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Gray, Stephen

Gray, Stephen

(b. Canterbury, England, 1666; d. London, England, 15 February 1736)


The exact date of Gray’s birth is uncertain, but records indicate that he was baptized on 26 December 1666. He came from a family of rapidly rising artisans; his grandfather was a carpenter, his father a dyer, his brothers a dyer, a carpenter, and a grocer, and his nephew a gentleman, a Cambridge graduate, and a doctor of medicine. The family understood the value of education. Although Gray followed his father’s trade, he learned enough Latin to puzzle out Christoph Scheiner’s interminable Rosa ursina (1630) when his omnivorous interests led him to sunspots. In science he was perhaps an autodidact, but his letters hint at a period of study in London or perhaps in Greenwich, under his “honoured Friend,” the astronomer royal John Flamsteed. A stay in the metropolis would explain much: Gray’s command of optics and astronomy; his loyalty to the much older Flamsteed, like himself the son of a tradesman; and his acquaintance with Henry Hunt of Gresham College, a minor functionary of the Royal Society of London. Hunt proved a valuable connection, supplying Gray with the Philosophical Transactions and transmitting to their editor the communications they called forth from Canterbury.

Gray’s first published paper (1696) describes a microscope made of a water droplet inserted in a tiny hole in a brass plate. The globule “prodigiously magnified” animalcules swimming in it, a property both gratifying and perplexing, since, as Gray noticed, the standard optical theory required rays from bugs so positioned to diverge after refraction. His solution: the rays, if first reflected internally from the back wall of the globule, can be bent by its front surface into a parallel bundle. Although of little consequence itself, this first effort displays the characteristics which would bring Gray, when past sixty, to his capital discoveries in electricity; experiments “for the most part Naturall, being ushered in with very little assistance of Art”; alertness to effects unanticipated by theory; and cautious explanations of anomalies. Encouraged by the Royal Society’s reception of his microscope, Gray communicated other ideas for instruments and reports of rarities like mock suns, magnetic sands, and the remains of antediluvian creatures (1699–1701). Then, from 1703 to about 1716, he devoted his scientific energies (“the far Greatest Part of my time that the avocations for a Subsistence would Permitt me”) to accurate, quantitative observations of eclipses, sunspots, and (in the hope of improving navigation) the revolutions of Jupiter’s satellites.

By his fortieth year Gray was widely known as a careful and responsible observer. The scrupulous Flamsteed incorporated his results; William Derham solicited his help in experiments on the speed of sound: and the new Plumian professor of natural philosophy, Newton’s proteégé Roger Cotes, invited him to Cambridge to assist in establishing a new observatory. Against Flamsteed’s advice Gray accepted and spent some months in 1707 and 1708 in Cambridge; but the observatory did not materialize, and Gray, who found his employers unexpectedly “mercenary” and their plan to redo Flamsteed’s determinations of stellar positions both ignorant and insulting, returned to Canterbury. A bad back had made his trade too strenuous, however, and in 1711 he appealed to Hans Sloane, the secretary of the Royal Society, to intercede for him with the governors of Sutton’s Hospital (the London Charterhouse). In June 1719, on the nomination of the prince of Wales, Gray became one of the Charterhouse’s eighty “gentleman pensioners,” having meanwhile, it is said, assisted in the public lectures of J. T. Desaguliers. The recent conjecture that Newton somehow delayed Gray’s entry into the Charterhouse out of hatred for Flamsteed (and hence for his disciple) is baseless; the Newtonians tried to help, and even offered Hunt’s old position to Gray, but “the poor man is so very bashful [wrote Sloane’s successor, Brook Taylor, in 1713] that I can by no means prevail upon him to think of the business.”

On 13 November 1706, Francis Hauksbee (the elder), demonstrator to the Royal Society, appeared before his “Philosophical Masters” armed with a tube of flint glass, with which to try the force of electricity. The tube appreciably outdid the customary generator, amber, and brought Hauksbee close to identifying the cause of electricity with that of the glow producible by chafing glass vessels. The “Strongness of the phenomena together with the facility of operation” of the portentous tube intrigued Gray, and during his stay in Cambridge he amused his nephew and others with experiments designed to map the course of the “Luminous and Electric Effluvium.” He rediscovered Otto von Guericke’s now famous demonstration that a feather, once drawn to the tube, might be made to hover above it; he found that light was “inherent in the Effluvia” of other electrics; and he conjectured that electrical motions and glows arose from a double stream of fine particles, one shot from the electric and the other an answer from the environment. This scheme, which effluvializes the incoming air current of Niccolo Cabeo’s theory and anticipates the afflux of Nollet’s system, was to guide Gray to the discovery of conduction.

Sloane did not print Gray’s report of the Cantabrigian experiments, chiefly because Hauksbee, to whom it was referred, appropriated its novelties: the hovering feather, the luminous effluvia of wax and sulfur, and, in the form of a revived Cabean theory, the dual currents. Gray did not again bother the Royal Society with electricity until 1720, when he announced the discovery of a new class of nonrigid electrics, including hair, silk, feathers, and—if you please-gilded ox guts. Thereafter again silence, until February 1729, when, having conceded defeat in an attempt to electrify metals by friction, Gray thought to awaken their virtue by exposing them to effluvia from the tube: guided by his earlier theory, he imagined that just as the tube “communicated a Light to [bodies],” it might “at the same Time communicate an Electricity.” He took a tube corked at both ends to keep out the dust, a precaution suggested by some old experiments of Hauksbee’s. Thinking the corks might alter the tube’s power, Gray brought a feather up to its far end, and in great amazement saw the fickle plume go to the cork, not the glass. “I then held the Feather over against the flat End of the Cork, which attracted and repelled many Times together; at which I was much surprized, and concluded that there was certainly an attractive Vertue communicated to the Cork by. the excited Tube.” It is a classic example of chance favoring the prepared mind.

Gray exploited his discovery by running sticks or threads from the cork to a “receiving Body,” a teakettle, for example, or an ivory ball, which he supposed to emit its own effluvia, stimulated by those of the glass passed down the transmitting line. He extended the line to fifty-two feet, the greatest free drop available to him; he had also tried horizontal transmission, through thick threads hung up by pieces of the same material, but without the least success. At this point he visited his young friend Granville Wheler, F. R. S., a wealthy, able scientific amateur with a large country house admirably suited to the new experiments. Wheler suggested that they might send electricity down horizontal lines hung from silk threads narrow enough to prevent the loss of the “Vertue.” They managed to transmit for some hundreds of feet before the silk parted under the strain. Quite: naturally they replaced it with brass wire of similar bore, which most unexpectedly declined to behave like silk. And so, by attempting to increase the mere quantity of the effect, that is, the distance of transmission, they stumbled upon the fundamental qualitative distinction between insulators and conductors.

For thirty months Gray, Wheler, and another friend, a cousin of Flamsteed’s named John Godfrey, enjoyed a monopoly in the study of communicated electricity. They followed two lines of inquiry (1) the identification of substances which might serve as supporters (insulators) or as receivers and (2) the mapping of the course of transmitted electricity. These results, which conflated induction, conduction, and the mechanism of attraction and repulsion, required too much of the effluvia; serious contradictions, which Gray’s group did not recognize, gradually came to light and, by adding their weight to the perplexities raised by the Leyden jar, assisted in forcing the rejection of the effluvial picture.

The publication of the results of Gray’s group in 1732 awakened the interest of C. F. Dufay, whose extension and regularization of the phenomena attracted the attention of the learned to the study of electricity. Gray contributed a few further observations, particularly on the appearance of sparks drawn from bodies of different shapes and on the longevity of the electrification of objects encased in tight, dry boxes. These characteristic investigations gave way, in his last days, to a grand cosmic speculation based upon the discovery that a freely suspended conical pendulum would revolve about an electrified body precisely as the planets circle the sun. Cromwell Mortimer, secretary of the Royal Society (which had belatedly admitted Gray in 1732), got wind of the matter and hurried off to the Charterhouse. He found Gray dying. “He hoped [Mortimer reported], if God would spare his Life but a little longer, … to be able to astonish the World with a new Sort of Planetarium ... [and] a certain Theory for accounting for the Motions of the Grand Planetarium of the Universe.” Alas, the pendulum aped the planets only when supported from the hand, driven (as Dufay and Wheler showed) by motions largely involuntary. The Royal Society did Gray no favor by publishing, as his last paper, conjectures so out of keeping with his wonted care and sobriety.


I. Original Works. Gray’s most important paper is “A Letter …Containing Several Experiments Concerning Electricity,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 37 (1731–1732), 18–44. A bibliography of his published work, drawn up by R. A. Chipman, appears as an appendix to I. B. Cohen, “Neglected Sources for the Life of Stephen Gray,” in Isis,45 (1954), 41–50; to it should be added Gray’s observations of the solar eclipse of 13 Sept. 1699, published by William Derham in Philosophical Experiments and Observations of the Late Eminent Dr Robert Hooke… and Other Eminent Virtuosos (London, 1726), p. 343.

A number of Gray’s unpublished letters are preserved at the Royal Society of London, the British Museum, and the Royal Observatory (Herstmonceux). R. A. Chipman, “The Manuscript Letters of Stephen Gray,” in Isis, 49 (1958), 414–433, provides a list which omits letters of 3 Feb. 1696 and 22 May 1696 to Henry Hunt (Royal Society, Guard Book G. 1, fols. 49–50) and an undated note on sunspots (British Museum, Sloane 4039, fol. 332). Chipman, “An Unpublished Letter of Stephen Gray on Electrical Experiments,” in Isis, 45 (1954), 33–40, prints the letter appropriated by Hauksbee.

II. Secondary Literature. Data concerning Gray’s family and date of baptism were supplied by the Archivist, Canterbury Cathedral. For published biographical information see J. M. Cowper, The Roll of the Freemen of the City of Canterbury (Canterbury, 1903), p. 39; W. P. Courtney, “Stephen Gray, F. R. S.,” in Notes and Queries, 6 (1906), 161–163, 354; F. Higenbottam, “The Apparition of Mrs. Veal to Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury, 8th Sept., 1705,” in Archacologia cantiana, 78 (1959), 154–166; and the papers of Chipman and Cohen cited above. Estimates of Gray’s work will be found in Chipman’s papers; J. Priestley, The History and Present State of Electricity, 3rd ed. (London, 1775), I , 32–53; E. Hoppe, Geschichte der Elektrizität (Leipzig, 1884), pp. 8–11; I. B. Cohen, Franklin and Newton (Philadelphia, 1956), pp. 368–371; and, by indirection, in F. Baily, An Account of the Revd. John Flamsteed (London, 1835), pp. 47, 310.

The important piece of Taylor’s regarding Gray’s succession to Hunt is in Royal Society Correspondence 82, fol. 5; Hauksbee’s role in suppressing Gray’s first paper on electricity appears from the Royal Society’s Journal Book, X, fols. 175, 189–190, 192, and from his published work, for which see R. Home, “Francis Hauksbee’s Theory of Electricity,” in Archives for History of Exact Science, 4 (1967), 203–217.

John L. Heilbron

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Gray, Stephen

GRAY, Stephen

Nationality: South African. Born: Cape Town, South Africa, 1941. Education: St. Andrew's College, Grahamstown; University of Cape Town; Cambridge University, B.A. in English, M.A. in English; University of Iowa, M.F.A. in creative writing; Rand Afrikaans University, Johannesburg, D. Litt and d. Phil., 1978. Career: Lecturer in English, Aix-en-Provence, two years; professor of English, Rand Afrikaans University, Johannesburg, until 1991. Since 1991 full-time writer. Editor, Granta, and director, Cambridge Shakespeare Group, both while a student at Cambridge; writer-in-residence, 1982, University of Queensland, Australia. Address: P.O. Box 86, Crown Mines, South Africa, 2025.



Local Colour. Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1975.

Visible People. Cape Town, Philip, and London, Collings, 1977.

Caltrop's Desire. Cape Town, Philip, and London, Collings, 1980.

John Ross: The True Story. Johannesburg, Penguin, 1987.

Time of Our Darkness. Johannesburg and London, Muller, 1988.

Born of Man. Johannesburg, Justified Press, and London, GMP, 1989.

War Child. Johannesburg, Justified Press, 1991; London, Serif, 1993.

Drakenstein. Johannesburg, Justified Press, 1994.


Schreiner: A One-Woman Play. Cape Town, Philip, 1983.


It's About Time,. Cape Town, Philip, 1974.

The Assassination of Shaka, with woodcuts by Cecil Skotnes. Johannesburg, McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Hottentot Venus and Other Poems. Cape Town, Philip, and London, Collings, 1979.

Season of Violence. Aarhus, Dangaroo Press, 1992.

Selected Poems, 1960-92. Cape Town, David Philip, 1994.

Gabriel's Exhibition: New Poems. Bellville, South Africa, MayibuyeBooks-UWC, 1998.


Southern African Literature: An Introduction. Cape Town, Philip, London, Collings, and New York, Barnes and Noble, 1979.

Douglas Blackburn. Boston, Twayne, 1984.

Human Interest and Other Pieces. Johannesburg, Justified Press, 1993.

Accident of Birth. Johannesburg, COSAW, 1993.

Editor, Writers' Territory. Cape Town, Longman Southern Africa, 1973.

Editor, Mhudi, by Solomon T. Plaatje. London, Heinemann, 1978.

Editor, Theatre One: New South African Drama. Johannesburg, Donker, 1978.

Editor, Modern South African Stories. Johannesburg, Donker, 1980.

Editor, Stormwrack, by C. Louis Leipoldt. Cape Town, Philip, 1980.

Editor, Turbott Wolfe, by William Plomer. Johannesburg, Donker, 1980.

Editor, Theatre Two: New South African Drama. Johannesburg, Donker, 1981.

Editor, Athol Fugard. Johannesburg, McGraw-Hill, 1982.

Editor, Modern South African Poetry. Johannesburg, Donker, 1984.

Editor, with David Schalkwyk, Modern Stage Directions: A Collection of Short Dramatic Scripts. Cape Town, Maskew Miller Longman, 1984.

Editor, Three Plays, by Stephen Black. Johannesburg, Donker, 1984.

Editor, The Penguin Book of Southern African Stories. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Penguin, 1985.

Editor, Selected Poems, by William Plomer. Johannesburg, Donker, 1985.

Editor, Bosman's Johannesburg. Cape Town, Human and Rousseau, 1986.

Editor, Herman Charles Bosman. Johannesburg, McGraw-Hill, 1986.

Editor, Market Plays. Johannesburg, Donker, 1986.

Editor, The Penguin Book of Southern African Verse. London, Penguin, 1989.

Editor, My Children! My Africa! and Selected Shorter Plays, by Athol Fugard. Johannesburg, Witwatersrand University Press, 1990.

Editor, The Natal Papers of "John Ross", by Charles Rawden

Maclean. Pietermaritzburg, University of Natal Press, 1992.

Editor, South Africa Plays. London, Hern, 1993.

Editor, Willemsdorp, by Herman Charles Bosman. Cape Town, Human & Rousseau, 1998.

* * *

In addition to his significant work as a poet, playwright, editor, and novelist, Stephen Gray is a prominent literary critic in his native South Africa. Always one to blur the boundaries between categories (be they generic or sociopolitical), Gray frequently combines these writerly personae, revisiting and reassessing his own fiction in his essays. As he has noted on more than one occasion, the legacy of apartheid has forced the South African writer into a position of negotiating between cultural extremes, into crossing multiple and manifold borders. This "hybrid" aesthetic, this "translational" ethic, is well represented in Gray's eight published novels, which regularly transgress the margins of race, class, and sexuality.

Gray's first novel, Local Colour, displays many of the central preoccupations that recur throughout his entire oeuvre: experimentation with form; a facility with the finer details of setting; a penchant for exploring the limits of racial and sexual taboos, in this case so-called miscegenation. A five-part satirical allegory set in Saldanha Bay, a remote outpost near the Cape, the narrative is a fragmentary and complex amalgam of Western literary conventions (interior monologue, epistolary romance) and African modes of oral storytelling (fable, myth). In the main section of the novel, while an American oil tanker burns and lists offshore, Beattie, Chris, and Alex hatch a plot to swindle Beattie's dying Aunt Miriam out of her property. What begins as a mere act of greed soon turns into an epic quest for the truth about Miriam's relationships with the legendary Captain McBlade and Elsabie, her colored maid. This quest motif, which is given even more satirical treatment in Gray's next novel, Visible People, juxtaposes the prejudices inherent in a dominant white mode of perception against the historical contingencies of the indigenous landscape, with decidedly ambivalent results.

The dialectic between past, present, and future operates at some level in all of Gray's novels, but two in particular are concerned with specific watershed moments in South African history. In Caltrop's Desire, on the eve of the 1948 national elections, a dying war correspondent records the waning moments of white liberalism in South Africa and anticipates an even bloodier future for the country under apartheid. In John Ross, Gray writes against the grain of both early-ninteenth-century historical documentation and late-twentieth-century popular mythmaking (Gray's "novel" was meant as a companion volume to the 1987 South African television serial, John Ross: An African Adventure ), offering readers "the true story" of the young, redheaded Scottish lad who was shipwrecked at Port Natal in 1825 and subsequently became a member of King Shaka's Zulu court. Drawing attention to both the factual authenticity and the fictionality of his texts, Gray illuminates the often contradictory ways in which history gets written and stories get told.

The bond between dispossessed child and powerful adult is examined further in Time of Our Darkness. Here, however, Gray reverses the races of his central characters; he also complicates their relationship by introducing homosexual desire into the admixture of competing social differences. Nine years after the 1976 Soweto uprising, Disley Mashinini, a young black boy from the townships, transfers into Saint Paul's, an all-white private school. He is soon receiving more than just extracurricular instruction from his teacher, Pete Walker. Gray maps this potentially explosive territory forth-rightly and candidly, underscoring South Africa's erotic investments in the more visible markers of identity, such as race. In this regard, Disley proves to be the wiser of the two protagonists. "'You know, but you don't want to know,"' Pete quotes him as saying at the outset of the novel. "That was the theme of our relationship."

Gay subcultural affiliation receives an altogether more vernacular treatment in Born of Man. Adopting a narrator with a distinctively camp idiom and filling his text with all manner of playful posturing by members of the extended community of Bairnsford Nursery, Gray reinscribes homosexual difference in ways that signify strength, attitude, and ironic pride.

Although most of Gray's novels are highly metafictional (in Born of Man, for example, Gray revisits the epistolary genre via the word processor), Drakenstein is by far Gray's most self-reflexive work to date. Clearly having fun with some of the basic tenets of postmodern theory, he uses the generic codes of the horror storyfictional and cinematicprecisely in order to undermine and subvert them. In confronting the horrific crimes of the past and the present in order to imagine a future for postapartheid South Africa at its time of transition, the narrator, John Raeburn, like the monster in Frankenstein, must also confront the horrors of his own fragmented subjectivity. "Who is this I," he asks at the end of the novel, "impatient but regretful, spitting out his flesh? Which IIIhalf these sentences begin with I." This referentially unstable first-person pronoun, which surfaces throughout Gray's fiction, has gradually grown more introspective over the course of his career. The autobiographical experiments of Accident of Birth and some of the short pieces in Human Interest are, in many ways, a natural progression from the childhood reminiscences that make up War Child. In the opening sketch of Human Interest, Gray notes that even before he had "grown to any consciousness of how morally wrong apartheid was," he nevertheless understood "that I must become someone who would write about those aspects of life that were not recorded, were never mentioned, not even imagined to exist." Four decades later, decades that comprise a "time of darkness" from which South Africa is only now emerging, Gray has clearly made good on his teenaged vow.

Peter Dickinson

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Gray, Stephen

Stephen Gray, 1666–1736, English physicist. Gray, a dyer by trade, cultivated science as a hobby. In 1696 he published an account of a magnifying glass that interested the Royal Society and from then on he frequently sent the Society and his patron, English Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed, ideas for simple but revealing experiments and reports of geological and astronomical observations. Gray's most important work, published in 1732, announced the discovery of electrical induction and the distinction between conductors and insulators.

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