Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)by Carl Van Doren

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  • Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) by Carl Van DorenReview by: I. Bernard CohenIsis, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Nov., 1939), pp. 91-94Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science SocietyStable URL: .Accessed: 09/05/2014 07:36

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    fishes in particular; each observation being recorded in the tersest of style and many illustrated. Of their methods the most important is their introduction of mercury injections. Those familiar with Professor COLE'S contributions on this subject will appreciate his regret that in this first description of the technique they should tell us so little.

    All students of the history of biology will be grateful to Professor COLE for calling to their attention and making accessible this attractive and important work of a society which produced " the first extended work on Comparative Anatomy after SEVERINI."

    Special mention should be made of the excellence of the typography and of the wood engravings, and the Department of Fine Art of the University of Reading which printed the work is to be congratulated on its beautiful production.


    Carl Van Doren.-BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (I706-1790). xIx+845 p., portraits. New York, Viking Press, 1938. ($3.75)

    This latest addition to the literature on FRANKLIN is of interest to the readers of Isis in that it forms a striking example of the need for competent studies in the history of science. For Mr. VAN DOREN'S book-the result of many years of research-is hopelessly inadequate, and by that inadequacy misleading, in the sections devoted to FRANKLIN'S scientific work. And it could not have been otherwise; unless, of course, Mr. VAN DOREN had chosen to write the book in close collaboration with a professional historian of science. There are many books on FRANKLIN and although these are written from many points of view, there is no work that deals thoroughly with FRANKLIN the scientist (i). Not only is there no single work of this kind, but there is no group of smaller works which, taken together, would afford the general historian a means of evaluating FRANKLIN'S scientific achievements and his position in the history of science.

    The importance attached by Mr. VAN DOREN to the scientific side of FRANKLIN is witnessed by the amount of space given to his scientific work. Indeed, it could hardly have been otherwise, for much of FRANKLIN'S political success on the continent was due to the reputation he had established as a scientist. The extent of this reputation may be seen in such simple facts as that he was a member of just about every

    (i) Curiously enough, although there is no such work as this, there are listed in Mr. VAN DOREN's bibliography two works dealing with Franklin and medicine -THEODORE DILLER : FRANKLIN's contributions to medicine, Brooklyn, 1912; WILLIAM PEPPER: The medical side of BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, Philadelphia, I9II.

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  • 92 ISIS, XXXI, I

    continental scientific society, that he was awarded the COPLEY gold medal of the Royal Society " on account of his curious experiments and observations on electricity," and that his book of letters-Experiments and Observations on Electricity-went through numerous editions in English as well as in French and German translation.

    His most important work was done in electricity. In this field, he was at his best, for here his technical ability and ingenuity at devising experiments more than compensated for his almost complete ignorance of mathematics. His " single-fluid " theory of electricity successfully displaced the " two-fluid " theory of DU FAY; his experiments established the identity of lightning and electricity (a fact only guessed at before); the experiments with different kinds of rods for drawing the " electric fire " led to the invention of lightning rods. His mark remains upon science in that he " appears to have been the first to use, at least in print in English, these electrical terms: armature, battery, brush,..., condense, conductor,..., minus (negative or negatively), non-conducting, non-electric, plus (positive or positively)..."

    Mr. VAN DOREN'S method in dealing with FRANKLIN'S science is,

    largely, to let FRANKLIN speak for himself. Now to quote extensively is, in this instance, no sin at all, for FRANKLIN was certainly a master of prose style. But when Mr. VAN DOREN adds nothing to the quotations, or merely adds some narrative, the result is usually misleading, as may be seen from the following examples.

    Pages 143-146 deal with FRANKLIN'S magic squares, two of which are reproduced in the text. These four pages are made up entirely of quotations from FRANKLIN concerning these squares, plus Mr. VAN DOREN's narration of the time at which they were made. The quotations end with FRANKLIN'S statement: "I make no question but you will readily allow this square of i6 to be the most magically magical of any magic square ever made by any magician." Was this said with the tongue in the cheek or was FRANKLIN speaking in all seriousness ? Or, were these magic squares in advance of those made previously or were they not ? Did FRANKLIN ever concern himself with general problems related to these squares or were they to him just so many puzzles? Mr. VAN DOREN offers no comment of any sort: we simply are told nothing on any of these points. Of course, the historian of mathematics will realize that these squares of FRANKLIN are of no importance in the development of mathematics (that more " magical " ones had been made much earlier). He will also recognize that constructing such'squares is no indication of mathematical ability on FRANKLIN'S part. But what of the plain reader ?

    Or, consider the discussion on pages 178-179 of the ideas held by

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  • REVIEWS 93

    FRANKLIN on the nature of light (to be found in a letter to CADWALLADER COLDEN of 1752). Here again Mr. VAN DOREN merely quotes extracts from this letter in which FRANKLIN expressed dissatisfaction with the corpuscular theory of light and gave out some vague notions of a wave theory, arguing from the analogy with sound. The only thing of his own that Mr. VAN DOREN adds is this: " Whether he knew that HUYGENS had already propounded the wave theory of light is not clear, but FRANKLIN did know that the corpuscular theory, with its flying particles, was orthodox. Heretically he embraced the theory of the future." What is important in this case is not whether FRANKLIN knew or did not know the writings of HUYGENS, any more than it is important to know whether or not he knew the vague gropings at a wave theory of light contained in the writings of HOOKE, say, or MALEBRANCHE. What is important is that FRANKLIN was, with the exception of EULER (2), the major scientist of the eighteenth century to advocate a wave theory. And yet this is interesting only as a historical curiosity, for FRANKLIN (like EULER) advanced merely theoretical considerations of a philosophical nature and convinced no one. HUYGENS worked out a complete theory; FRANKLIN did nothing of the sort. Thus, since his ideas are more primi- tive than those of HOOKE, far indeed from those of the nineteenth century (YOUNG, FRESNEL, etc.), to say that FRANKLIN heretically embraced the future seems mere uninformed enthusiasm.

    The section on electricity is the best of the scientific sections, at least in the descriptive sense. This is probably due to the fact that Mr. VAN DOREN had at his disposal PRIESTLEY'S The history and present state of electricity which has an especially full account of FRANKLIN; since FRANKLIN was PRIESTLEY's friend and advisor and the standard authority of the time. Yet, even in this portion of the book there are slips. It is hard to understand why, on page I56, Mr. VAN DOREN states with authority that " not until January 1746 had PIErER VAN MUSSCHENBROEK at Leyden discovered the electric bottle later known as the Leyden jar, the simplest and for years the only known condenser, which was the basis of early electrical research." It is unfortunate that in this particular instance Mr. VAN DOREN, in an attempt to be scholarly, fixes the time exactly by month and date, for any history of physics (even an elementaty one like that of CAJORI or HOPPE) would have let him know that the same discovery had been made a year earlier by VON KI.EIST, although VAN MUSSCHENBROEK'S discovery was probably made inde- pendently. It is unfortunate, too, that Mr. VAN DOREN ignores, or is not aware of the fact that FRANKLIN seems to have been the first person

    (2) Lettres a une princesse d'Allemagne and Nova theoria lucis et colorum.

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  • 94 ISIS, XXXI, I

    to have experimentally induced magnetism by electricity. In a letter to CADWALLADER COLDEN of 175I, he writes : "I have melted brass pins and steel needles, inverted the poles of the magnetic needle, given a magnetism and polarity to needles that had none, and fired dry gun- powder by the electric spark " (3).

    This kind of inadequacy on the part of Mr. VAN DOREN is all the more to be regretted because, insofar as the present reviewer is in a position to judge, his biography is the most complete that has as yet appeared. It is well written and gives a clear picture of the many- sidedness of FRANKLIN. It is well documented, completely indexed, handsomely printed with attractive illustrations, and reasonably priced. Since, in spite of its defects, it remains the best work on FRANKLIN that we have, how unfortunate that the best is none too good !

    I *BERNARD COHEN. (Carnegie Institution)

    Edward Cressy.-A hundred years of mechanical Engineering. The MACMILLAN Co., New York, 1937.

    Mr. CRESSY has produced an interesting descriptive book of 340 pages, with 157 line drawings and process cuts by way of illustrations. The preface of the book refers to it as an outline account of development in the more important departments of mechanical engineering, and in the application of mechanical engineering to a number of other industries and public services during the last hundred years. It also is indicated that the author intended the compilation to interest young men who are in touch with engineering affairs or are interested to learn something of the history of mechanical engineering. This is all laudable.

    The publication has been given a name which lacks in accuracy, since the book is substantially limited to the description of machinery and its development or application in certain important fields during ioo years. Indeed, in that aspect it does more and treats of developments occurring over a period of 200 years, since the opening chapter begins with work of NEWCOMEN (1705) and work of WATT (1765), and some of the recent

    (3) The writings of BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (ed. by A. H. SMYTH), New York, 1907, vOl. III, P. 34. This letter is also to be found in the Experiments and observations on electricity-on p. 93 of the London edition of 1769. In a later letter (1773) FRANKLIN states his views on electricity and magnetism, saying: " as to magnetism, which seems produced by electricity, my real opinion is, that these two powers of nature have no affinity to each other,... that an electric shock passing through a needle... renders it... a permanent magnet... not by imparting magnetism to it, but by allowing its proper magnetic fluid to put itself into motion." The writings etc. vol. VI, pp. 23-26.

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    Article Contentsp.91p.92p.93p.94

    Issue Table of ContentsIsis, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Nov., 1939), pp. 1-298Volume Information [p.1]Front Matter [pp.3-5]Preface to Volume Thirty-One: Quousque tandem? [pp.6-7]Was Ibni Sina an Iranian or a Turk? [pp.8-24]The Artificial Arithmetick in Decimals of Robert Jager (London, 1651) [pp.25-31]Amateurs of Science in 17th Century England [pp.32-47]Eine astronomische Handschrift aus dem 17. Jahrhundert [pp.48-50]Scientific Notes from the Early Minutes of the Peterborough Society 1730-1745 [pp.51-59]Harry Walter Tyler [pp.60-64]Puritanism, Science, and Christ Church [pp.65-67]A Hitherto Unnoticed Criticism of Astrology: Liber de reprobatione iudiciorum astrologiae [pp.68-78]Notes and Correspondence [pp.79-82]Reviewsuntitled [pp.83-85]untitled [pp.86-87]untitled [pp.87-89]untitled [pp.90-91]untitled [pp.91-94]untitled [pp.94-95]untitled [pp.95-99]untitled [pp.99-101]untitled [pp.101-103]untitled [pp.103-104]untitled [pp.104-105]untitled [pp.105-108]untitled [pp.108-109]untitled [pp.109-112]untitled [pp.112-113]untitled [pp.113-114]untitled [pp.114-115]untitled [pp.115-116]untitled [pp.116-117]

    Isis Report for 1938 [pp.118-120]Fifty-Seventh Critical Bibliography of the History and Philosophy of Science and of the History of Civilization (to May 1939--with special reference to cent. I to VII inclusive) [pp.121-298]Back Matter


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