Just read an interesting paper by Robin Valenza, an English professor at U Chicago: “Fiction and the Factual, or, Why Were There no Female Mathematical Geniuses in Eighteenth-Century England?” Two things I enjoyed learning from this paper:
- There was a book called Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy Explain’d For the Use of the Ladies in Six Dialogues on Light and Colours. After its first mention, Valenza abbreviates the title winningly as Newton…For the Ladies.
- A popular form of entertainment in eighteenth-century England was provided by traveling showmen with Leyden jars, who went from town to town giving electric shocks to people who paid for the privilege. Here’s Elizabeth Carter, translator of Newton…For the Ladies, in a 1747 letter:
Was you ever electrified? We have an itinerant philosopher here, who knocks people down for the moderate consideration of sixpence, and men, women, and children are electrified out of their senses. This is at present the universal topic of discourse. The fine ladies forget their cards and scandal to talk of the effects of electricity. The squires flock out of the villages to bring themselves and their dogs to be electrified; and the very boys and girls in the streets break their teeth with long hard words in describing the wonders of ‘tricity. For fear, however, that the mere love of philosophy should not gain him a sufficient number of spectators, this High Dutch conjuror is likewise possessed of a curious puppet-show, where I suppose the whole system of electricity is exhibited by Punch, who I believe would explain it just as well as any body else, for all the philosophers seem marvelously perplexed on this subject.