In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald the British “poster boy of pop science”TM made the following series of statements:
“When you’ve got difficult economic times, you see governments saying, ‘Well, maybe we should cut back on this kind of blue-sky stuff.’ It’s just drivel. Imagine if that had happened in 1799 when the Royal Institute [sic] was being set up. Then, in the worst-case scenario, you don’t get electricity.” [my emphasis]
Let us take a brief look at a list of some of the prominent names associated with the evolution of the science of electricity between 1600 and 1900. This list is of course by no means exhaustive:
William Gilbert, Otto von Guericke, Robert Boyle, Stephen Gray, Francis Hauksbee, John Desaguliers, C. F. du Fay, Abbé Nollet, Pieter van Musschenbroek, Benjamin Franklin, Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, Hans Christian Ørsted, André-Marie Ampère, Michael Faraday, Georg Simon Ohm, James Clerk Maxwell, Galileo Ferraris, Oliver Heaviside, Charles Parsons, Joseph Swan, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Ernst Werner von Siemens and William Thomson.
Your quiz question for today, which of the men in this list were not involved with the Royal Institution?
Now some of you might accuse me of just being nasty to the “poster boy of pop science”TM, as he was obviously referring to Michael Faraday who did work for the Royal Institution from 1813 (unlike any of the others) and who is normally credited with having invented the electric generator or more accurately discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction on which the generator is based. So is the “poster boy of pop science”TM right after all?
Well, the question is, as always, given the general developments in electrical research at the beginning of the 1830s, might it not be possible that someone else would have discovered this principle and thus we would have had electricity with or without Faraday? Are we going to replace one dubious hypothetical with another one? Well, actually no! We just have to take a somewhat closer look at the history of electricity to discover that is exactly what happened.
Both the Italian Francesco Zantedeschi and the American Joseph Henry discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction before Faraday. Zantedeschi published his discovery, which however went unnoticed, while Henry first published when he realised that he had been beaten to the punch by Faraday. If this wasn’t enough to show that we would have had electricity if Faraday and the Royal Institution had never existed the Hungarian inventor Ányos István Jedlik actually invented a generator, superior to Faraday’s, several years before Faraday made his legendary discovery.
As I’ve said on several occasions in the past statements in the history of science and technology along the lines of if it hadn’t been for X we wouldn’t have Y are almost inevitably wrong and are on close inspection likely to leave their utterer looking pretty stupid.