Spring 2006

Electricity and Allegiance

Anna S. Barnett

Author’s rough sketch explaining the mechanism of the magical picture. For a larger version, click here.

In 1748, a year after retiring early from a successful printing career, Benjamin Franklin was immersed in a newfangled craze just reaching America: electrical experiments. The thunderstorm in which he would fly his legendary kite was four years away; like other 1740s electricians, as they were then called, Franklin first toyed with static electrical charge generated by rubbing a glass tube vigorously with cloth. In a 1749 report to his fellow scientific amateur Peter Collinson, after attempting to explain why large amounts of such charge could accumulate on layers of metal interspersed with glass (in what is now called a capacitor), Franklin offered detailed instructions for an experiment contrived by his friend Ebenezer Kinnersley. Using hidden gilding as circuitry, Franklin wrote, a framed print of King George II (“God preserve him”) could be transformed into an electrified “magical picture” with a removable crown. The picture was constructed so that a spectator asked to take hold of the frame with one hand and remove the crown with the other would “receive a terrible blow, and fail in the attempt.” Meanwhile, the showman holding the top edge of the picture “feels nothing of the shock, and may touch the face of the picture without danger, which he pretends is a test of his loyalty.”1

Mysterious electrical forces were widely and excitedly discussed at the time. (“The fine ladies forget their cards and scandal,” a British observer reported, “to talk of the effects of electricity.”2) Franklin and Kinnersley brought attention to their new observations by connecting these forces with loyalty to the king, a connection whose appeal arose from the moral urgency of such loyalty in the colonies. Although George II had virtually no direct involvement in colonial politics, his authority was continually reaffirmed through ritual declarations of loyalty. Colonists expressed their love and deference for the king in public celebrations, proclamations, and official petitions to the government. This allegiance, historian Richard L. Bushman argues, was contractual, offered in exchange for the king’s protection of their lives and liberties. A popular party leader of Boston, Elisha Cooke, wrote that the “King’s prerogative, when rightly used, is for the good and benefit of the people, and the Liberties and Properties of the People are for the support of the Crown.”3 In this view of monarchy, king and subjects were joined in a circuit rather like the one underlying the magical picture.

Sometimes, however, a shortfall in royal protection broke the circuit; responses then ranged from popular riots to Franklin’s own initiative in 1747 to create a private militia of 10,000 soldiers that would defend Philadelphia against French raids. Being, as he put it, “unprotected by the government under which we live,” Franklin’s move toward independence was apparently within bounds for a dutiful subject, as it did not shake either the standing political order or his support of George II.4 Just as stated in the patter for the magical picture, Franklin could take on a traditionally royal prerogative without painful consequences because his loyalty kept him on high moral ground. This part of the electrical trick neatly reflected the ideal of a mutually affectionate and beneficial relationship between king and people. Such sentiments would continue up to the eve of the American Revolution, so that loyalty to the king eventually sharply contrasted with opposition to government policies. In 1771, for example, Franklin privately advised a friend, “While we are declining the usurped authority of Parliament, I wish to see a steady dutiful attachment to the King and his family maintained among us.”5

The magical picture experiment would seem to leverage a little harmless humiliation of the showman’s mark in order to affirm the same norms. Although it is not known whether the built portrait was ever demonstrated in a public setting on an actual person, its implicit rhetoric went quite far: the similarity of a punitive electrical shock to lightning, long the symbol of God’s wrath, recalled the divine foundation the of the king’s power. This was a sort of sensory pun, albeit one with a violent edge, as revealed in Franklin’s speculations about the further effects of royal shocks. “If the picture were highly charged,” he noted, “the consequence might perhaps be as fatal as that of high treason, for when the spark is taken through a quire of paper … it makes a fair hole through every sheet ... though a quire of paper is thought good armour against the push of a sword, or even against a pistol bullet.”6 The lethal force deployed for the king’s revenge, Franklin warned, exceeded that of a sword or pistol. However, Franklin does not seem to have intended the picture as a serious admonition about the dangers of disloyalty; rather, he was most interested in describing the precise strength of the shock, for in 1750 he added to this ominous description the footnote, “We have since found it fatal to small animals, though not to large ones. The biggest we have yet killed is a hen.”

Despite such specific observations, the magical picture comes across today as less a scientific experiment than a parlor trick, one that reveals how Franklin enjoyed tinkering with more-or-less practical applications as opposed to pure theory. This preference, however, was not just a personal quirk of Franklin’s. Such applications were treated as fundamental building blocks by his scientific community and lauded by the intellectual elite in general. Among the recent scientific coups, electrical discoveries were distinguished not only by their total novelty, but also by their position outside the milieu of academic natural philosophers whose education equipped them to debate rigorous mathematical models of the world. Instead, the science of electricity stemmed entirely from extraordinary observations, starting with the fact that certain substances attracted down and dust when rubbed. With its appeal to native curiosity in the absence of advanced mathematical theory, electricity was exceptionally accessible to the public. Franklin was one of many leading electricians who began as untrained amateurs and matured into skilled technicians. These practical scientists manipulated equipment to produce spectacular and edifying effects, so that their discoveries could be measured by the construction of novel experimental objects and spread via the expanding market for scientific entertainment shows.

The eighteenth century’s first flush of electrical experimentation, for example, responded to a chance discovery by Stephen Gray, an English dyer. In 1729, after using cork to stop the ends of a glass tube, Gray noticed that the rubbed tube transmitted the property of electrical attraction to the cork. Gray’s initial report of this key observation to the Royal Society of London received little attention. Nonetheless, he continued to experiment with the transfer of electricity to materials both familiar and unfamiliar to today’s birthday-balloon-rubbing dilettante, progressing from cork to wood, stone, coins, an umbrella, 650 feet of wire, garden vegetables, soap bubbles, a live chicken, and, triumphantly, a small boy suspended from the ceiling by silk cords. Once enunciated in this final, spectacular form, Gray’s experiments swept Europe on a wave of popular electrical demonstrations. Only then were they incorporated into theory by his Society colleagues.

The magical picture was showy cousin of the next major development in electrical equipment—the Leyden jar. The Dutch lecturer and instrument maker Pieter van Musschenbroek had accidentally discovered in 1746 that enough electrical charge could be stored in a foil-covered glass jar full of water to deliver a shock of unprecedented violence; he was nearly killed. Musschenbroek announced that he would not repeat the experiment even if he were offered the whole kingdom of France, but his invention offered a sensory experience of electricity’s hidden power that was too compelling to ignore. Scientific showmen employed the Leyden jar in large-scale electrical productions—in one famous demonstration for the court of Louis XV, 700 monks connected by wire were made to leap into the air simultaneously—and sold painful shocks to eager spectators; they also used props like the magical picture to connect electricity with equally compelling forms of invisible power.

Franklin was himself drawn to experimentation after the increasingly popular and lucrative electrical shows spilled out of Europe and into the colonies. His newspaper, The Philadelphia Gazette, had run advertisements for several scientific lecturers during the mid-1740s, and Franklin bought electrical equipment from one who featured Gray’s electrified boy. The discourse in scientific spectacles that danced around the margins of the academies provided an ideal entrance point for the brilliant but geographically isolated Franklin. He and Kinnersley soon mastered the idiom, co-authoring a series of lectures given by Kinnersley that was a hit in 1750s Boston. And in 1752, a truly spectacular (and eminently practical) invention, the lightning rod, canonized Franklin in the history of science. Franklin’s work stemmed from a culture where arresting scientific showpieces promoted the latest discoveries and invited the layman to try his own hand at the mastery of nature. In introducing the magical picture, an experiment that played on the king’s beloved image and his deadly force, Franklin and Kinnersley followed the strategy advised by the electrician Charles Rabiqueau: “Speak to the eyes in order to be understood by the whole world.”7

  1. Franklin to Collinson, “Further Experiments and Observations in Electricity, 1748,” 29 April 1749. Reprinted in Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments, ed. I. Bernard Cohen (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 193–194.
  2. Quoted in H. Newton Malony, “John Wesley and the Eighteenth Century Therapeutic Uses of Electricity,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, vol. 47, no. 4 (December 1995), p. 244, available at www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1995/PSCF12-95Malony.html.
  3. Elisha Cooke, Jr., Mr. Cooke’s Just and Seasonable Vindication: Respecting some Affairs transacted in the late General Assembly at Boston (Boston, 1720), p. 18. Quoted in Richard L. Bushman, King and People in Provincial Massachusetts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), p. 93.
  4. Franklin, “The Necessity of Self Defense,” Pennsylvania Gazette, 29 December 1747. Quoted in Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), p. 136.
  5. Franklin to Thomas Cushing, 10 June 1771. Quoted in Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, op. cit., p. 253.
  6. Franklin to Collinson. Reprinted in Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments, op. cit., p. 194.
  7. Quoted in Barbara Maria Stafford, Artful Science: Enlightenment Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994), p. 183.

Anna S. Barnett is a writer and editor in New York City and one half of the duo Wittgenstein and Bambi.