Jeremy Bentham

posted by Cliff Kuang   Jun 02, 2008

Inspired by the LOST finale, was reading up about Jeremy Bentham. He was an amazing guy—a former child prodigy (just like his friend and fellow paragon of Utilitarianism, J.S. Mill) and an astonishingly liberal thinker. He was also, among other things, the inventor of the panopticon and responsible for convincing Adam Smith to advocate letting interest rates regulate themselves. Moreover, he went out in style:

As requested in his will, his body was preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet, termed his “Auto-icon”. Originally kept by his disciple Dr. Southwood Smith,[11] it was acquired by University College London in 1850. The Auto-icon is kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of the College. For the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, the Auto-icon was brought to the meeting of the College Council, where he was listed as “present but not voting”.[12] Tradition holds that if the council’s vote on any motion is tied, the auto-icon always breaks the tie by voting in favour of the motion.

The Auto-icon has always had a wax head, as Bentham’s head was badly damaged in the preservation process. The real head was displayed in the same case for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks including being stolen on more than one occasion. It is now locked away securely.

The picture is priceless. The “cabinet” is more like a telephone booth, and Bentham looks like a ventriloquist’s puppet. People were so tiny in the 19th century!

Tangentially related: The average man storming the Bastille in 1789 was 5 feet ZERO, and 100 pounds—he looked not like a valiant solider, but like a “thirteen year old girl.” You’ll learn that and more in Burkhard Bilger’s fascinating article about height from a few years back.