Today's gem is bite-sized and probably an accident of not paying attention to grammar. It is from a web article on the weather website wunderground.com. The article's title is "Ten Worst U.S. Tornadoes" by Greg Forbes, published today, February 20, 2013. You can read it yourself at http://www.wunderground.com/news/tornadoes-ten-worst-20130219?pageno=3 (accessed 2/20/2013).

The mistake is in the discussion of the tornado that devastated Natchez, Mississippi on May 7, 1840. This tornado is the second deadliest US tornado for which we have statistics. Here's where the good Dr. Forbes got it wrong:

First consider what wasn't in place in 1840. Electricity wouldn't be invented for another 39 years.

Wow. I'm sure this would be news to Ben Franklin, inventor of the lightning rod and the lightning-powered electric bells. It would be news too for the 17th century von Guericke, inventor of the Elektrisiermaschine, arguably the first electrostatic generator. Von Guericke named the product of his generator "electric virtue," though this is not the first use of "electric" in the early study of electricity. That claim for fame likely belongs to the 16th century William Gilbert, physician to Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. Granted, the use of the term electric predates Gilbert since the term was used for substances which resembled amber in some way during the Middle Ages.

The word amber is electron in Ancient Greek. Amber has many interesting properties besides the ability to acquire and maintain an electrostatic surface charge. Most amber will float. All amber will burn. If heated gently, amber will liquify to make the Medieval medicinal oil of amber, a viscous mix of resin compounds which will not solidify upon cooling. As a fragrant resin compound like myrrh and frankincense, it has been used historically as incense. In the Middle Ages, one could call both coal (combustible rock) and pumice (buoyant in water) electric since they share properties with amber. Gilbert's use of electric apparently marks the advent of using this term exclusively for electrical phenomenon and predates the claim by some (e.g., Wikipedia) that it was Thomas Browne who first used it in this sense, in his 1646 treatise Pseudodoxia epidemica.

The attraction between amber rubbed-with-wool and other materials like wool or straw or hair was known in Antiquity. Theophrastus is the best known source to remark on this property of amber. Pliny the Elder also discussed amber and rightly argued that it was very old tree resin which had solidified as hard as rocks. Gilbert's contribution was threefold: he cataloged materials which were subject to electrostatic attraction, he showed that electrostatic attraction was not related to a material's weight or density in contradiction to theories prevalent in his day, and he showed that electrostatic attraction was unrelated to the magnetic attraction between lodestone and ferrous metals. This may not sound like a big deal to someone living today, but for his time these were major contributions in the advancement of science. Gilbert's electrostatic studies were systematic and used an experimental set-up that was calibrated and replicable. He made a simple device that used a pivoting needle and with it he tested all sorts of things for their ability to make the needle swing toward them through electrostatic attraction. When he published his work, he called the materials that were subject to electrostatic attraction electric, and the ones that were not he called non-electric.


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At this point, you may be wondering at this point about what happened in 1879, 40 years after the Natchez tornado. It's obvious that the good Dr. Forbes was thinking of some significant event in the history of electricity when he made is comment. Upon inquiry, it looks like that event was the creation of Thomas Edison's light bulb, which I have to note in passing was not the first electric light nor the first light bulb. The first electric light was the arc lamp, invented in 1802 by Sir Humphry Davy. The first true incandescent evacuated-tube filament light-bulb was first demonstrated by Sir Joseph Swan in 1878 at a lecture he gave in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne; however, Edison beat Swan in getting the first patent rights by 10 months.

Today's non sequitur: Elektrisiermaschine would make a great name for a rock band!

References

MAGLAB website by the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory; http://www.magnet.fsu.edu/education/tutorials/pioneers/gilbert.htmlhttp://www.magnet.fsu.edu/education/tutorials/pioneers/gilbert.html (accessed 2/20/2013).

Niels H. de V. Heathcote (December 1967). "The early meaning of electricity: Some Pseudodoxia Epidemica - I". Annals of Science 23 (4): 261.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Volume 9 (Books 33-35), trans. By H. Rackham,1958, Loeb Classical Library/Harvard University Press, 430 pp., ISBN 0-674-99433-7.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Volume 10 (Books 36-37), trans. By D. E. Eichholz,1962, Loeb Classical Library/Harvard University Press, 344 pp., ISBN 0-674-99461-2.

Schiffer, Michael Brian (2003). Bringing the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment. Univ. of California Press. ISBN 0-520-24829-5. [[This is an EXCELLENT book, by the...]]

Theophrastus. On Stones. Trans. Earle R. Caley and John F. C. Richards. Graduate School Monographs: Contributions in Physical Science 1: Ohio State University, 1956 .