The Taming of the Electric Ray: From a Wonderful and Dreadful “Art” to “Animal Electricity” and “Electric Battery”

  • Marco Piccolino

The period spanning from the second half of the seventeenth century up to the end of the eighteenth century is marked by a truly paradigmatic episode of the transition between the classic science, still imbued with the themes of the wonderful and fantastic, and modern science based on experimentalism and objectivity. This episode concerns the study of strange fish capable of producing, at the simple contact of their body surface, a numbness or rather a violent shock. Two of these fishes were already known to the classical world since very ancient times (the torpedo and the Nile catfish). A third species, a singular eel of the rivers of tropical America, came to the attention of naturalists only in the second half of the seventeenth century, within the climate of the scientific revolution and of the interest for exotic countries. In addition to representing a fundamental transition in the knowledge of the phenomena of the animated nature, the episode of these fish (which would be called electric) was important also because it opened the path to two of the most revolutionary episodes of the Enlightenment science: the demonstration of the electric nature of nervous conduction by Luigi Galvani and the invention of the battery by Alessandro Volta (see Piccolino & Bresadola, 2003).


Royal Society Eighteenth Century Seventeenth Century Electric Organ Philosophical Transaction 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marco Piccolino
    • 1
  1. 1.Dipartimento di BiologiaUniversità di FerraraFerrara

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