Before there was gravity, there was...the cat piano

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The world of 17th century scientific and mathematical experimentation was, as Edward Dolnick told Leonard today, one of alchemy, experimentation, and god-fearing superstition. The experiments undertaken by the Royal Society may have led to some incredible discoveries, but some had less serious goals and were, in truth, nothing more than idle amusements. Take the cat piano.

The cat piano was a creation of the renowned philosopher of the day, Athanasius Kircher. Created to amuse a despondent prince, a line of cats were caged into boxes arranged by the pitch of their mews. Attached was a keyboard, and when the keys were pressed by a player, a sharp jab was delivered to the cat in the corresponding box. The result, Dolnick writes, was "a melody of meows that became more vigorous as the cats became more desperate. Who could help but laugh at such music? Thus was the prince raised from his melancholy."

Although some of these cruel experiments on animals had a scientific purpose, Dolnick admits that many of them were essentially stunts. It's remarkable to think that some of the most important discoveries in our canon of scientific knowledge came from the same group who created party games by toying with animals' pain thresholds!