Cover image for An entertainment for angels : electricity in the Enlightenment
An entertainment for angels : electricity in the Enlightenment
Fara, Patricia.
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Publication Information:
New York : Columbia University Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
177 pages : illustrations ; 19 cm.
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QC522 .F37 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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An Entertainment for Angels, rather than for Men, one observer called electricity, and it proved to be the most significant scientific discovery of the Enlightenment. Lecturers attracted huge audiences who marveled at sparkling fountains, flaming drinks, pirouetting dancers, and electrified boys. Flamboyant experimenters made chains of soldiers leap into the air, while wealthy women titillated their admirers with a sensational electric kiss. Optimists predicted that this strange power of nature would cure illnesses, improve crop production, even bring the dead back to life. An Entertainment for Angels tells the story of how electricity charged the eighteenth-century imagination. With contemporary illustrations and engaging prose, Patricia Fara vividly portrays the struggles to understand the unusual and exciting effects that electrical experiments were producing.

One of the heroes of the story is Benjamin Franklin, renowned on both sides of the Atlantic as an expert on electricity, who introduced lightning rods to protect tall buildings, pioneered techniques to treat paralyzed patients, and developed one of the most successful explanations of this mysterious phenomenon. Others include Luigi Galvani, whose electrical research on frogs and animals makes for grisly reading but led to the discovery of direct current electricity; and Alessandro Volta, who--with Napoleon's enthusiastic support--became one of Europe's leading scientific practitioners and invented the world's first battery.

Author Notes

Patricia Fara is a Fellow of Clare College at the University of Cambridge. Her most recent book is Newton: The Making of Genius .

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Myths of the modern era rarely withstand inspection, and Benjamin Franklin's supposed discovery of electricity via the famed kite experiment is no exception. Electricity had already been discovered. Ideas about what it was, however, were new and in flux. Franklin was trying to prove his contention that lightning was electricity by drawing off sparks and charging a Leyden jar with them. He succeeded, bolstering his theory of the singularity of electricity against other natural philosophers--as what we call scientists were then designated--who, observing Cartesian dualism, declared that static and flowing electricity were different phenomena. That debate was part of the third, theorizing stage in the development of electricity in the Enlightenment. A period of inventing instruments to gather, demonstrate, and store electricity, and one of attempts to use electricity practically, mostly for medical treatment, preceded and overlapped it. Political and religious pressures affected all three stages, and the major figures at each stage became internationally famous. Fara's concise history reveals how complicated and groping scientific progress has been. --Ray Olson Copyright 2003 Booklist

Choice Review

Historians often refer to 1730-90 as the "Enlightenment," when scientific and quantitative methods focused on experimental investigations and reason. Experiments relating to electricity were the "scientific vogue" of that period. Modern society takes electricity for granted; it is difficult to imagine the excitement generated by the first discoveries in the electrical sciences. History of science writer Fara tells the story of how new discoveries in electricity helped spark the imagination of Enlightenment inventors. Benjamin Franklin, one of Fara's heroes, is portrayed not only as distinguished scholar, printer, and diplomat but also as prominent scientist and researcher in the electrical sciences, conducting a diverse set of experiments, from lightening rods to electric shock therapy. She shows Franklin as a founding father of the US and recognized as founding father of electricity, "snatching lightning from the sky" with his kite as well as the scepter from the King of England. Other 18th-century scientific experiments discussed include Galvani's electrical stimulation of frogs' legs, Volta's electric battery, Coulomb's electrostatic torsion balance, Nollet's therapeutic shock treatments, Lane's electrometer, Cavendish's device to measure gravitational force, and Faraday's laws of electromagnetism. Well illustrated; numerous references. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. General readers. F. A. Cassara Polytechnic University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Illuminations: The Light of Reason Interpretations Electricity and Enlightenment Shocking Inventions
Instruments Robert Boyle and the Air-pump Francis Hauksbee and the Electrical Machine Stephen Gray and the Charity Boy Pieter van Musschenbroek and the Leyden Jar
Lightning Cures: Applications Benjamin Franklin Knobs or Points?
The Business of Medicine Therapeutic Shocks Sparks of Imagination
Theories Problems Fluids and Atmospheres Theological Aethers Measurement and Mathematics
The Flow of Life: Current Electricity Henry Cavendish and the Torpedo Luigi Galvani and his Frogs Alessandro Volta and his Pile Resuscitation
Further Reading