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Learned pig

Before television, people had to make their own fun. So they trained pigs to read.

Toby

Toby [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The first learned pig performed in London in the 1780s. Trained pigs appearing in fairs in the UK and the United States for more than a hundred years afterward.

Usually a set of cards showing letters and numbers were set in front of the pig. It would be asked questions: spell out a word, tell us the time, read the thoughts of that guy in the audience. And the pig would dutifully trot around, pick out the appropriate cards to spell out words and numbers, and so astound the onlookers.

How did it work? Well, the pigs were trained to react to tiny movements from their owner, of course. But that wasn’t public knowledge, and the public had many expanations, rangingĀ from undisputable proof of animal intelligence to proof of witchcraft to proof of reincarnation.

The pigs’ owners certainly played up this mystery: one learned pig named Toby published an autobiography in 1817 with the astounding title The life and adventures of Toby, the sapient pig: with his opinions on men and manners. Written by himself. Toby claimed that his powers of reason came from his mother – she ate library books.

Sure, why not. Seems legit.

Categories: Early modern history History Language Modern history Plants & animals Sciences

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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