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The conversazioni of the 1870s and 1880s in Melbourne and Auckland constituted an important means by which the latest innovations in science and technology gained circulation beyond the specialist scientific circles of the metropolis and the elitist societies of the colonies. The conversazioni achieved this not only through providing practical demonstrations, but also by actively encouraging audiences to engage in hands-on experience of many of the instruments and technologies on display, and to contribute freely to the discussion. In promoting public understanding of the latest developments in science and technology these home-grown conversazioni attested to a spirit of colonial modernity, evident in both their presentation and in their audience reception.

Once common, the conversazione is a now largely forgotten manifestation of nineteenth-century exhibition culture. Touted as ‘a modern feature’, the term conversazione was explained in the New Zealand Herald in September 1880 as follows:

A conversazione like everything else has undergone conspicuous development in these days. Formerly the word was applicable only to a meeting of cognoscenti, who were themselves proficient in some art or science which might be the immediate subject of a learned interest.1

The term reflected the English admiration of Italianate style and culture during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and translated as ‘a social evening of conversation and amusement’. The concept was epitomised by the Cambridge Conversazione Society, a group of elite Cambridge University scholars who, in the 1820s, formed an exclusive, even secretive, society to provide a forum for focused discussion and criticism of scientific and other academic matters (Lubenow 1998). Over the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, the conversazione became more commonly and broadly applied to events organised by various learned bodies, institutes, art galleries, museums and societies for exhibitions, displays, lectures and demonstrations with an educational agenda as well as for entertainment or leisure. This use lingered on into the twentieth century. According to the New Zealand Herald, in this modern form:

the materials for discussion are supplied by the proficients, and the general public are invited to provide the talk or criticism. Moreover a ‘conversation’ of this kind is not limited to a specific subject, but may comprise topics incidental to any branch of science and art whatever.2

Conversazioni could, as this quote indicates, encompass matters cultural, artistic, scientific and technological. This chapter, however, focuses on a small group of scientific conversazioni that took place around 1880 in the flourishing colonial cities of Melbourne and Auckland. Three of these events were hosted by the Royal Society of Victoria in August 1878, July 1879 and August 1880; the fourth was presented by the Auckland Institute and ran over two evenings in September 1880. Presented under the auspices of local scientific and intellectual societies, these occasions showcased the current interests of local amateur and professional scientists. Despite the elevated aspirations encoded in the Italianate title, these were nevertheless very social occasions, which drew enthusiastic audiences from the wider public and were fulsomely reported in the local press.

As a way of highlighting the innovative nature of these modern conversazioni, the chapter also examines a rival popular scientific forum that took place in Melbourne in the winter of 1879: ‘Pepper’s Scientific Festivals’. Professor John Henry Pepper (1821–1900), an internationally renowned British science educator, later of the Royal Polytechnic Institution of Regent Street, London, arrived in Melbourne with an entourage of assistants and elaborate props and equipment to present the season. The press illustrations and review articles that greeted both the conversazioni in question and ‘Pepper’s Scientific Festivals’ reveal that, while the Professor was still able to thrill the colonials with a somewhat dated repertoire of magic tricks and optical illusions, local audiences were ready to be enthralled by the more modern practical approach to science promotion represented by the conversazioni. In promoting public understanding through interactive displays and demonstrations of the latest developments in science and technology, including the telephone, the electrical engine and germ theory, the home-grown conversazioni attested to a spirit of colonial modernity. This contrasted with the spectacular gimmickry that Professor Pepper and his ilk, with the imprimatur of London, had been performing on stages around the world for almost half a century. Drawing on the work of science historian David Knight (2006), I will argue that Professor Pepper and the conversazioni represented the past and the future, respectively, of the way scientific and technological developments were popularised in public forums in the nineteenth century.


The adoption of the ‘modern feature’ of the conversazione was interpreted as proof that the colonial community in Victoria was as highly educated, technologically sophisticated, scientifically aware and optimistic as those anywhere else in the world. It conferred on colonists a sense of cultural maturity and an affirmation of the worth of colonial engagement in international scientific enterprise. As Robert Lewis John Ellery (1827–1908), Government Astronomer (Gascoigne 1966)3, took pride in explaining in his opening presidential address to the Royal Society of Victoria’s Conversazione of August 23, 1880:

the subject of science attracts in this community the same keen attention, and is pursued with the same ardour, given to it in all intelligent communities. We are at least able to show that the intellect of the colony perceives the importance of scientific investigation; that the Government and the public are liberal in its support, and that a large number of men interested in its development are engaged in the work of making our contribution to the world of science as extensive as possible.4

The conversazioni may have been perceived as a particularly notable expression of the ‘ardour’ for practical science within colonial communities, but they did not occur in isolation. Rather they were supported by an infrastructure of science promotion and public education available to interested colonists in the 1870s and 1880s. Almost every colonial population centre supported a philanthropically driven institution of self-improvement. Mechanics’ Institutes, Working Men’s Colleges and Athenaeums, based on British models, and the Young Men’s Christian Association, originating from the USA, offered men (and sometimes women) of the middle and working classes the means to improve themselves both intellectually and morally. Under the umbrella of ‘rational recreation’ these organisations typically provided public programs, including open lectures on topics ranging from astronomy to rationalism, and reading rooms and lending libraries where improving texts could be accessed.5 The programs leant strongly towards vocational education for adults in trade and technical skills leading to qualifications and better employment prospects.

The receptiveness to scientific education in colonial communities is also seen in their desire for properly funded, resourced and housed museums of science and technology, committed to the acquisition and maintenance of scientifically classified and arranged collections representative of current international knowledge. Characteristically, local museums might also include permanent displays which chronicled the progress and achievements of the colony in the economically significant fields in industry, agriculture and mining, or which represented the natural history of the region through comprehensive and catalogued displays of flora and fauna. This impetus for science museums in colonial centres is seen in the development of the Auckland Institute and Museum, first set up in 1852, and Melbourne’s Industrial and Technological Museum, established in 1870 with the weight of government regulations and funding behind it (Perry 1972, 1–11; Rasmussen 2001, 76–88). Added to this was the enthusiasm for intercolonial and international exhibitions which, with their emphasis on commerce and industry, also showcased products and developments at the cutting edge of science and technology.


Although related to these educational and exhibitionary institutions, a conversazione offered something different. Free from the constraints of formal instruction or government interference, a conversazione promised a more informal and idiosyncratic program than the working-men’s colleges. The conversazione was able to reflect the work in progress of individual practitioners or to demonstrate new inventions that may or may not yet have proved their value and application in commerce and industry. It also offered a forum that was more participatory and intimate than that of the exhibitions.

The conversazioni under consideration here functioned as Open Days for the Royal Society of Victoria and the Auckland Institute. Full day or evening programs were packed with formal lectures, continuous displays and demonstrations of scientific and technological phenomena, with ample opportunity for informal discussion of the ‘objects exhibited for [public] edification and amusement [and] possessed of more than usual interest’.6 In the case of the Royal Society of Victoria a conversazione was held annually as a review of the year’s activities. The Society had, since the early 1870s, become increasingly concerned with science promotion and was keen to arouse public interest in its activities. They were evidently successful, attracting the attention of the local press which reported the events, not only in text but also in full-page engraved illustrations. These news reports along with other records reveal the ways in which the conversazione worked in a democratic and interactive way to introduce and promote understanding of some of the revolutionary technologies and science that would become indispensable within a few decades.

The Annual Conversazione of the Royal Society of Victoria held at the Congregational Hall, in Russell Street Melbourne, in July 1879, was clearly a festive occasion attracting a ‘large attendance of the members and friends’.7 An illustration featured on the cover of the Illustrated Australian News shows standing room only in the main hall, with a mixed audience of men, women and young people paying close attention to the demonstrations (Figure 1). Throughout the halls, rooms and library of the building ‘a variety of curiosities and rare scientific instruments were exhibited’.8 By means of various forms of lantern projector, demonstrations of optics were performed and illustrated lectures delivered.9 Important information and communication technologies of the day, such as printing, were demonstrated alongside the technologies of the future, like the phonograph.

A crucial feature of these ‘modern’ gatherings was the close involvement of local ‘proficients’ who were not only capable of delivering informative lectures and supplying static exhibits, but also enthusiastically provided active on-site practical demonstrations of their specialist technologies and scientific apparatus. The proficients might be drawn from both the scientific, scholastic community and the commercial sector.


Amongst the community of proficients participating in the Royal Society of Victoria’s conversazioni was Frederick Joy Pirani (1850–81), a remarkably accomplished young scientist and council member of the Society, then in his late twenties. Pirani had gained a Master of Arts from Melbourne University, where he had been lecturing for around five years in mathematics, logic and natural philosophy. His broad scientific interests included investigations into sound technologies and electrical machinery, subjects upon which he regularly presented papers to the Society. At the 1878 Conversazione of the Royal Society of Victoria he demonstrated an early prototype of the modern microphone, along with other more obscure devices using sound vibration, the phoneidoscope and the siren, which all attracted much attention and were illustrated in the Illustrated Australian News (Figure 2).

Two years later, at the Royal Society of Victoria’s Conversazione of 1880, Pirani demonstrated an electrical engine to an enthusiastic audience, a moment captured by the Australasian Sketcher (Figure 3). He was, at the time, in collaboration with prominent Melbournians, engineer and educationist William Charles Kernot and politician and businessman James Service who subsequently, in 1882, introduced electric light to Melbourne through the New Australian Electricity Company. Pirani’s further contribution to colonial science was cut tragically short when he died in 1881 after being thrown from his horse.10

At the 1878 Conversazione of the Royal Society of Victoria, Society Council member Robert Barton, gave ‘an interesting explanatory account’ of the liquefaction of oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen gases and the solidification of hydrogen. Barton was reportedly unable to perform a practical demonstration ‘in consequence of the elaborate nature of the instruments required’.11 He was, however, able to illustrate the subject by the use of diagrams ‘in so concise a manner as to convey adequate conception of the results obtained, while he explained the process itself by liquefying a small quantity of ammonia gas’.12


Figure 1. Conversazione at the New Congregational Hall, Illustrated Australian News, 2 August 1879.
(Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)


Figure 2. Conversazione of the Royal Society, Illustrated Australian News, 2 September 1878.
(Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)


Figure 3. Conversazione of the Royal Society, Australasian Sketcher, 11 September 1880.
(Courtesy of State Library of Victoria)

On the same evening Alexander Sutherland (1852–1902) demonstrated the phonograph. Sutherland, a journalist, master of Carlton College in Fitzroy, with a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from Melbourne University, headed the campaign for a science degree at the university in the 1880s (Northcott 1976). In a subsequent paper delivered to the Society in November 1878 he revealed that much of his interest in the phonograph centred on assessing its ability to register sounds graphically for use in the study of music. ‘On its first discovery, the phonograph was hailed with much satisfaction by those who are devoted to the study of music as a physical science, but,’ Sutherland claimed after his own investigations, ‘a few months of actual experience have shown that their hopes were by no means likely to be fulfilled.’13

The following year at the Royal Society of Victoria’s 1879 Conversazione Sutherland ‘explained the theory of vortex rings, and showed some striking experiments.’14 As the cover illustration of the Illustrated Australian News (Figure 1) shows, the width of the stage in the Congregational Hall allowed Sutherland to throw a beam of light from a lantern projector to illuminate a series of ‘smoke rings’, thus replicating demonstrations presented by British scientist, William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1867.’15

The membership of the Royal Society of Victoria drew together not only leading figures in the colony’s scientific community but also many in the wider community with amateur, but not less enthusiastic, interests in science and technology. They shared an energetic commitment to science promotion and science education in the colony. Local architect and science enthusiast CA Henderson, for example, contributed to the 1879 Conversazione with his demonstration of ‘the wonders of the spectroscope’, creating an artificial rainbow using the oxy-hydrogen lantern projector, and with his presentation of a lecture on ‘the moon nebulae and star cluster, illustrated with special photographs’.16 The Reverend Jacob John Halley (1834–1910), a leader of the Congregational Church in Victoria and amateur scientist, lectured on microscopy, illustrated by the lantern microscope.17


The Auckland Museum and Institute’s Conversazione, held over two evenings on 16 and 18 September 1880, was praised in the local press as an exemplar of ‘this modern feature of such gatherings.’18 The Auckland program reveals a similar rollcall of local men and women who were familiar with the latest science and technological developments from abroad in their field. Many were significant figures in science, education and the wider community in the colony in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who were clearly delighted to display and demonstrate their instruments and technologies to a general audience.

Stephenson Percy Smith (1840–1922), ethnologist, surveyor, public servant and writer, demonstrated a set of geodetical and trigonmetrical survey instruments, which included a ‘“heliostal” for signalling long distances by means of a spark which can be discerned at a radius of 70 miles’.19 Josiah Martin (1843–1916), photographer, teacher, educationalist, lecturer and editor of New Zealand trade journal Sharland’s Photographic (Maitland 2007), demonstrated recent advances in photography with experimental illustrations. James Alexander Pond (1846–1941), analytical chemist and homeopathic pharmacist, one of the foremost scientists in the colony (Davis 2007), demonstrated inductive electricity, experiments with Geissler tubes, electrical aurora and operated an electric engine.

The displays were also brought in and lent by local people who used these instruments in a practical sense. GJ Warner attracted much attention with his demonstration of ‘Muller’s “gas-making” machine’ which consisted of ‘eight large burners shedding a brilliant light. The material from which the gas is made is called “gasoline”, which is itself a product of petroleum’, according to the New Zealand Herald.20 Mr Ellis demonstrated the Edison electric pen. On loan from Auckland importers Ireland Bros, Thomas Edison’s patented electric pen was an electrically driven stencil-making device which functioned like an electric needle producing rapid perforations on a paper stencil which could then be duplicated. ‘Visitors were informed that “at least a thousand copies per hour could be obtained”, and Mr Ellis was in constant requisition to supply specimens to all who asked for them’.21 Mass text and image reproduction technologies were not merely a novelty in the nineteenth century but a central concern; the potential of this particular device, however, was subsequently exploited by skin tattooists.

Thomas Frederick Cheeseman (1845–1923) noted botanist, museum director, teacher, collaborated with importers Porter & Co. and others, on a display of ‘Spectroscopes, Thermo-electric pile, Goniometer, Electric and Galvanic Batteries, Induction Coils, Telephones, Microscopes, &c’. Cheeseman was also in charge of the pyramid of birds and animals ‘lately stuffed for the Museum’ by Andreas Reischek (1845–1902), the Austrian naturalist and ethnologist. Reischek was hailed in the Auckland Weekly News as ‘the best ornithologist New Zealand ever saw’.22 Reischek spent over a decade in New Zealand exploring and collecting artefacts and specimens during the 1870s and 1880s. At the time of the Auckland Institute’s Conversazione he was employed as taxidermist to the Auckland Museum, and part of the motivation for the Conversazione was to raise money for his employment, which he, in turn, used to fund his explorations. Local interest and research in natural history was strongly represented by collections of New Zealand ferns from Auckland botanist and artist, Georgina Burne Hetley (1832–98) and Herbert Boucher Dobbie (1852–1940) engineering draughtsman, botanist and orchardist, and by Captain Thomas Broun (1838–1919), entomologist and teacher, who exhibited his collection of beetles, butterflies and moths from New Zealand and beyond.23

At a conversazione such congregations of local practitioners and enthusiasts could choose to showcase the latest ideas and gadgets, as well as some of their more esoteric investigations, whether or not their practical application in the world was evident. With an emphasis on variety and spectacle to excite the interest of a general audience, the conversazioni were educational, informative and social occasions for members, their families and friends, and interested members of the public, which exposed them to the more intriguing and astonishing aspects of contemporary science and technology. The Auckland Institute’s Conversazione of 1880 orchestrated this blend of science and spectacle particularly well.


Over two evenings of two-and-a-half hours each, the general public were invited along with ‘nearly every person of social, professional, or commercial influence in the province’, to peruse a phantasmagoria of contemporary arts and sciences, the New Zealand Herald reported.24 Eighteen individual exhibits encompassed a huge variety: fretwork machines; lathes; electrical machinery; hydraulic machinery; a Bell telephone demonstration; chemical apparatus; survey and optical instruments; ‘a number of dissected watches in motion showing the destructive construction of the English lever, the Geneva and the Waltham watch’; and the skeleton of a giraffe of unspecified origin, ‘lately added to the Museum’. ‘A fine collection of coins’ was lent for display by Mr Barstow, and ‘Dr Stockwell sent a collection of cranial types of the aboriginal races, their distinctive differences being explained by Dr Honeyman’. Nearly 1000 photographs of scenery, sculpture and architecture were displayed on one wall. Selections of music were presented throughout the proceedings. Magic lantern shows concluded each evening: an ‘Exhibition of Scenes from the Oxy-hydrogen light’, presented by local photographer and science promoter Josiah Martin, included ‘Landscapes in North Wales,’ ‘Chromatic experiments,’ and ‘Views in the Rocky Mountains’. WG Cowie, Anglican Bishop of Auckland, also presented ‘Scenes in North India’ where he had been stationed as chaplain to the British forces between 1857 and 1866 (Powell 1967, 16). But, the New Zealand Herald noted, ‘the central object of attraction was the pyramid of stuffed birds and animals’. Thirty specimens of animals, including wallabies, opossums, foxes, hares, monkey and badgers, were grouped and posed with ‘skill, taste and general culture’ and deemed ‘well worth special observation’.25 Above them, ‘120 different species of birds, in every variety of gorgeous plumage’ were crowned by ‘an ibex taking his flying leap’.26

Each exhibit was, without doubt, edifying, amusing and ‘possessed of more than usual interest’.27 The frequent juxtaposition of often strange and sometimes incongruous objects and activities might also have provoked speculations and questions in both specialist viewers and the interested public. In that respect the jostling, piled-up array of displays and demonstrations has as much in common with the wunderkammer, the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ of past centuries, as with the high-Victorian genre of public exhibitions both great and small.

The curatorial problems associated with presenting a crowded, eclectic assemblage of wonders had not escaped the notice of colonists in charge of design of events and exhibitions in this latter part of the nineteenth century. As Australian museologist Ross Gibson (2005) has pointed out, there was in fact a reaction against a ‘church bazaar’ approach to public events such as these, which led to the implementation of competing curatorial strategies in nineteenth-century exhibition practices (55–63). A printed program for the Auckland Institute’s Conversazione in September 1880 provides evidence of the influence of more modern exhibition practice, in that it articulates a clear distinction between scientific ‘departments’: ‘Physical; Mechanical; Biological etc’.28 These distinctions in turn reflected the division of scientific endeavour into more specialised fields which was taken up over the nineteenth century as the broad realm of natural philosophy of the eighteenth century became increasingly divided and defined into separate scientific disciplines. As Australian science historian RW Home (1988) has observed, these distinctions also propelled the establishment of separate scientific disciplines in colonial universities in the 1880s (xii).


The organising principles applicable in a context providing practical demonstrations and audience participation were, of course, distinct in many aspects from those governing the primarily visual displays in a museum or an exhibition. Audiences were actively encouraged to engage in hands-on experience of many of the instruments and technologies on display, and to contribute freely to the discussion. Audience participation was thus an outstanding feature of the ‘modern’ colonial conversazione of the 1870s and 1880s. For example, at the Auckland Institute’s Conversazione in 1880, there:

were two tables upon which were fixed more than a dozen microscopes with ‘objects’ for examination. The powers of these instruments varied from five hundred to twelve hundred diameters. … This room was instantly crowded.29

Meanwhile ‘[i]n the council room Messrs. Sheath and Lusher were exhibiting the power of the Edison Bell Telephone’:30

The telephone was a centre of interest for those who sought auricular proof of the performances of this wonderful instrument. Conversations were incessantly carried on by those ladies and gentlemen in the basement storey at the rear of the building and those in the Council-room at the front.31

Audience engagement was also featured in the Illustrated Australian News’s engraving of activities at the Royal Society of Victoria’s Conversazione in August 1878.32 Visitors are shown clustered around the exhibits not only observing but also trying out the phonograph, microphone, phoneidoscope and syren, and a table of microscopes ‘of the most modern construction’ showing ‘rock sections from Gippsland, and polyzoa and diatoms found in various parts of the colonies’.33

As well as being ‘edified and amused’ by seeing and hearing for themselves, visitors to the modern conversazioni were encouraged to speculate upon their potential application. As the Illustrated Australian News noted:

The discovery of the telephone, phonograph, and microphone have only recently received practical exposition in the colonies, and the illustrations given with these several wonders of modern science were regarded with particular attention. Their remarkable nature was productive of much wonderment, while it gave rise to varied speculation as to their ultimate development.34

The Australasian Sketcher of September 1880 drew attention to this aspect of the conversazione in an illustration depicting FG Pirani and an assistant demonstrating an electrical engine (Figure 3). Here the artist has made of point of placing members of the audience in the foreground of the picture, to indicate that they are enthusiastically exchanging, not pleasantries, but ideas about the subject of the lecture, thus affirming the New Zealand Herald’s report that ‘the conversazione was strictly what the term implies. Everybody had something interesting to talk about’.35


An important aspect of the conversazioni was in granting audiences a glimpse of their technological future in innovations whose practical value was as yet untested. The phonograph, microphone and telephone were all in this category. The microscope, with its power to reveal the secrets of the natural world, was already familiar, but no less fascinating, to contemporary audiences. The practical value of these other instruments was less clear however. Although the phonograph and the microphone would become essential technologies, it was not easy to predict their application in the prototypes exhibited in 1878.

Pirani’s microphone was an elaborate contraption consisting of:

two pieces of thin wood placed at right angles to each other. On the upright board were fixed two projecting pieces of gas carbon, between which was supported a pencil of the same material, pointed at each end. A current from a … battery (shown by the side of the instrument) was passed through the carbon, the vibrations of sound causing the pieces of carbon to press against each other with varying degrees of force. When the battery was put into communication with an ordinary telephone, the different sounds so caused could be heard easily some distance away. The ticking of a watch could be heard at the other end of the room, while the dropping of a needle sounded, through a telephone thirty yards away, like a disagreeably loud noise.36

The device was nevertheless greeted in the press as ‘this wonderful addition to the scientific discoveries of the past two years’, and in his presidential address to the Conversazione, Ellery had this to say about it:

The principles recognised in the action of the telephone and microphone point to the existence of an entirely new field for experiment in some of the less understood properties of magnetism and electricity; and although their practical applications are as yet limited, there can be little doubt that they will eventually become of great value to the electrician, physicist, and even to the surgeon; indeed, the value of the microphone in surgical diagnosis has already been demonstrated. While a wonderful future is predicted for the phonograph, at present if we except its power of giving a peculiar graphic representation of multiple and complex sounds, it cannot be said to be out of the category of scientific toys.37

Ironically the Illustrated Australian News engraving includes a vignette of Ellery reading his thirteenth annual address to the Society without the benefit of amplification, alongside an illustration of the prototype microphone which is the size of a suitcase.

Despite Sutherland’s disappointment in his experiments with the phonograph, the apparatus attracted a good deal of attention at the Conversazione. The phonograph on display in Melbourne in 1878 ‘was made upon the same model as those described in various scientific works’. The Illustrated Australian News reported:

The sounds emitted were of course feeble, and the tone of the voice, as reproduced, was somewhat cracked. The air of Rule Britannia could easily be followed and the Hip, hip, hurrah in the chorus of He’s a Jolly Good Fellow came out in a wonderfully distinct manner.38

The potential of the telephone for practical application would have been much clearer to contemporary audiences, especially in light of the precedent set by the telegraph for long-distance communication networks. As Ellery pointed out that ‘this wonderful little instrument has been greatly improved, and is now in actual use in Melbourne, not only as a toy, but as a means of communication.’39 But the instrument clearly retained its novelty in 1880: the Australasian Sketcher shows a pair of devices set up back to back, and two visitors happy to converse through it while standing less than an arm’s length apart.


While the conversazioni focused largely on practical demonstrations of instruments and technologies, there was still room for discussion of contemporary scientific theories. Ground-breaking micro-organic research undertaken by English scientists John Tyndall and TH Huxley during the 1870s had lead to the development of ‘germ theory’. This controversial theory had attracted huge interest internationally in scientific and medical circles and accelerated the great ‘Spontaneous Generation’ debate of the nineteenth century. Advocates of ‘spontaneous generation’ theory held that disease and decay were initiated by chemico-physical agencies and changes occurring within the body itself, with the subsequent ‘evolution’ of micro-organisms – such as bacteria – arising as a consequence.40 Germ theorists, on the other hand, argued that these processes were caused by the introduction of bacteria and other micro-organisms into the body. Although unable to present a demonstration, in his opening address to the Royal Society of Victoria’s Conversazione of 1878, Ellery ‘dealt at some length with that branch of biological science known as germ theory’.41 Ellery was able to inform his audience that:

the decay of animal and vegetable matter is entirely due to parasitic organisms which assert their dominion the instant vital forces in either cease, or even fall below a certain standard; there is no decay without these, and Professor Tyndall shows how they can be kept from their prey.42

Furthermore, he was able to put to rest a prevailing belief that ‘the lower class of organic life’ already known to give rise to diseases such as the deadly outbreaks of cholera, diptheria and others that regularly afflicted densely populated colonial urban centres, ‘was ever produced by spontaneous generation’.43

Public understanding and acceptance of germ theory would soon have significant impact on public health, for example, during the outbreak of smallpox in Sydney in 1881 and the plague pandemic of 1900. With the true causes of disease understood, public health institutions, government and the people were ready and willing to implement informed and effective measures, particularly strict quarantine regulations to reduce the spread of disease, and initiate larger capital projects for disease prevention. Significantly it was the pressure of informed public and professional opinion during the 1880s that led to the construction of an expensive underground sewerage system in typhoid-ridden Melbourne in the early 1890s during a period of economic depression in the colony (Jarrett 1900).


The conversazione’s ‘modern feature’ of audience engagement and interaction with the exhibits and emphasis on the practical applications of technology differed markedly from the style of science promotion popular earlier in the nineteenth century – a style epitomised by Professor Pepper and his entourage during their visit to Melbourne in 1879. As Director of London’s Royal Polytechnic Institution from the 1850s through to the 1870s, Pepper had played a central role in the institution’s success as both a vehicle for public education and a tourist attraction. Established in 1838, the Polytechnic had pioneered a style of educational entertainment that relied on the application of scientific and technological innovations and discoveries to the creation of sensational illusions and spectacular performances. Pepper, for example, was internationally famous for his Ghost Illusion, an optical illusion produced with mirrors and light.44

Professor Pepper was welcomed in Melbourne ‘by a number of gentlemen interested in scientific matters, as well as others who, while not being scientists themselves, acknowledged the value of the presence in Melbourne of such an excellent medium as our visitor’.45 The opening night of his series of ‘Pepper’s Scientific Festivals’, staged at Melbourne’s St George’s Hall, was described in the Age as ‘one of the most scientific exhibitions that it has been the privilege of a Melbourne audience to attend’.46 This description today strains credulity, as Pepper’s stage show, which ran for around six weeks in Melbourne, in fact featured a range of increasingly sensational optical illusions and magic tricks, including dancing skeletons, giant insects, illusory decapitations, and a final ‘Monster Programme’ with, ‘A la Baba The Wonderful Automaton Cornet Player’, and ‘Tremendous Mystery, Fiends, Sprites, Ghosts, Demonology’.47 As an advocate of mass education and rational recreation the professor’s declared agenda was ‘not to believe all that you see’, and the accompanying explanations and lectures might well have been deservedly described as ‘edifying’. But as an entertainer Pepper played upon a tangle of connotations around science, spectacle and spiritualism which contrasted with the conversazione’s concern with straightforward explanations, practical applications and audience interaction.

Pepper and the Royal Polytechnic had been hugely successful over many decades, but their eclectic, almost vaudevillian mix of scientific lecture and spectacle was now, I would argue, becoming outmoded; ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ was in the process of being relegated to the repertoire of vaudeville magicians and traveling shows surviving into the early twentieth century, rather than to science. This is because Pepper belonged rightly to an older, early nineteenth-century order of bringing scientific and technical knowledge to a wide public that was out of step with the needs of audiences of the late nineteenth century. According to David Knight (2006), at the outset of the nineteenth century, an interest in science and technology, or ‘Natural Philosophy’, was largely the privilege of those social groups who had the time and economic support to acquire collections and to investigate and experiment with whatever attracted their curiosity. The results of their work would typically reach a public audience only after translation into ‘rational amusements’. Technologies, such as the magic lantern and optical illusions for example, were widely enjoyed as educational toys or entertainment media, but they were not widely regarded, Knight argues, as necessary tools for investigating the world.

However, by the beginning of the twentieth century, science, technology and education were widely recognised as important economic drivers of British success. For example, improvements in industrial machinery and processes gave manufacturers a commercial edge against European manufacturers. England had also learnt a hard lesson from the Prussian military success based on superior weapons technology and a more highly educated population. As Knight (2006) observes, in this era of political and industrial upheaval there arose a large public audience ‘ready to be convinced of intellectual and social progress made visible through science’ (6). At the same time science practitioners understood that wider public awareness and appreciation of the practical application of recent innovations to the solution of problems in the real world, increased the likelihood of government and commercial support for scientific enterprise. Out of this context came a fundamental shift in the style and forms of communication of science to a public audience.


The colonial conversazioni discussed here are illustrative of a similar shift in the style and forms of science promotion. As in Britain, in Australasia the development of public, professional, government and commercial interest in scientific and technological practice, as exemplified by the conversazioni, was seen to yield direct economic and political benefits. Often these developments had direct application to the projects of colonisation and settlement in Australia and New Zealand. For example, accurate surveying and mapping were essential for the claiming of territory and subsequent division of land, town planning and communication networks. This was represented in the Auckland Conversazione with displays and demonstrations of surveying equipment, such as S Percy Smith’s ‘geodetical and trigonmetrical survey instruments’, indispensable for making inroads into the rugged landscape of New Zealand’s North Island. Another example is the mining industry, a major source of wealth for the new colonies and one of the drivers for the establishment of local post-secondary educational institutions, the Schools of Mines. The mining industry demanded the development of increasingly high levels of local scientific and engineering technology and skill. Likewise, the development of locally appropriate agricultural and industrial machinery was essential to allow more effective use of land and other resources. The economic benefits and the practical significance of technological and scientific development in such fields as these would have been only too evident to the colonial public.

The conversazioni of the 1880s in Melbourne and Auckland therefore played a role in fostering independent colonial innovation and adaptation of science and technology to local circumstances. Another area highlighted by the conversazioni in which this occurred was natural history. In their survey of the development of scientific enterprise in colonial culture, RW Home and others have drawn attention to the ‘utilitarian and localised profile of scientific enterprise in Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century’ (Home 1988, vii–xiii; Inkster and Todd 1988, 102–132). They point out that there was less scope for local scientists to make an innovative contribution in the ‘laboratory sciences’ that were coming out of Europe (such as sonic and germ theory) on the one hand. On the other hand, they argue, from the outset of colonisation and settlement, explorations in geographical, botanical, zoological and entomological fields gave rise to areas of research which provided visiting and, increasingly, local scientists scope and ample opportunity to make their own contributions to the natural history disciplines. The geologists and botanists who routinely accompanied politically and economically motivated colonial explorations attracted international attention and acclaim for their discoveries. This strength is demonstrated in the Auckland conversazioni, in the high degree of activity in local natural history undertaken by local practitioners such as Hetley, Dobbie, Broun and Cheeseman.

The public exhibition of the latest innovations in science and technology at the conversazioni of the 1880s in Melbourne and Auckland – and its further promulgation through illustrated reports in the daily newspapers – constituted an important means by which international scientific ideas and practices gained circulation beyond the specialist scientific circles of the metropolis and the elitist societies of the colonies. These exhibitions, with their interactive displays and demonstrations, widened the exposure of the burgeoning middle-class colonial public to scientific theories and new-fangled gadgets such as germ theory, the telephone, phonograph and microphone which, within a few decades, would dominate their lives and deliver great benefits. While much of the true potential of some of these innovations and discoveries may have remained quite opaque to both scientists and laypeople alike, the accessibility provided by the conversazione imbued audiences with a sense of their own scientific and technologically driven future. No less importantly in their own eyes, the conversazioni were evidence of the ability of colonial scientists and the wider public to remain up-to-date and engaged with scientific and intellectual progress in the wider world. In the colonies, as in the Imperial centre, changing perceptions of science in the public imagination and growing interest in science, both for its own sake and for its practical value, were accompanied by a developing sophistication in the public audience for science education. No longer wholly satisfied with the sensationalism and showmanship of an earlier generation of popular scientific lecturing, late nineteenth-century audiences were increasingly drawn to the style of factual explanation, practical demonstration and interactive engagement offered by the modern conversazione.


1    New Zealand Herald, 17 September 1880.

2    New Zealand Herald, 17 September 1880.

3    Ellery, despite his eminence, was not a professor, although he was regularly given the title in the local press.

4    Presidential Address, 23 August 1880, Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, vol. VII, August 1880: xxvi.

5    The intersecting notions of ‘rational recreation’, ‘useful knowledge’ and ‘moral improvement’ rested on the acquisition of knowledge for intellectual and moral self improvement and social progress. Peter Bailey (1978) explains that these notions were part of a wider social philosophy which gained increasing adherence throughout the nineteenth century in response to the phenomenon of ‘leisure’ in an industrialised society, on the one hand, and problems of social order and public health faced by English society, on the other. See also Colby (1984), Hartrick (2003).

6    New Zealand Herald, 17 September 1880.

7    Age, 18 July 1879.

8    Illustrated Australian News, 2 August 1879.

9    Lantern slides and the lantern projector as a light source were everyday and thus unremarkable technologies regularly deployed in the colonies for both education and entertainment. See Hartrick (2003).

10    Pirani’s scientific career deserves more attention. Although Pirani is not granted an individual entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, some details of his life can be gleaned from Cohen (2006), Serle (1966), Smith (1986).

11    Illustrated Australian News, 2 September 1878.

12    Illustrated Australian News, 2 September 1878.

13    Alex Sutherland, ‘The sounds of the consonants, as indicated by the phonograph’. [read 14th November 1878] Art. XII, Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, vol XV: 37–42.

14    Illustrated Australian News, 2 August 1879.

15    Lord Kelvin (Sir William Thomson) ‘On Vortex Atoms’ Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. VI, 1867: 94–105. Reprinted in Philosophical Magazine Vol. 36, 1867: 15–24.

16    Illustrated Australian News, 2 August 1879; Age, 18 July 1879.

17    Illustrated Australian News, 2 August 1879; Age, 18 July 1879. See also Gunson (1966).

18    New Zealand Herald, 17 September 1880.

19    New Zealand Herald, 17 September 1880.

20    New Zealand Herald, 20 September 1880.

21    New Zealand Herald, 17 September 1880.

22    Quoted in Prebble (2007).

23    For biographies of Cheeseman, Reischek, Hetley, Dobbie and Broun see Goulding (2007), Prebble (2007), Starke (2007), McCraw (2007), Crosby (2007) respectively.

24    New Zealand Herald, 17 September 1880.

25    New Zealand Herald, 17 September 1880.

26    New Zealand Herald, 17 September 1880.

27    New Zealand Herald, 17 September 1880.

28    Reproduced in Powell 1967: 16.

29    New Zealand Herald, 17 September 1880.

30    New Zealand Herald, 17 September 1880.

31    New Zealand Herald, 20 September 1880.

32    Illustrated Australian News, 2 September 1878.

33    Illustrated Australian News, 2 September 1878.

34    Illustrated Australian News, 2 September 1878.

35    New Zealand Herald, 17 September 1880.

36    Illustrated Australian News, 2 September 1878.

37    Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 1878: xxiv–xxv.

38    Illustrated Australian News, 2 September 1878.

39    Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 1878: xxiv.

40    Michael Worboys (2000, 86–99) describes the debate in detail.

41    Illustrated Australian News, 2 September 1878.

42    Presidential Address, 8 August 1878, Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria: xxvi.

43    Illustrated Australian News, 2 September 1878.

44    In 1841 the Polytechnic attracted the patronage of Prince Albert, consort of the Queen Victoria. However, by 1879 the institution was close to failure. The institution nevertheless survived and, after numerous metamorphoses and mergers over 150 years, it re-emerged in 1992 as the respected University of Westminster with 23,000 students over four campuses. See the University of Westminster website (accessed 30 August 2007). For more on Professor Pepper, his visit to Melbourne, and Royal Polytechnic Institution, see Hartrick (2003), Smith (2005).

45    Illustrated Australasian News, 2 August 1879.

46    Age, 14 July 1879.

47    Age, 20 August 1879.



The Age, 1879.

Australasian Sketcher, 1880.

Illustrated Australian News, 1878, 1879.

New Zealand Herald, 1880.

Philosophical Magazine, vol. 36, 1867: 15–24.

Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, 1878–1882.


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Cite this chapter as: Hartrick, Elizabeth. 2008. ‘“Curiosities and rare scientific instruments”: Colonial conversazioni in Australia and New Zealand in the 1870s and 1880s’. Seize the Day: Exhibitions, Australia and the World, edited by Darian-Smith, Kate; Gillespie, Richard; Jordan, Caroline; and Willis, Elizabeth. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 11.1–11.19.

© Copyright 2008 Elizabeth Hartrick
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   by Kate Darian-Smith, Richard Gillespie, Caroline Jordan, Elizabeth Willis