Thursday, May 3, 2012

An evening of curiosity and bewilderment on which a butterfly enchants audiences in London and Paris

Shelford Bidwell, Original apparatus for telegraphic photography, 1881. National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, UK. Source: Science Museum, London

Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? Some quantum physicists think so. But for sure Shelford Bidwell’s (1848–1909) fugitive glowing picture of a butterfly on the screen of his „apparatus for telegraphic photography“ set off his contemporaries’ fantasy and convinced them that „seeing by electricity“ would achieve functionality within a few years. After presenting his device at the Physical Society of London on 26 February 1881, Bidwell brought it to the venerable Royal Institution. His presentation on Friday, 11 March 1881, was one of the famous Friday Evening Lectures Michael Faraday had established at the Royal Institution in order to make science accessible to the capital’s educated audience. These lectures were society events and equal in splendour to an evening out at the opera. Men and women showed up dressed in their finest evening attire.

On 11 April 1881 Bidwell presented his device on a scientific reception in honour of Professor Helmholtz at London University College. A contemporary report tells us more: „Perhaps the most interesting experiment of the evening was the transmission of pictures of natural objects by telegraph, the picture of a butterfly most beautifully transmitted by means of a selenium plate. This was shown by Mr. Shelford Bidwell’s telephotographic machine.“ (Nature, April 14, 1881) Bidwell was an engaging speaker and his presentations were sought after attractions in the science world of 1881. Another presentation scheduled for 26 May 1881 at the London Society of Arts was cancelled „in consequence of Mr. Bidwell’s severe indisposition“. Again, on 5 September 1881, Bidwell showed his device to the 2.500 visitors of the annual meeting of the British Association in York, and on 24 September 1881, on the very well attended Exposition Internationale d’Électricité in Paris.

The audience started dreaming. „The telephotograph of Mr. Shelford Bidwell even gives us the hope of being able, sooner or later, to see by telegraph, and behold our distant friends through a wire darkly . . . With a telephone in one hand and a telephote in the other an absent lover will be able to whisper sweet nothings in the ear of his betrothed, and watch the bewitching expression of her face the while. . ." (The Electrician, December 3, 1881)

Bidwell’s device is currently located at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, in Bradford, UK.

Exercise: Would you have liked to attend a 19th century science presentation in London or Paris? Do you even own a formal suit? What does it take to present at a scientific academy or scientific audience? A cool invention that produces a loud bang and a lot of smoke? What do you think of free waffles and ice cream? Music? Read all about Chaos Theory and the catastrophic quantum chaos beautiful butterflies cause obliviously and in most cases without even apologizing.

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