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Leverage Research Quarterly Update, Q1 2021

Welcome to the Leverage Research update for Q1, 2021. Over this last quarter we have published:

In this newsletter, we share more about this latest research and other updates from the institute.

The 1745 invention of the Leyden jar is widely recognized as among the most important discoveries in the history of electricity. By simply electrifying a glass of water, experimenters found that they could produce surprisingly potent shocks. The discovery began an unprecedented period of growth in the study of electricity. Since Kuhn's Structure, the finding has often been used to illustrate the notion of a revolutionary anomaly, a discovery so challenging as to trigger a field-wide reorganization.

In line with the revolutionary narrative, accounts of the jar's early history typically present a mix of luck and crisis. The discovery itself is depicted as resulting from mistakes by amateur experimenters, while accounts of its reception have classically focused on the difficulties it posed for received theories. However, examining the matter more closely, a different picture emerges.

this paper, we provide evidence that while Andreas Cunaeus' discovery of the Leyden jar may have resulted from a mistake, Kleist's finding came as the result of extended, deliberate experimentation. The paper also argues that most mid-eighteenth-century electricians had only moderate interest in theory and thus the jar's immediate theoretical impact was limited. Instead, at the time, efforts were more commonly directed toward exploration and technical improvement, with the jar's main interest being its practical uses and entertainment value.

Read the Case Study.


As part of our research into the Leyden jar, we came across three previously unpublished letters from Kleist detailing his early studies. The originals are available in the Biblioteka Politechniki Gdańskiej. However, they are written in Kurrent, a cursive script commonly used in German-speaking countries at the time, which makes them difficult to consult. This might explain why, to our knowledge, these letters have not been used before in English-language histories. 

We have translated these letters, and the text—including both the German text and English translations, each as lightly edited as possible—is available in full on our website.

These letters are important for those interested in understanding Kleist’s discovery of the Leyden jar as they contain information about Kleist’s method and the tools he used, giving further weight to the picture of Kleist as a practiced and conscientious experimenter.

Read the Translations of Kleist’s Letters.

Alongside research highlights summarizing the new Leyden jar case study, we have also written research highlights for one of our earlier papers: William Gilbert and the Discovery of 'Electricks.’ 

All of the case studies we have produced now have a corresponding summary. These highlights include an overview of the paper, technical or other background aimed at helping a lay audience understand aspects of the case, and a summary of the principal arguments or conclusions from the research with relevant references. We hope that this will help ensure our research is accessible to scholars in other fields interested in understanding scientific advance. 

The research highlights on Gilbert's 'electricks' provide technical background on what would have been required to isolate electricks and the main takeaways from the case. Highlights include discussion of the role played by Gilbert's theory of the Earth as a giant magnet, his hopes of displacing Aristotle’s cosmology, and whether Gilbert used the versorium in his experimentation or primarily as a way to distribute his findings.

Read the Research Highlights.



Further Updates

  • Hiring: For anyone with a background in history or philosophy of science interested in contributing to our investigation of scientific discovery, we are always looking for researchers to join our team. Find out more on our website. 

  • Scientific Bottlenecks Analysis: We have begun exploring a collaborative effort to identify the bottlenecks in the different fields and subfields in science and technology. This would help make it easier to direct researchers and funding to work tackling the fundamental problems. An example of such an analysis is Physical Principles for Scalable Neural Recording by Marblestone et al. If you are interested in contributing to the identification of bottlenecks in your field, please get in touch

  • Support Us: Leverage Research is seeking funding for our primary research programs and to expand our early stage science program. If you would like to support our research, consider donating. Find out more about our work in our Annual Report


If you have any questions about our work or this update, feel free to contact us.

Contact →

Figure 1. Drawing of a Leyden jar.
Robert Alexander Houstoun, Elements of Physics (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1919), 176. [Link]

Research Highlights: Gilbert’s ‘Electricks’

Translations of Unpublished Letters from Kleist

Case Study: The Discovery and Impact of the Leyden Jar

Our Annual Report 2019 - 2020

The Leverage Research 2019 - 2020 Annual Report details the work the organization has undertaken over the last year and a half, following a 2019 strategic review, to transition to a new organizational approach and to focus the institute on early stage science.


The report covers our efforts to establish new research programs, increase our external engagement, and improve the organization. It includes a message from our Executive Director, descriptions of our work and the challenges involved, and our future plans.

Leverage Research Quarterly Update, Q4 2020

Planned Case Studies

Since our last update, Leverage Research has two new case studies underway and has produced its first annual report

Below we discuss our ongoing and expected future case studies on the history of electricity, the 2019 - 2020 Annual Report, and other updates from Leverage Research.

Our researchers are currently working on two new case studies on the history of electricity. The first investigates the discovery of the Leyden jar and the nature of exploratory science. The second covers Hans Christian Ørested and the factors that led to his discovery of electromagnetism.

Below is an outline of the case studies we expect to produce in the early history of electricity.

Our long-term goal is to produce enough case studies from a range of fields to be able to conduct a wider analysis of the factors that contribute to successful early stage science. You can find the case studies we have written so far on our website.

Leverage Research Annual Report 2019 - 2020

In 2019, Leverage Research undertook a significant strategic review, ultimately dissolving its previous research collaboration which had been investigating various topics in the social sciences since 2011.

It is at that point that Leverage Research began to focus on our current research into early stage science—research conducted during the earliest stages of discovery—on the view that understanding this stage in the scientific process can contribute to more effective research.

Our 2019 - 2020 Annual Report covers this change in focus and approach for the institute and the work we have been doing over the last year and a half to meet our new goals and standards. It details our progress across three main areas:

  1. Research: Establishing new research programs in Early Stage Science, Exploratory Psychology, and our Research Fellows Program

  2. Engagement: Improving our accountability and external outreach by sharing past and current research, increasing communication about our work, and engaging with external researchers.

  3. Organization: Building an organization capable of successfully pursuing our new mission by implementing new structures and procedures and hiring new staff.


The report also features a message from our Executive Director and Founder, Geoff Anders, and our plans for 2021. 

Read the full 
Annual Report.

Further Updates

  • Hiring: In November 2020 we hired Evan Pence as an Early Stage Science Researcher. Evan holds a Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Pittsburgh and has published research in the history and philosophy of neuroscience and psychology. Find out more about our staff on our team page.

  • Website: We updated the design and content of our website to provide a clearer explanation of our mission, programs, and current work.

  • Podcasts: Geoff's discussion with Spencer Greenberg about scientific progress on the Clearer Thinking podcast was released. Future podcast appearances are expected in the coming months.


If you have any questions about our work or this update, feel free to contact us.

Contact →

Welcome Evan Pence

We are pleased to announce that Evan Pence is joining our Early Stage Science research team. 


Evan holds a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Pittsburgh and is an alumnus of Pitt and Carnegie Mellon’s Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition. Before joining Leverage, he conducted research in the history and philosophy of neuroscience and psychology, with an emphasis on issues in perception and animal cognition.


Evan will be working alongside our Early Stage Science Program Manager Kerry Vaughan to compile case studies in the history of successful scientifc fields with the aim of understanding the factors that influence scientific progress in its early stages. Evan's first case study will cover the discovery of the Leyden Jar, with the aim of understanding the motives and methods that lead to early breakthroughs both in related electrical theory and in instruments.


Please join us in welcoming Evan to Leverage Research!

We are always on the lookout for exceptional researchers to join our team. If you’re interested in contributing to our early stage science research check out our Hiring page for our latest vacancies or contact us at to find out more.

Leverage Research Quarterly Update, Q3 2020

Welcome to the first of what we expect to be quarterly updates. Our main update from last quarter is the completion of our first two case studies:

  • The Reception of Volta’s Electrophorus Among Eighteenth-Century Electricians [Full paper] [Highlights]

  • William Gilbert and the Discovery of ‘Electricks’ [Full paper]


Below we also cover the wider context for our research and highlights from these case studies, as well as a few other updates from Leverage Research.

Understanding Science through its History

Our case studies in the history of science are part of a long-term project to learn about scientific progress by studying the history of successful scientific fields. You can read more background on our mission and research on our website.

Of all of the available topics, we chose to start with research into the history of electricity. Electricity is an excellent candidate for study, as it is undoubtedly a successful field, there are relatively clear phenomena involved (attraction, repulsion, sparks), and our review of the literature revealed a limited amount of previous systematic inquiry into how many of the relevant discoveries occurred.

The aim of all of these case studies will be to eventually build up a body of work that contributes to society’s understanding of the scientific enterprise.

Two Case Studies in the History of Electricity

The latest versions of both of our case studies can be found on our research page. PDFs for each are linked below.


We are currently circulating the papers for feedback and will revise them once this process is complete. Thank you to everyone who has provided feedback so far.

The Reception of Volta’s Electrophorus Among Eighteenth-Century Electricians

This case study uses historical accounts, original texts, and recreations of experiments of the time to seek to understand how Volta’s invention of the electrophorus (1775) advanced scientific consensus on attraction, repulsion, and electricity’s location in a charged body. This question is of particular interest as the phenomenon displayed by the electrophorus had already been shown by two of the best-known electricians of the era, Johan Carl Wilcke (1762) and Giambatista Beccaria (1772), and yet scientific consensus did not shift until the introduction of the electrophorus.

Read the full case study.

For those interested in an overview of some of the key points arising from this research you can read the research highlights. This document includes references to the relevant pages of the case study, other suggested reading, and a brief background on the Leyden Jar that some might find useful before reading the full case study.

William Gilbert and the Discovery of Electricks

Our second case study traces the early development of the study of electricity and magnetism from antiquity through the Middle Ages and to the Renaissance, culminating in William Gilbert’s discovery of static electric attraction (1600). This discovery-centric history shows how developments in multiple fields, especially magnetism and astronomy, led a grand theorist and experimentalist to isolate static electric attractors as part of a larger research effort to unify magnetism and cosmology. It is an excellent example of early stage science, including theory, experiment, and an attempt to unify multiple fields of study.

Read the full case study.

Further Updates

  • Hiring: We're looking to build our team of researchers. If you know anyone with a background in History, Philosophy, the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS), or related fields who would be excited about our mission please don’t hesitate to refer them to us at

  • Writing On Research and Knowledge Accumulation: Our Executive Director Geoff Anders is currently writing a series on Research and Knowledge Accumulation featuring essays on Intellectual Schelling Points and the Endurance of Research Programs.

  • Podcasts: Geoff has also spoken about knowledge accumulation on the Patterson in Pursuit podcast and in a forthcoming episode of the Clearer Thinking podcast.

If you have any questions about our work or this update, feel free to contact us.

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