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

4
Going Public

With effects so startling and unexpected, the use of electrical technology did not for long remain the exclusive preserve of physicists in the laboratory. During the 1740s a sizable and enthusiastic group of disseminators quickly picked up electrical technology and adapted it, giving lectures on electricity and displaying its myriad effects in entertaining demonstrations. 1 A heterogeneous community, disseminators included college teachers, instrument makers, itinerant lecturers, tutors for wealthy families, and members of the clergy. Despite their social and occupational diversity, disseminators all employed equipment that could illustrate electrical effects and principles in a dramatic and captivating fashion.

Among the audiences of disseminators were men and women of varied backgrounds who, while being entertained, learned about electrical phenomena and saw for themselves how educated people could reveal the subtleties of the deity's plan. And thus they absorbed important tenets of Enlightenment elite ideology. At the same time, the bewildering performances of the electrical items themselves, which created curious sights, sounds, and smells—and sometimes instilled pain in participants—called to onlookers' vernacular beliefs from magic and religion. 2 Although eighteenth-century science had explicitly expunged occult and supernatural agents from proximate explanations of phenomena, they still resonated in the darkened and liminal setting of electrical displays, a wordless but potent counterpoint to the lecturer's learned banter.

Significantly, a few attendees of electrical lectures pondered whether, and how, electricity might be used in their own activities; sometimes this led to the transfer of electrical technology and the formation of new communities.

Some of the most spectacular demonstrations required only the simplest technologies. By intimately involving people in their displays, electrical dis-

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Figures ix
  • Preface xi
  • 1 - The Franklin Phenomenon 1
  • 2 - In the Beginning 12
  • 3 - A Coming of Age 33
  • 4 - Going Public 67
  • 5 - Power to the People 91
  • 6 - Life and Death 107
  • 7 - First, Do No Harm 133
  • 8 - An Electrical World 161
  • 9 - Property Protectors 184
  • 10 - A New Alchemy 206
  • 11 - Visionary Inventors 226
  • 12 - Technology Transfer: a Behavioral Framework 257
  • Notes 271
  • References Cited 333
  • Index 365
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