Throwback Thursday: Phrenology, Forks, And How To Live Forever

Important things from October 1889

October 1889 Header

Popular Science

As a magazine with 142 years of history, Popular Science sits on a treasure trove of vintage illustrations, perceptive predictions, obsolete technologies, essays by Nobel prize-winning scientists, and some seriously awkward advertisements. That's why we're using Throwback Thursdays as an excuse to dust off those back issues and share their stories with you. This week we dug way back, 125 years, to October 1889.

Something Out Of Nothing

An Early Neurological Illustration

Popular Science

The history of science is littered with bad ideas. Today we have homeopathy and climate denialism. In the nineteenth century, phrenology was the pseudoscience of choice. Phrenologists taught that lumps on the human skulls reveal the secrets of personality and intelligence. They were deeply, almost hilariously wrong, and Popular Science Monthly knew it. What's fascinating from a modern perspective is the direction that false system led true scientists--into the nooks and crannies of the brain, where the true secrets of neurophysiology lay waiting:

The claims of Gall that each part of the brain presided over some mental faculty stimulated Flourens, the leading French physiologist of forty years ago, to a series of experiments which seemed to show the falsity of Gall's hypothesis. These experiments in turn were disputed and led to others, and thus interest in the brain and its action was stimulated, until in 1870 the subject was taken up in Germany, and facts were discovered which form the basis of brain function.

...These men noticed that when they applied an electric shock to the brain of an anesthetized dog, the result was a movement of the limbs. To cause this movement a certain part of the brain had to be irritated by the electricity, other parts being unresponsive; and it was even possible to distinguish the part which moved the fore-leg from that which moved the hind-leg, while, queerly enough, the irritation of one side of the brain always caused movements in the other side of the body. This was an important discovery, for it showed that one part of the brain governed motions while the other parts had nothing to do with motion.

The researchers went much further, as our writer detailed, taking great steps and many missteps toward the development of a "new phrenology" (a name now thankfully lost to history). Their experiments formed the basis of much of what we know about the brain today.

The History Of The Fork

Popular Science is fascinated by the role of gadgets in society. This was as true in 1889 as it is today, when our writer delved deep into the history of the fork:

The Duchess of Beaufort, dining once at Madame de Guise's with King Henri IV of France, extended one hand to receive his Majesty's salutation while she dipped the fingers of the other hand into a dish to pick out what was to her taste. This incident happened in the year 1598....When we reflect how nice were the ideas of that refined age on all matters of outer decency and behavior, and how strict was the etiquette of the courts, we may well wonder that the fork was so late in coming into use as a table-furnishing.

It was all the more odd because nobility ate with knives and spoons, and they even used forks in during cooking. But it wasn't until decades later that the fork made it into the dining room. Read the story to find out how.

And, as it turns out, the fork is still a work in progress. So perhaps our writer was ahead of his time.

Fighting Old Age

As long as scientists have poked and prodded the human body, they've sought tricks for making it live longer. In the nineteenth century, that concern was even more pressing than today: an infant born in 1850 might reasonably have expected to live into its late thirties. By 1890, that number had risen only a few years to the early forties. But our writer imagined a future of medicine that was not far from the truth:

Longevity, indeed, has come to be regarded as one of the grand prizes of human existence, and reason has again and again suggested the inquiry whether care or skill can increase the chances of acquiring it, and can make old age, when granted, as comfortable and happy as any other stage of our existence...The French naturalist, Buffon, believed that, if accidental causes could be excluded, the normal duration of human life would be between ninety and on hundred years.

Humans aren't quite to that point yet on average, but the developed world is filling up with octo-, nona-, and centenarians, largely to the credit of science that was pioneered in the late 1800s.

You can read the complete October 1889 issue here.