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The Young Man's Book of Amusement

Containing the Most Interesting and Instructive Experiments in Various Branches of Science to Which Is Added All the Popular Tricks and Changes in Cards and the Art of Making Fire Works

by William Milner in 1839

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FIRST off, drown a fly. That may not be a conventional way to start a scientific experiment, but then again, the instruction is taken from a rather unconventional book.

The Young Man's Book of Amusement, first published by William Milner in 1839, is among the stranger relics of an era when scientific experimentation was starting to take off as a form of popular entertainment. Elsewhere in its pages, there are instructions to rub liquid mercury on your skin, stick explosives under a toy spider and apply voltage to a corpse. It's a wonder that any of its readers survived long enough to be amused.

Today, The Young Man's Book of Amusement - or, to give its full title, The Young Man’s Book of Amusement Containing the Most Interesting and Instructive Experiments in Various Branches of Science to Which Is Added All the Popular Tricks and Changes in Cards and the Art of Making Fire Works - reads like a drinking game for health and safety officials. It was a jaw-dropping, illustrated compendium of experiments that promised to 'unite instruction with amusement' - and very possibly, thin out the male gene pool.

This is a manual that recommends everything from brewing your own nitrous oxide to electrifying fake heads (with real hair) until the strands jump to attention 'like quills upon the fretful porcupine'. Pages are devoted to exciting new hobbies, such as restoring withered fruit, making inflamed soap bubbles, transforming iron into copper and freeing stuck rings using liquid mercury. There are early forays into meteorology involving hand-built barometers, and a dip into optics, with guides on how to produce light from sugar.

At the time the book came out, scientific experimentation was no longer the preserve of an intellectual elite. The wealth generated by the industrial revolution was producing a middle class with time on its hands and money to splash on spending it well. Astronomy demonstrators toured the country with their model solar systems, Michael Faraday's lectures at the Royal Institution in London were a Christmas staple and the first inexpensive chemistry sets were rolled out in the 1850s by John J. Griffin & Sons.

With literacy rates rising steeply, publishers were also quick to take advantage of this new market. Cheap, mass-produced educational texts took off. The Penny Magazine, published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, had a weekly circulation of 200,000 in the early 1830s, its readers agog with curiosity about everything from copper mining to swordfish.

But these were tame compared with The Young Man's Book of Amusement, which saves its most peculiar moment for the alarmingly titled 'Galvanic experiments on the dead body of a criminal'. What follows goes well beyond the boundaries of home science, requiring the budding electrochemist to source a morgue, a hanged murderer ('middle-sized, athletic, extremely muscular'), something resembling a Leyden jar, and a public gallery with a fondness for the spectacle of a dancing corpse.

Not all the experiments in the book end badly. The drowned fly, for example, once laid to rest in some chalk dust or fine ash, gets the water removed from the openings it uses to breathe, and stages a magical recovery. Just don't try any of this at home - or anywhere else for that matter.


Take about one third of a grain of fulminating silver, and inclose it in a piece of paper or cloth made up in the form of a spider, then place it in a situation where it is likely to be trod upon. The noise will both surprise and amuse.

{Ed: Fulminating silver, AgCNO, though worryingly considered too sensitive for use in explosives, is still used to give some toy crackers their bang.}


Put into a crucible four ounces of bismuth, and when in a state of fusion, throw in two ounces and a half of lead, and one ounce and a half of tin: these metals will combine, forming an alloy, fusible in boiling water. Mould the alloy into bars, and take them to a silversmith’s to be made into tea-spoons. Give one to a stranger to stir his tea, as soon as it is poured from the tea-pot; he will not be a little surprised to find it melt in his tea-cup.

{Ed: A similar trick can also be performed with gallium.}


In winter an elegant chimney ornament may be formed by cutting the head or thick end of a carrot, containing the bulb, and placing it in a shallow vessel with water. Young and delicate leaves unfold themselves, forming a radiated tuft of a very handsome appearance, and heightened by contrast with the season of the year.


For ensuring the sweetness of fish conveyed by land-carriage, the belly of the fish should be opened, and the internal parts sprinkled with powdered charcoal. The same material will restore impure, or even putrescent water, to a state of perfect freshness.


To illuminate eggs by electricity, it is merely necessary to get a mahogany stand so constructed as to hold three eggs at a greater or smaller distance, according to the position of two sliding pieces of wire. A chain is then placed at the bottom in such a manner as to touch the lowest egg with one end, and with its other the outside coating of a charged jar. The sliding wire at the top is made to touch the upper egg, and the distance of the eggs asunder should not exceed the quarter or eighth part of an inch. The electricity being, by means of the discharging rod, sent down the ball and wire, will, in a darkened room, render the eggs luminous and transparent.


Drop a piece of phosphorus, the size of a pea, into a tumbler of hot water; and, from a bladder, furnished with a stop cock, force a stream of oxygen directly upon it. This will afford a most brilliant combustion under water.


Dissolve salt in an infusion of saffron and spirits of wine. Dip some tow {Ed: Any fibres will do} in this solution, and having set fire to it, extinguish all the other lights in the room.


If two pieces of loaf-sugar (about a pound each) are struck against each other in the dark, a light-blue flame, like lightning, will be elicited. The same effect takes place when a loaf of sugar is struck with an iron instrument.


Get a snow-ball, and squeeze it very hard together, then put it in a pot and surround it well with flour, which must be pressed very hard about it, and you shall have as perfect a snow-ball in the height of summer, as you had when you first put it in the pot.

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