Were the endlessly curious Benjamin Franklin to awaken and pop his balding head into the affairs of America 2005, he would find a discouraging similarity between the current suppression of stem cell research and the resistance he met in developing and popularizing the lightning rod. While he suffered no official wrath for his invention, he did have to endure the vituperations of those who maintained it was an offense against God to attempt to ward off His destructive bolts. Whatever the era, it seems that some people just can't stand the idea of humanity controlling its own destiny. Although Franklin generally respected and supported religions, he tended to view God more as a benign onlooker than as a cosmic meddler.

Philip Dray builds his study around Franklin's many experiments with electricity, but he tells a far broader story than that in Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America. Dray's previous books focused on the 1950s and 1960s, and he won the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Prize for 2002's At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America. For this latest book, he turns to an earlier period in America's history with equally impressive results. A substantial part of his narrative is devoted to the intellectual excitement of the 18th century. Franklin and his peers in America and Europe shared their questions, experiments and discoveries via incessant meetings and personal correspondence, the latter of which they routinely collected and bound into pamphlets to sell to eager audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Franklin's fertile and open mind, coupled with his genius for making processes understandable, kept him at the head of the scientific pack. Dray observes that It was probably a union of . . . two impulses [Franklin's] interest in investigating that which had not yet been adequately explained, and the urge to fix what could bear improvement that drew his attention initially to the phenomena of thunder and lightning, and led to his greatest invention. Prosperous though he became, Franklin didn't look to his scientific findings and inventions for wealth, electing instead to share what he knew as well as what he thought.

As a poor and unlettered man who had propelled himself to prosperity and intellectual eminence, Franklin was the perfect symbol for America's potential. Thus on missions both political and scientific, he was welcomed into the highest social circles in London (before the Revolutionary War) and Paris (during the war). In these ancient societies where birth and rank were still exalted, he shone from individual worth, a powerful manifestation of the democratic ideal.

Franklin took his final leave of Paris in 1785 and used the seven-week voyage back to Philadelphia to determine with amazing accuracy, Dray says the location and width of the Gulf Stream. Observation and reason had proven so effective in unlocking nature's secrets it only followed that Franklin and fellow thinkers sought to apply these same tools to designing more rational societies. Sometimes it worked.

The Franklin Dray conjures up is amiable, inquisitive, open, generous and serenely above the fray. After all these years, he's still setting the standards. Edward Morris writes from Nashville.

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