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In the 1730s, a live entertainment act called the 'flying boy' became a big hit in Europe. A young boy would be suspended mid-air by silk cords, and a machine that generated electricity would be placed near his feet. The boy’s body would soon get charged with static electricity, at which point he’d perform various magical feats, such as turning the pages of a book kept under him without touching it, or attracting small pieces of paper to his hands and face. Ladies in the audience would be asked to touch the boy’s nose; their approaching fingers would trigger a big spark, further shocking the audience.
The flying boy was part of a long list of 18th-century amusements – including 'jumping monks' and, my favourite, the 'electrifying kiss' – based on interactions between the human body and the newly discovered rage: electricity. I’d have remained clueless about this chapter from history had I not chanced upon US cultural historian David Parisi’s sprawling book, The Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing.