On May 1, 1729 a retired clothing dyer noticed a single feather moving in a strange way which changed the course of history. How did a single feather change the course of history? Well, I’ll tell you and along the way, I will talk about class prejudice, the true father of electricity, electrifying hot pokers, live chickens, and “flying” children!
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The First Real Study of Electricity: Stephen Gray
The real study of electricity began in 1729 with a poor Englishman named Stephen Gray. Stephen Gray was born in 1666 in the town of Canterbury to a lower-class family of clothing dyers. Gray was fascinated with science and did self-funded research on a wide variety of topics: from telescopes and microscopes to a failed attempt to capture the Canterbury ghost.
Through his work on telescopes, Gray became friends with the “Royal Astronomer” a man named John Flamsteed. King Charles II (remember the slutty king) created the position of “Royal Astronomer” in 1675 to have more accurate measurements of the stars to help with navigation.
Unfortunately for Gray and for Flamsteed, Isaac Newton and Flamsteed got into a heated and angry battle over star maps after which Newton blackballed Flamsteed and anyone connected to him.
Dying cloth is dangerous and backbreaking work, and all Steven Gray wanted to do was study science but because of Newton’s animus, he couldn’t get published or assistance.
His finances actually improved a bit when Newton’s assistant Francis Hauksbee died in 1713 then Newton hired a French scientist named John Desaguiliers to replace Hauksbee.
Desaguiliers succeeded in managing the notoriously prickly Newton while being friendly to his “enemies” including Gray. Finally, in 1719, when Gray was fifty-four, Flamsteed and Desaguiliers helped Gray get a position at a place called “the Charterhouse” which was basically a retirement house for poor military men.
Gray was not in the military but got in because he said his astronomy work was to help his country and was sort of like being in the military.
The Discovery of Electric Communication
Anyway, for the next ten years, nothing of note came from the Charterhouse. Then, on May 1, 1729, Gray made a surprising discovery with a feather. He was playing with charging up a glass tube that had corks in it to keep out the dust and wondered if the corks affected the power of the tube.
He charged up the tube and watched if a feather behaved differently if it was released near the center of the tube or near the ends. To his surprise, the feather released near the end attached to the cork instead of the glass even though he had never rubbed the cork! Gray had discovered electric communication!
This is important, before this date no one knew that electricity could flow at all. Gray quickly extended the experiment to see how far it could flow. He placed a small stick in the cork and an ivory ball at the end of the stick and found that the ball could be electrified by rubbing the glass tube without touching the ball at all!
Gray then tried a fishing pole and thick twine called packthread as what he called his “line of communication” (both worked great). However, if the twine touched the ground the experiment stopped working. By draping a length of twine off the highest tower in the charterhouse, Gray managed to make feathers attract to a ball of ivory 34 feet away.
Electric Virtue: Conductors and Insulators
He then went searching for a higher tower. Luckily for Gray, and for science, Gray had another wealthy friend who could help out, this one a man named Granville Wheler.
Wheler was a reverend and an amateur scientist as well as a distant relative of Flamsteed and was happy to take over his large estate to these strange studies. Wheler thought of trying to conduct the twine long distance by suspending it with silk string.
Gray thought that was a wonderful idea as silk is much thinner than twine and, he thought, might prevent the loss of “electric virtue”. They threaded twine (held up by silk strings) through Wheler’s hallways and ballrooms with one end of the twine connected to a glass tube and the other to an ivory ball. Rubbing the tube at one end attracted feathers to the ball 765 feet away!
Several experiments later, Gray and Wheler became frustrated by how many times the silk broke. Therefore, Gray tried to replace the silk with thin metal wires as metal is stronger but it didn’t work.
They were surprised to find that it was not the thickness of the material that mattered as much as what it was made of. They had discovered that all materials could be placed into two categories: materials that would let the “electric virtue” flow (conductors) and materials that will prevent the “electric virtue” from flowing (insulators).
The Discovery of Induction
In other words, electricity is in things equally but does not flow in things equally. Therefore, if you try to electrify an object on the ground it is possible that the electricity will just flow into the ground making it seem like that object is “non-electric”.
However, if you keep the object electrically isolated (insulated), then metals can attract feathers just as well as amber or glass can.
On August 5, 1729, Gray noticed that the experiment worked even when the charged glass tube did not touch the packthread but was just placed close to it! In other words, the electricity would be induced to move without actually touching.
For that reason, this process was called induction (charging without touching) and, of course, Gray was the first person to discover this effect.
Gray (and Wheler) spent the next 30 months electrocuting basically any object they could think of including a large map, a tablecloth, a hot poker, and an umbrella. Gray wrote that Wheler even, “suspended a large chicken upon the tube by the legs, and found that the breast of the chick was strongly electrical.”
They happily found that everything they played with would fit neatly into one of these categories (insulator or conductor).
The True Father of Electricity
On April 8, 1730, Gray decided to move from live chickens to live children! In this experiment, Gray took an 8 or 9-year-old boy and hung him from a wooden structure with silk threads as if he was flying.
Gray placed a charged rod near the boy’s feet, little feathers and fluff would be attracted to the boy’s hands and head. This was a strange and dramatic demonstration of induction that became a popular parlor trick for years afterward.
Gray’s fortunes improved in 1730 his friend, a man named Cromwell Mortimer was made editor of the Royal Society’s scientific magazine. Isaac Newton did not object to Mortimer as he had died three years earlier in his sleep, possibly from mercury poisoning.
Finally, Gray could be published and in January of 1731 Gray told the world all that he had discovered about electricity. A few years later, Gray fell seriously ill. Mortimer visited Gray on his sickbed where Gray described plans to create a floating world with electrical forces, “if god would spare his life a little longer” Instead, he died the very next day.
Gray had discovered that electricity moves. He really is the true father of electricity. However, most scientists at the time were interested in the important studies of gravity not the trivial studies of floating feathers discovered by some lower-class merchant!
Luckily, a wealthy French nobleman with the elegantly cumbersome name of Charles-François de Cisternay Du Fay had the Royal Society’s papers translated into French and read Gray’s report. Over the course of just 8 months, Du Fay managed to create the first laws of electricity with the help of little pieces of gold. And he was ½ correct! That story is next time on the secret history of electricity.