Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Historical Meme:Things about Stephen Gray
Stefan Scherer of Backreation has tagged me with one of those blog memes - in this case, a variant of the Historical Meme. The idea is to:
- link to the person who tagged you,
- list seven random or weird things about your favourite historical figure,
- tag five more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs,
- let the tagged people know by leaving a note on their site.
Actually, as like Stefan, I’m a bit of a science history buff. This does present a problem, since in being so it is difficult to choose one out of the many people I have come to admire. However, what came to the rescue in my quandary was the recent unfortunate episode that took place resultant of comments made in a entry that was posted on Backreaction just before I was tagged. This brought to mind a scientific figure in history who defines as a hero for me not simply because he added to the book of understanding of nature, yet more importantly that he did this despite what would be for many seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The person I have thus chosen is as noted Stephen Gray.
- Stephen Gray (December, 1666 - 7 February 1736) was born (Canterbury, Kent, England) of humble beginnings whose profession was that of a cloth dyer and for his time should have never been considered capable of having made a mark on natural philosophy at all, let alone as strongly as he did. Beyond other then minimum schooling he was primarily self educated in natural philosophy with his initial focus on astronomy. He constructed his own telescopes and made minor contributions in the accurate observations and the reporting of sunspots, some of which was published by the Royal Society by way of a mutual friend.
- He became noticed and later befriended by John Flamsteed, the first and most famous Astronomer Royal. Although this would prove to be an initial advantage it would later become a major obstacle as Flamsteed became the target of Newton’s wrath. Newton wished for the hurried completion and publishing of Flamsteed’s observations so that he might utilize the data he felt needed in calculations for the second edition of his “Principia Mathematica”. As it then turned out, any friend and supporter of Flamsteed became also the foe and thereby victim of Newton’s tyranny. The result was his exclusion from mention in scientific circles and the suppression of the reporting of any of his experiments and discoveries until after Newton’s death. With Newton’s great influence and as the head of the Royal Society this was easily accomplished.
- What Gray eventually and truly became noted for was for his very early research in the field of electricity as to its nature, sources, basic properties and potentials. His initial experiments were conducted when he was briefly employed by Richard Cotes as an assistant in the construction of an observatory at Trinity College. After only a short time there he resigned and returned to his dyers business. Ironically this was an endeavor inspired and initiated by Newton in an attempt to circumvent and bring pressure to bear on Flamsteed and for the large part was a failed project that bore little fruit. Gray’s letters that reported his experiments and finding sent to the Royal Society were never published in its journal “Philosophical Transactions” and of little wonder as Newton had final say in such matters. This work although never published was occasionally plagiarized by friends of Newton’s and other members of the Royal Society and had great impact in the growth of interest in the field.
- After the death of Flamsteed in 1719 Gray for the time that extended to 1730 no longer made visit of the Royal Society as had been his prior habit. It is thought with the death of his greatest supporter and friend he for a time was no longer interested, coupled with the reality that Newton was still its head.
- As a result of bad fortune and also as the natural consequence of becoming older he became impoverished and destitute.However, after several years of petitioning on his behalf by people such as Hans Sloane, then Secretary of the Royal Society in 1719 Gray was finally accepted as a pensioner at Charterhouse a home for impoverished gentleman that had given service to their nation and thereby society.Although certainly far from being lavish it did guarantee that one would not starve to death and despite the strictness of rules it imposed Gray saw this as an opportunity to once again restart and further his study of electrical phenomena.
- During his stay at Charterhouse he was befriended by two gentlemen scientists , John Godfree and Granville Wheler. While visiting these two he was able to conduct his experiments of electrical conductance in a more spacious setting then afforded at Charterhouse. In the course of these experiments he was able to show that what was then called “electric virtue” (static electricity) could be made to propagate over some distance and further discovered that in order for it to do this, over media such as a hemp twine, it would have to be isolated from the ground by use of a insulator such as silk rather then a metal wire.
- After Newton’s death in 1727, Gray once again began to report some of his experiments and findings to the Royal Society and in 1729 upon receipt they promptly published them. The most significant of these experiments, conducted at Otternden Place by him, assisted by Wheler, were not reported and subsequently published until 1731. Despite this long over due recognition he was heavily criticized for first proposing that electricity was one in the same as lightening which Benjamin Franklin would take credit for some years after. Gray in 1735 when summarizing some of his experiments said the following:
“The electric fire which by several of these experiments seems to be of the same nature with that of thunder and lightening.”
- On January 25th, 1733 he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society and was admitted in March of the same year at the age of sixty-six. After only another three years he died and was buried in an unmarked grave in London reserved for paupers of the residence of Charterhouse.
Today it is agreed by many, that he should be regarded as the father of electrical communications and therefore not Morse, Marconi or Bell, which instead were the benefactors’ of his contributions. That is he was the first to conduct experiments that would be after understood and later refined to lead to the realization of both its methods and potential. Ironically the reason he wasn’t is not resultant of his humble beginnings or station, nor certainly of lacking of commitment or ability, yet mainly the tyranny of the most noted person in modern science. He thus stands and serves as a lesson from which all his peers after should take note of and consider.
It should not be thought that I have written this to villanize and thus lessen your respect for Newton. It was done rather to perhaps have you now come to respect and admire one who truly deserves to be.
The information in this post was primarily sourced from the book entitled “Newton’s Tyranny (The Suppressed Scientific Discoveries of Stephen Gray and John Flamsteed)” written by David H. Clark and Stephen P.H. Clark-W.H. Freeman and Company-2000. Also in relation to the quanity of things I noted you will discover I can't count:-)
Also in relation to the quanity of things I noted you will discover I can't count:-)
Oh yes my tags are as follows:Think Deviant
The Quantum Pontiff
Phil:It should not be thought that I have written this to villanize and thus lessen your respect for Newton. It was done rather to perhaps have you now come to respect and admire one who truly deserves to be.
You reminded me of a blog entry I wrote on The Character of our Heros
The historical part is of great interest to me as well, as I can learn to understand how history actually unfolded. That we can get a truer picture of "the spaces" and sequences in that history. Only study or individual can bring that out for us had we not known of this or that person.
wow, very interesting!! I did remember Stephen Gray vaguely for some early experiments with electrical currents, but I was completely unaware of his story, and the difficult circumstances of his life.
Thank you very much for this great post!
Best regards, Stefan
I’m glad you liked the post and very much appreciate your comments. I also had a peek at your post you pointed out and must agree that we see Newton and those like him pretty much the same. To think that to vilify Newton as the point would of course totally miss the mark. The venerable Gray although he may or may not have had a mind as powerful as Newton’s demonstrated himself to be so much more complete and enlightened as a person. You could say that without Newton we would have never been able to gauge just how great Gray was.
I am pleased that you enjoyed the post. I also consider it high praise as it comes from the co-author of one of the highest rated academic blogs on the Web. You and Bee should indeed be proud both for your acumen for writing and your generosity and love of teaching. I believe that you both have the mind and spirit of the person I chose to give honor to.