File Name: experiments and observations on electricity benjamin franklin .zip
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This short essay is not about electricity in the strict sense, but about the context in which Franklin presented some of his work in science and in politics in , and about the way that work was received in Britain.
The aim of the essay is to suggest that Franklin was neither a child of the British or European Enlightenment nor one of its toys. And though he may have been touted very generally as an inspiration, he was closer to a foreign force with which, intellectually as well as a politically, it had to contend. This may help in explaining why he proved so considerable a foe to the British state. Obstinacy, obtuseness, complacency, poor judgment, bad luck?
Lecture I I. Of Electricity in General, giving some Account of the Discovery of it. That it is an extremely subtile Fluid. That it is intimately mixed with the Substance of all the other Fluids and Solids of our Globe.
That our Bodies at all Times contain enough of it to set a House on Fire. An artificial Spider, animated by the Electric Fire, so as to act like a live One. A perpetual Shower of Sand, which rises again as fast as it falls. An Appearance like Fishes swimming in the Air. Or is it? From the short passage cited here, the date, to a contemporary Englishman, might easily have been the present—or anywhere from fifty to one hundred years earlier. And the phenomena described might suggest that the writer of these lines was not so much a learned Dissenter as a Puritan enthusiast, taking a private, metaphorical vision for public reality, and ready to redefine the world accordingly.
Nor would it have assuaged the apprehensions of many Englishmen if they were told that the lecturer was a Baptist minister, and the concealed author of the program a man who admired the massive gatherings organized in the colonies by his friend the English preacher George Whitefield.
It probably would have made them queasier still to be told that the author also believed that matter thought 4. In the years just after the Jacobite rebellion of , Methodism remained an object of mistrust 5 , and the radical materialism insinuated in the writings of figures like Hobbes, Toland and Collins was still considered dangerous. One proof is that they would soon be decrying it again, when the philosophical works of Bolingbroke were published posthumously in London in Associating colonial America with a more rational attitude towards science will seem paradoxical at the very least, though it would certainly have been auspicious as well.
The venerable institutions of European learning would thus have no intrinsic claim to knowledge. Religion would be part of the latter, but in mid-eighteenth-century America, the distinction between Bible and science may have started to look easier to make. With the rise of Evangelical religion, it was being asserted that faith depended on intimate feeling rather than abstract or rational conviction.
Electric fire was not Calvinistic hell-fire… In addition, this was to be a series of two lectures, not a single rousing sermon or a regular Sunday meeting. So the public is being invited to attend to science—if not in a vacuum, at least in something like a closed circuit. The lectures are intellectual but not dangerous, popularizing but still somewhat hierarchical and high-brow.
Urbane colonists who can afford the price 8 will be able to satisfy their curiosity about what the ingenious of America could do with the experiments of the more elitist European virtuosi. That distinctively American result 9 may even explain why there has been a scholarly predilection for the subject of Franklin and electricity. Of course this is not the whole story either: there is also the iconic ubiquity of Franklin flying his kite, one of the founding images of democratic culture.
And speaking of which, there is the fun. The lectures turn out to be suitable for those who were curious about more than scientific curiosities. Step right up, we almost hear, because there turns out, unexpectedly, to be something theatrical in this announcement as well.
If utilitarian purposes are being served, the aim is not demystification 10 but a good time to be had by all. So much for insulation and one might even think for the tragic register of history and threats to religious orthodoxy. So much for experiments that can be dignified with the name of Science: at times the rhetoric here is one of circus attractions, entertainment, mere tricks.
With that, let us return for a moment to England. Professor Bose , in another Part of his Writings, says, That the Beatification does not always succeed with him; that sometimes, other Circumstances have been very favourable, a Man will be beatified by one Sphere in two Minutes … That under the same Circumstances, when one Person was capable of being beatified, another was not.
Yet they do not even play to our curiosity! There is a problem of jetlag or static. Of course we have lifted the present passage out of context.
But what changes when we know that it comes from a report on electricity delivered in a very institutional setting, the Royal Society of London, on 1 March ? Perhaps we are being reminded, most of all, that as in religion, bad science can lapse into charlatanry, dirty tricks.
In the passage just cited, Professor Bose is actually being berated for negligent reporting: his beatifications do not always work, and others cannot repeat the experiment as he describes it. He would later confess to having forgotten to mention that the beatifications were carried out on men dressed in suits of armor! For William Watson F. Why was he hiding behind the European science?
Why was he working through Kinnersley who was himself a talented student of electricity and a foe of religious enthusiasm? But if he aimed to give science legitimacy in the new world, why was he not introducing a change in ? To approach that question, it may be helpful to go back to the jetlag or static that I have been describing. They appear in an Appendix instead.
The obvious inference from these puzzling details is that when it came to science, Franklin was a man of exemplary prudence, who clung to the role of actor rather than author. Whether his choice makes sense to us or not, Franklin seems to have taken it seriously, and so we should continue to ponder it.
No less than British scientists with respect to questions of the church, Franklin managed his career with all the care of a polemical author. But religion was not in any obvious way the issue he was contending with.
But this did not make Franklin associate or identify more clearly with heterodoxy. And even as he gained in fame and popular acclaim, he remained prudent. Perhaps the experimenter could hope after all to cross that vast unknown country of a page or two before, and count on making ineluctable progress as he went.
The study of nature amply recompenses men for their trouble. What astonishing discoveries have been made within these four years! The polypus on one hand, as incredible as a prodigy, and the electric fire on the other, as surprising as a miracle! A passion for science will lead men deeply and rewardingly into the unknown, an unknown that is neither simply human nor material. Science, in other words, enables men into delve into zones previously reserved for religious usages—mystery, miracle—and underwritten by state governance.
Unlike European societies, which were calculated to double in size every years, an expanding agrarian society like America could reasonably be expected to double every twenty years.
This kind of growth could not even be instanced in that monstrous exceptional thing, a city 20 , much less in a country or a land mass. To recap his surprising argument about natural populousness, one may think that Franklin looked for an example and hit upon two.
The first was vegetable: the fennel plant, if given the chance to spread, will overrun the land. The second was animal—or more: a mysterious creature that had intrigued scientists in France and at the Royal Society in recent years, the polypus. As if the fennel was nature and the polypus was science! In any case, Franklin was insisting that science and nature could be used to expound politics:. It is not too much to say it sent a ripple, or even an electroshock, through British culture.
What is more, Franklin specifically closed the door to the colonies becoming the present United States, i. The paragraph just cited goes on, in conclusion to the Observations , to object on racial and ethnic grounds to the arrival of other than British settlers in the future. The terms were so offensive, to Germans among others, that reprintings of the article often deleted the last paragraph and thus ended with the passage I have cited For now, it will be enough to point to a slight, but symptomatic example.
It involves a surprising revision that David Hume made in his History of Great Britain when he produced a second edition of the work in But in , even as Franklin was performing electrical demonstrations at Cambridge University, and being touted there, Hume saw fit to make a surprising change in a passage he had written in his History about the settlement of the American continent.
Here is the original:. Peopled gradually from England by the necessitous and indigent, who, at home, encreased neither wealth nor populousness, the colonies, which were planted along that tract, have promoted the navigation, encouraged the industry, and even perhaps multiplied the inhabitants of their mother-country. The spirit of independency, which was reviving in England, here shone forth in its full lustre, and received new accession of force from the aspiring character of those, who, being discontented with the established church and monarchy, had sought for freedom amidst those savage desarts.
The seeds of many a noble state have been sown in climates, kept desolate by the wild manners of the antient inhabitants; and as asylum secured, in that solitary world, for liberty and science, if ever the spreading of unlimited empire, or the inroad of barbarous nations, should again extinguish them in this turbulent and restless hemisphere. One might even adduce as proof that the two accounts are distinct and even mutually repellent, the rather unexpected fact that for Hume the mother -country grows because her child grows.
Franklin recognized the possibility of mutual development but because of the geography insisted on natural, generational change, from old to new: the Observations proclaim that a decisive demographic shift is underway. For in that year he exhorted the young Edward Gibbon, who had begun his history-writing career in French, to return to his native language:. Let the French […] triumph in the present diffusion of their tongue.
Our solid and increasing establishments in America, where we need less dread the inundation of Barbarians, promise a superior stability and duration to the English language.
Again, there is no absolutely compelling reason to connect this statement or its removal with Franklin, but clearly there was no figure in public life so capable of uniting those two values in connection with the British colonies in America. In the best-case scenario, the new world of communication in the English language would put readers everywhere on a par and enable them to debate. Europe may be an overstatement in this context, for in 18th-century France, an evolution similar to what Franklin hoped for may have been underway.
Franklin certainly knew of this, and developments in France have their part in the shaping of his vision of America. But to return to Britain and what were still its colonies, it would be wrong to think that a social response to these developments was lacking: to the polypus growth of nature and of men who refuse to stay in their place as laborers, Britain soon opposed a science of social interdependence and specialized functions that today we call economics, and a vision of human becoming associated with civil society.
In that sense, it may be argued that the polymath Franklin turned America away from a British Enlightenment he helped to stimulate, in order to make it the land of nature and science.
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society , vol. Donald F. Bond Oxford: Clarendon Press, , 3 vols. London: Cave, , , Norton London: Cassell, , 3 vols. Greig Oxford: Clarendon Press, Heilbron, Electricity in the 17 th and 18 th Centuries.
The connection between electricity and lightning was known but not fully understood. By conducting the kite experiment Franklin proved that lighting was an electrical discharge and realized that it can be charged over a conductor into the ground providing a safe alternative path and eliminating the risk of deadly fires. Franklin hypothesized that lightning was an electrical discharge. Before he thought of conducting his experiment by flying a kite, he proposed erecting iron rods into storm clouds to attract electricity from them. He also suggested that the tips of the rods should be pointed instead rounded so that they could draw electrical fire out of a cloud silently. Philadelphia has a flat geography and at the time there were no tall structures, he was anxiously waiting for the construction of Christ Church that was being built on a steeple to conduct his experiment. Franklin wrote his proposal for the iron rod experiment in a letter to Peter Collison who was a member of the Royal Society of London.
The Project Gutenberg EBook of Experiments and Observations on Electricity made at Philadelphia in America, by Benjamin Franklin This eBook is for the use of.
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Jump to navigation. On a June afternoon in , the sky began to darken over the city of Philadelphia. But not Benjamin Franklin.
In Benjamin Franklin helped draft the Declaration of Independence and soon after set sail for Paris, sent by the Continental Congress to negotiate a treaty with the French. He was already one of the eight foreign associates of the French Academy of Sciences a century would pass before another American got this rare honor. As the "Newton of electricity" whose theories, experiments and lightning rods were known the length of Europe, Franklin was given a respectful hearing. He became perhaps the chief factor in winning the support of the French government and its fleet, support which proved decisive in the War for Independence. If Franklin the diplomat could achieve so much, it was largely because first he was Franklin the scientist. He was forty years old before he took up scientific research; until then he had been chiefly concerned with earning a living.
Boston: Printed and Sold by S. Kneeland in Queen-Street. Yale University Library. Franklin wrote the essay in Franklin included it in the fourth edition of his Experiments and Observations on Electricity , Adam Smith is known to have had two copies of the essay in his library.
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, AND Communicated in feveral Letters to Mr. P. Collinson, of London^ F.Reply