A Ridiculously Brief History of Electricity

"He wrested the flash of lightning from heaven and the scepter from the tyrants"
-From an inscription on a bust of Benjamin Franklin by the French sculptor Houdon in 1778

The most famous American in the world in the latter half of the 18th century was Benjamin Franklin. One historian, H.W. Brands, called Ben Franklin the first American.  From the humblest of origins, Franklin made himself into one of the most influential characters in world history.  His experiments in electricity made Franklin a superstar of his day, introducing the concept of electricity into common culture. Most of the electrical terms we use today, such as battery, positive/negative, condensor, conductor, charge, and even electrician, were originally coined by Franklin.

 He conjectured that the static sparks he was generating in his laboratory had something fundamental in common with the phenomenon of lightning.  Building on the discovery of conduction in 1729, Franklin saw electricity as having similar qualities to a fluid, and, like a fluid, electricity could be directed to follow prescribed paths.

Practical concerns were also guiding Ben Franklin’s research.  One of his many businesses included a fire insurance company. Lightning-initiated fires were a common occurrence in the Philadelphia of the 1700s.  Persuading lightning to flow outside of rather than through a building was good for business, especially if your business was fire insurance.  Franklin's famous and incredibly dangerous kite flying experiment of 1752, lead to the lightning rod/electrode system that is still in use today. If you are ever in Philadelphia, be sure to stop by Ben's grave at 5th and Arch St. and pay your respects.

next page