Of all the strange and fearful weapons with which Nature has endowed some of her creatures to aid them in the struggle for existence, perhaps the most wonderful is the electrical discharge. Impalpable, it strikes at a distance like a flash of lightning, but if it takes its proper victim unawares… it has this element of compensation and even of mercy, that it probably kills without pain.
By the time James Munro wrote these words, scientific investigations into the electrical properties of torpedo fish and electric eels had been underway for over 200 years. His observations emphasise how their fascination, stretching back to antiquity, was still bound up with their mysterious and sinister potential to harm. The fearsome power of the torpedo inspired poetic disquisitions by classical writers such as Claudian:
Who hath not heard the dire Torpedo’s fame,
The strength, the power denoted in its name?
What though its form is tender, and its pace
Scarce leaves upon the sands a languid trace,
With subtle poison Nature arms its sides;
Throughout its frame a freezing influence glides,
Which binds all life and heat in icy chains,
And native winters dwell within its veins.
Until the 18th century, electric fish were still thought of in more or less fantastical terms. Seen as both wonderful and dreadful, these fish were thought to possess occult properties. Artemidorus Daldianus, a second-century Greek diviner, wrote that dreaming of a torpedo fish was a bad omen, indicating imminent danger and connivance. In Medieval and Renaissance accounts, electric fish were to be found in bestiaries alongside such monstrous animals as dragons, griffins and basilisks. After Franklin’s discovery that lightning was another form of electricity, the interest in ‘torporific fish’ was renewed, and they began to be scrutinised through a scientific lens.