Connecting Beyond: Oliver Lodge As A Communicator Of Science, Wednesday 8 July 2020, 10-11am (UTC+1)

We are running a live rountable session as part of the British Society for History of Science Global Digital Festival, 6-10 July 2020.

Our session is entitled ‘Connecting Beyond: Oliver Lodge As A Communicator Of Science’ and features Di Drummond, James Mussell, and Richard Noakes. Graeme Gooday will serve as chair.

The session will take place at 10am UK time (UTC+1). Anyone can join the audience and it’s free to tune in via the Festival site here. The session will also be recorded and available to watch from this link after the event.


This session’s participants are drawn from contributors to the recently published book A Pioneer of Connection: Recovering the Life and Work of Oliver Lodge (University of Pittsburgh, 2020). The roundtable builds upon this volume and looks beyond to explore new perspectives on how far, from the 1880s to 1930s, Oliver Lodge was an effective communicator of science and a local, national and international authority figure. Each of the three contributors will give a short (7-10 minute) summary of their views (abstracts below) and then will have a discussion between them on this core theme. The last 15-20 minutes of the session will involve audience discussion around such themes as ‘what would Oliver Lodge have made of the digital era?’ and ‘what lessons for the digital era might be gleaned from Lodge’s connecting together of seemingly disparate groups and topics?’

Dr Di Drummond (Formerly Leeds Trinity University), ‘Connecting Beyond the University: Principal Oliver Lodge as a communicator of science in the West Midlands, 1900-1945’

My contribution to the book, ‘Lodge in Birmingham: Pure and Applied Science in the New University, 1900-1914’, very much focused on the role of Lodge in shaping new applied science disciplines, together with the relationship between the pure and applied sciences, in the University of Birmingham itself.  

Focusing on material from the University’s own Cadbury archives, my chapter often only provided glimpses of Lodge’s role in communicating science to various individuals and organisations of Birmingham and the West Midlands. Future research ‘Connecting beyond the University’, could elaborate on this by employing the Cadbury Archive more intensively, and by using the archive collections, and published materials, of other organisations in the region. With this a more thorough understanding of Lodge’s role in communicating science there, not just through his lectures and publications, but also by the personal and professional connections and networks he made, would be gained.

Appointed as the first principal of the new University because of his long established ‘public profile’ in communicating science to the wider world, through his popular publications, lectures etc, Lodge took science out to the people of Birmingham and its hinterland. He was concerned to communicate science to people of every social class and background. In 1903 for instance, he gave a pubic lecture in Birmingham Town Hall on Radium, repeating it for working men at a later date.

Lodge also brought the wider scientific community to Birmingham. For instance the British Association for the Advancement of Science held its  annual conference at the University 1913 when Lodge was the Association’s President. This included tours for British Association members to various industrial and commercial installations throughout the area, excursions being facilitated by many of the industrialists who constantly rubbed shoulders with Lodge at the University’s Court of Governors.

It would be very worth while closely investigating the networks and personal links that Lodge made through the governors of the University of Birmingham, and the influence that this had upon their thinking (partially traceable through Lodge’s correspondence in the University of Birmingham and University of Liverpool Archives).

Of course in tracing Lodge’s connections, and influence on scientific understanding, should go beyond the University of Birmingham. Research in the archives of other organisations in the region (e.g. The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce),  societies (The Lunar Society), and of individuals would add to this understanding. Lodge was a member of other local bodies, his spiritual beliefs, coupled with his political ones (member of the Fabian Society), brought him into contact with people of many different backgrounds and social classes. A review of how far, and in what way, Lodge shaped this local Midlands understanding of science could be made by monitoring the reactions to the lectures and talks he made in the region, and through their reportage and the correspondence in  local publications. While this would provide a vision of Lodge’s influence in communicating science immediately beyond the University of Birmingham it should be remembered that as the World’s first civic university ‘Birmingham’ received an international focus (discernible through investigation on contemporary World-Wide publications).  Some of this interest was undoubtedly the result of the fame of the University’s first Principal, Sir Oliver Lodge.

James Mussell (University of Leeds), ‘Oliver Lodge and celebrity: decoding the Mariemont visitor’s book’ 

My talk considers the visitors book kept by Oliver and Mary Lodge during their second part of his career, when they moved from Liverpool to Birmingham, and then through retirement near Salisbury.  This page, in particular, captures what I think is so interesting about the visitors book.  It’s from May to July 1915: about halfway down the page is the signature ‘Raymond Lodge’.  Raymond was the Lodge’s youngest son, then serving as a machine gun officer with the South Lancashires in Flanders.  He was home for just four days.  Six weeks later he was dead.

Dead, but perhaps not gone.  In 1916 Oliver Lodge published what is probably his best known book, Raymond: Or Life and Death.  The book records the contact Lodge may or may not have had with Raymond’s spirit, scrupulously weighing the evidence regardless of what was at stake.  This is the page of Raymond that records Raymond’s visit to Mariemont.  The simple ‘Note by O.J.L.’ stands as a counterpart to that bare signature in the visitors book, bringing the two books into dialogue.  In my talk I want to do something similar.  These two books attempt to embody the intangible by recording bodies in time and space.  Whereas Raymond attempts to establish the unity of a single life, even after death, the visitors book records many lives but, focusing on a single place, brings into view what they all have in common: a relationship with the Lodges.  Whereas Raymond, then, attempts to provide a body for Raymond’s discarnate spirit, the signatures in the book record the marks made by bodies as they visited.  For Lodge the ether was both a medium in which personality could survive death and a flexible metaphor for social relations.  The visitors book, I will argue, provides a materialised counterpoint to the ether, its signatures tangible marks of togetherness in space and time.

Richard Noakes (University of Exeter), ‘Oliver Lodge’s Ethereal Attachments’

In 1926 a humorous poem about Oliver Lodge appeared in the leading comic periodical Punch.  It declared that having found the ‘mundane’ world too ‘cramping for his style’, Lodge had strayed into the ‘psychic sphere’ which seemed to the average Fellow of the Royal Society ‘A Lodge in some vast wilderness’.  By this time Lodge agreed that his interests in psychical research had damaged his scientific reputation in some quarters – notably among fellow professional scientists. But in many other quarters Lodge was still hailed as one of the most admired British scientists of the period and had certainly not drifted into the scientific margins or “wilderness”.

Until recently historians seem to have uncritically accepted Punch’s view of Lodge’s marginality.  His beliefs in psychic phenomena and the ether of space have proven particularly important contributions to this fall from grace.  This is mainly because of assumptions that most psychic phenomena were proven fraudulent or imaginary (and so Lodge’s position was unscientific) and that most movers and shakers in physics had abandoned the ether of space in the wake of the theory of relativity.  Lodge’s apparently heterodox beliefs, as well as his voluminous output of popular scientific, philosophical and religious publications, make him a very different kind of scientist than those that historians tend to associate with the invention of modern physics – Bohr, the Curies, Einstein, Planck, Rutherford et al.

But again, when we look at individuals other than those who seemed to have made the key contributions to modern physics, Lodge appears in a very different light.  As Imogen Clark has argued, his popular books on the physics of the atom, electricity, ether and energy persuaded many twentieth century readers that he was the go-to person on ‘modern’ trends in the discipline; and Jaume Navarro has rightly emphasised that in the growing number of popular magazines for wireless professionals and amateurs, Lodge was hailed as a pioneer of the field (mainly because of his syntonic tuning invention) and actually admired for upholding the ether because this concept fitted so well within quotidian wireless practices.

Historians are now much more likely to question Lodge’s scientific marginality, not simply by appealing to his phenomenal success in communicating to many different scientific and non-scientific audiences, but by acknowledging the significant status that the ether and the study of psychic phenomena enjoyed among professional scientific workers well into the 1920s and ‘30s.  But even here there’s been a reluctance to investigate the interconnections between the many different aspects of Lodge’s work.  In my recent monograph Physics and Psychics I have tried to counter this tendency by suggesting that Lodge’s interests in psychic phenomena encouraged aspects of his more purely physical enquiries.

This is particularly clear in the cases of telepathy and telekinesis, terms coined in the 1880s when Lodge began pursuing psychical research.  Telepathy is the supposed capacity of one individual to directly receive images and other impressions in the mind of another and by the 1880s plenty of Victorians believed evidence for its existence had been established.  Telekinesis describes the movement of material bodies through spiritualist seances by some unknown force and by the 1880s many Victorians (including Lodge) believed there was enough evidence for it to justify at least further investigation.   For Lodge both telepathy and telekinesis were exciting puzzles that, as he said in 1891, the ‘orthodox scheme of physics’ couldn’t explain and which therefore represented a ‘line of possible advance’ for the ‘King of the Sciences’.  There’s no doubt that Lodge was an imperialist when it came to physics.  In 1889 he upheld the successful application of Maxwellian electromagnetic theory to optics as the ‘annexation’ of optics to the ‘imperial science’ of electricity: telepathy and telekinesis were, to one degree or another, just more exotic territories to be annexed.

One of the most puzzling features shared by telepathy and telekinesis was their mechanism.  How were images ‘transferred’ between minds?  What forces moved untouched bodies though darkened seances? Did telepathy and telekinesis represent new forms of energy?  And if so, were they mediated by the ether that Lodge and other nineteenth century physicists claimed as the ultimate seat of so many other forms of physical energy and interaction?  For Lodge and some of his followers, the possibility of an etherial theory of psychic phenomena made the ether’s nature a more urgent problem than it already was.  Experimental investigations into ether drag by Michelson and Morley in the 1880s and by Lodge in the 1890s seemed to suggest that the ether was unlike any known material substance and followed laws – electromagnetic – more fundamental than Newtonian mechanics.  For Lodge, the ether’s weirdness made it a more plausible candidate as a mechanism for psychic mediation. His ether drag experiments took place in the wake of his first exposure to telekinetic effects and his energetic pursuit of the ether’s nature clearly owed something to this psychic puzzle.

The case of Lodge would be less interesting if it was unique or relatively rare – and it would reinforce the marginal status that he once occupied in the historiography of physics.  However, in Physics and Psychics I suggested that the creative interplay between ‘physics’ and ‘psychics’ was much more widespread than we have assumed.  There’s evidence to suggest that William Crookes’s celebrated work of the 1870s on the repulsive force associated with radiation was nurtured by his contemporary study of a psychic force exuded by spiritualist mediums; that electrician Cromwell Varley’s contributions to the pre-history of the electron were driven by a spiritualist preoccupation with the apparently material properties of immaterial agents; and that British wireless engineers’ Quentin Craufurd and Cyril Frost’s 1926 design for a radio receiver was shaped by their interest in picking up signals from the afterlife.  Although these examples are from Britain in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many other instances of the ‘psychic’ roots of scientific and technical creativity will doubtless be found because so many scientists and engineers were interested in psychical investigation.  And this will certainly help rescue Lodge from the ‘wilderness’ to which he’s so often been relegated.

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