Stealing God's Thunder : Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America
"We forget, living in this era of heavily patented research and closely guarded results, how wonderfully exciting the scientific world used to be. In Stealing God's Thunder, the story of Benjamin Franklin's invention of the lightening rod and the resulting consequences, that sense of wonder and excitement and even fear comes beautifully to life. Philip Dray does a remarkable job of illuminating the ever-fascinating Franklin and, more than that, the way that he, and his invention, helped create the new scientific world."
Ben Franklin's invention of the lightning rod and his revelation of the mysterious workings of lightning and thunder made him one of the foremost scientists of his day. As Dray, who won the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Prize for At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, points out in this lively and entertaining tale, Franklin made his reputation as a scientist long before he established himself as a statesman. He began his experiments with electricity in the mid-18th century, when numerous European scientists were similarly engaged. Franklin wondered whether the properties of lightning were the same as those of electricity. He established a rodlike device on a hill that attracted lightning from a passing thunderstorm and conducted the current away from houses and farms and into the ground. In 1751, Franklin published a widely popular book on his observations of electricity, which won him admiration throughout Europe. Dray elegantly observes that Franklin was the first to espouse an atomic theory of electricity, which he saw as an elemental force of nature contained in all objects. Dray provides not only a masterful glimpse of this aspect of Franklin's work but also a captivating cultural history of Franklin's America. B&w illus. Agent, Geri Thoma. (On sale Aug. 2) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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August 02, 2005
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Excerpt from Stealing God's Thunder by Philip Dray
WITH A POX TO YOU"
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston on January 17, 1706, the fifteenth of the seventeen children of Josiah Franklin, and the eighth child of his father's second wife, Abiah Folger. The Franklins lived on Milk Street, across from the South Church, where Josiah was a leading member of the congregation. Ben was carried across the street and baptized there on the day of his birth. The Franklins ran a soap- and candle-making business, and Josiah was also active in the community; he had served as a constable of the town watch and also in the public markets, neighbors sometimes came to him for advice, and the son would recall that his father's "great Excellence lay in a sound Understanding and solid Judgment in prudential Matters, both in private and publick Affairs."
While still a toddler, Ben struck his parents as having the bearing of a scholar. "I do not remember when I could not read," Franklin later said. An uncle (also named Benjamin) who resided with the Franklins and took a special interest in his namesake perceived something remarkable about his clever nephew, and wrote of the boy, "If the Buds are so precious what may we expect when the fruit is ripe?" Josiah prided himself that his youngest son might possess the makings of a clergyman, although Ben's unsuitability for the role manifested itself early on in ways large and small, such as when he suggested to his father that if all the meat being salted for the family's winter provisions was blessed at once, the family might avoid having to say grace at each meal and "it would be a vast saving of time." In any event, the prerequisite education for the clerical calling proved too costly, and after completing barely two years of school, Ben was put to work in the family shop.
Boston in the early 1700s was a thriving port of about ten thousand inhabitants, the third largest shipping mecca in the British empire, with fifteen shipyards and hundreds of wharves that teemed night and day with the loading and off-loading of goods and passengers. Ben was smitten with the magnificent sight of ships--the packets, cargo vessels, and men-of-war that stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the docks and whose vast sails filled the sky. The town's seafaring character, with its inlets, rivers, bays, ponds, and coves, engendered in him a lifelong affection for boats and the sea. "Living near the water, I was in and about it, learnt early to swim well, and to manage boats," he recalled.