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Account of Franklin’s Electrical Discoveries.
It is time, however, that we should introduce this extraordinary man to our readers in a new character. A much more important part in civil affairs than any he had yet acted was in reserve for him. He lived to attract to himself on the theatre of politics, the eyes, not of his own countrymen only, but of the whole civilized world; and to be a principal agent in the production of events as mighty in themselves, and as pregnant with mighty consequences, as any belonging to modern history. But our immediate object is to exhibit a portrait of the diligent student, and of the acute and patient philosopher. We have now to speak of Franklin's famous electrical discoveries. Of these discoveries we cannot, of course, here attempt to give any thing more than a very general account. But we shall endeavour to make our statement as intelligible as possible, even to those to whom the subject is new ; referring them, for more particular information in regard to it, to the treatise on Electricity in the Library of Useful Knowledge, and the other works in which the principles of the science are formally expounded. The term electricity is derived from electron, the Greek name for amber, which was known, even in ancient times, to be capable of acquiring, by being rubbed, the curious property of attracting very light bodies, such as small bits of paper, when brought near to them. This virtue was thought to be peculiar to the substance in question, and one or two others, down to the close of the sixteenth century, when our ingenious and philosophic countryman, William Gilbert, a physician of London, announced for the first time, in his Latin treatise on the magmet, that it belonged equally to the diamond and many other precious stones; to glass, sulphur, sealing wax, rosin, and a variety of other substances. It is from this period that we are to date the birth of the science of Electricity, which, however, continued in its infancy for above a century, and could hardly, indeed, be said to consist of any thing more than a collection of unsystematized and ill understood facts, until it attracted the attention of Franklin. Among the facts, however, that had been discovered in this interval, the following were the most important. In the first place, the list of the substances capable of being excited by friction to a manifestation of electric virtue, was considerably extended. It was also found that the bodies which had been attracted by the excited substance were immediately after as forcibly repelled by it, and could not be again attracted until they had touched a third body. Other phenomena, too, besides those of attraction and repulsion, were found to take place when the body excited was one of sufficient magnitude. If any other body, not capable of being excited, such as the human hand or a rod of metal, was presented to it, a slight sound would be produced, which, if the experiment was performed in a dark room, would be accompanied with a momentary light. Lastly, it was discovered that the electric virtue might be imparted to bodies not capable of being themselves excited; by making such a body, when insulated, that is to say separated from all other bodies of the same class by the intervention of one capable of excitation, act either as the rubber of the excited body, or as the drawer of a succession of sparks from it, in the manner that has just been described. It was said, in either of these cases, to be electrified; and it was found that if it was touched, or even closely approached, when in this state, by any other body, in like manner incapable of being excited by friction, a pretty loud report would take place, accompanied, if either body was susceptible of feeling, with a slight sensation of pain at the point of contact, and which would instantly restore the electrified body to its usual and natural condition. In consequence of its thus appearing that all those bodies, and only those, which could not be themselves excited, might in this manner have electricity, as it were, transferred to them, they were designated conductors, as well as non-electrics ; while all electrics, on the other hand, were also called non-conductors. It is proper, however, that the reader should be aware, that of the various, substances in nature, none, strictly speaking, belong exclusively to either of these classes; the truth being merely, that different bodies admit the passage of the electric influence with extremely different degrees of facility, and that those which transmit it readily are called conductors, the metals, and fluids, and living animals particularly belonging to this class; while such as resist its passage, or permit it only with extreme reluctance,—among which are amber, sulphur, wax, glass, and silk, are described by the opposite denomination. The beginning of the year 1746 is memorable in the annals of electricity for the accidental discovery of the possibility of accumulating large quantities of the electric fluid, by means of what was called the Leyden jar, or phial. M. Cuneus, of that city, happened one day, while repeating some experiments which had been originally suggested by M. Von Kleist, Dean of the Cathedral in Camin, to hold in one hand a glass vessel, nearly full of water, into which he had been sending a charge from an electrical machine, by means of a wire dipped into it, and communicating with the prime conductor, or insulated non-electric, exposed in the manner we have already mentioned to the action of the excited cylinder. He was greatly surprised, upon applying his other hand to disengage the wire from the conductor, when he thought that the water had acquired as much electricity as the machine could give it, by receiving a sudden shock in his arms and breast, much more severe than anything of the kind he had previously encountered in the course of his experiments. The same thing, it was found, took place when the glass was covered, both within and without, with any other conductors than the water and the human hand, which had been used in this instance; as, for example, when it was coated on both sides with tinfoil, in such a manner, however, that the two coatings were completely separated from each other, by a space around the lip of the vessel being left uncovered. Whenever a communication was formed by the interposition of a conducting medium between the inside and outside coating, an instant and loud explosion took place, accompanied with a flash of light, and the sensation of a sharp blow, if the conductor employed was any part of the human body. The first announcement of the wonders of the Leyden phial excited the curiosity of all Europe. The accounts given of the electric shock by those who first experienced it are persectly ludicrous, and well illustrate how strangely the imagination is acted upon by surprise and terror, when novel or unexpected results suddenly come upon it”. From the original accounts, as Dr. Priestley observes, could we not have repeated the experiment,
* See Priestley's History of Electricity, vol. i., or the Treatise on Electricity in the Library of Useful Knowledge.
we should have formed a very different idea of the electric shock to what it really is, even when given in greater strength than it could have been by those early experimenters. It was this experiment, however, that first made electricity a subject of general curiosity. Every body was eager, notwithstanding the alarming reports that were spread of it, to feel the new sensation; and in the same year in which the experiment was first made at Leyden, numbers of persons, in almost every country in Europe, obtained a livelihood by going about and shewing it. The particulars, then, that we have enumerated may be said to have constituted the whole of the science of Electricity, in the shape in which it first presented itself to the notice of Dr. Franklin. In the way in which we have stated them, they are little more, the reader will observe, than a mass of seemingly unconnected facts, having, at first sight, no semblance whatever of being the results of a common principle, or of being reducible to any general and comprehensive system. It is true that a theory, that of M. Dufay, had been formed before this time to account for many of them, and also for others that we have not mentioned: but it does not appear that Franklin ever heard of it until he had formed his own, which is, at all events, entirely different; so that it is unnecessary for us to take it at all into account. We shall form a fair estimate of the amount and merits of Franklin's discoveries, by considering the facts we have mentioned as really constituting the science in the state in which he found it. It was in the year 1746, as he tells us himself in the narrative of his life, that, being at Boston, he met with a Dr. Spence, who had lately arrived from Scotland, and who shewed him some electrical experiments. They were imperfectly performed, as the doctor was not very expert; “but being,” says Frank