The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin/Section Fifty Eight
Section Fifty Eight
Oblig’d as we were to Mr Collinson for his Present of the Tube, &c. I thought it right he should be inform’d of our Success in using it, and wrote him several Letters containing Accounts of our Experiments. He got them read in the Royal Society, where they were not at first thought worth so much Notice as to be printed in their Transactions. One Paper which I wrote for Mr Kinnersley, on the Sameness of Lightning with Electricity, I sent to Dr Mitchel, an Acquaintance of mine, and one of the Members also of that Society; who wrote me word that it had been read but was laughed at by the Connoisseurs: The Papers however being shown to Dr Fothergill, he thought them of too much value to be stifled, and advis’d the Printing of them. Mr Collinson then gave them to Cave for publication in his Gentleman’s Magazine; but he chose to print them separately in a Pamphlet, and Dr Fothergill wrote the Preface. Cave it seems judg’d rightly for his Profit; for by the Additions that arriv’d afterwards they swell’d to a Quarto Volume, which has had five Editions, and cost him nothing for Copy-money.
It was however some time before those Papers were much taken Notice of in England. A Copy of them happening to fall into the Hands of the Count de Buffon, a Philosopher deservedly of great Reputation in France, and indeed all over Europe, he prevail’d with M. Dalibard to translate them into French, and they were printed at Paris. The Publication offended the Abbé Nollet, Preceptor in Natural Philosophy to the Royal Family, and an able Experimenter, who had form’d and publish’d a Theory of Electricity, which then had the general Vogue. He could not at first believe that such a Work came from America, & said it must have been fabricated by his Enemies at Paris, to decry his System. Afterwards having been assur’d that there really existed such a Person as Franklin of Philadelphia, which he had doubted, he wrote and published a Volume of Letters, chiefly address’d to me, defending his Theory, & denying the Verity of my Experiments and of the Positions deduc’d from them. I once purpos’d answering the Abbé, and actually began the Answer. But on Consideration that my Writings contain’d only a Description of Experiments, which any one might repeat & verify, and if not to be verify’d could not be defended; or of Observations, offer’d as Conjectures, & not delivered dogmatically, therefore not laying me under any Obligation to defend them; and reflecting that a Dispute between two Persons writing in different Languages might be lengthened greatly by mistranslations, and thence misconceptions of one another’s Meaning, much of one of the Abbe’s Letters being founded on an Error in the Translation; I concluded to let my Papers shift for themselves; believing it was better to spend what time I could spare from public Business in making new Experiments, than in Disputing about those already made. I therefore never answer’d M. Nollet; and the Event gave me no Cause to repent my Silence; for my friend M. le Roy, of the Royal Academy of Sciences, took up my Cause & refuted him, my Book was translated into the Italian, German and Latin Languages, and the Doctrine it contain’d was by degrees universally adopted by the Philosophers of Europe in preference to that of the Abbé, so that he liv’d to see himself the last of his Sect; except Mr B—his Eleve & immediate Disciple.
What gave my Book the more sudden and general Celebrity, was the Success of one of its propos’d Experiments, made by Messrs Dalibard & Delor at Marly, for drawing Lightning from the Clouds. This engag’d the public Attention every where. M. Delor, who had an Apparatus for experimental Philosophy, and lectur’d in that Branch of Science, undertook to repeat what he call’d the Philadelphia Experiments, and after they were performed before the King & Court, all the Curious of Paris flocked to see them. I will not swell this Narrative with an Account of that capital Experiment, nor of the infinite Pleasure I receiv’d in the Success of a similar one I made soon after with a Kite at Philadelphia, as both are to be found in the Histories of Electricity. Dr Wright, an English Physician then at Paris, wrote to a Friend who was of the Royal Society an Account of the high Esteem my Experiments were in among the Learned abroad, and of their Wonder that my Writings had been so little noticed in England. The Society on this resum’d the Consideration of the Letters that had been read to them, and the celebrated Dr Watson drew up a summary Account of them, & of all I had afterwards sent to England on the Subject, which he accompanied with some Praise of the Writer. This Summary was then printed in their Transactions: And some Members of the Society in London, particularly the very ingenious Mr Canton, having verified the Experiment of procuring Lightning from the Clouds by a Pointed Rod, and acquainting them with the Success, they soon made me more than Amends for the Slight with which they had before treated me. Without my having made any Application for that Honor, they chose me a Member, and voted that I should be excus’d the customary Payments, which would have amounted to twenty-five Guineas, and ever since have given me their Transactions gratis. They also presented me with the Gold Medal of Sir Godfrey Copley for the Year 1753, the Delivery of which was accompanied by a very handsome Speech of the President Lord Macclesfield, wherein I was highly honored.