When the “Swarm of Iron Bees” Came to Willoughby, Ohio
Posted July 5, 2023
Topics: Civil WarDaily LifeEducationArchives & Library

By Matthew Benz, Manuscripts Curator

Nights with Science handbill, circa 1863. Ohio History Connection Archives Library, new aquisition. Click on image to enlarge.

A recent acquisition of the manuscripts department in the Archives-Library at the Ohio History Center is this charming and whimsical Civil War era handbill advertisement  for “Nights with Science,” a series of “Splendidly Illustrated” lectures by Professor W.C. Richards, delivered at the Wilson Avenue Baptist Church in Willoughby, Ohio, and sponsored by the local Ladies' Aid Society.

While we don’t know much about Professor W.C. Richards, we do know that he was a regular on the science lecture circuit. In the February 23rd, 1863, New York Times, we found this announcement of a coming lecture series by Richards, lectures that sound very similar to the ones featured in Willoughby:

“POPULAR SCIENTIFIC LECTURES. -- The Mercantile Library Association is about to lay the New-York public under special obligation to its liberality and zeal in catering for their entertainment, by affording them a series of scientific lectures. It has engaged the services of Rev. W.C. RICHARDS, A.M., of Boston, to deliver a course of six lectures on "The Atmosphere," which will be illustrated by very striking and brilliant experiments upon an unusual scale. These lectures have been received in New-England cities with great favor, and we doubt not they will create a deep interest in this City. The reputation of the lecturer, the extent of his apparatus, and the varied topics embraced in the general theme, promise rare attractions to lovers of science, and to intelligent auditors of every class.”

The lecture series Professor Richards delivered to his Willoughby audience was typical of the “Lyceum Movement,” which developed in response to growing interest in popular education. Associations were created that brought public figures and scholars before audiences to lecture, debate, and demonstrate scientific experiments. At its height, the Lyceum Movement promoted adult education, pushed social reform, and stimulated political discussion, all of which contributed to the rise of public schools and institutions of higher learning. But it should be noted that the Lyceum Movement was not only about education; it also offered entertainment. We can see that dichotomy at work in this handbill, as Richard’s lectures are declared “GRAND ENTERTAINMENTS! – STARTLING AND INSTRUCTIVE.” And really, what audience could fail to be entertained by demonstrations with such intriguing titles as “The Water Mallet,” The Mock Sun”, The Vaulting Egg” and “The Swarm of Iron Bees?”  And even if today we understand that these elaborate titles were created to tickle the 1860s imagination about what were probably basic science experiments doesn’t stop us from wanting to know what “The Suspended Rod” was all about. Who wouldn’t spend thirty-five cents to attend Professor Richards’ lecture “The Fairy Realm of Science” to find out?

By the mid-1870s, Professor Richards had retired from the lecture circuit, as a note from the August 1874 Popular Science Monthly makes clear, while also providing a glimpse of the “apparatus” or equipment Richards’ used in his scientific demonstrations:

“The attention of those desiring to procure physical-science apparatus is called to the advertisement of Professor W.C. Richards, Ph.D., who, having retired from the public lecture-field, offers for sale his extensive collection of instruments. The stock includes…coils, batteries, spectroscopes, vacuum-tubes; and it offers an excellent chance for colleges, high schools, and private students to supply themselves from this collection…”

The 19th century was a period of great scientific advancement that saw a corresponding increase in the public’s interest in all things science. With the Lyceum Movement providing a forum, people throughout the country, such as the citizens of Willoughby, Ohio, were given opportunities to learn and be exposed to scientific advancements, advancements that were changing the world as they knew it. The scientific demonstrations presented by Professor W.C. Richards might seem simple and obvious to Ohioans of 2023, but to the audience of 1860s Willoughby, experiments like "The Pillar of Fire" and "Singing Flames" were indeed “startling and instructive.” And yes, “grand entertainments.”

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