Pepper, John Henry (DNB01)

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PEPPER, JOHN HENRY (1821–1900), exhibitor of 'Pepper's Ghost,' born at Westminster on 17 June 1821, was educated at Loughborough House, Brixton, and King's College school, Strand. In 1840 he was appointed assistant chemical lecturer at the Granger school of medicine, in 1847 he gave his first lecture at the Royal Polytechnic in Regent Street (founded in 1838), and in 1848 he was appointed analytical chemist and lecturer to that institution. Some four year later he became 'honorary' director of the Polytechnic at a fixed salary, a post which he held for twenty years. He lectured frequently at the Polytechnic, and was invited to numerous schools, at which he delighted juvenile audiences by popular experiments, illusions, and magic-lantern displays. He also issued a series of unpretentious manuals of popular science, which had a wide circulation. They include 'The Boy's Playbook of Science' (1860), 'The Playbook of Metals' (1861), 'Scientific Amusements for Young People' (1861), and 'Cyclopædic Science Simplified' (1869). On the title-pages of these he describes himself as fellow of the Chemical Society, and honorary associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers. His title of professor was conferred upon him 'by express minute of the Polytechnic board,' and was not therefore, he was careful to explain, that of a hairdresser or a dancing-master.

During the winter of 1862, when the Polytechnic was suffering severely from the reaction that followed the heavy business due to the exhibition of that year, Pepper succeeded in reviving the popularity of the institution and ensuring its future by means of an optical illusion, described by the 'Times' as the most wonderful ever put before the public. In September 1858 Henry Dircks [q. v.] of Blackheath had communicated to the British Association the details of an apparatus for producing 'spectral optical illusions' (see Mech. Mag. 7 Oct. 1858; Engineer, 1 Oct. 1858). The idea was rejected by several entertainers, but Dircks had sufficient faith in it to have the necessary apparatus made. Pepper no sooner saw this than he cordially welcomed the invention, and, after some not very important modifications in the machinery, exhibited the 'ghost' for the first time on 24 Dec. 1862, an illustration of Dickens's 'Haunted Man.' On 5 Feb. 1863 the apparatus was patented in the joint names of Pepper and Dircks, both renouncing any pecuniary claim upon the Polytechnic.

Dircks afterwards complained, with some apparent justification, that he had been deluded into this arrangement, and that his name as that of sole inventor was unduly obscured in the advertisements of the exhibition. Popularly known as 'Pepper's Ghost,' the illusion had an enormous vogue, was visited by the Prince and Princess of Wales (19 May 1863), commanded to Windsor, and transferred to the boards of many London theatres, to the Chatelet at Paris, to Wallack's Theatre, New York, and to the Crystal Palace. In March 1872 Pepper temporarily transferred his exhibit to the Egyptian Hall. Shortly after this he went out to Australia and was appointed public analyst at Brisbane. In 1890 he returned to England and reintroduced his 'ghost' at the Polytechnic, but the spectre failed to appeal to a sophisticated public, and its proprietor withdrew into private life and wrote 'The True History of Pepper's Ghost' (1890). The 'Professor' died in Colworth Road, Leytonstone, Essex, on 29 March 1900.

[Times, 26 and 30 Dec. 1871, 30 March 1900; Daily Telegraph, 30 March 1900; Mechanical Magazine, vol. lxxivii. passim; Thornbury's Old and New London, iv. 454; All the Year Round, June 1863; Dircks's Ghost, or The Dircksian Phantasmagoria, 1863; The True History of Pepper's Ghost, 1890.]

T. S.