German scholar Georg Christoph Lichtenberg found in the 1770s dust formations on his electrophorus, a new device for electrical experiments. These Lichtenberg Figures became famous as earliest visualizations of electricity. Their beauty captivated popular audiences, but they simultaneously aided the transformation of electricity from a scientific curiosity into a technology that would dominate the nineteenth century. This paper contrasts Lichtenberg’s observations of surfaces in arts and sciences with Johann Caspar Lavater’s practice of studying profiles in his new physiognomical “science” of which Lichtenberg was very critical. Lichtenberg’s discovery became possible by a careful distinction of artistic and scientific observation (one that Lavater fundamentally ignored), and an approach to the latter with a new eye for what would be called “scientific objectivity.” As a result, Lichtenberg’s practice and findings formed a matrix for emerging sciences and technologies in the early nineteenth century.


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pp. 375-400
Launched on MUSE
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