Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Points or Knobs: Lightning Rods and the Basis of Decision Making in Late Eighteenth Century British Science

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Points or Knobs: Lightning Rods and the Basis of Decision Making in Late Eighteenth Century British Science

Article excerpt

IT IS A TRUISM AMONG HISTORIANS OK SCIENCE that analyzing controversies can often shed a particularly clear light on the science of the past. In this essay, lshall focus on one of the more notorious and certainly one of the more entertaining disputes in die history of science, namely the heated debate that took place in London in the 1760s and 1770s over the best design of lightning rods. Although the story has been told before, it is worth telling again because there are, I believe, significant lessons to be drawn from this history that existing accounts do not sufficiently bring out.1 These have to do particularly with the emerging claims of science to expert knowledge and, within the scientific community itself, with the establishing and exercising of intellectual authority. To be sure, there were also larger political issues involved, with the dispute between Britain and its American colonies providing the background to the controversy and advocacy of pointed or blunt conductors being linked by many commentators to the revolutionary and loyalist causes respectively.2 In my view, however, so far as the lightning rod controversy was concerned, this was mere background noise. The more interesting issues, those that help us understand what was going on in the controversy, related more narrowly to die standing and structure of the British scientific community at the time.

The controversy ranged most of the leading British electrical investigators of the day, who agreed with Benjamin Franklin in favoring the use of pointed conductors, against a much smaller group spearheaded by another prominent Fellow of the Royal Society, Benjamin Wilson, who favored conductors with rounded ends. Many of those who have written on the subject have assumed that Franklin and those who agreed with him were unambiguously in the right and that Wilson, in adopting the position he did, was simply being obtuse.5 I believe, however, that approaching diings in this way obscures a number of interesting historical issues. (It is also at odds with current scientific thinking on the subject- though this is not to say that current thinking supports Wilson's position, either!) Rather than assuming that the position adopted by Franklin and his supporters emerged victorious simply because it was natural and right, I propose taking a more symmetrical approach that does not judge ideas retrospectively on the basis of later thinking on the subject. In other words, I shall look seriously at the arguments presented by the losing side in die controversy and focus on the mechanisms by which Wilson's position became discredited. Not, 1 hasten to say, that I wish to grant Wilson more credit than he deserves. Yet at the very least, we must, I think, acknowledge that there was a genuine argument going on, and that the controversy was not simply a matter of the lone, misguided figure of Wilson tilting futilely at Franklin and the massed forces of eighteenth century scientific orthodoxy that supported him. On the contrary, Wilson garnered a significant measure of contemporary support. Hence, even if we eventually decide (as well we might) that he was misguided, we should also have to conclude that this was not necessarily apparent at the time.

Opening Salvos

At the heart of Franklin's famous "sentry box" experiment to establish the electrical nature of lightning lay the very first discovery he reported to his correspondents in England after he commenced the study of electricity, his observation that pointed conductors drew off electricity from nearby charged objects. In an amazing intellectual leap, Franklin reasoned that a metal rod pointed at the sky in stormy weather should therefore draw off charge from electrified clouds in its vicinity and thereby, if it was insulated, become electrified. The charge it acquired should be detectable by the usual methods, as indeed it proved to be. Not content, however, with showing how the scientific conclusion might be established, in the same paper in which he described his famous experiment, Franklin also suggested that advantage might be taken of this property of points to protect buildings from destruction by lightning. …

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