A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 2, chapter XIV
Progress in electricity from Gilbert 
and Von Guericke to Franklin
The Leyden jar discovered
As yet no one had discovered that electricity could be stored, or generated in any way other than by some friction device. But very soon two experimenters, Dean von Kleist, of Camin, Pomerania, and Pieter van Musschenbroek, the famous teacher of Leyden, apparently independently, made the discovery of what has been known ever since as the Leyden jar. And although Musschenbroek is sometimes credited with being the discoverer, there can be no doubt that Von Kleist's discovery antedated his by a few months at least.

Von Kleist found that by a device made of a narrow-necked bottle containing alcohol or mercury, into which an iron nail was inserted, be was able to retain the charge of electricity, after electrifying this apparatus with the frictional machine. He made also a similar device, more closely resembling the modern Leyden jar, from a thermometer tube partly filled with water and a wire tipped with a ball of lead. With these devices he found that he could retain the charge of electricity for several hours, and could produce the usual electrical manifestations, even to igniting spirits, quite as well as with the frictional machine. These experiments were first made in October, 1745, and after a month of further experimenting, Von Kleist sent the following account of them to several of the leading scientists, among others, Dr. Lieberkuhn, in Berlin, and Dr. Kruger, of Halle.

"When a nail, or a piece of thick brass wire, is put into a small apothecary's phial and electrified, remarkable effects follow; but the phial must be very dry, or warm. I commonly rub it over beforehand with a finger on which I put some pounded chalk. If a little mercury or a few drops of spirit of wine be put into it, the experiment succeeds better. As soon as this phial and nail are removed from the electrifying-glass, or the prime conductor, to which it has been exposed, is taken away, it throws out a pencil of flame so long that, with this burning machine in my hand, I have taken above sixty steps in walking about my room. When it is electrified strongly, I can take it into another room and there fire spirits of wine with it. If while it is electrifying I put my finger, or a piece of gold which I hold in my hand, to the nail, I receive a shock which stuns my arms and shoulders.

"A tin tube, or a man, placed upon electrics, is electrified much stronger by this means than in the common way. When I present this phial and nail to a tin tube, which I have, fifteen feet long, nothing but experience can make a person believe how strongly it is electrified. I am persuaded," he adds, "that in this manner Mr. Bose would not have taken a second electrical kiss. Two thin glasses have been broken by the shock of it. It appears to me very extraordinary, that when this phial and nail are in contact with either conducting or non-conducting matter, the strong shock does not follow. I have cemented it to wood, metal, glass, sealing-wax, etc., when I have electrified without any great effect. The human body, therefore, must contribute something to it. This opinion is confirmed by my observing that unless I hold the phial in my hand I cannot fire spirits of wine with it."[2]

But it seems that none of the men who saw this account were able to repeat the experiment and produce the effects claimed by Von Kleist, and probably for this reason the discovery of the obscure Pomeranian was for a time lost sight of.

Musschenbroek's discovery was made within a short time after Von Kleist's - in fact, only a matter of about two months later. But the difference in the reputations of the two discoverers insured a very different reception for their discoveries. Musschenbroek was one of the foremost teachers of Europe, and so widely known that the great universities vied with each other, and kings were bidding, for his services. Naturally, any discovery made by such a famous person would soon be heralded from one end of Europe to the other. And so when this professor of Leyden made his discovery, the apparatus came to be called the "Leyden jar," for want of a better name. There can be little doubt that Musschenbroek made his discovery entirely independently of any knowledge of Von Kleist's, or, for that matter, without ever having heard of the Pomeranian, and his actions in the matter are entirely honorable.

His discovery was the result of an accident. While experimenting to determine the strength of electricity he suspended a gun-barrel, which he charged with electricity from a revolving glass globe. From the end of the gun-barrel opposite the globe was a brass wire, which extended into a glass jar partly filled with water. Musschenbroek held in one hand this jar, while with the other he attempted to draw sparks from the barrel. Suddenly he received a shock in the hand holding the jar, that "shook him like a stroke of lightning," and for a moment made him believe that "he was done for." Continuing his experiments, nevertheless, he found that if the jar were placed on a piece of metal on the table, a shock would be received by touching this piece of metal with one hand and touching the wire with the other - that is, a path was made for the electrical discharge through the body. This was practically the same experiment as made by Von Kleist with his bottle and nail, but carried one step farther, as it showed that the "jar" need not necessarily be held in the hand, as believed by Von Kleist. Further experiments, continued by many philosophers at the time, revealed what Von Kleist had already pointed out, that the electrified jar remained charged for some time.

Soon after this Daniel Gralath, wishing to obtain stronger discharges than could be had from a single Leyden jar, conceived the idea of combining several jars, thus for the first time grouping the generators in a "battery" which produced a discharge strong enough to kill birds and small animals. He also attempted to measure the strength of the discharges, but soon gave it up in despair, and the solution of this problem was left for late nineteenth-century scientists.

The advent of the Leyden jar, which made it possible to produce strong electrical discharges from a small and comparatively simple device, was followed by more spectacular demonstrations of various kinds all over Europe. These exhibitions aroused the interest of the kings and noblemen, so that electricity no longer remained a "plaything of the philosophers" alone, but of kings as well. A favorite demonstration was that of sending the electrical discharge through long lines of soldiers linked together by pieces of wire, the discharge causing them to "spring into the air simultaneously" in a most astonishing manner. A certain monk in Paris prepared a most elaborate series of demonstrations for the amusement of the king, among other things linking together an entire regiment of nine hundred men, causing them to perform simultaneous springs and contortions in a manner most amusing to the royal guests. But not all the experiments being made were of a purely spectacular character, although most of them accomplished little except in a negative way. The famous Abbe Nollet, for example, combined useful experiments with spectacular demonstrations, thus keeping up popular interest while aiding the cause of scientific electricity.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.