Beccaria, Giambatista

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Beccaria, Giambatista

(b. Mondovì, Italy, 3 October 1716; d. Turin, Italy, 27 May 1781)


Beccaria, who is not to be confused with his younger contemporary, the Milanese publicist Cesare Beccaria, was christened Francesco, and became Giambatista when he joined the Piarists (the Clerks Regular of the Pious Schools), a teaching order established in the seventeenth century. He entered into his novitiate in 1732, studied at Rome and at Narni, and began his own pedagogical career in 1737. During the next decade he taught in Narni, Urbino, Palermo, and Rome; in 1748 he was appointed to the chair of physics at the University of Turin, which he occupied with great distinction for over twenty years.

Beccaria’s predecessor at Turin, a Minim priest and a convinced Cartesian, had many followers in the university who did not appreciate the English science the new professor fancied. A battle ensued, for which Beccaria’s ability, energy, and testiness admirably suited him. This struggle, which mixed local jealousies and the rivalry between Minims and Piarists with philosophical issues, was of critical importance in shaping Beccaria’s career, for for out of it grew his concern with electricity. One of those who had recommended Beccaria’s appointment, the marchese G. Morozzo, learning of the lightning experiment of Marly, suggested to his protégé that Franklin’ ideas on electricity might make an excellent weapon against the Cartesians. Electricity was a promising field for confrontation even without the glamorous new discoveries about lightning, as the Cartesian program of reducing electrical phenomena to the vortical motion of a special matter had never been very successful.

The results of Beccaria’s brief, vigorous study of electricity appeared in his first book, Dell’elettricismo artificiale e naturale (1753). The volume, which Franklin praised, presents the elements of the new theory clearly and logically; illustrates them with variations of Franklin’s experiments, to which Beccaria primarily added observations of the different appearances of discharges from positively and negatively electrified points; modifies secondary aspects of the theory and applies it to new territory; and seeks to explain meteorological and geophysical phenomena as manifestations of “natural” electricity. Apart from its new experiments and ingenious meteorological hypotheses, the book is notable for Beccaria’s love of system, which caused him occasionally to oversimplify the phenomena; for his reluctance, characteristic of the Franklinian physicist, to discuss the detailed mechanical causes of electrical motions; for his courageous assertion, against the prevailing view, that air is a better conductor than pure water; and for his skill in designing apparatus, including such measuring devices as the electrical thermometer, whose invention is usually wrongly ascribed to Franklin’s colleague, Ebenezer Kinnersley. The book also contains a long letter to the Abbé J. A. Nollet, who had raised objections against Franklin’s system. The Parisian franklinistes thought the letter successful, translated it into French, and thus temporarily made Beccaria the leading champion of the new system.

In 1758 Beccaria published a second book on electricity, in the form of sixteen letters to G. B. Beccari. F. A. Eandi, Beccaria’s biographer, and Priestley thought the Lettere al Beccari to be Becaria’s best work, although the modern reader is apt to find it annoyingly prolix. Two-thirds of it is devoted to natural electricity, particularly that of the atmosphere, which Beccaria and his students tirelessly probed with metal poles, kites, and even rockets. Here are many valuable observations of cloud formation, thunderstorms, and the accompanying electrical states of the lower air. The first seven letters, on man-made or artificial electricity, summarize, extend, and modify Franklin’s system. The most successful extensions deal with insulators other than glass, from which Beccaria constructed parallel plate condensers whose relative powers he tried to estimate. Less happily, ignoring his earlier strictures, he sought a mechanical explanation of the apparent suspension of electrical attractions in the highly conducting “vacuums” produced by eighteenth-century air pumps. His investigation led him to revive Cabeo’s theory, which attributes such attractions to the action of air displaced by electrical matter issuing from charged bodies. This view, although decidedly retrograde, was not necessarily anti-Franklinist, since it did not touch the characteristic Philadelphian doctrines relating to positive and negative electricity and to the perfect insulation of glass. Franklin himself had tacitly ascribed an important task to the air, that of opposing the natural tendency toward dissipation of the “electrical atmospheres” formed about charged bodies. Beccaria concurred in this view, which he tried (not altogether successfully) to combine with the hypothesis of Cabeo.

From the Lettere, Beccaria turned to other subjects, particularly astronomical and geophysical ones, in connection with measuring a degree of longitude in Piedmont. His interest was reawakened by the work of a former student, G. F. Cigna, who in 1765 published an account of experiments that developed Nollet’s elaborations of Symmer’s famous manipulations with electrified silk stockings. Beccaria pursued these experiments with all his skill, inventiveness, and energy, largely because they seemed to favor the anti-Franklinian double-fluid theory. But the more remarkable and delicate of the phenomena he investigated, which depend upon induction in the coatings from residual charges left on the dielectric after the discharge of a condenser, required something more than Franklin’s system for their explanation. Beccaria, who would not admit action-at-a-distance, supplied this deficiency with a complicated scheme of electrical atmospheres and “vindicating,” or regenerating, electricity. These ideas, which found their clearest expression in Beccaria’s Electricitas vindex (1769), subsequently led Volta, while seeking alternatives to them, to the invention of the electrophorus.

Beccaria’s last major contribution to the science of electricity was Elettricismo artificiale (1772), a difficult, verbose compendium of Beccaria’s work on the subject, explained with the help of Franklin’s principles, vindicating electricities and the doctrine of atmospheres. In 1775 he brought out a short volume on atmospheric electricity in fair weather, Dell’elettricità a cielo sereno. Thereafter, he produced a few small pieces on electricity, intermixed with short contributions on other physical and chemical subjects. In 1778 his health began to fail, and, although his painful affliction—hemorrhoids and tumors—sometimes remitted, he was thereafter unable to do much laboratory work.

Beccaria’s success derived as much from his aggressive, vigorous character as from his native intelligence. He began the study in which he was to win fame as a new front in a larger battle. His thirst for fame, and his recurrent depressions when he felt unsure of it, were prominent features of his personality and his primary source of energy. He was jealous of his discoveries and quick to claim priority; Franklin was perhaps the only person he did not consider a competitor. The connection with Franklin, with whom he corresponded intermittently, was very precious to him: letters of praise from Franklin, besides the gratification they conferred, resulted in increases in financial support for himself and his work. His personality apparently did not impair his effectiveness as a teacher. Eandi thought him inspirational, an opinion strengthened by the success of his students, Cigna, Lagrange, and G. A. Saluzzo. His chief pedagogical achievement, however, may well have been his indirect, literary influence on the early studies of Volta.


I. Original Works. Beccaria’s main works on electricity are Dell’elettricisrno artificiale e naturale librei due (Turin, 1753); Dell’eleitricismo chiarissimo Signor Giacomo Bartolommeo Beccari (Bologna, 1758); Experimenta algae observationes quibus electricitas vindex late constituitu atque explicatur (Turin, 1769); Elettricismo artificiale (Turin, 1772), which also appeared in an English version sponsored by Franklin (London, 1776); and Dell’elettricità terrestre atmosferica a cielo sereno (Turin, 1775), which is included in the English version of Elettricismo artificiale. A bibliography of Beccaria’s work, both published and in manuscript, drawn up by Prospero Balbo, appears in F. A. Eandi, Memorie istoriche intorno gli studi del padre Giambatista Beccaria (Turin, 1783), and in Biblioteca degli eruditi e dei bibliofili, no. 69 (Florence, 1961). The present location and nature of the extant manuscripts are described in A. Pace, “The Manuscsripts of Giambatista Beccaria, Correspondent of Benjamin Franklin,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 97 (1952), 406–416.

II. Secondary Literature. The standard biography of Beccaria is Eandi’s Memorie. Further information and references are given in A. Pace’s excellent notice of Beccaria in Dizionario biograjico degli italiani, VII (Rome, 1965). For Beccaria’s work, see Joseph Priestley, The History and Present State of Electricity, 3rd ed. (London, 1775), passim; M. Gliozzi, “Giambatista Beccaria nella storia dell’elettricità,” in Archeion, 17 (1933), 15–47; and C. W. Oseen, Johan Carl Wilcke experimental-fysiker (Uppsala. 1939).

John L. Heilbron

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Beccaria, Giambatista

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