Henry Dircks

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Henry Dircks
Born(1806-08-26)26 August 1806
Liverpool, England
Died17 September 1873(1873-09-17) (aged 67)
Brighton, England
Engineering career
ProjectsPerpetual motion
Significant designPepper's ghost

Henry Dircks FRSE FCS (26 August 1806 – 17 September 1873) was an English engineer who is considered to have been the main designer of the projection technique known as Pepper's ghost in 1858. It is named after John Henry Pepper who implemented a working version of the device in 1862. Dircks also investigated attempts at the invention of a perpetual motion device, writing that those who sought to create such a thing were "half-learned" or "totally ignorant".

Life and career[edit]

Dircks was born in Liverpool on 26 August 1806.

He was apprenticed to a mercantile firm and spent much of his free time studying practical mechanics, chemistry, and literature. Around the mid-1820s he began lecturing about chemistry and electricity while writing literary articles in the local press and scientific papers in the Mechanics' Magazine and other journals. In 1837 he became a life member of the British Association, and afterwards contributed papers to its proceedings. Two years later he wrote a pamphlet regarding a proposed union of mechanics' and literary institutions. He also wrote a short treatise entitled "Popular Education, a series of Papers on the Nature, Objects, and Advantages of Mechanics' Institutions", first printed in Liverpool in 1840.[1]

He became a practical engineer, conducting railway, canal, and mining works, before progressing to the role of consulting engineer. He continued to investigate technologies and invent new devices, taking out several patents between 1840 and 1857.[1] Dircks joined the Royal Society of Literature, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and other scientific bodies. In 1867 he was elected a full Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, his proposer being William John Macquorn Rankine.[2]

In 1868 he was given an honorary degree (LL.D.) from Tusculum College in Tennessee.[1]

Dircks died in Brighton on 17 September 1873.[1]


  • 1852. Jordantype, otherwise called Electrotype
  • 1863. Perpetuum mobile.
  • 1863. Joseph Anstey.
  • 1863. The ghost as produced in the spectre drama.
  • 1863. Contribution towards a history of electro-metallurgy.
  • 1865. The life, times, and scientific labours of the second Marquis of Worcester. To which is added, a reprint of his Century of Inventions, 1663, with a commentary thereon.
  • 1866. Worcesteriana: affording historical, biographical, and other notices relating to Edward Somerset, sixth earl and second Marquis of Worcester, inventor of the steam engine; and his immediate family connections.
  • 1867. Inventors and inventions.
  • 1867. A biographical memoir of Samuel Hartlib, Milton’s familiar friend, with bibliographical notices of works published by him, and a reprint of his pamphlet entitled An invention of engines of motion.
  • 1869. Nature-study; or, The art of attaining those excellencies in poetry and eloquence which are mainly dependent on the manifold influences of universal nature.
  • 1869. Scientific studies or practical in contrast with chimerical pursuits exemplified in two popular lectures. I The life of Edward Somerset second marquis of Worcester. II Chimeras of science: astrology, alchemy, squaring the circle, perpetuum mobile etc.
  • 1872. Naturalistic poetry, selected from psalms and hymns of the last three centuries. In four essays, developing the progress of nature-study, in connection with sacred song.

Pepper's ghost[edit]

Spiritualists and phantasmagoria performers plied their trade by attempting to convince audiences that they were able to contact the dead. To add weight to their claims they would use various projection techniques, particularly magic lanterns, that would seemingly make a ghost appear. Dircks was frustrated by such trickery and developed a better technique that could help dispel the simpler methods. He saw this as a triumph of enlightenment over superstition and hoped that the scientific explanations would educate people enough to keep them away from such charlatans.[3]

Dircks developed a way of projecting an actor onto a stage using a hidden room, a sheet of glass, and a clever use of lighting, calling the technique "Dircksian Phantasmagoria". The actor would then have an ethereal, ghost-like appearance while seemingly able to perform alongside other actors.[3] Dircks is believed to have described this invention to the British Association in 1858.[1] The unwieldy implementation of his system meant that theatres would need to be entirely rebuilt to accommodate the technique and some refinements would therefore be needed if it were to be adopted on a wide scale.[3]

Popular science lecturer John Henry Pepper saw the concept and replicated it on a larger scale,[4] taking out a joint patent with Dircks. Pepper debuted his creation with a Christmas Eve production of the Charles Dickens play The Haunted Man in 1862 and Dircks signed over all financial rights to Pepper.[5] Some reports have suggested that, at the time, Pepper claimed to have developed the technique after reading the 1831 book Recreative Memoirs by famed showman Étienne-Gaspard Robert.[6] Either way, the effect became known as "Pepper's ghost" and this name was used by those who replicated the technique. Because of this Dircks became increasingly convinced that his invention had been stolen from him, believing that a conspiracy had been perpetrated against him at first by the Polytechnic and then latterly by the newspapers and advertisers who omitted his name.[3]

Dircks' original plan to give rational explanations to dispel the popular appetite for spiritualism was certainly helped by Pepper.[5] Further, Pepper's ghost has been hailed as a key development in stage magic and "the cornerstone upon which much subsequent magic was founded".[7] In one of his later books Pepper would insist that Dircks should have a share of the credit, and though the technique is still today named after the man who popularised it Dircks is hailed as the originator of the invention.[4][7]

The pair's involvement in the development of Pepper's ghost was summarised in an 1863 article from The Spectator:

This admirable ghost is the offspring of two fathers, of a learned member of the Society of Civil Engineers, Henry Dircks, Esq., and of Professor Pepper, of the Polytechnic. To Mr. Dircks belongs the honour of having invented him, or as the disciplines of Hegel would express it, evolved him from out of the depths of his own consciousness; and Professor Pepper has the merit of having improved him considerably, fitting him for the intercourse of mundane society, and even educating him for the stage.[3][8]

Perpetual motion[edit]

Dircks had an interest in the search for a perpetual motion machine. His book Perpetuum mobile; or, Search for self-motive power, published in 1861, examined many attempts at creating such a device,[9] and has since been cited by other science writers on the subject.[10] Dircks summarised the ongoing efforts of inventors:

A more self-willed, self-satisfied, or self-deluded class of the community, making at the same time pretension to superior knowledge, it would be impossible to imagine. They hope against hope, scorning all opposition with ridiculous vehemence, although centuries have not advanced them one step in the way of progress.


There is something lamentable, degrading, and almost insane in pursuing the visionary schemes of past ages with dogged determination, in paths of learning which have been investigated by superior minds, and with which such adventurous persons are totally unacquainted. The history of Perpetual Motion is a history of the fool-hardiness of either half-learned, or totally ignorant persons.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d e Sutton, Charles William (1888). "Dircks, Henry" . In Stephen, Leslie (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 15. London: Smith, Elder & Co. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  2. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0-902-198-84-X.
  3. ^ a b c d e Harries, Martin (1 September 2000). Scare Quotes from Shakespeare: Marx, Keynes, and the Language of Reenchantment. Stanford University Press. pp. 27–40. ISBN 978-0-8047-3621-3. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  4. ^ a b Burns, Paul. "The History of the Discovery of Cinematography". precinemahistory.net. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
  5. ^ a b Secord, J. A. (6 September 2002). "Quick and Magical Shaper of Science". Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science. 297 (5587): 1648–1649. doi:10.1126/science.297.5587.1648. PMID 12215629.
  6. ^ Cane, R. F. (28 August 1975). "John H. Pepper – Analyst and Rainmaker" (PDF). Queensland Institute of Technology. Retrieved 15 August 2012.
  7. ^ a b Preston, John (9 November 2004). "Smoke and Mirrors". The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited. Retrieved 20 August 2012.
  8. ^ "The Patent Ghost". The Mercury. 21 July 1863. Retrieved 19 August 2012.
  9. ^ Perpetuum mobile; or, Search for self-motive power (1861). 1861. Retrieved 17 August 2012.
  10. ^ Hering, Daniel (1924). "Foibles and fallacies of science". Retrieved 17 August 2012.
  11. ^ Dircks, Henry (1861). Perpetuum Mobile: Or, A History of the Search for Self-motive. p. 354. Retrieved 17 August 2012.

External links[edit]