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[To DR. LINING, AT CHARLESTON.] VARIOUS EXPERIMENTS —TREATMENT OF INVENTORS.
PHILADELPHIA, March 18, 1775. YoUR question, how I came first to think of proposing the experiment of drawing down the lightning, in order to ascertain its sameness with the electric fluid, I cannot answer better than by giving you an extract from the minutes I used to keep of the experiments I made, with memorandums of such as I purposed to make, the reasons for making them, and the observations that arose upon them, from which minutes my letters were afterwards drawn. By this extract you will see that the thought was not so much “an out-of-the-way one” but that it might have occurred to an electrician. “Nov. 7, 1749. – Electrical fluid agrees with lightning in these particulars: 1. Giving light. 2. Color of the light. 3. Crooked direction. 4. Swift motion. 5. Being conducted by metals. 6. Crack or noise in exploding. 7. Subsisting in water or ice. 8. Rending bodies it passes through. 9. Destroying animals. 10. Melting metals. 11. Firing inflammable substances. 12. Sulphureous smell. —The electric fluid is attracted by points. – We do not know whether this property is in lightning. — But, since they agree in all the particulars wherein we can already compare them, is it not probable they agree likewise in this? Let the experiment be made.” I wish I could give you any satisfaction in the article of clouds. I am still at a loss about the manner in which they become charged with electricity; no hypothesis I have yet formed perfectly satisfying me. Some time since, I heated very hot a brass plate two feet square, and placed it on an electric stand. From the plate a wire extended horizontally four or five feet, and, at the end of it, hung, by linen threads, a pair of cork balls. I then repeatedly sprinkled water over the plate, that it might be raised from it in vapor, hoping that if the vapor either carried off the electricity of the plate, or left behind it that of the water (one of which I supposed it must do, if, like the clouds, it became electrized itself, either positively or negatively), I should perceive and determine it by the separation of the balls, and by finding whether they were positive or negative; but no alteration was made at all, nor could I perceive that the steam was itself electrized, though I have still some suspicion that the steam was not fully examined, and I think the experiment should be repeated. Whether the first state of electrized clouds is positive or negative, if I could find the cause of that, I should be at no loss about the other; for either is easily deduced from the other, as one state is easily produced by the other. A strongly positive cloud may drive out of a neighboring cloud much of its natural quantity of the electric fluid, and, passing by it, leave it in a negative state. In the same way, a strongly negative cloud may occasion a neighboring cloud to draw into itself from others an additional quantity, and, passing by it, leave it in a positive state. How these effects may be produced you will easily conceive, on perusing and considering the experiments in the enclosed paper; and from them too it appears probable that every change from positive to negative, and from negative to positive, that during a thunder-gust we see in the cork balls annexed to the apparatus, is not owing to the presence of clouds in the same state, but often to the absence of positive or negative clouds, that, having just passed, leave the rod in the opposite state. The knocking down of the six men was performed with two of my large jars not fully charged. I laid one end of my discharging-rod upon the head of the first; he laid his hand upon the head of the second; the second his hand on the head of the third, and so to the last, who held in his hand the chain that was connected with the outside of the jars. When they were thus placed, I applied the other end of my rod to the prime conductor, and they all dropped together. When they got up, they all declared they had not felt any stroke, and wondered how they came to fall; nor did any of them either hear the crack, or see the light of it. You suppose it a dangerous experiment; but I had once suffered the same myself, receiving, by accident, an equal stroke through my head, that struck me down, without hurting me; and 1 had seen a young woman who was about to be electrified through the feet (for some indisposi-" tion) receive a greater charge through the head, by inadvertently stooping forward to look at the placing of her feet, till her forehead (as she was very tall) came too near my prime conductor: she dropped, but instantly got up again, complaining of nothing. A person so struck sinks down doubled, or folded together as it were, the joints losing their strength and stiffness at once, so that he drops on the spot where he stood instantly, and there is no previous staggering, nor does he ever fall lengthwise. Too great a charge might, indeed, kill a man; but I have not yet seen any hurt done by it. It would certainly, as you observe, be the easiest of all deaths. The experiment you have heard so imperfect an account of is
merely this: I electrified a silver pint can, on an electric stand, and then lowered into it a cork ball of about an inch diameter, hanging by a silk string, till the cork touched the bottom of the can. The cork was not attracted to the inside of the can as it would have been to the outside; and though it touched the bottom, yet when drawn out it was not found to be electrified by that touch, as it would have been by touching the outside. The fact is singular. You require the reason; I do not know it. Perhaps you may discover it, and then you will be so good as to communicate it to me.* I find a frank acknowledgment of one's ignorance is not only the easiest way to get rid of a difficulty, but the likeliest way to obtain information, and therefore I practise it; I think it an honest policy. Those who affect to be thought to know everything, and so undertake to explain everything, often remain long ignorant of many things that others could and would instruct them in, if they appeared less conceited. The treatment your friend has met with is so common, that no man who knows what the world is, and ever has been, should expect to escape it. There are everywhere a number of people, who, being totally destitute of any inventive faculty themselves, do not readily conceive that others may possess it; they think of inventions as of miracles, – there might be such formerly, but they are ceased. With these, every one who offers a new invention is deemed a pretender; he h it from some other country, or from some book; a man of the or, acquaintance, one who has no more sense than themselves, cowo, t possibly, in their opinion, have been the inventor of anythi g. They are confirmed, too, in these sentiments, by frequent in to ces of pretensions to invention, which vanity is daily producing. That vanity too, though an incitement to invention, is, at the same time, the pest of inventors. Jealousy and envy d y the merit or the novelty of your invention; but vanity, whe the novelty and merit are established, claims it for its own. The smaller your invention is, the more mortification you receive in having the credit of it disputed with you by a rival, whom the jealousy and envy of others are ready to support against you, at least so far as to make the point doubtfulf It is not in itself of importance enough for a dispute; no one would think your proofs and reasons worth their attention; and yet, if you do not dispute the point, and demonstrate your right, you not only lose the credit of being in that instance ingenious, but you suffer the disgrace of not being ingenuous, - not only of being a plagiary, but of being a plagiary for trifles. Had the invention been greater, it would have disgraced you less; for men have not so contemptible an idea of him that robs for gold on the highway 'as of him that can pick pockets for half-pence and farthings. Thus, through envy, jealousy, and the vanity of competitors for fame, the origin of many of the most extraordinary inventions, though produced within but a few centuries past, is involved in doubt and uncertainty. We scarce know to whom we are indebted for the compass, and for spectacles; nor have even paper and printing, that record everything else, been able to preserve with certainty the name and reputation of their inventors. One would not, therefore, of all faculties or qualities of the mind, wish, for a friend, or a child, that he should have that of invention. For his attempts to benefit mankind in that way, however well imagined, if they do not succeed, expose him, though very unjustly, to general ridicule and contempt; and, if they do succeed, to envy, robbery, and abuse.
* Dr. Franklin afterwards thought that, possibly, the mutual repulsion of the inner opposite sides of the electrized might prevent the accumulating of an electric atmosphere upon them, and occasion it to stand chiefly on the outside; but recommended it to the further examination of the curious.
† We have heard of persons in Philadelphia, even at the present day, who deny to Franklin the merit of his electrical discoveries.
FIRE IN BODIES — EXPERIMENT.
How many ways there are of kindling fire, or producing heat in bodies . By the sun's rays, by collision, by friction, by hammering, by putrefaction, by fermentation, by mixtures of fluids, by mixtures of solids with fluids, and by electricity. And yet the fire, when produced, though in different bodies it may differ in circumstances, as in color, vehemence, &c., yet in the same bodies it is generally the same. Does not this seem to indicate that the fire existed in the body, though in a quiescent state, before it was by any of these means excited, disengaged, and brought forth to action and to view 2 May it not constitute a part, and even a principal part, of the solid substance of bodies?
If this should be the case, kindling fire in a body would be nothing. more than developing this inflammable principle, and setting it at liberty to act in separating the parts of that body, which then exhibits the appearances of scorching, melting, burning, &c. When a man lights a hundred candles from the flame of one, without diminishing that flame, can it be properly said to have communicated all that fire When a single spark from a flint, applied to a magazine of gunpowder, is immediately attended with this consequence, that the whole is in flame, exploding with immense violence, could all this fire exist first in the spark 2 We cannot conceive it.
And thus we seem led to this supposition, — that there is fire enough in all bodies to singe, melt, or burn them, whenever it is, by any means, set at liberty, so that it may exert itself upon them, or be disengaged from them. This liberty seems to be afforded it by the passage of electricity through them, which we know can and does, of itself, separate the parts even of water; and perhaps the immediate appearances of fire are only the effects of such separations. If so, there would be no need of supposing that the electric fluid heats itself by the swiftness of its motion, or heats bodies by the resistance it meets with in passing through them. They would only be heated in proportion as such separation could be more easily made. Thus a melting heat cannot be given to a large wire in the flame of a candle, though it may to a small one; and this not because the large wire resists less that action of the flame which tends to separate its parts, but because it resists it more than the smaller wire; or because the force, being divided among more parts, acts weaker on each.
This reminds me, however, of a little experiment I have frequently made, that shows, at one operation, the different effects of the same quantity of electric fluid passing through different quantities of metal. A strip of tin-foil, three inches long, a quarter of an inch wide at one end, and tapering all the way to a sharp point at the other, fixed between two pieces of glass, and having the electricity of a large glass jar sent through it, will not be discomposed in the broadest part; towards the middle will appear melted in spots; where narrower, it will be quite melted; and about half an inch of it next the point will be reduced to smoke.