NPF: MESMERIZING

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.

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30 Responses to “NPF: MESMERIZING”

  1. Daphne Says:

    My mother, a WAC, taught Morse Code during WWII. She also translated the message "the war is over."

  2. carrstone Says:

    Ah, the eye of the beholder …. I see the Morse story more as the triumph of private capitalism over government intervention.

  3. Xynzee Says:

    "*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."

    Say what you will, the fact remains that he got the $30k ($750k), so he must have done something right.

  4. Sarah Says:

    I [also] see the Morse story more as the triumph of private capitalism thanks to government intervention (very much like the internet).

    Fixed that for you.

  5. Misterben Says:

    @carrstone

    "eye of the beholder"? Your implication seems to be that Ed is saying we have government to thank for the telegraph.

    I don't think that's the thesis of this post.

  6. Mother Robertwell Says:

    By 1835, Morse was an established painter, not just a tinkerer. So, it's more like, "what if Cy Twombly got money from the US government to help develop telecommunications satellites?"

  7. democommie Says:

    I don't know if Mr. Fish was an adept at mesmerization when it came to animals or humans but it certainly worked with the politicians.A

    When the transcontinental railroad was being built the U.S. and various state governments transferred approximately 180 million acres of public land to the companies building the railroads. Mr. Morse's (and Fish's) monies were a pisshole in the snowbank of federal largesse to private companies and individuals.

  8. well mostly Says:

    Well, the Morse code funding helped a lot for awhile but has fallen by the wayside. Mr. Fish's notions, on the other hand, seem to be still in use. I bet someone in VP Cheney's office found some notes and thought "Maybe this mesmerizing thing is how we get the Iraq invasion through Congress."
    Does anyone have a better explanation for how that happened?

  9. c u n d gulag Says:

    Congress got some money together for Morse?

    Our MSM will now mock Al Gore for saying he invented the telegraph.

    This will be good for John McCain.

  10. anon Says:

    Ah, I found something here.

    This suggests 1843 is the correct date, that the mesmerist was named Mr. Fisk (and that the Secretary of State at the time was Mr. Fish, which — lucky for me — meant those incorrect search terms worked).

  11. anon Says:

    (Oops, that was a followup to a comment still awaiting moderation.)

  12. Skipper Says:

    So basically supporting mesmerism was the first instance of the government giving taxpayers' money to "faith-based" organizations.

  13. anon Says:

    Wait, one more update:

    This other source, which reads as though a transcript of the 1843 House session, suggests that 1) the additional appropriation for mesmerism studies was suggested as a joke and taken as a joke, 2) that it wasn't an additional 30k for mesmerism, but rather an amendment to split the original 30k between Morse and Fisk, and 3) that the amendment failed, granting the entire 30k to Morse in the end.

    This post made for such a good story! But it appears to be a false one.

  14. buckyblue Says:

    Wait, our comments are being moderated?

  15. Ed Says:

    Comments with multiple links to external URLs automatically go to moderation in WordPress.

  16. mothra Says:

    Whether the mesmerism funding was a joke or not, it is worth remembering that this was just about the time Joseph Smith was getting a bunch of people to believe he had been given gold tablets by an angel named Moroni… He wasn't the only crackpot coming up with new religions, at that time, either. His just stuck better. Probably because of the plural marriage part. Everybody love a God who says it's okay to take on multiple teen brides. Except maybe the teen brides.

  17. Dookie Says:

    Wait wait wait…the "scientific establishment" can get stuff wrong? Really?

    I thought we were supposed to accept anything they said as rock solid truth…and that anyone who dares to question them were to be labeled as "deniers", "right-wing whack jobs", and the like.

    And we were supposed to pass laws and change how we live our lives based on the prevailing wisdom of the "scientific establishment".

    But now that they can appearently get something wrong…damn. I mean…who knew?

  18. democommie Says:

    "Wait wait wait…the "scientific establishment" can get stuff wrong? Really?"

    This is news to you?

    Regardless, it wasn't the "scientific establishment", unless you consider making the legisausage, "Science".

  19. Major Kong Says:

    And we were supposed to pass laws and change how we live our lives based on the prevailing wisdom of the "scientific establishment".

    No, of course not. We're supposed to pass laws and change how we live our lives based on the writings of a group of nomadic bronze-age sheep herders.

  20. Scott Says:

    @Dookie: Yes, scientists in 1835 were (apparently) wrong about something they hadn't looked into. Once they studied it, they changed their minds. That's what science does.
    I assume you're ranting about climate change, which a lot of scientists have looked into rather carefully, and which the vast majority of scientists agree is real. (Those who are not being paid by the fossil fuel industry, anyway)
    If you think otherwise, you haven't been paying attention.

  21. Skipper Says:

    @Dookie. Nice straw man you have there. Science has never claimed to have the absolute final answer on anything. But yes, we are supposed to make public policy based on the best science available to us at the time. Mesmerism was always bunk, but the moral of the story is that so-called "compromise" in Congress gets us a lot of bunk. Call yourself "faith based" and you can flim-flam almost any amount of money out of the treasury.

  22. Csicopper Says:

    Science will change it's mind with evidence. So called faith based lunacy, never.

    Mothra is right. At this time a lot of bizarre things popped up. Spiritalism's foot was well in the door too.

  23. Sarah Says:

    No, of course not. We're supposed to pass laws and change how we live our lives based on the writings of a group of nomadic bronze-age sheep herders.

    Win.

  24. Funkhauser Says:

    Syracuse University has the Moynihan Center for Public Policy, an excellent research institute named for a former professor of political science who devoted a lifetime to evidence-based public policy-making. Of course, to get the Moynihan Center funded, the Congress also had to endow the Thurmond Center at Clemson University. Because Strom Thurmond is famous for….. getting re-elected, living long, and being a Dixiecrat. Also, keeping his illegitimate daughter hush-hush.

  25. jaf Says:

    Note to Mothra: If you were a woman in the pre-electrical-appliance age, being in a household with two or three other female people to help with the 'woman's work' might have been an appealing idea. Also, if she were no longer a teenager, with few prospects for non-spinsterhood…

    And in the age of Saturday-night bathing, getting swived only once a week might not be such a hardship ;-)

  26. greatlaurel Says:

    I am old enough to have had a number of relatives born before electricity was in use. None of the women joined a polygamous sect to reduce their workloads. jaf's statement is ridiculous. It is a total fail of logic just like the racists who state how much slaves liked being owned because someone else was taking care of them. Same type of thinking to try to make your ownership/control of other humans acceptable. Not being married is not the worst thing that could happen to any person, either. What happens to all the young men who cannot find mates because all the girls are married off to the older men.

  27. Kaleberg Says:

    Morse knew his way around Washington. He was a painter, and one of his big customers was the US government which often commissioned paintings to commemorate battles, new canals, inaugurations and other such stuff. Nowadays, they'd hire photographers, but that wasn't an option back then. If you keep your eyes open in DC, you'll see some of his paintings.

    The $30,000 he got was used to build a prototype line from Baltimore to DC, the one that transmitted "What hath God wrought?". He might not have been the first with an idea for an electric telegraph, but his coding scheme and technical ability made a difference. It's a lot of miles form Baltimore to DC, and you couldn't just buy insulated wire or batteries off the shelf. He had to get the whole scheme working: wires, transmitters, receivers, insulators, poles, batteries and so on. The telegraph was too risky a technology for private business, but Morse and his connected friends in New York (e.g. Fulton of steam boat fame) knew that a new republic needed a technical infrastructure. (A lot of these guys also pushed for a boondoggle called the Erie Canal that made the US the wealthiest city in the country.)

    He wasn't the first high tech type to take advantage of government long range thinking. Eli Whitney scammed the Continental Congress, even before we had US, to fund a set of rifles with interchangeable parts. The idea was French. His demo was rigged. He never succeeded in his lifetime, but his son Eli Whitney Jr. and Sam Colt got the scheme working. By the late 19th century, every manufacturer was using "armory practice", because the government did things right.

    The US still makes good money producing electronics gear, though it took a fair bit more government backing to get the telephone system, satellites, the internet and the like up and running. We also still make a lot of money selling guns, and the automobile industry, among others, wouldn't have existed without interchangeable parts.

    As for mesmerism, we call it hypnotism nowadays, and it is a real phenomenon. There are altered mental states, and the government still studies them for a variety of reasons: medical, military, curiosity. Granted, we use fMRIs, psychoactive drugs, light stimulation of neurons and other updated techniques, but it's the same basic human brain. We still don't have a lot of practical results from studying mesmerism, but remember, for a long time electricity was also a parlor game where some savant would charge up a Leyden jar, form what we'd call a Conga line and shock everyone in the room.

  28. Xynzee Says:

    @Kaleberg: great post. If you haven't already, try reading "Thread Across the Ocean". It's about the transatlantic telegraph line. You might enjoy it.

  29. Bill Murray Says:

    The Mesmerism funding being a joke does seem likely as it was barely 50 years since Franklin, Lavoisier, Guillotin and a few others disproved Mesmerism at Franklin's residence in France

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