In his compact, stylishly written Stealing God's Thunder, Philip Dray zooms in on Franklin the scientist. He deals first and foremost with the inventor of the lightning rod, but he also does justice to the restlessly curious, penetrating intelligence that accurately charted the Gulf Stream and created the armonica, a musical instrument that produced sounds from the moistened edges of glass bowls.
The New York Times
Ben Franklin's invention of the lightning rod and his revelation of the mysterious workings of lightning and thunder made him one of the foremost scientists of his day. As Dray, who won the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Prize for At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, points out in this lively and entertaining tale, Franklin made his reputation as a scientist long before he established himself as a statesman. He began his experiments with electricity in the mid-18th century, when numerous European scientists were similarly engaged. Franklin wondered whether the properties of lightning were the same as those of electricity. He established a rodlike device on a hill that attracted lightning from a passing thunderstorm and conducted the current away from houses and farms and into the ground. In 1751, Franklin published a widely popular book on his observations of electricity, which won him admiration throughout Europe. Dray elegantly observes that Franklin was the first to espouse an atomic theory of electricity, which he saw as an elemental force of nature contained in all objects. Dray provides not only a masterful glimpse of this aspect of Franklin's work but also a captivating cultural history of Franklin's America. B&w illus. Agent, Geri Thoma. (On sale Aug. 2) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Benjamin Franklin has been much visited by biographers of late, but Dray (At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America) takes a special tack: he examines Franklin's contributions to the founding of America in light of his scientific accomplishments. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Yes, he actually flew that kite, and his greatest invention, the lightning rod, occasioned great debates about humankind's audacious interference with God's judgments. Dray's previous title (At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, 2002) was a Pulitzer finalist, but this latest effort lacks its predecessor's gravitas. One of many recent works about the Founding Fathers-including Franklin (see Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, 2003, for example)-Dray's volume is comparatively slender. The subtitle indicates a focus on the lightning rod-and, indeed, references to it do appear throughout-but the author offers, as well, a Bio Lite of Franklin, from birth to death, from slave-owner to abolitionist, from journalist to constitutionalist. We hear stories about Franklin's inventions and are treated to an epilogue charting the frequency and destructiveness of lightning strikes, the pervasiveness of electricity in our everyday lives and octogenarian Franklin's concerns about an afterlife. We must wait nearly 150 pages to find out if lightning rods work (no reason to spoil it here). Some amazing personalities appear along the way: Robespierre, Mozart, Handel, Phillis Wheatley and Mary Tofts, who claimed she gave birth to rabbits. Of greatest interest and relevance are Dray's stories about Franklin's electrical experiments (he electrocuted animals, just to see), about his scientific, religious and political opponents. Then, as now, there were some religious leaders-and myriad followers-who believed science should not interfere with God's providence; others feared that sending electrical forces into the ground via lightning rod would cause earthquakes. Forsome reason, Dray does not really comment about the contemporary relevance of any of this. Very little that shocks or illuminates. (Illustrated throughout)
“The best study of Franklin as a scientist ever written.”
–Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Founding Brothers
“Absorbing . . . There are other Franklins–the entrepreneur, the diplomat, the statesman, the architect of independence– but in Franklin the scientist, Mr. Dray may have found the happiest one of all.”
–The New York Times
“Delightful . . . Dray offers a survey of Ben Franklin’s scientific career, describing both the ridicule and glory that his experiments inspired.”
–The Wall Street Journal
“A masterful glimpse of . . . Franklin’s work [and] a captivating cultural history of Franklin’s America.”
–Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[An] illuminating study . . . elegantly written.”
–Los Angeles Times