Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/January 1893/The Inventor of the Lightning-Rod

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1198708Popular Science Monthly Volume 42 January 1893 — The Inventor of the Lightning-Rod1893Joseph J. Král


WHEN the newspapers lately announced the names of eminent electricians which are to adorn the Electrical Building at the Columbian World's Fair in Chicago in 1893, we were surprised, nay, disappointed, to find that the respective officials left out the name of a man of science whose merits would fully entitle him to that honor. We mean Prokop Divis, the man who, before Franklin, discovered the identity of lightning and electricity, and the issuing of electricity from metallic points, two important truths which led him to construct a lightning conductor. But his modesty (he was a Catholic priest and a thorough scholar), and the ignorance of others combined, caused his name nearly to be forgotten. The Encyclopædia Britannica knows nothing of him, while the German Conversations Lexicon of Brockhaus (Volume V, page 406) disposes of his two great discoveries exactly in two sentences. The only mention of him we find in English literature is a short sketch in the Historical Magazine for February, 1868 (page 93, article xii), which is a translation from a French periodical. As the life of Divis is of itself sufficiently interesting, we hope to be justified in presenting a few more details of his life to the readers of this magazine. Our article is based chiefly upon a sketch in the Bohemian Encyclopædia of Rieger and Maly (Volume I, pages 209, 210, and Volume III, page 941).

Prokop Divis (Dyiv'ish) was born on the 1st of August, 1696, in the town of Zamberk (its German name is Senftenberg), in northeastern Bohemia, of Bohemian parents. At the gymnasium of Znojmo he received the rudiments of higher education, and afterward entered the Premonstratensian order at Luka. On November 30, 1720, he bound himself with the three monastic vows, and six years later took the holy orders. On account of his high scholarship, he was soon after appointed Professor of Philosophy in the Lyceum of Luka. A special feature of his lectures were various experiments in physics, with which, contrary to all precedents, he liked to illustrate the subjects discussed. It will be remembered that the Church has never looked with favor upon natural sciences. After a year had passed, Divis was obliged to change his subject and lecture on theology. He distinguished himself also in this new field, and accordingly, on the 5th of August, 1733, the University of Salzburg conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity.

He had been longing for an opportunity to devote himself to scientific research. His wishes seemed to be fulfilled when he was ordained parson of the parish of Prendice (Pren'dyitsch), a small village in southern Moravia, near the city of Znojmo (Znaim on English maps). Here all his leisure was given to physical experiments; with especial care he studied the properties of water and fire (oxidation). In 1741 he became prior of the Lukan Convent, and consequently had to discontinue his scientific labors for a few years, as the duties of the new office required all his time. Besides, the Austro-Prussian War had just broken out,[1] and a double care devolved upon the shoulders of the new prior. Throughout the war Divis faithfully performed his duties, but as soon as peace was restored to Moravia he resigned his dignity and returned to Prendice to resume his favorite work. His parish was a small one, and thus Divis was enabled to spare time enough for scientific inquiries. He now entered upon an examination of electricity. Pursuing the safe empiric method, Divis based all his conclusions and estimates upon careful experiments. His observations of thunderstorms led him soon to a discovery that lightning was but an electrical spark—that in his laboratory he could imitate thunder and lightning on a small scale—and he resolved to try if it were possible to make thunderbolts harmless. How thorough his studies were, may be gathered from the fact that he worked out a complete theory of atmospheric electricity, a treatise on which was published from his papers after his death.

Another important discovery followed soon after. Divis found out that metallic points would both attract and discharge electricity more speedily than anything else, and proceeded to make a practical application of the newly discovered truth. About the same time Franklin, on this side of the Atlantic, was receiving his first lessons in electricity from Dr. Spence.

The fame of the electrical experiments of Divis soon reached the imperial court of Vienna, and the Emperor Francis Stephen, who was somewhat of an amateur naturalist himself, invited Divis to Vienna, to repeat his experiments in the halls of the imperial castle. These performances were also honored by the presence of the Empress Maria Theresa. The imperial couple were highly pleased with the experiments, and, to show their esteem for Divis, they presented him with two heavy golden medals with their busts engraved upon them.

In 1750 Divis demonstrated his superior knowledge of electricity in an amusing way. Father Francis, a learned Jesuit, was about to make some experiments with his electrical machine at the Vienna court. While he was making some preliminary remarks, the Bohemian scholar, who had concealed a number of small iron nails in his periwig, approached the machine and viewed it closely from all sides, as though he were going to make a critical examination of it. His true intention was, however, to take away all electricity stored on the metallic balls, in which heFig. 1.—The Top of the Lightning-rod of Divissucceeded without touching the machine. Imagine the horror of Father Francis when he finally came to perform his experiment, and found that, although his accumulators were well insulated, all his electricity was gone!

In 1753 Prof. Richmann, of St. Petersburg, while observing a storm from a hut, was killed by lightning descending an insulated iron bar specially erected for the purposes of the study. Upon learning of the fate of that martyr of science, Divis drew up a memoir on that unhappy occurrence, in which he demonstrated that the iron bars, as used by Richmann, were both unsafe and dangerous, and clearly showed how, in case of a storm, the danger of a lightning-stroke could be averted by means of a conductor, the idea of which had already matured in his mind. This treatise he sent to the famous mathematician and naturalist, Euler, then President of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, asking for his judgment. But his application was in vain; the Academy failed to understand his reasoning. This is one of the numerous instances which go to show that it is always the individual workers to whom we have to look for any advance in science rather than learned societies. When Franklin's account of his discovery was read in the British Royal Society, it was laughed at by the connoisseurs.

Divis was not discouraged by the cold reception with which his work had met in Berlin, but went on to construct his lightning-rod. After all that was necessary had been prepared, the conductor was erected on the 15th of June, 1754, near the residence of the parson, for Divis, in order to avoid all risks, gaveFig. 2.—A Horizontal View of the Cross-bars.up the idea of placing the lightning-rod upon the building, but built it separately in the free field near the building. The lightning-rod of Divis was constructed as follows:

A pointed, slender iron bar formed the main part of the machine. Fastened to it were two cross-bars, thus making four arms, across each of which, in turn, a shorter bar was laid. And each of the twelve extremities so effected bore a box filled with shavings of iron in which twenty-seven brass needles were stuck, making three hundred and twenty-four needles in all. The main bar was supported by a wooden column sufficiently high (forty-eight feet at first, afterward one hundred and thirty-two feet) to secure protection for the building and its immediate surroundings. Several iron chains connected the main bar with the earth. The effect of the machine was to divide the lightning into as many sparks as there were needles (three hundred and twenty-four), and thus to lessen its force. It might, therefore, more properly be called a lightning-divisor.

Scarcely had the rod been erected when a storm came rushing on from the north. Thunder-clouds hung over Prendice, and occasionally white shafts of lightning were seen darting from the clouds and flying toward the conductor. In a few minutes a white cloud enveloped the machine, and the storm soon passed away without doing any damage. For two years Divis continued experimenting with his lightning-rod; the results were published by Dr. Scrinci in the Prague News (1754). Having satisfied himself in regard to the utility of his new machine, Divis offered to the emperor a plan for erecting a number of conductors in various parts of his empire. The emperor submitted the plan to Viennese mathematicians, who were, unfortunately, a little behind the times, and reported unfavorably upon the Bohemian's proposition. The plan was consequently never carried out. Abbot Marci, speaking about the report of the Viennese "connoisseurs," says, in a letter to Divis, "Blasphemant, quae ignorant" (They blaspheme that which they do not understand). And at last, in 1756, Divis was compelled to remove his lightning-rod. There had been a very dry summer that year, which the farmers of Prendice and the neighboring places ascribed to Divis's machine! One day an angry crowd came to the parsonage and tore down the iron bars. The authorities then ordered Divis to take away his machine, and he accordingly removed it and deposited it at Brack, where it has been kept to this day.

There is a marked similarity between the treatment which the invention of Divis suffered at the hands of his neighbors and that accorded to Franklin's conductor in America. When, in 1755, Massachusetts had experienced a sharp shock of an earthquake, the judgment of the public opinion was pronounced upon Franklin's rods as the direct cause of the earthquake. As late as 1770 a Boston clergyman preached against the lightning-rods as "impious contrivances to prevent the execution of the wrath of Heaven." The difference between the relative positions of the two inventors was that in America a divine denounced a layman, whereas in Moravia laymen denounced a divine. We unwillingly recall the words of Mädler: "In all times and in all countries the enemies of truth and light pretend to be fighting for the honor and glory of God."

Thus Divis was prevented from perfecting his machine, which would have doubtless been wrought by him into a different, more advantageous, shape but for the official order. Divis felt himself obliged to give up his studies and experiments in electricity, and his versatile genius turned to a new field—music. He was well acquainted with acoustics, and as a Bohemian he possessed likewise a personal liking for music; and before long his creative genius enriched the musical world with a new instrument which he named "denis d'or."[2] This instrument is played by both hands and feet, like an organ, and it can give the sound of almost any stringed or wind instrument, from the pianissimo to the fortissimo, as it has as many as one hundred and thirty registers. In its effect this instrument is equal to a full orchestra.

This was the last great work of Divis, and on the 25th of December, 1765, the untiring worker quietly departed his life.

Personally, Divis had the true appearance of a thinker. In his early youth his health was rather delicate, but it improved steadily after he began his electrical experiments and never failed him again, although he was constantly at work. Oftentimes he was so deeply absorbed in his experiments or observations that he would not notice his friends coming to see him, until a servant reminded him of their presence by pulling his sleeve. The steady mental work gave his face a serious, unfriendly mien, which disappeared, however, whenever he happened to be in a circle of his friends. His guests, among whom there were many distinguished persons, he always entertained courteously. Besides his mothertongue, the Bohemian, he also knew Latin, German, and French. From the papers he left there was printed, after his death, a treatise entitled Längst verlangte Theorie der meteorologischen Electricität (The Long-sought Theory of Atmospheric Electricity), Tübingen, 1768.

Prokop Divis is an interesting example of an ideal scholar. Originally he studied science merely for the sake of finding out the truth; but when he saw that the truths discovered by him could be utilized for the benefit of mankind, he utilized them. Undoubtedly he knew nothing of Franklin, and there is no evidence that Franklin ever heard of Divis; their discoveries in electricity were wholly independent of each other. But Franklin was the happier of the two because he found a people who understood him—the French; while Divis, by his social position, was prevented from perfecting his instrument. We must remember that Benjamin Franklin was a public man, who stood conspicuously before three countries, while Prokop Divis was merely a parish priest of a small Bohemian village, with few or no connections. Yet we admire his genius evinced by inventions so vastly different—a lightning-rod and a musical instrument. These are wittily characterized in his epitaph, written by one of his contemporaries:

"Ne laudate Iovem, gentes! quid vester Apollo?
 Iste magis deus est fulminis atque soni."[3]

  1. Charles VI, King of Bohemia and Hungary and Emperor of Germany, died in 1740, leaving his dominions to his daughter Maria Theresa. Frederick the Prussian thought this a good opportunity to rob the queen of some of her territories, and he immediately, without any right, and without even a declaration of war, invaded Silesia.
  2. Denis is a French translation of the Bohemian name Divis. D'or means "of gold."
  3. "Do not praise Jove, nations! What is your Apollo?
    This man, rather, is a god of both the lightning and the sound."