I Speak to You Through Electrical Language: Traveling Into the Nineteenth Century with the “Nervous Icon”

The image on page 401 of George W. Hunter’s 1907 Elements of Biology is strikingly out of place. It is a Greek bronze flattened to a black silhouette. A woodblock engraving in a textbook otherwise illustrated with halftone photographs. A relic of Renaissance anatomy covered by the soot of the Age of Steam. Yet there it stands, owning the page.

The Nervous Icon (as I’ve come to call the image) was a popular feature in biology textbooks into the 1950s. Picked up, rephotographed and copied with apparently little concern for image quality, artistry, copyright or context. It was treated poorly, just plopped in and barely referenced in the later texts in which it appeared.

But something told me there was a story here. I felt as if the Nervous Icon was a courier carrying a secret message from the past.

It turns out that tracing the history of this image – exploring when it was first cut, how it was reproduced, where it appeared, and why it remained popular even as similar classically styled illustrations were retired – reveals surprising connections between the seemingly disparate topics of printing technology, print piracy, electricity, telegraphy, spirituality, abolition, and that most central of nineteenth century anxieties, masturbation. The Nervous Icon’s secret is that, in its hyper-nakedness, it warned of the dangerous interconnectedness of the body, where stimulation, or over-stimulation, of any one part would cause damage to the entire system.

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Evolution of an Icon

The “Nervous Icon” has mesmerized me for nearly three years (see Parts I, II and III).

I first spotted the image in the early textbooks of George W. Hunter, including A Civic Biology (1914), famous as the central exhibit in the Scopes trial. It stood out because it gave off such a curiously anachronistic aura in Hunter’s otherwise proudly “modern” works. Once struck, I started seeing the thing everywhere. I found variations in at least eight competing twentieth century American high school textbooks. And moving back in time, I uncovered dozens of instances published in the century prior.

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The Nervous Icon – Part III

Above are variations of “The Nervous Icon,” an illustration that was copied, retouched, redrawn and reproduced in more than three dozen anatomy, physiology and biology textbooks published between 1845 and 1956. See the Nervous Icon database. Images 1, 2 and 3 digitized by Google. 4 and 5 scanned from the author’s personal collection.

“The Nervous Icon” is my name for an illustration of the human nervous system that found its way into dozens of anatomy, physiology and biology textbooks published between the mid-1800s and the mid-1900s. I began tracing its history in The Nervous Icon – Part I, where I touched on the issues of artistry, copyright, and mechanical reproduction in science textbooks. I followed up a month later in The Nervous Icon – Part II, where I went “over my head” into the history of encyclopedias and the tension caused by the conflict between the assumption that cultural artifacts were the property of the dominating imperialist power and the imperatives of the emerging global marketplace.

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The Nervous Icon – Part II

(This entry continues the story begun in The Nervous Icon – Part I)

The image in question is a stylized view of the human central nervous system. It appeared in what is arguably the very first modern American biology textbook, George W. Hunter’s 1907 Elements of Biology published by the American Book Company. This same image was copied, revised and republished repeatedly in textbooks into the 1960s.

The first time I saw it I felt it was trying to tell me something. But what?

I framed my quest in Part I by asking: “Where did this drawing come from?” and “Why did so many different authors find it compelling?”

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The Nervous Icon – Part I

It is classical in pose and commands its stage. A black silhouette shot through with delicate white lines on a page dressed only with a pedestal-like caption that reads, “The central cerebro-spinal nervous system.”

This iconic image appeared in what may fairly be considered the first modern biology textbook, George W. Hunter’s Elements of Biology, published by the American Book Company in 1907.

Over the next half century, it would be redrawn, revised and reproduced, not only in other texts from the American Book Company, but also in competing works from The Macmillan Company, Henry Holt and Company, Harcourt, Brace and Company, and Allyn and Bacon. It’s provenance can be traced back to ancient Greece by way of the Renaissance. But after its first use by Hunter, it would quickly age and decay until its final appearance on the cover of paperback edition of George Gaylord Simpson’s 1964 book, This View of Life.

Where did this drawing come from? Why did so many different authors find it compelling?

I think it’s time for a little desktop detective work. Continue reading