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Forums of Validation and Forms of Knowledge: The Magical Rhetoric of Otto von Guericke's Sulfer Globe

From: Configurations
Volume 1, Number 2, Spring 1993
pp. 201-227 | 10.1353/con.1993.0010

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Forums of Validation and Forms of Knowledge:
The Magical Rhetoric of Otto von Guericke’s Sulfur Globe

Controversies over the premature public release of scientific findings concerning such issues as AIDS, cold fusion, and superconductivity have focused attention on the contemporary scientific norm that novel results should first be announced within professional forums for the judgment of peers, before the wider public, governmental agencies, or other public groups are informed. The assumption is that the professional community will first be able to judge the validity of the claim in camera and will then disseminate only reliable findings. It is felt that the authority of science might be undermined by the dissemination of dubious results as well as by revelations of internal uncertainty, argument, and contradiction—apparent concomitants of esoteric science (as noted by Ludwik Fleck over half a century ago 1), where knowledge only gets stabilized and simplified as one moves to the exoteric circles of the public.

But science was not always organized as it currently is, and in other times communication flowed in different channels with different social meanings. Our current system of science developed through evolving practices and institutions that first began taking shape in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The inventions of scientific societies, journals, editorial and review procedures, the genres of modern experimental articles and reviews [End Page 201] of the literature, grants and awards, the contemporary university, and many other now-taken-for-granted innovations have helped create the social field within which new findings are announced. 2 But how were findings announced before the emergence and solidification of our current forums? And what would the announcement of findings mean within those other social arrangements?

The history of electricity poses this issue sharply, for there we find many curious presentations of what we now consider discoveries, presented in forums and manners that we would not at all consider appropriate for scientific communication and consideration. These public displays and the published accounts of them clearly belong to other traditions and sets of social arrangements. These displays and their accounts are different from social actions that we would now consider scientific. Even as late as the eighteenth century we have such oddities as Stephen Gray’s use of a young boy to demonstrate conduction, and the great popularity of the Leyden jar in giving shocks and felling long rows of soldiers. Although we may now simply dismiss these as parlor games and children’s amusements (every high-school physics class still keeps such tricks popular), these events brought phenomena into a public space where they might be recognized and accepted as fact by relevant audiences.

Von Guericke’s Curious Sulfur Globe Demonstration

Perhaps the most unusual electrical display is that of Otto von Guericke’s sulfur globe, the earliest record of which dates from 1663. After molding a ball out of sulfur and rubbing it with his dry hand, von Guericke would levitate a feather above the ball. As he carried the ball raised on a stick about the room, the feather would float as it followed the ball beneath. To modern eyes, the event might seem more of a magic trick, aimed at our wonder rather than our understanding and critical thought. This odd bit of early science remained out of the main line of the emerging scientific community and its retrospectively labeled discoveries had to be rediscovered later in the eighteenth century. Yet von Guericke believed he was pursuing natural philosophy in the best way open to him, [End Page 202] and he saw himself as part of an emerging new philosophic understanding of the world. This essay will be an exploration of the rhetoric of his account of the display to see what kind of event he thought he was creating and the rhetorical world his account was part of. Particular attention will be given to the socio-politicalintellectual world of magic, of which the display seems so much a part.

From the perspective of modern science, Otto von Guericke is known more for his invention of the air pump than for the discovery of electrical repulsion, attributed to the sulfur globe demonstration. 3 Some commentators have also attributed...