The Psychology of Keely


NYT - 1/20/1899 - It was by a pertinent and fortunate chance that one of the investigators into the subterranean parts of the workshop or studio, or laboratory, or whatever Keely called it, should have been a "Professor of Experimental Psychology." Because really the only question that was left, or that had for years been left, about Keely and his motor was the psychological question. And the repeatedly successful attempts of the "inventor" upon his stockholders belonged also to the domain of"experimental psychology."

As a psychological experimental, Keely was much more interesting and successful than as an experimenter in mechanics. He seems to have started with the theory of the multiplication and accumulation of vibrations, which is a very old one. It is as old as the saying of the ancient whose name we do not remember, but it will no doubt be told us within forty-eight hours by half a dozen too well-informed correspondents, that if he had a fiddle he would pull down a bridge. Not the bridge of the fiddle; any beginner can do that, but an actual structure built to facilitate transport across water courses. But the ancient sage never had the face to ask people to come in and inspect the ruins of the bridge which he had fiddled down. The modern inventor went to that extent. That is to say, he invited selected persons who did not know too much. Sometimes he encountered in spite of himself unsympathetic persons who did know too much. One of these was Capt. (then Lieut.) Zalinski, who witnessed some of Keely's experiments upon investors, and incidentally upon inanimate objects, as long ago as November, 1884, and then confided to a reporter of THE NEW YORK TIMES that every result which Keely produced by means of "vibratory force," he could produce by the simple and familiar instrumentality of compressed air. And, in fact, the investigation into the secrets of Keely's laboratory leave little or no doubt that compressed air in a reservoir, judiciously alternated with unconfined air in conversation, was the agency that Keely employed to get his living for many years form many dupes.

But to say this is not to give a psychological analysis of an unlamented humbug. It is scarcely credible that, starting with nothing but the old proposition of the fiddle and the bridge, a man should deliberately set out to deceive and swindle the public with the pretense that he had made a practical application of the "vibratory force." It is more likely that Keely, having a very turbid and confused conception of mechanical facts and laws, as was evident to everybody who ever talked with him who had a clear conception of mechanical principles, began by believing that there was really "something in it," and seemed to himself to find some facts to support this view. It may have been only when his apparent facts failed him, and his machine for reduplicating and prolonging vibrations failed to "function," that he found himself compelled to substitute secret conduits of a familiar force and to become a common swindler in order to get his living from the credulous. Upon this point we await with interest the report of the Professor of Experimental Psychology in the University of Pennsylvania.

As to the psychologizing of the stockholders, that is a much easier matter than the psychologizing of Keely himself. At least the phenomena, if not simpler, are more familiar. When the "manifestations" of Spiritualism began, and awe-stricken gulls saw tables tipped by supernatural agencies and spirit forms emerge from toilet clothes-presses, if the now existing financial methods had been in vogue, there would have been no difficulty in "promoting" "stocking," "floating," possibly not even in "listing" the securities which represented the magical powers of the Fox sisters or the DAVENPORT brothers. The inexhaustibleness of human credulity is a topic too trite to be attractive. But we should really like to know what a Professor of Experimental Psychology thinks about Keely. (The New York Times)

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