TitleSounds from the Electrified Human Body: Reconfigurations of Embodied and Encultured Knowledge from the development of Electrosomatophones
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsFreed, A
Conference NameBodies of Knowledge BOK2016
Conference LocationUC Irvine

Until the twentieth century, fundamental discoveries of electricity were experienced and articulated by integrating the living and dead flesh of human and other animal bodies into electrical circuits. Examples of this include Watsons flying boy capacitors, Galvani's frog motors, Franklins batteries, Volta's pile, Pages' inductors, Meuccis telephone and Grays musical telegraph. Public demonstrations of electrified bodies were largely abandoned in the early 1900s as electrical engineering professionalized, power levels increased, electrocutions terrified, and doctors prohibited. The production of electrosomatophones, musical instruments that incorporate electricity in human bodies for sound production, was not slowed by the establishment of this taboo against direct human contact with the electrical fire, but the taboo did induce a significant change in practice: a shift away from direct current flows through bodies to electrical field modulations of the bodyas typified by the Theremin of 1920 and musical instrument apps that use the touch screens of todays mobile telephones. Visceral experience of electricity is attenuated by this move to very low currents and electric field interactions. The resulting mystification profoundly reconfigured and conditioned embodied and encultured knowledge of electricity. These changes will be critically examined by surveying the practice and discourse of the last 300 years of electrosomatophone development including the Denis dor of Vclav Prokop Divi in 1748, Grays devices of the late 1800s, Theremin in the early 1900s, Eremeeff, Trautwein, Lertes, Heller in the 1930s, Le Caine in the 1950s, Michel Waisvisz and Don Buchla in the 1960s, Salvatori Martirano and the Circuit Benders in the 1970s, and Smule Inc. in this decade.