"David Wiley, a Presbyterian minister and surveyor, moved to Georgetown (now in the District of Columbia) around 1801 to serve as principal of the Colombian Academy and teach natural philosophy, mathematics, geography, and Greek. He later edited the Agricultural Museum, the first agricultural periodical in the United States. Advertisements for the academy mention an 'Electrical Machine'; this may be the instrument that Charles Peale Polk depicted in this portrait. Polk shared Wiley's interest in science, for he was Charles Willson Peale's nephew and had grown up in his uncle's household, where he absorbed Peale's interest in natural history and also learned to paint. Polk has painted Wiley posing next to a machine that generated an electric charge and holding a Leyden jar, which would have been used to store the charge for future use." -- National Portrait GalleryDavid Wiley was the first secretary of the Columbian Agricultural Society, and from January 1811 through January1812, the Mayor of Georgetown, DC.
The National Portrait Gallery further discusses the "Electrical Machine" this way:
"The object in the portrait of David Wiley is a cylinder electrical machine, a form that originated in the 1740s and remained popular through the first half of the nineteenth century. When the glass cylinder is rotated and rubbed against a cushion of leather, an electrical charge is generated...
Polk's rendering of the electrical machine is puzzling. It is not likely that he misunderstood its use or construction, yet it is unlike more standard machines of this type. The cushion, which generates a charge by turning against the glass, is on the bottom rather than the side of the cylinder. The metal spikes just visible at the top of the cylinder, which collect the charge (only positive in this machine), should also be on the side. Other inconsistencies in the machine, all parts of which sit on a wooden base atop the table, may indicate that it was an unusual one, perhaps designed by Wiley. He poses proudly beside it, holding a Leyden jar, which would have been used to store an electric charge for future use." -- NPG