Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2208:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we invent electricity. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Science is such a wonderfully interactive process. I was reading about Alessandro Volta, after whom the electric Volt is named, when another name turned up: Giovanni Beccaria. I'd first encountered Beccaria in a surprisingly different context. You may've heard of the musical instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin: his glass armonica. With it, a performer plays a melody by touching glass bowls mounted on a rotating spindle.

Franklin described that instrument completely in just one place -- a letter addressed to Father Beccaria. In it, he thanks Beccaria for his latest paper on electricity, then adds, "I wish I could in return entertain you with anything new of mine on that subject," but he allows that, instead of working on electricity, he's been developing his a new musical instrument.

Franklin was like that. His omnivorous mind went from one thing to the next, engaging each with enormous concentration, then moving on. Beccaria, ten years younger than Franklin, belonged to a teaching order called the Piarists. He'd taken over the chair of physics at Turin, two years before Franklin began publishing successive parts of his book on electricity.

It turned out that the combative Beccaria had been given that post by people opposed to the prevailing Cartesian philosophy. Franklin's down-to-earth electrical experiments were the perfect weapon to use against Cartesian speculation about electricity as abstract vortices. Beccaria first championed Franklin, then wrote his own treatises on electricity. Franklin praised Beccaria's work and a warm correspondence followed.

But warmth and friendship were not natural Beccarian traits. He was a combatant. When 17-year-old Volta wrote to him with his early ideas about electricity, Beccaria ignored him. Only after Volta wrote again, expressing remorse for his initial brashness, did Beccaria write back and tell him to begin by reading his book.

For a while Beccaria mentored Volta, and Volta prospered from the association. But too much was changing -- too much had to be revised. Eventually Volta contradicted Beccaria and invoked the fellow's wrath. Volta went on to give us the embryonic electric battery, the spark plug, the gas methane, and much more.

By then, everyone was into electricity. The 19th century would be the electric century. It gave us Frankenstein's electricity-induced monster; it us the creative depths of Michael Faraday -- all the while drawing continued inspiration from Ben Franklin.

Warfare escalated among the next generation of electrical thinkers. It had to; so many issues had to be tested and resolved. Franklin was among the few whom Beccaria did not engage in battle. But then, Franklin had said his piece on electricity and was on to other things -- music, government of-and-by the people, and anything else too large to be contained by any one book or person.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

J. L. Heilbron, Beccaria, Giambatista. Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. 1, C. C. Gillispie, ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970): pp. 546-549.

B. Franklin, Experiments and Observations Made in America at Philadelphia ... 4th ed., (London: Printed for David Henry; and sold by Francis Newbery, at the corner of St. Paul's Church Yard, MDCCLXIX). The letter to Father Giambatista Beccaria appears on pp. 427-433. (The copy of this book at the UH Library holds the nameplate of Michael Faraday.)

G. Pancaldi, Volta. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).

Franklin's Electricity
Franklin's historic treatise on electricity

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.