A SCIENTIFIC FRIENDSHIP: GIAMBATISTA BECCARIA
FRANKLIN'S letters on electricity, published in London in 1751 under the title of Experiments and Observations on Electricity Made at Philadelphia in America, were variously received in Europe. In some quarters they were acclaimed, and ignored or derided in others. The most implacable of the opponents to Franklin's ideas was the Abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet, a prominent member of the Parisian Academy of Science and preceptor to the French royal family. Having just won considerable notoriety with a fanciful mechanical explanation of attraction and repulsion based upon the motion of affluent and effluent matter about electrified bodies, Nollet was quite naturally hostile to the rival system, which at first he would not believe had been conceived in far-off America. His ill temper overflowed into half a dozen long letters addressed to Franklin1 purporting to demonstrate the errors of the American philosopher.
In later years a wiser Franklin would not have entertained the notion of a polemic. In his autobiography2 he shrugged off the episode with the remark: "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." His first impulse, however, was to take up the gauntlet. He was ruffled particularly by the snobbery implicit in Nollet's critique. In April of 1753 he commented bitterly in a letter to his friend Cadwallader Colden,3 later Lieutenant Governor of New York State: "I see it is not without Reluctance that the Europeans will allow us that they can possibly receive any Instruction from us Americans." As a representative of American science he felt it a point of honor to enter the lists against Nollet and for that reason refused to take time to review a recent book by Colden: "It is expected that I should answer Mons. Nollett [sic]. You see, this must at present engage the little Leisure my other Affairs afford me. . . . I think it behooves us all to join Hands for the Honour of the American Philosophy. . . ."4
The imminent intercontinental duel never took place. Unbeknown to Franklin, a champion had already emerged whose biting polemic and systematic exploitation of his single fluid theory of electricity would soon frustrate the assault mounted by the Abbé Nollet. Local necessity, not altruistic motives, prompted what the grateful Franklin took to be an undiluted "noble defence"; none
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Publication information: Book title: Benjamin Franklin and Italy. Contributors: Antonio Pace - Author. Publisher: American Philosophical Society. Place of publication: Philadelphia. Publication year: 1958. Page number: 49.