Fall 2005

The Old Curiosity Shop

The philosophical instruments of Benjamin Pike Jr.

Peter Thomashow

All material bodies may be distributed into two classes, unorganized and organized. The descriptions of organized bodies constitutes the science of Natural History ... to Natural Philosophy belongs the inquiry into those general principals of unorganized bodies ... by the use of proper apparatus we can repeat natural phenomena under varied conditions, and, among all attendant circumstances, we can determine what are accidental, and what are essential to any given effort.
—Benjamin Silliman, First Principles of Natural Philosophy

It is 1848 and it is New York City. You are strolling down Broadway and come to a shop displaying devices of wonder meant to dazzle the observer with knowledge of the latest scientific discoveries—apparatuses designed to stimulate the imagination and create a sense of discovery and curiosity for phenomena pertaining to the world of Natural Philosophy. The establishment is that of Benjamin Pike Jr.—a manufacturer and importer of mathematical and philosophical instruments.

This elegant shop is a place where science, magic, invention, and entertainment intersect. Pike is a merchant who sells a vast assortment of philosophical instruments to educators, lecturers and physicians; but also to gentlemen who may wish to amuse parlor guests. Important scientists are known to gather here to discuss their latest ideas and experiments; the proprietor can aid inventors in having their prototypes built.

You enter the shop at 294 Broadway after gazing at an impressive array of objects in the window. Beautiful carved cabinets line the walls with displays of astronomical, magnetic, galvanic, pneumatic, optical, chemical, hydrostatic, mechanical, and electrical demonstration apparatus. Models of the solar system hang from the ceiling; planetaria and telluria also sit on tables at the center of the shop. Maps hang on the walls; globes are perched on shelves; and telescopes stand on the floor. There is a section in the back with lacquered brass microscopes under glass bell-jars.

As you walk down the corridors created by these cabinets de physiques, you notice a display of electromagnetic medical devices with broadsides describing the various ailments that can be cured or relieved by their application. There is a list of local physicians on Broadway (and a few on Canal Street) who have purchased many of these award-winning devices and utilize them in their practices. Some are portable and meant for house-calls. You read that “nervous diseases, rheumatism, bronchitis, loss of voice, sprains, deafness and many other diseases” have been successfully treated using Pike’s Rotary Magnetic Machine. There is a large sign advertising this “new magnetic machine for medical purposes” hanging prominently on the front of his shop.

Pike, or one of his assistants, is available to demonstrate many of the apparatuses. Particularly fascinating is the array of new electromagnetic machines; it is most remarkable to experience how the invisible force of magnetism can make wheels rotate mysteriously or even transmit intelligence through a copper wire! Pike sells at least five of the machines recently invented by Dr. Page of Massachusetts.

At the shop, you can purchase a copy of Pike’s Catalogue of Mathematical and Philosophical Instruments. It is his greatest achievement: a compendium of over 700 pages that includes “upwards of 750 engravings, mostly original designs” spanning the world of Natural Philosophy. It is a two-dimensional version of the shop and describes almost everything he sells. One local newspaper writes, “The work is not a mere catalogue; it is a museum to which lovers of science may resort and where they may examine the various apparatus which have been contrived to illustrate and explain the phenomena of nature.”

There is an advertisement on page 284 of the second volume for a wonderful set of electrical apparatuses. It costs thirty-one dollars and fifty cents. One large electrical machine creates “fluid” that can be utilized to charge all kinds of interesting devices—sportsmen, egg stands, orreries, chimes, thunderhouses, swans, dancing figures, and luminous spiral tubes. These are but a few of the most beautiful, sparkling, and sublime electrostatic contrivances, all powered by the invisible fluid of electricity.

The next scheduled demonstration is Saturday at ten.

Electrical Sportsman. A polychromed, hand-painted model of a hunter resting on a walnut base measuring 13" x 4" with a Leyden jar and pith birds (missing.) This electrostatic demonstration apparatus was sold by many different manufacturers of philosophical instruments, including Benjamin Pike, in the 1840’s. He writes, “When the bottle is charged to a certain extent, the distance between the muzzle of the gun and ball near it will not be sufficient to restrain the passage of the [electric] fluid, which will therefore pass between them, occasioning at the same time a flash of light, a loud report and the falling of birds.” Photos Geoff Hanson.
Electrical egg stand. Consists of wooden frame and three wooden stands to hold as many eggs. This electrostatic accessory is made of mahogany and stands 7’ 5/8" tall. The Pike catalogue reports that as “a shock is passed through the eggs by touching the upper ball with a discharging rod … the eggs will become beautifully luminous, the shock in passing will make the sound as if the eggshells were broken, as indeed they will be if the shock is large … the eggs, if eaten immediately, will have a strong taste of phosphorus; and will very soon afterword become putrid … when broken, the white and yolk will be found completely intermingled with each other, if several shocks have passed through the eggs.”
Electrical Thunderhouse. This device illustrates the concept of a lightning rod. Pike writes, “The identity of the electric fluid with lightning was one of the first established relative to atmospheric electricity, and as it was the first in time, so it is also in importance to us, teaching not merely the origin and properties of that mighty power of nature, but also how to escape from its direful effects. [This] little arrangement amusingly illustrates the use of a continuous conductor. To Franklin, whose active mind was constantly directed to practical application of the facts disclosed by science, we are indebted for the suggestion of a method of partially defending buildings from the dreaded effects of lightning.”

Benjamin Pike Jr., Pike’s Illustrated Descriptive Catalogue of Optical, Mathematical, and Philosophical Instruments, Manufactured, Imported, And Sold By The Author; With The Prices Affixed At Which They Are Offered In 1848; With Upwards of 750 Engravings, Mostly Original Designs from the Experiments of His Establishment in the Various Departments of Electricity, Galvanism, Magnetism, Electro-magnetism, Pneumatics, Hydrostatics, Mechanics, Optics, Astronomy, Surveying, Navigation, Meteorology, Chemistry, &c, &c. Designed to Aid Professors of Colleges, Teachers, and others, in the Selection and Use of Illustrative Apparatus, in every Department of Science (New York: Published and Sold by the Author, 1848).

Peter Thomashow is a physician, artist, and collector currently living in Vermont. He teaches at the Dartmouth College School of Medicine. The article on Benjamin Pike Jr. in this edition of Cabinet is from his forthcoming book on philosophical instruments and their makers. He is currently working on a series of Philosophical Amusements and Dioramas.

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