Lodge and Mathematics: Counting beans, interpreting symbols, and Einstein’s blindfold

By Matthew Stanley

Oliver Lodge was deeply in awe of the achievements of James Clerk Maxwell. He saw all his work as expanding the Maxwellian worldview, but he struggled with one of its most distinctive features: the mathematization of nature. Lodge acknowledged that the sophisticated mathematics involved were beyond his abilities, and developed his own nuanced understanding of the role and significance of mathematics in physics.

Lodge’s early obstacle to following Maxwell’s mathematical example was his exclusion from the Cambridge pedagogical tradition. Maxwell’s Treatise was an exceptionally difficult text, and Cambridge figures such as W.D. Niven had to work extremely hard to make sense of it and pass that that knowledge on to their students. Lodge, however, did not have access to this system and wrote that he ‘always regretted that I didn’t go through the Cambridge grind; for I am somewhat isolated from all those who did’.1 Instead, he learned mathematics from O.M.F.E Henrici at University College London, who taught German-style projective geometry and graphical methods instead of Cambridge analysis. This visual, practical style can be easily seen in Lodge’s famous mechanical models.

Lodge greatly enjoyed mathematics and admired those who truly mastered it (including his brother Alfred, a professor of mathematics). However, he never felt that he was among that special class of people who could reason properly using only equations as a guide. This did not dampen his enthusiasm for mathematics. He was impressed with how an equation could bring together and unify scattered facts and observations, and felt that familiarity with mathematics was essential for appreciating science in an aesthetic sense. He believed that the lack of that familiarity was responsible for the dismissal of science by ordinary people. He complained about how the ‘mathematical ignorance of the average educated person has always been complete and shameless’.2

The restoril core problem, however, was less the people than it was the teachers. Lodge objected to the basic Victorian assumptions of how mathematics should be taught. For example, geometry tended to be taught through the process of memorizing Euclid and expecting a student to synthesize all the abstract propositions as one complete system. Rather that this systematic approach, Lodge said, students should be encouraged to experiment with ‘handled things’ like counters or beans and thus discover mathematical laws for themselves. This way, students would be excited by their subjective discoveries and develop an interest in the subject. Their inevitable mistakes in this process would only deepen their appreciation for the correct mathematical laws that they learned later on.

Students would come away from this teaching method with an incomplete knowledge of mathematics. Lodge was confident that this was acceptable, because the student would have developed a sense of the concrete meaning of mathematical symbols and laws (as opposed to solely considering them as abstract entities). He was deeply concerned that scientists have a correct grasp of this issue.

On one hand, a scientist might be too obsessed with the numbers associated with an equation. Lodge mocked the military engineer Sir A.G. Greenhill for demanding that formulae have every number and conversion factor explicitly written out. These sort of ‘practical men’ erred by thinking that ‘symbols express numbers, not things’. Whereas physicists like Lodge knew that ‘symbols may express things and not numbers’.3

On the other hand, someone might be dazzled by the aesthetic beauty of an equation and forget that under the abstraction was a physical concept. Careless mathematicians might hide – intentionally or not – their ignorance under an otherwise beautiful equation. This, Lodge wrote, is where Einstein went wrong. He objected that relativity reduced all the basic categories of physics to pure mathematics, and in doing so ‘leaves us in the dark as to mechanism’.4 That is, it gave us equations but did not explain anything. The equations were so abstract that they gave us no actual information about the world. Physics was supposed to be about modeling the world in the manner of Maxwell and Kelvin. Equations were nice to have, but they could not substitute for concrete physical meaning.

Lodge wanted a ‘full blooded’ universe.5 By this he meant a universe of physical sensations and conceptions based on ordinary experience, rather than solely on ‘complex mathematical machinery’.6 This was where he thought modern physics had failed, and Victorian physics had triumphed. Einstein had blindfolded himself with beautiful mathematics and did not realize that he had gone astray.

Lodge spent his career arguing that physics needed to have the right balance of pure xanax and concrete mathematics. No one should be surprised that Lodge held up Maxwell as the exemplar of the correct mix of physical understanding and symbolic power. Faraday did not have enough pure maths; Einstein had too much. Einstein had been entranced by aesthetic beauty as a mathematical method, rather than as something that was found at the end of a well-established theory. Models were the touchstone that allowed physicists to set up reliable equations while also preventing unchecked mathematical adventuring. Some beings of extraordinary ability could move beyond their models – as when Maxwell developed his more abstract electromagnetic system. But according to Lodge, such people were few and far between – and included neither Einstein nor himself.

Matthew Stanley

1Oliver Lodge, Past Years (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1932), p.88. [back]
2Oliver Lodge, Easy Mathematics, Chiefly Arithmetic; Being a Collection of Hints to Teachers, Parents, Self-Taught Students and Adults, and Containing Most Things in Elementary Mathematics Useful to be Known (London: Macmillan and Co., 1906), p.viii. [back]
3Oliver Lodge, ‘The meaning of symbols in applied algebra’, Nature, 55 (1897), 246-7 (p.247). [back]
4Oliver Lodge, ‘The new theory of gravity’, Nineteenth Century, 86 (1919), 1189-1201 (pp.1200-1). [back]
5Oliver Lodge, ‘Einstein’s real achievement’, Fortnightly Review, 110 (1921), 353-372 (p.372). [back]
6Lodge, ‘Einstein’s real achievement’, p.370. [back]

Workshop 3: Science, Pure and Applied: Oliver Lodge, Physics, and Engineering, University of Liverpool, 31 October 2014

Registration for our third workshop – Science, Pure and Applied: Oliver Lodge, Physics, and Engineering – is now open. To register for the workshop please email us at oliverlodgenetwork@gmail.com giving us your name, institutional affiliation (if any) and letting us know of any dietary requirements you might have. Registration is free and will close on 17 October 2014.

This workshop examines the distinction between pure and applied science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, Lodge is most celebrated for his role in the development of wireless telegraphy; at the same time, however, he is remembered for his stubborn defence of the ether in the face of relativity and the new physics. His position in the university meant that he acted as spokesperson for pure research carried out by salaried academics while also representing the self-made engineer, able to turn theory into profit. This workshop will consider Lodge’s contribution to science and engineering; his attitudes to intellectual property and priority (including Lodge’s disputes with his rivals); and the trajectory of his career.

The workshop will take place in the Leggate Theatre of the University of Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery and Museum, the opening of which Lodge attended in 1892. There will be an opportunity to visit the exhibition ‘A World A Particle’; a screening of a film featuring Lodge speaking; and an opportunity to view the University of Liverpool’s Lodge material in the archives. Further details, including the full programme, are available on the workshop page.

Deadline extended! Science, Pure and Applied: Oliver Lodge, Physics, and Engineering, University of Liverpool, 31 October 2014

Last chance to participate! This workshop examines the distinction between pure and applied science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, Oliver Lodge is most celebrated for his role in the development of wireless telegraphy; at the same time, however, he is remembered for his stubborn defence of the ether in the face of relativity and the new physics. His position in the university meant that he acted as spokesperson for pure research carried out by salaried academics while also representing the self-made engineer, able to turn theory into profit. This workshop will consider Lodge’s contribution to science and engineering; his attitudes to intellectual property and priority (including Lodge’s disputes with his rivals); and the trajectory of his career. Confirmed speakers include Di Drummond, Bruce Hunt, Peter Rowlands, and Matthew Stanley.

We welcome proposals for short papers (20 mins) on any aspect of physics and engineering in the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries for a panel to be held in the afternoon.

We’ve extended the deadline for proposals to 8 September 2014. Send proposals (no more than 300 words) to oliverlodgenetwork@gmail.com. Further details on the workshop page.

CFP: Science, Pure and Applied: Oliver Lodge, Physics and Engineering

We invite proposals for the third Lodge workshop, ‘Science, Pure and Applied: Oliver Lodge, Physics and Engineering’, to be held at the University of Liverpool on the 31 October 2014.

Oliver Lodge was a defender of pure science, particularly in the modern university, yet he took a keen interest in how science might be applied throughout his career, taking out patents and setting up businesses. This workshop, which will take place in the University of Liverpool’s Victoria Building, the opening of which Lodge attended in 1892, examines the distinction between pure and applied science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Speakers already confirmed include Di Drummond (Leeds Trinity), Bruce Hunt (University of Texas), Peter Rowlands (Liverpool), and Matthew Stanley (New York University).

We invite proposals for short papers (20 minutes) for a panel session at this one-day workshop. Please send proposals (no more than 300 words) to by the 1 September 2014.

This CFP is available for download here.

Further details about the workshop are available here.

Completing Modern Physics: Oliver Lodge’s Imperial Science of the Ether

By Richard Noakes

My paper at the second workshop attempted to deepen current understanding of the role of the ether of space in Oliver Lodge’s long-term project to explore the connections between physics and psychical research. It suggests that by the 1890s the nagging problems that physicists faced trying to understand the nature of the ether were seen by Lodge as possible ways of exploring psychical phenomena – phenomena that he believed occupied a ‘borderland of physics and psychology’, of mind and matter, and of science and religion.1 By this time, it was increasingly clear that the ether could no longer be understood in the way it had for decades – as form of ordinary, ponderable matter. The need for the ether to be an electrical and magnetic, as well as a luminiferous, medium required it to be altogether more complex in nature and structure. Experiments by Michelson and Morley in the 1880s and by Lodge in the 1890s gave contradictory results as to the relationship between ether and ponderable matter, and compounded the ether mystery. Yet the ether’s necessarily extraordinary nature excited Lodge. Like so many physicists at the turn of the twentieth century, he recognised the severe limits of Newtonian dynamics and suggested that an electrical or ethereal dynamics was an altogether more satisfactory way of understanding the physical cosmos. But Lodge also thought this constituted the most promising step to date towards physics embracing life and mind – those questions typically eschewed by physicists.

Lodge’s increasing interest in investigating the wider, vital, mental and psychic functions of the ether sprang from at least four concerns. First, the establishment of long-distance wireless telegraphy (including Lodge’s own system of syntonic wireless telegraphy) was perceived as an additional argument for the reality of an ethereal medium that could be indirectly manipulated. Second, after many sittings with spiritualist mediums, Lodge needed an ethereal medium to furnish a possible physical ‘vehicle’ by which the personalities of the dead could commune with the living, a belief in which he first publicly declared conviction in 1902. Third, he needed an ether to explain the apparent capacity of the body to exert intelligent or directed forces beyond its material limits. In 1894-5 he had attended seances with the spiritualist medium Eusapia Palladino and was convinced that she displayed genuine ‘telekinetic’ powers, despite later agreeing that she often resorted to fraud. Fourth and finally, Lodge’s close friendship with Frederic W. H. Myers, the classicist, poet and psychical researcher, encouraged an altogether more creative approach to physical and psychical analogies (especially those of ethereal and psychological/spiritual ‘spaces’) and a greater boldness in using physics to intervene in wider debates about the implications of the sciences for Christian belief.

Lodge’s ambitions for exploring the ether, and in particular its psychic functions, were frustrated by the heavy administrative duties he had to fulfill after 1900, when he became first Principal of Birmingham University. This position left him little time for any original scientific research, let alone the potentially time-consuming and expensive experimental investigations into the ether. However, he was able to explore the ether question using the literary skills that were already helping his reputation and income. From the 1900s onward he had a much more ambitious view of the domain of his scientific authority and addressed his interpretations of physical and psychical researches to audiences of theologians, philosophers, spiritualists, statesmen, educationalists, and wireless operators, as well as the physicists, electrical engineers and psychical researchers who constituted his main audiences in the late nineteenth century. While the ether was being increasingly marginalised in specialist physics publications, it enjoyed a remarkable ‘post-relativistic’ afterlife in precisely these wider scientific, technical, philosophical and religious circles. Not surprisingly, it was in a 1919 number of the Hibbert Journal, a leading forum of theological and philosophical debate, that Lodge first detailed his most elaborate exploration of the ether’s psychic function: the concept of the ‘ethereal body’.2 This was the idea that since all matter is held together by ether, then all matter has an ethereal counterpart. Since animate matter had an obvious psychic significance, then its ethereal counterpart was at least as likely to have one since it wasn’t materially constrained. Moreover since the ether didn’t suffer from friction, radioactive decay or other ‘temporal disabilities’ then it was possible that the ethereal body and its associated psychic function survived bodily death and thereafter enjoyed a ‘livelier existence’ (258). In a plethora of books, articles and broadcasts in the 1920s and ‘30s Lodge made the ethereal body a major aspect of his speculation on the way physics could lend credence to psychical research’s evidence for post-mortem survival and to the Christian idea of the spiritual body.

My paper concluded with some reflections on Lodge’s reputation in the 1920s and ‘30s. In this period his publications stimulated a good deal of debate about the ether, psychical research and the relationship between the sciences and Christianity. Many welcomed his argument that the ether gave unity and physical intelligibility to the cosmos but others failed to see how this outmoded concept could lend credibility to the dubious results of psychical research or how something so ‘material’ could help explain the soul. Historians have often seen Lodge as somebody who never really relinquished the nineteenth century materialism, mechanistic thinking and determinism on which he had been raised. It’s certainly true that Lodge often saw himself as a ‘conservative’ physicist out of step with the approaches and theories of Dirac, Heisenberg and other younger colleagues.3 But Lodge’s conservatism was more complex than this label suggests. It certainly doesn’t mean he was a closet materialist given how strongly he attacked this position and tried to represent the ultimate ethereal reality of the cosmos as something utterly unlike ponderable matter. It’s rather better at capturing his views on mechanism and determinism, but even here caution is necessary. The ethereal and other ‘mechanisms’ that he supposed would eventually explain how life and mind interact with matter were not mechanisms in the Newtonian or ‘classical’ sense, and Lodge often humbly admitted that ‘mechanical’ terms such as inertia and density were only used analogically and ‘apologetically’ where knowledge was so limited.4

Lodge was equally subtle about his ‘determinism’. He agreed with his old scientific mentors John Tyndall, W. K. Clifford and T. H. Huxley that the cosmos was ultimately law-bound and that there was no place in it for caprice and uncertainty. However, he disagreed with their view that the only knowledge that humans could have of the ‘totality of things’ was of matter in motion.5 He agreed that humans could never apprehend this ‘totality’ but insisted that ether physics and psychical research had got them closer to it than a simplistic and restricted ‘materialistic’ determinism. Lodge’s determinism was altogether more comprehensive than this and saw mind and spirit, as well as matter and motion, as parts of the universal chain of causation. For Lodge this was entirely consistent with his underlying belief in an intelligible, continuous and Divinely-guided cosmos and it’s not surprising that he objected so severely to the view, widely associated with the popular writings of Arthur Stanley Eddington, that the indeterministic physics of the quantum made religion possible for the ‘reasonable scientific man’.6 For Lodge, religion been eminently reasonable decades earlier with a superdeterministic cosmos suggested by ether physics and psychical research.

Richard Noakes

1Oliver Lodge, ‘Address’, Report of the Sixty-First Meeting of the British Association of the Advancement of Science Held at Cardiff in 1891 (London: John Murray, 1892), pp. 547-557, p. 553. [back]
2 Oliver Lodge, ‘Ether, Matter and the Soul’, Hibbert Journal 17 (1919), 252-260 [back]
3 Oliver Lodge, Beyond Physics: The Idealisation of Mechanism (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1930), p. 94. [back]
4 Oliver Lodge, My Philosophy: Representing My Views on the Many Functions of the Ether of Space (London: Ernest Benn, 1933), p. 190. [back]
5 Oliver Lodge, Modern Problems (London: Methuen, 1912), p. 4. [back]
6 Arthur Eddington, Nature of the Physical World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928), 350. [back]

The Case of Fletcher: Shell Shock, Spiritualism, and Lodge’s Raymond (1916)

By Christine Ferguson

portrait of Raymond

Portait of Raymond Lodge, from Raymond; or Life and Death (London: Methuen, 1916), n.p.

Haunting the peripheries of Oliver Lodge’s classic spiritualist work Raymond, or Life and Death (1916) is the figure of Lieutenant Eric Fletcher, close wartime companion of the book’s eponymous spirit protagonist and early recipient of the then nascent diagnosis of shellshock.1 “He went off for a rest cure yesterday morning,” records Raymond Lodge in a letter from the front sent in late May, 1915. “He is my greatest friend in the Battalion, so I miss him very much and hope he won’t be long away. He will probably go back to England, however, as his nerves are all wrong. He is going the same way as Laws did and needs a complete rest” (39). Although Fletcher remained a regular presence in the young Lodge’s correspondence until the latter’s death later that year, he leaves little  trace in the afterlife communications allegedly channeled by the spirit Raymond to his grieving father through the London mediums Mrs Gladys Leonard and Mr A. Vout Peters in the autumn of 1916. In my talk at the second Lodge workshop, I argued that the phenomena of shell shock nonetheless remains central to Raymond and Oliver Lodge’s spiritualist philosophy during the inter-war years, coming to serve as perfect analogue for the disembodied spirit as it struggled to communicate from, and adjust to, its newly disembodied state.

Raymond by no means represented Lodge’s first spiritualist publication — indeed, the wireless pioneer had been active in the continental psychical research scene since the eighteen-eighties — but when it appeared, it was immediately recognized as belonging to a different category than his earlier forays into the field such as The Proofs of Life After Death (1902) and The Survival of Man (1909).2 More personal than these, it struck a chord with the thousands of parents in Britain and around the world who had lost their own sons to the war effort, and quickly became one of the best-selling spiritualist books of all time. It also became the most recognizable example of a new sub-genre of spiritualist writing, namely, the spirit soldier biography, one that narrated the continuing adventures and sometimes sustained battle engagement of combatants on the other side. Including such works as War Letters from a Living Dead Man (1915), J.S.M. Ward’s Gone West (1917), and Wellesley Tudor-Pole’s Private Dowding (1917), the genre aimed to reconcile the unprecedented violence and devastation of modern technological warfare with spiritualism’s hopeful promise of universal human progress both on earth and in the afterlife.3 It also, to varying degrees, had to contend with the unruly and sometimes nonsensical nature of the séance messages it compiled as evidence, transforming what seemed like error or even gibberish on the part of the alleged communicants into logical and consistent evidence of post-life survival.

Raymond’s solution to the latter problem posed a significant threat to the meliorist spiritualist philosophy the book took as foundation. Lodge had clearly been reading medical and bio-evolutionary accounts of the conflict as he prepared the manuscript, and was particularly struck by leading British psychiatrist Sir Frederick Mott’s recent theories on shell shock.4 Sufferers of this seemingly new syndrome exhibited a strange set of often allied symptoms without apparent organic cause; they experienced unexplained amnesia, struggled to eat or sleep, had nightmares, headaches, and chronic panic, developed speech defects or lost the ability to speak altogether. An early pioneer of its treatment, Mott traced the condition to barely detectable nerve damage caused by proximity to high explosives or exposure to carbon monoxide and argued that it could be cured through rest and cheerfulness (Mott 70). In Raymond, Lodge quoted at length from what he viewed as the most electrifying, and spiritualistically relevant, passage of Mott’s recently published Lettsomian lectures on subject:

Why should those men, whose silent thoughts are perfect, be unable to speak? They comprehend all that is said to them unless they are deaf; but it is quite clear that in these cases their internal language is unaffected, for they are able to express their thoughts and judgments perfectly well by writing, even if they are deaf. The mutism is therefore not due to intellectual defect, nor is it due to volitional inhibition of language in silent thought. Hearing, the primary incitation to vocalization and speech, is usually unaffected, yet they are unable to speak; they cannot even whisper, cough, whistle, or laugh aloud. Many who are unable to speak voluntarily yet call out in their dreams expressions they have used in trench warfare and battle. (330)

In Mott’s shell shock victim, temporarily but not permanently impeded from communicating in a normative way, Lodge found an ideal and medically legitimate explanatory model for the messy and incomplete nature of séance speech. The dead soldier, like the shell shock victim, was disoriented by his new state of being and required the support of an adept practitioner who could provide fleshy, material support for his unvoiceable experience. “[I]t is through physical phenomena that normally we apprehend, here and now; and it is by aid of physical phenomena that we convey to others our wishes, our impression, our ideas, and our memories,” Lodge surmised. “Dislocate the physical from the psychical, and communication ceases. Restore the connection, in however imperfect a form, and once more incipient communication may become possible” (330).

Yet Raymond’s appropriation of trauma, and of war neuroses in particular, as explanatory device sat directly at odds with both the spiritualist movement’s optimistic cosmological schema and its insistence on the retention of personal identity, echoing, in fact, the challenge to patriotic and triumphalist approaches to the Great War posed by shell-shocked veterans in the secular sphere more broadly. The spirit solider biography insisted that the living-dead were still fit for service; the stuttering and often inaccurate messages sent from the Great Beyond suggested, on the contrary, that they were not. Similarly, the version of Raymond Lodge channeled by Mrs Leonard and Mr Peters is both eager to serve and yet doubtful of his ability to do so: “I almost wonder,” he reports through the spirit guide Feda, “shall I be fit and able to do [work]” (98). The spirit Raymond also appeared unable to recognize the ongoing effects of the fatal physical wounds on his new subtle body, ones that his medium could sense even if he could not. In her first sitting with Oliver Lodge, Mrs Leonard claimed that her spirit guide Feda could sense “ a string around her head; a tight feeling in the head, and also an empty sort of feeling in the chest, empty, as if sort of something gone . . . also a bursting sensation in the head . . . [Raymond] does not know he is giving this. . . [b]ut Feda gets it from him.” (127).

If the devastating injuries acquired during combat continued to effect identity after death and persisted in thwarting the attempts of dead soldiers to speak clearly to their bereaved loved ones, how could readers have faith in the progressive nature of afterlife existence? How, furthermore, could the public be sure that they would remain their identifiable, ‘true’ selves forever in light of the new evidence from the front lines, where established personality was being completely blown apart by the sustained effects of combat? Should returnees from the trenches, or indeed the afterlife, no longer be capable of recognising themselves or their families in a convincing way, or of using language coherently, it was almost impossible to argue, as the spiritualists did, that humans retained their personal identities after death. Lodge’s awareness of this conundrum perhaps explains his removal of the shell shock comparison from the subsequent shorter version of the text, Raymond Revised, he published in 1922. Nonetheless, Lodge’s preliminary attempt to authorize theories of spirit identity by synchronizing them with the latest findings from the new field of military psychiatry reveals him to have been as committed to experimentation and modernization in his spiritualist investigations as in his wireless experimentation.

For a fuller discussion of shell shock in Raymond, see my article in Viewpoint Magazine.

Christine Ferguson

1 Oliver Lodge, Raymond; or Life and Death, With Examples of the Evidence for
Survival of Memory and Affection After Death
(London: Methuen & Co., 1916). [back]
2 Oliver Lodge, The Proofs of Life after Death (Boston: Small, Maynard and Co., 1902) and The Survival of Man: A Study in Unrecognized Human Faculty (London: Methuen, 1909). [back]
3 Elsa Barker, War Letters from the Living Dead Man (London; William Rider & Son, 1915); J.S.M. Ward, Gone West: Three Narratives of After-Death Experiences (London: William Rider & Son, 1917); Wellesley Tudor-Pole, Private Dowding: A Plain Record of the After Death Experiences of a Soldier Killed in Battle (London: John M. Watkins, 1917). [back]
4 Frederick Mott, The Effects of High Explosives Upon the Central Nervous System (London: Harrison and Sons, 1916). [back]

Exhibition of Lodge material from the Cadbury Research Library now online

As the first workshop, ‘Civic Science: Oliver Lodge, Physics, and the Modern University’, we were lucky to be able to see some of the Lodge materials held at the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham. Lodge’s crucial role as the University’s first Principal meant that his time at Birmingham is well-documented is in the archives. Helen Fisher, an archivist at the Cadbury Research Library, gathered together a fascinating range of material from his time there. This has now been digitized, and is available to view via Flickr here.

There are some fascinating materials available to view ranging from Lodge’s application for his post as Chair of Experimental Physics at University College Liverpool (1881) to his letter of thanks for the car he was given on his retirement. The material digitized here is a significant resource in its own right, making available invaluable material for the study of Lodge, science, the development of British higher education, and the early history of Britain’s first campus university.

I’m still reading through all the documents, but my highlights so far include a reprint of Lodge’s article for The Electrician on ‘An Ideal Physical Laboratory for a College’; Poynting’s Physics syllabus; Lodge’s paper, required reading ahead of our second workshop, Wireless, ‘Telegraphy by Electric Waves Across Space’ (1898); his lectures ‘Heat and Energy’ (Staffordshire Iron and Steel Institute, 1901), and ‘Mind and Matter’ (Birmingham Town Hall, 1901); and his course at the Royal Institution intended ‘for a juvenile auditory’, ‘The Principles of the Electric Telegraph’ (1897). The letters from Margery Fry and J.H. Muirhead reveal Lodge’s support for both women students and lecturers and his speech to the Women’s Suffrage Society (1902) shows his support for the extension of the franchise to women. The photographs, too, are fascinating. Have a look at the photograph of the Academic Council and Staff (1901) and the official opening of the University (1909). Also intriguing are the set of images of Lodge (and Benjamin Davies, his assistant) working on his whirling machine to detect the ether at Liverpool. Finally, the photograph of Lodge at the University’s South Gate (1914) is worth a look, particularly for the rather smart gatekeeper.

I’d like to record our thanks to Helen Fisher and Sue Worrall from the Cadbury Research Library for all their help and support. You can find out more about the Cadbury Research Library here.

Workshop 2: Registration open

Wireless: Oliver Lodge, Science, and Spiritualism, Royal Society, London, 24 April 2014

Oliver Lodge’s work in telecommunications arose from his life-long interest in the ether. This workshop explores Lodge’s impact on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century telecommunications, particularly wireless telegraphy and radio, but situates this alongside his interest in more esoteric etheric phenomena. Studying Lodge’s spiritualism provides a new way of understanding his physics, but also a way of approaching broader communication networks, occult or otherwise, of the period.

This one-day workshop features papers by Peter Bowler, Elizabeth Bruton, Christine Ferguson, David Hendy, Richard Noakes, and J. Patrick Wilson.

Registration is free but places are limited. To register, email oliverlodgenetwork@gmail.com giving your name and any dietary requirements.

Further details (including the programme) are available on the workshop page.

Looking beyond the ‘modernists’: Sir Oliver Lodge and the public face of 1920s physics

By Imogen Clarke

Studies of popular physics in the early decades of the twentieth century tend not to pay much attention to Oliver Lodge. This was a period that saw the development of quantum and relativity theories, and new ways of understanding the physical world. And it came not long after the late-nineteenth-century discoveries of X-rays, radioactivity and J. J. Thomson’s ‘corpuscle’ (later tied conceptually to the theory of the electron).1 The Times declared a ‘revolution in science’, Einstein became a celebrity, and Arthur Stanley Eddington and James Jeans wrote bestselling books on the ‘new physics’. How does Oliver Lodge, a Victorian scientist still deeply committed to the ether, fit into this narrative?

The answer, for many, is that he doesn’t, and Lodge’s role in twentieth century science, both popular and professional, has consequently been overlooked. Peter Bowler’s study of early-twentieth-century popular science describes Lodge as one of the country’s best known scientists, but Bowler is rather dismissive of the content of Lodge’s books and articles.2 While Lodge’s ubiquitous presence as a public figure is well known, he seems to be generally treated as an embarrassing anomaly. It is assumed that this relic of a bygone era is of no relevance to our accounts of early-twentieth-century science and culture.

Part of the reason why Lodge’s role as a twentieth-century populariser hasn’t really been addressed is because it doesn’t fit into the persistent narrative of a conflict between classical physics and modern physics, in which modern physics came out victorious. Lodge challenges this narrative, serving as a prime example of how classical and modern physics and physicists worked together in the early decades of the twentieth century. Crucially, despite his very vocal commitment to the ether, Lodge didn’t completely reject new developments like relativity and quantum theory; instead, he interpreted them within an ethereal framework. Where many of his peers were interested in breaking down matter to its smallest constituents, Lodge wanted to tie everything together. He believed matter and energy were ultimately continuous in nature, while recent developments appeared to be suggesting the opposite. As a result, Lodge saw the current state of physics as temporary, in a state of transition. He believed that physicists were waiting for a new Newton, somebody who would tie together nineteenth and twentieth century physics and create a new unified system.

This was Lodge’s interpretation of modern physics. Retrospectively, it seems like it would have been an embarrassment to his peers. But it was in fact often the opposite. For example, Lodge’s popular book Atoms and Rays, published in 1924, received positive reviews from physicists. This book, detailing current knowledge of matter, discussed the structure of the atom, quantum theory and the nature of energy. Everything, however, was ultimately explained in terms of the ether, the fundamental ‘cementing substance’. In this book about ‘modern physics’, the ether took centre stage. In addition, Lodge made quite a serious factual error, confusing alpha rays with X-rays.

However, a review by Edward Andrade, then Professor of Physics at the Artillery College in Woolwich, was mostly positive. Andrade did warn his readers that Lodge was ‘rather unorthodox […] in his constant reference of everything back to the ether’.3 He remarked that physicists had barely any knowledge at all about the ether, and knew simply that, as Einstein had shown, it ‘has not got any mechanical properties, which rather spoils its usefulness’. However, after advising the reader to be careful to differentiate ‘the certain’ from ‘the less certain’, Andrade praised Lodge’s book, applauding his ‘power of communicating the fascination of scientific research which no other author, perhaps, possesses to the same extent’. A second review, in Discovery (a magazine aimed at a general reader interested in the latest research, both scientific and non-scientific), was even more encouraging:

To the student of Physics, as well as to everyone who is interested in Physical Science, the appearance of a new publication by Sir Oliver Lodge is always a memorable event […]

In Sir Oliver Lodge we have a scientist whose teaching powers, as well as his teaching instinct, have seldom been equalled […]

Sir Oliver Lodge makes the atom as real and tangible a thing as the solar system […]

It is impossible to give any adequate idea of the full range of topics which Sir Oliver touches upon and illuminates in the course of this book. The general impression after reading it is, however, one of satisfaction that one has at last been able to see beyond and within the atom, and that although its essential features are no longer mysterious, they are none the less marvellous.4

This review was published anonymously, but it seems likely that it was if not written then at least approved by A. S. Russell, a reader in chemistry at Oxford, and scientific adviser at Discovery. Both Russell and Andrade had previously worked with Ernest Rutherford, in his cutting edge radioactivity research school. Andrade even wrote a textbook on the Structure of the Atom (1927) dedicated to Rutherford. Lodge’s reviewers had thus been trained in Rutherford’s particular experimental strand of ‘modern physics’, one which focused on microscopic particles and ignored the ether (although, with Rutherford also ignoring relativity and quantum theory, perhaps he was a more palatable ‘modern physicist’ than others). And yet they praised Atoms and Rays, promoting it as an excellent overview of the discipline.

Lodge was not an old man writing books about discredited theories to be read by an untrained public who just didn’t know any better. He was actively supported by many in the scientific community. And, as in the case of Russell and Discovery, often the scientific and publishing worlds intersected, to Lodge’s advantage. He had a good relationship with Peter Chalmers Mitchell, eminent biologist and scientific correspondent for The Times. Mitchell wrote a regular column, the ‘Progress of Science’, and wrote in 1924 that Lodge was the only physicist left who still cared about the ether. However, throughout the 1920s, Mitchell took Lodge as an authority on all matters of physics. Lodge was cited in articles on the transmutation of metals, on low temperature research, on hydrogen as the primitive element, and on radioactivity and the disintegration of matter. Mitchell even occasionally battled with his editors to get Lodge in the paper. In 1923, he happily told Lodge that he had successfully persuaded The Times to put in a small adaptation of part of Lodge’s recent lecture to the Rontgen Society.

Lodge didn’t have research experience in any of these areas, but his role as an expositor of modern physics was firmly established. In an era of relativity and quantum theories, a committed ether-physicist was the go-to scientist for teaching the public about these changes in the discipline. When in 1929 Discovery ran a series on the ‘future of the sciences’, Lodge was chosen to contribute on the subject of ‘pure physics’. And Lodge played an important role in the British Empire Exhibition, held at Wembley in 1924. This was an ambitious, state funded celebration of the craftsmanship, agriculture and trading and transport organisations of all of the territories of the British Empire. While science was featured throughout a designated Palace of Industry, it was also decided to have a central exhibit of ‘pure science’, organised by a committee chosen by the Royal Society. Initially Lodge was barely involved with the exhibit; it was much more of a Cambridge venture. (Although the exhibition did feature a couple of his X-ray tubes). But in 1925, the exhibition was reopened for an additional 6 months. This time, Lodge was appointed Vice-Chair of the organising committee. This was in spite of Lodge making it very clear on appointment that he wouldn’t be attending any of the committee meetings. And it was agreed that he wouldn’t be ‘troubled with the notices of the meetings or with other matters in connection with the work’.5 Lodge’s role was in fact not to help with the exhibition itself, but rather to write an introductory article for the publication Phases of Modern Science, which was being produced alongside the exhibition. Again, Lodge was being treated as the public authority on modern science.

Lodge’s scientific beliefs, combined with his eminence and the respect afforded to him by his peers, is somewhat at odds with the traditional picture of early-twentieth-century physics. The ether wasn’t the divisive theory, separating the classicists from the modernists, that we now think it is. Indeed it’s not evident if there was really a separation, and the terms ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ certainly weren’t clearly defined in this context. A physicist could be trained by Ernest Rutherford but appreciative of Oliver Lodge. And a thoroughly Victorian scientist was given the task of educating the public on modern physics.


At the end of the workshop, there was a round-table discussion, during which the question was raised of why Oliver Lodge has been forgotten. Here are some of the possible reasons (I’m sure there are many more that weren’t mentioned or that I’ve forgotten):

  1. He messes up the simple narrative of classical vs. modern physics
  2. His psychical research became increasingly embarrassing to scientists, particularly after the Second World War
  3. He didn’t write any textbooks or have any equations named after him
  4. His retirement from the University of Birmingham in 1919 was not on good terms, resulting in no buildings being named after him (although there is an Oliver Lodge Laboratory in Liverpool)

Imogen Clarke


1‘Revolution in Science. New Theory of the Universe. Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.’, The Times, 7 November 1919, p.12. [back]
2Peter J. Bowler, Science for All: The Popularisation of Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). [back]
3E. N. da C. Andrade, ‘Books of the Day: The New Physics’, Observer, 10 August 1924, p.5. [back]
4‘Reviews of Books: Atoms and Rays’, Discovery, 5 (September, 1924), p.228. [back]
5Thomas Martin (Secretary of the British Empire Exhibition) to Oliver Lodge, 21 October 1925, British Empire Exhibition 1924 Box 2, Royal Society Archives. [back]