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Bolt Of Fate: Benjamin Franklin And His Electric Kite Hoax Hardcover – June 17, 2003

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs; 1 edition (June 17, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1891620703
  • ISBN-13: 978-1891620706
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.8 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,334,832 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

According to Tucker, who writes on the history of invention, Benjamin Franklin's "multifaceted genius" had a hidden side: "He was also a splendid master of the hoax." And, notes Tucker, Franklin had reason to perpetrate a hoax on the scientific establishment, then embodied in Britain's Royal Society, where the colonial printer was not taken seriously as a scientist. Franklin's legendary electric kite experiment, Tucker asserts, was a myth propagated by Franklin himself that had repercussions even for the Revolution: the British feared that Franklin had created an electric superweapon that, in the words of Franklin's contemporary, Horace Walpole, "would reduce St. Paul's to a handful of ashes." Tucker bases his hoax theory on a reading of primary sources. A Franklin revival seems to be underway, and readers may want to read this heterodox study along with more general portraits of the man, such as Edmund Morgan's recent Benjamin Franklin and Walter Isaacson's forthcoming biography, due out in July. Illus.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Scientific American

Did Franklin really fly that kite? Schiffer says yes, Tucker says no. Nobody knows. Schiffer, professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, accepts the tradition of the kite experiment, although he says it is "a long and inconclusive story." Tucker, a science writer, offers two reasons in particular for rejecting the kite story. One is that in describing the experiment in the newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin does not say that he did it. The other is that the experiment as Franklin described it would be unlikely to succeed because of the design of the kite and the difficulty of flying it under the conditions outlined by Franklin. Whatever the truth, the kite experiment is a footnote to the rapid blossoming of electrical technology in the 18th century. Both authors tell that story well.

Editors of Scientific American

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Bruce Loveitt on August 14, 2003
Format: Hardcover
In the last couple of years we've had major biographies of Benjamin Franklin by H.W. Brands, Walter Isaacson, and Edmund Morgan. Now we have Tom Tucker's take on Franklin the "electrical scientist." (Gosh, we haven't even gotten to the tricentennial of Franklin's birth, which will be in 2006. One wonders what's in the publishing pipeline!) This book has quite a few pros and cons. Here are the pros: Because of the 3 recent general biographies, we probably didn't need another one. Mr. Tucker has done us a service by electing to concentrate on Franklin the scientist. And although Mr. Tucker's background is in writing about science, he has an engaging "popular" style. There's nothing dry about this book. Another plus is that Mr. Tucker goes to great pains to show us how myth becomes enshrined as reality. He makes a pretty good case that Franklin never actually flew his "electric kite." Looking carefully at the primary sources, we see that Franklin gave instructions on how to construct such a kite, but never actually claimed to have conducted the "kite in a thunderstorm" experiment himself. He was also uncharacteristically evasive when questioned about details of the experiment. Mr. Tucker also points out that Franklin was not averse to a bit of self-promotion. If people wanted to assume that he had flown a kite in a thunderstorm....well, he wasn't going to disabuse them of the notion. Likewise, although Franklin came up with the idea and "blueprint" for the lightning rod, he apparently tooted his own horn by lying to his European "colleagues" when he claimed that lightning rods were being attached to public buildings in Philadelphia earlier than the historical evidence shows they were.Read more ›
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan Carriel on October 2, 2007
Format: Hardcover
[This review was presented at a meeting of the American Revolution Round Table in New York City, October 2, 2007.]

The title ... might lead you to think we're pondering an academic version of Discovery Channel's Mythbusters, but happily this book is a great deal more, a serious contribution to the history of science and its interplay with society.
One might think, since people have undoubtedly always received shocks when shuffling across carpets, that natural philosophers would have sustained a steady curiosity in the phenomenon through the centuries, and made consistent but plodding progress in examining it. Well, apparently not. Beginning around 1743, and peaking over the next ten years, electricity was suddenly a huge European fad that gripped everyone, from serious scientists to high society to middle-class dilettantes to fair-going country bumpkins. It was suddenly realized that static electricity could be generated at will, by creating friction against a spinning glass jar; and with it, you could not only attract confetti up to your hand, you could make bells ring without touching them, or inflame a glass of brandy. Better yet, you could--in the pure interest of science--ask a willing, electrically-charged young man and a willing but neutral young lady, to touch, and enjoy the mildly prurient result of their shared convulsive shock. In 1746, the invention of the Leyden jar, forerunner of the electrical storage battery, made these parlor tricks into a new mass entertainment, fascinating everyone from village taverns to royal palaces.
One who caught the bug was the successful Philadelphia entrepreneur, Benjamin Franklin. In March 1747, Franklin wrote a friend that he was "totally engrossed" in the subject.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Sam Adams on February 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This book is not written in scientific prose. It is a literary text, foremost. It is not a history or chronicle of the investigations into electricity during Franklin's time, so do not expect to read of the reasoning or structured experimentation behind the electrical displays, behind the silk thread, the Leyden jars, the glass rods and cork balls.

The subtitle of the book refers to the famous kite experiment reported by Franklin in 1752 (chapter 14 introduces the story). The author's research finds no evidence of Franklin having conducted the experiment. A theme running through the book is that Franklin was not above the expedient lie. It is an interesting book, but it cannot stand on its own as a study of 18th century electrical science or of Franklin's role in it.

I was surprised to read (p 136) that Immanuel Kant called Franklin the Modern Prometheus, a nomination that Mary Shelly used as the subtitle of her 1818 novel Frankenstein. Was she intending a reference to Franklin, using this subtitle and naming her scientist Frankenstein? (Franklin/Frankenstein)
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Jeffery Steele on May 17, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Tom Tucker's thesis -- that Ben Franklin's most famous and dramatic scientific experiment was a hoax -- holds up surprisingly well for most of his book. Tucker competently details the history of the eighteenth century science surrounding electricity, the various experiments with the phenomenon throughout Europe, and the personalities involved with its controversies. He is almost convincing in his portrayal of Franklin as something of an intellectually ambitious crank, using the sage of Philadelphia's numerous and well-documented literary hoaxes, among other things, to support the case for Franklin's alleged scientific hoaxes (the flying of the kite being but one of several scientific hoaxes Tucker says Franklin made up).
Tucker undermines his own book, however, by stretching his claims too far. He argues that Franklin's most famous scientific hoax was responsible for his oversized reputation in Europe, and that this reputation among Europeans was responsible, in turn, for Franklin's success as a diplomat in France during the Revolutionary War. Since France's support was a major factor in the American colonies winning their freedom from England, Tucker believes Franklin's hoax might have freed the American colonists: "It might have been a kite, the story of a kite, the hoax that won the American Revolution."
Of course that's a ludicrous judgment. And this highly questionable claim led me to look into how well Tucker's other claims on Franklin stand up. Even though "Bolt of Fate" was only just recently published, Walter Isaacson, the author of "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life" deals with Tucker's claims in a long footnote in his biography, and he is mostly dismissive of them. Isaacson writes, "[Tucker's] book does not address the detailed evidence I.
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