Chapter

Out of the Guianas: The American Philosophical Society and the Eel

Stanley Finger and Marco Piccolino

in The Shocking History of Electric Fishes

Published in print August 2011 | ISBN: 9780195366723
Published online September 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780199897087 | DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195366723.003.0017
Out of the Guianas: The American Philosophical Society and the Eel

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The path of the electric eel as a pivotal organism in understanding how electric fish might function can be traced to the observations and scientific experiments that came out of South America at the start of the second half of the 18th century. This creature initially debuted in the British North American Colonies, where experiments on it were carried out in Philadelphia in 1773, and then in Charles Towne, the major port in South Carolina and the southern colonies, one year later. Although the American contributions to this story have attracted scant attention in the past, they beg to be presented, because they provided late-18th-century natural philosophers in Europe with important new information about the eels, their electrical discharges, and their electric organs. To put the North American contributions in perspective, this chapter begins with what Joseph Priestley had written about these eels just before news of the North American eel experiments reached England, and before Franklin's forced departure from England in 1775, which effectively marked the end of his direct involvement in the fish experiments. The chapter then covers the Philadelphia experiments of 1773.

Keywords: electric eels; electricity; Philadelphia; scientific experiments; Joseph Priestly

Chapter.  8419 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Neuroscience

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