Thursday, 15 December 2011


 The first time the topic of electricity was ever raised in public in Trinidad, was on the 8th November 1850. This is recorded in José Bod's "Trinidadiana". A small assembly of refined, bespectacled, bearded and well-dressed men met at the Juteau Hall on upper Duke Street, Port of Spain, to listen to a lecture delivered by Dr. Arthur Jennings Humphrey on the subject of electricity and magnetism. A somewhat esoteric subject for the time! Humphrey would have spoken of Benjamin Franklin, one of the more splendid examples of the Age of Enlightenment, a famous American statesman and scientist. Franklin was the 15th child of a family of 17, born in Boston in 1706, who in 1746 commenced his famous researches in electricity. He brought out fully the distinction between positive and negative electricity, proved that lightning and electricity are identical and suggested that buildings may be protected by lightning conductors.
Humphrey may have told his enthralled audience of the Scottish engineer James Watt. Born in 1736, Watt was the first person to talk about horsepower. The Watt, a unit of power, is named after him. Watt described the steam locomotive in one of his patents and obtained patents for the sun and planet motion, the expansion principle, the double engine, the parallel motion, a smokeless furnace and the governor. James Watt died in 1819.
Another remarkable man of the Age of Enlightenment was the Italian nobleman Count Alessandro Giuseppe Anastasio Volta. Volta was born in Como in 1745. He was a physicist and the inventor of the electric battery. He developed the theory of electric current and discovered the electric decomposition of water, the electrophorus, and electroscope, and made investigations on heat and gases. His name is given to the unit of electrical potential difference, the Volt.
Humphrey’s audience contained perhaps many people of French descent. Those would have warmed to the orator’s mention of André Marie Ampère, the French mathematician and physicist, whose name was given to the basic unit of electric current (ampere or amp). Born in Lyon in 1775, he had a distinguished academic career and laid the foundations of the science of electrodynamics through his theoretical and experimental work of the magnetic effects of electric currents.
The subject of magnetism, particularly “animal magnetism”, was one that bordered on the occult in that hazy world between science and alchemy. Franz Anton Mesmer, born in 1734 near Konstanz, studied and practiced medicine in Vienna. About 1777, and after dissecting hundreds of innocent frogs, he began to develop the idea that there exists a power which he called animal magnetism. He travelled to France, where in collaboration with another medical doctor by the name of Jean Valleton de Boissière, he perfected his theory. To this day, Mesmerism or to mesmerise means to cast a spell on a person or hypnotise them. Anton Mesmer used magnetised iron rods to heal hundreds of people of a range of ailments. He in fact refused to sell his secret for £20,000!
At this point, Humphrey’s audience hung on to his every word. The great-grandson of that Dr. de Boissière, himself a doctor, and many of his other descendants lived in this island. The ideas expressed by this man of vision were remarkable, even fantastic. There was a sense of the young French novelist Jules Verne and his futuristic writing about Dr. Humphrey. As the evening closed and the oil lamps grew dim in their chimneys, his small audience dispersed. Outside, the huge full moon was rising over the Laventille hills. The little town of Port of Spain was already half asleep, after all, it was close upon 9 o’clock. Did the people of the audience imagine what impact electricity would have on the lives of their children and grand children?

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