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


Tracing the history of an image of the human central nervous system, reproduced in more than 100 texts, above 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. In its hyper-nakedness, the image warned of the dangerous interconnectedness of the body, where stimulation, or over-stimulation, of any one part would cause damage to the entire system.

Evolution of an Icon

February 21, 2012 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…