Today, Ben Franklin will not be Mesmerized. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
It's 1784 in Paris. A Royal
Commission submits its report on Mesmerism. The
report is a masterpiece of clean, rational,
scientific analysis. But then, look who wrote it!
The Chairman of the committee is our ambassador to
France, Ben Franklin. He's the reigning expert on
electricity. Here's the French chemist, Antoine
Lavoisier. He first isolated oxygen. Ten years
later he'll lose his head on the guillotine. The
guillotine's inventor, Dr. Guillotin, is also on
For six years, Franz Mesmer has swept Parisian
society with his magnetic and hypnotic cures. He's
formed a theory of "animal magnetism." Illness
occurs when the flow of our natural electromagnetic
force becomes blocked. The wealthy flock to
Mesmer's salon to be cured by magnetic fluxes.
Mesmer is a German who came to Paris in 1778. He'd
been a close friend of Mozart's. In fact, we find
Mozart using Mesmer's magnets to cure one of his
characters in Così Fan Tutte.
Now these rationalists put Mesmer under their lens.
Stephen Jay Gould tells us they know they can't
look at animal magnetism directly. Mesmer claims it
has no material properties.
Nor can they study Mesmer's cures. No doubt he
cured many people just by keeping them out of
18th-century doctors' hands. What they can do is
look for the effects of animal magnetism.
So they replicate Mesmer's sessions -- over and
over. Franklin, Lavoisier, and the rest sit for
2½ hours at a time around a container filled
with magnetized rods. Like Mesmer, they play eerie
music on a glass
armonica. The glass harmonica, ironically
enough, was something that Franklin had developed.
Still, this strict and sober adherence to the
ritual fails to cure Franklin's gout -- or any
other illness in the committee.
Mesmer also made his cures available to the public.
He claimed to've magnetized certain trees in Paris.
You can cure yourself by hugging them. So they take
a Mesmer disciple to five such trees at Franklin's
home. He embraces one at a time. At the fourth he
falls in a swoon. But they've tricked him. They've
applied magnets only to the last tree, the one the
man never reached.
These rationalists finally did Mesmer in. Yet they
didn't end the belief that drove the fad. How could
they? We know perfectly well there's more to
healing than rational science can tell us.
Who on that committee could've foreseen the
magnetic dimension of modern scanners? What modern
doctor knows the dimensions, yet unseen, of future
healing? In the end, we catch a glimpse of Mesmer's
ghost -- riding in laser beams, X-rays, and
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds