Sympathetic Attractions: Magnetic Practices, Beliefs, and Symbolism in Eighteenth-Century England
By Patricia Fara
Princeton, 317 pages, $45

For an epigraph to Sympathetic Attractions , Patricia Fara might revealingly have chosen the haunting words with which L. P. Hartley begins The Go-Between : “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” Certainly Fara’s fascinating peregrinations through magnetic practices, beliefs, and symbolism in eighteenth-century England capture the fact that our ancestors were a far-fetched and outlandish bunch, superstitious or quixotic as often as empirical or rational.

And since Britannia, in those days, ruled the waves, Fara often finds herself voyaging through strange seas around the globe. Readers who have sampled Dava Sobel’s remarkable best-seller Longitude will find much to enjoy in Sympathetic Attractions , for Fara also explores, in more encyclopedic detail, how various pure and applied sciences quickened England and its growing empire during the eighteenth century. But where Sobel offered a fast-moving narrative enlivened by picturesque vignettes and by snippets of scientific lore, Fara’s slower-moving, scholarly work wends its way through an intricate succession of intellectual, social, and spiritual landscapes. Sympathetic Attractions introduces us to the professional dynamics of natural science, the challenges of exploration, the stunts of charlatans, the literary riffs on magnetism, and the theological lucubrations on scientific metaphors for God’s agency and love”together with arresting interactions among them all.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the moral of Fara’s book is the inverse of the “moral” encapsulated in the subtitle of Sobel’s: The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time . For Sobel the story of magnetism is the story of the dogged autodidact John Harrison, a carpenter and village choirmaster from Yorkshire who designed the almost frictionless marine chronometers essential for calculating longitude. By contrast, Fara recreates a rough-and-tumble world that embraces salesmanship and crackpottery as well as genius and craftsmanship, a world that produced not only Harrison’s successful solution (itself dependent upon skilled clockmakers) but also oddball “magnetical” proposals involving ethereal theories of electricity or even stabbed dogs. (When a “sympathetic powder” was applied to the offending knife at noon in London, the shipboard canine, his wound kept raw, would ululate on the other side of the world, thereby acting as a living timepiece.)

If Fara inclines towards a hero (or anti-hero), it is Gowin Knight, whose story hinges upon self-promotion rather than lone genius. “The greatest Master of Practical Magnetics that has appear’d in any Age,” according to Benjamin Franklin, Knight rose from a provincial background, excelled at Oxford (where library books actually moldered from lack of use), sparkled as a society physician in London, and ended his career as live-in principal librarian at the British Museum. In between gambling unsuccessfully on Cornish mining projects, hobnobbing (more remuneratively) with the nobility, and hustling his “Machine for Making Artificial Magnets,” Knight achieved fame and fortune as an heroic inventor of the first scientific compass, “which is now used aboard all our vessels of war.” Fara compellingly unfolds the big picture as well as displaying a sharp eye for quirky detail and memorable anecdote. At the British Museum, for example, the irascible Knight bricked up a staff toilet after he had become irritated by innumerable colleagues trudging past his window.

In introducing her large and colorful dramatis personae”one that encompasses admirals, explorers, instrument makers, astronomers royal, coleporteurs, Royal Society virtuosi, electrical bed salesmen, visionary poets, scatological engravers, rebarbative dons, mesmerists, and loopy parsons”Fara too often slops up the jargon favored by today’s “cutting edge” sociologists of science. This alphabet gruel of “domains,” “imbrications,” “interactive shapings,” “contests for cultural authority,” ad nauseam, has lost whatever flavor it may once have had. “Examining compasses as conceptually unstable objects will enable us,” Fara promises, “to explore the fluid boundaries between shifting communities.”

But the author’s intermittent resort to such slippery terms of art”which in nearly anyone’s prose scrape like nails on the proverbial chalkboard”will not seriously impede her general reader’s enjoyment. The author of several popular works on science, Fara knows how to unveil an eighteenth-century panorama that will delight and instruct an audience swelling beyond her own peers. Stylistic infelicities aside (her watery lexical formulae are rendered lumpy by her undue reliance upon participial constructions), Sympathetic Attractions represents the history of science at its contemporary best.

Did you know that the Royal Navy was, during the eighteenth century, “by far the world’s largest organization”? Neither did I. Nor did I know that Erasmus Darwin”botanical poetaster extraordinaire, grandfather to Charles Darwin and to Francis Dalton”“enlivened his dinner parties by sending an imitation magnetic spider scuttling across a silver salver.” Or that Edmond Halley, posthumously commemorated in a comet, faced down his mutinous crew on the Paramour during a scientific voyage across the Atlantic in 1699. Or that navigators were so ignorant of the effects of iron on compasses “that the binnacle was used by Cook for storing the keys to his leg irons, by William Bligh for his pistols, and by soldiers as a convenient prop for their muskets.” If one captain could not believe that a cargo of iron in the hold had sent compass readings haywire, many more banned garlic and onions from their vessels, fearing malign effects on compass readings. Some masters distrusted the instruments so much that they took bearings by viewing distant objects along their hands; as late as 1800 a do-it-yourselfer acquired the nickname of “Chop the Binnacle.”

No lodestone is left unturned by the truffling Fara. Bountiful endnotes”tirelessly unearthed from commonplace books, tombstones, authorial marginalia, admiralty files, mathematical playing cards, and other recondite crevices”afford abundant opportunities for intellectual grazing. Not only can Fara find her way around a virtual museum of surviving instruments, but she also knows how miscellaneously machines were depicted: illustrations range from Henry Croker’s perpetual motion contraption (which worked in Barbados) to engravings of therapeutic ordeals such as the tub of Mesmer. Especially enlightening are the performances Fara obtains from so many of the era’s literati: not only do Dryden, Swift, Johnson, Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Coleridge, and the Shelleys (among others) quicken Sympathetic Attractions , but Fara brings their magnetical musings and doings into sharp new focus.

About the pidgin mumbled by the scholarly herd when circulating in (or negotiating with) our brave new academic world of “blurred genres” and “interdisciplinarity” I have already kvetched. Yet Sympathetic Attractions shows that even methodologically shaky trees may bear fruit. Not only does Fara want to rout Whig historiographers of science who see the past merely as a prelude to their own superior enlightenment, but she also wishes to map cultural and material coordinates foreign to those of us who know how “scientist” achieved a first definition in 1833 when William Whewell coined it as an honorific for Faraday (that is, she demystifies “connotations concealed from modern viewers accustomed to compartmentalized knowledges and practices”). If her social constructionism remains trendy, Fara proceeds with an empirical gusto that exposes the myriad applications of magnets during the eighteenth century.

Before Faraday conjoined magnetism and electricity, the lodestone afforded spiritual alternatives to a Newtonian theory of action at a distance, a theory that British followers of Jacob Boehme and John Hutchinson saw as an affront to (their own version of) biblical revelation. “All things have magnetical Effects and Instincts towards God,” declared William Law; the Bishop of Norwich asserted that Our Lord had revealed Himself as a magnet. In Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno such pseudo-science flowered as magnificent poetry. Deftly anatomizing debates between Newtonians and Hutchinsonians (which also embodied political allegiances), Fara reminds us that intellectual trench warfare in church and university boasts a venerable and venomous lineage.

Theological and philosophical disputes did not interest mariners, who wanted Knight and other experimentalists to equip them with the most reliable instruments at the best price. Fara shows Knight’s gifts as a huckster no less expertly than the trinitarian nuances of Hutchinson’s ether. That there was a continuum between brazen charlatanry, intricate parlor tricks, splashy public presentations by bona fide practitioners, and what we would esteem today as laboratory experiment Fara demonstrates in a splendid series of examples, but she refrains from reducing science (as some historians have) to one deception among many. Sympathetic Attractions overflows with good things, creakings and groanings notwithstanding. Does Fara succeed in unveiling the past as a foreign country? As I gaped at Hutchinson’s dexterity with such jots and tittles as the claim that biblical pearls and rubies are really lodestones, I was reminded, abruptly, of such present day etymological strainings as those in Martin Bernal’s much pilloried Black Athena . In my own time in school, I learned from my headmaster (whose Ph.D. had been supervised by Ernest Rutherford in the Cavendish Labs) that “atoms are God’s billiard balls.” Today this remains the only scientific fact about which I don’t have to think twice: God may not play dice, but he does enjoy a nice game of snooker. Come to think of it, the present is a foreign country too.

Hugh Ormsby-Lennon teaches eighteenth-century literature at Villanova University.