- Karthik Narasimhan
William Grimes reviews Philip Dray's Stealing God's Thunder – yet another book on Benjamin Franklin – for the New York Times. After Walter Isaacson's thorough(ly enjoyable) Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, another Franklin biography sounds redundant, but this “compact and stylishly written” book seems to get away with it by narrowly focusing on one aspect of Franklin: the scientist.
Americans tend to regard Franklin's scientific accomplishments as an interesting sideline. In his own time, however, Franklin was lionized abroad as the man who solved the age-old mystery of lightning, one of nature's most fearsome power displays. It was a great victory for the Enlightenment when Franklin, the backwoods philosopher, snatched the thunderbolts of Zeus and robbed them of their destructive power.
And not surprisingly,
The clergy turned a disapproving eye on Franklin's great invention, the lightning rod. Who was he to disturb the instruments of divine wrath? Even Jean-Antoine Nollet, one of France's foremost lightning researchers, warned that it was “as impious to ward off Heaven's lightnings as for a child to ward off the chastening rod of its father.”
Franklin was amused. “Surely the Thunder of Heaven is no more supernatural than the Rain, Hail or Sunshine of Heaven, against the Inconvenience of which we guard by Roofs & Shades without Scruple,” he wrote to a friend.
I'm sure the clergy didn't like this either,
As a child he suggested to his father that if all the meat being salted for the winter meals were blessed at once, it would not be necessary to say grace at each meal, resulting in “a vast saving of time.”