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Instruments Between the Real and the Ideal


Der Muskel

Der Muskel arbeitet wie eine Dampfmaschine

M. Norton Wise

Visitors to „Apoll im Labor“ will experience something that historians of science have been striving to attain, the thorough integration of the technical character of laboratory science with cultural aesthetics and industrial development in the nineteenth century. A symbol for this integration in Berlin is Emil DuBois-Reymond's remark to Hermann Helmholtz in 1852, concerning his new apparatus for measuring electric current produced during the contraction of a frog muscle: „Es ist ein Schauspiel für Götter, den Muskel arbeiten zu sehen wie den Zylinder einer Dampfmaschine.“ On a much larger scale, the image of a „Schauspiel für Götter“ captures rather well the ideal of a neo-classical city that numerous artists and architects, but also leaders of industrial development and educational reform, had been building into Berlin for several decades. DuBois-Reymond might well have had in mind, for example, the god Apollo flying over Berlin in a chariot pulled by griffins, the image that Karl Friedrich Schinkel had placed atop the uppermost pediment of the Schauspielhaus itself, one his most famous designs for the modernizing city. It was to be a city of civic humanism and personal development, where neo-classical aesthetics merged with material well-being. And in fact, as „Apoll im Labor“ nicely illustrates, that ideal thoroughly informed the work of the ambitious young men of the Physikalische Gesellschaft zu Berlin who sought to put the stamp of the machine age on biological as well as physical science.

The integration of experimental science with classical aesthetics and industry was in fact the theme that DuBois-Reymond inscribed in the certificate of membership of the Physikalische Gesellschaft, displayed here. The young experimenters with their instruments occupy the branches of a tree of knowledge, which rises on a promontory that emerges from the monuments of neo-classicism on the left (pyramids and Parthenon) and those of industry on the right (railroad and steamship). Similar symbolism informs the wonderful image of DuBois-Reymond in his laboratory as a kind of experimenting Apollo (in the interpretation of Sven Dierig). Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the exhibit is its showing that many of the instruments actually used by the members of the Gesellschaft in their physiological work originated in those developed by engineers and mechanics for use with factory machines. Helmholtz's myograph, for example, which produced a graphic recording of the „curve of energy“ of the working frog muscle, employed components derived directly from the indicators used on steam engines to measure the work done during a cycle and from a timing apparatus developed by Werner Siemens (another founding member) for measuring the velocity of cannon balls.

In critically important ways, then, Berlin became a city where steam engines, manufacturing machinery, electric telegraphs, and associated measuring instruments supplied both intellectual inspiration and material resources for laboratory science. But transforming industrial machines into the sensitive apparatus that would characterize the new laboratories required subtle skills that could only be acquired with extensive exercise of mind and hand. And it is in this sensitivity to nuances of design and interpretation that one sees most clearly the aesthetic emphasis that the young experimenters brought to their work. A number of them were accomplished artists and draftsmen, including DuBois-Reymond, Helmholtz, Siemens, and Brücke. They made their own drawings of complex instruments, as well as physiological preparations, and mastered the skills of precision instrument makers to produce their own apparatus. Moreover, the neo-classical focus on line and surface that they acquired from their drawing classes at the Gymnasium and from the dominant culture of Berlin informed their understanding of the curves that their instruments often produced as the record of nature's processes. Helmholtz, for example, understood his frog curves in much the same idealist terms as those he employed for the goals of art when teaching anatomy at the Akademie der Künste (where he succeeded Brücke and preceded DuBois-Reymond.) As he put it later, in a famous lecture on „Optisches über Malerei“: „Der Künstler kann die Natur nicht abschreiben, er muss sie übersetzen.“ Like works of art, his frog curves should be seen as idealized images, produced with great sensitivity to the essence of the phenomenon and with mastery of a refined „künstlerische Technik.“

„Apoll im Labor“ brings to life these goals of laboratory science in a period when the modernizing culture of Berlin still sought to reconcile the claims of the ideal with those of the real.