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The shocking history of electric fishes : from ancient epochs to the birth of modern neurophysiology / Stanley Finger, Marco Piccolino.

  • Finger, Stanley
  • Books

About this work


"This book looks at how three kinds of strongly electric fishes literally became "electrical", and how they helped to change the sciences and medicine. These fishes are the flat torpedo rays common to the Mediterranean, the electric catfishes of Africa, and an "eel" from South America. The discovery of the electrical nature of these fishes in the second half of the 18th century was the starting point of the two fundamental advances in the sciences: on the physiological side, the demonstration that nerve conduction and muscle excitation are electrical phenomena, and on the physical side, the invention of the electric battery. Starting with catfish tomb drawings from Ancient Egypt and colorful descriptions of torpedoes from the Classical Era, the authors show how these fishes were both fascinating and mysterious to the ancients. After all, not only could they produce torpor and temporary numbness when touched, they could stun through intermediaries, such as wet nets and spears."--Publisher's website.


New York : Oxford University Press, [2011]

Physical description

xi, 470 pages : black and white illustrations, maps ; 29 cm

Bibliographic information

Includes bibliographical references (pages 429-457) and index.


The allure of electric fishes : Humboldt's obsession -- The shocking catfish of the Nile -- Torpedoes in the Greco-Roman world. pt. 1, Wonders of nature between science and myth -- Torpedoes in the Greco-Roman world. pt. 2, From therapeutic shocks to theories of the discharge -- Byzantine and Islamic writings -- Torpedoes : from the scholastics through the Renaissance -- Rediscovering the torporific catfish -- The "eels" of South America -- From the occult to mechanical theories of the discharge -- The electrical world of Benjamin Franklin -- Animal spirits and physiology -- First steps toward fish electricity -- The Dutch, the eel, and electricity -- Edward Bancroft's Guiana eels and London connections -- John Walsh's scientific journey -- The Royal Society and interdisciplinary science -- Out of the Guianas : the American Philosophical Society and the eel -- Alexander Garden : a Linnaean in South Carolina and Captain Baker's eels -- Sparks in darkness and the eel's electrical sense -- Public knowledge : newspapers, magazines, and "shocking" poetry -- Galvani's animal electricity -- Electric fishes in Volta's path to the battery -- Galvanism contra "Voltaism" : electric fishes and the "unsolvable" dilemma -- Electric fishes in the nineteenth century -- The changing neurophysiological setting -- Understanding the shock mechanisms : a twentieth-century odyssey.


  • English

Where to find it

  • LocationStatus
    History of Medicine
    Open shelves

Permanent link



  • 9780195366723
  • 0195366727