January 30, 2007

Baron von Humboldt and the Electric Eels


Born in Berlin, the capital of Prussia (14th September 1769), Alexander von Humboldt was destined to become an explorer of the Amazon. Influenced by a friendship during university with Georg Foster (who had travelled around the world with Captain Cook), Humboldt was very interested in exploration. Humboldt was initially the Assistant Inspector of mines and also conducted biological experiments. Eventually Humboldt embarked on an expedition to South and Central America arriving in the New World in 1799 (July 16th) entering the port of Cumaná.

With their microscopes they, and their respective ladies, examined lice of many varieties found in the ladies’ hair. They measured plant growth, which exceeded far anything in Europe. They heard of and then found a man suckling a child with his own milk. On their first foray inland they encountered the oil-bird, or guacharo. This cave dwelling species, slaughtered for its fat, was quite new to science. They also took advantage of a solar eclipse in late 1799. (Smith, 230)

It was in 1800 that Humboldt was to begin a proper inland expedition. Anthony Smith describes Humboldt’s encounter with ‘gymnotids’ or electric fish in Calabozo. The fish were not exactly eels but they, ‘swam in eel-like manner and possessed an eel-like smoothness’ and they could produce 600 volts. Humboldt had already experimented with electricity and was fascinated by the creatures, so he decided to proceed with an experiment:

The locals had a technique [for catching the fish] which Humboldt was to call picturesque. A large number of mules and horses were driven at speed into a marsh where the fish were known to be resting in the mud. This violent act brought them out into the water, and their electricity caused the mules and horses to leave it speedily. With bamboo sticks the Indians sent the frightened animals back again. There they lunged about, terror in their eyes. A few succumbed, falling into the water and even drowning. The others continued to thrash until the gymnotids exhausted their battery-like supply. With dry lengths of wood acting as insulators the fish were then coaxed from the water. (232)

Smith, Anthony. Explorers of the Amazon .London: Viking, 1990.

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