Electricity and the Enlightenment

Electricity is not only a great microcosm for demonstrating larger Enlightenment movements, but it also was the central scientific advancement of the period. In fact, many literary puns playing on the symbolism of reason and discovery were used in connection with electricity.

Beyond light-hearted literary exchange, Electricity demonstrates several important Enlightenment realms. First, electricity and its advances were the cumulative efforts of many peoples in several countries working solely with empirical experimentation and visual, tangible evidence, such as Patton, Franklin, Descartes, etc, as opposed to the more theoretical book knowledge. David Hume even condoned burning books without empirical studies:

If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames; for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Second, according to Patricia Fara, the Enlightenment was not a time for each countries’ natural philosophers to come together into one harmonious blend of thought. Instead, it was a gulf of several currents, sometimes converging, sometimes clashing together.

Third, electricity was an obvious check on religion’s powerful hold on society. It demonstrated through Franklin’s lightning rod (not without a fight) that man was beginning to demonstrate control over nature, or at least over what once was termed “God’s wrath”.

Fourth, electricity was a demonstration of the blending of class lines. Benjamin Franklin, renowned for many successes, one of which was his discoveries in electricity, began his life as a working class printer, rose in prestige, knowledge, and wealth, and demonstrated that not just the aristocrats and professors could contribute to their country. Fara also shows Franklin as a political champion, overturning established governments and tyrants, and compares him to Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus’ heaven.

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