Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Other Sellers on Amazon
+ Free Shipping
+ Free Shipping
+ Free Shipping
Bolt Of Fate: Benjamin Franklin And His Electric Kite Hoax Hardcover – June 17, 2003
Wiley Chemistry Store
Top resources in chemistry and chemical engineering for students and professionals. Learn more.
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
Browse award-winning titles. See more
If you are a seller for this product, would you like to suggest updates through seller support?
Top Customer Reviews
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. Tucker, who has written on the history of invention before, goes to some pains to demonstrate that Franklin made genuine scientific contributions to the subject over the next few years. Among other things, in the process of meticulous experimentation on the properties of electricity, it was Franklin who coined positive, negative, plus, minus, and battery as electrical terminology.
Franklin kept current with scientific progress in Europe, and he knew that he'd done original and valuable work. He reported his efforts in the detailed epistolary style of the day to members of the British Royal Society. But not only did the colonial unknown get no thanks and no recognition for his labors, one of the best-known British scientists, the man to whom his letters were entrusted, William Watson, proceeded to plagiarize him.
This is the point at which Tucker's revisionist thesis kicks in. A subsequent missive Franklin wrote in 1750 contained what was known as the "sentry box experiment," in which a long iron rod was to be erected vertically into the sky and bent around into an open-fronted sentry box so that the bottom of the rod, hanging free, would not get wet, and then a person could supposedly conduct electrical experiments with it during a thunderstorm! The author asserts that, though phrased in bland scientific terms, Franklin's "experiment" was intended, and would have been received, as a sarcastic invitation to his nemesis to go commit suicide. Fortunately, no one ever attempted the sentry-box as Franklin originally wrote it. In May of 1752, however, some French experimenters, having read it in translation and taken it seriously, made some common sense revisions. They set up the rod as directed, but left a Leyden jar in the sentry box rather than a person. When lightning struck the rod, the rod charged the Leyden jar just as static electricity would have, demonstrating that lightning was electricity. Twitting the Royal Society, the Frenchmen gave profuse tribute to the unknown American, and Benjamin Franklin became world-famous overnight.
This put him into a serious fix, however. The question now was, what had happened when he did the experiment? Tucker's thesis is that Franklin stepped back, punted, and scored a touchdown: he dreamed up the famous electric kite experiment, intimated--but never precisely declared in so many words--that he'd already done it, and claimed it proved conclusively that the spark you get at the doorknob and lightning are one and the same. Franklin's clincher was an assertion to the Europeans that, by the by, we in Pennsylvania are already using iron rods to protect our buildings ... which was a bold-faced fib, but which catapulted Franklin to even greater fame, and was quickly backed up by instructions casually published in his Almanac for 1753.
Franklin went, according to our author, from being a scientist whose hard work had not been credited to a scientist credited for a proof he hadn't really originated. We might like to believe that Franklin would struggle tenaciously for his due while piously disclaiming the applause for what he wasn't, but ... that wasn't Franklin. (Nor, of course, was it typical of any of his contemporaries, or of too many geniuses before or since.)
Tucker devotes a great deal of primary source research to showing us exactly why the image we all share--of heroic Ben mucking about with a kite and a key in a driving rainstorm--is preposterous and simply never happened. I found it both interesting and convincing. His corollary contention--that the fame Franklin achieved as a result of this never-denied myth enabled him to coax the French into an alliance twenty-five years later, and thus "won" the American Revolution--is considerably more arguable ... but still engaging and provocative speculation.
If you have any special interest in Franklin or in the science of the Age of Reason, I think you'll find Tom Tucker's Bolt of Fate both entertaining and worthwhile.
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)