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Franklin & Electricity

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was born in Boston, the 12th of 13 children. His father was a candle/soap maker, and expected Benjamin to follow in that trade. Consequently Benjamin only received two years of formal schooling.

Apprenticing Benjamin to be a candle/soap maker didn't go well. Finally, in exasperation, Benjamin's father decided to apprentice him to Benjamin's older brother James, the printer. The rest, as they say, is history. By 1748, at the age of 42, Franklin was financially successful enough to retire from business and devote himself to science and politics.

In 1751 he published his celebrated Experiments and Observations on Electricity, in London. Franklin's ideas were welcomed in Italy. In 1755 Francesco Algarotti wrote to a friend:

Behold from English America there come to us not only tobacco and indigo, but also philosophical systems. From Philadelphia a Quaker has sent us the most beautiful observations, the most beautiful reasonings in the world on electricity; and all our European electricians must doff their hats to this American.1

Two years later Algarotti wrote another letter:

Who ever would have believed a while ago that England, which was reputed to be a country of louts, would excel so and legislate in matters of science? ... Father Beccaria, with the most elegant and decisive experiments, is engaged in illustrating the system of Franklin; and Italy confirms more and more the laws of English electricity.2

Franklin's ideas didn't receive quite so warm a welcome in England or France. Not that Franklin didn't have staunch supporters in both countries from the beginning. But the British were inclined to look upon their colonials as semi-barbarians, and later as traitors. The French were more cordial, and it was the D'Alibard translation of Franklin's works that "broke the English boycott" and brought Franklin's name to universal attention. But France was more accustomed to originating new ideas herself than receiving them from foreigners, and Franklin's ideas did arouse some resentment as a sort of threat to the French national pride. "This spirit of injured pride found its least inhibited expression in the antagonism of the huffy royal preceptor, the Abbé Jean Antoine Nollet, who was reluctant to surrender a reputation freshly won with a plausible theory of effluvia to account for the action of electrified bodies."3 At first Nollet thought that Franklin's discoveries were a hoax by his enemies. When the reality of the threat to his prestige became clear, he counterattacked with a volume of nine Letters on Electricity (Paris, 1753). Six of the letters were destructive criticism addressed directly to Franklin. "Around Nollet rallied a formidable party of anti-Franklinists who, by virtue of the royal patronage enjoyed by their leader, exercised considerable influence in the schools and in the Royal Academy of Sciences, acting thereby as a strong obstacle to the acceptance of Franklin's ideas."4

Italy, however, had no such prejudices. Except in music, the Italians had no particular pretensions of superiority. The various wars of succession in Italy had come to an end with the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, so from 1748 until the peninsula was caught in the maelstrom of revolution after 1795, the prevailing atmosphere was one of peaceful reform and accelerating intellectual activity. The sciences in particular profited from this improved environment.

So it's not surprising that the Italians were stirred to immediate action by the news of the successful outcome of the experiments by D'Alibard and de Lor in May 1752, which established the fact of atmospheric electricity (lightning) in accordance with Franklin's theories. At least four Italians corroborated the experiment before Franklin set up his own lightning rod in September of that year.

One of them was Father Giambatista Beccaria (1716–1781), Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Turin. His observations began on July 2 of that year, with a conductor erected on his own home. By the first week in August he had proved beyond doubt that clouds can be charged positively as well as negatively, an observation Franklin did not make until the following spring, and which he hesitated to announce until after the appearance of Beccaria's first book on electricity. Beccaria's Artificial and Natural Electricity, published in Turin in 1753, "a most systematic exploitation of Franklin's germinal ideas conducted according to mathematical expository method and bolstered with ingenious and meticulously controlled experimentation, gave the status of science to what had been in the main the amusement of dilettantes and the baggage of charlatans. Its author was immediately acclaimed as the leading electrologist by all the fair-minded, including Franklin"5 Franklin's opinion of Beccaria's book was that it was "one of the best pieces on the subject in any language."6 And Beccaria's exhaustive experimentation made him an authority on the subject second to no one. Franklin was definitely at a disadvantage defending his ideas, being on the wrong side of the Atlantic, and increasingly involved in political matters. He could hardly have found a better champion for his theories than Beccaria, who devoted the rest of his life to promoting and extending Franklin's ideas on electricity, and to defeating all challengers.

By 1757 Franklin and Beccaria were corresponding—an exchange which continued for a quarter of a century until Beccaria's death. Franklin never ceased to feel that he owed Beccaria a profound debt of gratitude. And Franklin's recognition benefited Beccaria in turn: "so delighted was Beccaria's sovereign for the recognition accorded his subject [by his association with the famed Franklin] that he immediately increased his stipend, awarded him a pension, and 'in a thousand other most gracious ways manifested how great was his appreciation."'7

Meanwhile, the practical application of his electrical ideas—the lightning rod—wasn't immediately embraced with open arms either. One group that opposed them was essentially superstitious: lightning rods were "thwarting God's will"; holy water and the ringing of church bells were the only unsacrilegious defense against lightning. The other group objected on a more scientific basis: the Marquis Chigi, for example, maintained that "electricity does not exist in the natural state, that lightning is not at all an electrical phenomenon, that pointed conductors can in no way keep lighting from forming, and that they are of no use in receiving and dispersing strokes."8

Matters came to a head when the Grand Duke ordered lightning rods to be placed on the cathedral and the Gothic tower of the city hall in Siena. Hot controversy divided the citizens of the little medieval city, with the Marquis Chigi on the one hand and the university professors on the other. "Once the rod was up," according to a contemporary report, "one can say that never was a wedding day awaited with so much anxiety as was a storm by the two parties."9 Fortunately they didn't have to wait long. A colleague at the University of Siena describes the spectacular event:

It will not be easy to find a similar observation attested in all its circumstances by a large number of people, who, in a thickly frequented public square, in plain daylight, and with all their attention, had their eyes turned toward an extremely high tower to observe the action of the conductor recently placed upon it, and who, without a long wait, had the fortune to admire, to the glory of Philosophy, the intelligence and the genius of the immortal Mr. Franklin, who, extending, so to speak, his prodigious hand over the square of Siena on the 18th of April, took by the hair a horrible lightning bolt and forced it to pass along a route mapped out by his great mind, with express orders not to damage a building on which it has so many times vented its furious strength. The people of Siena, always grateful to one who does good to humanity, are surprised that statues have so often been raised to those who have ruined cities and that they are so seldom raised to those who preserve them. If Mr. Franklin ... reads the present account, he will surely feel an ineffable consolation upon hearing about his fine triumph and the applause given to him by people so far from his country, who see in his marvelous lightning rod the most distinguished trophy of his immortal genius.10

One of Franklin's lifelong dreams was to visit Italy, and his friend and colleague Beccaria—a visit that never happened.11 Neither would Beccaria's king permit a visit to Franklin in Paris during the American Revolution—apparently afraid he would 'take a liking to American maxims'.12


1quoted in Pace (1958), 17

2quoted in Pace (1958), 17

3 Pace (1958), 18

4 Pace (1958), 18

5 Pace (1958), 20–21

6Quoted in Pace (1958), 53

7 Pace (1958), 55

8 Pace (1958), 28

9Quoted in Pace (1958), 29

10Quoted in Pace (1958), 30

11 Pace (1958), 10

12 Pace (1958), 69