How to Light a Fire with your Finger & How This Transformed our World

Am I really going to light a fire with my bare finger?  Of course, I am!  But I am not just going to do it because it is cool, but also because I am copying an electronic wizard named Matthias Bose who came up with this trick over 280 years ago!  How did that transform our world?  Well, I’ll tell you, and along the way,

I will talk about: electric parties, shocking kisses, deadly fame, and really, really bad poetry. 

We start with one of the most flamboyant, self-aggrandizing, and generally kooky scientists of all time, Matthias Bose.  Bose was born in Leipzig, Germany in 1710 and was a child prodigy: giving popular lectures in Physics, Mathematics, and Medicine by the time he was seventeen years old!  When he was 26, in 1736, Bose read a paper about how Dutch man-made glass ornaments move around on water by waving a charged rod above it.  Bose said that it, “almost drove me mad with delight to find the cause of the antics of the swimming glass balls”.     Bose was hooked, he read and repeated all of the reports of electrical experiments he could find.  In September of the next year, Bose found the papers of a Frenchman named Cisternay Du Fay who had made the rules of electricity and the papers of an Englishman named Hauksbee who had made a machine that you could spin to create large amounts of static electricity. 

Matthias Bose

In a stroke of brilliance, Bose combined Hauksbee’s electricity machine with Cisternay Du Fay’s electrical experiments.  Bose was so pleased with the results that he wrote an appalling poem and ode to himself:

“Immortal Cisterney [Du Fay]…so long as I live, Bose will praise you

But everything you did was done with hollow tubes

Which are good, but make slow and heavy work

I was first to take – how convenient!

The sphere of Hauksbee.  In a time as short as you please

Everything becomes stronger, surpassing all belief”

Bose also made his machine even better by adding what he called a “prime conductor” to his electricity machine.  The prime conductor was a large metal object (iron bar, cannon barrel, or sword) suspended by silk chords that had one end touching the rotating sphere.  In this way, the prime conductor would store more charge (or as he would put it electrical fire) that could be used for any experiment.  

Bose did not contribute much to Physics theory; he was interested in the show.  And in that, he was unparalleled (until Tesla) labeling himself as a “modern wizard”.   Bose quickly created an assortment of quirky demonstrations that he exhibited to the nobility of all kinds in England and France and even Turkey as well as to the Pope (the last one got him in a bit of trouble with the strict Lutherans in Germany).  For example, he would invite guests to an elegant dinner and then wire forks at a dining table to his machine (hidden in the other room) so that sparks fly off of them when the guests sat down.

Bose also created his own special secret “crown” which was a glass cylinder that was sealed and evacuated (made into a vacuum) with metal embellishments.  The “king” would then sit on a chair under a metal plate that would be connected to the prime conductor and the candles would be blown out.  When an assistant spun the electrical machine, the sphere would charge up the prime conductor, which would charge up the plate above the “king’s” head.  Sparks would then fly between his crown and the plate above.  The crown would also glow.  Bose called this “beatifying” them for the term for when a saint had a glowing halo.   

Another favorite was to ask an attractive woman to stand on an insulating stool and touch the prime conductor.  The electric machine was then run to give the lady a strong charge so that when she kissed a brave volunteer they both got a pretty strong shock.  He called it “Venus electrifica” or Venus, the goddess of love, electrified.  Of course, Matthias had some more bad poetry on that subject “I kissed Venus, standing on wax and it pained me to the quick.  My lips trembled, my mouth quivered, my teeth almost broke”.  He also added that “anyone scandalized by the experiment is advised to throw himself into the ocean”

Bose’s demonstrations ignited an electricity craze in Germany, “which swiftly reached a stage of feverish enthusiasm.”  Also, note that for the first time women were involved in science experiments and not just the ones with kisses.  This was the age of enlightenment when all of upper-class Europe was debating the rights of man and studying science.  Women ran the salons where science was demonstrated and are in almost every picture of electricity from the time.  Although they were appreciated as attractive assistants and noble patronesses of the sciences, their opinion on how electricity works were suppressed. 

Bose’s most influential experiment was to create fire out of water and electricity (and a little alcohol).  He had noticed that Dufay had made sparks go to a container of water.  Bose added alcohol to the top of the water and use the spark from his hand to light it on fire!  This is an important experiment, so let me go into it in detail.  First, he had an assistant spin a wheel that caused a glass tube to spin quickly.  Another assistant rubbed the sphere with his bare hand to charge up the sphere.  Bose then held a large metal tube against the glass sphere.  He was standing on an insulating stand until he collected quite a lot of charge.  Then, once he was all charged up, he would point at a container of alcohol with his finger or a small sword and a spark would leap to the alcohol and light it on fire!  Let’s watch that again in slow motion.

Matthias Bose

Bose stated a desire to, “die by the electric shock, that the account of his death might furnish an article for the memoirs of the French Academy of Sciences.”  Instead, his interests led to his death through other means.  Tragically, in 1760, Bose was kidnapped as a “strategic asset” during the Seven Years’ War and died in captivity in 1762.  In a cruel twist of fate, Bose was famous enough to be kidnapped but is not recognized for his contributions today. 

Why is Bose not more celebrated?  For three reasons, I think.  The first is that he was a showman who was very nervous about others stealing his thunder so to speak.  For that reason, he refused to publish the details of his research so that other people were often credited with his discoveries.  The second reason is that he really, really, disliked Newton’s theories and “English” science, which made him particularly unpopular in England but also with anyone who liked Newton.  Which is, basically, everyone in Physics.  The third reason is that we have changed the history of science to try to make it dignified and logical.  With men in white coats studying diligently with a specific goal in mind.  Real science that is messy and fashionable with electric kisses and bad poetry violates that idea.

Bose’s demonstrations created a “craze” of electric demonstrators.  An article about his exploits even inspired Benjamin Franklin to study electricity!  However, the most important consequence of Bose’s experiments happened on October 11, 1745.  On that date, an amateur scientist named Ewald von Kleist who was a fan of Bose tried to light alcohol on fire by connecting a jar of alcohol straight to a static electricity machine.  It didn’t light on fire, instead, it gave him a shock that threw him across the room!  It was accidentally found that a jar was just as shocking (sorry) if it was filled with water instead of alcohol and even more powerful if it was coated in tin foil and grounded.  This simple device, which is just a jar, some water, a nail, and some tin foil, shocked hundreds of people at a time and was the impetus to understand circuits, how electricity flowed and led to the invention of the lightning rod and the battery.  These jars were also used to help create the first radio wave in 1888 and in wireless telegraphs for the next 40 years after that.  A version of this jar is still a part of electronics today, it’s in your computer, radio, television, and cell phone.  So what is it and why is it so powerful?  It was called a Leyden jar and its story is next time on the secret history of electricity.

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