A History of Science— Volume 2: The Beginnings of Modern Science

Author: Henry Smith Williams

XIV. Progress in Electricity from Gilbert and Von Guericke to Franklin

We have seen how Gilbert, by his experiments with magnets, gave an impetus to the study of magnetism and electricity. Gilbert himself demonstrated some facts and advanced some theories, but the system of general laws was to come later. To this end the discovery of electrical repulsion, as well as attraction, by Von Guericke, with his sulphur ball, was a step forward; but something like a century passed after Gilbert’s beginning before anything of much importance was done in the field of electricity.

In 1705, however, Francis Hauksbee began a series of experiments that resulted in some startling demonstrations. For many years it had been observed that a peculiar light was seen sometimes in the mercurial barometer, but Hauksbee and the other scientific investigators supposed the radiance to be due to the mercury in a vacuum, brought about, perhaps, by some agitation. That this light might have any connection with electricity did not, at first, occur to Hauksbee any more than it had to his predecessors. The problem that interested him was whether the vacuum in the tube of the barometer was essential to the light; and in experimenting to determine this, he invented his "mercurial fountain." Having exhausted the air in a receiver containing some mercury, he found that by allowing air to rush through the mercury the metal became a jet thrown in all directions against the sides of the vessel, making a great, flaming shower, "like flashes of lightning," as he said. But it seemed to him that there was a difference between this light and the glow noted in the barometer. This was a bright light, whereas the barometer light was only a glow. Pondering over this, Hauksbee tried various experiments, revolving pieces of amber, flint, steel, and other substances in his exhausted air-pump receiver, with negative, or unsatisfactory, results. Finally, it occurred to him to revolve an exhausted glass tube itself. Mounting such a globe of glass on an axis so that it could be revolved rapidly by a belt running on a large wheel, he found that by holding his fingers against the whirling globe a purplish glow appeared, giving sufficient light so that coarse print could be read, and the walls of a dark room sensibly lightened several feet away. As air was admitted to the globe the light gradually diminished, and it seemed to him that this diminished glow was very similar in appearance to the pale light seen in the mercurial barometer. Could it be that it was the glass, and not the mercury, that caused it? Going to a barometer he proceeded to rub the glass above the column of mercury over the vacuum, without disturbing the mercury, when, to his astonishment, the same faint light, to all appearances identical with the glow seen in the whirling globe, was produced.

Turning these demonstrations over in his mind, he recalled the well-known fact that rubbed glass attracted bits of paper, leaf-brass, and other light substances, and that this phenomenon was supposed to be electrical. This led him finally to determine the hitherto unsuspected fact, that the glow in the barometer was electrical as was also the glow seen in his whirling globe. Continuing his investigations, he soon discovered that solid glass rods when rubbed produced the same effects as the tube. By mere chance, happening to hold a rubbed tube to his cheek, he felt the effect of electricity upon the skin like "a number of fine, limber hairs," and this suggested to him that, since the mysterious manifestation was so plain, it could be made to show its effects upon various substances. Suspending some woollen threads over the whirling glass cylinder, he found that as soon as he touched the glass with his hands the threads, which were waved about by the wind of the revolution, suddenly straightened themselves in a peculiar manner, and stood in a radical position, pointing to the axis of the cylinder.

Encouraged by these successes, he continued his experiments with breathless expectancy, and soon made another important discovery, that of "induction," although the real significance of this discovery was not appreciated by him or, for that matter, by any one else for several generations following. This discovery was made by placing two revolving cylinders within an inch of each other, one with the air exhausted and the other unexhausted. Placing his hand on the unexhausted tube caused the light to appear not only upon it, but on the other tube as well. A little later he discovered that it is not necessary to whirl the exhausted tube to produce this effect, but simply to place it in close proximity to the other whirling cylinder.

These demonstrations of Hauksbee attracted wide attention and gave an impetus to investigators in the field of electricity; but still no great advance was made for something like a quarter of a century. Possibly the energies of the scientists were exhausted for the moment in exploring the new fields thrown open to investigation by the colossal work of Newton.


In 1729 Stephen Gray (died in 1736), an eccentric and irascible old pensioner of the Charter House in London, undertook some investigations along lines similar to those of Hauksbee. While experimenting with a glass tube for producing electricity, as Hauksbee had done, he noticed that the corks with which he had stopped the ends of the tube to exclude the dust, seemed to attract bits of paper and leaf-brass as well as the glass itself. He surmised at once that this mysterious electricity, or "virtue," as it was called, might be transmitted through other substances as it seemed to be through glass.

"Having by me an ivory ball of about one and three-tenths of an inch in diameter," he writes, "with a hole through it, this I fixed upon a fir-stick about four inches long, thrusting the other end into the cork, and upon rubbing the tube found that the ball attracted and repelled the feather with more vigor than the cork had done, repeating its attractions and repulsions for many times together. I then fixed the ball on longer sticks, first upon one of eight inches, and afterwards upon one of twenty-four inches long, and found the effect the same. Then I made use of iron, and then brass wire, to fix the ball on, inserting the other end of the wire in the cork, as before, and found that the attraction was the same as when the fir-sticks were made use of, and that when the feather was held over against any part of the wire it was attracted by it; but though it was then nearer the tube, yet its attraction was not so strong as that of the ball. When the wire of two or three feet long was used, its vibrations, caused by the rubbing of the tube, made it somewhat troublesome to be managed. This put me to thinking whether, if the ball was hung by a pack-thread and suspended by a loop on the tube, the electricity would not be carried down the line to the ball; I found it to succeed accordingly; for upon suspending the ball on the tube by a pack-thread about three feet long, when the tube had been excited by rubbing, the ivory ball attracted and repelled the leaf-brass over which it was held as freely as it had done when it was suspended on sticks or wire, as did also a ball of cork, and another of lead that weighed one pound and a quarter."

Gray next attempted to determine what other bodies would attract the bits of paper, and for this purpose he tried coins, pieces of metal, and even a tea-kettle, "both empty and filled with hot or cold water"; but he found that the attractive power appeared to be the same regardless of the substance used.

"I next proceeded," he continues, "to try at what greater distances the electric virtues might be carried, and having by me a hollow walking-cane, which I suppose was part of a fishing-rod, two feet seven inches long, I cut the great end of it to fit into the bore of the tube, into which it went about five inches; then when the cane was put into the end of the tube, and this excited, the cane drew the leaf-brass to the height of more than two inches, as did also the ivory ball, when by a cork and stick it had been fixed to the end of the cane.... With several pieces of Spanish cane and fir-sticks I afterwards made a rod, which, together with the tube, was somewhat more than eighteen feet long, which was the greatest length I could conveniently use in my chamber, and found the attraction very nearly, if not altogether, as strong as when the ball was placed on the shorter rods."

This experiment exhausted the capacity of his small room, but on going to the country a little later he was able to continue his experiments. "To a pole of eighteen feet there was tied a line of thirty-four feet in length, so that the pole and line together were fifty-two feet. With the pole and tube I stood in the balcony, the assistant below in the court, where he held the board with the leaf-brass on it. Then the tube being excited, as usual, the electric virtue passed from the tube up the pole and down the line to the ivory ball, which attracted the leaf-brass, and as the ball passed over it in its vibrations the leaf-brass would follow it till it was carried off the board."

Gray next attempted to send the electricity over a line suspended horizontally. To do this he suspended the pack-thread by pieces of string looped over nails driven into beams for that purpose. But when thus suspended he found that the ivory ball no longer excited the leaf-brass, and he guessed correctly that the explanation of this lay in the fact that "when the electric virtue came to the loop that was suspended on the beam it went up the same to the beam," none of it reaching the ball. As we shall see from what follows, however, Gray had not as yet determined that certain substances will conduct electricity while others will not. But by a lucky accident he made the discovery that silk, for example, was a poor conductor, and could be turned to account in insulating the conducting-cord.

A certain Mr. Wheler had become much interested in the old pensioner and his work, and, as a guest at the Wheler house, Gray had been repeating some of his former experiments with the fishing-rod, line, and ivory ball. He had finally exhausted the heights from which these experiments could be made by climbing to the clock-tower and exciting bits of leaf-brass on the ground below.

"As we had no greater heights here," he says, "Mr. Wheler was desirous to try whether we could not carry the electric virtue horizontally. I then told him of the attempt I had made with that design, but without success, telling him the method and materials made use of, as mentioned above. He then proposed a silk line to support the line by which the electric virtue was to pass. I told him it might do better upon account of its smallness; so that there would be less virtue carried from the line of communication.

"The first experiment was made in the matted gallery, July 2, 1729, about ten in the morning. About four feet from the end of the gallery there was a cross line that was fixed by its ends to each side of the gallery by two nails; the middle part of the line was silk, the rest at each end pack-thread; then the line to which the ivory ball was hung and by which the electric virtue was to be conveyed to it from the tube, being eighty and one-half feet in length, was laid on the cross silk line, so that the ball hung about nine feet below it. Then the other end of the line was by a loop suspended on the glass cane, and the leaf-brass held under the ball on a piece of white paper; when, the tube being rubbed, the ball attracted the leaf-brass, and kept it suspended on it for some time."

This experiment succeeded so well that the string was lengthened until it was some two hundred and ninety-three feet long; and still the attractive force continued, apparently as strong as ever. On lengthening the string still more, however, the extra weight proved too much for the strength of the silk suspending-thread. "Upon this," says Gray, "having brought with me both brass and iron wire, instead of the silk we put up small iron wire; but this was too weak to bear the weight of the line. We then took brass wire of a somewhat larger size than that of iron. This supported our line of communication; but though the tube was well rubbed, yet there was not the least motion or attraction given by the ball, neither with the great tube, which we made use of when we found the small solid cane to be ineffectual; by which we were now convinced that the success we had before depended upon the lines that supported the line of communication being silk, and not upon their being small, as before trial I had imagined it might be; the same effect happening here as it did when the line that is to convey the electric virtue is supported by pack-thread."

Soon after this Gray and his host suspended a pack-thread six hundred and sixty-six feet long on poles across a field, these poles being slightly inclined so that the thread could be suspended from the top by small silk cords, thus securing the necessary insulation. This pack-thread line, suspended upon poles along which Gray was able to transmit the electricity, is very suggestive of the modern telegraph, but the idea of signalling or making use of it for communicating in any way seems not to have occurred to any one at that time. Even the successors of Gray who constructed lines some thousands of feet long made no attempt to use them for anything but experimental purposes—simply to test the distances that the current could be sent. Nevertheless, Gray should probably be credited with the discovery of two of the most important properties of electricity—that it can be conducted and insulated, although, as we have seen, Gilbert and Von Guericke had an inkling of both these properties.


So far England had produced the two foremost workers in electricity. It was now France’s turn to take a hand, and, through the efforts of Charles Francois de Cisternay Dufay, to advance the science of electricity very materially. Dufay was a highly educated savant, who had been soldier and diplomat betimes, but whose versatility and ability as a scientist is shown by the fact that he was the only man who had ever contributed to the annals of the academy investigations in every one of the six subjects admitted by that institution as worthy of recognition. Dufay upheld his reputation in this new field of science, making many discoveries and correcting many mistakes of former observers. In this work also he proved himself a great diplomat by remaining on terms of intimate friendship with Dr. Gray—a thing that few people were able to do.

Almost his first step was to overthrow the belief that certain bodies are "electrics" and others "non-electrics"—that is, that some substances when rubbed show certain peculiarities in attracting pieces of paper and foil which others do not. Dufay proved that all bodies possess this quality in a certain degree.

"I have found that all bodies (metallic, soft, or fluid ones excepted)," he says, "may be made electric by first heating them more or less and then rubbing them on any sort of cloth. So that all kinds of stones, as well precious as common, all kinds of wood, and, in general, everything that I have made trial of, became electric by beating and rubbing, except such bodies as grow soft by beat, as the gums, which dissolve in water, glue, and such like substances. ’Tis also to be remarked that the hardest stones or marbles require more chafing or heating than others, and that the same rule obtains with regard to the woods; so that box, lignum vitae, and such others must be chafed almost to the degree of browning, whereas fir, lime-tree, and cork require but a moderate heat.

"Having read in one of Mr. Gray’s letters that water may be made electrical by holding the excited glass tube near it (a dish of water being fixed to a stand and that set on a plate of glass, or on the brim of a drinking-glass, previously chafed, or otherwise warmed), I have found, upon trial, that the same thing happened to all bodies without exception, whether solid or fluid, and that for that purpose ’twas sufficient to set them on a glass stand slightly warmed, or only dried, and then by bringing the tube near them they immediately became electrical. I made this experiment with ice, with a lighted wood-coal, and with everything that came into my mind; and I constantly remarked that such bodies of themselves as were least electrical had the greatest degree of electricity communicated to them at the approval of the glass tube."

His next important discovery was that colors had nothing to do with the conduction of electricity. "Mr. Gray says, towards the end of one of his letters," he writes, "that bodies attract more or less according to their colors. This led me to make several very singular experiments. I took nine silk ribbons of equal size, one white, one black, and the other seven of the seven primitive colors, and having hung them all in order in the same line, and then bringing the tube near them, the black one was first attracted, the white one next, and others in order successively to the red one, which was attracted least, and the last of them all. I afterwards cut out nine square pieces of gauze of the same colors with the ribbons, and having put them one after another on a hoop of wood, with leaf-gold under them, the leaf-gold was attracted through all the colored pieces of gauze, but not through the white or black. This inclined me first to think that colors contribute much to electricity, but three experiments convinced me to the contrary. The first, that by warming the pieces of gauze neither the black nor white pieces obstructed the action of the electrical tube more than those of the other colors. In like manner, the ribbons being warmed, the black and white are not more strongly attracted than the rest. The second is, the gauzes and ribbons being wetted, the ribbons are all attracted equally, and all the pieces of gauze equally intercept the action of electric bodies. The third is, that the colors of a prism being thrown on a white gauze, there appear no differences of attraction. Whence it proceeds that this difference proceeds, not from the color, as a color, but from the substances that are employed in the dyeing. For when I colored ribbons by rubbing them with charcoal, carmine, and such other substances, the differences no longer proved the same."

In connection with his experiments with his thread suspended on glass poles, Dufay noted that a certain amount of the current is lost, being given off to the surrounding air. He recommended, therefore, that the cords experimented with be wrapped with some non-conductor—that it should be "insulated" ("isolee"), as he said, first making use of this term.


It has been shown in an earlier chapter how Von Guericke discovered that light substances like feathers, after being attracted to the sulphur-ball electric-machine, were repelled by it until they touched some object. Von Guericke noted this, but failed to explain it satisfactorily. Dufay, repeating Von Guericke’s experiments, found that if, while the excited tube or sulphur ball is driving the repelled feather before it, the ball be touched or rubbed anew, the feather comes to it again, and is repelled alternately, as, the hand touches the ball, or is withdrawn. From this he concluded that electrified bodies first attract bodies not electrified, "charge" them with electricity, and then repel them, the body so charged not being attracted again until it has discharged its electricity by touching something.

"On making the experiment related by Otto von Guericke," he says, "which consists in making a ball of sulphur rendered electrical to repel a down feather, I perceived that the same effects were produced not only by the tube, but by all electric bodies whatsoever, and I discovered that which accounts for a great part of the irregularities and, if I may use the term, of the caprices that seem to accompany most of the experiments on electricity. This principle is that electric bodies attract all that are not so, and repel them as soon as they are become electric by the vicinity or contact of the electric body. Thus gold-leaf is first attracted by the tube, and acquires an electricity by approaching it, and of consequence is immediately repelled by it. Nor is it reattracted while it retains its electric quality. But if while it is thus sustained in the air it chance to light on some other body, it straightway loses its electricity, and in consequence is reattracted by the tube, which, after having given it a new electricity, repels it a second time, which continues as long as the tube keeps its electricity. Upon applying this principle to the various experiments of electricity, one will be surprised at the number of obscure and puzzling facts that it clears up. For Mr. Hauksbee’s famous experiment of the glass globe, in which silk threads are put, is a necessary consequence of it. When these threads are arranged in the form of rays by the electricity of the sides of the globe, if the finger be put near the outside of the globe the silk threads within fly from it, as is well known, which happens only because the finger or any other body applied near the glass globe is thereby rendered electrical, and consequently repels the silk threads which are endowed with the same quality. With a little reflection we may in the same manner account for most of the other phenomena, and which seem inexplicable without attending to this principle.

"Chance has thrown in my way another principle, more universal and remarkable than the preceding one, and which throws a new light on the subject of electricity. This principle is that there are two distinct electricities, very different from each other, one of which I call vitreous electricity and the other resinous electricity. The first is that of glass, rock-crystal, precious stones, hair of animals, wool, and many other bodies. The second is that of amber, copal, gumsack, silk thread, paper, and a number of other substances. The characteristic of these two electricities is that a body of the vitreous electricity, for example, repels all such as are of the same electricity, and on the contrary attracts all those of the resinous electricity; so that the tube, made electrical, will repel glass, crystal, hair of animals, etc., when rendered electric, and will attract silk thread, paper, etc., though rendered electrical likewise. Amber, on the contrary, will attract electric glass and other substances of the same class, and will repel gum-sack, copal, silk thread, etc. Two silk ribbons rendered electrical will repel each other; two woollen threads will do the like; but a woollen thread and a silken thread will mutually attract each other. This principle very naturally explains why the ends of threads of silk or wool recede from each other, in the form of pencil or broom, when they have acquired an electric quality. From this principle one may with the same ease deduce the explanation of a great number of other phenomena; and it is probable that this truth will lead us to the further discovery of many other things.

"In order to know immediately to which of the two classes of electrics belongs any body whatsoever, one need only render electric a silk thread, which is known to be of the resinuous electricity, and see whether that body, rendered electrical, attracts or repels it. If it attracts it, it is certainly of the kind of electricity which I call VITREOUS; if, on the contrary, it repels it, it is of the same kind of electricity with the silk—that is, of the RESINOUS. I have likewise observed that communicated electricity retains the same properties; for if a ball of ivory or wood be set on a glass stand, and this ball be rendered electric by the tube, it will repel such substances as the tube repels; but if it be rendered electric by applying a cylinder of gum-sack near it, it will produce quite contrary effects—namely, precisely the same as gum-sack would produce. In order to succeed in these experiments, it is requisite that the two bodies which are put near each other, to find out the nature of their electricity, be rendered as electrical as possible, for if one of them was not at all or but weakly electrical, it would be attracted by the other, though it be of that sort that should naturally be repelled by it. But the experiment will always succeed perfectly well if both bodies are sufficiently electrical."[1]

As we now know, Dufay was wrong in supposing that there were two different kinds of electricity, vitreous and resinous. A little later the matter was explained by calling one "positive" electricity and the other "negative," and it was believed that certain substances produced only the one kind peculiar to that particular substance. We shall see presently, however, that some twenty years later an English scientist dispelled this illusion by producing both positive (or vitreous) and negative (or resinous) electricity on the same tube of glass at the same time.

After the death of Dufay his work was continued by his fellow-countryman Dr. Joseph Desaguliers, who was the first experimenter to electrify running water, and who was probably the first to suggest that clouds might be electrified bodies. But about, this time—that is, just before the middle of the eighteenth century—the field of greatest experimental activity was transferred to Germany, although both England and France were still active. The two German philosophers who accomplished most at this time were Christian August Hansen and George Matthias Bose, both professors in Leipsic. Both seem to have conceived the idea, simultaneously and independently, of generating electricity by revolving globes run by belt and wheel in much the same manner as the apparatus of Hauksbee.

With such machines it was possible to generate a much greater amount of electricity than Dufay had been able to do with the rubbed tube, and so equipped, the two German professors were able to generate electric sparks and jets of fire in a most startling manner. Bose in particular had a love for the spectacular, which he turned to account with his new electrical machine upon many occasions. On one of these occasions he prepared an elaborate dinner, to which a large number of distinguished guests were invited. Before the arrival of the company, however, Bose insulated the great banquet-table on cakes of pitch, and then connected it with a huge electrical machine concealed in another room. All being ready, and the guests in their places about to be seated, Bose gave a secret signal for starting this machine, when, to the astonishment of the party, flames of fire shot from flowers, dishes, and viands, giving a most startling but beautiful display.

To add still further to the astonishment of his guests, Bose then presented a beautiful young lady, to whom each of the young men of the party was introduced. In some mysterious manner she was insulated and connected with the concealed electrical machine, so that as each gallant touched her fingertips he received an electric shock that "made him reel." Not content with this, the host invited the young men to kiss the beautiful maid. But those who were bold enough to attempt it received an electric shock that nearly "knocked their teeth out," as the professor tells it.


But Bose was only one of several German scientists who were making elaborate experiments. While Bose was constructing and experimenting with his huge machine, another German, Christian Friedrich Ludolff, demonstrated that electric sparks are actual fire—a fact long suspected but hitherto unproved. Ludolff’s discovery, as it chanced, was made in the lecture-hall of the reorganized Academy of Sciences at Berlin, before an audience of scientists and great personages, at the opening lecture in 1744.

In the course of this lecture on electricity, during which some of the well-known manifestations of electricity were being shown, it occurred to Ludolff to attempt to ignite some inflammable fluid by projecting an electric spark upon its surface with a glass rod. This idea was suggested to him while performing the familiar experiment of producing a spark on the surface of a bowl of water by touching it with a charged glass rod. He announced to his audience the experiment he was about to attempt, and having warmed a spoonful of sulphuric ether, he touched its surface with the glass rod, causing it to burst into flame. This experiment left no room for doubt that the electric spark was actual fire.

As soon as this experiment of Ludolff’s was made known to Bose, he immediately claimed that he had previously made similar demonstrations on various inflammable substances, both liquid and solid; and it seems highly probable that he had done so, as he was constantly experimenting with the sparks, and must almost certainly have set certain substances ablaze by accident, if not by intent. At all events, he carried on a series of experiments along this line to good purpose, finally succeeding in exploding gun-powder, and so making the first forerunner of the electric fuses now so universally used in blasting, firing cannon, and other similar purposes. It was Bose also who, observing some of the peculiar manifestations in electrified tubes, and noticing their resemblance to "northern lights," was one of the first, if not the first, to suggest that the aurora borealis is of electric origin.

These spectacular demonstrations had the effect of calling public attention to the fact that electricity is a most wonderful and mysterious thing, to say the least, and kept both scientists and laymen agog with expectancy. Bose himself was aflame with excitement, and so determined in his efforts to produce still stronger electric currents, that he sacrificed the tube of his twenty-foot telescope for the construction of a mammoth electrical machine. With this great machine a discharge of electricity was generated powerful enough to wound the skin when it happened to strike it.

Until this time electricity had been little more than a plaything of the scientists—or, at least, no practical use had been made of it. As it was a practising physician, Gilbert, who first laid the foundation for experimenting with the new substance, so again it was a medical man who first attempted to put it to practical use, and that in the field of his profession. Gottlieb Kruger, a professor of medicine at Halle in 1743, suggested that electricity might be of use in some branches of medicine; and the year following Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein made a first experiment to determine the effects of electricity upon the body. He found that "the action of the heart was accelerated, the circulation increased, and that muscles were made to contract by the discharge": and he began at once administering electricity in the treatment of certain diseases. He found that it acted beneficially in rheumatic affections, and that it was particularly useful in certain nervous diseases, such as palsies. This was over a century ago, and to-day about the most important use made of the particular kind of electricity with which he experimented (the static, or frictional) is for the treatment of diseases affecting the nervous system.

By the middle of the century a perfect mania for making electrical machines had spread over Europe, and the whirling, hand-rubbed globes were gradually replaced by great cylinders rubbed by woollen cloths or pads, and generating an "enormous power of electricity." These cylinders were run by belts and foot-treadles, and gave a more powerful, constant, and satisfactory current than known heretofore. While making experiments with one of these machines, Johann Heinrichs Winkler attempted to measure the speed at which electricity travels. To do this he extended a cord suspended on silk threads, with the end attached to the machine and the end which was to attract the bits of gold-leaf near enough together so that the operator could watch and measure the interval of time that elapsed between the starting of the current along the cord and its attracting the gold-leaf. The length of the cord used in this experiment was only a little over a hundred feet, and this was, of course, entirely inadequate, the current travelling that space apparently instantaneously.

The improved method of generating electricity that had come into general use made several of the scientists again turn their attention more particularly to attempt putting it to some practical account. They were stimulated to these efforts by the constant reproaches that were beginning to be heard on all sides that electricity was merely a "philosopher’s plaything." One of the first to succeed in inventing something that approached a practical mechanical contrivance was Andrew Gordon, a Scotch Benedictine monk. He invented an electric bell which would ring automatically, and a little "motor," if it may be so called. And while neither of these inventions were of any practical importance in themselves, they were attempts in the right direction, and were the first ancestors of modern electric bells and motors, although the principle upon which they worked was entirely different from modern electrical machines. The motor was simply a wheel with several protruding metal points around its rim. These points were arranged to receive an electrical discharge from a frictional machine, the discharge causing the wheel to rotate. There was very little force given to this rotation, however, not enough, in fact, to make it possible to more than barely turn the wheel itself. Two more great discoveries, galvanism and electro-magnetic induction, were necessary before the practical motor became possible.

The sober Gordon had a taste for the spectacular almost equal to that of Bose. It was he who ignited a bowl of alcohol by turning a stream of electrified water upon it, thus presenting the seeming paradox of fire produced by a stream of water. Gordon also demonstrated the power of the electrical discharge by killing small birds and animals at a distance of two hundred ells, the electricity being conveyed that distance through small wires.


As yet no one had discovered that electricity could be stored, or generated in any way other than by some friction device. But very soon two experimenters, Dean von Kleist, of Camin, Pomerania, and Pieter van Musschenbroek, the famous teacher of Leyden, apparently independently, made the discovery of what has been known ever since as the Leyden jar. And although Musschenbroek is sometimes credited with being the discoverer, there can be no doubt that Von Kleist’s discovery antedated his by a few months at least.

Von Kleist found that by a device made of a narrow-necked bottle containing alcohol or mercury, into which an iron nail was inserted, be was able to retain the charge of electricity, after electrifying this apparatus with the frictional machine. He made also a similar device, more closely resembling the modern Leyden jar, from a thermometer tube partly filled with water and a wire tipped with a ball of lead. With these devices he found that he could retain the charge of electricity for several hours, and could produce the usual electrical manifestations, even to igniting spirits, quite as well as with the frictional machine. These experiments were first made in October, 1745, and after a month of further experimenting, Von Kleist sent the following account of them to several of the leading scientists, among others, Dr. Lieberkuhn, in Berlin, and Dr. Kruger, of Halle.

"When a nail, or a piece of thick brass wire, is put into a small apothecary’s phial and electrified, remarkable effects follow; but the phial must be very dry, or warm. I commonly rub it over beforehand with a finger on which I put some pounded chalk. If a little mercury or a few drops of spirit of wine be put into it, the experiment succeeds better. As soon as this phial and nail are removed from the electrifying-glass, or the prime conductor, to which it has been exposed, is taken away, it throws out a pencil of flame so long that, with this burning machine in my hand, I have taken above sixty steps in walking about my room. When it is electrified strongly, I can take it into another room and there fire spirits of wine with it. If while it is electrifying I put my finger, or a piece of gold which I hold in my hand, to the nail, I receive a shock which stuns my arms and shoulders.

"A tin tube, or a man, placed upon electrics, is electrified much stronger by this means than in the common way. When I present this phial and nail to a tin tube, which I have, fifteen feet long, nothing but experience can make a person believe how strongly it is electrified. I am persuaded," he adds, "that in this manner Mr. Bose would not have taken a second electrical kiss. Two thin glasses have been broken by the shock of it. It appears to me very extraordinary, that when this phial and nail are in contact with either conducting or non-conducting matter, the strong shock does not follow. I have cemented it to wood, metal, glass, sealing-wax, etc., when I have electrified without any great effect. The human body, therefore, must contribute something to it. This opinion is confirmed by my observing that unless I hold the phial in my hand I cannot fire spirits of wine with it."[2]

But it seems that none of the men who saw this account were able to repeat the experiment and produce the effects claimed by Von Kleist, and probably for this reason the discovery of the obscure Pomeranian was for a time lost sight of.

Musschenbroek’s discovery was made within a short time after Von Kleist’s—in fact, only a matter of about two months later. But the difference in the reputations of the two discoverers insured a very different reception for their discoveries. Musschenbroek was one of the foremost teachers of Europe, and so widely known that the great universities vied with each other, and kings were bidding, for his services. Naturally, any discovery made by such a famous person would soon be heralded from one end of Europe to the other. And so when this professor of Leyden made his discovery, the apparatus came to be called the "Leyden jar," for want of a better name. There can be little doubt that Musschenbroek made his discovery entirely independently of any knowledge of Von Kleist’s, or, for that matter, without ever having heard of the Pomeranian, and his actions in the matter are entirely honorable.

His discovery was the result of an accident. While experimenting to determine the strength of electricity he suspended a gun-barrel, which he charged with electricity from a revolving glass globe. From the end of the gun-barrel opposite the globe was a brass wire, which extended into a glass jar partly filled with water. Musschenbroek held in one hand this jar, while with the other he attempted to draw sparks from the barrel. Suddenly he received a shock in the hand holding the jar, that "shook him like a stroke of lightning," and for a moment made him believe that "he was done for." Continuing his experiments, nevertheless, he found that if the jar were placed on a piece of metal on the table, a shock would be received by touching this piece of metal with one hand and touching the wire with the other—that is, a path was made for the electrical discharge through the body. This was practically the same experiment as made by Von Kleist with his bottle and nail, but carried one step farther, as it showed that the "jar" need not necessarily be held in the hand, as believed by Von Kleist. Further experiments, continued by many philosophers at the time, revealed what Von Kleist had already pointed out, that the electrified jar remained charged for some time.

Soon after this Daniel Gralath, wishing to obtain stronger discharges than could be had from a single Leyden jar, conceived the idea of combining several jars, thus for the first time grouping the generators in a "battery" which produced a discharge strong enough to kill birds and small animals. He also attempted to measure the strength of the discharges, but soon gave it up in despair, and the solution of this problem was left for late nineteenth-century scientists.

The advent of the Leyden jar, which made it possible to produce strong electrical discharges from a small and comparatively simple device, was followed by more spectacular demonstrations of various kinds all over Europe. These exhibitions aroused the interest of the kings and noblemen, so that electricity no longer remained a "plaything of the philosophers" alone, but of kings as well. A favorite demonstration was that of sending the electrical discharge through long lines of soldiers linked together by pieces of wire, the discharge causing them to "spring into the air simultaneously" in a most astonishing manner. A certain monk in Paris prepared a most elaborate series of demonstrations for the amusement of the king, among other things linking together an entire regiment of nine hundred men, causing them to perform simultaneous springs and contortions in a manner most amusing to the royal guests. But not all the experiments being made were of a purely spectacular character, although most of them accomplished little except in a negative way. The famous Abbe Nollet, for example, combined useful experiments with spectacular demonstrations, thus keeping up popular interest while aiding the cause of scientific electricity.


Naturally, the new discoveries made necessary a new nomenclature, new words and electrical terms being constantly employed by the various writers of that day. Among these writers was the English scientist William Watson, who was not only a most prolific writer but a tireless investigator. Many of the words coined by him are now obsolete, but one at least, "circuit," still remains in use.

In 1746, a French scientist, Louis Guillaume le Monnier, bad made a circuit including metal and water by laying a chain half-way around the edge of a pond, a man at either end holding it. One of these men dipped his free hand in the water, the other presenting a Leyden jar to a rod suspended on a cork float on the water, both men receiving a shock simultaneously. Watson, a year later, attempted the same experiment on a larger scale. He laid a wire about twelve hundred feet long across Westminster Bridge over the Thames, bringing the ends to the water’s edge on the opposite banks, a man at one end holding the wire and touching the water. A second man on the opposite side held the wire and a Leyden jar; and a third touched the jar with one hand, while with the other he grasped a wire that extended into the river. In this way they not only received the shock, but fired alcohol as readily across the stream as could be done in the laboratory. In this experiment Watson discovered the superiority of wire over chain as a conductor, rightly ascribing this superiority to the continuity of the metal.

Watson continued making similar experiments over longer watercourses, some of them as long as eight thousand feet, and while engaged in making one of these he made the discovery so essential to later inventions, that the earth could be used as part of the circuit in the same manner as bodies of water. Lengthening his wires he continued his experiments until a circuit of four miles was made, and still the electricity seemed to traverse the course instantaneously, and with apparently undiminished force, if the insulation was perfect.


Watson’s writings now carried the field of active discovery across the Atlantic, and for the first time an American scientist appeared—a scientist who not only rivalled, but excelled, his European contemporaries. Benjamin Franklin, of Philadelphia, coming into possession of some of Watson’s books, became so interested in the experiments described in them that he began at once experimenting with electricity. In Watson’s book were given directions for making various experiments, and these assisted Franklin in repeating the old experiments, and eventually adding new ones. Associated with Franklin, and equally interested and enthusiastic, if not equally successful in making discoveries, were three other men, Thomas Hopkinson, Philip Sing, and Ebenezer Kinnersley. These men worked together constantly, although it appears to have been Franklin who made independently the important discoveries, and formulated the famous Franklinian theory.

Working steadily, and keeping constantly in touch with the progress of the European investigators, Franklin soon made some experiments which he thought demonstrated some hitherto unknown phases of electrical manifestation. This was the effect of pointed bodies "in DRAWING OFF and THROWING OFF the electrical fire." In his description of this phenomenon, Franklin writes:

"Place an iron shot of three or four inches diameter on the mouth of a clean, dry, glass bottle. By a fine silken thread from the ceiling right over the mouth of the bottle, suspend a small cork ball, about the bigness of a marble; the thread of such a length that the cork ball may rest against the side of the shot. Electrify the shot, and the ball will be repelled to the distance of four or five inches, more or less, according to the quantity of electricity. When in this state, if you present to the shot the point of a long, slender shaft-bodkin, at six or eight inches distance, the repellency is instantly destroyed, and the cork flies to the shot. A blunt body must be brought within an inch, and draw a spark, to produce the same effect.

"To prove that the electrical fire is DRAWN OFF by the point, if you take the blade of the bodkin out of the wooden handle and fix it in a stick of sealing-wax, and then present it at the distance aforesaid, or if you bring it very near, no such effect follows; but sliding one finger along the wax till you touch the blade, and the ball flies to the shot immediately. If you present the point in the dark you will see, sometimes at a foot distance, and more, a light gather upon it like that of a fire-fly or glow-worm; the less sharp the point, the nearer you must bring it to observe the light; and at whatever distance you see the light, you may draw off the electrical fire and destroy the repellency. If a cork ball so suspended be repelled by the tube, and a point be presented quick to it, though at a considerable distance, ’tis surprising to see how suddenly it flies back to the tube. Points of wood will do as well as those of iron, provided the wood is not dry; for perfectly dry wood will no more conduct electricity than sealing-wax.

"To show that points will THROW OFF as well as DRAW OFF the electrical fire, lay a long, sharp needle upon the shot, and you cannot electrify the shot so as to make it repel the cork ball. Or fix a needle to the end of a suspended gun-barrel or iron rod, so as to point beyond it like a little bayonet, and while it remains there, the gun-barrel or rod cannot, by applying the tube to the other end, be electrified so as to give a spark, the fire continually running out silently at the point. In the dark you may see it make the same appearance as it does in the case before mentioned."[3]

Von Guericke, Hauksbee, and Gray had noticed that pointed bodies attracted electricity in a peculiar manner, but this demonstration of the "drawing off" of "electrical fire" was original with Franklin. Original also was the theory that he now suggested, which had at least the merit of being thinkable even by non-philosophical minds. It assumes that electricity is like a fluid, that will flow along conductors and accumulate in proper receptacles, very much as ordinary fluids do. This conception is probably entirely incorrect, but nevertheless it is likely to remain a popular one, at least outside of scientific circles, or until something equally tangible is substituted.


According to Franklin’s theory, electricity exists in all bodies as a "common stock," and tends to seek and remain in a state of equilibrium, just as fluids naturally tend to seek a level. But it may, nevertheless, be raised or lowered, and this equilibrium be thus disturbed. If a body has more electricity than its normal amount it is said to be POSITIVELY electrified; but if it has less, it is NEGATIVELY electrified. An over-electrified or "plus" body tends to give its surplus stock to a body containing the normal amount; while the "minus" or under-electrified body will draw electricity from one containing the normal amount.

Working along lines suggested by this theory, Franklin attempted to show that electricity is not created by friction, but simply collected from its diversified state, the rubbed glass globe attracting a certain quantity of "electrical fire," but ever ready to give it up to any body that has less. He explained the charged Leyden jar by showing that the inner coating of tin-foil received more than the ordinary quantity of electricity, and in consequence is POSITIVELY electrified, while the outer coating, having the ordinary quantity of electricity diminished, is electrified NEGATIVELY.

These studies of the Leyden jar, and the studies of pieces of glass coated with sheet metal, led Franklin to invent his battery, constructed of eleven large glass plates coated with sheets of lead. With this machine, after overcoming some defects, he was able to produce electrical manifestations of great force—a force that "knew no bounds," as he declared ("except in the matter of expense and of labor"), and which could be made to exceed "the greatest know effects of common lightning."

This reference to lightning would seem to show Franklin’s belief, even at that time, that lightning is electricity. Many eminent observers, such as Hauksbee, Wall, Gray, and Nollet, had noticed the resemblance between electric sparks and lightning, but none of these had more than surmised that the two might be identical. In 1746, the surgeon, John Freke, also asserted his belief in this identity. Winkler, shortly after this time, expressed the same belief, and, assuming that they were the same, declared that "there is no proof that they are of different natures"; and still he did not prove that they were the same nature.


Even before Franklin proved conclusively the nature of lightning, his experiments in drawing off the electric charge with points led to some practical suggestions which resulted in the invention of the lightning-rod. In the letter of July, 1750, which he wrote on the subject, he gave careful instructions as to the way in which these rods might be constructed. In part Franklin wrote: "May not the knowledge of this power of points be of use to mankind in preserving houses, churches, ships, etc., from the stroke of lightning by directing us to fix on the highest parts of the edifices upright rods of iron made sharp as a needle, and gilt to prevent rusting, and from the foot of these rods a wire down the outside of the building into the grounds, or down round one of the shrouds of a ship and down her side till it reaches the water? Would not these pointed rods probably draw the electrical fire silently out of a cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible mischief?

"To determine this question, whether the clouds that contain the lightning are electrified or not, I propose an experiment to be tried where it may be done conveniently. On the top of some high tower or steeple, place a kind of sentry-box, big enough to contain a man and an electrical stand. From the middle of the stand let an iron rod rise and pass, bending out of the door, and then upright twenty or thirty feet, pointed very sharp at the end. If the electrical stand be kept clean and dry, a man standing on it when such clouds are passing low might be electrified and afford sparks, the rod drawing fire to him from a cloud. If any danger to the man be apprehended (though I think there would be none), let him stand on the floor of his box and now and then bring near to the rod the loop of a wire that has one end fastened to the leads, he holding it by a wax handle; so the sparks, if the rod is electrified, will strike from the rod to the wire and not effect him."[4]

Not satisfied with all the evidence that he had collected pointing to the identity of lightning and electricity, he adds one more striking and very suggestive piece of evidence. Lightning was known sometimes to strike persons blind without killing them. In experimenting on pigeons and pullets with his electrical machine, Franklin found that a fowl, when not killed outright, was sometimes rendered blind. The report of these experiments were incorporated in this famous letter of the Philadelphia philosopher.

The attitude of the Royal Society towards this clearly stated letter, with its useful suggestions, must always remain as a blot on the record of this usually very receptive and liberal-minded body. Far from publishing it or receiving it at all, they derided the whole matter as too visionary for discussion by the society. How was it possible that any great scientific discovery could be made by a self-educated colonial newspaper editor, who knew nothing of European science except by hearsay, when all the great scientific minds of Europe had failed to make the discovery? How indeed! And yet it would seem that if any of the influential members of the learned society had taken the trouble to read over Franklin’s clearly stated letter, they could hardly have failed to see that his suggestions were worthy of consideration. But at all events, whether they did or did not matters little. The fact remains that they refused to consider the paper seriously at the time; and later on, when its true value became known, were obliged to acknowledge their error by a tardy report on the already well-known document.

But if English scientists were cold in their reception of Franklin’s theory and suggestions, the French scientists were not. Buffon, perceiving at once the importance of some of Franklin’s experiments, took steps to have the famous letter translated into French, and soon not only the savants, but members of the court and the king himself were intensely interested. Two scientists, De Lor and D’Alibard, undertook to test the truth of Franklin’s suggestions as to pointed rods "drawing off lightning." In a garden near Paris, the latter erected a pointed iron rod fifty feet high and an inch in diameter. As no thunder-clouds appeared for several days, a guard was stationed, armed with an insulated brass wire, who was directed to test the iron rods with it in case a storm came on during D’Alibard’s absence. The storm did come on, and the guard, not waiting for his employer’s arrival, seized the wire and touched the rod. Instantly there was a report. Sparks flew and the guard received such a shock that he thought his time had come. Believing from his outcry that he was mortally hurt, his friends rushed for a spiritual adviser, who came running through rain and hail to administer the last rites; but when he found the guard still alive and uninjured, he turned his visit to account by testing the rod himself several times, and later writing a report of his experiments to M. d’Alibard. This scientist at once reported the affair to the French Academy, remarking that "Franklin’s idea was no longer a conjecture, but a reality."


Europe, hitherto somewhat sceptical of Franklin’s views, was by this time convinced of the identity of lightning and electricity. It was now Franklin’s turn to be sceptical. To him the fact that a rod, one hundred feet high, became electrified during a storm did not necessarily prove that the storm-clouds were electrified. A rod of that length was not really projected into the cloud, for even a very low thunder-cloud was more than a hundred feet above the ground. Irrefutable proof could only be had, as he saw it, by "extracting" the lightning with something actually sent up into the storm-cloud; and to accomplish this Franklin made his silk kite, with which he finally demonstrated to his own and the world’s satisfaction that his theory was correct.

Taking his kite out into an open common on the approach of a thunder-storm, he flew it well up into the threatening clouds, and then, touching, the suspended key with his knuckle, received the electric spark; and a little later he charged a Leyden jar from the electricity drawn from the clouds with his kite.

In a brief but direct letter, he sent an account of his kite and his experiment to England:

"Make a small cross of two light strips of cedar," he wrote, "the arms so long as to reach to the four corners of a large, thin, silk handkerchief when extended; tie the corners of the handkerchief to the extremities of the cross so you have the body of a kite; which being properly accommodated with a tail, loop, and string, will rise in the air like those made of paper; but this being of silk is fitter to bear the wind and wet of a thunder-gust without tearing. To the top of the upright stick of the cross is to be fixed a very sharp-pointed wire, rising a foot or more above the wood. To the end of the twine, next the hand, is to be tied a silk ribbon; where the silk and twine join a key may be fastened. This kite is to be raised when a thunder-gust appears to be coming on, and the person who holds the string must stand within a door or window or under some cover, so that the silk ribbon may not be wet; and care must be taken that the twine does not touch the frame of the door or window. As soon as any of the thunder-clouds come over the kite, the pointed wire will draw the electric fire from them, and the kite, with all the twine, will be electrified and the loose filaments will stand out everywhere and be attracted by the approaching finger, and when the rain has wet the kite and twine so that it can conduct the electric fire freely, you will find it stream out plentifully from the key on the approach of your knuckle, and with this key the phial may be charged; and from electric fire thus obtained spirits may be kindled and all other electric experiments performed which are usually done by the help of a rubbed glass globe or tube, and thereby the sameness of the electric matter with that of lightning completely demonstrated."[5]

In experimenting with lightning and Franklin’s pointed rods in Europe, several scientists received severe shocks, in one case with a fatal result. Professor Richman, of St. Petersburg, while experimenting during a thunder-storm, with an iron rod which he had erected on his house, received a shock that killed him instantly.

About 1733, as we have seen, Dufay had demonstrated that there were two apparently different kinds of electricity; one called VITREOUS because produced by rubbing glass, and the other RESINOUS because produced by rubbed resinous bodies. Dufay supposed that these two apparently different electricities could only be produced by their respective substances; but twenty years later, John Canton (1715-1772), an Englishman, demonstrated that under certain conditions both might be produced by rubbing the same substance. Canton’s experiment, made upon a glass tube with a roughened surface, proved that if the surface of the tube were rubbed with oiled silk, vitreous or positive electricity was produced, but if rubbed with flannel, resinous electricity was produced. He discovered still further that both kinds could be excited on the same tube simultaneously with a single rubber. To demonstrate this he used a tube, one-half of which had a roughened the other a glazed surface. With a single stroke of the rubber he was able to excite both kinds of electricity on this tube. He found also that certain substances, such as glass and amber, were electrified positively when taken out of mercury, and this led to his important discovery that an amalgam of mercury and tin, when used on the surface of the rubber, was very effective in exciting glass.


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Chicago: Henry Smith Williams, "XIV. Progress in Electricity from Gilbert and Von Guericke to Franklin," A History of Science— Volume 2: The Beginnings of Modern Science, ed. Darwin, Francis, Sir, 1848-1925 and Seward, A. C. (Albert Charles), 1863-1941 and trans. Miall, Bernard in A History of Science—Volume 2: The Beginnings of Modern Science Original Sources, accessed April 19, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CMYJ31WP4UUQPSV.

MLA: Williams, Henry Smith. "XIV. Progress in Electricity from Gilbert and Von Guericke to Franklin." A History of Science— Volume 2: The Beginnings of Modern Science, edited by Darwin, Francis, Sir, 1848-1925 and Seward, A. C. (Albert Charles), 1863-1941, and translated by Miall, Bernard, in A History of Science—Volume 2: The Beginnings of Modern Science, Original Sources. 19 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CMYJ31WP4UUQPSV.

Harvard: Williams, HS, 'XIV. Progress in Electricity from Gilbert and Von Guericke to Franklin' in A History of Science— Volume 2: The Beginnings of Modern Science, ed. and trans. . cited in , A History of Science—Volume 2: The Beginnings of Modern Science. Original Sources, retrieved 19 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CMYJ31WP4UUQPSV.