University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > How to see movement: visual experience in early nineteenth-century physics

How to see movement: visual experience in early nineteenth-century physics

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It is well known that there was widespread interest in human vision, optical illusions and optical toys in the early nineteenth century. One optical phenomenon that attracted attention from European scientists, intellectuals and publics alike was ‘visual persistence’, which would eventually come to be understood as the basis for the illusion of motion perceived in cinema. The earliest systematic investigation of this illusion was carried out by two individuals most commonly associated with the history of physics: the London experimental philosophers Charles Wheatstone and Michael Faraday. In this paper I explore why this pair placed the study of human visual experience and its limitations at the centre of their experimental activities in acoustics and electricity in the 1820s and 1830s. A rigorous exploration of the operation of human vision, put to use in lecture performance techniques and exquisitely engineered optical instruments, could turn private ocular experiences of transient movements (like sound vibrations or electric sparks) into authoritative, publicly accessible visual facts about the lawlike regularity of nature. The early physics laboratory and lecture hall are found to be important sites where provocative theses about nineteenth-century ‘ways of seeing’ – such as that of the influential art historian Jonathan Crary – can be tested.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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