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  • The Politics of Experiment in the Eighteenth Century: The Pursuit of Audience and the Manipulation of Consensus in the Debate over Lightning Rods
  • Trent A. Mitchell (bio)

The shape and use of lightning rods sparked debate within the British scientific community in the third quarter of the eighteenth century. A simple investigation into the efficacy of blunted versus pointed conductors to safeguard public buildings from thunder bolts soon escalated into a vitriolic dispute driven not only by the conflicting personal and professional interests of some of the most prodigious scientific thinkers of the day, but also by the political preoccupations of late eighteenth-century England. Indeed, this overt politicization of the issue was unavoidable. For the whole lightning-rod controversy was not just about the intrinsic superiority of one theory and practice over another. It was rooted largely in, and shaped by, struggles over defining and controlling the legitimate social and physical settings in which the controversy could be resolved, in order to create (or enforce) a consensus among those social bodies considered to be relevant and credible. The entire issue was intensified by the historical context in which the study of electricity was imbued with considerable cultural import by contemporaries because of what they hoped it would reveal about God’s design for the universe and the rational reorganization of human society in the Age of Enlightenment. 1 In an increasingly diversified world where the [End Page 307] boundaries of political and religious toleration were tested daily, and an imminent republican insurrection threatened English control of the American colonies overseas, these concerns became all-pervasive.

Eventually the scientific debate over lightning rods involved an appeal to King George III. Although preoccupied by the escalating American crisis, the monarch resolved the argument that divided Englishmen into supporters of pointed rods, promoted by Benjamin Franklin, and supporters of blunt rods, championed by Benjamin Wilson. In the aftermath, Wilson reflected that the dispute became “a party affair between the enemies of America and the numerous partizans which it had retained in England.” He then continued with affected altruism that he “saw . . . the [Royal] Society divided in opinion, and the spirit of political factions profane the sanctuary of the sciences.” 2

Wilson certainly was not naive enough to believe the self-promoting rhetorical claim that science could and should be used in social, political, and economic ways, but could operate independently of these contextual influences. Nevertheless, he clung to that conceit in order to vindicate himself and blame the Royal Society. In a statement still more revealing of the connections between ideas and actions in the natural and political worlds, Wilson’s rival, Benjamin Franklin, wrote on 4 October 1777 that: “The King’s changing his pointed Conductors for blunt ones is . . . a Matter of small importance to me. If I had a wish about it, it would be that he had rejected them altogether as ineffectual, For it is only since he thought himself and Family safe from the Thunder of Heaven, that he dared use his own Thunder in destroying his innocent Subjects.” 3 So Franklin similarly exonerated himself by castigating a tyrannical monarchy and, by extension, the aristocratic English establishment. Although both men later expressed regret that science was profaned by political interests, they were the most vociferous instigators and perpetuators of the politicization. Moreover, promotion of their positions during the controversy was linked to control of the space for adjudication.

Traditionally, scholars have examined this eighteenth-century dispute over the adoption of lightning rods within a positivist, or scientific realist and progressivist framework. Scientific realists long have argued that the veracity of scientific explanations is determined by the degree to which their representations correspond to an independent, external reality. In this view, Nature is the source of all truth because of its objectivity, while Society is the source of all error because of its inherent contextual influences. 4 Until recently, historians of science accepted these assumptions uncritically and used them to support their explanatory constructs of scientific change. The resulting picture was one of the Great Men of Science who overcame erroneous contextual influences to enter directly into an objective dialogue with Nature and developed accurate explanations of phenomena...

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pp. 307-331
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