Victorian Speed of Life: The Video

Having suitably intrigued you about the projection shown on Victorian Light Night and/or made you sorry you missed it, we are excited to share video footage of “Victorian Speed of Life”, the light and sound show which arose from a research collaboration between Professor Sally Shuttleworth (and the Diseases of Modern Life team), and Ross Ashton and Karen Monid, aka The Projection Studio.

The show is designed to highlight areas of Diseases of Modern Life research on the experience of the pressures of life within the Victorian period. Of the many represented, see if you can spot sequences relating to the rise of the railways, (over)connectivity via the telegraph, environmental pollution, and the retreat to sea or countryside (places which, in turn, became overcrowded sites of pollution). And if you find today’s advertising annoying, there’s a nice sample of Victorian medical adverts here to reassure you that this particular strand of information overload was shared by your ancestors… Enjoy!

Oh what a – Victorian Light – Night!

On Friday 16th November Woodstock Road was a hive of activity for “Victorian Light Night”, part of both the national Being Human Festival and Oxford’s own Christmas Light Festival. The Radcliffe Humanities building (known by many as the former Radcliffe Infirmary) became the canvas for a unique light and sound spectacular created by the Projection Studio in conjunction with the Diseases of Modern Life project and TORCH.


The stage is set for the inherent theatricality of the Radcliffe Humanities building… (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)

The looped five minute show transported audiences from the rolling green countryside to the mad dash of Victorian mechanisation with its attendant steam, symptoms, and stresses. From the invention of the telegraph to the cholera contagion, the rise of patent medicines to cure the ills of modern life to the overcrowding of  previously peaceful seaside resorts, ‘Victorian Speed of Life’ was a whirlwind tour of the many difficulties facing our ancestors.

Torch Event by Ian Wallman

Beginning the influx of Victorian advertising: the public choose their poison, ahem, I mean, patent medicine.  (Photo credit: Ian Wallman)


Advert Overload! Source me some of that Neuralgine… (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)


In St Luke’s Chapel visitors played two research-informed card games: Dr Sally Frampton’s Mind-Boggling Medical Histories and Dan Holloway’s Mycelium. There was also a projection of work by students from Cheney School. Members of the Diseases of Modern Life team had previously been into Cheney School to present ideas about Victorian communication technologies and how the nineteenth century saw radical changes in the ways that people got around (the railways) and transmitted their thoughts and feelings (the invention of the penny post, the telegraph). In discussion, we thought about how these developments might be mirrored in modern-day use of such things as WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Skype. The Cheney students produced artistic responses to this presentation which ranged from poems, to pictures, to a song and even a 3D model of a Victorian zoetrope with a modern twist!

We also presented prizes to the winners of the projection competition, whose designs based on the ‘speed of life’ were projected onto the building by The Projection Studio. Seeing your artwork on the front of a three-floor building is quite the honour!


Winner of First Prize in the Projection Competition 12-year-old Freya Blundel receives her prize from (L to R) Ross Ashton of the Projection Studio, Professor Sally Shuttleworth and Dr Catherine Charlwood. (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)

Freya Blundel 1.jpg

Freya’s winning design featuring timepieces through the ages saw the building awash with colour. (Photo credit: The Projection Studio)


Inside the Mathematical Institute, we had a whole host of different activities and a series of flash talks offering an insight into the variety of research happening on the project. Members of the public also enjoyed creating their own weird Victorian Christmas card, following the strange trend for bizarre images – such as a frog dancing with a beetle, or a stone-dead robin – gracing the the front of Victorian festive post.


On the left we have Dr Alison Moulds with her ‘Death and Disease Behind the Counter’ stall, while on the right visitors have a go at ‘Messaging Madness’ as they tap out and decipher messages in Morse Code. (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)


Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown entertains a full house for her talk ‘A Victorian Christmas: Pies, Puddings & Indigestion!’ (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)


The evening wasn’t just about light shows, talks and activities though… In a collaboration with science troubadour Jonny Berliner, Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown and David Pirie danced to a song about Dr Taylor-Brown’s research.

‘The Stomach is the Monarch’ is a song and dance performance inspired by Victorian understandings of digestive health. Does being hungry make you grumpy? Have you ever said “you’re so cute I could eat you up?” Modern science is proving that our stomachs and minds are inexplicably intertwined, but the Victorians got there first!

Dancing the lindy hop, Emilie and David drew huge crowds of gastric health and history of science enthusiasts (and maybe just a few Strictly Come Dancing fans) as they brought research to life.


Dr Emilie-Taylor Brown and David Pirie mid-performance of ‘The Stomach is the Monarch’, to music by Jonny Berliner. (Photo credit: Stuart Bebb)


Throughout the evening, visitors enjoyed carefully curating an outfit from an array of props in order to have a photo taken at the Victorian Photo Booth, enthusiastically run by Decadent Times. After a long evening of engaging with the public, we let our beaver buddy – the mascot of St Anne’s College – fulfill her dream of wearing a top hat.

Anne's Photobooth

‘Tis important to be a dapper creature. Especially if you represent St Anne’s College. (Photo credit: Decadent Times)


Thank you so much to everyone who came out to Victorian Light Night – we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did!

An early episode in the history of electrotherapy in Japan

A recent visit to the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford saw me lingering a little more than usual in front of the electricity and galvanism section. I confess that until I began doing research for a doctoral dissertation on the history of telegraphy I didn’t care much about things electric. This is ironic, really, considering the fact that my father is an electrician. For as long as I can remember, he tried to initiate me into the mysteries of electric wires, conductors, insulators, static electricity and the like. It occurred to me that when I was really young he probably did it in a desperate attempt to keep me away from the sockets in the house, a source of constant fascination for my restless fingers. Later on, he tried to enlist my attention with the familiar refrain that, ‘You will need it one day’. I doubted it at the time, but life works in mysterious ways: as it turns out, my father was right.

Galvanism and electricity are familiar keywords for historians of science in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain. The amount of interest in the topic is impressive, as illustrated by numerous scientific and popular publications. There was not much electricity could not cure. A 1826 publication by M. La Beaume, ‘Medical Galvanist, Surgeon-Electrician, Consulting Ditto to the London Electrical Dispensary, Gratuitous Electrician to the Bloomsbury and Northern Dispensary, etc.’ advertises the author’s ‘new galvanic batteries’ and provides a concise survey of the medical applications of galvanism. We learn that galvanism affords relief from a great variety of ailments, among which are disorders of the digestive organs, of the head and the nervous system, ‘cachectic diseases’, diseases of the skin, gout, rheumatism, blindness, deafness as well as diseases ‘peculiar’ to one of the sexes. Of particular interest is the fact that La Beaume promotes galvanism as a safer and more beneficial substitute for mercury-based treatments. As he puts it, ‘Galvanism, skilfully administered, seldom requires the aid of any secondary agent to supply its deficiency, and never to remove injurious effects; it is not at variance with any constitutional temperament, nor can it superinduce any disease: in its application it is perfectly safe, pleasant, direct, and often instantaneously effective; it gives the patient no personal inconvenience whatever; and may be exhibited at all times to both males and females, of all ages and at all seasons of the year’ (p. 199).

But Europe is not the only place where electrotherapy attracted a considerable degree of attention from both scientists and the general public. A similar example comes from Japan, where the first references to electrical devices and their efficacy in the treatment of various diseases date from the Edo period, in the eighteenth century. Unsurprisingly, early Japanese encounters with electricity were mediated by Dutch electrical devices and texts, the only European country which was allowed to trade with Japan at the time. The first electrical device reached Japan via a merchant ship which sailed into Nagasaki in 1753, and took the form of a gift for the Tokugawa shogun. The earliest description of an electrical appliance, known in Japanese as erekiteru, can be found in the 1765 work of Gotō Rishun, Oranda banashi or Stories of Holland, which also contains references to its use in the treatment of diseases.


Illustration of an erekiteru

But it was Hiraga Gennai (1728-1779), a rōnin or masterless samurai born in the present-day Kagawa Prefecture on the island of Shikoku, who became famous for constructing the first electrotherapeutic device in Japan. Hiraga, a student of rangaku or ‘Dutch learning’, read Oranda banashi and, like many of his contemporaries, became fascinated with the ‘curious’ electrical appliances created in Europe. In 1776, after several years of trial and failure, he succeeded in repairing a discarded Dutch electrical apparatus which he had acquired during a visit to the port-city of Nagasaki.  In rather familiar fashion, if we consider the similar trajectory of such devices in Europe and even in India, Hiraga’s success was followed by public demonstrations of his apparatus; he also offered treatment to select clients and built other devices which were either sold or presented as gifts. Hiraga passed away in unfortunate circumstances only three years after constructing his electrostatic generator, but there are references to this device in his work Hōhiron Kōhen [On farting, Part 2], a biting satire of Confucian learning and high culture. Published in 1777, the work describes the erekiteru as a device which helps to ‘remove the heat (hi, lit. fire) from the body and cures diseases’.

Hiraga Gennai

Portrait of Hiraga Gennai (Keio University Library, Mita Media Center)

Incidentally, Hiraga’s wide-ranging interests did not stop at Western science and technology. He was also a prolific writer and painter, as the above reference to his satirical work suggests. In addition, he had an impressive knowledge of medical plants, having engaged in the study of materia medica under the renowned hōnzogaku scholar Tamura Gen’yū. His contribution to the study of natural history is demonstrated by the publication, in 1763, of a six-volume work entitled Butsurui hinshitsu [On the Distinction of Species]. Among his other activities were the construction of a thermometer, his surveys of mining and experiments with new mining techniques but also his attempts to find domestic sources for pottery and wool which would ameliorate Japan’s reliance on imported commodities. In 2003, the Edo Tokyo Museum organized a special exhibition to celebrate Hiraga’s multi-faceted life as an engineer, naturalist, men of letters and artist. A replica of his erekiteru is currently on display at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo.


Replica of Hiraga’s erekiteru at the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo (Wikimedia Commons)


Akiko Ito, “How Electricity Energizes the Body: Electrotherapeutics and Its Analogy of Life in the Japanese Medical Context”, in Feza Günergun and Dhruv Raina (eds.), Science between Europe and Asia: Historical Studies on the Transmission, Adoption and Adaptation of Knowledge (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011), pp. 245-58.

Lissa Roberts, “Orienting Natural Knowledge: The Complex Career of Hiraga Gennai”, Endeavour, 33 (2009), pp. 65-69.

Masahiro Maejima, Meiji jidai no denkichiryō ni kansuru kisoteki kenkyū [Basic Study on the Faradization Apparatuses in Meiji Era], Bulletin of the National Science Museum Tokyo, 28 (2005), pp. 13-20.

Ayao Kuwaki, Kagakushikō [Essays on the History of Science] (Kawade Shobō, 1944).