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Research Projects | Bakken Museum

Research Projects

Selected Research Projects


Anna Wexler (2015)
I am a Ph.D. student in the HASTS (History, Anthropology, Science, Technology & Society) Program at MIT, studying the controversy surrounding the home use of transcranial direct stimulation (tDCS), a non-invasive form of brain stimulation that is thought to provide a constant low level of electrical current to the brain. My time at the Bakken helped me situate the current contestations over tDCS in the larger context of the history of the home use of electrical stimulation in the United States. In particular, my dissertation compares tDCS to the device known as the “medical battery,” which in the late 19th and early 20th century was marketed to medical practitioners as well as consumers.  In my dissertation, I explore how both tDCS and the medical battery are unique products in the realm of electrical treatment, as both were sanctioned by science/medicine, yet simple enough in construction for cheap versions to be sold directly to consumers.

Joël Castonguay-Bélanger (2015)
Joël Castonguay-Bélanger is an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. He specializes on eighteenth-century France, on the relation between literary and scientific discourses, and more specifically on the role of social and cultural validation in knowledge production. His research at the Bakken Museum focuses on the discursive nature of the conflicts and controversies encountered by the dissemination of the theory of animal magnetism in France in the 1780’s. The understanding of animal magnetism at the time has been to a certain extent shaped by non-theoretical discourses that contributed to spread particular images, expressions, and aspects of the theory, and crystallised its social perception. To understand the extent of the cultural impact that mesmerism had in France, one needs to examine the pamphlets, poems, epigrams, songs, eulogies, plays, and novels that contributed to turn the medical doctrine into one of the most important cultural phenomena of pre-revolutionary France.

Darren N. Wagner (2015)
My current research focuses on theories, experiments, and applications of electricity in relation to medical understandings and therapies concerning sex and reproduction in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I particularly explore the following topics: electrical demonstrations; electrotherapies; electric theories of life; electric neurophysiology; experimental applications of electricity to people; Atlantic exchanges of electrical knowledge; and visual and literary references to electricity. Research completed while at the Bakken has enriched the final chapter of my monograph in preparation, Sexual Feeling: Sensibility and Generation in the British Enlightenment. Information about my academic background and research can be found at

Matt DiCintio (2015)
In my dissertation “‘Notice Is Hereby Given to the Curious’: Freaks, Beasts, Gadgets, and the Performance of Order in Early America.” I explore popular entertainments in the American colonies between the 1680s and 1800. Dwarves, strongwoman, two-headed calves, slaves with physical deformities, lions, tigers, and bears were all put on display in private homes and public houses. “Natural philosophers” also toured the eastern seaboard offering electrical demonstrations of dancing puppets, toy tightrope walkers, ringing bells, and exploding model houses (like those at The Bakken). I suggest early Americans created and attended these performances as a means of ordering an environment — and eventually a new country — that seemed always too precarious.

Dario Robleto (2015)
For almost all of recorded history, our relationship to the heart as movement and sound has been an ephemeral, fleeting event. There was simply no way to objectively record the ceaseless activity of the heart. However, in the mid 19th century, ambitious and ingenious attempts by scientists to first record and visually register these movements initiated a sequence of events that are part of a widely unknown history of the human heartbeat. Through a series of sculptures, installations, sound compositions and a book, the project entitled The Pulse Armed With a Pen: An Unknown History of the Human Heartbeat will creatively reconstruct this forgotten history by identifying key moments in its narrative.

María José Correa Gómez (2014)
I am a postdoctoral fellow (Fondecyt) and faculty member at Universidad Andrés Bello, Chile. My current research explores the relationship between the medical market and new therapies for nervous disorders in Chile, 1860-1920. It investigates the role of the therapeutic business in the legitimation of new medical ideas and practices regarding hydrotherapy, electrotherapy, mechanotherapy and pharmacology.
The experience at the Bakken helped me broaden and refine my research. Without the opportunity to spend time working with the Library’s holdings of electrotherapy and hydrotherapy, I would not have notice the richness of a transnational medical language shaped and defined (in part) by international networks of trade.  This experience also contributed to deepen my interest in material culture, having the opportunity to study in detail some therapeutic devices such as late-nineteenth-century magnetic belts.

Don Metz (2014)
My primary interest is the field of physics education with a special interest in teaching electricity and electrostatics. I was the principal writer of the Foundation for Implementation, Physics 30S and Physics 40S curriculum document for the province of Manitoba and I have conducted numerous workshops for science teachers on teaching electricity.  While at the Bakken museum I was particularly interested in the history of electrostatics and in identifying potential storylines to interest and motivate students.

Meredith Farmer (2014)
Meredith Farmer is a visiting instructor at Wake Forest University, who is finishing her PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her current research focuses primarily on Herman Melville's surprisingly unexamined relationship to science—or, more aptly, the way a set of scientific narratives (biology, chemistry, meteorology, electromagnetism) enabled Melville to think differently about the idea of the “person.” Her project, Melville’s Ontology, is under advance contract with Northwestern University Press. And she is also at work on a related short biography, which details Melville’s remarkable education in what we now describe as STEM fields.

This research has led Meredith to a number of different libraries and archives: most recently the Bakken, where she focused on the image of Melville’s Captain Ahab “fusing” his crew by distributing emotions that had “accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life.” This led her to topics like “electrical biology,” “electrical psychology,” and even “human electricity.”

Meredith’s work on literature and science has also led to projects on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Natural History of Intellect,” Stephen Crane’s relationship to work on cognitive science, and the origins of detective fiction. She is currently developing a course on hurricanes. And she is avidly following the development of hybrid fields like “environmental humanities” and “medical humanities”—and developing entirely too many  “second” projects: the rise and fall of work on meteorology in the 19th century; the literary, scientific, and technological community in Albany in the 1820s; and the development of academic disciplines before the Civil War. 

You can learn more about Meredith’s research and teaching at or on Wake Forest’s website.

Peter Heering and Cibelle Celestino Silva (2014)
Approaching the early history of the Leyden Jar

The Leyden jar comes into the scientific word in late 1745/early 1746. Following traditional accounts, the instrument was invented independently by Ewald Jürgen Kleist on the one hand and Pieter van Musschenbroek and Andreas Cunaeus on the other. Despite the (at least after some initial problems) reproducibility of the intensifying effect, the explanation came only a few years later with Benjamin Franklin’s work on electricity.

Our particular interest lies in analyzing the period between the first announcement of the device and the explanation of the effect. We aim at analyzing the steps that were taken (both successful ones as well as those who were experienced as a dead-end) in order to develop an understanding of the device. In this respect, we are particularly interested in experimental approaches, consequently, we are going to use apart from the classical approaches in the historiography of the sciences also the attempt to re-enact certain experiments.

Liza Blake (2013)
Liza Blake is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, specializing in the intersection between medieval and Renaissance literature and the history of science. While at The Bakken Library she researched the works of Franz Anton Mesmer and their reception. In particular, she focused on 1) Mesmer’s idea that his experiments with his patients pointed to a need to reconceptualize basic principles of physics, and 2) Mesmer’s contemporary Bergasse, who imported Mesmer’s philosophical discoveries into other realms of thought, including political philosophy.

Irene Brown (2013)
Current research and practice is focused on the history of science, in particular, wonder and visual display, investigating the threshold between aesthetic and scientific realms.  Irene is the instigator and curator of ‘The Gallery of Wonder’ a conference point and exhibition facility for research into the evocation of wonder. Influences are many and eclectic but centre strongly on cabinets of curiosities, museum collections and her, own extensive collection of artefacts.

Kij Johnson (2013)
Kylen: The Moveable City is a novel set in 1778. Londoner Fanny Grafton St. George, the daughter of a prominent natural philosopher and wife to a mid-level diplomat in the Southern Department, finds herself suddenly relocated to Tashkent in Central Asia.

Dan Martin (2013)
Artifact identification is about expectation. Archaeologists (and others) see what they expect to see. The sheer volume and type of artifacts that can be found at historic-era sites can preclude definitive identification, especially when those artifacts have been smashed, burned, trampled and crushed at the time of deposition or later. In the welter of detail it is difficult for archaeological analysts to see what is actually there. Reasonably accurate identification can only be achieved when an intact artifact has been examined, recorded and placed in a cultural context that can explain its use and meaning.

Given the cultural and temporal distance between the period during which personal electric power belts were popular and our own I am not surprised that they have not been identified in archaeological contexts. For this reason, a careful study of intact examples is essential in identifying these belts at archaeological sites.

Brandy Schillace (2013)
My current book project, A Subject Dark and Intricate: Identity Dissolution and Mental Disruption in Eighteenth-Century Gothic Fiction seeks to explore the electrical, neurological and reproductive sciences at the naissance of Gothic literature in the late 1700s (the “other” fin de siècle).

Katherine McAlpine (2012)
Although several authors have approached the rise and fall of electrotherapeutics and medical electricity in the late Victorian period, scant attention has been paid specifically to the electromechanical vibrator. Information that is available about the technology tends to focus on a single aspect of the history. Rachel Maines’ The Technology of Orgasm focused on how vibrators were used as a treatment for hysteria. However, vibrators were used by a number of different users. My research is focused on identifying the different users of vibrators, including general practitioners, medical electricians, masseurs, physiotherapists, nurses, beauticians and home consumers.

Aimee Slaughter (2012)
I am working on my dissertation on American radium therapy and the involvement of physicists with the development of this field. Knowledge of physics, and the direct involvement of physicists in academia, industry, and medicine, was important for the establishment of radium therapy and its acceptance by the broader medical community. Radium therapy was used for a wide variety of illnesses — especially considering the array of medical consumer products containing radium (and many more claiming to contain radium) available — but was most effective at treating cancer. Radium therapy was, because of this, most closely identified with cancer and became an important part of cancer care as it moved into hospitals in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Amy Fisher (2011)
Studies of animal experimentation and the human body generally fall under the scope of historians of medicine and biology while many historians of the physical sciences only mention it in passing. Yet, a significant number of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century electricians, including Benjamin Franklin, Henry Cavendish, and Alessandro Volta, used their own bodies and other organisms in their electrical research. For example, in his letter announcing the invention of the pile (battery), Volta discussed the experiments he had conducted with it on his physical extremities. William Nicholson, an influential British experimental philosopher and popularizer of science, reported that Volta had attached metal wires to each end of the battery and placed one lead in each ear: “A peculiar sound, like crackling or boiling, was heard; but the author did not think it prudent to make this experiment repeatedly.” What did natural philosophers, like Volta, hope to learn from self-experimentation of this kind that could not be learned by other types of electrical experiments?

Because these experiments fall between different historiographical traditions, they remain largely unexamined. My project analyzes how and why different electricians used their bodies in their research, how this information compared to data obtained from physical and chemical experiments, and why certain kinds of experimental methods came to be valued over others. Lastly, this work considers how electricians’ practice of animal and self-experimentation related to trends in eighteenth and nineteenth-century chemical and medical research, demonstrating the benefits of a more integrated history and philosophy of science.

Ray Lee (2011)
Returning to The Bakken in December 2011 I was able to explore the Radionic devices in more depth. Over the period of my week long stay I was able to closely examine much of The Bakken’s Radionic collection and my close examination involved drawing, photographing and carefully disassembling and reassembling some of the devices.

Rachel Plotnick (2011)
Despite an indisputable reliance on pushbuttons, scholars know strikingly little about how the technology functions as a social object. Indeed, what is a button? How does it transform in different historical moments, cultural milieus, and social spaces? To begin answering these questions, my dissertation project will probe discourses and practices surrounding buttons in order to understand how a seemingly mundane and inanimate technology has come to occupy a central role in everyday life.

Natasha Rebry (2011)
My aim at The Bakken Library and Museum was to conduct archival research towards my doctoral dissertation exploring the influence of hypnotism, mesmerism, animal magnetism and spiritualism on a range of nineteenth century scientific discourses.

Daphne Rozenblatt (2011)
The research I conducted at The Bakken focused on bioelectricity and electrotherapy in the European, and specifically Italian context from the late nineteenth century through the beginning of the twentieth century. My task was to build up a background, based on secondary and primary documents, in which to contextualize Dr. Enrico Morselli, the subject of my doctoral dissertation research.

Alfons Zarzoso (2011)
The main purpose of my project was to conduct research and to discuss museological practices in order to produce an exhibition on “the electric heart.” Next to this aim, that research was necessary to understand the context of emergence and definition of cardiology as a new medical specialty in the first third of 20th-Century Catalonia. The second aim of my stay at The Bakken consisted of acquiring a good knowledge of the collection of medical and scientific instruments in order to know how these items are related to exhibits and education programs.