intended for adults, and some others, known as “scientific toys”, for kids to play at home (Turner, 397).


The “Bowl-About”, a toy “founded on the principle of placing the centre of gravity very near the lower part of the figure”, in this case with the appearance of a Chinese fat man. From the trade catalogue of John J. Griffin and Sons (Scientific handicraft, a descriptive, illustrated and priced catalogue of apparatus suitable for the performance of elementary experiments in physics, Londres, 1873, p.15) 

Also an endless number of books on the subject with a ludic appearance were published in the 19th and 20th century (for recreational science for kids in the 20th century in America see Rebecca Onion, Innocent experiments: childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States, The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

Tom Tit Fr

Several covers form french editions of books on recreational science written by Tom Tit (Arthur Good’s pen name), 1891-1893

But, whilst some of the experiments remained the same (most of them belonged to the 18th century), the cultural and social meaning of these events suffered slight changes as time went by. For example, the presence of these scientific devices outside the research and educational environment, especially at the end of the 19th century, was closely related to the idea of a “profitable” or “fruitful” leisure (purposeful use of the time). Behind this idea there were Institutions and individuals interested in promoting hygiene and worker welfare. They considered education as more important than recreation and thus proposed to the people cultural activities to make the best of their leisure time (Poser, 3). These scientific devices had special characteristics which made them attractive to the public:

Technology that is suitable as a model for toys needs to have an “excitement factor” – or at least a certain level of familiarity – and be accessible and intuitive at the same time. It should engage the user on an emotional level, for a sense of wonder about technology inspires interest in playing with its replica. Furthermore, simulated technology used for play probably facilitates the technology’s acceptance, as the playful interaction directs the user’s attention back to the original. Such simulations can further promote important technological skills and know-how. Technology plays an important role regarding such toys as steam engines and model trains, which came on the market towards the end of 19th century (Poser, 2011, 7).

The effect of scientific shows in the transmission of a scientific culture and the deep impression and emotions which provoked in the audience was well reflected in the testimony of several scientists. Some remember in its biographies the impact which these events made on them as children. Such is the case of Charles Babbage (born in 1791), who recalls in his biography, Passages from the life of a Philosopher:

During my boyhood, my mother took me to several exhibitions of machinery. I well remember one of them in Hanover Square, by a man who called himself Merlin. I was so greatly interested in it, that the Exhibitor remarked the circumstance, and after explaining some of the objects to which the public had access, proposed to my mother to take me up to his workshop, where I should see still more wonderful automata. We accordingly ascended to the attic. There were two uncovered female figures of silver, about twelve inches high (Babbage, 1864, 17).

The attraction provoked by scientific shows, together with the central role occupied by visual thinking in the transmission of knowledge and the old Horacio’s idea of teaching with delight, had an influence on the fact that some of the patterns associated to lectures were generally adopted in the 19th century in European educational institutions. Therefore we find certain elements common to both contexts: the type of scientific instrument; the prestige associated to the possession of large collections of scientific instruments (González, 2015), which on occasion prompted some educational institutions to the acquisition of some pieces whose pedagogical role could be considered secondary; the use of scientific and technological instruments in the diffusion of knowledge as supposedly compelling evidences of the science truthfulness (see the entry “Educational Technology” on this blog); the idea of teaching with delight, specially through visual thinking (see the entries “Visual thinking” and “Images of technology as mediators of reality” on this blog); or the use of the term “scientific” to refer to both science and technology, which was thus subordinated to science.

Nevertheless, not all lecture’s patterns were easy to reproduce in a formal educational context. Apart from the fact that attending a school or a high school was not considered a leisure time activity by the students, the reproduction of experiments was frequently, if not always, a hard task. To carry out a scientific show required a difficult training, preparation, rehearsal and knowledge (Morus, 2006, 108), that the teacher could not always easily accomplish. Leaving aside the fact that reproducing experiments or using scientific or technological instruments in the educational process was not a compulsory activity (the system was based on rote learning) and that most of the teachers preferred the master class, reproducing the lecture or science show pattern in the classroom required preparing not one experiment, but one for each lesson. Most of the scientific and technical instruments were on display in showcases, but, were they put into operation?

Bibliography and further reading

BABBAGE, Charles (1864), Passages from the life of a Philosopher; COPPOLA, Al (2016), The Theater of Experiment: Staging Natural Philosophy in Eighteenth Century Britain, Oxford University Press; GONZÁLEZ, Leonor, “El lenguaje tácito de la tecnología” in Leonor González and Vicente Fernández (editors), El Instituto de San Isidro, saber y patrimonio. Apuntes para una historia, CSIC, 2013; MORUS, Iwan Rhys (2006), “Seeing and believing science”, Isis, Vol. 97, No. 1: 101-110; ONION, Rebecca, Innocent experiments: childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States, The University of North Carolina Press, 2016; POSER, Stefan (2011), “Leisure time and Technology”, en European History Online (EGO), published by the Institute of European History (IEG), Mainz 2011-09-26. ; SCHAFFER, Simon (1983), “Natural Philosophy and Public Spectacle in the Eighteenth Century”, History of Science, 21: 1-43; THORNTON, Robert John (1813, 5ª ed.), “The progress of Chemistry”, in The Philosophy of Medicine: being medical extracts on the nature and preservation of health, on the nature and removal of disease, 2 vol., vol. I, London, in ; TURNER, Gerard L’E (1987), “Scientific Toys”, in British Journal of the History of Science, 20: 377-398.


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