With a focus on the experimental apparatus employed and the sociable exchange of ideas, this chapter examines how electricity was taught to Harvard students and members of polite society in the Boston area over the course of the century. Without local instrument makers or suppliers of glass and brass parts, colonial American experimenters had to import equipment and repair parts from London. When time and money discouraged imports, they became bricoleurs, incorporating recycled, traded, and ready-to-hand materials into their apparatus. Benjamin Franklin was an important intermediary in getting scientific instruments from London to Boston and Cambridge, and he shared instructional know-how so that locals could assemble their own Leyden jars and other electrical instruments.
The Leyden jar was arguably the most important instrument for electrical experiments in the second half of the 18th century, and Benjamin Franklin’s fame as a natural philosopher was based largely on his explanation of how it worked. In two remarkable letters written in the 1750s to scholars in Boston, Franklin offers instruction on the making of Leyden jars and assembling them into batteries. The letters also illustrate the challenges of getting and maintaining natural philosophical apparatus in colonial America, and a culture of recycling goods in order to make do.
Schechner, Sara J., Jean-Francois Gauvin, and others. “Waywiser.” Online database of the Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, 2007. Link to Waywiser Abstract
Waywiser, is the online database of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University. It was first developed by Jean-François Gauvin and Sara J. Schechner in 2007--2008, and has since been updated in format by Juan Andres Leon and other museum staff. As curator of the Collection, Schechner is the contributor of thousands of object entries and biographies, particularly in the areas of astronomy, microscopy, optics, time finding, horology, surveying, navigation, psychology, and radio. Work on the database is ongoing. The database is named after an ancient instrument for measuring distance, also called a hodometer.