Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Revisiting an Invisible Technology

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Revisiting an Invisible Technology

Article excerpt

DOES THE LIGHTNING ROD HAVE A HISTORY? A modern encyclopedia suggests that Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod in 1752, and it has been in use ever since, protecting human beings and their property from heavenly destruction.1 End of story. Indeed, the lightning rod's construction seems so simple and its function so obvious that even a child can understand it. What more could possibly be said?

If the story were really so pat, this book might end here. However, the matter is far from being so simple. In our own research on eighteenth century electricians and research on electricity, we each encountered these odd-looking metal constructions time and again. For one thing, Benjamin Franklin's invention of the lightning rod is one of the classic, emblematic stories of the Enlightenment.

The most famous episode is Franklin's kite experiment, which showed both artificial and natural electricity to be electrical and which was related in these stories to the invention of the lightning rod. The demonstration of lightning as an electrical phenomenon was hailed as a momentous breakthrough in science, credited by some with the breakdown of an old system of religious beliefs and heralded by others with the very invention of America. The second best-known episode is probably the Purfleet controversy in which the proper design of the tip of the lightning rod was hotly debated in Britain in the 1770s. This was epitomized by the anecdote in which the president of the Royal Society (in favor of points) told King George III (in favor of knobs) that it was not in his power to alter the laws of nature.2 And the third cause célèbre is the trial of St. Omer in Northern France in the early 1780s concerning the right of Charles Dominique de Vissery to install a rod on his roof. This spectacular trial was followed throughout France (and beyond) and provided the first public stage for a young lawyer named Maximilien de Robespierre. The future revolutionary scolded the people of St. Omer for their backwardness and their failure to embrace enlightened values.3

On one level, then, the lightning rod has played a historical, if stereotypical role as the stuff of hreakthroughs, founding moments, and anecdotes that celebrate the triumph of reason and science over superstition and dogma. In our own research, lightning rods have played less exalted but perhaps more interesting parts in the story of Charles Augustin Coulomb's classic investigations that led to the formulation of the inverse square law of electrical charge (Heering) and in the humbler story of itinerant lecturers struggling to scratch a living from public demonstrations of electrical marvels and the installation of lightning rods ( Hochadel ).4 These talcs were less about triumph and more about conflict, both epistemologica! and economic. Our stories dealt with the contested use of new instruments and questions of authority: Who was to decide the proper design of a lightning rod? Could these quarrels simply signify" the difficult birth of a new technology that, once established, stirred little interest or controversy after 1800? Or could there be more?

Our curiosity was aroused and made us probe deeper, well beyond our initial topics. Surveying the publications in our field, we quickly learned that research on lightning and the lightning rod remained controversial throughout the nineteenth century. For example, the august Académie des Sciences in Paris devoted several committees to the subject, arguing for decades about design issues.' Beginning in the 1820s the British electrician William Snow Harris promoted his new lightning protection system for warships. In his numerous publications he tried to alert the Royal Navy to the fact that several warships and many men had been lost due to insufficient lightning rods.6 In the late nineteenth century the British physicist Oliver Lodge tried to re-create lightning in the laboratory to improve the construction of lightning rods. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.