HISTORY: Franklin and the Fire From Heaven

Sat, 30 Aug 1997 07:49:27 -0400 (EDT)

I am currently reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin, Esmond Wright's
"Franklin of Philadelphia" 1986 Harvard U. Press, as part of my on-going
study of the 18th century Enlightenment as a rich lesson-plan for extropians
and the transhumanist movement. Naturally, Wright recounts Franklin's
scientific and engineering work with electricity as a pivotal part of
Franklin's life story. Every American elementary school student absorbs the
image of Franklin as a dabbler with kites and thunderstorms, but may not
learn that in fact Franklin was really a person who "found electricity a
curiosity and left it a science," in Carl Van Doren's phrase. His 1751
pamphlet, "Experiments and Observations on Electricity at Philadelphia in
America", was the most systematic account of electrical phenomena to date and
electrified (ahem) the European intellectual establishment with its
systematic debunking of the then-current (ahem) "two-fluid" theory of
electricity. Among Franklin's contributions to what we would call physics
was the experimentally confirmed development of a theory of positive and
negative charge and also of a systematic vocabulary of the phenomenon. He
can be credited with either coining or regularizing the use of the terms
armature, battery, brush, charge, condense, electrify, Leyden bottle, and

Ever the practical man, Franklin was definitely the developer of the
lightning rod as an architectural element, and he worked vigorously for the
use of lightning rods to protect buildings and shipping. Lightning being a
traditional symbol of divine retribution, the increasing use of the lightning
rod during the middle years of the 18th century became a, well, lightning rod
of contention and a symbolic rallying point for those who we can today
rightly see as the precursors of modern humanistic and scientific
materialism. As Wright puts it, lightning rods became a "test of
enlightenment among men." Traditional religious thinkers condemned the
lightning rod as a "presumption against God", an "intervention in God's
purpose". Thus, debates about such things are not new to our time, and the
ultimate power of humanistic utility a goal not only of our own age.

An interesting historical aside and irony can be found in the lightning rod
debate. Apparently quite a few communities still dominated by religious
superstition actually outlawed the use of lightning rods. Saint Omer in
France was one of these. When M. De Vissery de Boise-Vale sought to protect
his home with a lightning rod in the 1780s, his neighbors tore it down,
supported by a local ordinance. A celebrated court case followed in which M.
De Vissery de Boise-Vale was supported by the more progressive members of the
French scientific community. And who were the lawyers in the case? For the
prosecution, none other than Jean-Paul Marat; and for the defense, none other
than Maximilien Robespierre. Of course, in these two figures we can later
see the bloody dangers of radicalism in any cause: In Marat the tyranny of
the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, and in Robespierre the dangerous
knife-edge of an overconfidence borne of an uncritical belief in one's own

Greg Burch <Gburch1@aol.com>----<burchg@liddellsapp.com>
Attorney ::: Director, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide
http://users.aol.com/gburch1 -or- http://members.aol.com/gburch1
"Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must
be driven into practice with courageous impatience."
-- Admiral Hyman G. Rickover