Derbyshire is a county more or less in the centre of England and Wirksworth town is near the centre of Derbyshire. In the 18th century it was the lead mining capital and Barmote Court met, and still meets, to administer the Saxon laws of The King's Field. Here fortunes were made or lost and the population was a mix of labourers, landed gentry and a few clerical gentlemen. One of whom, the curate of the local church, by name Abraham Bennet, would, on occasions, be seen to emerge from his house carrying a glass jar of some kind. Attached to a brass lid on the jar was a wire from a metal cone with a candle underneath. He would hold the candle aloft on a stick and peer into the jar at two gold leaves hanging inside. When these slowly opened like the pages of a book he set the whole apparatus down and jotted notes into a book.
Someone had glimpsed in at his window and seen the man, who was to be Curate for 23 years, blowing a heap of dust, or flour, off the brass top of the jar, with a pair of bellows normally used to encourage the fire. Later in great agitation and excitement he placed brass discs with handles on top of the mysterious jar and went through a ritual of touching one, picking it up, placing another on top and touching that before lowering it to touch the jar before going through the whole business over and over again - all the time the two gold leaves opened further and further, indeed they sometimes spun aside and touched the glass sides of the jar. Into this ritual he introduced touching the brass lid of the jar with an assortment of metals which also moved the gold leaves apart.
Those who read the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London learned of Bennet's invention of the
Gold Leaf Electrometer, of his
Doubler and the experiments with atmospheric electricity and electrification of dusts. Later they read of his Magnetometers using spider web to suspend tiny pointers, in one case the single down seed from the head of a dandelion, which indicated on tiny ivory scales. In 1789 he published his book, New Experiments in Electricity, wherein the causes of thunder and lightning as well as the constant state of positive or negative electricity in the air or clouds, are explained; with experiments on clouds of powders and vapours artificially diffused in the air. Also a description of a doubler of electricity, and of the most sensible electrometer yet constructed. With other new experiments and discoveries in the science, illustrated by explanatory notes, by A. Bennet, 1789. The illustrations include Lichtenberg figures. The contact electrification precedes that of Volta.
Abraham Bennet (1749-1799) a schoolmaster's son, did not work in isolation. His friends include members of the Derby Philosophical Society and The Lunar Society, whose 'giants' launched the Industrial Revolution; such men as Watt and Boulton, Wedgewood and Erasmus Darwin. John Michell the first to suggest, 'Black Holes' and divisor of an apparatus to determine the density of the Earth, later used by his friend Henry Cavendish, and Joseph Priestly were all in communication with each other.
The name Priestly should give a hint as to the thoughts other than scientific which moved through the group. Republican, Unitarian and scientist he was viewed with great suspicion as the end of the century stirred into revolution other than industrial. In due course his house and laboratory were burned to the ground and he escaped to America. Erasmus Darwin a scientific genius published evolution and was condemned for attacking God. Add to that his ideas of abolition of slavery and that America should be independent and condemnation, born of fear, ranged far and wide. I have reserved until last, but by no means least, the most feared of all the friends of Bennet, Darwin, Priestly et al: Benjamin Franklin.
An alabaster plaque in Wirksworth church records:
To the memory of The Rev. ABRAHAM BENNET F.R.S. who was XXIII years Curate of Wirksworth Rector of Fenny Bentley Domestic Chaplain to His Grace the Duke of Devonshire Perpetual Curate of Woburn and librarian to His Grace the Duke of Bedford. He was the author of a work entitled 'New Experiments on Electricity' which established his reputation for science amongst the Philosophers of all countries - he died at Wirksworth on the
VI day of May MDCCXCIX aged XLIX years.
Within the county of Derbyshire lie his friends Henry Cavendish - in Derby Cathedral; Erasmus Darwin - in Breadsall Church, near Derby and just over the border, in Nottingham, the man who was to 'put figures on it' - George Green.
Dr. Colin Pounder, another Derbyshire Electrician, February 19th, 2002.