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December 2023-February 2024

Pepper’s ghost

It’s not often that my interest in the history of chemistry, usually with an Australian flavour, coincides with my interest in the history of the area where I grew up and where I have been back living since 1995. One link between the two is a certain Professor Pepper, who is described in Wikipedia as ‘a scientific all-rounder who was both an effective public educator in science and an astute, publicity-conscious, commercial showman’. Newspapers concentrating on the last of these referred to him as an illusionist. The illusion he created on stage was described as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’.

Thanks to the National Library of Australia’s Trove, I have been able for some years to search the digitised version of a local paper, the Williamstown Chronicle, where I found an advertisement for Pepper’s talk on ‘Light and Optics’, to be delivered at several venues, one of which, ‘Mr. Ulbrick’s State School’, was in fact the North Williamstown Primary School where I learnt my 3Rs in the 1940s. Ulbrick (actually J.F.C. Ulbrich) was the first headmaster at the school, which had opened in 1874, not long after primary education became free and compulsory in the colony under the Education Act 1872.

Pepper and his family, along with a team of assistants and more than 30 tons of scientific and exhibitory apparatus, arrived in Melbourne in mid-1879. His formal engagement was to lecture in every one of Victoria’s state schools and he offered a range of topics that included the electric light, spectrum analysis, musical notes rendered visible, Darwinian theory, telephones and so on. His ‘ghost’ involved the projection of images from an adjacent room onto a glass screen so the subjects appeared to be in the lecture room. It was a popular phenomenon in London and it featured in many of his lectures, especially those we could describe as ‘magic shows’. By the time he hit Melbourne, the ghost’s appearances had become gentrified to include ‘dioramic views’, which, in one Melbourne performance, featured views of Afghanistan and the Afghan war. Newspaper coverage, however, preferred skeletons and the images of long-dead people, as can be seen in the cartoon from the Illustrated Australian News shown here.

John Henry Pepper, born in London in 1821, really was a chemist. He had been employed at London’s Royal Polytechnic, where he combined serious chemistry with public entertainment. A conflict between these two roles caused a rift between him and management that he resolved by removing to the Australian colonies. After his lecture tours of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales, he settled in Brisbane, where his lectures continued and he was established as a consulting analytical chemist and teacher at the School of Arts. As happened with his old employer, his new employer was also unhappy with the way he managed his several roles, so once again he resolved the issue by changing continents in 1889, returning to England, where he died in 1900.

An Australian chemist described Pepper as ‘an extrovert who didn’t take kindly to authoritarian rule’. This was Reg Cane (1917–92), whose article ‘John H. Pepper – analyst and rainmaker’ was published in the Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland (1974–5, vol. 9(6), pp. 116–33). Like so much of our literature, it’s hiding behind a paywall where even ChatGPT can’t find it. Various libraries hold the journal and I wonder if the Society might be prepared to help any eager reader who can’t access them but has a yen to read more about Pepper.

Melbourne-based readers can see a good selection of Pepper’s many books in the State Library of Victoria. In researching this Letter, I found that Cane had had an interesting career that I will summarise in what space is left to me. (This magazine’s editor, Sally Woollett, would appreciate this problem that besets writers and editors!) A graduate of the University of Tasmania, and foundation member of the ACI branch there, Cane worked at the Glen Davis shale oil works during World War 2, then with General Motors for a few years and ICI Australia (1947–63). He returned to the University of Tasmania in 1968 but then took up a senior appointment at the Queensland Institute of Technology. In 1977, he retired and returned to his native Tasmania but remained active as an expert on applications of chemistry to industry.

Ian D. Rae FRACI CChem ( is a veteran columnist, having begun his Letters in 1984. When he is not compiling columns, he writes on the history of chemistry and is an editor of Historical Records of Australian Science.

A cartoon of Professor Pepper, Illustrated Australian News, Saturday 2 August 1879, p. 116.

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