Say you were curious about what happened when a human brain came into prolonged contact with a strong magnetic field. To find an answer, you might learn more about the nature of magnetism and the biology of the brain and make some hypotheses. Later, you'd run some experiments using dead tissue, or perhaps live animal models. This is because you are a good person.
If you were Thomas Edison, on the other hand, you'd find the nearest street urchin and keep him inside a giant electromagnet. It's OK, though, science writers would later say, because there turned out not to be much of an effect, and, anyway, the boy liked it.
Many years ago, Mr. Thomas Edison made the following interesting experiment in his laboratory. Wishing to see what, if any, influence is produced by the passage of strong magnetic flux through the brain, he kept a boy for a long time inside a huge electro-magnet with his head placed between the poles so that the flux passed directly through his brain. If now a magnet is capable of producing any effect whatever on the body it should certainly have done it in this case. But as far as could be seen no effect whatever was felt by the boy. When asked privately how he felt he replied confidentially, "The experiment is bully. I am all right in the magnet. I like to be here for I do not have to work while the experiment is going on and I can take a nap occasionally. But don't tell Mr. Edison. I hope he will keep me here for a long time."
Anecdote taken from The Wonder Book of Magnetism, by Edwin James Houston. Published in 1908.
Thanks to Alexis Madrigal for this fabulous find!
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.