The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution - Henry Schlesinger (2010)
Chapter 2. The Death of Superstition
“I’ve found out so much about electricity that I’ve reached the point where I understand nothing and can explain nothing.”
—Pieter van Musschenbroek
In the mid-fifteenth century, the combination of the printing press and faster, safer travel meant that ideas could be shared more readily and among wider audiences. The concept of science stripped of myth began to catch on. However, even as other branches of more practical science, such as medicine, flourished, the study of electricity and magnetism remained nearly stalled. That is, until the Elizabethan physician William Gilbert turned his attention to magnetism. A member of a panel that advised on the queen’s health, Gilbert also had a bustling medical practice in London and was a member of the Royal College of Physicians. There could hardly have been a more credible investigator.
Starting his study with amber, as the Greeks had done, he named its attractive power vis electricia in Latin—coining a new word—“electricity.”
Gilbert’s book, popularly called De Magnete (The full title is On the Lodestone and the Magnetic Bodies and on the Great Magnet the Earth), was published in Latin in 1600 and set the stage for scientific experiment far beyond the study of magnetism and electricity. Widely read and discussed, it presented and proposed nothing less than a new way of doing science.
Others were also experimenting by then and were documenting their results in private letters and pamphlets—though not as exhaustively or meticulously as Gilbert. In 1576, for example, Robert Norman, an instrument maker in Bristol, published a small pamphlet called the Newe Attractive. Indeed, Gilbert even duplicates one of Norman’s experiments in De Magnete. Setting up his methodology at the beginning, Norman wrote, “I meane not to use barely tedious Conjectures or imaginations; but briefly as I may, to passe it over, grounding my Arguments onely uppon experience, reason and demonstration which are the grounds of the Artes…” And in Italy, Girolamo Cardano, a doctor, mathematician, and astrologer, published a book called De Subtilitate Rerum (The Subtlety of Things) that drew the distinction between magnetic and electrical properties.
So then, why do Gilbert and his De Magnete get all the praise? First and foremost, his study was the most exhaustive at the time. Not only did he seek out anything he could lay his hands on regarding magnets, but like a good scientist, he duplicated experiments of others to verify the results, tested theories, and added a long list of his own experiments to the mix. Second, unlike the much-neglected Robert Norman, he was in London. Sudden outbreaks of the plague during the warmer months, the emptying of chamber pots carelessly out of windows, and the heads of criminals adorning the Tower Bridge aside, London was a major European metropolis of 75,000 or more and a hub of trade, new ideas, and culture. In Gilbert’s London, Shakespeare’s talents were in full bloom with plays like Hamlet and Julius Caesar. And, too, Gilbert was well connected. More than 400 years ago, his book created the right kind of buzz while his position provided ample credibility.
Like Peregrinus before him, Gilbert performed experiment after experiment, carefully detailing the results in writing and only recording what he could verify and repeat. And, almost as important, Gilbert set out to debunk the myths. In Gilbert’s view, as with science today, verifiable results trumped myth, no matter how often that myth was repeated. “But lest the story of the loadstone should be jejune and too brief, to this one sole property then known were appended certain figments and falsehoods which in the early time no less than nowadays were precocious sciolists and copyists dealt out to mankind to be swallowed,” Gilbert wrote.
…The like of this is found in Pliny and in Ptolemy’s Quadriparatitum; and errors have steadily been spread abroad and accepted—even as evil and noxious plants ever have the most luxuriant growth—down to our day, being propagated in the writings of many authors who, to the end that their volumes might grow to the desired bulk, do write and copy all sorts about ever so many things of which they know naught for certain in light of experience.
Gilbert isn’t hesitant to name names, challenging some of the most revered minds in history with the certainty of his experiments.
Caelius Calcagninius in his Relations says that a magnet pickled with salt of the sucking-fish has the power of picking up a piece of gold from the bottom of the deepest well. In such-like follies and fables do philosophers of the vulgar sort take delight; with such-like do they cram readers a-hungered for things abstruse, and every ignorant gaper for nonsense.
This was tough stuff for the era—the Elizabethan version of talk radio or departmental brawls in academia.
Remarkably, during the course of his investigation, Gilbert conceived and constructed what is generally believed to be the first electrical device. He called it the versorium (turnaround in Latin) and used it for detecting the presence of static electricity. Very simply constructed, the versorium was little more than a metallic needle that pivoted freely on a pedestal. Looking very much like a compass, it could detect the presence of electrical charges from a short distance.
Gilbert also set out a new way to write about science, eliminating all unnecessary prose.
Nor have we brought into this work any graces of rhetoric, any verbal ornateness, but have aimed simply at treating knotty questions about which little is known in such a style and in such terms as are needed to make what is said clearly intelligible. Therefore we sometimes employ words new and unheard of, not as alchemists are wont to do in order to veil things with a pedantic terminology and to make them dark and obscure, but in order that hidden things which have no name and that have never come into notice, may be plainly and fully published.
Among Gilbert’s discoveries was a detailed differentiation between amber—which he called “electrics”—and magnets. “A loadstone lifts great weights; a strong one weighing two ounces lifts half an ounce or one ounce.” And on and on goes Gilbert in a decidedly simple style—even translated from the original Latin. By the book’s end, he has coined the word “electricity,” named the corresponding points of the globe “north pole” and “south pole,” differentiated mass from weight, discovered the effect of heat upon a magnetic body, and explained the earth in terms of a celestial magnet. In all, Gilbert’s experiments were responsible for more than thirty verifiable new discoveries regarding the magnet and electricity while his methodology set the stage for a new type of scientific investigation.
Perhaps one of Gilbert’s most astonishing breakthroughs was his exploration of amber’s electrostatic properties. For centuries it had been thought that the secret to amber’s attractive powers resided in the way it grew warm when rubbed. Drawing on his experimentation, Gilbert surmised that when amber was rubbed, there was a transfer of “effluvium” to the smooth surface, and that it was this unseen substance that attracted other materials. Of course, he could not have known that the nature of the charge was a transfer of electrons—which would not be identified with certainty until nearly 300 years later, in 1897—but it was an amazingly close conclusion.
To the modern reader, Gilbert’s scientific insights are simplistic and even tedious, but to those in his time, they were revelatory. Testing a hypothesis using the most rigorous standards possible was a new concept. Not only did Gilbert present his material clearly and without embellishments, but he set out his methodology free from myths, fables, speculation, and the conveniently distant lands of marvelous tales. For many historians, De Magnete marks the end of the Aristotelian reign in science and a dead end for the ancient philosophers known as the Peripatetics, who talked and walked as they applied their logic to life’s problems.
Gilbert used logic to be sure, but he applied it systematically to his workshop experiments through inductive reasoning. Building his conclusions through experiment after experiment, he amassed a huge body of data in order to reach those proofs. In the words of the historian of science Park Benjamin, “…he, first of all men, systematically replaced the great doctrine of words by the great doctrine of works.”
De Magnete marked the beginning of modern science, opening the door for Galileo and Isaac Newton. In particular, Newton took to experimentation with sometimes frightening gusto—at one point staring at the sun with one eye to study the afterimages, nearly blinding himself in the process. In another series of experiments, he inserted various instruments around his eye, including a bodkin (an ivory toothpick) as well as his finger to change the shape of his eyeball. “I push a bodkin betwixt my eye and the bone as near to the backside of my eye with the end of it there appear several white dark and coloured circles,” he wrote of one experiment.
In his most famous experiment, Galileo, who had called De Magnete “great to a degree that it is enviable”—took a somewhat less horrific approach than Newton. Noticing that both large and small hailstones hit the ground simultaneously, he realized there could be only two conclusions: that the larger stones fell more rapidly and had to begin their downward journey from a higher altitude or the counterintuitive explanation that all objects, regardless of weight, fell at the same rate of speed. To determine which of the two options was true, he dropped two objects of different weights off the Leaning Tower of Pisa simultaneously with the result enshrined forever in elementary science textbooks.
Gilbert’s book and its conclusions traveled quickly. As early as 1602, he mentions letters from Italy and within a few years a translation was already known in China. Within a few more years it was translated from the original Latin (commonly used for scientific texts) into English.
“To you alone, true philosophers, ingenuous minds, who not only in books but in things themselves look for knowledge, have I dedicated these foundations of magnetic science—a new style of philosophizing,” Gilbert wrote in De Magnete.
THE BEAUTY OF GILBERT’S EFFORTS—indeed, all scientific work—was that nearly anyone with time and resources could duplicate any of his experiments and achieve pretty much the same results. Unlike the dubious work of alchemists or innovations by tradesmen, which were largely conducted in secret, Gilbert’s brand of science was freely shared and open to challenges. A better theory backed up by a credible experiment could displace even the most fundamental of Gilbert’s conclusions.
The scientific method would even have a profound effect on alchemy. By the time De Magnete was published, the secretive endeavor, which uncomfortably merged the technical and the mystical, had already moved beyond its traditional wasted efforts of transmutation or eternal life toward legitimate medicine. Gilbert and the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century served to push it even further away from magic and mysticism toward experimentation and respectability. In fact, the modern word “chemistry,” which came into use in the 1600s, was first used to describe both alchemy and iatrochemistry, though it would take nearly another century to encompass its current scope of study. Notably, the first English use of the word “laboratory” can be traced to 1605.
Science, along with its potential for improving mankind’s lot, also slowly began to seep into the general public’s consciousness. Francis Bacon penned what may be called the first science fiction book with a work titled New Atlantis. Published in 1627, a year after his death, it described a utopian society founded on scientific principles where citizens enjoyed the benefits of such miraculous inventions as the telephone and flying machines. Of course, it was set in a distant land populated by clever people, a plot device that echoes the fantastic fables of magnetic mountains and suspended statuary.
The way the entire universe was perceived was also changing. It was no longer mysterious and unknowable, but, rather, governed by natural laws that acted in a consistent manner. Even more remarkable, those laws could be known and understood by man. It was an exciting prospect, inspiring Alexander Pope to pen the lines
Nature and Nature’s laws
lay hid in night;
God said, Let Newton be!
and all was light.
The universe, as Newton and Galileo and others came to see it, was very much like a machine that could be puzzled out by experiment and logic. “We are not to imagine or suppose, but to discover what nature does or may be made to do,” Francis Bacon wrote, more than just implying that knowledge would bring enormous, unforeseen benefits to those willing to make the effort.
“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smooth pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me,” Newton famously wrote, imagining an immense territory awaiting exploration, and perhaps even drawing a parallel to a time when European ships had first begun to sail beyond distant horizons in search of new lands.
SMALL GROUPS BEGAN TO FORM to share information and resources, even as attacks on fallacies and myths continued with varying degrees of success. The rise of Puritanism in England placed science under the domination of the Church while quasi-scientific cults began to form, such as the Rosicrucians in Germany, whose members believed, among other things, that magnets could pull diseases from the body.
By 1660, with the death of Oliver Cromwell and the decline of Puritanism, a loosely organized band of twenty-one amateur scientists who had gone by the name “The Invisible College” successfully petitioned King Charles II, and the Royal Society was formed for the purpose of “…promoting of experimental philosophy.” Overnight, “experimental philosophy”—as science was called at the time—was not only in fashion, but was also a respectable enterprise. Those in the upper tiers of society were soon expected to have at least a rudimentary grasp of the latest scientific theories, discoveries, and experiments in much the same way they were expected to know Plutarch, music, and art.
Landed gentry, noblemen, and successful tradesmen with social ambitions who possessed the time and resources enthusiastically took to science, reading the details of the latest discoveries, supporting research, attending lectures, and even setting up small laboratories of their own to conduct experiments. Not surprisingly, with the popularity of science on the rise among the aristocracy, interest grew among the less fortunate classes. Ben Jonson—a friend of Bacon’s—wrote a popular comic play called The Magnetick Lady or Humours Reconcil’d, featuring Lady Lodestone as the lead character. Sir Isaac Newton, an intensely private and often paranoid man, paradoxically became something of a pop culture icon of the day with his likeness adorning an endless stream of portraits and commemorative medals.
A kind of cottage industry began to flourish with itinerant men of science offering demonstrations for small towns and villages. Charlatans and natural philosophers of dubious merit soon took to presenting demonstrations in parlors and lecture halls, many of them making up theories as they went along.
To feed the curiosity of a public eager for the latest news of scientific discovery, publications also multiplied, ranging from the serious science of the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions to popular titles such as Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy Explained for the Ladies. In the mid-1600s, a London physician named Thomas Brown published Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into Vulgar and Common Errors. Like Gilbert, he intended to discredit unproven and untested beliefs. Although an instant bestseller, quickly selling out multiple printings, the book is generally seen as a mishmash of solid experimentation and confusing explanations, though he did manage to coin several new words. And Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, published Experiments and Notes about the Mechanical Origine or Production of Electricity in 1675, generally seen as the first book dedicated entirely to electricity.
THE MACROSCOPIC SCIENCES—BASIC PHYSICS, botany, astronomy, and even anatomy—advanced far ahead of the studies of chemistry and electricity. For scientists laboring in the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century, the world of molecules and electrons was so closed off they might just as well have existed on a different planet—or beyond the horizon of that vast ocean of knowledge imagined by Newton. Electricity, in particular, was extremely difficult to study. Although definitively separated from the effects of magnets by Gilbert, the sudden burst of an electrostatic spark was a poor substitute for an extended flow of current.
Not surprisingly, the first machine built to produce a steady electrical charge bore a striking resemblance—at least in principle—to the ancient technique of rubbing amber, though its inventor arrived at it in a somewhat roundabout manner. Otto von Guericke from Magdeburg, Germany, was born into a prominent family and duly educated in the style provided by prominent families of the day. Beginning his studies at the University of Leipzig, he moved on to Jena for law and finally engineering in Holland, at Leyden. Back in Magdeburg, he saw the tiny community through the devastating armed conflicts of the Thirty Years’ War. Somewhere along the way, he found time to dabble in science.
By 1654, Guericke invented an air pump that gained him some notoriety, and then, following in Gilbert’s steps a few years later, he built what he believed was a scale model of the earth. Coating the inside of a glass sphere—about the size of an infant’s head, according to his description—with sulfur and minerals, he heated it and then broke the glass, leaving a perfectly round sulfur sphere. Taking the sphere, he placed it in a machine that turned it against a pair of leather pads in an effort to simulate planetary powers. Apparently he had accepted Gilbert’s theory that electricity and gravity were linked, but he unwisely rejected the idea of the earth as a giant magnet. Despite his poor assumptions, what he had done was give the hollow sulfur ball an electrostatic charge. Once charged, the sphere attracted light objects—just as the amber had in ancient times—such as feathers and bits of cloth while rejecting other substances.
© Chris Costello
In just a few years, the Royal Society was conducting its own experiments using a similar machine. Francis Hauksbee, Newton’s longtime assistant turned London instrument maker and the Royal Society’s chief “experimentalist,” along with Christian August Hausen, a professor of mathematics in Leipzig, soon improved on Guericke’s machine, replacing the sulfur sphere with one of glass.
Finally, with a reliable way of generating and briefly holding an electrical charge, experimenters began probing the nature of electricity. Lectures and public experiments in the major cities of Europe cropped up along with a demand for similar devices among the well-to-do. Purchasing the electrostatic generators out of curiosity or for entertainment, amateur scientists duplicated the experiments they had seen in lecture halls or read about in the scientific journals of the day. George Matthias Bose, a German professor, began experimenting with electrical devices, attempting to increase the discharge by adding a series of rotating glass globes, using three globes varying in size from ten to eighteen inches. So powerful was the combined charge, he claimed, that blood flowing from the vein of an electrified person seemed to glow.
And in Erfurt, Germany, Andrew Gordon, a Scottish Benedictine monk, was also busily experimenting. In one landmark experiment, he arranged two metal gongs with a metal ball suspended between them on a silk thread. When one gong was electrified via an electrostatic machine and the other grounded, the ball swung toward the electrified gong, striking it, then swung to the other, which was grounded, and back again. Although largely forgotten to history, Gordon’s simple device was the first known instance of anyone converting electrical energy to mechanical energy. Eventually his invention became known as the “German chimes.” However, a few years later when Benjamin Franklin unwisely used a lightning rod to pull an electrostatic charge down into his parlor from approaching storm clouds to ring bells, they quickly became known as “Franklin chimes.”
Gordon is also credited with creating the first electric motor. An ingenious device, it was based on the same principle as the ancient steam engine known as the aelopile of Hero, invented by the Alexandrian mathematician around 200 BC, which released steam through two openings on opposite sides that sent the sphere spinning on a spitlike device. Called the “electric whirl,” Gordon’s motor was a metallic star that pivoted at its center. When subjected to an electrical charge at the points, it spun.
Electricity was also big news in the eighteenth century, particularly in England where the British Magazine, the Universal Magazine, the London Magazine, and other popular publications regularly reported news of the latest electrical experiments. However, even the serious experimenters could not resist a bit of joking. According to reliable accounts, Bose would electrify metal dinner plates and force an electrical charge through a coin held between a volunteer’s teeth or through a group of people holding hands.
Then in 1706, Francis Hauksbee the Elder offered up another tool for electrical experimentation to the Royal Society—a simple glass tube some thirty inches long. When rubbed with a piece of cloth, it also held an electrical charge. Public demonstrations of the tube caused a sensation. Using thin slivers of brass, threads, and even his own hair, rather than wheat chaff, Hauksbee managed an entire series of crowd-pleasing public demonstrations.
Unlike Guericke’s electrostatic machine, the glass tube was not only a reliable way of storing a charge, albeit very briefly, but was also simple to charge and inexpensive to manufacture. Virtually anyone with an interest could acquire one of the tubes, opening the doors of experimentation to an even greater number of amateur scientists. One of the more unlikely experimentalists who adopted the glass tube was Stephen Gray from Canterbury. A dyer by profession, he was also an avid amateur scientist. Over the years his enthusiasm for science led him from astronomy and optics to the supernatural and finally electricity. Eventually pensioned off, he was admitted to an institution in London known as the Charterhouse, a monastery closed during the Reformation and converted into a home for retirees and a day school for poor boys.
Gratefully freed from a business for which he seemed to have little enthusiasm and safely ensconced in the institution, he indulged his passion for science and experiments. Unable to afford the mechanical electrostatic generator, Gray and two colleagues began with a series of experiments using a glass tube, demonstrating that hair, feathers, silk, and organic material, such as ox guts and even a live chicken could act as conductors to transmit an electrical charge. At one point they suspended a “charity boy,” no doubt enlisted from the Charterhouse day school, by silk threads. Then, by touching the child’s feet with a charged glass tube, Gray and his friends found brass slivers were attracted to the youth’s face. Electricity, it seemed, was able to travel through a living human being as easily as through a chicken or ox guts. In another experiment Gray managed to send an electrical charge from his glass tube nearly 900 feet through a length of line.
Perhaps Gray sought to do for electricity what Gilbert had done for the magnet. Conducting experiment after experiment, he compiled lists of which materials would and would not carry electrical current. Although valuable at the time, his research was not as scrupulous as Gilbert’s. Possibly influenced by his former profession as a dyer, he concluded that color played a role in conductivity. According to Gray, red, orange, and yellow were better conductors than blue, green, or purple.
However, in what would evolve into scientific tradition, Gray’s experiments were soon repeated and built upon. Key to this effort was Charles-François de Cisternay Du Fay in France. Independently wealthy, brilliant, and a member of the Paris Academy of Science, he was everything a natural philosopher should be in his day, most of all meticulous. A former army officer who had lost a leg in combat, he applied himself to science with a tireless and rigorous discipline. Du Fay had a nimble mind, mastering chemistry, anatomy, botany, geometry, astronomy, mechanical engineering, and antiquities during his short life. Finally, turning his attention to electricity, he repeated Gray’s experiments with conductors where he found and corrected the flaws, before beginning his own, more complex experiments. Du Fay also discovered that electricity was released in two forms—which he called “resinous” (for negative) and “virtuous” (for positive).
Despite his exhaustive experiments, Du Fay felt that he had not puzzled out electricity’s place in nature. Still, the experiments had yielded enough, so that he no doubt glimpsed a hint of its elusive makeup. In his last memoir, dated 1737, he wrote, “Electricity is a quality universally expanded in all the matter we know, and which influences the mechanism of the universe far more than we think.”
THEN CAME THE BREAKTHROUGH—SORT of. In 1745 Ewald Jürgen von Kleist, the dean of the cathedral chapter at Kammin in Pomerania, had the idea that storing electricity might be a good idea to further his experiments. Beginning with Du Fay’s finding that water has a natural affinity for electricity, he set to work. Barely a month after beginning his research efforts to store an electrical charge, he related his news of just such a device to the physicist and doctor J. N. Lieberkühn and a few others by letter. “If a nail, strong wire, etc., is introduced into a narrow-necked little medicine bottle and electrified, especially powerful effects follow. The glass must be very dry and warm. Everything works better if a little mercury or alcohol is placed inside,” Kleist wrote. “The flare appears on the little bottle as soon as it is removed from the machine, and I have been able to take over sixty paces around the room by the light of this little burning instrument.”
The instrument Kleist stumbled upon was a condenser—a kind of battery—that he charged through the nail point with an electrostatic generator similar to Guericke’s machine. The free electricity inside created a corona discharge emitting a dim light. Unfortunately, none of those who received his letters was able to repeat the experiment successfully. Kleist either neglected to mention or failed to notice that the bottle’s exterior must be grounded—by holding it—while charging.2
Next came Pieter van Musschenbroek, a professor at the University of Leyden (today Leiden). The son of a prominent instrument maker who turned out telescopes, microscopes, and other devices, and the protégé of Willem Jakob ’s Gravesande, a mathematician, physicist, and disciple of Newton, Musschenbroek was a talented and meticulous experimentalist.
However, as with so much of the science documented by letter, the particulars surrounding the invention of the first true electrical storage device is in question. What is known is that Musschenbroek was trying to duplicate some of the British experiments that produced sparks. In one version of the story, Musschenbroek’s friend, a local lawyer by the name of Andreas Cunaeus, was visiting him in the lab. An amateur scientist himself, Cunaeus tried to reproduce Bose’s experiment at home. Lacking an assistant, he held the jar while charging it and received a powerful shock. “…it knocked the wind out of me for several minutes,” he is reputed to have reported. Two days later, Musschenbroek duplicated the lawyer’s experiment, substituting a large globe for the small jar, and received an even stronger shock. In another, far more likely version, Musschenbroek created the device himself and may have used Cunaeus as an assistant in the lab.
© Chris Costello
News of the discovery spread quickly throughout Europe. After reporting some meteorological observations to a colleague at the Paris Academy in a letter dated January 1746, Musschenbroek found himself with a partially filled sheet of paper. Rather than simply end the letter and “waste” the unused space, he wrote:
As I see this sheet is not completely filled, I would like to tell you about a new but terrible experiment, which I advise you never to try yourself, nor would I, who have experienced it and survived by the grace of God, do it again for all the kingdom of France. I was engaged in displaying the powers of electricity. An iron tube [said to be a gun barrel] was suspended from blue silk lines: a globe, rapidly spun and rubbed, was located near, and communicated its electrical power…From a point near the other end of a brass wire hung; in my right hand I held the globe, partly filled with water, into which the wire dipped; with my left hand I tried to draw the snapped sparks that jump from the iron tube to the finger; thereupon my right hand was struck with such force that my whole body quivered just like someone hit by lightning. Generally the blow does not break the glass, no matter how thin it is, nor does it knock the hand away; but the arm and entire body are affected so terribly I can’t describe it. I thought I was done for…I’ve found out so much about electricity that I’ve reached the point where I understand nothing and can explain nothing.
What he had created was a condenser or capacitor that stored electrical energy. The way the device worked was simple: the glass jar itself is a nonconductive material, called a dielectric in technical parlance. A layer of metal (conductor) was wrapped around the inside. The person holding it on the outside (later replaced by a second piece of metal) acted as a ground. To charge the jar, Musschenbroek pulled current from an electrostatic machine to a wire protruding from the top, which charged the inner metallic surface. When the outside metallic surface or hand holding the jar was connected via a conductor, an electrical charge was produced as electrons rushed from the inside to the outside.
While essentially a duplicate of Kleist’s work, Musschenbroek gets the credit because his more detailed letter allowed others to easily replicate the “terrible experiment.” Needless to say, scientists across Europe were soon following suit, replicating the awful and dreadful effects with their own electrically charged jars. In his original letter, the detail-oriented Musschenbroek specified that only German glass be used, but others quickly discovered that almost any type of glass worked just as well, regardless of nationality.
Although neither Musschenbroek, nor anyone else at the time, understood the physics involved, they immediately grasped the value of the device as a new way to study electricity. While the jar sent off only a single jolt of current, it was more powerful and easier to study than the charge produced by any of the other available machinery or electrostatically charged glass rods or globes in use.
Within a very short time Leyden jars (as they soon became known) were created in both France and England, and in due course the effects of electric shocks were reported to include nosebleeds, paralysis, convulsions, and other extreme results. The French physicist and royal electrician Jean-Antoine Nollet (an abbé of a minor order whose ecclesiastical robes made his scientific studies acceptable to the royal court) is credited with introducing the Leyden jar to France. His later experiments included shocking a sparrow, which he turned over for analysis by a surgeon who noticed its insides resembled those of a man struck by lightning.
Nollet also entertained the French king by transmitting a charge through 180 guards “…who were all so sensible of it at the same instant that the surprise caused them all to spring at once.” In Paris, another experimentalist, Louis-Guillaume Le Monnier, managed to send a shock through a mile-long line of Carthusian monks, each holding on to an iron wire.
Experimenters continued to probe the mysteries of electricity with the jar. During one experiment, Le Monnier tried to determine the speed at which electricity traveled by creating a mile-long circuit. While too rapid to measure, he estimated the speed was at least thirty times the speed of sound. He also experimented with sending current through water. At the Royal Society, experimenters brought a jar to the river and tried to measure its velocity through two miles of water. And during one rather odd piece of research, a French experimenter tested the theory that it was impossible to electrify a eunuch. A castrato was eventually recruited and put in line with two other men. The castrato jumped right along with his two companions.
The jar itself became a subject of experimentation and improvement. The German physicist Daniel Gralath found that connecting several jars in parallel in what he first called an “electrical battery”—appropriating military terminology—increased the power. Nollet discovered that while both the inside and the outside of the jar needed to be dry and clean, any nonoily liquid could replace water and the shape of the vessel didn’t matter. Experimenters tested the effects of electricity on vegetables as well as animals. Nollet’s experiments led him to conclude that plants subjected to an electrical charge grew faster and that electrified cats lost weight.
At about the same time, serious research was taking place in England at the Royal Society. William Watson, who had begun his career as an apothecary’s apprentice with a natural inclination toward botany and who eventually set up his own business before entering the field of science, discovered the electrical circuit. And the aristocratic Henry Cavendish, at best a difficult personality, used the Leyden jar to conduct an unprecedented series of experiments on the conductivity of different metals and the very nature of electricity—the majority of which he didn’t publish. In Germany, Johann Heinrich Winkler, a professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Leipzig as well as amateur scientist, made several important discoveries, including that when electricity is given multiple paths to choose from, it invariably chooses the best conductor.
With the ability to store an electrical charge, for even a brief time, it was only a matter of time before someone figured out a way to put the stored energy to use. Ebenezer Kinnersley, a Baptist minister, and Benjamin Franklin’s colleague in experimental philosophy, invented a wheel that turned when thimbles along its edge touched wires leading back to a Leyden jar; another version, made of glass, rang chimes.
Hobbyists and serious natural philosophers also tried to measure electrical output. In France, Nollet, still the leading experimenter of his day, created what could be called an “electroscope” that measured the movement of two dangling electrified strings from a Leyden jar projected on a screen. Somewhat similar devices came out of En gland and featured pith balls that operated on the same principle as Gordon and Franklin’s chimes, while other instruments, such as the electrometer, used thin strips of metal foil to measure the strength of a charge.
These ingenious pieces of equipment were designed to measure electric current without a full understanding of what electric current was exactly. Still, as crude and inaccurate as they were, they offered experimenters some way to judge the output of stored energy in a Leyden jar.
AS SCIENTIFIC STUDY BLOOMED IN Europe and news of the Leyden jar spread via letters and scientific journals, America remained a scientific backwater. Despite some growing interest among the intelligentsia, American science had certainly not reached the levels of interest seen in Europe. Experimental philosophy was not in vogue in America as it was in England and France. There were no learned societies, and men of leisure found other diversions. What little innovation took place, even in the large cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, was dominated by tradesmen with little time or inclination for the less than pragmatic study of electricity.
In the summer of 1743, Benjamin Franklin happened to attend Dr. Archibald Spencer’s demonstration in Boston, which featured one of Hauksbee’s glass rods. A popular traveling lecturer from Edinburgh, Spencer apparently repeated some of Gray’s experiments, including dangling a young boy from strings. The allure of science must have been irresistible. As with nearly everything he did, Franklin threw himself into electrical experimentation with gusto. From 1746 until 1752 these efforts consumed him.
A glass tube along with a sampling of the latest scientific literature was soon sent to him by his friend Peter Collinson. A London cloth merchant, agent for Franklin’s Library Company of Philadelphia, and a fellow of the Royal Society, Collinson was an ideal conduit into European scientific circles. Although his own field of interest was botany rather than electricity, Collinson was nevertheless an enthusiastic and often effective supporter of Franklin’s work.
Within a year, Franklin was writing letters back to Collinson detailing his discoveries. The early letters, although read before the Royal Society, remained unpublished in Philosophical Transactions. Soon after receiving his initial glass rods from England, Franklin commissioned additional tubes made locally from plain green glass. It was rumored that he rubbed them with buckskin to create a charge, but he soon switched to an electrostatic machine very similar to Guericke’s that was fashioned by a local silversmith.
“I never before was engaged in any study that so totally engrossed my attentions and my time as this has lately done,” Franklin wrote to Collinson in 1747. “What with making experiments when I can be alone, and repeating them to my friends and acquaintances who from the novelty of the thing come continually in crowds to see them I have during some months past had little leisure for anything else.”
Franklin’s fascination also extended to Leyden jars. Working with Kinnersley as his assistant, he set about improving the jar’s design. Either he or Kinnersley coated the outside with metallic foil, essentially replacing the user’s hand as a cathode that accepted the electrons. Then, in one of his groundbreaking experiments, Franklin set about to learn just how the mysterious force and the jar worked. Where, exactly, did the powerful electric charge—the “subtle fluid”—reside in the jar? After charging a Leyden jar, he began to dissect it—testing each component for an electrical charge, even switching out the water of a charged jar.
What he discovered, and related to Collinson in a letter, was that the charge was created by the sum of the jar’s components—the two metallic surfaces divided by the nonconductive glass. The power of the electrical charge was in its movement from one metallic surface to another. What Franklin had done in modern parlance was to reverse engineer the Leyden jar. Once he understood how the components worked, if not the science behind them, it was a simple matter to improve on them.
Upon this we made what we called an electrical battery consisting of eleven panes of large sash glass armed with thin leaden plates, pasted on each side, placed vertically, and supported at two inches distance on silk cords, with thick hooks of leaden wire, one from each side, standing upright distant from each other, and convenient communications of wire chain, from the giving side of one pane to the receiving side of the other so that the whole might be charged together, and with the same labor as one single pane…
However, it was one of Franklin’s first discoveries—how pointed bodies are more adept than flat surfaces at attracting and emitting an electrical charge—that would establish his reputation in a way he could not have anticipated. Franklin’s initial notion was that a grounded metal rod with a pointed tip might actually dissipate a thunderstorm by drawing the current from the clouds and rendering it harmless. Instead, he found that the rod, while protecting buildings, also seemed to actually attract lightning strikes. Still, as he soon realized, it was one thing to puzzle out natural phenomena in a lab with Leyden jars and quite another to leave the lab and bring science to the world at large.
At the time, lightning was still seen very much as a religious matter, sent down from the heavens by demons or a peevish god exercising divine wrath. For the pious of Franklin’s day, there was little doubt that lightning rods were evil in that they suborned God’s will. If God wanted a structure struck by lightning, then what right did Franklin and his gadget have to subvert those wishes? That’s not to say there wasn’t a virtuous way in which to safely avoid strikes. Even in Franklin’s time, the accepted way to keep churches—often the highest point in a town or city—safe from lightning strikes was to ring the church bells in the belief that the sound somehow broke up cloud formations, rendering them harmless. Unlike Franklin’s ungodly science, this was a “pious remedy” and not likely to offend the Almighty, though it did cause several bell ringers to lose their lives from lightning strikes. Some early consecrations of church bells even included prayers that their sound would “…temper the destruction of hail and cyclones and the force of tempests; check hostile thunders and great winds and cast down the spirits of storms and the powers of the air.”
Franklin was condemned from pulpits as well as in pamphlets, and when the Boston earthquake (also known as the Cape Ann earthquake) of November 18, 1755, struck, Franklin was blamed by at least one minister for sending lightning into the ground to cause it. Rev. Thomas Prince of Boston’s historic Old South Church, where a few years later Samuel Adams would signal the start of the Boston Tea Party, railed against Franklin in a sermon titled “Earthquakes the Works of God and Tokens of His Just Displeasure” that offered up an odd mixture of scientific speculation and religious fervor. “The more Points of Iron are erected round the Earth, to draw the Electrical Substance out of the Air; the more the Earth must need be charged with it,” he wrote.
And therefore it seems worthy of Consideration, Whether any Part of the Earth being fuller of this terrible Substance, may not be more exposed to more Shocking Earthquakes. In Boston are more erected than anywhere else in New England; and Boston seems to be more dreadfully shaken. O! there is no getting out of the mighty Hand of God! If we think to avoid it in the Air, we cannot in the Earth: Yea it may grow more fatal.
Franklin even crossed England’s King George III, who believed that the points were unnecessary and perhaps dangerous in that they attracted lightning. He preferred blunt rods and so, blunt rods were what England got. Today, more than 250 years later and backed up by the latest science, it turns out that blunt rods are actually more effective.
Franklin was not the only one to hit on the idea of the lightning rod. A Czech priest by the name of Prokop Diviš seems to have come up with the idea independently. However, it was Franklin who garnered the credit along with the criticism.
And there was plenty of criticism. Even as Franklin was condemned from the pulpit at home and the throne in England, his letters and reports sent to the Royal Society received mixed reviews. His paper on the “sameness of lightning with electricity” drew laughs when read at the Royal Society, but Collinson remained a staunch supporter. Unable to publish the majority of Franklin’s letters in Transactions, he approached Edward Cave, the publisher of Gentleman’s Magazine, the first British general interest magazine.
The son of a cobbler, Cave had bounced from one unproductive career to the next before hitting on the highly successful idea of Gentleman’s Magazine. He both lived and worked in the publication’s offices at London’s St. John’s Gate, and it was said that he rarely ventured out. A businessman first and foremost, Cave knew a good thing when he saw it, and one of the good things he had previously seen was Samuel Johnson. The general public was fascinated by news of electrical experiments and the fact that these experiments were conducted in the Colonies only added novelty.
Cave agreed to publish Franklin’s letters in a modest book called: Experiments and observations on electricity, made at Philadelphia in America, by Benjamin Franklin, L.L.D. and F.R.S. To which are added, letters and papers on philosophical subjects. The whole corrected, methodized, improved, and now first collected into one volume…” The price: two shillings and sixpence.
The small book, hardly more than a pamphlet, was soon translated into German, Italian, and French. Some of the experiments and conclusions so offended Nollet at the royal court in France that he at first thought the science conducted by an American colonialist and tradesman was a hoax and took to writing pamphlets countering the American’s findings without duplicating the experiments.
Franklin appeared unaffected by Nollet’s objections and wrote about it quite sensibly.
He [Nollet] could not at first believe that such a work came from America, and said it must have been fabricated by his enemies at Paris, to decry his system. Afterwards, having been assur’d that there really existed such a person as Franklin at Philadelphia, which he had doubted, he wrote and published a volume of Letters, chiefly address’d to me, defending his theory, and denying the verity of my experiments, and of the positions deduc’d from them…I concluded to let my papers shift for themselves, believing it was better to spend what time I could spare from public business in making new experiments, than in disputing about those already made.
Included in the small book was one of the most famous experiments of all time, intended to prove that lightning was, in fact, electrical in nature.
Make a small Cross of two light Strips of Cedar, the Arms so long as to reach to the four Corners of a large thin Silk Handkerchief when extended; tie the Corners of the Handkerchief to the Extremities of the Cross, so you have the Body of a Kite; which being properly accommodated with a Tail, Loop and String, will rise in the Air, like those made of Paper; but this being of Silk is fitter to bear the Wet and Wind of a Thunder Gust without tearing. To the Top of the upright Stick of the Cross is to be fixed a very sharp pointed Wire, rising a Foot or more above the Wood. To the End of the Twine, next the Hand, is to be tied a silk Ribbon, and where the Twine and the silk join, a Key may be fastened. This Kite is to be raised when a Thunder Gust appears to be coming on, and the Person who holds the String must stand within a Door, or Window, or under some Cover, so that the Silk Ribbon may not be wet; and Care must be taken that the Twine does not touch the Frame of the Door or Window. As soon as any of the Thunder Clouds come over the Kite, the pointed Wire will draw the Electric Fire from them, and the Kite, with all the Twine, will be electrified, and the loose Filaments of the Twine will stand out every Way, and be attracted by an approaching Finger. And when the Rain has wet the Kite and Twine, so that it can conduct the Electric Fire freely, you will find it stream out plentifully from the Key on the Approach of your Knuckle. At this Key the Phial may be charg’d; and from Electric Fire thus obtain’d, Spirits may be kindled, and all the other Electric Experiments be perform’d, which are usually done by the Help of a rubbed Glass Globe or Tube; and thereby the Sameness of the Electric Matter with that of Lightning compleatly demonstrated.
Contrary to popular legend, it wasn’t the forty-six-year-old Franklin who first conducted the famous “kite experiment,” but rather, a Frenchman from Bordeaux, Thomas-François d’Alibard, who had read a somewhat poor translation of the American’s proposed experiment and decided to try it himself. In a field just outside of Paris, he constructed a sentry box with a forty-foot iron rod attached to a Leyden jar.
Then, on May 10, 1752, as a thunderstorm approached, he left the sentry box in the care of a former dragoon by the name of Corffier. When lightning struck the rod, the old man panicked and called for help, bringing the local priest and a small group running through the storm to his aid. The cool-headed cleric followed the experiment, taking the older man’s place. “I repeated the experiment at least six times in about four minutes in the presence of many persons,” the priest wrote. “And every time the experiment lasted the space of a pater and an ave.”
Proof positive came when the French priest used a conductor to draw off electricity from the jar. D’Alibard could not have asked for a more credible eyewitness than a priest. News of the experiment’s success spread quickly and within weeks Franklin was the toast of France, though he had yet to realize it. “Franklin’s idea ceases to be a conjecture,” says d’Alibard in concluding his report to the French Academy.
A month later, Franklin, who still did not know of the Frenchman’s success, tried the experiment himself. Here again, popular mythology conveniently enters the scene. In most pictures, his son, William—who acted as assistant—is portrayed as an eager child. In fact, William, born out of wedlock to a mother who remains a mystery to this day, was an adult at the time of the kite experiment.
As with so much in early science, Franklin’s experiment remains clouded with some doubt and, according to some, controversy. A complete account of the experiment was not recorded until a full fifteen years later in a massive two-volume tome titled The History and Present State of Electricity authored by the English scientist Joseph Priestley, but edited (and some say largely written) by Franklin. The question remains: why did he wait so long before publishing his results?
Clearly, Franklin had no idea just how dangerous his experiment was or he might have offered something akin to a disclaimer. In Russia, Georg Wilhelm Richman, a German scientist employed by the Tsar, turned himself into toast while attempting to duplicate the kite experiment and entered history books as the first electrical fatality during an experiment. The Tsar immediately banned all electrical experiments.
In France, Franklin was hailed as a scientific hero. The upstart American colonist was not the first to speculate that lightning was electrical. Isaac Newton, among others, held that view, but it was Franklin who proved it. Acclaim, in both the colonies and Europe followed. Harvard presented Franklin with an honorary degree, and Yale, along with the College of William and Mary, soon followed. The Royal Society, which had once laughed at his theories, presented him with the Copley Medal and membership.
“The Tatler [an early colonial magazine intended to “…pull off the disguises of cunning, vanity, and affectation” to lead its readers toward better Christian lives] tells us of a girl who was observed to grow suddenly proud, and none could guess the reason till it came to be known that she had got on a pair of new silk garters,” Franklin wrote. “…I fear I have not so much reason to be proud as the girl had; for a feather in the cap is not so useful a thing, or so serviceable to the wearer, as a pair of good silk garters.”
By the time he completed his study of electricity, Franklin had coined the words “charged,” “charge,” “condense,” “discharge,” “electrical fire,” “electrical shock,” and “electrician.” He was also the first to use, at least in English, the words “battery,” “conductor,” “electrify,” and he replaced what Du Fay had called “resinous” and “virtuous” with the terms “negative” and “positive.”
Franklin, who Immanuel Kant called “the new Prometheus,” had no real immediate scientific successor. On the edge of wilderness and far from the Royal Society or the Academy in Paris, America was still a country of pragmatic tradesmen and artisans. Electricity offered no immediate benefit.
In Europe, the situation was much different. The eighteenth century came to a close with natural philosophy firmly established as a respectable interest, at least among those who could afford to indulge their curiosity. No less a figure than Erasmus Darwin, a polymath sage and the grandfather of Charles Darwin, suggested that young ladies attend lectures by natural philosophers in order to improve themselves, presumably in the same way they might learn a musical instrument or the basics of sketching. Electrical demonstrations continued to attract crowds of the scientifically minded and the curious, and the simple design of the electrostatic generators and Leyden jars made them easy to construct for the well-heeled who wished to conduct their own experiments. Mathematics and the basic principles of engineering, which had gotten their start in the lab, now expanded out into the marketplace, particularly in England. Within just a few generations—from the mid-1700s to about 1800—England shifted from a largely agricultural economy into a growing industrial force as the Industrial Revolution began to take hold.
Still, even as knowledge of chemistry, math, and hydraulics blossomed and was duly applied to pragmatic pursuits in commerce, electricity remained a mysterious force without much, if any, utility.