Article ID: CBB627949969

Leviathan and the Myograph: Hermann Helmholtz's “Second Note” on the Propagation Speed of Nervous Stimulations (2015)


In the winter of 1849–1850 in Königsberg, German physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894) conducted pioneering measurements concerning the propagation speed of stimulations in the living nerve. While recent historians of science have paid considerable attention to Helmholtz's uses of the graphic method, in particular his construction of an instrument called “myographion,” this paper draws attention to the inscription surfaces that he used in effective ways for capturing and transmitting his findings. Against the background of recent archival findings, I show that Helmholtz used isinglass copies of his graphical recordings in order to communicate the basic principle of previous measurements to the academic public. As the correspondence with his Berlin-based friend and colleague Emil du Bois-Reymond (1818–1896) and the subsequent development of the myographion make clear, these curves were not meant as measurements but functioned as demonstrations. In other words, Helmholtz's curves did provide “images of precision” (Olesko and Holmes 1993) – but they were not precise images.

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Authors & Contributors
Finkelstein, Gabriel W.
Meulders, Michel
Schmidgen, Henning
Dierig, Sven
Darrigol, Olivier
Paretti, Germana
Journal of the History of the Neurosciences
Technikgeschichte: Beiträge zur Geschichte der Technik und Industrie
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science
Nuncius: Annali di Storia della Scienza
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte
The MIT Press
Odile Jacob
MIT Press
Harvard University
University of California, Berkeley
Fordham University Press
Science and society
Nervous system
Science and technology, relationships
Du Bois-Reymond, Emil Heinrich
Helmholtz, Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von
Ludwig, Carl Friedrich Wilhelm
Grassmann, Hermann Günther
Kries, Johannes von
Grassmann, Robert
United States
Leipzig (Germany)
Berlin (Germany)
Naples (Italy)
19th century
20th century, early
18th century
Prussian Academy of Sciences

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