History of Electricity: The Development and Spread of Franklinian Theory

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Case Study: The Development and Spread of Franklinian Theory

Evan Pence
Leverage Research

Working Paper (v1.1)
Original: January 2022. Last Updated: April 2022.

Benjamin Franklin’s fluid theory of electricity is widely seen as a pivotal development in the history of electricity. First articulated in 1747 and published in 1751, Franklin’s account offered what many see as the area’s first organizing system, setting in place concepts and terms still in use today. Within a few years of his work’s release, Franklin had gone from a virtual unknown to perhaps the most respected electrician in Europe, his theory becoming the most widely adopted framework to date.


This rise is often attributed to the singular novelty and explanatory scope of his ideas. In reviewing the literature prior to his writing, however, one finds that most of Franklin’s central premises were already in circulation at the time of his writing, suggesting that conceptual novelty is at most a partial explanation for his impact and raising the question of what other factors were at play. The present study argues for the centrality of three features: the directness and relative simplicity of his theoretical exposition, the immediate applications of his framework to the recently discovered Leyden jar, and the peculiar potency of Franklin’s background and work with lightning for Enlightenment audiences.


Further Resources

Research Highlights: Franklinian Theory

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A summary of the results from our case study on the development and spread of Franklinian theory.


It includes background on the structure and applications of Franklin's theory and summaries of the main reasons the paper gives for why Franklin's theory became so popular along with references to the case study and external sources for further reading on each point.