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

6
Life and Death

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 call electrobiologists, applied this technology in studies of plants (electrobotany) and animals (electrophysiology), with sometimes startling results. By the time Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, in 1816, more than a half century of experiments had already shown how electricity affects organisms—living and dead.

Electrobiologists investigated everything from seed germination to the very nature of life itself. Significantly, apparatus such as the electrical machine and Leyden jar became models for understanding physiological processes, including the operation of the nervous system. The purported discovery of “animal electricity” reverberated throughout the literate world and even affected popular culture. What is more, studies showing the influence of electricity on human physiology and anatomy laid a foundation for new medical therapies, some still used today (see chapter 7).

In adapting electrical technology for plant research, electrobiologists fashioned the first electrical machines that ran without human power. As an outgrowth of studies on animals they also invented an entirely new kind of technology—the electrochemical battery. Let us examine the activ-/

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