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Stealing God's Thunder

Cover of Stealing God's Thunder

Stealing God's Thunder

Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America
"We forget, living in this era of heavily patented research and closely guarded results, how wonderfully exciting the scientific world used to be. In Stealing God's Thunder, the story of Benjamin Franklin's invention of the lightening rod and the resulting consequences, that sense of wonder and excitement and even fear comes beautifully to life. Philip Dray does a remarkable job of illuminating the ever-fascinating Franklin and, more than that, the way that he, and his invention, helped create the new scientific world."
--Deborah Blum, author of Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection

Stealing God's Thunder is a concise, richly detailed biography of Benjamin Franklin viewed through the lens of his scientific inquiry and its ramifications for American democracy. Today we think of Benjamin Franklin as a founder of American independence who also dabbled in science. But in Franklin's day it was otherwise. Long before he was an eminent statesman, he was famous for his revolutionary scientific work, especially his experiments with lightning and electricity.

Pulitzer Prize finalist Philip Dray uses the evolution of Franklin's scientific curiosity and empirical thinking as a metaphor for America's struggle to establish its fundamental values. Set against the backdrop of the Enlightenment and America's pursuit of political equality for all, Stealing God's Thunder recounts how Franklin unlocked one of the greatest natural mysteries of his day, the seemingly unknowable powers of electricity and lightning. Rich in historic detail and based on numerous primary sources, Stealing God's Thunder is a fascinating original look at one of our most beloved and complex founding fathers.

From the Hardcover edition.
"We forget, living in this era of heavily patented research and closely guarded results, how wonderfully exciting the scientific world used to be. In Stealing God's Thunder, the story of Benjamin Franklin's invention of the lightening rod and the resulting consequences, that sense of wonder and excitement and even fear comes beautifully to life. Philip Dray does a remarkable job of illuminating the ever-fascinating Franklin and, more than that, the way that he, and his invention, helped create the new scientific world."
--Deborah Blum, author of Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection

Stealing God's Thunder is a concise, richly detailed biography of Benjamin Franklin viewed through the lens of his scientific inquiry and its ramifications for American democracy. Today we think of Benjamin Franklin as a founder of American independence who also dabbled in science. But in Franklin's day it was otherwise. Long before he was an eminent statesman, he was famous for his revolutionary scientific work, especially his experiments with lightning and electricity.

Pulitzer Prize finalist Philip Dray uses the evolution of Franklin's scientific curiosity and empirical thinking as a metaphor for America's struggle to establish its fundamental values. Set against the backdrop of the Enlightenment and America's pursuit of political equality for all, Stealing God's Thunder recounts how Franklin unlocked one of the greatest natural mysteries of his day, the seemingly unknowable powers of electricity and lightning. Rich in historic detail and based on numerous primary sources, Stealing God's Thunder is a fascinating original look at one of our most beloved and complex founding fathers.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter 1 "COTTON MATHER,

    DAM YOU,

    WITH A POX TO YOU"

    Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston on January 17, 1706, the fifteenth of the seventeen children of Josiah Franklin, and the eighth child of his father's second wife, Abiah Folger. The Franklins lived on Milk Street, across from the South Church, where Josiah was a leading member of the congregation. Ben was carried across the street and baptized there on the day of his birth. The Franklins ran a soap- and candle-making business, and Josiah was also active in the community; he had served as a constable of the town watch and also in the public markets, neighbors sometimes came to him for advice, and the son would recall that his father's "great Excellence lay in a sound Understanding and solid Judgment in prudential Matters, both in private and publick Affairs."

    While still a toddler, Ben struck his parents as having the bearing of a scholar. "I do not remember when I could not read," Franklin later said. An uncle (also named Benjamin) who resided with the Franklins and took a special interest in his namesake perceived something remarkable about his clever nephew, and wrote of the boy, "If the Buds are so precious what may we expect when the fruit is ripe?" Josiah prided himself that his youngest son might possess the makings of a clergyman, although Ben's unsuitability for the role manifested itself early on in ways large and small, such as when he suggested to his father that if all the meat being salted for the family's winter provisions was blessed at once, the family might avoid having to say grace at each meal and "it would be a vast saving of time." In any event, the prerequisite education for the clerical calling proved too costly, and after completing barely two years of school, Ben was put to work in the family shop.

    Boston in the early 1700s was a thriving port of about ten thousand inhabitants, the third largest shipping mecca in the British empire, with fifteen shipyards and hundreds of wharves that teemed night and day with the loading and off-loading of goods and passengers. Ben was smitten with the magnificent sight of ships--the packets, cargo vessels, and men-of-war that stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the docks and whose vast sails filled the sky. The town's seafaring character, with its inlets, rivers, bays, ponds, and coves, engendered in him a lifelong affection for boats and the sea. "Living near the water, I was in and about it, learnt early to swim well, and to manage boats," he recalled.

    As the adolescent leader of a ragtag army of boys who played around the large mill pond that began just beyond his father's shop, Ben became dissatisfied with the speed he could obtain through his regular swimming strokes and experimented with ways to improve his efficiency by attaching "palettes" (flippers) to his hands and feet. Already a deft observer of the movements of air, water, and wind, he also conceived of a most uncommon experiment, flying a kite while submerged in the water. "Having then engaged another boy to carry my clothes around the pond, I began to cross the pond with my kite, which carried me quite over without the least fatigue and with the greatest pleasure imaginable." As the kite drew him swiftly from one side of the pond to the other, a band of excited youngsters ran along the shore, shouting and encouraging his progress.

    One of Josiah Franklin's other sons, also named Josiah, had been lost at sea, and the father, concerned about Ben's evident fondness for ships, sought to head off any seafaring inclinations the young boy might have. But Ben was clearly apathetic about work in the family trade, and the...
About the Author-
  • PHILIP DRAY is the author of At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award and the Southern Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


    From the Hardcover edition.
Reviews-
  • Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

    "Philip Dray captures the genius and ingenuity of Franklin's scientific thinking, and then does something even more fascinating: he shows how science shaped his diplomacy, politics and Enlightenment philosophy."

  • Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation and His Excellency: George Washington "Benjamin Franklin appears to be in the ascendance as one of the most interesting and accessible Founders. Dray's new entry in the Franklin sweepstakes is elegantly written, mercifully free of the scholarly jargon Franklin would have made fun of, but wise and scholarly in the best sense of the term. Stealing God's Thunder strikes me as the best study of Franklin as a scientist ever written."
  • Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize--winning author of Véra: (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America "Philip Dray has coaxed the familiar toward new dimensions and has succeeded in making the complex entirely, enthrallingly clear. This is a wise and lucid book, vastly informative, and a pleasure to read."
  • Mary Beth Norton, author of In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Cri "To the familiar Franklin as writer, printer, politician, and diplomat, Philip Dray adds a marvelous portrait of Franklin as scientist, justly acclaimed in his own day for his innovative study of electricity. A well-told tale that will interest readers of all descriptions."
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