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

By Michael Brian Schiffer; Kacy L. Hollenback et al. | Go to book overview

3
A Coming of Age

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 jar (the first true capacitor). Together, these three technologies— electrical machine, prime conductor, and Leyden jar—comprised the core components of an electrical power system that would serve electrophysicists as well as people in many other communities. In the following decades, electrophysicists continued to invent generator designs along with a host of accessories. Some of these new technologies would be transferred to other communities, where their use contributed to the creation of new effects, new principles, and still more new electrical things. 1 This chapter explores the major technologies developed by electrophysicists from 1740 to about 1800. 2

Beyond bestowing prestige and ratifying a new social role, scientific societies did much for their members. An important activity was the holding of periodic meetings for reporting and discussing new findings. In addition to reading their own papers before the group, members sometimes sponsored the work of neophytes and lesser luminaries. Benjamin Franklin, for ex

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