Life Of Benjamin Franklin: Footnote 49

The controversy about pointed and blunt conductors continued for some time. Mr. Wilson grew warm in it, and gained adherents to his cause. A stroke of lightning fell upon the buildings at Purfleet in May, 1777, without doing any damage, but this accident brought the subject again into agitation. It was referred to another committee of the Royal Society, who reported as before in favor of pointed rods.

Mr. Wilson seized this occasion to propagate his theory with renewed vigor, repeating his experiments in public, and in presence of the King and royal family, by whom they were countenanced. At one of these exhibitions Lord Mahon was present and showed by experiments of his own, that Mr. Wilson misunderstood the theory of Dr. Franklin, or represented it unfairly. Mr. Henly and Mr. Nairne also demonstrated the fallacy of his principles. In the midst of the dispute, however, the pointed conductors were taken down from the Queen's palace, and blunt ones were substituted in their place.

Dr. Ingenhousz, a member of the Royal Society, wrote an account of the affair, inveighing against Mr. Wilson's conduct which was transmitted to a gentleman in Paris, with a request that he would show it to Dr. Franklin and have it published in France. Dr. Franklin replied as follows to this gentleman, in a letter dated at Passy, October 14th, 1777.

"I am much obliged by your communication of the letter from England. I am of your opinion, that it is not proper for publication here. Our friend's expressions concerning Mr. Wilson will be thought too angry to be made use of by one philosopher when speaking of another, and on a philosophical question. He seems as much heated about this one point, as the, Jansenists and Molinists were about the five. As to my writing any thing on the subject which you seem to desire, I think it not necessary, especially as I have nothing to add to what I have already said upon it in a paper read to the committee, who ordered the conductors at Purfleet; which paper is printed in the last French edition of my writings.

"I have never entered into any controversy in defence of my philosophical opinions; I leave them to take their chance in the world. If they are right, truth and experience will support them; if wrong, they ought to be refuted and rejected. Disputes are apt to sour one's temper, and disturb one's quiet. I have no private interest in the reception of my inventions by the world, having never made, nor proposed to make, the least profit by any of them. The King's changing his pointed conductors for blunt ones is, therefore, a matter of small importance to me. If I had a wish about it, it would be, that he had rejected them altogether as ineffectual. For it is only since he thought himself and family safe from the thunder of Heaven, that he dared to use his own thunder in destroying his innocent subjects."

The wits entered the lists and amused the public and themselves at the expense of the philosophers. In allusion to this dispute, and to the political state of the times, the following epigram was written.

While you, great George, for safety hunt,
And sharp conductors change for blunt,
The empire 's out of joint.
Franklin a wiser course pursues,
And all your thunder fearless views,
By keeping to the point."

The controversy died away, and was not revived so as to diminish the confidence in Franklin's theory of pointed conductors, which has been universally followed in practice.

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