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Conjuring unseen forces: Rainmaking in Australia with John Henry Pepper

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The climatic history of Australia records long periods of drought, with the late 1880s being particularly harsh, and the dry, hot conditions throughout the whole country led to drastic measures being taken. Those who believed in divine intervention looked to the heavens and prayed for rain while others considered scientific solutions. Purportedly scientific demonstrations of rainmaking in Australia during the late 1880s, accompanied by all the trappings of fairground entertainment, were attended by large crowds. Merry go-rounds, donkey rides and Punch and Judy puppet shows were enjoyed alongside ‘gigantic electrical experiments’ and other optical illusions. These experiments capitalized on the Victorian fascination for science, enjoyment of stage magic and the enduring desire to triumph over nature. This article discusses rainmaking, or pluviculture, as an entertainment in Australia in the late nineteenth century that walked the delicate line between magic and science. Whether through the use of new technologies or by evoking the powers of belief, conjuring the unseen forces of nature remains a powerful performative act that continues to resonate with audiences today.
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Keywords: Australia; John Henry Pepper; Pepper’s Ghost; illusion; magic; rainmaking; science

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Melbourne

Publication date: October 1, 2019

More about this publication?
  • Science permeates contemporary culture at multiple levels, from the technology in our daily lives to our dreams of other worlds in fiction. The Journal of Science & Popular Culture is a peer-reviewed academic publication that seeks to explore the complex and evolving connections between science and global society.

    Working with a distinguished international board, the Journal of Science & Popular Culture aims to create a unique forum in which to analyse, chronicle, and interpret this diverse landscape through original research articles, editorials, book and new media reviews, notes and essays. The journal also provides a site where emerging and established scholars can access salient knowledge and cutting-edge research. Contributions from academics, scientists, communicators, industry professionals, and practitioners with an interest in the science and society interface are invited. Any scholarly approaches or disciplines may be used and the Journal of Science & Popular Culture strongly reinforces interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research, opening up new possibilities for inquiry across and between the humanities and sciences.

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