Man in the box

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Meet Jeremy Bentham. One of 18th century England's foremost thinkers, he was by most standards a genius, and by all accounts, a pretty eccentric fella. Despite being one of the most radical liberals of his time -- he advocated the abolition of slavery, seperation of church and state and equal rights for women -- he is best remembered for dreaming up a new kind of prison, the Panopticon. Its design was meant to create a feeling of "invisible omniscience" among the prisoners, who could never be sure whether they were being watched or not. (Though his design was never implemented during his lifetime, a number of notorious modern-day prisons follow its lead, including California's Pelican Bay.)

Unable to realize his Panopticon in life, he settled for a stripped-down, weirded-out version of it in death: his will mandated that his body be preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet at University College London, which he founded. It sits there today, at the end of a hall, wearing the same clothes he wore when he was alive. His head, badly damaged in the preservation process, sits in a jar at his feet. The "Auto-Icon," as it is known, is hauled out for University Council meetings from time to time, at which Bentham is listed on the official register as "present but not voting."

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September 5, 2006 - 8:00am
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