- Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax
Bolt of Fate, a biography of Benjamin Franklin woven around his electrical researches, joins a spate of recent offerings on America's Founding Fathers. The popularity of these books perhaps indicates that citizens of the twenty-first century, soured by myopic, venal, and dissembling politicians, seek in the distant past leaders who were visionary, incorruptible, and truthful. Such nostalgic longings will not be assuaged by Bolt of Fate, whose thesis is that Franklin's kite flight was a scientific fraud. Nonetheless, Tom Tucker's book is a well-researched and skillfully crafted narrative that scrutinizes what might be the Western world's most important piece of mythic technology.
John Heilbron's magisterial Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries (1979) stood virtually alone until recently. Now, in addition to Bolt of Fate, three other books treat aspects of eighteenth-century electrical science and technology: Patricia Fara's An Entertainment for Angels (2002), an excursion into the religious and political contexts of British electrical activities; Giuliano Pancaldi's Volta (2003), which illuminates Volta's life as a scientist; and my own Draw the Lightning Down (2003), an exploration of the varieties of electrical technology.
Franklin's scientific biographer, the late I. Bernard Cohen, maintained that the kite experiment did take place, as have most others, and I agree. In contesting this view, Tucker presents several lines of evidence varying in relevance and weight. He claims, for example, that Franklin was an inveterate hoaxer, citing instances when he published humorous and sometimes pointedly political pieces anonymously or under pseudonyms. But these literary practices were common in the eighteenth century and were not regarded as unethical—in contrast to false scientific claims. Tucker also indicates that Franklin's sparse description of the kite experiment contrasts stylistically with his other scientific accounts. In addition, he contends that a person trying to repeat the experiment would fail; I disagree on this point, which turns on factors such as the dynamics of kite flight and the conductivity of moist materials.
And then there is the question of motive. Tucker claims that Franklin's plan for the sentry-box experiment (for showing the identity of lightning and electricity) might—if performed as proposed—kill the investigator. Thus, he suggests that the plan was an exercise of Franklin's "sly, subversive sense of humor" (p. 91) that had a different purpose: to send a message to William Watson, the preeminent British electrical experimenter and member of the Royal Society, who had thwarted publication of Franklin's earliest reports. However, Franklin's plan was taken seriously by French investigators, which led to the successful experiment at Marly. Widely publicized, the Marly experiment showered favorable attention on the Philadelphian. [End Page 839] According to Tucker, this created a dilemma for Franklin, who often performed electrical shows for friends. Their supposed pleas that he repeat the Marly experiment caused Franklin to invent and publish the kite story.
But this alleged motive is flimsy, if not whimsy. As Steven Shapin notes in A Social History of Truth, a lie exposed could, in the gentlemanly culture of natural philosophy, fatally tarnish one's reputation. Why would the clever and ambitious Franklin run this risk when he could have devised other stratagems for satisfying his friends? On this obvious question Tucker is silent.
Following Cohen, who showed that Franklin's fame for his electrical researches gave him easy entré into the French court and thereby helped him secure crucial financing for the American Revolutionaries, Tucker concludes that "It might have been a kite, the story of a kite, the hoax that won the American Revolution" (p. 234). Appreciative of Franklin's pivotal role in creating the new nation and respectful of his genuine scientific accomplishments, Tucker's overall portrait of Franklin is sympathetic—perhaps too sympathetic. There is no trace of dismay over his protagonist having committed the ultimate scientific sin.
Perhaps Tucker knows that he did not clinch his case against Franklin. After all, he furnishes...