11 19 nolletToday I am celebrating the birthday of Jean-Antoine Nollet, a French clergyman and physicist who was born in 1700. He was born into a poor rural family, but the curé in his village realised he was clever and recommended that he join the Church. Although he became known as Abbé Nollet, he was much more interested in science, most particularly electricity.

Abbé Nollet first became interested in electricity in the 1730s and was soon travelling Europe demonstrating his findings to scientific institutions and members of the aristocracy. The scientific applications of electricity were only just being discovered, so any instruments he needed had to be specially made. It was an expensive business, but Nollet was pretty sharp. Every time he needed a new piece of equipment he would have two or three made at the same time. Because everyone was very excited about electricity, he had no difficulty selling them. Also, of course, if he made something terrifically complicated, they’d also need to employ him to show them how to use it. He was also quite a showman and an excellent networker. He was a member of the Royal Society, taught the son’s of kings and had a private audience with the Pope. He was pretty famous.

11 19 leyden jarThe experiment he seems best known for involved a Leyden Jar. This had been very recently invented and was a way of storing an electrical charge, a little like a battery or a capacitor. Nollet wanted to prove to his audience that electricity travelled very quickly, pretty much instantaneously in fact. So in 1746 at the palace of Versailles, he gathered together 180 of the king’s guards and made them all stand in a line and hold hands. Then he applied a charge from the Leyden Jar to the man at the end. They all jumped at once when they experienced the electric shock. He had proved his point and everyone, including the king, was delighted by it. He later repeated the experiment with 200 Carthusian monks who he connected together with wires. The line stretched for a mile, but the result was the same, they all seemed to receive the charge simultaneously.

Nollet certainly knew how to turn an experiment into an amusing spectacle. In another of his demonstrations, known as ‘The Flying Boy’ he would suspend a boy from the ceiling by silken threads and charge his body with static electricity. If people held small light metal objects, such as a piece of foil near the boy, they would fly towards him and stick to his body. If the room was darkened and you touched the boy, you might see sparks. All this made electricity, a very exciting branch of science and Nollet was particularly gratified by the way women were so impressed by it.

A few years later he discovered that you could use an electrical charge to make water flowing from a vessel turn into a spray. He also discovered, and I don’t know how or why, that if you connect a human to a high voltage generator, and then they cut themselves, they will not bleed normally, but instead, the blood will spray from the wound.


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