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Draw the Lightning Down

Draw the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment

Kacy L. Hollenback
Carrie L. Bell
Copyright Date: 2003
Edition: 1
Pages: 397
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  • Book Info
    Draw the Lightning Down
    Book Description:

    Most of us know—at least we've heard—that Benjamin Franklin conducted some kind of electrical experiment with a kite. What few of us realize—and what this book makes powerfully clear—is that Franklin played a major role in laying the foundations of modern electrical science and technology. This fast-paced book, rich with historical details and anecdotes, brings to life Franklin, the large international network of scientists and inventors in which he played a key role, and their amazing inventions. We learn what these early electrical devices—from lights and motors to musical and medical instruments—looked like, how they worked, and what their utilitarian and symbolic meanings were for those who invented and used them. Against the fascinating panorama of life in the eighteenth century, Michael Brian Schiffer tells the story of the very beginnings of our modern electrical world. The earliest electrical technologies were conceived in the laboratory apparatus of physicists; because of their surprising and diverse effects, however, these technologies rapidly made their way into many other communities and activities. Schiffer conducts us from community to community, showing how these technologies worked as they were put to use in public lectures, revolutionary experiments in chemistry and biology, and medical therapy. This story brings to light the arcane and long-forgotten inventions that made way for many modern technologies—including lightning rods (Franklin's invention), cardiac stimulation, xerography, and the internal combustion engine—and richly conveys the complex relationships among science, technology, and culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93985-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1. The Franklin Phenomenon
    (pp. 1-11)

    The name of Benjamin Franklin resonates with most Americans. Not only is Franklin prominently mentioned in high-school and college history texts, but many cities and towns also have a Franklin Avenue, Franklin Insurance Company, or Ben Franklin Crafts store. His face is familiar—on postage stamps, busts in museums, and, of course, $100 bills. And Franklin’s seemingly timeless sayings still grace calendars, magazine articles, and advice columns. In the pantheon of great Americans, Franklin looms large as a patriot and tireless diplomat, the founding father who, had he not died during Washington’s first term, might have succeeded him as president....

  6. 2. In the Beginning
    (pp. 12-32)

    The first technologies we recognize as “electrical” arose in the activities of natural philosophers who, today, might be called physicists. What distinguishes their works from scholastic philosophy, with its unresolvable debates, and from other systems of knowledge, like religion, is a reliance on experiment. Although not without faith in authorities, scientists use experiments to create and evaluate purported knowledge about empirical phenomena. Many people—including this author—would claim that experimentation is a necessary part of scientific research.¹

    Of course it all depends on how experiment is defined. My definition is simple: an experiment is an activity in which the...

  7. 3. A Coming of Age
    (pp. 33-66)

    Prior to the mid-1740s, the electrophysicist’s involvement in the process of generating charge was rather intimate. An investigator like Gray or du Fay began most experiments by vigorously rubbing a glass tube with his own hand. Those who used electrical machines required an assistant to turn the crank; in addition, someone—often the experimenter himself—had to place a hand on the revolving glass vessel. Electrophysics was, literally, hands-on science.

    Soon, however, investigators fashioned new kinds of electrical machines, many of which dispensed with the hand-rubbing routine. Electrophysicists of the 1740s also perfected the prime conductor and invented the Leyden...

  8. 4. Going Public
    (pp. 67-90)

    With effects so startling and unexpected, the use of electrical technology did not for long remain the exclusive preserve of physicists in the laboratory. During the 1740s a sizable and enthusiastic group of disseminators quickly picked up electrical technology and adapted it, giving lectures on electricity and displaying its myriad effects in entertaining demonstrations.¹ A heterogeneous community, disseminators included college teachers, instrument makers, itinerant lecturers, tutors for wealthy families, and members of the clergy. Despite their social and occupational diversity, disseminators all employed equipment that could illustrate electrical effects and principles in a dramatic and captivating fashion.

    Among the audiences...

  9. 5. Power to the People
    (pp. 91-106)

    In Cornelius Tiebout’s 1801 engraving of Thomas Jefferson, the new president was placed in the company of a globe, a bust of Benjamin Franklin, and a plate electrical machine.¹ This juxtaposition was no accident, for it alluded to the Jefferson unknown to most present-day Americans. Jefferson was not only the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, but he was also a highly educated man who had read Newton’sPrincipiain the original Latin and followed the progress of many sciences.² In addition, he invented ingenious devices (including a machine for making...

  10. 6. Life and Death
    (pp. 107-132)

    Beginning in the mid-1740s, public lectures as well as reports in newspapers, magazines, and society journals had alerted scientists of all stripes to the novel effects produced in electrophysics laboratories. Not surprisingly, a handful of people interested in botany, physiology, and chemistry saw in electrical technology a promising research tool; likewise, electrically savvy scientists, including Franklin and Nollet, appreciated that their technology allowed them to engage new subjects. And so arose several science-oriented electrical communities whose beginnings coincided with the widespread commercialization of electrical technology. Members of one overarching community, which I callelectrobiologists,applied this technology in studies of...

  11. 7. First, Do No Harm
    (pp. 133-160)

    Nestled on a knoll near the majestic Potomac River in Virginia, the Mount Vernon estate was home to George and Martha Washington. From their porch the couple could gaze across the river to the Maryland shore, watch squirrels cavort, or spy bald eagles soar. In spring they saw trees leaf out, the first vegetables inch skyward, and carefully tended gardens dazzle strollers with beautiful blooms. A time of renewal and rebirth, spring spread optimism. Summer sweltered and plants prospered, luxuriated, overwhelmed the land. Fall’s coming brought a blazing mosaic of yellows, oranges, and reds. But in late fall and winter...

  12. 8. An Electrical World
    (pp. 161-183)

    From the very beginnings of sustained electrical experimentation in the early eighteenth century, investigators noted a marked similarity between lightning and the sparks created by friction. For example, when Hauksbee rotated a glass vessel against a dry woolen cloth, he “observ’d the Light to break from the agitated Glass, in a very odd Form, resembling that ofLightning.”¹ After the invention of the Leyden jar, explicit comparisons of this sort became more common because the jar’s discharge not only looked like lightning but also sounded like thunder. As Benjamin Martin put it in 1746, “these flashings and snappings succeed each...

  13. 9. Property Protectors
    (pp. 184-205)

    Sudden, searingly bright, lightning inspires awe in most societies. Perhaps because lightning had no obvious mechanical cause, most people before Franklin’s time ascribed its action to supernatural powers. Countless pantheons across the globe have lightning gods. Greek myths held the god Zeus responsible for sending rain and lightning to earth; sometimes he aimed his thunderbolts at misbehaving mortals. According to the Navajo in the American Southwest, lightning sent by offended gods could, in addition to killing sheep or destroying the Navajo’s dwellings, cause disease. Whether regarded as the wrath of an angry god or an electrical discharge, lightning is a...

  14. 10. A New Alchemy
    (pp. 206-225)

    The recognizably modern chemistry that emerged in the last decades of the eighteenth century was an amalgam of many ingredients, one of which was alchemy. Building on traditions of Islamic chemistry, alchemists—Isaac Newton was one—did more than seek ways to turn base metals into gold. Their explorations accumulated much empirical knowledge and many useful technologies. An even more important ingredient contributing to modern chemistry was craft traditions, especially in glass and ceramics, mining and metallurgy, munitions, dyeing and leather working, brewing, and medical preparations.¹ Specialists in these industries developed numerous technology-intensive processes for analyzing and synthesizing substances. By...

  15. 11. Visionary Inventors
    (pp. 226-256)

    Benjamin Franklin was in many ways the Thomas Edison of the eighteenth century. Like Edison, Franklin was a prolific inventor who created products—the lightning conductor, a wood stove, and bifocals—that he hoped might improve people’s lives. Like Edison, Franklin lived to witness the widespread adoption of many of his creations. Like Edison, Franklin won acclaim for his inventions and became famous at home and across the Atlantic. As autodidacts from modest circumstances who achieved greatness, both men gave substance to the American dream.¹

    Beyond these important similarities lies a world of difference in the activities of these two...

  16. 12. Technology Transfer: A Behavioral Framework
    (pp. 257-270)

    The preceding chapters have presented a panorama of eighteenth-century electrical artifacts in relation to specific activities and the communities that carried them out. Although this technology had its beginnings as the laboratory apparatus of electrophysicists, from the mid-1740s onward a host of new functional variants was invented—everything from Seiferheld’s electric oracle to Bertholon’s electro-vegetometer to Volta’s electric lamp. I was drawnto this technology in part because its seemingly relentless growth and change conformed to a common pattern, the process of “technological differentiation,” which is familiar to most archaeologists.¹ Many technologies, from Neolithic pottery to twentieth-century home electronics, began their...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 271-332)
  18. References Cited
    (pp. 333-364)
  19. Index
    (pp. 365-383)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 384-384)