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Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America [Kindle Edition]

Philip Dray
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $14.95
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Book Description

“We forget, living in this era of heavily patented research and closely guarded results, how wonderfully exciting the scientific world used to be. In Stealing God’s Thunder, the story of Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the lightening rod and the resulting consequences, that sense of wonder and excitement and even fear comes beautifully to life. Philip Dray does a remarkable job of illuminating the ever-fascinating Franklin and, more than that, the way that he, and his invention, helped create the new scientific world.”
Deborah Blum, author of Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection

Stealing God’s Thunder is a concise, richly detailed biography of Benjamin Franklin viewed through the lens of his scientific inquiry and its ramifications for American democracy. Today we think of Benjamin Franklin as a founder of American independence who also dabbled in science. But in Franklin’s day it was otherwise. Long before he was an eminent statesman, he was famous for his revolutionary scientific work, especially his experiments with lightning and electricity.

Pulitzer Prize finalist Philip Dray uses the evolution of Franklin’s scientific curiosity and empirical thinking as a metaphor for America’s struggle to establish its fundamental values. Set against the backdrop of the Enlightenment and America’s pursuit of political equality for all, Stealing God’s Thunder recounts how Franklin unlocked one of the greatest natural mysteries of his day, the seemingly unknowable powers of electricity and lightning. Rich in historic detail and based on numerous primary sources, Stealing God’s Thunder is a fascinating original look at one of our most beloved and complex founding fathers.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Casting Benjamin Franklin as the personification of the Enlightenment, Dray reviews the avuncular Founder's science and inventions, of which the lightning rod is merely the most famous. As background, the author offers the Boston of Puritan Cotton Mather, whom the young Franklin knew and lampooned in his early pamphleteering. The irony, Dray finds, is that the future rationalist was against one advance in progress--inoculation against smallpox--while Mather was for it. Fast-forwarding to the adult Franklin's withdrawal from business to pursue natural philosophy, after having made his fortune, Dray ruminates on Franklin's experiments with electricity, which justly enshrine his name as a great scientist, though Dray admits there is doubt about the veracity of the kite-in-the-thunderstorm experiment (an outright Franklin fraud, according to Tom Tucker's Bolt of Fate, 2003). Tracing Franklin's beliefs through science, Dray's congenial history has information that will surprise even veteran Franklin fans. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Product Details

  • File Size: 1779 KB
  • Print Length: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (August 2, 2005)
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
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  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #873,168 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Franklin the scientist. August 20, 2005
Most biographies of Benjamin Franklin tend to focus on his role as statesman as opposed to his role as scientist. Given the impact he had on the raod to independence and nationhood for the U.S. this is entirely understandable. However, he was in his time revered as much for his impact on the world of science as he was for his role as a statesman. In Stealing God's Thunder : Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America Philip Dray attempts to reverse this bias and portray Franklin's life with the focus on his role as a scientist in the forefront.

What is most interesting in this approach is how much one sees that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to the human condition. The emotional debates over evolution, genetic engineering, cloning and so on have their predecessors in the advancements of previous times. Dray focuses on Franklin's invention of the lightening rod, what today seems the most benign of devices, but which stirred many deep emotions and much religious opposition in its time.

By inventing the lightening rod there were those-and they were many-who accused Franklin of "playing God". (Does that sound familiar?) They believed that Franklin, by directing lightening into the ground was adversely affecting divine balances between the heavens and the earth. He was roundly condemned in his time for doing so by many very prominent clergy, including the pastor of Boston's influential South Church, Thomas Prince.

The attacks had their effects. Franklins image was tarnished among many fundamentalist Christians and the use of the lightening rod declined considerably after these attacks. Yet it overcame these attacks.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Franklin the Scientist Enables Franklin the Founder October 24, 2005
Surely the most lovable of all the rebels who founded our nation was Benjamin Franklin. And indeed, most people think of him as a statesman and founding father who dabbled with some genius in other arenas as well, as a printer, inventor, chess player, satirist, autobiographer, and scientist. It is, however, as scientist he got his initial fame, for his investigations of electricity and his invention of the lightning rod. In _Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America_ (Random House), Philip Dray has drawn attention specifically to Franklin the scientist. We hardly think about using electricity every day, except if the power is somehow cut, and no one thinks too much about lightning rods any more, and everyone can see that lightning is a big electrical spark, so why make a fuss about Franklin's risky experiment of flying a kite in a storm that proved it so? What is important, what made Franklin an international celebrity, is that no one else in his time had much of an idea about what electricity was, and he gave us the terms and means with which we could continue an investigation of a primal and useful force, as well as keep it from harming us. Franklin's scientific reasoning resulted in the fame that allowed him to bring such reasoning to the cause of liberty.

Having turned over his lucrative publishing business to agents who would work for him, Franklin had time to tinker with wires and Leyden jars that could store electricity. He enjoyed making demonstrations of his experiments to his friends; he was always one for attempts to improve others. For most of his researches, Franklin was doing pure science.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars When Reason Energized a Nation August 7, 2005
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
From The Washington Post book review, [...]

Reviewed by H.W. Brands
Sunday, August 7, 2005; BW03

The concept of degeneration in American political history is so broadly accepted as to be almost unchallengeable. In the days of the Founding, giants walked the earth; Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison and the others seized independence from Britain and placed the new nation on its republican path. Since then it's all been downhill; no subsequent generation, and certainly not ours, could have accomplished what those demigods wrought.

This conclusion is correct, but the cause typically adduced is wrong. What separates us from the Founders is not a talent gap but a temperament gap; what we lack is not intellectual power but collective confidence. Philip Dray's succinct recounting of the role of science in Franklin's life and thought affords a useful reminder of how thoroughly America's republican experiment was a product of the mindset of the Enlightenment: a belief that all things are possible to self-confident human reason.

Dray, the author of the prize-winning At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, points out that while later generations looked on Franklin as a statesman and diplomat who dabbled in science, his own generation deemed him a scientist who moonlighted in politics.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
How backward we Americans used to think. What a surprising story
Published 1 month ago by Julie Brown
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 3 months ago by Bryan W. Mattimore
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyed this book
We read this for book club , although I read a few books about Benjamin Franklin this one concentrated on his scientific pursuits . Read more
Published 16 months ago by Violet
5.0 out of 5 stars This Book Deserves to Be Better Known
As a Franklin fan, I don't know how I had never come across this delightful book. As others have noted, it focuses on Franklin's scientific work, with special attention to the... Read more
Published 22 months ago by TahoeKay
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic and Interesting
I have thoroughly enjoyed this book. History is not normally my interest, but the author did a brilliant job giving the background of what was going on at each interval -... Read more
Published on August 1, 2011 by K. L. Bos
5.0 out of 5 stars Fresh perspective on Franklin
I've read quite a bit about Franklin. There certainly are no shortage of books, but this one meets a specific need. The title is obviously a nice play on words. Read more
Published on June 30, 2011 by David George Moore
5.0 out of 5 stars Ben
One of the best books I have ever read and I recommend it. The book came out clean and prompt. Thanks!
Published on March 28, 2008 by M. Norwood
4.0 out of 5 stars Patents and Franklin
A recently published book may be of some interest to the intellectual property community. "Stealing God's Thunder" details the history of Benjamin Franklin's invention of the... Read more
Published on August 24, 2007 by Arthur Gershman
5.0 out of 5 stars Benjamin Franklin, the scientist
Stealing God's Thunder by Philip Dray is extremely well-written. Unlike many biographies of Franklin, it focuses on his science first and his role as a founding father second. Read more
Published on April 20, 2006 by Caitlin Norton
5.0 out of 5 stars A Patent Lawyer Speaks
I am a registered patent agent and a retired patent attorney, so this review is slanted from the view of the patent professional. Read more
Published on February 8, 2006 by Arthur Gershman
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