As every circumstance relating to so capital a discovery as this (the greatest, perhaps, that has been made in the whole compass of philosophy, since the time of Sir Isaac Newton) cannot but give pleasure to all my readers, I shall endeavour to gratify them with the communication of a few particulars which I have from the best authority. The Doctor [Benjamin Franklin], after having published his method of verifying his hypothesis concerning the sameness of electricity with the matter lightning, was waiting for the erection of a spire in Philadelphia to carry his views into execution; not imagining that a pointed rod, of a moderate height, could answer the purpose; when it occurred to him, that, by means of a common kite, he could have a readier and better access to the regions of thunder than by any spire whatever. Preparing, therefore, a large silk handkerchief, and two cross sticks, of a proper length, on which to extend it, he took the opportunity of the first approaching thunder storm to take a walk into a field, in which there was a shed convenient for his purpose. But dreading the ridicule which too commonly attends unsuccessful attempts in science, he communicated his intended experiment to no body but his son, who assisted him in raising the kite.
The kite being raised, a considerable time elapsed before there was any appearance of its being electrified. One very promising cloud passed over it without any effect; when, at length, just as he was beginning to despair of his contrivance, he observed some loose threads of the hempen string to stand erect, and to avoid one another, just as if they had been suspended on a common conductor. Struck with this promising appearance, he inmmediately presented his knuckle to the key, and (let the reader judge of the exquisite pleasure he must have felt at that moment) the discovery was complete. He perceived a very evident electric spark. Others succeeded, even before the string was wet, so as to put the matter past all dispute, and when the rain had wetted the string, he collected electric fire very copiously. This happened in June 1752, a month after the electricians in France had verified the same theory, but before he had heard of any thing that they had done.
The marriage of space and time that heralded the modern era began with the marriage, in 1864, of electricity and magnetism. This remarkable intellectual achievement, based on the cumulative efforts of great physicists such as AndrŽ-Marie Amp�re, Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, and Michael Faraday, was capped by the brilliant British physicist James Clerk Maxwell. He discovered that the laws of electricity and magnetism not only displayed an intimate relationship with one another but together implied the existence of “electromagnetic waves,” which should travel throughout space at a speed that one could calculate based on the known properties of electricity and magnetism. The speed turned out to be identical to the speed of light, which had previously been measured.
Surely there is no technology that has changed our lives more than the electricity that comes into our homes on a wire. Lighting, cooling, heating, ironing, cooking, and entertainment at the flick of a switch. Cheap, silent, invisible energy at our beck and call, flowing though a wire.
One of my scientific heroes is Michael Faraday -- gentle, brilliant, infused with wonder. No one did more to wrest electricity from the gods and make it do our bidding than he. For most people of his time, electricity was a curious novelty, a parlor game. Faraday understood it another way:
Electricity is often called wonderful, beautiful; but…The beauty of electricity or of any other force is not that the power is mysterious, and unexpected, touching every sense unawares in turn, but that it is under law, and that the taught intellect can govern it largely.
There you have it, as perfect a statement of the scientific spirit as you are likely to find.
Everyone who flicks a switch to turn on the light and at the same time espouses a belief in miracles is embracing a kind of cognitive dissonance. The lightning bolt that jags across the sky is not the whim of a willful Zeus -- or as we might say, an act of God -- it is lawful. Behind all of the apparent randomness of nature, law prevails. And the taught intellect can govern it.