Friday, March 16, 2012

While I'm thinking about Benjamin Franklin...

Most American's know Franklin as a genial grandfather sort of guy, who invented bifocals, flew a kite, and wrote quaint adages ("Early to bed, early to rise…").

During his lifetime, as today, he was best known to Europeans as the author of Experiments and Observations on Electricity (1751), in which, as much as anyone, he transformed a parlor curiosity into a science. It was Franklin who coined such terms as positive and negative charge, conductor, condenser, and so on.

Parlor curiosity? The court electrician of Louis XV of France once sent an electric shock through 180 soldiers holding hands in a chain, causing them to jump in unison, to the delight of the king. And, as if that were not entertainment enough, he then did the same thing with 700 monks, to the king's amusement. Or so says Gordon Wood in his biography of Franklin. Fun!

It would be a half-century before Faraday, Ampere, and others turned electricity to practical use, and another century before one could flick a switch in an ordinary home and have the mysterious monk-jumping force at one's beck and call.

Surely, few discoveries and inventions of humankind have had more effect on the social order than the harnessing of electricity. No more royal courts with the lavish power to make hundreds of soldiers and monks jump in unison. No more upstairs/downstairs. The flick of a switch gave every domicile a staff of invisible servants, to trim and light the lamps, lay and tend the fires, warm the bath, wash the clothes.

Electricity was the great leveler. Thanks, Ben.