Memoir of my singular history, Benjamin Wilson Spread 0

Memoir of my singular history, Benjamin Wilson Spread 0 cover

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Benjamin Wilson (1721-1788) occupies a curious, perhaps unique biographical position. He was simultaneously a practising and highly talented painter, known to William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds: but also a significant scientist of the eighteenth century, awarded the Royal Society’s Copley Medal for researches on tourmaline. He was entirely capable of crossing swords (or rather lightning rods) with Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) on matters of electrical research.

Wilson’s memoir was handed down through his family, beginning with his daughter Frances Wilson, with strict instructions on its confidentiality. A transcribed copy was made available to the National Portrait Gallery and this was later published (in 2012) by the Walpole Society, edited by Andrew Gracianio. Until now, the original text has not been seen.

Although the book commences with family history it quickly becomes an account of the London art world of Hogarth (1697-1764) “who loved a little mischief” and his contemporaries. Wilson made early painting expeditions to Ireland, apparently on the advice of the scientist and antiquary Martin Folkes (1690-1754), President of the Royal Society with whom he corresponded. Art provided his livelihood, but Wilson also tried the works of Newton, Boyle and Desaguiliers and declared that “in consequence of reading these and other philosophical books, I got a turn for experimental philosophy”. His experiments, relayed to a variety of friends including the engineer John Smeaton (1724-1792) earned him Royal Society Fellowship and a wide circle of philosophical acquaintances, many of whom are mentioned in this book.

Here too, Wilson notes how he repeated Dr Franklin’s highly dangerous Philadelphia kite experiment as part of several scientific interests. His own Treatise on electricity appeared in 1752 but it is towards the second half of this book that the author begins to relate the story of the Royal Society’s advisory committee on the most effective conductors of lightning to protect the vital Purfleet gunpowder magazine. Wilson, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Cavendish (among others) offered their views, leading to a dispute over the best shape for lightning rods, pointed or rounded. It was here, in the politically-charged atmosphere of the colonial revolution, that George III left science, and America, behind.