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Did Franklin Really Fake the Kite Experiment?

Was Benjamin Franklin's account of a kite flight a scientific fraud? Yes, says Tom Tucker, author of Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and his Electric Kite Hoax ( Parsecs, 2003). Tucker's cynical thesis, however, is not shared by other Franklin scholars, including his scientific biographer, the late I. Bernard Cohen. In disputing the received view, Tucker fashioned a creative case against Franklin that is far from convincing.

The major support for his thesis rests on a flimsy argument by analogy. In Franklin's literary efforts, in the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanac, he revealed a wily sense of humor that extended at times to merging fact and fiction. Thus, the argument runs, if Franklin and the truth were easily parted in one literary realm (popular culture), then they must in others as well (natural philosophy). By this illogic we would conclude that some of the twentieth century's greatest physicists were also scientific hoaxers.

It is doubtful that Franklin would have crafted a piece of fictional science, for he appreciated the penalty that the gentlemanly establishment of natural philosophy would have meted out had the fraud been exposed: banishment from the realm he had just entered on good terms. Indeed, by the time the kite flight took place (in June of 1752), Franklin's book on electricity had already been published in London and was garnering the respectful attention of natural philosophers. To fabricate an experiment after gaining such acceptance would have been a foolish move, and Franklin was no fool.

In his book Franklin had proposed a critical yet complex experiment for demonstrating the identity of lightning and electricity. Generally following Franklin's plan, French investigators successfully performed the experiment in May 1752. After learning about the French work, Franklin furnished brief accounts of his kite flight, which he merely framed as a more convenient technology for performing the same experiment. His reputation had already been made, not merely by proposing the "Philadelphia experiment," as the French work had become known and by flying his kite, but also by his one-electricity theory, which was the first to convincingly explain the action of the Leyden jar -- a device used to create and store electric energy. Clearly, Franklin had no motive for concocting a fake experiment. Tucker insists that Franklin made it up to satisfy friends in Philadelphia, who were accustomed to his electrical wizardry. But if the kite flight had just been a story to amuse his friends, why would Franklin have reported it in print as a contribution to natural philosophy?

Tucker also tries to poke holes in Franklin's sparse account of the event, claiming that it diverges stylistically from his other reports. In fact, considered in the aggregate, Franklin's reports vary greatly in style, and he was not always meticulous in describing the apparatus of his experiments. Tucker goes on to argue that the kite experiment was actually impossible as described, an ironic claim given that Franklin's original account of the experiment lacks sufficient detail to support such a judgment. Indeed, Tucker's argument turns on contentions about unknowable and disputable details about the kite's design, such as whether it was bowed, its lifting capacity, and how precisely the key was tied. What Tucker fails to appreciate is that a goodly number of investigators successfully repeated Franklin's experiment in the decades ahead with all kinds of kites; after all, obtaining atmospheric electricity in this way-even on a cloudless days a feat easily accomplished.

One argument in Bolt of Fate is beyond dispute: Franklin's stellar scientific reputation, based on his electrical research, gave him access to the French court, which provided crucial financial support to the American revolutionaries. Tucker falls into a common trap by assuming that it was the kite flight itself that raised Franklin to high standing as a natural philosopher. Actually, it was dozens of other experiments, especially those that clinched the explanation of the Leyden jar's action, and many new electrical technologies, including the lightning conductor, that earned him accolades. Tellingly, the French court became aware of, and impressed with, Franklin's groundbreaking work even before the kite experiment took place.

Though argued with vigor and verve, Tucker's case for Franklin's alleged scientific misconduct is surprisingly weak. There is neither credible motive nor smoking gun. Bolt of Fate is an engaging and provocative book but, as a brief for the prosecution, it furnishes only a tiny window into Franklin's work and his place in one of the most interesting periods in the history of electrical science and technology.

Despite its title, my recent book, Draw the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment (University of California Press, 2003), should not be regarded as a counterpoint to Bolt of Fate. Franklin does figure prominently in the book because he was one of the most important figures in eighteenth century electrical science and technology. That is why I bring to light the entire breadth of Franklin's electrical researches, situating them in the contexts of eighteenth century natural philosophy and Enlightenment society. But the kite experiment, which was scientifically trivial as Franklin himself appreciated, does not appear until Chapter 8, where it occupies precisely two pages. Many investigators did adopt kites for sampling atmospheric electricity, but Franklin's other electrical inventions, such as lightning conductor, plate capacitor, motor (his "electrical jack"), and battery (many Leyden jars wired in parallel), and his one-electricity theory had a more far-reaching influence on natural philosophy.

Beyond documenting Franklin's many electrical contributions, Draw the Lightning Down--the title supplied by the publisher--describes how the esoteric laboratory apparatus of early modern physicists came to be adopted by various communities of practice, from public lecturers to medical therapists. Electrical technology made its way quickly into clinical contexts, and even Franklin literally electrified a few people clamoring for relief from sundry ailments. Electrotherapists and scientific instrument makers invented numerous appliances for applying electrical charge to specific parts of the body, from knees to eyes to hemorrhoids. In the earliest incarnation of emergency medicine, electrical technology was sometimes employed for reviving the "apparently dead." And there is even strong evidence that electricity was used for inducing abortions.

Beginning in the late eighteenth century, electrical technology became a tool for chemical analysis and synthesis. For example, Henry Cavendish, one of England's wealthiest and most eccentric scientists, used Alessandro Volta's "electric pistol" to show for the first time that water was a compound of two colorless gases, thus overturning the long-standing belief that water was an elemental substance. This revolutionary demonstration figured importantly in Lavoisier's "new" chemistry, which also built on other discoveries made with electrical apparatus. Electricity-savvy chemists also invented the first spark plugs, which in the nineteenth century contributed to the origins of the internal combustion engine.

Electrical science and technology had a large and influential public presence during the late Enlightenment, as lecturers introduced audiences to the surprising new science. Public demonstrators, including Franklin and some of his Philadelphia friends, invented countless devices for illustrating basic electrical principles in the most captivating manner. Dancing spiders, magic tables, electric cannons, glowing tubes, exploding houses, and so forth presented an otherworldly spectacle that materialized a basic tenet of Enlightenment ideology: experiments can enable humans to create new knowledge about the natural world.

Electrotherapists, chemists, and lecturers are just three of the electrified communities of practice I discuss in my book. In its great diversity, electrical science and technology of the eighteenth century touched a surprising number of human lives--and sometimes bodies.