Sensational electric learning
Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16
Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius is perhaps best known for his work on the ionic disassociation of acids and bases, for which he won the Nobel prize, and the relationship between emissions of carbon dioxide and global warming.
Arrhenius also experimented with the effects of electrical currents on children. In 1911, sensational newspaper articles around the world reported that Arrhenius had embedded wires in the walls and ceiling of a classroom and compared the progress, over six months, of students taught in the electrified classroom with those who learned in normal rooms. It was claimed that the students exposed to the currents scored higher on nearly all tests and grew 50% more than a control group who were not exposed to currents. Additionally, their teachers reportedly felt “quickened” and had greater endurance as result of the trial.
Tesla heard of Arrhenius’ work and proposed an investigation of the effects of electrical stimulation on students with learning difficulties to the superintendent of New York schools. Ever the electrical enthusiast, Tesla wrote eagerly of the prospects for electromagnetic stimulation, imagining that all future homes would have Tesla coils embedded in their walls and suggested that even adults of average intelligence would become the equals of the most brilliant minds of the pre-electric era.
Tesla was about to begin his experiment when Arrhenius responded to a request for the details of his experiment from a British psychiatrist who wished to repeat the experiment. The Swedish chemist reported that the newspaper articles had misreported his work – he had exposed new-born infants in an orphanage to high frequency currents and, though the initial results had seemed to indicate an increased growth rate for the exposed babies, Arrhenius discovered that a nurse had allocated the healthiest children to the electrical exposure group and the weakest infants to the control group. When he repeated the experiment, the effect disappeared and Tesla’s plan for an electric school was never realised.