North Devon in 100 Objects: 21. Some Leyden Jars

Three glass jars, lined inside and out with zinc foil.

These glass jars, lined inside and out with zinc foil, were found lined up in a large wooden box, connected by metal wires.  We have no record of their provenance, but we believe they once belonged to the Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institution.

The Institution was set up in 1845, thanks in large part to the backing of William Frederick Rock. It was originally planned as a fee-paying club, but this conflicted with Rock’s vision of a learning space that would ‘diffuse general benefit among all classes’. A compromise was reached: every year, Rock would pay for up to 100 members who could not otherwise afford the opportunity.  The Institution included a library and offered lectures on a wide range of subjects including the latest scientific advances.

The Leyden Jar was invented in 1745 as a means of accumulating and preserving electric charge. Arranged in groups, or “batteries”, a significant charge could be built up, which could then be released at the user’s discretion.  We believe these jars were used at the Institution to demonstrate the power of static electricity, which must have been exciting for an audience with no experience of electricity.

Literary and Scientific Institutions were founded in many towns and cities in the mid 19th century, satisfying a need for artistic and scientific learning and a few still survive as membership organisations. In Barnstaple William Rock replaced the Institution with the North Devon Athenaeum in 1889, free and open to all, regardless of their ability to pay.

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