Saturday, April 17, 2010

Review: A Dangerous Engine by Joan Dash

A Dangerous Engine: Benjamin Franklin, from Scientist to Diplomat
Author: Joan Dash
Illustrator: Dusan Patricic
Publication: Farrar, Straus & Giroux (January 1, 2006)

Description: Before the world understood that lightning was electricity, Ben Franklin set out during an electrical storm with a kite and a length of wire. At the time of this experiment, Franklin was unaware that his theories about electricity had made him a celebrity all over Europe, esp. in France. Admired by the French court and beloved by French citizens, Franklin effectively became America s first foreign diplomat. A father of the Revolution and a signer of the Constitution, Franklin was a lightning rod in political circles -- a dangerous Engine, according to a critic. And though he devoted the last 25 years of his life to affairs of state, his first love was always science. This is the story of adventure, of one man s curiosity and the extraordinary rewards of his discoveries.

My Thoughts: The book begins with Franklin's early experiments with electricity. He became interested when he saw a science show and when he received a magazine from England that talked about some experiments.
The study of electricity fell into Franklin's lap more or less by chance, but he could not have chosen a branch of science better suited to someone whose schooling ended after two years. It was a young science, almost newly hatched; so little had been written about it that there was no body of learning to be digested before plunging into experiments.
Franklin's curiosity had caused him to get his own education. He loved books and read the ones he could get his hands on. He and some friends had started a library and had Newton's work on Optiks and also the works of other scientists too. He was familiar with Robert Boyle's book on electricity. Many other scientists of the day were also interested in electricity.

Another fascinating quote:
In France during that period and among people of leisure, there was a passionate interest in science. Men and women alike studied meteorology, astronomy, botany, and chemistry; they took courses at such public and private institutions as the Royal Botanical Gardens and the School of Civil Engineering. And they did it solely for pleasure. Fashionable circles discussed scientific subjects in the evening when they met at fashionable homes; these gatherings were ruled by women, well educated, exquisitely dressed, and charming, for France was not England, where society was ruled by men of noble birth who excelled at shooting birds.
French men and women read Franklin's pamphlet on electricity and were eager to try his experiments. He became somthing of a hero in France.

Next in Franklin's life was the turn to politics. When he first ran for a seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly, he thought he would still have plenty of time to do his experiments. But politics and public service had to become first for Franklin because of his beliefs. So science moved to the background as his political life grew. But his scientific reputation helped when he went as a politician to Europe. Franklin spent a period of almost 17 years in Europe from 1757 until 1775 with only a two year break at home in Philadelphia.

Public service took up most of the rest of his life. He did continue to be interested in science and shared many letters and conversations with others who were also interested in science. He wrote about the Gulf Stream while he was sailing home to what he hoped would be his retirement. In fact, he wrote three papers on his month long voyage back to America. He wrote "Maritime Observations" which discussed all manor of things including shipboard diet and protecting ships from lightning. His other two papers both had to do with his invention of the device we now call the Franklin stove - "Description of a New Stove for the Burning of Pitcoal, and Consuming All Its Smoke" and "On the Causes and Cures of Smoky Chimneys".

I would like to end this with Franklin's own words:
The rapid Progress true Science now makes, occasions my regretting that I was born so soon. It is impossible to imagine the Height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the Power of Man over Matter.
This was a fascinating biography of a fascinating man. This nonfiction book read like the best of fiction. It was filled with adventures, discoveries and interesting people.


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