‘Transported Shiver of Bodies': Weighing the Victorian Ether

‘Transported Shiver of Bodies': Weighing the Victorian Ether

Steven Connor

This paper was given as a lecture at the conference of the British Association of Victorian Studies, University of Keele, 3 September 2004.

The ether is a thoroughly nineteenth-century notion, and the period during which it was toiled and tussled over by physicists fits very neatly into the frame provided by the century. The nineteenth-century career of the ether began as the century itself clocked on, with the experiments by Thomas Young in 1801 that demonstrated interference patterns produced by two beams of light. This suggested that light moved in the form of waves, which produced bars of increased brightness where the crests of the waves coincided, and bars of darkness where the troughs overlapped. It was not easy for Young’s theory to make headway in Britain against the corpuscular theory of light that predominated in England, but his work was developed and verified over the next two decades in France by Augustine Fresnel and François Arago. If, as Boyle and others had amply demonstrated, light travelled through a vacuum with no observable diminution of speed, then it seemed reasonable, and indeed necessary, to assume that there was some medium to carry the light. Young favoured a stationary ether, one completely unaffected by the motion of material bodies or the passage of waves through it: ‘I am disposed to believe, that the luminiferous ether pervades the substance of all material bodies with little or no resistance, as freely perhaps as the wind passes through a grove of trees’ (Young 1804, 12-13). By the middle of the century, the existence of this medium, universally diffused, unimaginably tenuous, but indispensably existent, was widely accepted, at least among British, which is in fact largely to say Scottish and Irish, physicists.

It is customary for historians of the ether preoccupation to date the beginning of its demise, at the other end of the century, from the so-called Michelson-Morley experiments, of 1881 and 1887; indeed, late in his life, Einstein paid tribute to Michelson as having made relativity possible. Albert Michelson followed up a suggestion made by James Clerk Maxwell in his article ‘Ether’ in the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica that if there were an ether, then it could be expected to exert a drag on the earth as it moved through ether-filled space, similar to the drag exerted by a river on the hull of a boat. This ought to result in light travelling at slightly different speeds in different directions. Michelson devised and executed a superbly elegant experiment to test this hypothesis. There was no such variation: light travelled at precisely the same speed in all directions, indicating that there was no ether-wind to urge or retard its course depending on the direction it was trying to travel. Michelson and Morley’s measurements gave impetus to the appearance in 1905 of a paper modestly entitled ‘On the Electrodynamic Properties of Moving Bodies’ by one Albert Einstein, In suggesting that the space is not the simple and invariant container of matter, light, magnetism and gravity, but is itself subject to transformation as a result of them, the special theory of relativity is taken to have rendered the ether superfluous to requirements. Promptly, without protest, and with only the faintest expiring sigh, so the story goes, the ether ‘ebbed quietly out of the universe early in the twentieth century’ (Beer 1996, 298).

As usual, this story of centenary infancy, heyday and demise is an artefact. William Thomson could still be heard declaring in 1884 in a popular lecture on the wave theory of light he gave in Philadelphia that the ‘luminiferous ether’ was ‘the only substance we are confident of in dynamics. One thing we are sure of, and that is the reality and substantiality of the luminiferous ether.’ Of course, it might be said that this was a kind of defiant, dying flare of the ether hypothesis, as theorists and experimenters tried desperately to respond to the Michelson-Morley challenge. In fact, though arguments and experiments were mounted to try to rescue the ether from the Michelson-Morley experiment – for example, the whirling ether machine built by Oliver Lodge to show that the earth carried portions of the ether along with it – the many writers who published on this topic during the 1890s show little attempt to respond to Michelson and Morley’s debunking of the ether, or even awareness of the experiments. So there is a sense after all in which, in cultural-epistemological terms at least, the ether does indeed display a very considerable drag coefficient. It is scarcely surprising that the ether should have survived into and recurred in the twentieth century too.

Indeed, there is a sense in which the theory of relativity may have naturalised and perpetuated some aspects of ether thinking, rather than dispelling it. The idea of the ether may lie behind and make possible some of the thinking about space which has become possible, not just in science, but in geography, architecture and cultural studies. The ether stood for the absolute space which Newton’s theories required, space in other words conceived simply as a neutral frame or container within which the drama of cosmic force and matter could be played out. But conceiving ether as the matter of space, or space as a kind of matter, made that space torsive, mutable, productive. In the idea of ether, wrote Einstein, a quarter of a century after he was supposed to have evacuated it, ‘space gave up its passive role as a mere stage for [physical events… The ether was invented, penetrating everything, filling the whole of space, and was admitted as a new kind of matter. Thus it was overlooked that by this procedure space itself had been brought to life.’ (Einstein 1929). In one sense, the ether had to be dispensed with in order for space to be drawn into the relations of reciprocal transformation on which theories of relativity depended. In another sense, ether theories make that very transition possible.


Most poetic and literary uses of the word ‘etherial’ in the nineteenth century connote a traditional notion of unreality or fragile spirituality. But there was nothing in the least etherial in this sense about the conceptions of the ether developed by nineteenth-century physicists. Assuming as they did that the ether was a mechanical as well as a philosophical necessity, nineteenth-century British physicists did everything they could to give mass and dimension to this enigmatic, and hitherto imaginary substance. The history of the ether is a history of the pondering of the imponderable. This pun is at the heart of ether-thinking, in which the question of whether the ether could indeed be regarded as having weight was central. Was it stationary, a notional frame or necessary nothing, a mere, minimal that-through-which optical and, later, electromagnetic waves might pass? Or was it a something, with its own extension, mass and ponderability? If so, did it act like a fluid? Or like a sponge? A jelly? A foam? Was it completely elastic, or, by contrast, almost entirely rigid?

Among the many theories of the ether which appeared during the 1890s, when the orthodoxy of the idea of the ether in physics produced many pseudo-scientific speculations entirely free of any mathematical or experimental support, was Alfred Senior Merry’s bizarre view, expressed in his pamphlet Interstellar Aether of 1891, that the universe was made up of two elements, broadly identifiable as electricity and heat, which Merry called ‘thermine’ and ‘electrine’. (There is no direct connection with the instrument called the theremin, which was named after its inventor Leon Theremin, though it is intriguing to note that it was originally known as the ‘etherphone’.) Merry insisted that what was thought of as forces ought to be thought of as having material existence, and might even have mass, but pointed to an interesting difficulty arising from the idea that the ether was a kind of matrix within which the world of matter existed.

the general objection to this is that they are imponderable; but in the first place, as they are probably the cause of attraction of gravitation, there is no reason that they should be subject to the law which they themselves create; in the second place, they may have very great weight. But it has hitherto been impossible to prove this, as we have never been able to create a vacuum free from Electro-thermine; and therefore, as air cannot be weighed in air, or water in water, so also Electro-thermine cannot be weighed in Electro-thermine – for, as I admit, interstellar space is occupied by, and all matter permeated with it. (Merry 1891, 6-7)

The central problem that the hypothesis of an ether is designed to solve is how gravity works. If the ether perhaps transmits gravity in the same way as it transmits light, then what could it mean for it itself to have mass, and therefore to exert a gravitational force? The ether cannot originate or explain a force to which it is itself subject. The idea of the ether arises precisely out of an interference between weight and lightness.

The effort to try to conceive and characterise the ether as literal, actual and massy led to one of the most remarkable subsidiary episodes in the nineteenth-century history of the ether. In 1867 William Thomson witnessed a demonstration by his friend and fellow-physicist P. G. Tait of a machine for the production of smoke rings. Thomson was reminded of an essay by Hermann Helmholtz (1858) he had encountered through Tait on the stability of vortexes within water. Smoke rings demonstrated the same kind of stability: although smoke rings are simply localised patterns of air-flow, they behaved as though they had density and resistance: two smoke rings meeting each other would kiss and bounce away from each other like bubbles or billiard balls.

Thomson’s intuition (1867) was that atoms might be regarded as this kind of whirling or torsion, though not within air or water, but within ether. Thomson’s theory of oscillating vortex-rings – or ‘worbles’, as James Clerk Maxwell called them, after Helmholtz’s ‘Wirbelbewegungen’ (Maxwell 1890, 2.247) – was the most important of a number of theories which proposed that matter itself might be a kind of contusion or convolution in the ether. The ether thereby underwent a kind of ontological promotion. No longer merely that which lay between things, the inert and docile soup studded with beads of matter, the ether became primary, an ur-matter, or quasi-matter, out of which all things were made. One of the advantages of this view for more religiously orthodox scientists was that, though the stability of vortex rings in a frictionless medium would mean they would last eternally, as atoms seemed to, they could not be regarded, for that very reason, as able to arise through some accident or evolution in the state of the ether; they required an act of precedent creation. On the other hand, there were religiously orthodox scientists, like P. G. Tait, whose smoke rings had precipitated the ether-knot hypothesis in Thomson’s mind, and whose influential book The Unseen Universe, written with Balfour Stewart and published anonymously in 1875, made the ether a central part of a religious argument. Stewart and Tait were concerned at the requirement that a creator should have to have intervened to modify the state of a perfect fluid to create ether-vortices, and preferred to postulate originary wrinkles in the fluid to allow for their evolution.

For thirty years or more, long after the ether was supposed to have been rendered defunct by the Michelson-Morley experiments, British physicists attempted to develop models and equations that would substantiate this view that matter is formed from episodic knots in nothingness (Kragh 2002). Such views may have been particularly popular among crackpots and cranks, but they also prepared the way for a view of matter which dispensed with the absolutes of Newtonian mechanics. Late in the 1920s, John Wills Cloud was arguing in his Castles in the Ether and The Ether and Growth, that the ether consisted of tiny particles he called ‘Ethrons’, packed tightly together, like shot. Matter existed in the interstices between these ethrons. ‘All matter is therefore in the ether, and the ether is in all matter, so that every material form is an image of the ether within it, in the sense of having the same outlines. (1928, 9). Cloud went further to suggest that the ether was ‘the sole source of all evinced mechanical energy and…provides the material for the genesis of matter’ (1928, 20).

Some have seen the ether as marking the final stage of classical physics, a last writhe of the naïve demand that the universe must be shown to be made out of something, some ultimate and universal substance, rather than arising immanently out of relations and reciprocities. This view could be used to assist a mechano-materialist theory like Tyndall’s peculiarly rhapsodic evocation of the evolution of life, form and intelligence from disorganised, nebulous matter:

the more ignoble forms of animalcular or animal life, not alone the nobler forms of the horse and lion, not alone the exquisite and wonderful mechanism of the human body, but that human mind itself – emotion, intellect, will, and all their phenomena – were once latent in a fiery cloud. (Tyndall 1871, 163)

The ether may have appeared in this light as a pulsing residue of this primal nebula, performing a function similar to that of the cosmic microwave background, at which contemporary cosmologists peer in the search for clues as to the originary constitution of the pre-explosive universe. For more traditional religious thinkers, such as William Whewell, the ubiquity and complexity of the ether was the sign of a transcendent divine purpose. Whewell’s 1833 Bridgewater Treatise argued that the ether

must not be merely like a fluid poured into the vacant spaces and interstices of the material world, and exercising no action on objects: it must affect the physical, chemical and vital powers of what it touches. It must be a great and active agent in the work of the universe, as well as an active reporter of what is done by other agents. (Whewell 1833, 138-9)

The mere fact that there should be in the universe ‘a machine as complex and artificial, as skilfully and admirably constructed’ as the ether, Whewell continued, ‘is well calculated to extend our views of the structure of the universe, and of the resources, if we may so speak, of the Power by which it is arranged’ (Whewell 1833, 139, 140). For Whewell, ‘[t]here is nothing in all this like any material necessity, compelling the world to be as it is and not otherwise’ (Whewell 1833, 140). But the marvellous complexity of the ether is precisely what underpins John Tyndall’s materialist argument, which suggests that, when nature itself displays this kind of complexity, there is no need to posit a creator. So, although it is true that, in Peter J. Bowler’s words, ‘[t]he ether became a vehicle by which the universe could once more be seen as a unified whole with a purposeful structure’ (Bowler 2001, 89), this very same attitude could also support a materialist view. The materialist and the providentialist in fact seem to employ the same argument, about the extraordinary complexity of the effects flowing from what seems to be a primary and ubiquitous substance in the universe.

The ether could certainly be regarded as dissolving all certainties about matter and life in the universe. Oliver Lodge, who was to remain one of the staunchest defenders of the ether well into the 1920s, making it the central principle of his belief that physics could verify the truth of survival beyond death and communication with the dead, concluded in his Romanes lecture in Oxford in 1903 that ‘the whole of existing matter appears liable to processes of change, and in that sense to be a transient phenomenon’ (Lodge 1907, 23). Joseph Conrad was among those who seemed most shaken by the dematerialising power of the new physics. He wrote in a letter of 9 September 1898 to Edward Garnett

The secret of the universe is the existence of horizontal waves whose varied vibrations are at the bottom of all states of consciousness. [Matter] is only that thing of inconceivable tenuity through which the various vibrations of the waves (electricity, heat, sound, light, etc.) are propagated, thus giving birth to our sensations – then thought (Conrad 1962, 143)

John Davidson, who probably read of the ether in Ernst Haeckel’s popular book The Riddle of the Universe (Sloan 1995, 215) similarly referred to it as ‘omnisolvent ether’ (Davidson 1907, 117).

From the late 1880s onwards, occultists and supernaturalists seized upon the idea of the ether, thereby becoming themselves a medium of transmission from specialised physics to popular understandings and, even more slowly, to modernist artists, the most advanced of whom tended to catch up with scientific ideas about two decades after the readers of popular science they so despised. As G. N. Cantor has shown (1981), these occultists and supernaturalists found in the ether a materialist confirmation for the traditional assurances of religious and mystical thought that the universe was entire, harmonious and self-consistent. Conrad concluded his reflections on waves with the statement that ‘there is no space, time, matter, mind, as vulgarly understood, there is only the eternal something that waves and the eternal force that causes the waves’ (Conrad 1962, 143). In his Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in 1904, the Conservative politician Arthur Balfour freely conceded the principle that ‘gross matter, the matter of everyday experience, [is] the mere appearance of which electricity is the physical basis’ (Balfour 1904, 9), meaning that ‘the beliefs of all mankind about the material surroundings in which it dwells are not only imperfect but fundamentally wrong’ (Balfour 1904, 21). In the new physics, he quotably declared, ‘matter is not merely explained, but is explained away’ (Balfour 1904, 18). And yet, he argued, ‘without the ether an electric theory of matter is impossible’ (Balfour 1904, 10). Balfour thus joined many others in seizing on the ether as the underlying principle of continuity in the universe, the guarantee that, amid all this incessant tremulous dissolution, there was a principle of continuity, a bottom line, a ne plus ultra:

Two centuries ago electricity seemed but a scientific toy. It is now thought by many to constitute the reality of which matter is but the sensible expression. It is but a century ago that the title of an ether to a place among the constituents of the universe was authentically established. It seems possible now that it may be the stuff out of which that universe is wholly built. (Balfour 1904, 10)

In fact, one might see in the convolutions of thought and value about the ether in the period of early modernism, as an anticipation of modernism’s own somersaulting attempt to found a system of value in immaculate mid-air, in the absolute absence of all absolutes.

Shiver of Bodies

We are accustomed to the idea that the nineteenth century was very concerned with the nature and status of matter. But the ether had another kind of dimension in this period. On the one hand, it was a simple convenience, called into being by the logical necessity for there to be some kind of medium through which light and other radiating impulses might travel. Seen in this way, the ether need have no qualities in itself, other than that of being able to transmit impulses and undulations. On the other hand, it is clear that these impulses do not simply pass through the ether like light through a window pane, for, whether the waves it transmits are longitudinal or transverse, the transmission of the wave is effected by local movements within the ether itself, just like the movements of individual particles of water which produces waves and ripples in the sea. This point of view sees the ether as actively present and involved in the transmission of the wave, rather than merely its vehicle or occasion. Physicists for the most part concerned themselves with the physical properties – optical, mechanical and, later, electromagnetic – of the alleged ether. But the extension of the notion of the ether into areas of medicine, the occult and popular science meant that it began to function more and more as a mode of sensitivity or susceptibility, as a kind of entity, or quasi-vital substance, rather than a form of matter – space, in Einstein’s phrase, brought to life, in a line of thinking which reactivated the Stoic pneuma, the active fiery principle which pervades and animates the cosmos.

Many of the evocations of the ether stress its quasi-animate or animating nature. In such evocations, the ether is a kind of prototype for the sensitive flesh that it will slowly bring about. John Tyndall stressed the intimate and almost immediate bodily connection between the distant stars and the observer’s eye

This all-pervading substance takes up their [the stars’] molecular tremors, and conveys them with inconceivable rapidity to our organs of vision. It is the transported shiver of bodies countless millions of miles distant, which translates itself in human consciousness into the splendour of the firmament at night. (Tyndall 1871, 4)

Tyndall’s ‘transported shiver of bodies’ might be thought of not just as putting bodies in contact with one another, but also as bringing bodies into being in the first place, as electricity induces a magnetic field and vice versa.

These ideas resonate strongly in the work of Walter Pater, whose ‘Conclusion’ to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1868) is full, not just of images of inconstancy, but also of regular pulsation: it evokes ‘intervals’, ‘recoil; ‘the waste and repairing of the brain under every ray of light and sound’, ‘that strange, perpetual, weaving and unweaving of ourselves’, under the influence of ‘impressions’ that do not merely cascade upon the sensibility of the subject, but oscillate, with inconceivable rapidity. Pater’s pulsations are also anticipated by Emerson, who insisted in his essay ‘Experience':

Man lives by pulses; our organic movements are such; and the chemical and ethereal agents are undulatory and alternate; and the mind goes antagonizing on, and never prospers but by fits. We thrive by casualties. (Emerson 1884, 45)

Quality comes down to quantity, intensity to an effect of number, life consisting in the end merely of ‘a counted number of pulses’, an accountancy of intensity. The nineteenth century began to make substantial and quantificable an earlier theory of the unity of sensations, the distinctions between the senses being simply in the range of frequencies and periodicities to which they were sensitive.

This way of thinking, reviewed by Roger French in his ‘Ether and Physiology’ (1981), locates the ether, not just in interstellar space, but also in the human body, conceived of, not as fixed form or clear outline, but as a tremulous cloud of sensations and reflexes. The idea of explaining the senses and sensitivities of the body in terms of etheric fluids has its origins in the doctrine of the animal spirits inherited from humoral psychology, and has a more specific source in the etheric fluid posited by David Hartley in his Observations on Man of 1749. Hartley suggested that all sensation has its basis and physical form in vibrations, imparted to and by a subtle fluid running through the nerves. He notes, indeed, that his notion of the ether derives from Newton’s speculations in his Principia. Hartley’s ideas seem to have spilled out of the narrow context of his associationist psychology, and out of the nerves into the spaces between human bodies.

The propagation of the two waves of mesmerism-theory, during the 1780s and early decades of the century, and then again between 1840 and 1880 depended on the belief in an ether-like magnetic effluvium, which pervades the universe, but is also concentrated in and emanates from living beings. Rather than an ether in which we are immanent or by which we are assailed, the magnetic effluvium was a kind of voluntary ether, or ether-on-elastic, which could be extruded, stored, concentrated and manipulated. Even after the apparently authoritative demonstration by a Commission appointed by Louis XVI in 1784 that there was no such fluid, there was a strong tendency to identify it with the elastic ether, and the return of ether theories in the nineteenth century contributed significantly to the revival of mesmerism. J. S. Grimes, a theorist of phreno-mesmerism, the curious blend in which mesmerism was revived in the middle of the nineteenth century, called the magnetic fluid ‘etherium’, and the study of its effects ‘etherology’ (Grimes 1850).

In 1874, Benjamin Ward Richardson, a prolific writer on a huge range of sanitary and temperance questions, attempted a soberer revival of the idea of the nervous ether. Within all living creatures, he proposed, there was an agency which mediated between the matter of which bodies were composed and the forces to which they were subject. This agency was the conductor of the vibrations of heat, light, sound, electromagnetic impulses and mechanical friction. Richardson envisages this substance as ‘a finely diffused form of matter, a vapor filling every part, and even stored in some parts; a matter constantly renewed by the vital chemistry; a matter as easily disposed of as the breath, after it has served its purpose’ (Richardson 1874, 368). It functions as ‘an intercommunicating bond which connects us with the outer world; which is apart from the grosser visible substances we call flesh, bone, brain, blood…which receives every vibration or motion from without, and lets the same vibrate into us, to be fixed or reflected back; and which conveys the impulse when we will an act and perform it’ (Richardson 1874, 368-9).

High Orgasm

Most histories of the concept of the ether have been conducted in terms of the physics which first deemed it necessary, and then dispensed with it. But we have begun to see that there are other contexts and usages which could not help but drift into thinking about the ether, considered as a broader cultural practice of thought. William Thomson is reported as having said in 1896 to George Fitzgerald: ‘I have not had a moment’s peace in respect to electromagnetic theory since November 28, 1846. All this time I have been liable to fits of ether dipsomania, kept away at intervals only by rigorous abstention from thought on the subject’ (quoted Barrow 2001, 130). Thomson’s little joke is made possible by the practice of what was called ‘ether-drinking’, which was still prevalent among 1890s decadents and bohemians such as Jean Lorrain, whose Sensations et Souvenirs of 1895 has recently been translated as Nightmares of an Ether Drinker (2002). It suggests a connection between the inebriation of the ether idea and the more literal kinds of intoxication by the substance that, not entirely by coincidence, shares its name.

Benjamin Ward Richardson is at pains to point out that, in referring to his mooted medium of nervous action and response as an ‘ether’, he means no reference to the chemical substance of that name, but uses the term rather ‘as the astronomer uses it when he speaks of the ether of space, by which he means a subtle but material medium, the chemical composition of which he has not yet discovered’ (Richardson 1874, 364). But in fact, Richardson would go on shortly afterwards to take a close interest in the effects of ether-intoxication, conducting an investigation at first hand of the epidemic of ether-drinking around Draperstown in Northern Ireland and subjecting himself experimentally to its effects. That there is a more than verbal coincidence between the ether of space and chemical ether is suggested by his view that, since the nervous ether is best considered as a kind of gas or vapour, it might be subject to contamination:

Through the nervous ether, itself a gas or vapor, other gases or vapors may readily and quickly diffuse…Thus those vapors which, being diffused into the body, produce benumbing influence – as the vapors of alcohol, chloroform, bichloride of methylene, ethyllic ether, and the like – produce their benumbing effects because they are not capable of taking the place of the natural ether into which they diffuse; they interfere, that is to say, with the physical conduction of impressions through what should be the pure atmosphere between the outer and the inner world. A dense cloud in the outer atmosphere shall shut out any view of the sun; a cloud in the inner atmosphere of my optic tract shall produce precisely the same obscurity. (Richardson 1874, 372)

The substance known as ether, more precisely diethyl ether, which is produced from a combination of distilled alcohol and sulphuric acid, was first distilled and described by the German scientist Valerius Cordus in 1540, while Paracelsus described its hypnotic effects at around the same time. It was known as ‘sweet vitriol’ until 1730, when W. G. Frobenius gave it the name ‘spiritus aetherius’, which yielded in turn to its more common name (Priesner 1986). But the difficulty of producing it reliably meant that it did not come into common use until the mid-eighteenth century. Its most obvious property was its extreme volatility. A quack pamphlet of 1761 extols it as

the most light, most volatile, and most inflammable, of all known Liquids: It swims upon the highest rectified Spirit of Wine as Oil does upon Water, and flies away so quickly as hardly to wet a Hand it is dropped upon; from which Properties it probably obtained it’s Name. It is so readily inflammable, as to take Fire at the approach of a Candle, before the Flame reaches it. Any Electrified Body will also produce the same Effect. (Turner 1761, 4)

Turner also claimed it as a powerful solvent, with particular uses in dissolving gold, which was frequently drunk for medicinal purposes.

It has a greater Affinity with Gold than Aqua Regia has … thus a true and safe Aurum potabile is readily prepared for those who want such a medicine. The Union of these two Substances is very remarkable, one being the heaviest solid Body we know, and the other the lightest Liquid. (Turner 1761, 4-5)

Recreational ether-drinking (so called, though in fact ether-sniffing or inhalation was an equally popular form of intake) began on a serious scale only after its anaesthetic properties were discovered in 1846 by Thomas Morton, who marketed it as ‘letheon’. Germany was swept by ‘etheromania’, and there were other epidemics in Michigan and Lithuania. When Benjamin Ward Richardson tried it on himself in the 1870s, he experienced sensations of attenuation and lightening, as though the substance were capable of imparting its own diffusive qualities to those who took it in: ‘periods of time were extended immeasurably … the small room in which I sat was extended into a space which could not be measured … the ticking of the clock was like a musical clang from a cymbal with an echo’ (quoted Jay, 2000, 142)). He also recorded an odd sensation that suggests an involuntary invocation of his own theory of the mediating nervous ether: ‘all things touched felt as if some interposing, gentle current moved between them and the fingers’ (Jay 2000, 142). The ether displays the same ambivalence as the astronomical ether, for it both enlarges sensibility, and yet acts as a mediator or cushion for it. Awareness is both ‘spaced out’, and brought into intimate contact with everything.

The mid-century indulgence in ether recapitulated the craze for the inhalation of nitrous oxide that was a feature of the turn of the nineteenth century. Nitrous oxide was first seriously investigated by the young Humphry Davy in collaboration with Thomas Beddoes, who in 1798 had established in Bristol the Pneumatic Institution. Beddoes, who had also experimented with the medical uses of ether in 1794, began by concentrating his attention on oxygen, which had been identified in 1772 and described in detail by Joseph Priestley (1774-7). Then, in 1799, Beddoes and Davy turned their attention to nitrous oxide, which had a grim reputation, probably because of the explosive associations of the word ‘nitre’ (saltpetre). As well as subjecting the gas to detailed chemical investigation. Davy also inhaled it regularly and in large quantities to see its effects on himself. Beddoes and Davy had made the acquaintance of Coleridge and Southey, who were among their experimental subjects.

The gas caused what Beddoes called ‘high orgasm’ of the muscles (Beddoes 1799, 15), in the form of quivering and tingling – ‘I felt a thrill in my teeth’, recorded Southey (Davy 1800, 508). (One might speculate enjoyably about the continuity between the vibratory modes signalled in the poetic word ‘thrill’ and the word ‘buzz’, which became common usage to signify the excitement, specifically of intoxication, during the later twentieth century.) This was often expressed in an irresistible desire to giggle (hence its later name, ‘laughing gas’). It intensified sight and hearing and gave a sense of delicious spaciousness and sublime exhilaration: a Mr Wedgwood said that ‘I felt as if I were lighter than the atmosphere, and as if I was going to mount to the top of the room.’ (Davy 1800, 519). There seemed to be few deleterious effects, except on ladies with a history of hysteria, itself, of course, conceived as a highly vaporous condition of the body (Connor 2003), whom it sometimes sent off into fits (Beddoes 1799, 16-18). Its only effect on Coleridge, who was more accustomed perhaps to the hard stuff, was to cause him to stamp his feet on the floor uncontrollably.

From the beginning, the gas was interpreted in poetic or metaphysical terms. Southey was guarded in the account of his experiences he wrote to Beddoes and Davy, but was much less so in a letter he wrote to his brother: ‘Oh, excellent air-bag! Tom, I am sure the air in heaven must be this wonder-working air of delight!’ (quoted, Kendall 1954,. 46). Davy, who, after his first experiments in April 1799, quickly developed a taste for the gas, and could not see the silken air-bag in use without the craving for a whiff coming on, had himself enclosed in an air-tight inhalation-box (appropriately enough on December 26th), to inhale 20 quarts of nitrous oxide. The effects were spectacular:

A thrilling extending from my chest to the extremities was almost immediately produced. I felt a sense of tangible extension highly pleasurable in every limb; my visible impressions were dazzling and apparently magnified, I heard distinctly every sound in the room and was perfectly aware of my situation. By degrees as the pleasurable sensations increased, I lost all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images rapidly passed through my mind and were connected with words in such a manner, as to produce perceptions perfectly novel. I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas. I theorised; I imagined that I made discoveries… My emotions were enthusiastic and sublime; and for a minute I walked around the room perfectly regardless of what was said to me. As I recovered my former state of mind, I felt an inclination to communicate the discoveries I had made during the experiment. I endeavoured to recall the ideas, they were feeble and indistinct; one collection of terms, however, presented itself: and with the most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed to Dr. Kingslake, “Nothing exists but thoughts! – the universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!” (Davy 1800, 487-9)

In 1801, Davy moved to London’s Royal Institution, where he conducted public demonstrations of the gas, one of which is represented in a Gillray caricature. Nitrous oxide would be closely linked with ether during the 1840s, when their anaesthetic properties came to prominence.

Though the nineteenth century experienced many new forms of gas and vapour (of which steam power and gas lighting were the most important and pervasive) as well as important new ideas about gases, most notably, James Clerk Maxwell’s statistical explanations of their behaviour, it also inherited a complex and widely-diffused idea of what might be called a ‘pneumatic sublime’ from Romanticism. The great scientists of the Romantic period were Joseph Priestley and Humphry Davy, both of whom made their reputations in the study of gases. This sense of the authority and fascination with the vaporous in this period would lead T. E. Hulme to characterise Romanticism as ‘always flying, flying up into the eternal gases’ (Hulme 1994, 62-3). Nitrous oxide was the somewhat grotesque literalisation of the principle of airiness that is to be found throughout Romanticism – the inspiration of wind, the power of soaring ascent, the force of diffusion and the diffusion of force. Not that this is the first time that gas has been linked to prophecy – after all, the pythian priestess at Delphi had been reputed since the second century to derive her powers of prophecy from a vapour ascending from a crack in the earth.

Late nineteenth century supernaturalism, with its apports and levitations, usually of conspicuously heavier-than-air subjects, such as the extensive Mrs Grundy or the spacious Madame Blavatsky, solidified and domesicated this fantasy of the pneumatic sublime, and popular entertainment was quick to tune in as well. Robert Houdin, the performer from whom the antispiritualist Houdini would take his name, explained the Indian Conjuror’s illusion, in which his son, Auguste Adolphe appeared to sit on air, as an effect of the imbibing of ether ‘When this liquid is at its highest degree of concentration’, he solemnly mock-explained, ‘if a living being breathes it, the body of the patient becomes in a few moments as light as a balloon’ (Milbourne 1975, 145).

Intoxicants are part of the history of the material imagination, or ongoing cultural invention of matter, and invention of itself through it. The idea of the ether cannot be thought of without including the dream of the etherial that is focussed on intoxicating gases, even though this has been assumed to be a distraction or irrelevance to most historians of ideas. The thought of the paradoxical substance called ether is also a materialisation of thought itself, which, insofar as it is necessary to render matter truly intelligible, is never merely ‘cultural’. Davy’s discovery of the capacity of an aeriform substance to transform the texture of thought itself, along with his resulting intuition that the universe may be composed of ideas and impressions, is perhaps something more than a delusion, given that it anticipates the imbrication of matter and thought that has become a theme of quantum physics.


If the ether was far from down and out in 1905, it is also the case that the beginning of speculation about the ether is to be found long before the beginning of the nineteenth century, and this history exerts a significant pull on nineteenth-century thought. Even leaving aside the long history of speculation about the fifth element, or quintessence, of ether in Aristotle, and the Stoic doctrine of pneuma that derives from it, much the same reasoning that had made Aristotle and other plenarists of his kidney reject the possibility of voids in nature, had led Newton to the supposition of some kind of universal medium. Newton’s case is interesting. He was extremely reluctant to believe in action at a distance, and the whole system of his mechanics depended upon a universe governed regularly by the application of forces. But all of those forces required a medium through which to be transmitted; even though the existence of such a medium, however tenuous and almost-there, threatened to ruin all the equations (in the end, Newton realised, the drag exerted by the ether would bring all celestial motions grinding to a halt). The ether question was a kind of irritation for Newton; he refused, as he famously wrote, to ‘frame hypotheses’ (though his phrase – hypotheses non fingohas also been translated as ‘I feign no hypotheses’). But Newton’s refusal is itself feigned, since he did keep on framing hypotheses regarding the nature of the medium within which cosmic forces operated. For Newton, the ether was always a kind of thought experiment: an experiment in thought, which was also an experiment on thought. In the Conclusion to hisAids to Reflection, Coleridge intuited the uneasiness of both Newton and his followers when he wrote that the supposition of the ether was to be suspected ‘not only as introducing, against his own Canons of Right Reasoning, an Ens imaginarium into physical Science, a Suffiction in the place of a legitimate Supposition; but because the Substance (assuming it to exist) must itself form part of the Problem, it was meant to solve’ (Coleridge 1825, 394).

The ether is a kind of test of the powers of visualisation and the practice of ‘seeing feelingly’. What may impress us about nineteenth-century writings about the ether is how much they depend upon a kind of dynamic imagination, focussed not so much on how things appear as forms, as on how they felt and worked, as actions and stresses. One of the most important differences between the ether casually evoked by poets during the period and that ether which formed the subject of science was that the physical ether was subject to and itself transmitted force, stress and strain. Herbert Spencer, who sought to deduce the evolution of the universe out of fundamental laws of motion, emphasised in his First Principles that the ether was in part a projection of ideas about the experience of force and resistance. Both William Thomson and James Clerk Maxwell, leading figures in the development of nineteenth-century ether theory, were strongly motivated by the principle that, unless one can generate a mental or physical model of how a problem works, no amount of mathematical reasoning can suffice to explain it (‘What’s the do o’ that?’ was apparently the favourite question of the inquisitive young Maxwell.) And yet, the very literalism of ether theory, its very amenability to mind and muscle – one of the strongest adherents of the vortex-ether theory and subsequently the discoverer of the electron, J. J. Thomson, wrote of the importance of theories which can be ‘handled by the mind’ (quoted, Holman 1898, 226) – suggested that it might be a comfortable illusion, generated by beings laughably determined to make cosmic mechanics work like the familiar pushme-pullyou mechanics operating on earth.

This meant that thought about the ether was always liable to tip over into thought about the nature and status of thought itself. Because nobody was ever likely to be able to see the ether, or bottle it up conveniently for analysis, the ether could not but become a kind of allegory of the scientific imagination itself, as it attempted to stretch, contort, refine or volatilise itself and its own ideas of what matter was. Tensile metaphors are particularly prominent for example in the work of John Tyndall, one of the most important and controversial promulgators of ideas from physics during the nineteenth century. ‘The Constitution of Nature’, the first lecture of his Fragments of Science for Unscientific People (1871) evokes the ‘incessant dissolution of limits’ (Tyndall 1871, 3). Gillian Beer represents this as a remark about the effects of radiation on objects in the world, but Tyndall is in fact here referring to the action of the mind going beyond the idea of limit, not of nature surpassing its own limits (unless, of course, one takes the mind of man to be one of the ways in which nature reaches beyond itself). For the conception of the ether is itself an effect of this extrapolation, or radiation of the mind:

Men’s minds, indeed, rose to a conception of the celestial and universal atmosphere through the study of the terrestrial and local one. From the phenomena of sound as displayed in the air, they ascended to the phenomena of light as displayed in the aether. (Tyndall 1871, 3-4)

Tyndall recurs to this idea in his lecture ‘On The Scientific Use of the Imagination’, of 1870, again in reference to the extrapolation from sound to light and deduction of the existence of the luminiferous ether: ‘There is in the human intellect a power of expansion – I might almost call it a power of creation – which is brought into play by the simple brooding upon facts’ (Tyndall 1871, 133) How are we to explain the rapid velocity of light, compared with the slowness of sound? Again, says Tyndall, it is in a mimicking of the process of radiation itself: ‘By boldly diffusing in space a medium of the requisite tenuity and elasticity;’ (Tyndall 1871, 134)

The idea of the ether is therefore the proof of the imagination’s power of going from sensual to supersensual fact; the idea of the ether is itself a phenomenon of radiation:

In forming it that composite and creative unity in which reason and imagination are together blent, has, we believe, led us into a world not less real than that of the senses, and of which the world of sense itself is the suggestion and justification’ (Tyndall 1871, 134)

Modern physics requires the supplementation of observation by a kind of dynamic imagination which Tyndall always represents as expansive: ‘Iron is strong; still, water in crystallising will shiver an iron envelope, and the more unyielding the metal is, the worse for its safety. There are men amongst us who would encompass philosophic speculation by a rigid envelope, hoping thereby to restrain it, but in reality giving it explosive force. (Tyndall 1871, 37). Later on he says ‘To it [the speculative mind] a vast possibility is in itself a dynamic power’ (Tyndall 1871, 158). The idea of radiation is itself radiant. The work of thought redoubles and extends the expansive work of matter. The link between the ether and the mind is also suggested by the fact that, in his essay on ‘Radiation’, of 1865, Tyndall calls the conception of the ether ‘the most important physical conception that the mind of man has yet achieved’ (Tyndall 1871, 176).

Elsewhere, Tyndall can find other natural forms embodied in the imagination: the imagination can not only radiate or propagate, it can also focus, or be concentrated, like an atom. What do you reach at the end of your orderly speculations about the source of aether waves?

The scientific imagination, which is here authoritative, demands as the origin and cause of a series of aether waves a particle of vibrating matter quite as definite, though it may be excessively minute, as that which gives origin to a musical sound. Such a particle we name an atom or a molecule. I think the seeking intellect when focussed so as to give definition without penumbral haze, is sure to realise this image at the last. (Tyndall 1871, 136)

Tyndall could even draw the physical circumstances of his lecture, which was originally given as an after-dinner speech at the British Association in Liverpool into this reflexive circle. Evoking his nervousness at addressing so august a company he says: ‘My condition might well resemble that of the aether, which is scientifically defined as an assemblage of vibrations’ (Tyndall 1871, 140).

Herbert Spencer also maintained a strong conception of the ether, taking the existence and effect of etherial undulations for granted throughout his work. As the bearer of vibrations – or the ur-form of the vibration, since it is so very hard to know in what the ether constitutes apart from the vibrations it transmits – the ether is a kind of symbol of what, in a letter to his father of March 1858, he called ‘the universality of rhythm; which is a necessary consequence of the antagonism of opposing forces. This holds equally in the undulations of the etherial medium, and the actions and reactions of social life’ (Spencer 1904, II.19). In ‘The Filiation of Ideas’, an 1899 account of his own intellectual evolution which appeared as an appendix to David Duncan’s biography of him, Spencer describes how he came in 1857 to his sudden understanding of the essential similarity within propagation of all such forms of regularly-alternating movement:

During a walk one fine Sunday morning (or perhaps it may have been New Year’s Day) in the Christmas of 1857-8 I happened to stand by the side of a pool along which a gentle breeze was bringing small waves to the shore at my feet. While watching these undulations I was led to think of other undulations – other rhythms; and probably, as my manner was, remembered extreme cases – the undulations of the ether, and the rises and falls in the prices of money, shares and commodities. In the course of the walk arose the inquiry – Is not the rhythm of motion universal? And the answer soon reached was – Yes. …As, during the preceding year, I had been showing how throughout all orders of phenomena, from nebular genesis to the genesis of language, science, art, there ever goes on a change of the simple into the complex, the uniform into the multiform, there naturally arose the thought – these various universal truths are manifestly aspects of one universal transformation. Surely, then, the proper course is thus to exhibit them – to treat astronomy, geology, biology, psychology, sociology and social products, in successive order from the evolution point of view. (Duncan 1911, 550)

The ether is not just the mainspring, or hidden motive principle for all these parallel forms of oscillation: it is a model for the very form of inductive analogy which allows Spencer to move between different areas of thought.

The ether could provide a model not just for the mind’s powers of radiation, but also or its oscillatory nature. Spencer puts into the mouth of a ‘materialist of the cruder sort’ in hisPrinciples of Psychology of 1880 some subtle reflections on the oscillation between the ponderable and the imponderable.

Far greater community than this has been disclosed between the ponderable and the imponderable: the activities of either are increasingly modified by the actions of the other. Each complex molecule of matter oscillating as a whole – nay, each separate member of it independently oscillating, causes responsive movements in adjacent ethereal molecules, and these in remoter ones without limit while, conversely, each ethereal wave reaching a composite molecule, changes more or less its rhythmical motions, as well as the rhythmical motions of its component clusters and those of their separate members. (Spencer 1898, 619)

These reflections themselves demonstrate the principle of oscillation, between the either/or of ether and matter, and between this either/or and another, the either/or of matter and thought about matter. The object of theory is an allegory of it.

These rhetorical effects in the writing of science shadow the anthropomorphic vitalism which is a feature of occultist and spiritualist apprehensions of the ether. The notion of the ether comes into being from the very dynamic activity of the mind which it seemed to quicken, and with which, for some, it was identical. The ether was an act of mind; to think of it is to do nature’s own work of thought.

Aetherial Commotion

The most important development in ideas of the ether in the second half of the nineteenth century was its implication in the transmission of electromagnetic impulses. Following James Clerk Maxwell’s predictions, Heinrich Hertz produced the first radio wave in 1887. Marconi’s study of Hertzian wave theory led him to his first broadcast of a radio signal in 1895. To conceptions of the luminiferous ether, the mechanical ether, the nervous ether and the electromagnetic ether, was added what we might call the ‘informational ether’ of the communications revolution that began in the late nineteenth century.

As originally conceived, the ether was a sort of embodied nothing, a form of matter as close to vacuity as it was possible to be. As the ether multiplied its functions, it appeared to become more and more crowded. Tyndall had already emphasised how full space might seem when one considered the variety of undulatory motions it could transmit without interference:

In the spaces of the universe both classes of undulations [heat and light] incessantly commingle. Here the waves from uncounted centres cross, coincide, oppose, and pass through each other, without confusion or ultimate extinction. The waves from the zenith do not jostle out of existence those from the horizon, and every star is seen across the entanglement of wave motions produced by all the other stars. It is the ceaseless thrill which those distant orbs collectively create in the aether, which constitutes what we call the temperature of space. As the air of a room accommodates itself to the requirements of an orchestra, transmitting each vibration of every pipe and string, so does the inter-stellar aether accommodate itself to the requirements of light and heat. Its waves mingle in space without disorder, each being endowed with an individuality as indestructible as if it alone had disturbed the universal repose. (Tyndall 1871, 178)

Spencer too evoked the amazing complexity of a substance that was able both to transmit everything and yet also to maintain distinctions and sympathies. In such a universe, distance and proximity no longer have a simple spatial meaning:

The discovery that matter, seemingly so simple, is in its ultimate structure so amazingly involved, the discovery that, while it appears to be inert, it is the seat of activities immense in quantity and complication; and the discovery that its molecules, pulsating with almost infinite rapidity, propagate their pulses into the all-surrounding ether which carries them through inconceivable distances in infinitesimal times; serve to introduce us to the yet more marvellous discovery that molecules of each kind are specially affected by molecules of the same kind existing in the farthest regions of space. Units of sodium on which sunlight falls, beat in unison with their kindred units more than ninety millions of miles off, by which the yellow rays of the sun are produced. Nay, even this is a totally inadequate illustration of the sympathy displayed by the matter composing the visible Universe. The elements of our Earth are thus connected by bonds of interdependent activity with the elements of stars so remote that the diameter of the Earth’s orbit scarcely serves as a unit of measure to express their distances. (Spencer 1898, 619-20)

Far from being inert, the ether ‘is never still’, wrote Tyndall. ‘To the conception of space being filled, we must therefore add the conception of its being in a state of incessant tremor’ (Tyndall 1871, 8). His evocation of the state of ‘aethereal commotion’ (Tyndall 1871, 8) in the midst of which we live on the surface of earth anticipates the sense that began to grow from the 1890s onwards that human beings were displacing more and more of themselves into the ether.

Once again, this ethereal commotion seems recursively self-designating. The cultural space designated as ‘the ether’ was similarly traversed by many different undulations and wavelengths. These traversals are semi-comically treated in Kipling’s 1902 story ‘Wireless’. In this, a young, consumptive man is given a drink of chloric ether in a chemist’s shop in which an experiment in radio transmission is to take place. Either the chemical ether, or the waves being transmitted through the electromagnetic ether, combine to induce him to entranced automatic writing, in which he seems to channel the words of the young Keats. The point of the story is to demonstrate the possibility of interference between the different registers of the ether: chemical, electromagnetic, poetic and spiritual.

Perhaps the ether is always this kind of old-new compounding. The physico-poetico-magico-psychopharmacopia of ether-thinking in the nineteenth century and beyond is not a mere epoch of mind, but a saturated space in which the mentality of matter and the materiality of mind set up unavoidable and fertile interference patterns.


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