Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Draw the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment

by Michael Brian Schiffer
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2003
383 pp., illus. b/w. Trade, $45.00
ISBN: 0-520-238028.

Reviewed by Stephen Wilson
Professor, Art
Art Department, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway, San Francisco, CA 94132, USA.


Draw the Lightning Down is a intriguing book that uses anthropological and historical methods to understand the development of electricity practice and theory in the age of Enlightenment (roughly 1670-1820). Benjamin Franklin is in the title because he figures prominently in many threads of the story. To US readers, Franklin is best known from elementary school history books as one of t he leaders of the American revolution and an inventor who flew a kite to prove lightning was electricity.

Draw the Lightning Down documents that Franklin and the kite-flying escapade are actually elements in a more complex story. Franklin was part of a major effort in Europe and the United States to understand electricity and to develop research and practical devices. Franklin was one of the most respected scientists and elected as a member of the major British and French scientific academies.

Building on extensive study of both scientific and popular culture sources, Schiffer undertakes what he calls technological archaeology to uncover the excitement and brilliance of the research and innovation of this era. In this time before discovery of the electrochemical (batteries) and electromechanical (motors/generators), scientists and innovators built on the first tentative understandings of static electricity to build the proto-theories and technologies that prepared the way for the electrical and electronic ages. Remember that static electricity is generated by rubbing appropriate materials together——for example, fur on amber or balloons on hair. Inventors developed all kinds of serious devices to work with this limited form, including machines to do the rubbing and leyden jars and other contrivances to store the electricity.

Schiffer describes the full range of research in many different areas of inquiry——electrophysics, public displays and shows, hobbyists and collectors, electrobiologists, earth scientists, property protectors, chemists, telecommunication developers, and inventors. He presents vivid stories to give the taste of the time——for example: proposals to electrify water in order to enhance the productivity of agriculture; elaborate devices to apply charges to different parts of the body as medical treatment; early experiments to control charged particles of pigment (the forerunner of xerography); battles over the wisdom of putting up lightning rods (fundamentalists believed that lightning should not be interfered with because it was one of God’s tools for punishing the wicked); and debates over the essential nature of electricity and how it connected with other forces and materials of the world and the growing knowledge in many fields. There are many fascinating illustrations drawn from the time——for example, a proposed lightning rod hat with chains going down to the ground that people could wear during thunderstorms.

So why might Leonardo readers be especially interested? 1. Many tech artists focus on the spirit of exploration and curiosity as features in their work in technological innovation. This era is a marvellous exemplar of this kind of spirit. 2. There is a growing interest in deconstruction of the mystification and specialization that accompanies contemporary scientific work. Providing examples of an alternative model, much of the significant electrical research was undertaken by amateurs, people for whom science was not their major occupation. 3. Some of the fascinating areas of specific research described in the book have not been pursued by mainstream science. They provide potentially fruitful areas for contemporary tech artists to explore. 4. Electricity underlies much contemporary tech art. The book’s historical/anthropological survey provides a rich background for those who want to think deeply about electricity’s cultural and technological context.




Updated 1st April 2006

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2006 ISAST