Session Report: “The History of Electrical Science”

By Amy Fisher

Amy Fisher photo

Amy Fisher, organizer and speaker of “The History of Electrical Science”

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, spectacular electrical effects—from lightning strikes to electrically produced chemical changes and muscular contractions—encouraged multifaceted studies of electricity and its action-at-a-distance effects. Electricians attempted to mimic natural electrical systems—e.g. Alessandro Volta (1745-1827) argued that the voltaic pile (battery) should be called the “artificial electrical organ” because of its similarity in form and function to the electric eel’s anatomy—and considered more broadly the application of electricity to technological development, especially long-range communication devices. Focusing on the period between 1750 and 1850, the five presentations in this well-attended session explored different aspects of this history, examining the ways in which electricians investigated and explained diverse electrical phenomena and interacted with specialists from different countries and other fields of study, such as chemistry and engineering.

In the first talk, Victor Boantza, an assistant professor in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine Program at the University of Minnesota, focused on the life and science of Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). Priestley—best known for his contributions to chemistry, especially gas behavior and composition—wrote two popular and influential texts on electrical science: History and Present State of Electricity (1767) and A Familiar Introduction to the Study of Electricity (1768). Boantza argued that Priestley’s electrical works were emblematic of both Priestley’s scientific methodology and his commitment to Enlightenment ideals, such as a belief in egalitarianism, the promotion of intellectual freedom, and the rejection of dogma.

In the second presentation, Robert Crease, a professor in philosophy at Stony Brook University, spoke about the Russian natural philosopher and chemist: Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765). Lomonosov’s interests in electricity, like Priestley’s, reflected the broader eighteenth-century fascination with electrical demonstrations and experiments. Working with Vladimir Shiltsev, Director of the Accelerator Physics Center at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, to illuminate Lomonosov’s electrical studies, Crease discussed the state of eighteenth-century Russian science. Founded in 1724, the St. Petersburg’s Academy of Sciences was initially staffed by Western European natural philosophers, such as Leonhard Euler and Georg Richmann. Trained abroad in Prussia in chemistry, Lomonosov turned to electrical studies upon moving to St. Petersburg. Tutored by Richmann, Lomonosov strove to disentangle the facts of electrical action from fiction—e.g. did the motion of cannon balls through the air affect atmospheric electricity?—and his numerous contributions to chemical and electrical research helped to establish science in Russia.

Building on Boantza and Crease’s presentations, which elucidated the characteristics of Enlightenment electrical science through Priestley and Lomonosov’s studies, the third talk traced the roots of an eighteenth-century scientific problem into the nineteenth century: were electricity and heat related? If so, how? Amy Fisher, an assistant professor in the Science, Technology, and Society Program at the University of Puget Sound, spoke about Priestley’s commitment to a theory of thermodynamics that included electrical effects because heat and electricity produced similar phenomena. For example, exposing air to a spark or flame caused analogous changes in its composition, volume, and toxicity. Considering the success of Antoine Lavoisier’s (1743-1794) caloric theory of heat and the invention of the voltaic pile in 1799, she then examined how early nineteenth-century scientists approached the study of heat and electricity, focusing specifically on the work of Humphry Davy (1778-1829) in England and Robert Hare (1781-1859) in America.

In the fourth presentation, Iain Watts, a visiting assistant professor in the History Department and Science, Technology, and Society Program at the University of Puget Sound, asked how scientists, like Hare and Davy, learned about Volta’s invention, especially during the Napoleonic Wars. He carefully traced how news of the voltaic pile spread from an anonymously written article in the May 30, 1800 edition of the Morning Chronicle across Europe and overseas. Much to the chagrin of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) who famously controlled (or at least attempted to control) to whom science news from Royal-Society members was conveyed, the unauthorized article on the voltaic pile raised questions of authorship, ownership, and intellectual property rights.

Continuing on the theme of communications, in the last talk of the session, Bruce Hunt, an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke about the development of cable telegraphy. He asked: why did British electricians approach the study of electromagnetism differently than German physicists? He argued that the development of long-range telegraphy raised awareness of “field” thinking as undersea and underground cables brought about unique technological challenges and new physics. Focusing on the work of British electrical engineer Latimer Clark (1822-1898) and German scientist and industrialist Werner Siemens (1816-1892), Hunt described the difficulties in sending electrical signals long distances via high capacitance lines. He noted that British firms owned and operated almost all overseas telecommunications operations. Therefore, British electricians, like Clark, had a vested interested in using field theory to solve these kinds of technological problems. With the exception of Siemens’ short-lived study of the physics of underground telegraph cables, German topography did not require the development of underwater or underground telegraph lines. Hunt concluded that German physicists did not pursue studies of Michael Faraday’s “lines of force” not because they lacked access to British electrical science, but because they had no engineering need.

The articles in this issue represent the views of their authors and are not necessarily those of the Forum or APS.