Fearless Charlotte Cowles

Charlotte Cowles' letter to her brother Samuel about an electrical machine demonstration. September 10, 1833. Ms 101754

Charlotte Cowles’ letter to her brother Samuel about an electrical machine demonstration. September 10, 1833. Ms 101754

Charlotte was only thirteen when Caleb Wright gave a demonstration of his electrical machine in Farmington on September 9, 1832, an event probably held at Union Hall in Farmington Academy. She was fascinated by the technology, and like many young people, thought she was invincible. Her reaction reminds me of a cat that does something ungraceful and then licks itself as if to say “What? I meant to do that.”

I was very much entertained last evening, by the exhibition of a splendid electrical machine owned by Mr Wright, said to be the largest in the United States. Various wonderful experiments were tried, such as combustibles set on fire by applying them to cold water. — a house demolished by lightning, — light machinery moved by the power of electricity, — lightning and the northern lights imitated, &c. I suppose you have seen the miser’s plate, with a piece of money on it which any one may have by taking it off. Each one seemed to be determined to have it, but none succeeded. Mr Wright told us that it was impossible, but still the people were resolved to try. When the plate came round to the ladies, a great many of them tried, but all drew back their hands as quick as flash. Well, Thinks-I-to-myself, I’ll not be frightened by a little spark of fire; so when the plate come to me, I was determined to persevere, and touch the money; my hand was actually within a quarter of an inch of it, when a little flame with a slight explosion burst from between the plate and my hand: a tingling sensation ran up my arm and through my head, and the next I knew of my hand, it was up in the air at least half a yard above the plate.

From Charlotte’s description, it sounds as if the men and women were seated in different sections of the room. Would that have been common at a mixed gathering like this? She makes similar comments at the political meeting she attends later on. That would be an interesting research topic.

Caleb Wright of Hartford made his electrical machine and it or a copy was donated to Yale for use in the Natural Philosophy “department.” Wright also became caretaker of the Steward Museum, parts of which can still be seen at the Old State House museum in Hartford. I am always fascinated by the connections that can be made from the contents of a single letter.

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