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Helmholtz’ apparatuses. Telegraphy as working model of nerve physiology

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  • Biology


Helmholtz' Apparatuses. Telegraphy as Working Model of Nerve Physiology Helmholtz’ Apparatuses Telegraphy as Working Model of Nerve Physiology Christoph Hoffmann Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science, Berlin Introduction In Hermann von Helmholtz’ physiological writings the word ‘appara- tus’ can have several meanings. In his famous treatise Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik (1863), for example, Helmholtz refers to at least three different apparatuses: the experimental “apparatus” used for producing single tones, the “apparatus belonging to the drum of the ear”, which consists of hammer, anvil, and stirrup connecting eardrum and labyrinth and, some pages later, the “termination of the auditory nerves” in Corti’s or- gan is characterized as a kind of “peculiar auxiliary apparatus” made for resonating [Helmholtz 1870, 178, 199, and 212]. The diverse use of the word was by no means unusual in the golden age of German ‘organic physics’ in the decades between 1845 and 1870 [Lenoir 1997, 75-95]. On the contrary the ubiquitous talk about apparatuses itself might be understood to constitute organic entities as physically defined techno- logical objects. As a consequence it could appear that it is only meant metaphorically, when Helmholtz talks about the several parts of the in- ner ear in terms of an apparatus. But if we understand metaphors with Philosophia Scientiæ, 7 (1), 2003, 129–149. 130 Christoph Hoffmann Hans Blumenberg mainly as “fossils that indicate an archaic stratum of the trial of theoretical curiosity” [Blumenberg 1979b, 82], then the per- spective shifts and what appears as an explanatory principle introduced ex post, turns out to be a remnant or sediment of the research process itself. In fact, since Xavier Bichat’s Anatomie générale (1801) physiol- ogists of the 19th Century not only distinguished some organic entities from others as apparatuses [Bichat 1801, I, XCIX]. First and foremost they investiga

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