Cover image for Draw the lightning down : Benjamin Franklin and electrical technology in the Age of Enlightenment
Draw the lightning down : Benjamin Franklin and electrical technology in the Age of Enlightenment
Schiffer, Michael B.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Berkeley : University of California Press, [2003]

Physical Description:
xiv, 383 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Reading Level:
1490 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
TK16 .S35 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Most of us know--at least we've heard--that Benjamin Franklin conducted some kind of electrical experiment with a kite. What few of us realize--and what this book makes powerfully clear--is that Franklin played a major role in laying the foundations of modern electrical science and technology. This fast-paced book, rich with historical details and anecdotes, brings to life Franklin, the large international network of scientists and inventors in which he played a key role, and their amazing inventions. We learn what these early electrical devices--from lights and motors to musical and medical instruments--looked like, how they worked, and what their utilitarian and symbolic meanings were for those who invented and used them. Against the fascinating panorama of life in the eighteenth century, Michael Brian Schiffer tells the story of the very beginnings of our modern electrical world.

The earliest electrical technologies were conceived in the laboratory apparatus of physicists; because of their surprising and diverse effects, however, these technologies rapidly made their way into many other communities and activities. Schiffer conducts us from community to community, showing how these technologies worked as they were put to use in public lectures, revolutionary experiments in chemistry and biology, and medical therapy. This story brings to light the arcane and long-forgotten inventions that made way for many modern technologies--including lightning rods (Franklin's invention), cardiac stimulation, xerography, and the internal combustion engine--and richly conveys the complex relationships among science, technology, and culture.

Author Notes

Michael Brian Schiffer is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. His many books include The Material Life of Human Beings (1999), Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America (1994), Technological Perspectives on Behavioral Change (1992), and The Portable Radio in American Life (1991).

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Drawing on Benjamin Franklin's contributions to science and the age of technological invention, Schiffer (anthropology, Univ. of Arizona) discusses the international network of inventors who lived and worked in the first age of electricity (1740-1800). An amazing array of early electrical devices--lights, motors, musical instruments, and the foundation of 20th-century xerography--sprang from the scientific laboratories of experimenters throughout many nations, social classes, religions, trades, and professions, laying the foundation for today's electrical world. As an anthropologist, the author focuses on the behavioral patterns of ordinary citizens in this time period and how they put these new technologies, defined as any kind of artifact, to work in their everyday lives. In 12 chapters, the basic principles of electrical technology, known today as electrostatics, are discussed, while revealing how a variety of electrical community groups of physicists, electrotherapists, chemists, earth scientists, and inventors participated in and spread this new knowledge, usually with modifications and adaptations. Extensive notes and references. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. All levels. O. L. Paradis Baylor University

Table of Contents

Age of Enlightenment
List of Figures
1 The Franklin Phenomenon
2 In the Beginning
3 A Coming of Age
4 Going Public
5 Power to the People
6 Life and Death
7 First, Do No Harm
8 An Electrical World
9 Property Protectors
10 A New Alchemy
11 Visionary Inventors
12 Technology Transfer: A Behavioral Framework
References Cited