Whatever else you might say about the early experiments with electricity, they were certainly rough on birds.
One of Benjamin Franklin's first electrical experiments involved killing birds to demonstrate the lethal power associated with electricity. In 1749, he sent out tongue-in-cheek invitations for a "Party of Pleasure" to be held near his home in Pennsylvania. The highlight of the evening would involve electrocuting a turkey which would then become part of the evening meal. In fairness to Franklin, the poor bird was likely doomed anyway and electrocution would be more humane than the other butchering methods of the time. In describing the festivities, Franklin wrote:
A Turkey is to be killed for our dinner by the Electrical Shock; and roasted by the electrical Jack, before a fire kindled by the Electrical Bottle; when the healths of all the Famous Electricians in England, France and Germany are to be drank in Electrified Bumpers, under the Discharge of Guns from the Electrical Battery
According to Alex Boese in his book Electrified Sheep, an "electrical jack" was a crude electrical motor while "electrical Bottle" was another name for Leyden jars. An "electrified bumper" was an electrified glass that gave the drinker a shock when drinking from it. Whether or not he actually intended to hold this party, skeptics called his bluff and Franklin was obliged to carry out the turkey electrocution (which he had never actually done before). After working his way up from a hen,whose cooked flesh he declared to be "uncommonly tender" afterward, Franklin electrocuted another hen but managed to revive it afterward by "repeatedly blowing into its lungs." While the revival attempt worked, the poor hen was apparently blinded. Though this makes Benjamin Franklin the first to use artificial respiration to revive a victim of electrocution, history seemed to have denied him the credit up to now.
Moving on to turkeys, Franklin found them to be more of a challenge than chickens. On December 23, 1750, he finally held his turkey-shocking party though it didn't work out to well for the earnest Franklin. Whether because of being distracted by his guests or imbibing a little too much of his own wine, Franklin accidentally electrocuted himself. He later described it as "like a universal Blow throughout my whole Body from head to foot which seemed within as well as without." The shock left him dazed and his arms and neck being number for days afterward. He frankly admitted that a shock through his head might have killed him on the spot.
Undeterred, Franklin went back to his turkey-killing experiments, but more cautiously. Among other things, he discovered that two large Leyden jars were not enough to kill a 10-pound turkey and neede to added more jars before he finally succeeded in killing one of the birds. The Royal Society congratulated him on his achievement which was duly noted in their proceedings (though not as famous as his legendary kite experiment).
But Benjamin Franklin was hardly the only scientist killing birds with electricity. Killing chickens and turkeys using electrical current was a common parlour trick throughout the 18th century though scientists began looking for more constructive uses to show electricity's value. The still-mysterious nature of electricity made the prospect of discovering new ways of healing seem like a tantalizing prospect. Along with spawning quack remedies, serious medical researchers made new discoveries suggesting that electricity could accomplish far more than killing birds.
Peter Christian Abildgaard was part of this new wave of medical research. Born in 1740, he trained in medicine at the University of Copenhagen before traveling to France to study veterinary diseases. After returning to Denmark, he founded a veterinary school in Copenhagen which is now one of the oldest schools of its kind in the world. Abildgaard conducted research into veterinary medicine and natural philosophy. That included experiments in electricity as well. In 1775, Peter Abildgaard announced what seemed to be his most grandiose discovery. Not only did he kill birds using electricity, but he also succeeded in using electricity to bring them back to life!
According to Abildgaard's description of his experimental setup, he would run an electrical current through a hen's head using a bank of Leyden jars until the hen fell over dead. He even left the hen's body overnight to ensure there was no mistake about the hen being dead. Trying the experiment again with another hen, Abildgaard then attempt to revive it with another electric shock to the head. As he later described, "I tried an electric shock directly through the chest to the back and not without success." The bird rose up and, set when loose upon the ground, "walked aboot quietly on its feet."
To test the effectiveness of his technique, Abildgaard took the same hen and repeated his results, killing the hen and then reviving it, "rather often". He only stopped when the hen appeared to have difficulty walking. He saw the hen make a complete recovery after a few days (it even laid an egg). Abildgaard's next experiment, with a rooster this time, didn't work out so well since the rooster aggressively resisted being shocked again after being revived. While Abildgaard had apparently discovered the principle of cardiac defibrillation, his successful experiment was attributed to the mysterious power of electricity. Best known for his contributions to Danish science, his medical discovery would be largely forgotten until the end of the 19th century.
Apparently independently, British physicians also began using electrical shock to revive apparently dead patients. When the Royal Humane Society was first established in 1773, it was known as the Royal Humane Society for the Apparently Dead and focused on developing ways to revive cases of sudden death. One of their first experiments, described in a 1774 report, involved using electric shock to bring an apparently dead child back to life. The success of this approach inspired eminent surgeon John Hunter to comment that "Electricity has been known to be of service and should be tried when other methods have failed. It is probably the only method we have of directly stimulating the heart."
The first use of a Leyden jar as a portable "defibrillator" was reported by Charles Kite in 1788 when he used his device to revive a three-year old child who had fallen out a window. His "Essay on the Recovery of the Apparently Dead" described his research into hundreds of cases of drowning and suggested that the key to succesful revival was the rapid application of resuscitation techniques as soon after death a possible. Kite was already a prominent member of the Humane Society and had regularly used artificial respiration using a bellows to force air into the mouth or nostrils of drowning victims.
While his success with defibrillation (the term would actually be coined much later) earned Kite a Silver Medal from the Society, there was tremendous social resistance to the idea of reviving dead corpses. Part of that resistance stemmed from attempts by the Humane Society to change the very definition of death itself. Kite even suggested that putrefaction was not enough to have a corpse considered permanently dead(since it might be a sign of advanced scurvy). Although conventional physician grudgingly accepted the use of artificial repiration to revive drowning victims, using Leyden jars and other electrical devices never really caught on.
But the idea of using electricity to revive corpses was hardly forgotten . Along with the research by Luigi Galvani and Giovanni Aldini, Glasgow physician Allan Burns recommended the use of electrical shock for all cases of sudden death. As part of his directive for reviving patients, he stated that "Where however the cessation of vital action is very complete and continues long, we ought to inflate the lungs, and pass electric shocks though the chest." He also stressed that physicians should never give up until there is no hope of success. In his 1820 Medical Guide, Richard Reece described a "reanimation chair" into which a corpse could be placed. The chair featured a voltaic pile for electric shocks as well as a bellows to force air into the lungs. A metallic tube inserted in the esophagus acted as an electrode in administering the electric shock. Actual details on how effective the chair was do not seem to be available.
The macabre potential of electricity to revive the dead may even have inspired Mary Shelley in her seminal science fiction novel Frankenstein. First published in 1818, the novel featuring a young scientist tampering in God's domain seemed to reflect the mistrust the general public had for altering the boundary between life and death (though Shelley didn't actually mention the use of electricity in the novel
Whether due to natural resistance on the part of doctors or the general sinister association between electricity and "mad scientists", reluctance over the use of more extreme measures delayed the development of portable defibrillators for decades. Though medical researchers demonstrated the principle of ventricular defibrillation on animals throughout the 19th century, its value in reviving medical patients would not be recognized until the 1930s when William B. Kouwenhoven developed the first portable cardiac defibrillator. In the decades that followed, portable defibrillators moved out of hospitals and automated external defibrillators (AED) can be found in many public buildings to allow people with little or no training to provide lifesaving treatment.
So, the next time you see the familiar AED label at a train station or government building, spare a thought for the poor birds whose contribution to the cause of medical research eventually spawned a universal life-saving technique.