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1.5 The Journey to the Electric Wire Part 2

This week we conclude the timeline part of our journey with a 44 minute episode. Sorry it took 2 weeks to make. There’s a lot of things in this episode so I’m just going to start dropping them here.

Turgot’s Map of Paris with the annotations

John Rocque’s Map of London with the annotations

Du Fay’s 1733 Text from Histoire de l’Académie Royale des Sciences, avec les mémoires de mathématique et de physique pour la même année ; tirés des registres de cette Académie. 1733

The engraving of Watons's experiment from Scientific American
The engraving of Watsons’s experiment from Scientific American


Sokichi Hashimoto's replication of Abbe Nollet's 200 monk experiment
Sokichi Hashimoto’s replication of Abbe Nollet’s 200 monk experiment


References for this episode are numerous but include

  1. Electricity in the 17th and 18th centuries : a study of early modern physics
    by Heilbron, J. L Mineola, N.Y. : Dover, 1999
  2. A History of Electricity: (The Intellectual Rise in Electricity) from Antiquity to the Days of Benjamin Franklin, Park Benjamin, J. Wiley & Sons, 1895
  3. Experiments and Observations Tending to Illustrate Nature and Properties of Electricity, William Watson, C. Davis, 1746
  4. A Sequel to the Experiments and Observations Tending to Illustrate the Nature and Properties of Electricity, William Watson, C. Davis, 1746
  5. The Philosophical Transactions from the Year 1732, to the Year 1744 Abridged, and Disposed Under General Heads, John Martyn, W. Innys, 1747
  6. Electric Science; Its History, Phenomena, and Applications, Frederick Collier Bakewell, Ingram, Cooke, 1853
  7. A Dissertation Concerning Electricity, John Theophilus Desaguliers, W. Innys, 1742
  8. The History and Present State of Electricity, with Original Experiments, Joseph Priestley, J. Dodsley, 1769
  9. Recherches Sur Les Causes Particulieres Des Phenomenes Electriques, Jean Antoine Nollet, 1754
  10. Bibliographical History of Electricity and Magnetism, Chronologically Arranged, Paul Fleury Mottelay, C. Griffin & Co., 1922
  11. Lessons in Electricity: To which is Added An Elementary Lecture on Magnetism, John Tyndall, J. Fitgerald, 1881

The lengthy Watson article is titled “A Collection of the Electrical Experiments Communicated to the Royal Society by Wm. Watson, F. R. S. Read at Several Meetings between October 29. 1747. and Jan. 21.” Mottelay’s only defense could be found on page 118 at point XXVII:

§ XXVII. When I first engaged in these Inquiries, to assure myself of this Fact, I enveloped an iron Rod about three Feet in Length with a Mixture of Wax and Resin, leaving free from this Mixture only one Inch at each End. This Iron was warmed, when thus fitted, that the whole of its Surface, where it was intended, might be covered. This Rod, when electrified at one of its Ends, snapped as strongly at the other, as though it was with out the Wax and Resin. This could not have happened from the Electricity’s passing along the Surface of the iron Rod, becauſe there it was prevented by of Necessity pass through it.

Which again, if you’re walking away with a 1-sentence summary of these 72 pages and that’s what you lift, I think it’s a little minor. I guess claiming Mottelay “made it up” is a little dramatic and maybe I personally am trying to make his sentence appear more significant than he meant.

I was just really looking for this and when I found it in his text I was excited and thought there’d be something more significant in the source material than something buried deep and briefly referenced midway through at bullet-point 27.

Also, there’s some evidence that Mottelay was an anglophile, as in someone who celebrates English culture and past, and usually protestant English at that. There’s parts where he looks like he was *somewhat* desperate to try to paint a linear picture of progress centering around British scientists. For instance, based on how he arranged his timeline, in an early draft of the episode you can find on github, I timelined Lemonnier’s experiments as AFTER Watson. It was only when I started reading the source material that I saw that it was Watson who copied Lemonnier.

I don’t think it was intentional. Just as Stephen Gray wasn’t trying to “hide the fact” that color had nothing to do with electricity, he simply wasn’t doing a thorough and careful enough job, good science is really hard. I’ve probably never actually done any. Identifying and watching out for bias is a tough discipline to master … and it’s a discipline as in you need to remain vigilant and catch it. Let me show you classic Mottelay so you can see what his texts look like:

4 Pages from Mottelay's Bibliographical text
4 Pages from Mottelay’s Bibliographical text

So you can see here the two issues. This stuff is hard and my only agenda is accuracy.

Anyway, more about the insulated wire. We can’t count watson’s 1740s as the first or as innovative or as inventive of the idea. Again, the observation of insulation had been made many times before

For instance, Desaguliers in 1739 (experiment 10):

A middle supporter of packthread was again supported on one side by a glass tube, and ton the other by sealing-wax, and had at each end, an ivory ball hanging.

I mean heck, we can go to Robert Norman’s book, “The Newe Attractive, Showing the Nature, Properties, and Manifold Vertues of the Loadstone” from 1720:

… and a circular rim of brass, with three feet made of sealing-wax; and when I put this rim of brass upon the pewter, I electrify it by a small wire; the feet of sealing-wax prevent the pewter plate from being electrified

Even Stephen Gray (who Mottelay takes a couple slights at, because he was some commoner from the lower class, another bias) used the insulation methods in his experiments. Hauksbee in 1709 dedicated a couple pages to the properties of insulating in Physico-mechanical Experiments on Various Subjects.

So yes, kinda like last time, I take issue with some 3 or 4 words buried in some text that led me down a wrong path. If I wrote this again would I have replayed Mottelay’s “accusation” in some other way? Probably. Probably.

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