Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society - Bill Bryson (2010)

6. SIMON SCHAFFER

CHARGED ATMOSPHERES: PROMETHEAN SCIENCE AND THE ROYAL SOCIETY

Simon Schaffer is Professor of History of Science at Cambridge University and Trustee of the National Museum of Science and Industry. His books include Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life (with Stephen Shapin) and in 2006 he presented the BBC4 history of science series Light Fantastic.

EXPERIMENTS AND MATHEMATICAL DESCRIPTIONS OF THE WORLD SEEM FAMILIAR PARTS OF SCIENCE. A CENTURY AFTER IT GOT GOING, THE ROYAL SOCIETY WAS ALSO DEEPLY COMMITTED TO ANOTHER FAMILIAR OBLIGATION OF NATURAL PHILOSOPHERS: ADVICE TO THE GOVERNMENT. AND AS SIMON SCHAFFER RELATES, IT WAS ALREADY RAISING A VERY MODERN QUESTION – WHEN THE STAKES ARE HIGH, WHOSE EVIDENCE SHOULD BE TRUSTED?

It is not without Reason, that Norwich has been called the City of Wonders; if we examine that great Collection of Miracles, the Transactions of the Royal Society, we shall find more than ten Times as many strange and wonderful Events dated from this City as from any City of the World. The strangest Things that can be devised are of all others the fittest for the Entertainment of the Royal Society.1

In search of a key moment in the story of the last 350 years of science and of the Royal Society, I’ve chosen an eighteenth-century and East Anglian episode of Promethean science. I use this term to mean an experimental enterprise that mixes a vaulting ambition to safeguard humanity against a major threat with the troubling hazards of following this science’s recipes. The episode grabs attention because we also live in an age when expert disagreement is wrongly treated as a sign of fatal ignorance and when it’s hard to make space for all the groups who care about the sciences’ direction. The problem lies in the relation between matters of fact, powerful because they seem to escape from human interests, and matters of concern, which count because people find them so interesting. That relation is the theme of this chapter. There’s local detail and lots of talk in this tale. The private life of public sciences is where we best see why we should not fear if Fellows fight. This otherwise forgotten moment of fireballs and flooded drains is at least dramatic: 12 June 1781, a dozen miles south-east of Norwich at the Heckingham House of Industry, then a recently built workhouse for the rural poor. Here’s what happened, as far as I can tell.

It was a Sunday, the Lord’s Day. After a showery Norfolk morning under a harsh south-westerly wind, the couple of hundred residents were given their usual Sunday dinner of meat, dumplings and beer. Between two and three in the afternoon a severe thunderstorm came up, with violent lightning and hail. Rain flooded the front courtyard. Just as the sky was clearing and the wind began to drop, the inmates heard a loud explosion and three of them fainted. A sheet of fire entered their rooms and, so they said, even came up to their waists. A woman at the dining-hall door saw three fireballs fall into the court, others saw them at the corner of the House and towards the east wing. Within a couple of minutes the corner of the south-east roof near the stables was burning. At least seven men worked quickly to save the building by digging a hole in the nearest part of the flooded courtyard to get water to extinguish the flames. The stroke had already smashed windows, raised the lead gutters and broken tiles and bricks. The men removed more bricks and lead to get at the smouldering roof beams. Eventually, the fire was out. Within a few days, local glaziers, carpenters and bricklayers had fixed most of the damage. An ironmonger from nearby Bungay was paid to repair the sharply pointed iron rods rising high above each of the eight chimneys. He’d installed these lightning rods at the House just four years earlier. Three weeks later the gentry of the management committee voted cash rewards to the men whose efforts had saved its House of Industry after the dreadful lightning strike.

I know all this because of the many reports of the events at Heckingham gathered during the next eight months, including a very detailed account assembled by a couple of Fellows of the Royal Society sent to Norfolk to find out exactly what had happened. Before this inquisitive journey to the House of Industry, the Royal Society Fellowship had to rely on hearsay, with all its typical problems of trust and credibility. ‘I cannot hear of any persons seeing it at the instant it happened’, reported one of their Norwich correspondents, though he had reason to believe that ‘it would soon have destroyed the whole building’.2 This episode illuminates the fundamental relation in the history of the sciences between what people say and who they are. Much of the best-known science relies on judging others’ stories. Three days after the publication of The Origin of Species Darwin wrote to Thomas Henry Huxley recalling an informative evening in a South London ‘gin-palace amongst a set of pigeon fanciers’. Darwin told Huxley that ‘the difficulty is to know what to trust’.3 Knowing something of the storyteller helps in assessing the worth of the story. In the eighteenth century there were now stylish barometers in the houses of the gentry and some of the middling sort. But in rural society many were expert at reading the sky for signs; most still got their long-range weather forecasts from their pocket almanacs, based on planetary aspects and traditional lore. I can learn a little of the Norfolk weather almost twenty-three decades ago thanks to the work of the modern Climatic Research Unit, now based at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. The unit’s long-term data show that on 17 June 1781 a threatening low-pressure region dominated the atmosphere above south-east England and had done so for a fortnight. By these modern scientific standards, nothing meteorologically unfamiliar seems to have taken place at Heckingham that summer.

In other respects that season’s wider world seems strangely familiar. The summer was distressingly wet. An increasingly unpopular Westminster government soldiered on with a reduced majority before being thrown out the following spring. Shares were in trouble, unemployment rising and the economy in crisis. British troops overseas were enmeshed in a long-running war against radical insurgents – before surrendering to American and French forces at Yorktown in Virginia in October 1781. The following March, all the bells of Norwich, the second largest town in the country, rang out to mark the prospects of peace. The witty and learned Edward Gibbon published two more volumes of his history of a great empire’s decline and fall. The papers were full of celebrity gossip, mainly about disreputable actresses and politicians’ mistresses. Shopkeepers touted new gadgets such as fountain pens and automatic clocks. In July 1781 Norwich even hosted an auction of ‘every article curious and rare’ brought back from the late and glorious Captain James Cook’s voyages into the Pacific Ocean: ‘shells, cloaks, helmets, capes and necklaces curiously wrought with feathers’.4

Public taste for knowledge and novelty, however exotic or dubious, was evident everywhere during those months. In Norwich that summer journals puffed lectures by the notorious therapist Dr James Graham on electric sex. One Norwich onlooker was astonished that this ‘impudent empiric’ imagined he could restore virility by ‘the addition of an atmosphere charged with electrical particles and this proposal was privately defended by many persons of information as perfectly philosophical’.5 A professional musician, William Herschel, had just announced what some reckoned must be a new planet to be named George in honour of His Majesty. We now call it Uranus. In July 1781 the Norfolk newspapers reported this ‘new discovery of an orb behind the Sun’, but worried that ‘at a certain period it will burst’.6 That summer brought news of the Scottish engineer James Watt in Birmingham who’d developed a new mechanism for getting rotational motion out of a vertical steam engine. In London it was said the experiments of a fabulously wealthy aristocrat, Henry Cavendish, obtained pure water by sparking a mixture of airs. At a coffee house near St Paul’s Cathedral, a regular club met during the early summer of 1781 to watch the instrument maker Edward Nairne show off his new electric pistol. 

Meanwhile, the Royal Society was settling into its plush if somewhat cramped new quarters at Somerset House on the Thames. Cavendish and Nairne were already Fellows, while Herschel and Watt soon would be. Dr Graham never was. Though the Society’s rooms were no longer where experimental inquiry happened, membership certainly added lustre. ‘Wherever I come’, one travelling lecturer and instrument maker had plaintively written, ‘I am constantly asked, if I am a Fellow of the Royal Society? And I as constantly find it no small disadvantage to say, No.’ 7 The advantages of Society membership didn’t flow from the high status of scientists. The Royal Society contained no scientists, because there was no such thing in 1781. The Society’s status depended on late eighteenth-century social order. Ironmongers, bricklayers, glaziers and the women at the workhouse, whose parts in the Heckingham events were so salient, were not generally credited as informants by Royal Society gentlemen. There were no women among its Fellows and wouldn’t be until 1945. The Society was a focus of debate and a target of satire. The irascible botanist John Hill, whose marvellous remarks on Norwich provide my epigraph, suggested the Society should be displaced by a more efficient Royal Academy of Sciences. The Royal Society’s President, the Lincolnshire landowner, man-about-town and Captain Cook’s former botanising travel companion Joseph Banks, had just been honoured with a baronetcy. Candidate Fellows were vetted at one of his weekly breakfasts, then dined at the Society’s supper club. A London wit cruelly put words into Banks’ mouth: ‘untitled members are mere swine: / I wish for princes on my list to shine. / I’ll have a company of stars and strings; / I’ll have a proud society of kings!’ 8 Within eighteen months civil war erupted at Somerset House between the President and those who reckoned he was turning the Society into ‘a cabinet of trifling curiosities’.9 In at least one respect the Society’s concerns that summer match ours. Banks’ men sought to use their powers to influence the British government with evidence-based public knowledge. Which takes us back to the Norfolk thunderstorm. 

It was the Heckingham lightning rods that caused the furore. The rods were supposed to save the House from damage but had failed. They might even have helped cause the strike. There was disagreement about the details of the storm, the strike and the behaviour of the lightning rods. When installed at the House of Industry in 1777 by the Bungay ironmonger, a man with the resonant name of John Bobbitt, these rods embodied state-of-the-art experiments, so were newsworthy and dodgy. But surely it was easy to tell whom to trust about the June 1781 events? Simply check whether a story matched the relevant authorities’ reliable knowledge about how lightning behaved and rods worked. But this authority and this knowledge were exactly the matter of dispute. The Fellows of the Royal Society had been involved in two decades of argument about the behaviour of lightning rods. The Heckingham event was seen as ‘an experiment where a house armed with eight pointed conductors had been set fire to by lightning’.10 Yet for the strike to be a worthy experiment, Society Fellows already had to know whose story to believe. But to know whom to believe, they had to know how the experiment should run.

To resolve this apparently intractable puzzle, the Fellows had to rely on their deep sense of who should be trusted: gentlemen were judged more reliable than servants, local worthies more credible than the poor and indigent. So they commissioned stories, drawings and three-dimensional models from men they already had reasons to trust. Perhaps these accounts would settle the matter without having to be on the spot. Unlike the names of the workhouse inmates, the Society recorded exactly who these valued correspondents were. They included Samuel Cooper, one of the Heckingham overseers, an eminent doctor of divinity and a wealthy landlord. He’d already sent the Society thunderstorm reports from Norfolk. The Fellows also heard from Dixon Gamble, a merchant and town steward from Bungay; from George Cadogan Morgan, a Welsh radical of sophisticated philosophical interests and fierce politics who’d become a unitarian preacher at Norwich’s famous Octagon Chapel; and from that city’s principal bookseller Abraham Brook, who marketed electrical and optical instruments in Norfolk. These gentlemen had apparently scoured the building and interviewed the poor inmates, the reliability of whose recollections they barely accepted. During these interviews, they worried about the tale of the spectacular fireballs reported by ‘one of the cripples in the House of Industry, a middle-aged woman’, then wondered ‘if any credit could be given to the testimony of such a person in a matter like this’.11 According to Morgan, who quizzed Heckingham’s residents soon after the strike, ‘the contradictory absurdities which they asserted and maintained, are scarcely conceivable’.12

By the year’s end these confused reports got to London. The effect was almost as explosive as the original strike. If the best technique for preserving buildings against lightning were in question because of some Norfolk oddity, this mattered to the government. The Heckingham stories soon reached the ears of the King, and through him the Board of Ordnance, one of the largest state departments, supplier of military munitions for the American War. Based at the Tower of London, the Board was concerned with the protection of its arsenals against fire. Ordnance officers heard about the apparent failure of the Heckingham lightning rods in December 1781: ‘the whole Board are much alarmed’.13 The Royal Society seemed the obvious organisation to contact, because they had a long track record in these matters. Over Christmas the Board’s secretary wrote to Joseph Banks. This was ‘a matter of the highest importance’, but ‘no authentic account has yet come to the knowledge of the Royal Society’.14 Since the stories they got from Norfolk were so confused and the details were such a matter of concern, within a few days Banks and his Somerset House colleagues decided to send a pair of Fellows to Norfolk to investigate.

CHARGED ATMOSPHERES, OR HOW TO MAKE A LIGHTNING ROD

The principle of such lengthy and lofty pointed metal rods as a defence against lightning rested on a mix of old and recent thinking. Since the early eighteenth century, experimenters had been able to make electric sparks and shocks using friction machines of glass, leather and metal. These were lucrative items in their shows. ‘Lightning is in the hands of nature what electricity is in ours’, the London instrument maker George Adams put it, ‘the wonders we now exhibit at pleasure are little imitations of the great effects which frighten and alarm us’.15 The imitation analogised the stormy atmosphere with glass jars and metal rods inside their well-stocked rooms. According to the Royal Society’s leading electrical experimenter, the apothecary William Watson, ‘we see every day more and more the perfect analogy (to compare great things with small) between the highly electrified glass jar in the experiment and a cloud replete with the matter of thunder’.16

In early 1748 Watson read the Society a letter from an ingenious printer in Philadelphia, second city of the British empire. Quaker networks linking London with the City of Brotherly Love helped news of Benjamin Franklin’s experiments reach the Society. His demonstrations were supposed to show that electrical fire was an unevenly distributed active fluid gathered in atmospheres round bodies: the fluid would flow so as to restore balance, a satisfying thought for a prudent book-keeper, between excess (or positively charged) and deficient (or negatively charged) regions. Sparks and lightning were such restorative flows, if in dramatic form. As often, the Society initially held that what was right in Franklin’s story was already well known and what was wrong must be rejected. Even so, these stories about charged atmospheres were judged prize-winning achievements in electrical philosophy. In 1753 the Society’s new President, the Earl of Macclesfield, otherwise preoccupied with persuading a slightly unwilling nation to accept a foreign Gregorian calendar and thus seemingly lose eleven days of its precious time, awarded the Society’s prestigious Copley Medal to Franklin. ‘True it is’, observed the noble Earl, ‘that several learned Men, both at home and abroad, do not entirely agree with him in all the Conclusions he draws, and the Opinions which he thinks may be deduced from the Experiments he has made.’ However, he remarked, though not yet entirely convincing nor even a Fellow, at least Franklin was ‘a Subject of the Crown of Great Britain’.17 All that changed in the next two decades: following Franklin’s move to Europe, his theory would become Society orthodoxy, he won a Fellowship and helped liberate his nation from British rule. 

The colonial medallist’s new invention was the lightning rod, first announced in his Philadelphia almanac the same year as his Royal Society prize. Since he found in his experiments that sharp needles could quietly withdraw electrical fire from the atmosphere of charged objects some inches away, so on a grander scale pointed metal rods well connected to damp earth should let electrical fire flow silently between the Earth and thunder clouds. He offered hope of disarming lightning, just as the mythical Prometheus had stolen fire from Olympus for humanity’s benefit and was thus punished by Zeus. Many Enlightenment sages, including Immanuel Kant, compared Franklin with the fabled Titan. One popular 1770s English writer on farming and weather put it pithily: ‘Dr Benj. Franklin’s soaring genius has realised the fable of Prometheus’ bringing fire down from heaven’.18 The Secretary of the French Royal Academy of Sciences apologised to Franklin in 1773 that ‘I have never had the happiness to meet the modern Prometheus’.19The poet, philosopher and botanist Erasmus Darwin admired Franklin’s heroism, but guessed Prometheus’ punishment after stealing heavenly fire was really an allegory for a gin-soaked hangover. There were some more seriously dissident voices. An eminent French experimenter, sceptical of the worth of these fashionable rods, warned of the lethal dangers ‘were we to bring into being the Prometheus of the fable’.20Within a generation the American with his lightning rods would be celebrated as victor over both tyranny and thunderbolts in a single evocative image of ingenuity and independence.

It seemed to many storytellers that since the rods were obviously rational and effective, any opposition to their use must stem from popular and religious narrow-mindedness. An English traveller in southern Germany was ‘told that the people of Bavaria were at least 300 years behind the rest of Europe in philosophy and useful knowledge’, so they still riskily rang church bells during thunderstorms to ward off threats.21 When fierce storms hit not only Norfolk but also lands across the North Sea in 1781, many Dutch and Flemish bell ringers died. From summer 1781 the city of Arras in northern France was racked by a lawsuit because of citizens’ opposition to a new lightning rod: the rod’s safety was successfully defended by a precise young lawyer with the schoolboy nickname ‘The Barometer’. His real name was Maximilien Robespierre, a man soon to be identified with Terror.22 One East Anglian minister reflected on an old story about members of a congregation marked with the sign of the cross after lightning hit their cathedral and wished ‘the Bishop’s attention had not been so much absorbed in the wonderful’.23 When a reckless Russian experimenter tried the electricity of his woefully arranged rod in a thunderstorm, he was killed. In response to this electric martyrdom, London’s Gentleman’s Magazine commented that ‘we are come at last to touch the celestial fire, which if we make too free with, as it is fabled Prometheus did of old, like him we may be brought too late to repent of our temerity’.24

However fabulous such tales, resistance to these devices was not entirely based on prejudiced ignorance. It is just as wrong to assume that scriptural fundamentalism completely explains why many nineteenth-century commentators challenged Darwin’s model of natural selection. Promethean science is debatable and its standing is never explicable by rough-shod appeals to lack of knowledge and to bigotry. There were reasons to wonder about, as well as wonder at, the modern Prometheus. Franklin’s account was the best the Society’s Fellows knew, but ambiguous and in several ways false. His small-scale experiments suggested to him that rods must be sharply pointed and could silently draw electrical charge from the dangerous atmospheres of thunder clouds. Modern sciences say both claims are untrue. On the vast scale of a lightning strike, the difference between pointed and blunt rods doesn’t matter. There’s evidence that pointed tips can make lightning rods into bad receptors. These rods cannot quietly discharge a cloud and their presence in an electrically charged region can make a strike more likely. But Franklin never abandoned his claims that rods could prevent a strike and had to be sharply pointed, just like those Mr Bobbitt erected at Heckingham in 1777 and which failed to work in 1781. ‘A long pointed rod’, Franklin told the Royal Society in 1772, ‘may prevent some strokes as well as conduct others that fall upon it.’ 25 Throughout the period these compelling but dubious claims were among the Royal Society’s major preoccupations.

When news broke that the Heckingham House of Industry had been equipped with high pointed rods but nevertheless caught fire, one of Franklin’s closest allies told him the Ordnance Board and the King were involved because ‘these events have a tendency to discredit conductors’.26 In ways familiar from more recent episodes of public science, such as the fracas surrounding food safety and BSE, the MMR vaccine, or the environmental effects of genetically modified crops, matters of concern seem to demand sure-fire judgments from trusted experts. So authorities called on the Royal Society for unequivocal decision. It is familiar, too, with sensational reports and rival experts in question, that public debate seems very wayward.

In these respects the Heckingham catastrophe was neither unprecedented nor straightforward. For two decades before 1781 the Society faced many episodes when across southern England houses, churches, powder magazines and other buildings guarded by rods had been struck or damaged by lightning. The Board of Ordnance, the clergy of St Paul’s Cathedral and the monarch all demanded certainty. The Fellows developed a kind of electrical fieldwork, involving visits to the stricken buildings, interviews with workmen, excavation of the rods’ connections and collection of melted metal despatched to the Society. They trusted gentry ‘well known to many in the Royal Society’.27 The Fellows treated these events as so many ‘great electrical experiments’ then argued that such real-world experiments reinforced Franklin’s story about high points.28 But there were characteristic troubles of interpreting these experiments. If the protection had failed this might be because these rods were wrongly set up, so electrical orthodoxy was safe. But it might be because the orthodoxy was wrong and all such rods fundamentally unsafe. To solve this puzzle, Fellows had to appeal to some prior sense that they alone were masters of the facts.

Yet in the rough and tumble of society gossip and political crisis this trust was hard to win. The Society wasn’t on message. Franklin’s notions of high pointed rods and silent atmospheric discharge were backed by prestigious Fellows such as Watson, Nairne and Cavendish. But there were vocal critics inside the Society. The newspapers gleefully reported the schism. Opposition was led by the fashionable painter and theatre manager Benjamin Wilson, veteran Royal Society Fellow and pugnacious enemy of Franklin’s philosophy and politics, especially of ‘the magical point’.29 Wilson’s coterie had good connections. He was employed both by the Board of Ordnance and by the King, and won support from one of the Royal Society’s Copley medallists, the able chemist Edward Delaval, from senior military officers, noble courtiers and foreign academicians. Wilson’s experiments convinced many others that high pointed conductors were dangerous, for they would invite a lightning stroke and never safely disarm electrical atmospheres. The modern Prometheus was wrong. ‘Sharp points are put there only to invite an enemy which otherwise might not have troubled us.’ 30 Better, so Wilson urged, to build lower blunted rods much closer to threatened roofs and walls. In the midst of these histrionics the Fellows inevitably became the target of vicious satire. There were fraught votes within the Society about whether Wilson’s protests should be aired. One of his friends denounced the ‘factious illiterati’ of the Royal Society.31 According to an aged earl, ‘The Royal Society may if it pleases decide in favour of the pointed conductors, but its decisions cannot oblige me and I hope will not induce any of my friends to adopt them.’ 32

The Society’s system of experiment and trust was in trouble. Wilson and Delaval staged their own site visits after spectacular strikes to get different stories from those obtained by Nairne and Watson. Matters got serious in May 1777. The gunpowder stores run by the Ordnance Board down the Thames at Purfleet were hit by lightning. Rods installed there on the recommendation of a Royal Society committee five years earlier seemed to have failed. In the midst of the American War, British military supplies at Purfleet were no longer safe. Wilson exploited the disaster brilliantly. Supporter of metal points and transatlantic rebels, Franklin was put in the wrong electrically and politically, ‘as bad a man as he is a philosopher’.33 In summer 1777 Wilson set up a vast show to demonstrate the fallacies of his enemies. With royal funds and Ordnance Board gunpowder, he took over the Pantheon, a gorgeous Oxford Street dance hall, and installed a model of the Purfleet arsenal under a huge artificial charged cloud. The theatrical Wilson aimed to prove the dangers of elevated and pointed conductors. Many Londoners, including the royal family, watched the model’s spectacular sparks. Nairne and other Fellows tried to heckle Wilson and designed their own models of lightning and gunpowder to show the errors of his ways. Wilson’s confidants grumbled about Franklin’s ‘junto’, especially ‘setting Nairne to put you in the wrong’. Franklin’s allies launched a politically venomous attack on royal policy and the Pantheon displays: ‘those butchers sent by our infamous Ministry to exterminate the Americans are no more courageous in their hellish profession than our daring philosopher B. Wilson has been in his drum tricks’.34

For many months these tricks were satirised mercilessly in the press.35 The King reportedly ordered pointed rods replaced by lower blunt ones at Ordnance buildings and royal palaces. Some even said the fight forced the resignation of the Royal Society’s President: the Secretary of the French Academy of Sciences certainly thought this is what happened, and the resignation was soon followed by Joseph Banks’ assumption of the presidency.36 This ghastly history explains the high tension around the Heckingham story a couple of years later and the pointed political interest in its details. The Royal Society had bad form in its management of lightning strikes where pointed conductors had failed. As soon as he heard from Norfolk, Wilson again mobilised his extensive networks to make the most of the fact. He ‘began to apprehend there might be an intention to smother the matter and keep it secret from the public’.37

PROMETHEAN SCIENCE, OR HOW TO BE AN EXPERT

If the high and pointed rods had been badly set up, the Royal Society’s view would be safe. If, however, they’d been competently designed, that view would be in trouble. If the rods were plunged deep enough into damp soil or their bases covered in flood-water, the official view would have expected them to work: their failure would count as a challenge to Royal Society doctrine. So Wilson gathered stories about floods and the rods’ grounding. Royal Society envoys sent to Heckingham would seek to show the rods were not well set up and that this explained their failure. It didn’t help that the Society’s delegates were Banks’ right-hand man the suave physician Charles Blagden and Edward Nairne, Wilson’s old enemy. Wilson sent Banks details of Nairne’s ‘troublesome manner’ at the Pantheon show and support for Franklin’s doctrine. The President boldly answered that Nairne’s ‘veracity is preferred by the public and the Royal Society in general’.38

So the Fellows’ Norfolk fieldwork was initially difficult. Blagden and Nairne did their homework by re-reading reports from Purfleet and recent electrical textbooks. They needed to show the Heckingham lightning rods were badly set up. Mr Bobbitt had allegedly been at fault by letting them reach only a few inches below ground where they led into a drain ‘without being in contact with anything but air’.39 A broken rusty iron pole whose lower end was in contact with nothing but air wasn’t really a lightning rod at all. The strike hit the lead on the stable roof simply because ‘the lightning picked out the best and nearest conductors to the moist earth’.40 The Fellows seized on any story that the drains were dry even during the storm. Blagden and Nairne got the House workmen to put back everything as they recalled it was just before the strike. Three different lightning paths might explain why the rods had not taken the strike, so the Fellows accepted the story of spectacular fireballs, even if the source was a dubious female inmate. Then they toured county gentry for evidence that the electrical defence of the House of Industry was inadequate and their theory of lightning conductors safe. Wilson did the opposite. He contacted Norfolk friends for signs the rods were in a good state, drenched with drain water and well maintained. ‘Have you been able to learn from anyone of good judgment how high the black cloud was at the time it hung over the House? And whether any of the flashes of lightning were seen to make towards the pointed conductor?’ 41 Wilson got Gamble to build a model of the House like the one of Purfleet, then showed it to the King and the Ordnance Board. He reckoned it showed the high pointed lightning rods had failed. If so, Royal Society doctrine had failed too. 

The metropolitan outcome of the Heckingham inquiry was managed by Nairne, Blagden and Banks. The report they sent the Ordnance Board in February 1782 showed the imperfections of the Norfolk lightning rods and strengths of the received theory of their behaviour. It was publicised by the Society and copies sent to foreign papers.42 With the status of the Fellows and the select group they interviewed, they could secure agreement in the capital. Back in Norfolk things were less sure. In the 1780s ‘there was more mind afloat in Norwich than is usually found outside the literary circles of the metropolis’.43 The Fellows’ informants were gentlemen with their own views of electricity and lightning. None lined up in an orderly fashion behind Nairne and Blagden. The Heckingham governor Samuel Cooper insisted his House’s rods were well earthed, ‘nothing wonderful or even extraordinary’ had happened, and complained to Banks that ‘some of those who spend their time chiefly in making of experiment are too apt to treat those who do not with a dogmatism bordering upon contempt, would the latter venture to deduce by the legitimate principles of logic a plain and obvious conclusion from the experiments of the former’.44 While Cooper questioned London experimenters’ authority, Gamble had his own story of how electricity worked. Along with his model of the House, he made a diagram of lightning discharge. He insisted against Nairne that the rods were perfectly grounded, ‘these pointed rods were the cause of the stroke’s taking place in their vicinity’, and couldn’t accept the Fellows’ notion that the House was struck because the rods were surrounded by insulators. ‘For God’s sake, what should it be connected with so proper to keep the effect of the storm from entering the House!’45 According to Mr Gamble, the Society’s story simply didn’t make sense. 

Even the Society’s best Norwich allies, Morgan and Brook, broke ranks. Brook had major experimental interests in electricity. He’d been the informant who’d insisted there’d been little rain before the strike and that the rods were not grounded at all. He designed his own electric models of thunderstorms and an ingenious electrometer that helped determine the atmospheric charge. He and Morgan showed Blagden and Nairne their own electrical experiments and the lightning rods atop Norwich Cathedral that Wilson designed.46 Brook joked with Nairne about whether Norwich soil had special electric properties. But Brook rejected the Society’s account, insisting that electrical fluid moved always from the soil towards the clouds. Unlike those of the Royal Society his instruments ‘speak so as to be understood universally’.47

Morgan was more radical about London doctrine. The Unitarian minister admired Franklin’s politics and experiments and aided the Society’s Heckingham fieldwork. Supporter both of the American and French revolutions, Morgan preached the cause of Promethean liberty: ‘In all ages the thunder of heaven has contributed more powerfully to promote the cause of imposture and tyranny. By the science of electricity, however, the future possibility may be exterminated of renewing these frauds. It has enabled the most common artificer to avert every danger attending a thunder-storm. It teaches the vulgar mind to smile at a thousand religious ceremonies.’ 48 But like his friend Brook, Morgan doubted Franklin’s explanation of this enlightened practice. ‘By guarding your house you make it of all objects that which is the most likely to become the circuit of a cloud.’ Franklin was wrong to imagine that pointed rods could silently and safely discharge the electrical atmosphere in the skies.49 Such views became common. The instrument maker George Adams had no doubts that pointed rods were ineffective and unsafe. ‘It is evident’, Heckingham’s events showed, ‘that the effect of conductors in general is too inconsiderable either to lessen fear or animate hope.’ 50 Soon Franklin’s electrical atmospheres and the Heckingham workhouse would both be under fierce attack. Galvanism and electrodynamics preoccupied experimenters on life and matter. The workhouse was burnt to the ground by Norfolk protesters against the poor laws.

Promethean science claimed it was grounded in experiences available to all, yet it proved hard to organise experiences so all agreed about these principles. Only certain places and people could be trusted. Even close allies could waver from Royal Society orthodoxy. The problem was evident in 1780s Norfolk. At the same time as the Heckingham controversy, a lawsuit began about the security of north Norfolk harbours. Leading engineers and Royal Society Fellows were witnesses. This case led to a crucial legal decision on the status of the scientific expert: ‘In matters of science’, the Lord Chief Justice declared, ‘the reasoning of men of science can only be answered by men of science.’ 51 The problem was to determine who counted as ‘men of science’, so how to establish riskily Promethean science. The Titan’s theft of fire and subsequent vicious punishment stands for the rights of free inquiry and its penalties. In her brilliant commentary on the French Revolution, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in 1794 about the Prometheus story ‘on which priests have erected their tremendous structures of imposition’. Rather, she argued, ‘we shall find that men will insensibly render each other happier as they grow wiser’.52 Within a generation, her daughter Mary Shelley composed one of the most important accounts of scientific ambition and its fearful consequences. Frankenstein’s subtitle was The Modern Prometheus.

Promethean science matters because of the hopes it offers and the demands it places on disputable knowledge and puzzling threats. It still counts. Promethean Science is the title of a 2000 World Bank report on the promises of genetic engineering and biotechnology for global food crises. The authors apparently chose this striking phrase because it has come to mean ‘daringly original and creative’.53 However, that’s not all it means. Promethean science has a long and troubled history involving the many groups who claim the right to describe and intervene in the world. The same year as the World Bank report, the then head of Monsanto, Hendrik Verfaillie, spoke in Washington DC about the crisis surrounding genetically modified crops: ‘when we tried to explain the benefits, the science and the safety, we did not understand that our tone – our very approach – was seen as arrogant. We were still in the “trust me” mode when the expectation was “show me”. And so, instead of happily ever after, this new technology became the focal point of public conflict, the benefits we saw were jeopardised, and Monsanto became a lightning rod.’ 54 This is an appropriately highly charged image of the troubles of public trust in science.

1 John Hill, A Review of the Works of the Royal Society, 2nd edition (London, Lady Hill, 1780), pp. 48–9.

2 Richard Stevens to Mr Brown, 20 December 1781, British Library MSS Add. 30094, fol. 204.

3 Charles Darwin to Thomas Huxley, 27 November 1859, in F. Burkhardt and S. Smith (eds), Correspondence of Charles Darwin (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985—), 7: 404; J.A. Secord, ‘Darwin and the breeders’ in David Kohn (ed.), The Darwinian Heritage (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1985), 519–42, on p. 534.

4 Norfolk Chronicle (28 July 1781), 3.

5 George Cadogan Morgan, Lectures on Electricity, 2 vols (London, J. Johnson, 1794), 2: 248.

6 Norfolk Chronicle (14 July 1781), 2.

7 John R. Millburn, Benjamin Martin: Author, Instrument Maker and ‘Country Showman’ (Leiden, Noordhoff, 1976), p. 35.

8 [John Wolcot], Peter’s Prophecy, or the President and the Poet, or, an Important Epistle to Sir J. Banks (London, G. Kearsley, 1788), p. 12.

9 Russel McCormmach, ‘Henry Cavendish on the proper method of rectifying abuses’ in Elizabeth Garber (ed.), Beyond History of Science (Bethlehem, Pa., Lehigh University Press, 1990), 35–51, on p. 43.

10 Benjamin Wilson to Dixon Gamble, 28 January 1782, British Library MSS Add. 30094, fol. 212.

11 ‘Proceedings relative to the accident by lightning at Heckingham’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 72 (1782), 355–78, on p. 377.

12 Morgan, Lectures, 2: 234.

13 Daines Barrington to Benjamin Wilson, 26 December 1781, British Library MSS 30094, fol. 206.

14 George Cadogan Morgan to Samuel Cooper, 4 January 1782, Norfolk Record Office MSS C/GP 12/12, p. 221; Joseph Banks to Board of Ordnance, 29 December 1781, Public Record Office MSS WO 47/26 series II, fol. 515.

15 George Adams, Lectures on Natural and Experimental Philosophy, 5 vols (London, Hindmarsh, 1794), 4: 370.

16 William Watson, ‘An account of a Treatise entituled Letters concerning Electricity by the Abbé Nollet’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 48 (1753), 201–16, on p. 215.

17 George Parker, Earl of Macclesfield, ‘Speech awarding the Copley Medal’ (30 November 1753), in Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. L. Labaree et al. (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1959—), 5: 126–33.

18 John Mills, An Essay on the Weather, 2nd edition (London, S. Hooper, 1773), p. 19.

19 Condorcet to Benjamin Franklin, 2 December 1773, in Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 20: 489.

20 Jean Nollet, Lettres sur l’éléctricité (Paris, Guérin & Delatour, 1753), 1: 19.

21 Charles Burney, The Present State of Music in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Provinces, 2 vols (London, Becket, 1775), 1:183.

22 Jessica Riskin, ‘The lawyer and the lightning rod’, Science in Context, 12 (1999), 61–100, on p. 85.

23 Thomas Harmer to John Canton, 11 December 1753, in Royal Society Library MS/598, p. 28.

24 Gentleman’s Magazine 25 (1755), 312.

25 Benjamin Franklin, ‘Experiments supporting the use of pointed lightning rods’, August 1772, in Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 19: 251. My emphasis.

26 Richard Price to Benjamin Franklin, 7 January 1782, in Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 36: 406.

27 William Henly, ‘Experiments concerning the different efficacy of pointed and blunted rods, in securing buildings’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 64 (1774), 133–52, on p. 141.

28 William Watson, ‘Observations upon the effects of lightning’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 54 (1764), 201–27, on p. 224.

29 Benjamin Wilson, Further Observations upon Lightning (London, Lockyer, Davis, 1774), p. 22.

30 Benjamin Wilson, Observations upon Lightning (London, Lockyer, Davis, 1773), p. 57.

31 S. Martin to Benjamin Wilson, 30 October 1775, British Library MSS Add. 30094, fol. 161.

32 Lord Harcourt to Benjamin Wilson, 12 August 1777, British Library MSS Add. 30094, fol. 179.

33 Daines Barrington to Benjamin Wilson, 25 September 1777, British Library MSS Add. 30094, fol.188.

34 Daines Barrington to Benjamin Wilson, 25 September 1777, British Library MSS 30094, fol. 188; Jean Hyacinthe de Magellan to Achille Lebègue de Presle (copy), 15 September and 3 October 1777, Library of Congress, Franklin MSS, at fol. 7v.

35 [Review of William Swift, ‘Account of some electrical experiments’], Monthly Review, 60 (1779), 417; Trent A. Mitchell, ‘The politics of experiment in the eighteenth century: the pursuit of audience and the manipulation of consensus in the debate over lightning rods’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 31 (1998), 307–31, on p. 324.

36 Condorcet, ‘Éloge de M. Pringle’ (delivered 1782), published in Oeuvres de Condorcet, ed. A. Condorcet O’Connor and F. Arago, 12 vols (Paris, Firmin Didot, 1847), 2: 513–28, on p. 524; C.R. Weld, History of the Royal Society with Memoirs of the Presidents, 2 vols (London, John Parker, 1848), 2: 101–2.

37 Benjamin Wilson to Dixon Gamble, 28 January 1782, British Library MSS Add. 30094, fol. 213.

38 Benjamin Wilson to Joseph Banks, 12 and 17 January 1782, British Library MSS Add. 30094, fols 208–10; Joseph Banks to Benjamin Wilson, January 1782, Royal Society MSS CB/6/104.

39 Royal Society MSS CB/6/105, fol. 1.

40 Edward Nairne to Jean Hyacinthe de Magellan, 5 March 1782, American Philosophical Society Library MSS BP 85, vol. 25, fol. 26.

41 Benjamin Wilson to Dixon Gamble, 28 January 1782, British Library MSS Add. 30094, fol. 213.

42 Jean Hyacinthe de Magellan to Benjamin Franklin, 13 April 1782, in Papers of Benjamin Franklin, 37: 150.

43 C.B. Jewson, The Jacobin City: A Portrait of Norwich in its Reaction to the French Revolution (Glasgow, Blackie, 1975), p. 143.

44 Samuel Cooper to Henry Hammond, 17 October 1781, and to Joseph Banks, 13 January 1782, Royal Society Library MSS CB/1/3/82 and /83.

45 Gamble to Wilson, 24 March 1782, British Library MSS Add. 30094, fols. 219–20.

46 Charles Blagden, Diary 1776–88, Yale University Library MSS Osborn fc 16, entry for 26 January 1782.

47 Abraham Brook, ‘Account of a new electrometer’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 72 (1782), 384–8, on p. 387; Brook, ‘On thunder storms’, Royal Society Library MSS Letters and Papers, vol. 8 (1789), 129; Brook, Miscellaneous Experiments and Remarks on Electricity, the Air Pump and the Barometer (Norwich, Crouse and Stephenson, 1789), 101.

48 Morgan, Lectures on Electricity, 1: xxix–xxxii.

49 Morgan, Lectures on Electricity, 2: 298; [Obituary of George Cadogan Morgan], Monthly Magazine, 6 (December, 1789), 475–80, on p. 476; D.O. Thomas, ‘George Cadogan Morgan’, Price-Priestley Newsletter, 3 (1979), 53–70, on p. 65.

50 Adams, Lectures, 4: 381–2.

51 Tal Golan, Laws of Men and Laws of Nature: The History of Scientific Expert Testimony in England and America (Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 24.

52 Mary Wollstonecraft, An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution; and the Effect it Has Produced in Europe (London, J. Johnson, 1794), 17; Jane Goodall, ‘Electrical Romanticism’, in Jane Goodall and Christa Knellwolf (eds), Frankenstein’s Science: Experimentation and Discovery in Romantic Culture 1780–1830 (Aldershot, Ashgate, 2008), 117–32 on p. 125.

53 Ismail Seragildin and G.J. Persley, Promethean Science: Agricultural Biotechnology, the Environment and the Poor (Washington DC, Consultative Group on International Agricultural Science, 2000), v. Stress in the original.

54 Hendrik A. Verfaillie, ‘A new pledge for a new company’, Farm Journal Conference, Washington DC, 27 November 2000, online at www.monsanto.com/monsanto/media/speeches/new_pledge_speech.html.