Benjamin Franklin in Europe: electrician, academician, politician

J.L Heilbron

Le canard est une trouvaille de Franklin, qui a inventé le paratonnerre, le canard, et la république.Balzac, in Alfred Owen Aldridge, Franklin and his French contemporaries (New York University Press, 1957), p. 95.I am pleased and honoured to be here tonight as the Royal Society's Wilkins Lecturer for 2006. It is a congenial lectureship, among other reasons because it leaves the topic open. Mine was not hard to find: it concerns a Fellow the 300th anniversary of whose birth occurred earlier this year; who was simultaneously a philosopher and a politician; and, at different times, an Englishman and an American. We are lucky that he was also forbearing. For it was well known during the America's little difference with the English over the governance of the 13 colonies that he had made an infernal machine the size of a toothpick case that could have reduced St Paul's Cathedral to ashes in an instant.1

Benjamin Franklin lived to be four score and four years old, to father a country, and to accomplish enough in public service, natural science, practical invention and whimsical writing to fill several ordinary lifetimes and an entire course of lectures. From this cornucopia I have taken as my subject relations between his science and his politics during the quarter century he spent in England and in France between the ages of 50 and 80.

When he began his extended stay in Europe, Franklin was already famous as the inventor of the system of plus and minus electricity and of the first practical application of electrical science, the lightning rod. He had made his discoveries in electricity during the first three years after his retirement from active business at the immature age of 42. Earning the means to retire early was in itself a great accomplishment. Franklin arrived in Philadelphia, where he would make his career, as a runaway apprentice from Boston, with little more than threepence to his name and only his skill with words—setting them as a printer and writing them as a wag—as his capital.2 He eventually set up his own printing house and cornered the lucrative almanac market by publishing an astrological prediction of the death of his main competitor. The ill-fated rival continued to publish his almanac, confirming the prophecy; for, said Franklin, ‘no Man living would or could write such Stuff’.3

Franklin's almanac, issued under the pseudonym of Poor Richard, is still read for its racy adages and sententious sayings. As with the gambit against the rival astrologer, which he borrowed from Swift, Franklin distilled most of his sayings from earlier writers. Where they had wine, he had spirit. ‘One good husband is worth two good wives,’ Poor Richard calculated, ‘for the scarcer things are the more they'r valued.’ This reasoning is a good example of what Franklin later called ‘prudential algebra’, a method for weighing the merits of opposing arguments.4 ‘Neither a fortress nor a maidenhead will hold out long after they begin to parley.’ Franklin tested this adage from time to time and learned to his disappointment that it was not always true, even in Paris.5

Printing and the almanac were not Franklin's only way to wealth. I shall not attempt to list the ways, but I can say that he did not grow rich by following Poor Richard's priggish advice to practice abstinence, court diligence and marry frugality. But he took the trouble to identify his rise with the exercise of these virtues, and also of patience. Try as he might, however, he never could acquire modesty, although he managed to obtain enough, he thought, to give ‘the Appearance of it’.6 In his last number of Poor Richard, composed as he travelled to England in 1756, he repeated his guide to life in a concatenation of previous adages (‘little strokes fell great oaks’, ‘early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise’) placed in the mouth of one Father Abraham. This address was perhaps the most important political speech Franklin ever wrote. Its French translation, published just as he began his mission to Paris, helped make his public image in France and eased his acceptance at court. Later, after destroying the court, the French revolutionaries, through their Committee on Public Instruction, considered making Father Abraham's address mandatory reading in the new republic's school curriculum. Only the French seemed to have perceived this nonsense as a source of ‘profound morality’. To many Britons it appeared to be ‘a heap … of mean and thrifty maxims’.7

As Poor Richard might have said, the devil makes work for idle hands. Franklin turned his hands to colonial politics. He went to England in 1757 not to collect the medal the Royal Society had awarded to him in absentia for his discoveries in electricity, but to represent the Pennsylvania Assembly in its struggle against the selfish Proprietor of the colony, Thomas and Richard Penn. Although Franklin made little progress in his mission, he became a great admirer of the British and their empire, and participated fully in the scientific and social life of the Royal Society. After a brief interlude at home, he returned to England hoping to remove the Proprietors and make Pennsylvania into a Crown colony. This failed altogether. After a public humiliation before the Privy Council, Franklin set sail for America in 1775, a political as well as a scientific revolutionary.

Six months after the colonies declared their independence, he was back in Europe as an envoy to Paris. Now his political purpose was to forge a commercial treaty, and perhaps something more, between France and the newly declared United States of America. He succeeded brilliantly, partly because his fame as a philosopher gave him informal access to salons and ministers, and partly because his failure as a diplomat in England had taught him the value of patience and dissimulation.

I have divided my lecture into four parts. The first describes the quite different receptions of Franklin's first publication of his ideas about electricity in France and in England, and his association with the Royal Society and its leading scientific Fellows during his first residence in London as colonial agent. The second part chronicles the sad end of his romance with England; the third, his glorification in France; and the fourth, his reputation in Europe as a fomenter of revolutions. This short concluding part centres on another royal society owing allegiance to the King of England and composed largely of Fellows of the Royal Society of London. This was the Königliche Societät der Wissenschaften of Göttingen, which figured among the scientific holdings of the learned Georges through their possession of the Electorate of Hanover.8

Staunch fellow

Franklin took Europe by storm. The storm occurred on 10 May 1752, some five years before he arrived in person. Following instructions in his book, Experiments and observations on electricity, published in London in 1751, and a successful repetition of the most impressive of its demonstrations before Louis XV, some bold souls ran an iron pole into the sky, rested its bottom on an insulating table, and drew sparks from it when thunder sounded (figure 1). (The sticks and stays support the heavy pole, and the shed shields the insulated end from the rain; the roof is high enough for a man to stand under.) The installation was only marginally safer than the military machine Franklin had proposed (figure 2).9

Figure 1

Buffon's lightning detector, 1752. BF, Expériences et observations sur l'électricité (transl. François Dalibard) (2nd edn, 2 vols; Paris, 1756).

Figure 2

Franklin's lightning detector, 1751. EO.

Two remarkable features of this foolhardy experiment deserve notice. It detected electrical disturbances in the lower atmosphere, not a lightning stroke, which would have martyred the experimenters; and it took place in France. This display of Gallic courage gained its strength from academic politics. When Franklin's book came to hand, the young Comte de Buffon, an admirer of English science and an ambitious naturalist, popularizer and administrator, was at daggers drawn with his distinguished senior, René de Réaumur, he of the thermometer, no friend to Newtonian physics, an exacting naturalist, and a dominant force in the Académie royale des sciences. Buffon saw that Franklin's ideas about electricity, if correct, could destroy the main French electrical system, devised by Réaumur's protégé the abbé Nollet.10

The set-up costs for the crucial experiment were not great. Buffon hired a dispensable old soldier to attend the apparatus and a priest to help out as needed. The fearless dragoon drew a few big sparks from the pole (figure 3). The priest ran up, found his man unharmed, and made several further attempts himself, reciting Pater Nosters and Ave Marias to rout the danger and time the flashes. For his presumption, the god of electrical fire branded his shoulder.11 The performance of the soldier and the priest had the desired effect of promoting Buffon's clique, weakening Réaumur's, and introducing to France a noble savage, a backwoods aboriginal genius, to knock out the abbé Nollet. King Louis sent Franklin a note of appreciation.12 The Fellows of the Royal Society received the news of Buffon's experiment with their customary enthusiasm for novelty and considerable irritation that they had not tried it first.

Figure 3

The soldier and the priest, 1867. Louis Figuier, Les merveilles de la science, p. 521 (Paris).

They had had plenty of opportunity. Franklin's letters on electricity, addressed to his London correspondent Peter Collinson FRS, had been read aloud at the Society's meetings as they arrived. However, the polite hearing they received did not inspire follow-on research, perhaps because the Society's leading electrician, the apothecary William Watson, had then recently put forward a theory superficially similar to Franklin's system of plus and minus electricity. Concluding that their colonial correspondent had been very clever to work out for himself an approximation to Watson's sophisticated theory, the Fellows complacently ignored him until enlightened by reports of the sparks in France.13 Then several of them, heedless of danger in the pursuit of knowledge, ran pointed poles up their chimneys in the hope of catching a thunderbolt.

Alas! The English summer was, as usual, unusually cool and damp; lightning struck London only once, in July. Watson was prepared, but got not the slightest glimmer for his pains. Across town another member of the Society, John Canton, a school teacher, extracted a few feeble sparks from a tin tube topped by a pin and fixed in a glass stick, the entire baton scarcely reaching to five feet, a paltry apparatus indeed compared with Buffon's. The comparison gives an exact measure of the relative investments in science of the kings of Britain and of France. It may also indicate the long-term advantage of the self-reliance of the gentlemen of the Royal Society. Visiting France 20 years after Buffon's experiment, Franklin remarked that neither Nollet nor Buffon's men had equipment good enough to demonstrate the contrary electricities effectively.14

A third Fellow, Benjamin Wilson, who will be a protagonist of my story, did only a little better than Canton. It happened to thunder while Wilson was acting the part of Henry IV in an amateur theatrical. Seizing the opportunity—and also a curtain rod, which he thrust into a glass bottle—he ran outside in his royal robes, pointing his new sceptre at the sky. He and his fellow actors then amused themselves harvesting sparklets from the rod with their knuckles. These effects, ‘trifling’ (as Watson put it) in comparison with the son et lumière reported from France, were all the Royal Society could collect from the uncooperative English weather for a year or more after the priest and the dragoon captured the first electrical fire humankind intentionally drew from Heaven.15

Eventually it lightened enough in England to allow confirmation of Buffon's results. Meanwhile, Canton and others had repeated the experiments on plus and minus electricity, and the Society gained the confidence to award Franklin the Copley Medal and elect him a Fellow, without charging him the usual fees as he had not requested the honour.16 Although his business in England did not allow him time to continue systematic experiments, he kept current by advising and helping fellow electricians. I shall give you two examples of his interventions.

The first involved Wilson, a portrait painter by trade, shown here as rendered by himself (figure 4). He and Franklin had much in common. They were the 14th and 15th offspring of their respective fathers and no doubt named Benjamin in the hope that they would be the last. Wilson's early years, during which he began to learn to paint, were spent in easy circumstances; but his father lost his fortune and Wilson, like Franklin, began in poverty, with wits and manual skill as his patrimony. They naturally gravitated together.

Figure 4

Benjamin Wilson, n.d. (Reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.)

Wilson painted his friend's portrait and a matching one of his friend's wife, which he copied from an original made in America because Mrs Franklin steadfastly refused to cross the Atlantic. The paintings were hanging in Franklin's house in Philadelphia when the British occupied it during the Revolution. Unable to apprehend Franklin, they stole his portrait, which was returned in 1906, in observance of the 200th anniversary of his birth.17 Centennials need not be empty events. Franklin's admiration of Wilson's paintings did not extend to Wilson's ideas about electricity, which he criticized in detail. Wilson acknowledged the justice of Franklin's criticism, bore no grudges, and signed himself ‘yours most affectionately’ in the first letter anyone ever addressed to ‘Dr Franklin’.18 (The University of Saint Andrews had made Franklin a doctor of laws in 1759, two months before Wilson declared his affection.19) The sentiment did not last.

The second bit of electrical business had to do with stockings. One cold day Robert Symmer FRS put on a pair of silk socks, one black and one white, on each foot. When he took them off and separated them, each swelled as if it still contained a leg. Symmer worked out that while walking he had electrified his stockings, the white plus, the black minus; and he applied to Franklin for the loan of more conventional apparatus to continue his investigation. He managed to charge a condenser with silk stockings, although there are easier ways to do it; and he deduced from the swelling of the black socks that negative charge had as good a claim to materiality as positive charge. Symmer's theory of two electrical fluids came to dominate on the continent while English electricians, even Tory ones, remained true to Franklin's single fluid. This was a pity: had Britons known then what they know now about the social construction of science, they could have made the number of electrical fluids a matter of politics.20

While Symmer studied his socks, most wits and philosophers about town were caught up in the business that had brought Franklin to London, the Seven Years War, or, as it was known in America, the French and Indian War.21 There were other theatres (as military actors like to say) as well, namely India, West Africa and the Caribbean. Britain had to maintain a global army and navy, mobilize colonists against the French, and pay Prussians to protect Hanover. No wonder most knowledgeable Britons were riveted on this first modern world war: it threatened to bankrupt them. The colonists also felt the pinch. Franklin had come to England to persuade the Penns to pay their fair share of the defence of Pennsylvania.

Thomas Penn (who decided the Proprietor's policy) took 16 months to reply to the petition submitted to him. The reply was not generous. Penn agreed to pay taxes, but not on unimproved or unsurveyed land, which constituted most of his holdings, and he refused to have anything further to do with Benjamin Franklin.22 The Lord President of the Privy Council behaved with even greater insolence. He granted Franklin an interview in which he expatiated on the duty of the colonists to obey the decrees carefully designed for their wellbeing by the sages who ran the Empire under the beneficent eye of the King.23 Thus the lord addressed the doctor. Franklin should not have expected much synergy between his philosophical and political personae. Had Poor Richard not written, ‘He that would rise at court must begin by creeping’? And Penn had been good enough to make a similar observation. Franklin would be mistaken, Penn remarked, if he thought that his reputation as a savant would help him in England with the people who really counted.24 For Franklin those who counted were the scientific Fellows of the Royal Society, members of the Royal Society Club, British men of letters, and the Club of Honest Whigs.25 They weighed as little as he did in the scales of the Proprietor of Pennsylvania.

Feigning respect for people he despised taxed Franklin mentally and physically. He improved his health and temper by listening to music played on wine glasses. Inspiration followed. He married the musical glasses to an electrical machine by replacing its single globe by many thin plates that played the part of the glasses.26 He called this instrument, perfected in 1761, a glass armonica. Even the stingy Proprietor thought it admirable. That was because Franklin spent his mornings playing it and performing experiments, and so could do the Penns no mischief before lunch.27

Colonial in the cockpit

The great debt incurred during the world war that ended in 1763 had to be paid. Parliament decided to defray some of it by taxing the colonists without their permission. It began with a tax on every piece of printed paper sold in the colonies. Franklin helped to secure the repeal of this Stamp Act and Wilson celebrated the victory in a widely appreciated satirical cartoon of mourning ministers in a funeral procession.28 The mourners turned to taxes on imports and eventually to the notorious duty on tea. The colonial cuppa turned to gall and wormwood. The bitter taste set the table for the Boston tea party, at which the outraged citizens of Massachusetts prepared their favourite beverage by throwing the tea cargoes of British ships into Boston Harbour.

News of the Boston tea party reached England in January 1774. Meanwhile Massachusetts had named Franklin its agent and Franklin had obtained the private correspondence of its governor advocating repressive measures against the colonists. Franklin sent the correspondence to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, which petitioned the Crown for the removal of the offending official. Just after the bad news from Boston arrived, Franklin attended the Cockpit of the Privy Council, so called because it had been built on the site of a cock-fighting pitch, to hear the debate on the petition of the Massachusetts House. The Solicitor General, Alexander Wedderburn, devoted an hour of his time to abusing Franklin for stealing the governor's letters.29 Franklin was a thief. He had purloined and published a private correspondence. He had libelled the noble title of ‘man of letters’; he had acted the part of the ‘prime conductor’ in an infamous affair. He was no gentleman. Franklin bore the excoriation in silence. Back in Philadelphia a crowd answered for him. It hanged effigies of the governor and solicitor general and set them afire with a spark of electricity.30

The humiliation in the cockpit changed Franklin. Horace Walpole observed that the very public ‘phillipic’ made Franklin a revolutionary: ‘Dr Franklin, thanks to Mr Wedderburne, is at Paris.’31 Franklin's bitterness appears from the frequent appearance of ‘barbarian’ in his correspondence where ‘Englishman’ might have been expected. In a quieter moment he could be wittier. To one of his closest associates, who was a Member of Parliament, he wrote:

You are … one of the Majority which has doomed my Country to Destruction. … Look at your Hands! They are stained with the Blood of your Relations. You and I were long Friends. You are now my Enemy, and I am, Yours, B. Franklin.32In a black humour he admonished Joseph Priestley, a supporter of the revolution with whom he remained on good terms:

Perhaps as you grow older you will look upon this [Priestley's attempts to improve Englishmen] as a hopeless project, or an idle Amusement, repent of having murdered in mephitic Air [that is, in testing properties of gases] so many honest harmless Mice, and wish that to prevent Mischief you had used Boys and Girls instead.33

Several of Franklin's friends, including John Pringle, who was president of the Royal Society when Franklin suffered in the cockpit, disapproved of his conduct with the purloined letters. Pringle thought that Franklin had become overzealous through keeping too much to himself.34 And it is true that by the time of the Boston tea party Franklin no longer went the old comfortable sociable round with his cronies at the Royal Society: serving on Council and committees, recruiting new members (Franklin endorsed four or more a year), dining at the Royal Society Club, and travelling with Canton, Pringle, and other special friends.35 They do not seem to have offered useful suggestions towards resolving or mediating the worsening conflict.

A preliminary survey has found only one proposal to use contacts available through the Society to pursue reconciliation. The proposer was a marginal Fellow named Johann Rudolph de Valltravers, who suggested to Franklin that another Swiss Fellow of the Society, Jean-André Deluc, might mediate between the revolutionaries and their former King.36 Franklin's delayed, non-committal reply only stimulated Valltravers's imagination. He now proposed a treaty of mutual defence between the 13 American colonies and the 13 Swiss cantons, ‘or, at least … the Protestant parts’, with himself as intermediary; and, when that elicited no response, he added Geneva and Venice, and a big Swiss loan.37 Franklin dismissed this league of republics as ‘visionary’, as, indeed, was the notion of enlisting Deluc, who held the unlikely office of tutor in natural philosophy to the Queen of England. He was once a Genevan democrat; unfortunately, and unknown to Valltravers, he had gone royalist, and supported the war.38

Deluc was good at numbers, however, and might have found the following bit of arithmetic persuasive. Franklin wrote to an English correspondent that in the opening months of the war the British had gained a mile at the cost of 1500 men. They had killed 150 Americans. Meanwhile, between 60 000 and 70 000 babies had been born in the former 13 colonies. Ask yourself, Franklin asked, ‘how long it will take England to conquer America’.39 No doubt similar facts would have figured in the materials that Franklin proposed to offer Edward Gibbon to write the decline and fall of the British Empire—had Gibbon not declined to see Franklin.40

An American in Paris

Franklin returned to Pennsylvania in 1775. He took part in the Continental Congress and the framing of the Declaration of Independence. Congress assigned him the crucial job of enlisting the help of the colonies' old bête-noire, the French, whom he once had slated as ‘most inveterate and most treacherous enemies’,41 in winning the war of revolution. The business was delicate: the Seven Years War had crippled French finances, and Louis XVI might refuse to support a rebellion against a fellow sovereign, even an English one. To combat these obstacles, Franklin could draw on his international reputation, first established in France, to gain a hearing. He was not only a grand savant, but even a foreign associate of the Académie royale des sciences, ‘justly esteemed, by all Europe, the greatest honour a man can arrive at in the Republick of Letters’.42 His hosts believed that he had made a science of government as well as of electricity, and, if the thing were possible, of economics.43 As the Marquis de Condorcet put it in his éloge of the great man, ‘Franklin's reputation in the sciences brought him the friendship of everyone who loved or cultivated them, that is, all those who exercise a profound and lasting influence on public opinion.’44

The strength of Franklin's contacts and their importance for the American cause can be judged by the efforts of the British ambassador to France, Lord Stormont, to prevent them. At first Franklin had to meet secretly with the foreign minister, the comte de Vergennes, and apparently by chance with other officials at salons and dinner parties.45 One of these meetings took place at the home of the blind old dour Marquise du Deffand, one-time patroness of philosophers, who, as she wrote to Walpole, was not an ‘américaine’. Nevertheless she could not refuse Franklin entrée to her salon; and toward the end of 1776 he was sitting at her side, ‘a fur cap on his head and glasses on his nose’, surrounded by important partisans of his cause, assembled, according to the marquise, by pure chance.46

Franklin understood that his best tactic was to express confidence in the outcome of the war, to interpret every American defeat as proof that the British were being drawn ever deeper into hostile territory, to await a decisive American victory, and to establish himself as a public character. The last tactic was the easiest. He exploited the opening prepared for him by Buffon, acted the noble savage, walked rather than rode, eschewed a wig, and covered his big head with a fur cap (figure 5). The salons loved him. He drank wine with the gentlemen and flirted outrageously with the ladies, to one of whom, the widow of a philosopher, he often offered marriage.47

Figure 5

BF, drawing after Nicolas Cochin. Canton Papers, Royal Society. (Copyright © The Royal Society.)

At last the victory came, with the surrender of general John Burgoyne and his army at Saratoga. (Franklin knew Burgoyne, on whose house he had installed a lightning rod, and for whom he procured parole in England.48) As soon as the news of Burgoyne's defeat reached France, Louis received Franklin at Versailles as the Plenipotentiary of the United States of North America. For the occasion Franklin wore his own hair, his glasses, a brown velvet suit, and white positively charged stockings.49 He did not exploit the opening immediately. Instead, he received emissaries from England bearing various unsatisfactory plans for peace. Meanwhile, foreign minister Vergennes fretted that he had not struck his bargain earlier. Franklin's American colleagues verged on apoplexy, and Stormont watched in admiration Franklin's masterly exercise of dissimulation, bluff and guile; that is, of the diplomatic art.50

Throughout his negotiations, Franklin took care to keep his character as a man of science in the public eye. After the surrender of Burgoyne, he took a prominent part in the activities of the Paris Academy, notably in natural electricity and animal magnetism, and joined in the social life of leading academicians such as Lavoisier and Jean Baptiste Leroy.51 Of wider interest perhaps were the health-giving air baths he took every morning, stark naked, before an open window, and his wandering about at night, in the same dress, whenever he felt the air too close.52 Not least among his scientific quirks and advertisements were his homemade spectacles, which, against all good manners, he wore even to dinner. They were bifocals, his own invention, which he wore at table, he said, to improve his comprehension of French. They enabled him to see the facial expressions of his dinner companions and also his plate.53

Every concert with the glass armonica, for which Mozart and Beethoven did not disdain to compose, sang his fame. Would-be players wrote asking how to acquire an instrument that gave out ‘the most delicious music [known]’.54 There were many competent performers in Paris, among them Anton Mesmer, who used to soothe his patients with a few melodies from the instrument before stroking them, or throwing them into a tub of water, to unblock impediments to the flow of their animal magnetism. He tried to obtain Franklin's approval of his playing and its results. Franklin did evaluate them, as member of a joint committee of the academies of science and medicine that looked into Mesmer's methods, and declared him a fraud.55

It was not the ethereal sound of the armonica, however, but the growl of thunder that best advertised Franklin's presence. Every storm that passed over Paris reminded those who knew anything about science of the residence in the capital of the man who had defeated lightning. The association of Jupiter with thunderbolts, and of thunder with the arbitrary exercise of power, led naturally to the coupling of Franklin's two great revolutions. In the famous bon mot ascribed to his friend Anne Robert Turgot, Franklin had ‘snatched thunder from heaven, then the sceptre from tyrants’ (eripuit coelo fulmen, mox sceptrum tyrannis). The educated for whom Turgot composed this quip would have savoured it as a brilliant play on a line from Manilius's Astronomica, eripuit Iovi fulmen viresque tonandi. In Manilius' poem, the subject of eripuit was not a man, but the genius of mankind; and the enemy defeated was not a human despot but superstitious fear of natural phenomena.56

The connection between politics and science encapsulated in Turgot's epigram had an immediate parallel in real life in England in a fight between royalists and Franklinists over the shape of lightning rods. A little background is necessary. In 1772, the Board of Ordnance consulted the Royal Society about protecting its powder magazine at Purfleet against lightning. A committee that included Franklin and Wilson recommended on the basis of laboratory experiments that the conductors protrude some distance above the roof and taper to sharp points.57 The experiments showed that a pointed rod could draw off the electricity of a charged insulated conductor at a greater distance, and with much less noise, than one terminating in a bulb or knob.58

Wilson disagreed with the decision of the committee. He reasoned that the power of points exhibited in the laboratory could well fail on the scale of charged clouds and lightning conductors. He accepted that a cloud might interact at a greater distance with a pointed rod than with a blunt one; but he could not accept that a tapered rod could slowly and quietly drain a storm cloud of its charge. So, he concluded, it would be best to deploy low lightning conductors terminated in knobs. A distant charged cloud that might strike to a pointed rod would pass by harmlessly and a cloud so close that it would in any case discharge its lightning into the protected building would do little damage, since a blunt rod conducted as well as a pointed one.59 Wilson published these views in the Transactions of the Royal Society as a dissent from the majority report of the lightning committee, and proceeded, according to Franklin, to ‘alarm the City with the suppos'd Danger of Pointed Rods drawing the Lightning into them and blowing them up’.60 The Society declined to print a second paper in which Wilson proposed that Franklin confirm the safety of his system by riding a horse across Salisbury plain in a thunderstorm wearing a crown of metallic spikes attached to a long trailing wire. To this William Henley FRS, a draper by trade, who had become the Royal Society's point man on points, replied that Wilson should join the demonstration by walking in front of Franklin wearing a fool's cap made of steel with long ears ending in balls.61 In fact, however, there was nothing wrong with Wilson's reasoning, although it reached a conclusion as false as Franklin's. As far as the cloud is concerned, there is little to choose between a pointed and a knobbed conductor.

Wilson thought that the committee and especially Franklin, to whom he had shown his plan for arming Purfleet with low blunt conductors, had treated him badly. He had acted at the request of the Board of Ordnance, which also consulted Franklin—a fact that Franklin neglected to disclose when he reviewed Wilson's plan. When Wilson discovered that Franklin had been far from frank, he was hurt as well as angry. He complained in his autobiography that ‘sensible, and open hearted Dr Franklin concealed from me this part of the business. … The truth was that I had not so much insincerity, or art, as he was master of.’62 Indeed, Wilson could not compete with Franklin in the art of diplomacy. Wilson's good friend the actor David Garrick remarked to their mutual friend the artist William Hogarth that ‘Wilson … is not an Accurate Observer of things, not Ev'n of those which concern him most.’63 ‘We all love this Wilson, but you will find him with all his knowledge & Philosophy, as Simple as a child …’. He lacked the capacity to impose himself. ‘I think so good a heart, & so generous a Mind have deserved more favour from the Great, than he has yet experienced.’64 Had matters worked out differently, Franklin and Wilson could have sworn in unison against mistreatment by those who counted.

In 1777, when Franklin already was in France, Purfleet suffered some damage by lightning. (An iron clamp disconnected from the conducting system seems to have caused the trouble.) The Board of Ordnance returned to the Royal Society for advice. It empanelled a committee including Wilson and several Franklinists. The committee again affirmed the power of points.65 Wilson again called for short blunt conductors, and again ended in a minority of one. That proved to him that he could not get a fair hearing at the Society, which (to express his sentiments in modern talk) had yoked itself to a Franklinist paradigm. That was not only unphilosophical, but also dangerous. Wilson moved swiftly to control the damage. He warned George III against the risk of dwelling in palaces protected by pointed rods. The King, who was a practical man, suggested that Wilson demonstrate his theory on a large scale, and directed the Board of Ordnance to furnish the material ingredients. A large space was required: Wilson built his models at one inch to the yard. To accommodate his equipment, he engaged a new assembly hall called the Pantheon, which men of such taste as Walpole and Gibbon rated the most beautiful building in England. Its refined proprietors hoped to earn something by admitting the general public to Wilson's spectacle.66

Wilson's precocious exercise in the military–scientific–commercial line employed a mock cloud charged by a big electrical machine to bombard a model of the Purfleet magazine armed with lightning rods of various sizes and shapes (figure 6). To simulate the motion of the cloud over the target, he moved the model swiftly down a track above the Pantheon's floor. The cloud, 155 feet long, consisted of 24 drums, each 16 inches in diameter, wrapped in tinfoil, connected by 2800 yards of wire, and suspended by silk cords from the ceiling.67 The experiment was a great success. Pointed rods were struck almost as noisily as blunt ones but at greater distances. The King, Queen and Prince of Wales came to see; so did the Royal Society, to a private showing; and, as the proprietors had hoped, the general public, before Wilson returned his wire and tinfoil to the Tower of London.68

Figure 6

The Pantheon experiment, 1778. (Private collection.) An engraving of the scene appears in Wilson.67

The King was convinced: any apple woman, he said, could understand the experiment and its implications, and forthwith ordered the pointed conductors in his palaces replaced by what Franklinists called ‘obtuse Wilson's obtuse rods’. The Society's electricians rallied, repeated with variations the old laboratory experiments, and concluded in favour of ‘high pointed conductors’.69 Poor innocent Wilson! His appeal to the crown (to ‘darkheaded [!] men,’ according to Franklin's great friend the Dutch doctor Jan Ingenhousz FRS) was inevitably regarded as political intrigue by men who saw more clearly. One of these was the Portuguese John Hyacinth de Magalhaens FRS, a middle man in the trade of scientific books and instruments and an advocate of the American Revolution, who advertised and dismissed Wilson's behaviour as ‘contemptible’.70 Rumour had it that Pringle suffered grievously from Wilson's appeal to the king and resigned as President of the Royal Society in protest against George's rejection of the best scientific advice available. ‘Sire,’ he is said to have said to the monarch who was also his patient, ‘the prerogatives of the president of the Royal Society do not extend to altering the laws of nature.’71

The tone of the attacks on Wilson, which drove him away from the Society, also offended Franklin. He refused to sponsor a translation of de Magalhaens's account of the affair in French as the definitive defence of experiments favouring points. It was, he said, ‘too angry to be made use of by one Philosopher when speaking of another, and on a philosophical Question’. But he was not displeased by the royal orders.

The King's changing his pointed conductors for blunt ones is a matter of small importance to me. If I had a wish about it, it would be that he rejected them altogether. For it is only since he thought himself and family safe from the thunder of Heaven that he dared to use his own thunder in destroying his innocent subjects.72

David Garrick saw the Pantheon experiments and perfectly understood their purpose: ‘to show that pointed conductors invite lightning and provoke evil’.73 The King perceived the evil as clearly as he had understood its demonstration. He ordered that Wilson's extensive memoir on the Pantheon experiment be printed, and sent copies to the Empress of Russia and the King of Prussia to warn them against assassination by lightning directed their way by rebellious electricians.74 Garrick worried that there was party spirit in the business; Wilson was sure of it; and so, of course, was Franklin. The question became an established certainty in Condorcet's obituary oration on Franklin. The deceptive Pantheon experiments, Condorcet wrote, could deceive only the ignorant. ‘Who still doubts that people must choose between cultivating the sciences and creeping under the yoke of prejudice?’75

In an odd reprise of this story in France in the early 1780s, the later revolutionaries Marat and Robespierre played the parts, respectively, of Wilson and Franklin. The neighbours of one Sieur de Vissery invoked Marat's opinion to prove that the lightning rod that Vissery had erected over his house was a hazard to their village. The fight came to trial, with Robespierre for the defence. He invoked Franklin's theory. Conceding, however, that doubts remained about the physics of lightning protection, he appealed to royal authority: ‘if any doubts about the effects of these machines existed, they would never have been erected at the Chateau de Maillot [Louis XVI's favourite residence] above so dear and sacred a head [as our king's]’. After further developments in politics and science, Robespierre would vote to remove the dear head, and many others, with the help of Dr Guillotin's humane technology.76

European symbol

In 1793, after negotiating peace with Britain, Franklin set foot for the first time in the United States of America. He had improved his crossing of the Atlantic by writing out his observations of the Gulf Stream, which he had studied during previous voyages. The paper that resulted, the first significant account of the stream's course, temperature and speed, was also the first contribution of the new US Government, which had commissioned and defrayed Franklin's travel, to oceanography (figure 7).77 At home, Franklin participated in drafting and arguing for the constitution, in campaigning against slavery, and in running the state of Pennsylvania. On his death in 1790 the obituarists outdid themselves in superlatives. The British elevated him to the status of the ‘American Newton’. The French raised him higher still, to (in the words of the revolutionary Mirabeau) ‘the bosom of divinity’. According to Condorcet, Franklin's science, the science of enlightenment, reached beyond truth. It was the essential condition of freedom. ‘An ignorant people [he wrote] is always enslaved.’78

Figure 7

BF, chart of the Gulf Stream. Trans. Am. Phil. Soc. 2 (1786). (Copyright © The Royal Society.)

For the anglophile professor of physics at the University of Göttingen, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg FRS, Franklin's writings were not only truth but the very touchstone of truth. ‘Mein Gott!’ he exclaimed, halfway through Franklin's Autobiography, ‘what a difference there is between the writings of a truly great man and the ravings of ministers.’79 Lichtenberg was ‘sickened’ (that is the word he used) by the thought that party interests might have bent the truth in the matter of the knobs and the points. (He was one of the few electricians of the time who realized that his colleagues did not know enough about the physics of lightning to determine optimal shapes, sizes and heights for lightning conductors.) He would get sicker still when the great problem of politics in science raised its head in Göttingen.

Like Lichtenberg, Franklin and Pringle belonged to the Königliche Societät der Wissenschaften of Göttingen. When the Englishmen visited the little university town in 1766 to drink with its learned men and take their places in its royal society, the then recently repealed Stamp Act was a topic of conversation.80 Franklin pleased his hosts by predicting that the colonies would not break with the mother country. Filial love would prevent it, Franklin said, and also the locations of the major colonial centres within reach of the guns of the Royal Navy. Consequently, the Göttingen academicians were surprised and upset when they heard that Franklin had thrown in his lot with the rebels. Lichtenberg expressed their disillusion in his usual colourful way: ‘[Franklin's] 13-wheel political machine has driven his single-wheel electrical one completely out of his head’.81

Worse was coming. Franklin seduced George Forster FRS, son-in-law of the president of the Göttigen society, Christian Gottlob Heyne FRS, into radicalism. Forster visited Paris just as Franklin revealed himself a rebel there. He was seized with admiration for the man and his cause, for the conqueror ‘who brought down the thunderer and his representative on earth’, for the hero whose only weapon was reason, the first person of the indissoluble trinity, ‘Reason, Virtue, and Freedom’.82 Had the royal society in Göttingen known that Forster harboured such views, it might not have elected him a member in 1787.

Election to the conservative Societät did not slow Forster's rush to the left. He became a French agent, a citoyen of the République française, and a loud voice against all forms of legalized oppression and inequality. Should such a nut case continue to be numbered among the peaceful philosophers of Göttingen?83 The ministry in Hanover thought not. It suggested to Heyne that the Göttingen society eject Forster for his radicalism just as the royal academies of Berlin and Petersburg had expelled Condorcet.84

Heyne's draft response to the ministry began nobly. We would not be a company of scholars, he wrote, but of courtiers and toadies, if we acquiesced; we would prostitute ourselves before the world.

We are a learned society, not a political body or club. What sort of political connections and relations our members have is no business of ours, for these relations have nothing to do with science. … A scientific society is concerned only with scientific, never with political matters.The Petersburg Academy could not be a precedent for Göttingen, Heyne wrote; their Russian colleagues suffered notoriously from political influence, ‘and [had] a woman [Franklin's acquaintance the Princess Ekaterina Dashkova] as president’.85

So far, Heyne's response would earn him good marks today, apart from his comment about the princess, from those who believe in the possibility of the isolation of science from the society that supports it. But it is hard for a mid-ranking administrator to dwell too long in the heady atmosphere of independence. Heyne conceded that if Hanover insisted, his colleagues could do its bidding; with the reservation that, if the matter became public (and how could it not?), the abused members of Göttingen's royal society would blame the entire business on the government.

The Göttingen academicians soon discovered an additional powerful argument for doing nothing. The Royal Society of London had not ejected the greatest rebel of them all, Benjamin Franklin, although he had promoted the American Revolution more effectively than all the members of all the learned societies in Europe had advanced the French.86 The regime in Hanover decided not to insist on expelling Forster, who died in Paris, miserably but in good academic standing, and the royal society in Göttingen grew bold enough to admit other Germans who sympathized with the French cause.87

I do not claim that the invocation of Franklin's name alone produced these happy results. But I do believe that the example of this Royal Society's forbearance towards their colonial members during the American rebellion helped undercut the design of the Hanoverian regime to expel sympathizers with the French Revolution from the royal society in Göttingen. The Society displayed a similar exemplary forbearance in quashing the few Fellows who wanted to expel German and Austrian members during World War I.88 If very small things can be compared with great ones, I too can claim to have enjoyed the unrivalled tolerance of the President and Fellows of the Royal Society of London. I thank them sincerely for their kind invitation to deliver the Wilkins Prize Lecture on the lapsed Englishman Benjamin Franklin, ‘the inventor of the lightning rod, the hoax, and the republic’ (figure 8).89

Figure 8

BF, painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. (Copyright © The Royal Society.)


I am grateful to Leo Lemay for his comments and corrections.


  • This paper is an expanded version of the Wilkins Prize Lecture, delivered at the Royal Society on 22 November 2006. The following abbreviations are used: BF, Benjamin Franklin; BFP, BF, Papers (ed. L. W. Labaree et al.; Yale University Press, New Haven, 1959 et seq.); EO, BF, Experiments and observations on electricity (ed. I. B. Cohen; Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1941); BFW, BF, Writings (ed. J. A. L. Lemay; Library of America, New York, NY, 1987); ESEC, J. L. Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th centuries (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1979; Dover, New York, NY, 1999); WC, Horace Walpole, Correspondence (48 vols; ed. W. S. Lewis et al.; Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1937–83).

  • Received June 27, 2007.
  • Accepted July 3, 2007.