Revolution! (An Electromagnetic Moment)
In the August of 1776 a storm raged in the skies over young America. In Flatbush, in what would later come to pass as the city/municipality/borough/twee roughhousing knockabout commune known as Brooklyn, families of all stripes spoke Dutch but held within their petticoat-frocked bosoms hearts that beat with the red blood of colonial America, land of the free, free to leave town as soon as the British touched down upon the hallowed shores of Long Island, which they had done again and again. Well-petticoated bosomed hearts like fair Femmetia and her sisters, returning after one such a fleeing session with virtuous and worried eyes moist and gazing at some distant source, perhaps out at her family home reduced to cinders. Nearby, General Washington was also being uprooted from the island by redcoats, but with great patriotism and vim and manly vigor and steely looks over his woolen shoulder as if to say, “Long Island may be yours, FOR NOW, but I, General and Future President of this Great Land General Washington, will return and redouble my efforts in the hopes that all fine and new Americans will be able to live in peace and prosperity in the former New Amsterdam, name change be Damned.”
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin worked furiously on the problems beset upon him by the follies of classical knowledge, adjusting his quinfocal optiglasses upon the bridge of his stately nose to obtain a better look at the molecular structure of the fist of amber and the hunk of magnetic lode before him, a move which required, owing to the differences in magnification and focal length, for him to hold his head very, very still within the confines of a cranial brace made lovingly of brass and delicately tooled leather by artisans who had emigrated centuries ago from Holland and who at this very moment set about with grit and determination to undo the damage done to their relatively new ancestral home near the Hudson.
The stakes could not be higher. The fate of the colonies rested on his sloped shoulders. The amber and the lodestone sat deceptively inert upon Franklin’s workbench—the elektron and the rock from Magnesia, cradled land near mediterranean waters of the Aegean, whose mysterious properties of attraction and repulsion held within them great potentials for the future of all humankind, if only they could be unlocked by one with the proper spectacles. In ancient times, the strange attractive properties of both amber and magnetic rock were known and coupled together in a rudimentary understanding steeped as much in superstition as in curiosity. Amulets of all sorts were accredited with all sorts of properties, properties whose origins ignited beyond the mortal plane in the crucible machinations of gods and deities and whose effects were felt as the reflective glimmer of candlelight is perceived on the surface of warm-toned, hammered metal in the dark. In the more rigorously empirical times of Gilbertt, thousands of years later, these superstitions were discarded—along with their stories, however, were also cast out the watching fruits of a hundred generations of watching eyes and their ancient folk wisdom, and so the connection between electro- and magnetic- was split like bent tines on the prong of historical knowledge.
And so, his head held immobile by sound and thrifty devices of home-forged, American utilitarian beauty, Benjamin Franklin sought to reconnect what had been sundered, to root out the errors of the past much in the same way those dastardly British troops rooted whole American families from their nests, not that the eager joys of scientific discovery were similar in any way to the struggle against freedom perpetrated by King George other than in this vague visual and symbolic association! Electrical fluid was a single entity held not just in the confines of lode and orange tinged baubles but in all objects! He was sure of it. He had used his electrical capacitance jar, inscribed by his dear chums at the University of Leyden in the Netherlands with warm wishes of “Science!” and “Stay away from our daughters!” to great effect, had studied objects, rubbed them vigorously, very vigorously, held them aloft in lightning storms, taken copious notes, rubbed more objects with great vigor, attempted to grasp the totality of the flow of no-see-ums within their structure.
At the same moment, Femmetia grasped her leather horsewhip with increasing tightness as her family sifted through the ashes of her home in search of yet more hand-manufactured nails. Those dastardly British had done it again! Knowing their forces might yet flow into their town in Long Island at any moment, the women shrewdly hid their family gold and precious objects within pincushions hanging from the aprons they wore. The girls laughed and searched for nails and made ash-balls and threw ash-ball fights while Femmetia furrowed her brow and thought of the man, not of marriage, who had swept her off her feet during an educational stay with her family across the sea in the Federated Belgic Republic. She grasped the resin amber necklace about her neck in times of worry (and this was such a time!), twisting it between thumb and forefinger endlessly. The sound of bootsteps trodding on soft American loam behind her in the distance! The shout of a captain to his men!
“Aha!” cried Benjamin. He saw the runes of discovery plain as day through his apparatus: If a person is insulated from the common electrical fire supply, and a second bottles that same supply in glass tube blown by well-spoken yet humble American glassblowers in Pennsylvania, and a third person draws electrical fire from that tube, he should perceive the first two to be electrified! He picked up his piezoelectric Franklinophone and dialed up Washington.
“General! I have the missing pieces to my equation! The Device will work as planned, but only if the third in a series of your fine men has insulated himself from both the ground and the rest of the electrofluidic system!”
“Confound your gadgets and devices Benjamin, this receiver of yours and its disembodied voice scares the Ghost out of me! But I will side with any Device, no matter how much of the Devil schemes within it, if it means our children can grow up to be fine and healthy American and not British children here in what I hope to be one among the former thirteen colonies!”
“I still think you should call them states, George, it is a shorter word. Benjamin out.”
General Washington barked orders as his men turned to stand their ground, unfurling bolts of wool, coils of copper, great stoppers and phials and metal rotators and wooden dials and turning handles.
Femmetia’s valiant attempts at staving off the sneering British captain and his scurrilous advances had ended with a black leather glove gripping her wrist mid-strike. “Mein Leibling, vee haff vays off makink you obey der colonial hierarchy!” he snarled with a curled and very extremely British lip. She tried to resist with steely defiance but the sinister intentions of this hard-hearted adamant would not be repelled! “Benjamin,” she exclaimed, as lightning coursed the sky.
Benjamin Franklin dashed outside to activate the conducting lines of the one thousand seven hundred and seventy six kites held in the sky. Disaster! The lines were frayed! The wind could carry any number of kites aloft at any second!
“Great Scott!” he shouted to the heavens and, thinking naught of his own safety but only of his newly acquired scientific evidence of the future for the country he hoped would one day stretch from ocean to ocean, nay, from sea to sea, from sea to shining sea, which sounded better even though it was longer, he lunged to grab the last filament as it snapped. The lightning struck just at the moment his calculations had predicted and his portly but spry frame completed the circuit. Did he think perhaps also the word “Femmetia?” Did his thoughts linger upon series of events surrounding romance in the Netherlands as his life flashed before his eyes, or did it all course through his mind in an unimpeded electrical flow?
Perhaps it was the lightning bolts of Mighty Jove hurled down from Olympos; perhaps the thermal energy of Vulcan in his forge, hammering away at the fires of industry. Or perhaps it was Venus, his beloved and beauteous wife, sending the mysterious electric fire of Love to her adherents down below. In any case, Femmetia’s necklace crackled with electrum and the captain’s hair stood on end, and George washington threw the jackknife switch, and energy shot through the Minutemen’s bayonets, and King George ate a sandwich, and those weapons made only of British metals were pulled with great violence from the hands of their holders as the ground crackled and shook and red, white, and blue sparks shot in all directions and especially high into the heavens to the cheers of ragged freedom fighters and grateful Dutchwomen.
And that is how Benjamin Franklin discovered the properties of the electric current.
—Ethan Gould, 4/20/2012
- Electronics Unraveled, James Kyle, 1974
- Stories of American Life and Adventure, Edward Eggleston, 1895