The Register's London correspondent lately wrote :
"Some extraordinary experiments with the divining-rod have recently been taking place, and they are well worth the attention of those interested in the irrigation question — and who is not in Australia ?".

How to hold a divining rod

Then followed a description of the experiments in water discovery, tried with the assistance and by means of a 'peculiarly susceptible' lady, Mrs. Manners, with the apparent view of ascertaining whether or not the movements of the rod were due to magnetic attraction. Then also in October last the Mining Journal, the leading organ of the mining interest in the world, contained a paragraph informing its readers that "the use of the 'dowsing' or 'divining-rod' — an old institution in Cornwall — has not yet lost all its charms.

It is well known that many persons still adhere to its use for the discovery of tin strata, and this week the method is to be applied in connection with a contemplated mine in the north of the county." It further states that gentlemen of undoubted intelligence and position are "firm believers in the power and efficacy of the dowsing-rod."

Besides all this, no newspaper reader can have failed to note recurrently reference to the occasional use with success of this occult instrument in out-of-the-way places. It may be asked — Is it not a singular circumstance that for hundreds of years past there have been similar intimations of the employment of this agency for the discovery of water and minerals, and that 'all along the line' there have been denunciations of fraudulent pretence, and yet the superstition, if it be one, survives ! Now any fraud once completely exposed 'dies the death'; but the divining-rod, like its far-off cousins known to Aaron, the priest, and the competitive Egyptian sorcerers, has shown marvellous vitality, though in all its resurrections it has challenged surprise and excited vehement doubters. The prophet Hosea makes reference to it in ch. iv. v. 12 ; and in Wiclif's translation of "The Dedis of the Apostles" we have the quaint rendering :
"And it was don whanne we gheden to preier that a damysel that hadde a spirit of dyuynacioun mette us, which ghaf greet wynnynge to her lordes In dyuynyng."

Whether with the rod or not who shall say. And always, as to this day, it has been looked upon as uncanny, nay, a demoniac agency, having a paternity that shall be for polite reasons nameless. The 'English Cyclopaedia' says : "Scientific men, almost without exception, regard the asserted power as a fraud or a delusion... The whole is an example of phenomena of expectant attention, or the effect of dominant impressions on the mind acting unconsciously upon and through, the nerves and muscles".

The ' London Encyclopaedia' is more summary in its verdict upon the matter, and says "the divining-rod is generally regarded as a piece of philosophical quackery".

Still all the while there have been devoted believers, and Lord Dysart (mentioned in connection with Mrs. Manners's experiments) has many supporters belonging to past as well as the present generations. Indeed there were so many facts attested a few years back that Dr. Mayo used some of his learned leisure in the publication of a collection of examples of success in the use of the divining-rod.

Yet we have it on record (Hooson) that "the first inventor of the Virgula Divinatoria was hanged in Germany as a cheat and impostor", which should be a sufficient warning to all his disciples.

One writer tells us that the rod was much talked of in France towards the end of the seventeenth century, and that the corpuscular philosophy was called in to account for it. The scientists of those days amused themselves and dazed the public by the utterance of such learned nonsense as this : "The corpuscles that rise from the minerals, entering the rod, determine it to bow down in order to render it parallel to the vertical lines which the effluvia describe in their rise. In effect the mineral particles seem to be emitted from the earth. Now the virgula, being of a light, porous wood, gives an easy passage to those particles, which ar very fine and subtle. The effluvia then driven forward by those that follow them, and pressed at the same time by the atmosphere incumbent on them, are forced to enter the little interstices between the fibres of the wood, and by that effort they oblige it to incline, or dip down perpendicularly, to become parallel with the little columns which those vapours form in their rise".

All this is very much entitled to Dominie Sampson's "Prodigious !" or good Mr. Burchell's "Fudge !" Mr. William Pryce, of Redruth, Cornwall, wrote at length on the matter of discovering minerals by this method, and published a fine and now scarce folio work in 1778, and he quoted a certain captain Riberia, who deserted the Spanish service in Queen Anne's reign, and became captain commandant of the garrison of Plymouth, and who was an expert. This gallant gentleman, who would have made a good politician doubtless if he had lived in later years, asserted that rods cut from the nut or other fruit-bearing trees were the only proper ones for use, and that the virtue was confined to a few persons; but Mr. Pryce declared this to be a mistake "for the virtue, as he calls it, resides in all persons and in all rods" — a statement that can be abundantly disproved.

He also asserts that the rod is attracted by all the metals, by coals, bones, limestone, and springs of water, with different degrees of strength in the following order :
(1) gold, (2) copper, (3) iron, (4) silver, (5) tin, (6) lead, (7) coals, (8) limestone (!) and springs of water.
These two statements, it may be, were apparently quite true to Mr. Pryce's mind, but unfortunately are not true to fact, at any rate not within every one's experience. This author of a century ago gives some very amusing details as to the nature of the divining-rod, the persons using it, and the character of the operation.

Among other extraordinary statements he is responsible for the following, but whether he now cares as to his reputation or not is not vouched for : "If a rod ... be put under the arm it will totally destroy the operation of the virgula divinatoria in regard to all the subjects of it, except water, in those hands in which the rod naturally operates. If the least animal thread, as silk, or worsted, or hair, be tied round or fixed on the top of the rod, it will in like manner hinder its operation ; but the same rod placed under the arm, or the same animal substances tied round or fixed on the top of the rod, will make it work in those hands in which, without these additions, it is not attracted."

He also tells us that if the operating diviner holds a piece of metal in his hand then the rod will be repelled when held over a deposit of that particular kind of metal, as, for instance, gold being held in the hand, then a gold reef will repel the rod; and on this plan metals may be distinguished in kind. So, as he contends, rods may be prepared by the application to each of a different kind of metal for discovery of the nature of lodes, and of certain classes of ores. He also says that "if the rod is well held, its motion is surprisingly quick and lively - nothing is necessary but to keep the mind indifferent, to grasp the rod pretty strongly and steadily, opening the hands and raising the rod with the middle fingers every time it is drawn down. If the rod is raised and replaced without opening the hands it will not work !"

Mr. Pryce, whose credulity is discoverable without resort to divination, is good enough to give us a number of instances which furnished the foundations for his belief, and which bear the impress of truth in themselves, besides having escaped contradiction ; but whether it is safe to follow all his quaint deductions from the facts is an open question.

The interest in the irrigation question in this and other parts of Australia is suggested by the correspondent as a reason why attention should be given to an investigation of the use of the dowsing-rod, the divining-rod, the rod of Aaron, the caduceus or wand of Mercury, the baculus diving rod, or the virgula divinatoria, as the instrument has been variously called, and in this we may all readily concur. The vast importance to the future development of South Australia in a pastoral sense by means of the discovery of hidden supplies of water in our boundless arid districts is attested by the efforts the Government has now for a long time been making by artesian boring, and is even better understood by ruined pastoralists. But in the additional fact that this province is alleged to be specially rich in minerals, and that a grand mining future awaits another generation, there is good reason for looking honestly and dispassionately and as critically as we please into the claims of experts with the divining rod. It is pretty nearly time these claims were disposed of — scientifically extinguished by telling test or scientifically explained and employed. If, after all, there is an operative natural law, developed into a faculty in rare instances, which could be made subservient for the discovery of artesian water systems, or springs with reticulated channels among the rock crevices at depth ; or equally available for the discovery of the matrices of ores and lines of lodes or reefs, would it not be manifestly to the advantage of the community that this natural force should be employed ?

Conceive the cost of putting down bore after bore to tap artesian supplies with resulting failure : The cost to individuals in sinking wells, hundreds of which have yielded no return for outlay, but in lieu thereof only given given disappointment ; and let mining cost-sheets and ruined companies attest the outlay of vast sums in search for lodes, which might have been so much better applied to the development of easily discoverable deposits of mineral. We owe it to ourselves in every enterprise in which we engage to resort to the most economic methods within our reach : Are we in this instance neglecting an obvious method of avoiding wasteful and extravagant as well as resultless expenditure ? It is well known that at the Barrier there is a 'susceptible' whose services have been largely employed with success, and that an expert in Queensland is at the present time doing effective work for pastoralists in the dry districts of the interior. It is also understood that nearer home there are those who have achieved some measure of success in the same methods, and very often without fee or reward, save the consciousness of helping some struggler. The means for investigation should therefore be easily reached, and it is not to be supposed that we are lacking those in this community who would be qualified to conduct intelligently and impartially a practical investigation. Experiments have been made, and are being continued, with at any rate one result — not very important it is true : A few persons are acquiring increased confidence in the use of the divining-rod (or as it may be more properly described, the ' indicator'), without perhaps materially adding to positive knowledge of the scientific principle creating or controlling the phenomena. Could not the experiments be made to produce results valuable to the public as a whole ? For the sake of comparison, and perhaps in formation to enquirers, the writer presents the following suggestions arising from observation and personal experience, more particularly, perhaps, because in in some particulars they oppose theoretical views, and traverse some unreliable descriptions of incidents that have occurred in indicating the presence of water and minerals :

  • The faculty of using the divining rod or 'indicator' is possessed by very few persons, and the power to operate reliably and intelligently by still fewer.
  • There are not the same precise results under the same conditions to experts or susceptibles of differing nervous constitutions, some are not affected by minerals.
  • The 'indicator' may be so held as to make muscular manipulation (either voluntary or involuntary) quite impossible.
  • A forked twig from nearly any kind or tree or a piece of copper or iron wire may be used indifferently by some experts ; the branches of the twig must be equal in length and thickness.
  • As disposing of the theory of unconscious muscular action, the two branches of the 'indicator' may be held by non believers or non-experts, and it will usually operate at once upon the 'susceptible' taking his place over water or a mineral lode, or standing on a body of metal, and taking the disengaged hands of those holding the rod ; that is if they are not possessed of greater natural magnetism than he is.
  • Ordinarily the upward motion of the ' indicator' towards the person of the operator betokens the presence of water, and a reverse motion indicates the presence of minerals.
  • Sometimes, when the 'indicator' has been held by persons of differing, perhaps opposing temperaments, it appears to become in some way charged with magnetism, and will then waver in its motions and reverse its direction unaccountably ; but it may be restored to its normal condition by passing it through the hands of the operator with the apparent effect of demagnetising it.
  • The 'indicator' has to the writers personal knowledge worked correctly in the hands of a little child three years of age.
  • The ' indicator' does not move unless water or a mineral be present, but will invariably move when either the one or the other is underneath the feet of the operator.
  • There is no virtue in the rod itself, but the faculty lies in the individual using it.
  • The 'indicator' twists round in the hands of the operator, and not with them, and sometimes so violently as to blister the hand or break if held strongly and resistently.
  • The depth in the earth at which water lies concealed cannot with entire accuracy be gauged, but the width and direction of a mineral lode or reef may be absolutely determined, and possibly something of its strength.
  • The ' indicator' will serve in cases where the spring may be at a depth of more than 200 feet, and possibly at a much greater depth still.
  • Contrary to the experience of some 'dividers,' the writer has proved that the 'indicator' will act over other than running waters.
  • A slender piece of wire, or single willow branch poised in the hand will distinctly incline towards the operator, and lie on his head or shoulder, when he steps over water or a mineral lode, and re-erect itself upon his stepping back from the water or lode.

Other points might be mentioned, but the reader would weary of detail. It may suffice for the present to state the facts given, and once more suggest further inquiry.

By E. H. Derrington

South Australian Register, 9 January 1980