Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America

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9781400060320: Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America

“We forget, living in this era of heavily patented research and closely guarded results, how wonderfully exciting the scientific world used to be. In Stealing God’s Thunder, the story of Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the lightening rod and the resulting consequences, that sense of wonder and excitement and even fear comes beautifully to life. Philip Dray does a remarkable job of illuminating the ever-fascinating Franklin and, more than that, the way that he, and his invention, helped create the new scientific world.”
Deborah Blum, author of Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection

Stealing God’s Thunder is a concise, richly detailed biography of Benjamin Franklin viewed through the lens of his scientific inquiry and its ramifications for American democracy. Today we think of Benjamin Franklin as a founder of American independence who also dabbled in science. But in Franklin’s day it was otherwise. Long before he was an eminent statesman, he was famous for his revolutionary scientific work, especially his experiments with lightning and electricity.

Pulitzer Prize finalist Philip Dray uses the evolution of Franklin’s scientific curiosity and empirical thinking as a metaphor for America’s struggle to establish its fundamental values. Set against the backdrop of the Enlightenment and America’s pursuit of political equality for all, Stealing God’s Thunder recounts how Franklin unlocked one of the greatest natural mysteries of his day, the seemingly unknowable powers of electricity and lightning. Rich in historic detail and based on numerous primary sources, Stealing God’s Thunder is a fascinating original look at one of our most beloved and complex founding fathers.

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About the Author:

PHILIP DRAY is the author of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award and the Southern Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1




Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston on January 17, 1706, the fifteenth of the seventeen children of Josiah Franklin, and the eighth child of his father’s second wife, Abiah Folger. The Franklins lived on Milk Street, across from the South Church, where Josiah was a leading member of the congregation. Ben was carried across the street and baptized there on the day of his birth. The Franklins ran a soap- and candle-making business, and Josiah was also active in the community; he had served as a constable of the town watch and also in the public markets, neighbors sometimes came to him for advice, and the son would recall that his father’s “great Excellence lay in a sound Understanding and solid Judgment in prudential Matters, both in private and publick Affairs.”

While still a toddler, Ben struck his parents as having the bearing of a scholar. “I do not remember when I could not read,” Franklin later said. An uncle (also named Benjamin) who resided with the Franklins and took a special interest in his namesake perceived something remarkable about his clever nephew, and wrote of the boy, “If the Buds are so precious what may we expect when the fruit is ripe?” Josiah prided himself that his youngest son might possess the makings of a clergyman, although Ben’s unsuitability for the role manifested itself early on in ways large and small, such as when he suggested to his father that if all the meat being salted for the family’s winter provisions was blessed at once, the family might avoid having to say grace at each meal and “it would be a vast saving of time.” In any event, the prerequisite education for the clerical calling proved too costly, and after completing barely two years of school, Ben was put to work in the family shop.

Boston in the early 1700s was a thriving port of about ten thousand inhabitants, the third largest shipping mecca in the British empire, with fifteen shipyards and hundreds of wharves that teemed night and day with the loading and off-loading of goods and passengers. Ben was smitten with the magnificent sight of ships—the packets, cargo vessels, and men-of-war that stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the docks and whose vast sails filled the sky. The town’s seafaring character, with its inlets, rivers, bays, ponds, and coves, engendered in him a lifelong affection for boats and the sea. “Living near the water, I was in and about it, learnt early to swim well, and to manage boats,” he recalled.

As the adolescent leader of a ragtag army of boys who played around the large mill pond that began just beyond his father’s shop, Ben became dissatisfied with the speed he could obtain through his regular swimming strokes and experimented with ways to improve his efficiency by attaching “palettes” (flippers) to his hands and feet. Already a deft observer of the movements of air, water, and wind, he also conceived of a most uncommon experiment, flying a kite while submerged in the water. “Having then engaged another boy to carry my clothes around the pond, I began to cross the pond with my kite, which carried me quite over without the least fatigue and with the greatest pleasure imaginable.” As the kite drew him swiftly from one side of the pond to the other, a band of excited youngsters ran along the shore, shouting and encouraging his progress.

One of Josiah Franklin’s other sons, also named Josiah, had been lost at sea, and the father, concerned about Ben’s evident fondness for ships, sought to head off any seafaring inclinations the young boy might have. But Ben was clearly apathetic about work in the family trade, and the candle shop was not without dangers of its own: The boiling vat Ben was made to stir was the very one in which another brother, an infant named Ebenezer, had earlier drowned. “Under Apprehensions that if he did not find [a job] for me more agreeable, I should break away and get to Sea, as his Son Josiah had done to his great Vexation,” Franklin later wrote, Josiah determined to establish Ben in a trade. After a brief, unhappy turn at a cutlery shop, Ben signed papers of apprenticeship to a printing business owned by his older brother James.

James Franklin, nine years older than Ben, was a worldly sophisticate by Boston standards. In 1717 he had visited London, where he had been inspired by English satirists such as Joseph Addison, the Irish-born Jonathan Swift, and Daniel Defoe, and by the chatter of anti-authoritarian opinion in London’s Grub Street coffeehouses. James probably only marginally knew his kid brother and new apprentice, although it immediately became clear that Ben possessed the attributes necessary for work in a print shop—manual dexterity, mental quickness, and physical strength.

As Ben would remember, “In a little time I made great proficiency in the business, and became a useful hand to my brother.” He also dipped hungrily into James’s library, devouring books on arithmetic and navigation as well as the many pamphlets and sermons James printed that argued prevailing notions of theology, Deism, and natural philosophy. He read the Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s writings urging moderation in human affairs and an end to religious zealotry, John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Daniel Defoe’s Essay on Projects, and Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius: An Essay Upon the Good—books that “perhaps gave me a Turn of Thinking that had an Influence on some of the principal future Events of my Life.”

In these books, Ben discovered a world of ideas to absorb and act upon. By the time he was a teenager, he had declared himself a vegetarian, perfected a “scientific” method of swimming, adopted Socratic inquiry as a means of arriving at truth, and embraced Deism, the belief that the world had been made by a gifted supreme being who was no longer a living feature of the cosmos. This deus absconditus, apparently pleased with his creation, had left it to its own devices; the Deists believed that God’s endowment to mankind was reason and the practice of benevolence toward others, and that Truth resided not in biblical aphorism but in nature.

The age in which Ben Franklin grew up, the early Enlightenment, was a time of expanding faith in individual experience and self-determination, an era of enlarged human curiosity, when advances in natural philosophy, science, and technology were curbing man’s reliance on magical or religious explanations for life’s hardships. Like all such epochs of cultural transition, it arose from sources both subtle and diverse, but certainly the English philosophers of the seventeenth century and their Scientific Revolution had helped set the stage. Its founding concepts lay in the ideas of Francis Bacon, who promoted the value of experimentation and promised that work in pure science would lead to useful applications, and John Locke, who urged that true knowledge came not from a perfected obedience to inherited beliefs but from mankind’s environment, as well as from the instruments that made new forms of observation possible, such as the microscope.

Hovering majestically above all was Isaac Newton, the guiding scientific thinker of his day, who showed in his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1687 and known as the Principia, that the functions of the universe were governed by mathematics. Copernicus had made the sun, not Earth, the center of the universe; Johannes Kepler described the planets’ orbits as ellipses; but where others glimpsed a corner of the tapestry, Newton saw that the whole—Earth and heavens alike—was a single system, bound by physical laws. “The new [Newtonian] mechanics was the first example of a modern science in its full development,” historian Dirk J. Struik notes, “equipped with a convincing set of axioms, a logical method, a developed technique and the power of forecasting events. Even those who could not master the details could admire and follow its general approach.” As Voltaire, who helped introduce Newton’s ideas in France, observed, “Very few people read Newton, but everybody talks about him.”

Such reorganization of human thought did not come altogether easily to the Boston of young Ben Franklin. New Englanders still lived to a great extent in “an enchanted universe”—a place of dark, impenetrable forests, vengeful thunderstorms, portentous comets, witches, and ghosts. A belief in Providential events and omens was common, as was the idea that an ongoing battle between Satan and God ruled many features of daily life. For people who suffered from a myriad of poorly understood health issues, whose children died in great numbers, and who had no other means of comprehending the phenomenal world, Providence and its signs offered at least the surety that man’s earthly trials had some purpose. “In place of unacceptable moral chaos,” writes the scholar Keith Thomas, “was erected the edifice of God’s omnipotent sovereignty,” a presence that seemed particularly reasonable given the Puritan assumption that God had a special interest in the fate of New England.

“Without doubt the Lord Jesus hath a peculiar respect unto this place, and for this people,” preached the influential Boston cleric Increase Mather. “Christ by a wonderful Providence hath dispossessed Satan, who reigned . . . in these Ends of the Earth for Ages . . . and here the Lord hath caused . . . New Jerusalem to come down from Heaven.”

This “peculiar respect,” however, contingent on the Puritans’ steadiness of faith, and known as the New England or Puritan covenant, seem...

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