Bright sparks

Patricia Fara

Times Literary Supplement

22/08/2003

DRAW THE LIGHTNING DOWN. Benjamin Franklin and electrical technology in the age of enlightenment. Michael Schiffer. 380pp. University of California Press. $34.95; distributed in the UK by Wiley. 22.95. 0 520 23802 8.

VOLTA. Science and culture in the age of enlightenment. Giuliano Pancaldi. 381pp. Princeton University Press. $35; distributed in the UK by Wiley. 24.95. 0 691 09685 6.

SCIENCE IN THE AGE OF SENSIBILITY. The sentimental empiricists of the French Enlightenment. Jessica Riskin. 296pp. University of Chicago Press. $25; distributed in the UK by Wiley. 17.50. 0 226 72079 9

In order to align himself with progress, the radical chemist Joseph Priestley relegated Isaac Newton to a distant past only forty years after his death:

borrowing a word coined by Benjamin Franklin, Priestley wondered what Newton and the Greeks would have made of "the present race of electricians". Electricity was a new vogue in the eighteenth century, and experts wanted to differentiate themselves from conservative natural philosophers who frowned on public spectacles and disapproved of making money from a divine force of nature. "Electrician"

nicely fitted their requirements -a modern word for the most modern branch of natural knowledge, the surest route towards the utopian future dreamt of by enlightened optimists itching for reform. As Percy Bysshe Shelley enthused, "What a mighty instrument would electricity be in the hands of him who knew how to wield it".

To call Priestley's electricians "scientists" would be as anachronistic as suggesting they were good at mending toasters. The word "scientist" was not even invented until 1833 and was not widely accepted until the early twentieth century: neither Charles Darwin nor Michael Faraday described themselves as "scientists". This neologism with such a profound yet delayed impact was introduced by William Whewell, Victorian England's most influential spokesman on metascientific issues, as part of his overarching aim to unify the sciences.

Originally devised during a fiery debate whose participants included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "scientist" was a reviled term which somehow survived while etymologically preferable competitors such as "sciencer", "scientiate" and "scientman" faded away. As late as 1894, a dis-illusioned critic recommended resignation: "We have swallowed 'Sociology'; we have swallowed 'Altruism'; and I don't see why, after camels like those, we need strain at a comparative gnat like 'Scientist'". Whewell's linguistic innovation was so successful in giving scientists a collective identity that it has masked not only the previous variations between the sciences but also the gulf separating modern science from Enlightenment enquiries. In their very different bids to resurrect Enlightenment diversity, Giuliano Pancaldi and Michael Schiffer focus on electricity but adopt contrasting tactics. Both of their book titles feature national heroes, but both are misleading: Pancaldi's Volta ranges far wider than a conventional biography, whereas Schiffer's Draw the Lightning Down says surprisingly little about Franklin.

Schiffer is an archaeologist (which perhaps explains why his bibliography has sixteen references to Schiffer, Michael but only one to Schaffer, Simon) and he reveals in the last chapter that his motive for digging up eighteenth- century electricity was to verify his theory of "technology transfer": a six phase process in which communities redesign technologies to suit their different activities. Cheerfully cutting through layers of accumulated scholarly analysis, Schiffer unearths the objects he is seeking -"electrical technologies", by which he means frogs' legs as well as gold leaves and glass rods. Many historians have discussed early electrical instruments, but this is the most comprehensive account of the enormous variety of devices developed during this period. With the help of numerous illustrations, Schiffer clearly explains how they worked and what they were for. Refreshingly unconstrained by preconceptions of what counts as science, he supplements the now hackneyed kissing Venuses and leaping monks with electrical pistols, harpsichords and clocks, as well as describing more adventurous processes such as performing abortions with an electrified chair and glazing pottery with electrostatic printing.

Schiffer points out that "all questions about technology are, first and foremost, questions about human behavior". Despite this promising insight, he finds people harder to discuss than things, and resorts to littering his text with encapsulated biographies. Schiffer groups his protagonists into shifting, nebulous communities unhelpfully labelled with his own terms, rather than those which they themselves would have recognized, such as "electrician". This book is packed not only with "scientists of all stripes", but also with "electro-biologists" (biology and biologist were nineteenth-century inventions), "new alchemists" (an intentionally whimsical label: Priestley would have deplored being included in this strange group) and "earth scientists" (Schiffer's misleading expression for people who used electricity to study the earth and its atmosphere). Well-known figures appear in unfamiliar guises. Thus, Shelley is not only the husband of "a kindred spirit"

who wrote "a charming and engaging book", but is also a forefather of radio hams and computer buffs.

Although Schiffer claims novelty, standard interpretations already emphasize that Enlightenment electricity depended on technological rather than theoretical innovation. Strangely, Schiffer appears less committed to the primacy of artefacts than many historians of science, including Pancaldi, and he passes over several opportunities to stress their importance: for instance, he presents the Leyden jar (an early capacitor) as the product of "playful manipulations" rather than as the vital instigator of new theories and experiments.

Detailed archival study can rewrite the past far more successfully than the retrospective imposition of a loose sociological model, as is impressively demonstrated by Pancaldi's close study of Alessandro Volta's electrical research.

Also interested in exploring the relationships between instruments and communities, Pancaldi shows how Volta -a single-person community not catered for in Schiffer's scheme -struggled to be accepted into the international network of established electricians. Sympathetic to social distinctions of the time, Pancaldi describes how his community of electricians was internally ranked from prestigious natural philosophers down through inventors, instrument makers and entertainers.

He argues that since Volta's aim of reaching the top of this hierarchy was frustrated by his dedication to instruments, a new electrical science was forged during the mutual adjustment between Volta's ambition and the electricians' responses.

This is by far the best book about Volta in English. Although it could have benefited from some editing, it is contextual, unawed, and enriched by new manuscript material. It is also far more than just a biography. Based on this study of one individual's electrical activities, Pancaldi makes general arguments about the culture of science at the end of the Enlightenment. Extrapolating from such a singular case is problematic, but he does make some thought-provoking suggestions about modelling the past. One welcome step he takes is to demote Volta's battery, which soon acquired enormous symbolic significance (Italian Fascists even portrayed it as a bundle of elm branches containing an axe). To cast off the heroic histories favoured by Whewell, Pancaldi meticulously explores how instruments are created and promoted by shifting the spotlight onto Volta's electrophorus (an earlier instrument which stored static electricity). He goes much further than Schiffer by describing not only how Volta developed his own version from previous ones, but also -and more significantly -how his technological innovations preceded and shaped his theoretical conceptions. Volta was equally skilled in social manipulation. Crucially, he used his finished instrument to advertise his expertise, writing to Priestley and other famous electricians in order to manoeuvre his way into the highest scientific circles. By emphasizing Volta's electrophorus, Pancaldi effectively demolishes Eureka-type tales about the battery, demonstrating how Volta built it on the twin foundations of his own earlier research and an English model of the torpedo (an electric fish).

Disappointingly, although Pancaldi promises in his introduction to explore the emergence of scientists and the partial eclipse of natural philosophers, he oddly undermines this project by using the word "scientist" throughout the book. But in other ways he does succeed in overthrowing Whewell's suffocating legacy. Rejecting Victorian visions of science's past as the triumphant march of progress, Pancaldi stresses contingency and diversity, exhorting historians to resist the homogenizing effects of monolithic histories and normative philosophies. His innovative chapter on the range of interpretations of Volta's battery provides a good example of the wide divergence between intentions and un- anticipated consequences. As experimenters discussed at the time, accidents did play a particularly prominent role in electrical discoveries, but many historians will feel that chance is an unacceptably untidy explanatory factor. Anticipating such responses, Pancaldi protests that the desire to impose order on science's history is itself a legacy of Enlightenment rhetorics of rationality.

This problem is explored in greater depth by Jessica Riskin in Science in the Age of Sensibility -significantly not the more familiar "Age of Reason" -a thoughtful, subtle book for which she productively coins her own terms by sensitively considering actors' categories. Her major neologism is "sentimental empiricism", by which she means acquiring knowledge from a combination of sensory experience and sentiment (defined here as "an emotional 'movement' in response to a physical sensation"). Armed with this interpretative scalpel, Riskin carves out a new community of sensibilists in Enlightenment France and persuasively demonstrates how their opinions affected contemporary attitudes as well as historical visions of the period.

Some scholars have pointed to parallels between scientific and epistemological debates on the one hand, and political and moral debates on the other. Riskin goes further, and shows that they were inextricably bonded. Instead of segregating electricity, she interleaves it between topics which at first sight seem little related, such as blindness, economics, law, language and imagination. Riskin's linking thread is sentimentalism, which entailed rejecting mechanical views of the world and twining together knowledge and virtue. She has succeeded admirably in depicting a culture where labelling people as "scientists" simply would not make sense.

Science and religion are often seen as being incompatible, and Whewell would later be concerned to unite the physical and the moral sciences beneath a divine umbrella by using arguments drawn from natural theology.

But for Riskin's sentimental empiricists, with their vitalist vision of nature, human morality was intrinsically bound to scientific investigation. They preached that philosophical modesty should replace rational arrogance: being sensitive to nature's reasons implied an open, collaborative approach rather than that "confident Self-Sufficiency" which Franklin judged to be among "the greatest Vices". In Riskin's stimulating and original book, Franklin features not so much as the hero who dramatically seized the lightning from heaven and the sceptre from tyrants, but rather as the champion of a sensibilist approach to science. The Leyden jar also assumes a fresh role. In the sensibilists' animated, interrelated cosmos, analogy provided a powerful argumentative tool and Franklin won over physiocratic hearts by making this electrical instrument show how the hidden balances of nature corresponded to a smoothly flowing political and financial economy.

System-building is conventionally said to be a key characteristic of the Enlightenment, yet for Riskin's sentimental empiricists such an approach represented the evil antithesis of their own philosophy, which was based on responding sensitively to nature's directives. Riskin convincingly argues that retrospective views were forged in the bitter debates between opposing camps: thus historians who decry the arid abstraction and determined individualism of the Revolutionary period are reiterating the rhetorical abuse purveyed by sensibilist critics. Jean d'Alembert wrote that his century wanted "to introduce cold and didactic discussions into things of sentiment". And, as Riskin puts it, "posterity has believed him".