An Electrical World
From the very beginnings of sustained electrical experimentation in the early eighteenth century, investigators noted a marked similarity between lightning and the sparks created by friction. For example, when Hauksbee rotated a glass vessel against a dry woolen cloth, he “observ'd the Light to break from the agitated Glass, in a very odd Form, resembling that of Lightning.” 1 After the invention of the Leyden jar, explicit comparisons of this sort became more common because the jar's discharge not only looked like lightning but also sounded like thunder. As Benjamin Martin put it in 1746, “these flashings and snappings succeed each other sometimes very fast, and represent, as it were in Miniature, an artificial Thundering and Lightning.” 2 A few years later Franklin too hypothesized that lightning was electrical; more important, he also proposed a definitive test. Soon the hypothesis was verified, as scientists in several countries drew electricity from the clouds.
The confirmation that lightning is an electrical discharge was perhaps the most dramatic and far-reaching finding of eighteenth-century science. Above all, it showed that human-made microcosms might mimic cosmic phenomena. With an electrical machine and Leyden jar, for example, the scientist created, in miniature, lightning in the laboratory. 3 The ability to model nature's most awesome forces had obvious implications for enhancing elite Enlightenment ideology; it also emboldened investigators to study myriad environmental phenomena using electrical theory and models. Even the generally circumspect Martinus van Marum enthused in 1776 that “it is already fairly certain that many of the chief operations of nature depend either entirely or partly on the operation of Electrical Matter. ” 4
In generalizing from their electrical models, these scientists often erred. Because they could seemingly mimic clouds, the aurora borealis (also known as “northern lights”), and volcanoes, they saw the agency of electricity lurk-