Such performances engaging bodily sensation heightened the audience’s experience of drama, wonder and astonishment. But they did not only thrill, they also aimed to educate. The scientific instruments devised and employed in demonstrations were put to investigative as well as entertaining use (not to mention profitable ones – demonstrations helped stimulate the design, manufacture and ultimately advertising of electrical instruments and gadgets).
The 18th-century craze for electrical performance also provided fertile ground for more dubious practitioners, such as the renowned quack James Graham. Graham, a self-styled specialist in sexual health, opened his Temple of Hymen in Pall Mall in 1781. Its centrepiece was the Celestial Bed, which he claimed could help couples with marital and fertility problems. Its chief ‘remedy’ was based in static electricity: the bed was insulated by glass rod supports, which allowed it to become charged.
According to Graham, the charged atmosphere was “calculated to give the necessary degree of strength and exertion to the nerves” and the users’ charged bodies could ejaculate fluids more vigorously. Rental of the bed was an eye-watering £50 a night and was guaranteed to bless its users with progeny. For desperate couples this was no joke: here electricity was touted as a force that could heal and bring forth life.
Though the sparks, shocks and haloes of electrical demonstrations elicited amusement and wonder, there was also room for fear and unease. Some attendees of electrical soirées refused to participate for fear of being electrified. Just as the untamed natural electrical phenomena of thunder and lightning prompted terror and awe, manmade electricity had a similarly perilous potential. Developments in the later 18th and 19th centuries would further emphasise the disquieting connection between electricity and death.