Wilson, Benjamin

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(b. Leeds, England, 1721; d. Bloomsbury, London, England, 6 June 1788)


Wilson was born in the latter part of 1721, the youngest of the fourteen children of Major Wilson, “the most considerable merchant in Leeds,” and Elizabeth Yates. His father’s house at Mill Hill, near Leeds, was decorated by Jacques Parmentier, a French artist, and it was to his influence that Wilson attributed the origin of his own interest in art. Later in his youth Wilson studied for a year with another French artist, Longueville, who was working on commissioned historical paintings in the neighborhood.

The Wilson family became impoverished while Benjamin was still under twenty, and the boy went to London, on foot, to find employment. He worked as a clerk, in poor circumstances, continuing his artistic studies whenever occasion offered. During this period, Wilson, by his own account, read widely in the field of experimental philosophy. This interest was channeled toward the novel science of electricity through his friendship with the apothecary William Watson, who was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society in 1745 for his electrical experiments. Wilson also corresponded from 1745 with John Smeaton, the civil engineer. As his own ideas on electricity developed, Wilson came to know Martin Folkes, president of the Royal Society from 1741 to 1753, who advised the young painter to begin his career in Ireland, so that he could return to London a master of his craft. Consequently, Wilson went to Ireland for a short period in 1746, and again from 1748 to 1750.

While in Dublin in 1746, Wilson was allowed to use the experimental room in Trinity College, which resulted in his first publication, An Essay Towards an Explication of the Phaenomena of Electricity Deduced From the Aether of Sir Isaac Newton. His second, longer stay in Ireland permitted the writing of A Treatise on Electricity (1750), published in London after his return. It was no doubt as a result of this work that Wilson was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 5 December 1751.

Upon his return from Ireland, Wilson took a seven-year lease of the house in Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, previously occupied by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Wilson was mainly employed in portrait painting, having as sitters many of the men of science whom he came to know through his interest in electricity, including at least eight fellows of the Royal Society. He also painted the actor David Garrick and the poet Thomas Gray, whom he had met at Cambridge in 1747. Wilson also showed some skill at engraving, and produced a famous caricature in February 1766 (at the time of the repeal of the Stamp Act), which, selling for one shilling a copy, brought him £100 in four days. Wilson won the patronage of the duke of York, and upon the death, in 1764, of William Hogarth, who was a friend of Wilson’s, the duke gave him Hogarth’s appointment of sergeantpainter. Wilson’s career as a painter was both successful and remunerative, but he was, unfortunately, fond of speculation, and was declared a defaulter on the Stock Exchange in 1766.

Wilson’s scientific interests were almost exclusively concerned with electricity. Following his two publications in 1746 and 1750, he invented and exhibited a large electrical apparatus. With the physician Benjamin Hoadly, he carried out electrical research, the results of which were published in Observations on a Series of Electrical Experiments (1756). The purpose of these three books was to assert the identity of electricity, in particular the Franklinian single electric fluid, with the Newtonian aether, as postulated in the English edition of the Opticks. In 1757 Wilson visited France and repeated many of his experiments at St. Germain-en-Laye. The culmination of this period of research was the award to Wilson of the Royal Society’s Copley Medal in 1760.

The most remarkable of Wilson’s scientific activities was his public controversy with Franklin on the question of whether lightning conductors should be round or pointed at the top. Wilson held that “thunder rods” should be round-headed,for, recognizing quite correctly that a pointed metal rod attracts lighting, he believed that if these lightning, he believed that if these rods were erected on buildings, they would actually cause the lightning to strike. Wilson was nominated by the Royal Society to serve on a committee to regulate the erection of lightning conductors on St. Paul’s Cathedral, and was later asked by the Board of Ordnance to inspect the gunpowder magazines at Purfleet. In 1773, a Royal Society committee, on which he also sat, considered the problem of the magazine, and finally advised the erection of a pointed rod on the summit of the building, Wilson being the sole dissenter. Wilson continued the dispute, publicly disagreeing with the opinion of the Royal Society, and the arguments of such noted scientists as Franklin, Cavendish, and Nairne. Finally, in July 1777, Wilson arranged a huge demonstration before King George III in the Pantheon in Oxford Street. He certainly convinced the king, who declared that Wilson’s arguments were sufficient to persuade the apple–women in the street. The scientific world took a different view, for Wilson had continued the dispute beyond the bounds of reason, and the editors of the abridgment of the Philosophical Transactions were strongly critical: “But he has been chiefly distinguished as the ostensible person whose perverse conduct in the affair of the conductors of lightning produced such shameful discord and dissensions in the Royal Society, as continued for many years after, to the great detriment of science” (The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Abridged, 1755 to 1763, XI (London, 1809],p. 15).

One commission that united Wilson’s interests in science and in painting was the task, entrusted to him by James Short, of producing a map of the moon. Wilson would have received 100 guineas had he completed the task, but, because of the strain on his eyesight and because working at night gave him constant colds, he was unable to finish the map. the contact between the two men was not, however, without practical outcome, for Wilson painted a portrait of Short, and also one of his fellow telescope-maker, John Dollond.

Wilson’s electrical studies brought him into correspondence with foreign scientists throughout Europe. He was a member of four European academies, including the Istituto delle Scienze ed Arti Liberali at Bologna, where he was the first Englishman to be so honored.

In 1771 Wilson married a Miss Hetherington, and the couple had seven children. Wilson’s third son was General Sir Robert Thomas Wilson, whose Life, published in 1862 by Herbert Randolph, contains an abridgment of Benjamin Wilson’s manuscript autobiography, which he had most strictly directed should not be published.


I. Original Works. Wilson initially published most of his work in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society; some of these papers have been reprinted, and are included here. See An Essay Towards an Explication of the Phaenomena of Electricity, Deduced From the Aether of Sir Isaac Newton (London, 1746); A Treatise on Electricity (London, 1750); Observations on a Series of Electrical Experiments (London, 1756), written with Benjamin Hoadly: A Letter to Mr. Apinus on the Electricity of Tourmaline, With Observations on Mr. Aepinus’s Work on the Same Subject (London, 1764) A Letter to the Marquess of Rockingham, With Some Observations on the Effects of Lightning (London, 1765); Observations Upon Lightning, and the Method of Securing Buildings From Its Effects, in a Letter, by B. Wilson and Others (London, 1773); Further Observations Upon Lightning, Together With Some Experiments (London, 1774); A Series of Experiments on the Subject of Phosphori, and Their Prismatic Colours: in Which Are Discovered, Some New Properties of Light (London, 1775; 2nd ed., 1776); A Letter, From F. Beccaria to Mr. Wilson, Concerning the Light Exhibited in the Dark by the Bologna Phosphorus, Made According to Mr. Canton’s Method, and Illuminated Through Coloured Glasses, printed with To the Reverend Father Beccaria, Professor of Natural Philosophy at Turin, B. Wilson London 23 September 1776 (n.p., n.d.); An Account of Experiments Made at the Pantheon, On the Nature and Use of Conductors: to Which Are Added, Some New Experiments With the Leyden Phial (London, 1778; 2nd ed., 1788): A Letter To Mr. Eider, Professor of Philosophy, and Member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences at Petersbourg, . . . (London, 1779): and A Short Vieiv of Electricity (London, 1780).

There is a typescript copy of Wilson’s Memoirs on deposit at the National Portrait Gallery, London. These Memoirs Wilson never intended for publication, but they were drawn on by H. Randolph (see below). A volume of letters to and papers of Wilson is in the British Museum, Add. MS.30094.

II. Secondary Literature. See Herbert Randolph, The Life of Sir Robert Wilson (London, 1862); G. J. Symons, ed., Lightning Rod Conference. Report of the Delegates . . . (London, 1882); G. L’E. Turner, “A Portrait of James Short, F.R.S., Attributable to Benjamin Wilson, F.R.S.,” in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London,22 (1967), 105–112. For an account of Wilson’s theory of electricity, and for a contemporary criticism, see R. W. Home, “Some Manuscripts on Electrical and Other Subjects Attributed to Thomas Bayes, F.R.S.,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society,29 , no.1 (October 1974), 81–90 (especially pp.84–87).

G. L’E. Turner

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