A Blog by International Students at Leiden University

The curious case of the Leiden Jar

astronomy, simply out of this world...

astronomy, simply out of this world…

After a string of hilarious posts on The Leidener recently, I thought it might be time to get our two feet back on the ground and start talking about about stuff that matters. Namely science. Yes, science, that grand old ship of reason, sailing softly on the seas of time, in space, using the winds of change to affect the fantastic future for the good of all men. It’s inspirational, it’s educational, it’s like a whole new kind of cat video that rationally explains a physical (or metaphysical) concept. Really what better way to kick into your weekend than getting into the thick of some serious, and historically important physics? Leideners! you’ve heard about Robyn’s infamous ‘Leiden wink’, of which I have to say I am dubious at best, you’ve heard about Leiden’s Relief (although few of us can probably remember it), and you’ve read about Leiden’s world famous status for poetry, but have you heard about The Leiden Jar?

If I were to look at the Leiden Jar from a wholly grammatical point of view, I would immediately have to assume it was something akin to the Harlem Shake. If I was thinking in terms of the context of this blog post, I’d probably think of the same thing, but instead of it being a large group of disaffected youth wanting youtube kudos, it would be a bunch of Leiden scientists smashing up the glass contents of their lab. If I were to look at the Leiden Jar from a historical perspective, having read nothing about its history, I would be either stupid or presumptuous, something that we’ve seen plenty of on The Leidener, but I am quite averse to revisiting here. Ney, were I to stop wasting time, I would probably have to resort to just looking at it fairly nonplussed. That is, I would probably just have to look at the Jar. The Leiden Jar of fame. Yes people, it’s not a dance, and it’s not a metaphysical construct, it’s exactly what it says on the tin, or the jar, as it were. Let me explain…

Kamien pomorski

Kamien Pomorski, busily getting historically pwnd.

On the shores of the Baltic sea, there’s a Polish town called Kamien Pomorski. It used to be called Kammin, and Kammin’s cathedral used to be run by a weirdo. That weirdo was called Ewald, and Ewald had two loves: God, and physics. How Ewald’s theologistics worked in the real world only God knows, but along with a lot of people, his curiosity for how things worked without the grand narrative finally got the better of him. Having studied in Leiden under the famous professor Willem ‘s Gravesande, and being presumably bored and lonely waiting for divine intervention, he sat down in the back of the parish shed on a brisk October morning and thought a bit about what his old prof had taught him about electricity. A spark came almost immediately.

As modern science has since forthrightly proven, it turns out that static electricity, although invisible, is in fact a liquid… lol. Better yet, it’s a liquid that, much like gin, can be ‘captured’ for later use, particularly after your boyfriend breaks up with you. Although I doubt that this actually happened to Ewald, he got a big glass receptacle of something and emptied it, then lined it with silver he presumably made from boiling down some of his beloved Church’s candlesticks. He then leant over and fired up a spinning sulphur ball he had hanging around, which he used periodically for collecting static and scaring alter boys. He filled the bottle with water and placed a conductive wire between it and the ball. Believing that he was really just mucking about, he dipped his finger in, giving himself one of the first electric shocks in history, and proving that Jackass could have been written and shot over 200 years ago. Once the pain had subsided from his right hand, Ewald was able to get out his notebook and write his name in the history books. Whoopdeedoo, he’d created a transistor, what real people might call a primitive form of battery.


Museum Boerhaave, come for the science, stay for an 20th C workout…

“But he did it in Poland?!” you’re saying. “I didn’t log on to the freakin’ Polander moron, I’m going to stop reading here and now and you can take your story about Ewald and stick it in your Kleistian Jar!” But don’t go yet! I’m getting to the point really soon I promise, the fact is that this invention is not named after Ewald or Kammin, it’s named after that city you and I love in the deepest cockles of our heart. Leiden.

You see, a Dutch clever clogs by the name of Pieter was, bizarrely, doing the same thing at almost the same time in Leiden, perhaps a few weeks later than Ewald in Poland. Having become a professor himself, Pete, mucking about with a few of his students (with glassware), decided on trying out the old ‘can-I-get-myself-electrocuted’ trick for himself. He did, showing that the human body was indeed a conductor of electricity that ‘completed a circuit’, and also put his name in the history books. As the climax to any tragic story from history has shown, this was the ample moment (no pun intended) for the French to stuff something up. Instead of acknowledging Ewald to be the rightful inventor of the Jar thing, the scientific bigwigs in Paris lauded praise on Pieter, made him a veritable saint of science, and called his contraption the ‘Leyden Jar’. Today two of these mysterious objects are on display at the Boerhaave museum in Leiden, where, I might add, there is no mention of Ewald and the pain he went through to steer the good ship science.

Leiden jars... #yolo

Leiden jars… #yolo

So what have we learned today? The Leiden has somehow obtained a misbegotten token in the history of science; its name forever farcically linked with an invention that was, for all intents and purposes, first and foremostly Polish. One might say on the other hand that, as Ewald had studied in Leiden, he probably got the idea here in the first place, so the name is better off where it sits. But in the true spirit of science, there may never be an undeniable truth, but it is worth jaunting down history’s lesser-known passages in the search for a good story every now, and then. The verdict? Leiden has some quirks, and while we’re here we should go and find at least one or two.

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