NPF: MESMERIZING

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 11th, 2014 by Ed

This isn't strictly "No Politics," but in a moment you will forgive me for mentioning Congress on a Friday.

In 1835 a Pennsylvania Congressman of no particular renown, Joel Sutherland, attempted to get his colleagues to pony up funding for the research and development of a rather far-fetched idea. A young tinkerer, Samuel Morse, made the outlandish proposal that information could be sent via electricity over a metal wire. Though this would eventually lead, obviously, to the invention of the telegraph, revolutionizing every conceivable aspect of society in the process, the scientific establishment of the day declared that this was pure fantasy.

Tangentially, while Mr. Morse indisputably invented the simple but effective dot-and-dash alphabet that bears his name, most sources put his contributions to the actual development and invention of the telegraph ranged from negligible to nonexistent.

As is still the case, Congress was not able to identify a good idea on the one occasion per session when one is encountered. Rep. Sutherland and Morse's other supporters in Congress could only get the chamber to appropriate $30,000 (about $750,000 in today's dollars) to Morse by promising to support funding for another congressional faction's pet project. And that is how the hallowed institution came in 1835 to appropriate not only $30,000 for Mr. Samuel Morse but also an additional $30,000 for one "Mr. Fish" to further his research on "mesmerism." This Mr. Fish, it was reassuringly noted, was "an expert mesmerist" in need of funding to support his "experiments in the mesmeric arts." Mesmerism was a pseudoscience that claimed to give an individual control over other beings (practitioners were divided on whether the arts could be applied to humans, animals, or both) using various hypnotic techniques and extrasensory perception.

It says a lot about how far-fetched ideas like the telegraph, telephone, and radio seemed to people during that era if it was roughly on par with mind control. It says even more about how little Congress has changed.