Diviš, Prokop

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Diviš, Prokop

(also Procopius Divisch or Diwisch ) (b. Žamberk, Bohemia, 26 March 1698; d. Přímětice, near Znojmo, Moravia, 21 December 1765)


Diviš was one of the most eminent Czech scholars of the mid-eighteenth century. He contributed to the history of science mainly by his studies of atmospheric electricity and by his construction of a lightning conductor. From 1716 he attended secondary school at Znojmo, in southern Moravia. In 1719 he joined the Premonstratensian monastery at Louky, where he completed his study of philosophy and was ordained in 1726. He then taught natural science at the monastery school and introduced practical experiments in the classroom. Diviš also taught theology, becoming doctor of theology at Salzburg in 1733 and doctor of philosophy, probably in 1745 at Olmütz (now Olomouc). In 1736 he was appointed parson in the small village of Přímětice, near Znojmo, where he remained, except for a brief interval, until his death.

Scientific research mattered more to Diviš than his parish duties. Unfortunately, he lived at a great distance from his country’s centers of learning (the only universities in Bohemia were those at Prague and Olmütz). He had to keep up with scientific developments through literature, personal contacts, and (chiefly) correspondence. Of the latter, however, only a small portion has been found. Thus circumstance made Diviš more or less self-taught.

During his stay at the monastery of Louky, Diviš concerned himself with practical hydraulics. From his manuscripts it appears that he also worked in chemistry and alchemy. He even constructed a musical instrument called the “denisdor,” which resembled a complicated harpsichord and had strings that could be electrified.

Diviš’ main interest was electricity. We do not know exactly when he began work in this area, but in 1748 he performed various electrical experiments. He is said to have demonstrated the electric effects of the conductive point in Vienna as early as 1750. By means of unnoticeable pointed wires inserted into his wig, he drew off the electricity from a charged solid body. He had also considered drawing off electricity from clouds, but it is not until early in 1753—only after Dalibard’s first experiments—that there is any evidence of Diviš’ real interest in and ideas about atmospheric electricity. In that year Diviš also wrote a treatise explaining why the St. Petersburg physicist G. W. Richmann had been killed by a flash of lightning, and sent it to Euler. In a letter dated 24 October 1753, which accompanied the treatise, he hints at his intention of finishing that winter a machine for reducing the severity of thunderstorms and of testing it the following summer. On 15 June 1754, Diviš erected his lightning conductor in the rectory garden of Přímětice.

The basic idea of Diviš’ conductor was a consistent application of the point-effect analogy (discovered by Franklin in 1747), that metal points possess the property of allowing electricity to flow away from a charged object. This led Diviš to believe that a thundercloud could be deprived of its charge, thus entirely preventing lightning. Diviš’ lightning conductor consisted of a horizontal iron cross with three boxes with twenty-seven points attached to the end of each arm. This complicated machina meteorologica was placed on a wooden frame about 108 feet high and connected to the ground by four iron chains. Whether the chains were intended only to increase the stability of so high a structure or whether Diviš was actually aware of the necessity of grounding remains uncertain. At any rate, the grounding made the conductor truly effective, in contrast with the insulated experimental rods of that time. In this respect, Diviš’ lightning conductor is considered to be the first to afford actual protection from lightning, although, of course, it did not possess the preventive effects attributed to it by its inventor. The lightning conductor at Přímětice remained standing until 1760, when the villagers, believing it to be the cause of a great drought, broke the chains and a heavy gale did the rest. Diviš later attached a smaller version to the steeple of his church.

Diviš also was interested in the therapeutic applications of electricity, advocating such treatments and carrying them out. He is said to have cured more than fifty persons. He doubtless was a highly skilled experimenter, but the results he obtained were never beyond the level of the period.

Diviš devoted much attention to the theoretical explanation of electric phenomena. In doing so he referred to Genesis, and in many respects he was influenced by Aristotle and the Scholastics. These influences, together with the general distrust of lightning conductors, seem to have been the main reasons why—despite his continual efforts—Diviš was not more appreciated during the Enlightenment. In 1753 he sought membership in the Berlin Academy of Sciences; in 1755 he took part in a competition at the St. Petersburg Academy; in 1760 he solicited a professorial chair at Vienna University—but all in vain. Likewise, he had great difficulties with his only publication, Magia naturalis, which was rejected by the Vienna censors. It was not published until the year of his death, with the help of German Protestants.


I. Original Works. Diviš’ only published work is Längst verlangte Theorie von der meteorologischen Electricite, welche er selbst Magiam naturalem benahmet (Tübingen, 1765; 2nd ed., Frankfurt, 1768). MSS are in National Scientific Library, Olomouc, MSS Dept., sign. III.28. nos. 1–12; National Archives, Brno, Cerroni Collection, no. II.135; and Archives of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Leningrad: correspondence, fol. 136, op. 2, no. 3; fol. 1, op. 2, no. 39; fol. 1, op. 3, no. 40, 45.

II. Secondary Literature. Reports of Diviš’ scientific activity are in Tubingische Berichte von gelehrten Sachen (1755), pp. 66–73; and Wochentlicher Intelligenz-Zettel (Brno, 1758), nos. 3, 4, 7–10.

On Diviš or his work, see E. Albert, “Ein österreichischer Elektrotherapeut aus dem vorigen Jahrhundert,” in Wiener medizinische Presse, no. 12 (1880), 369–372; I. B. Cohen and R. Schofield, “Did Diviš Erect the First European Protective Lightning Rod, and Was His Invention Independent?,” in Isis, 43 (1952). 358–364; J. Friess, “Prokop Divisch. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Physik,” in Programm der k. k. Staats-Oberrealschule (Olomouc, 1884); L. Goovaerts, Écrivains, artistes et savants de l’Ordre Prémontré, I (Brussels, 1899), 195–197; K. Hujer, “Father Procopius Diviš—The European Franklin,” in Isis, 43 (1952) 351–357; F. Pelzel, Abbildungen böhmischer und mährischerGelehrten und Künstler, III (Prague, 1777), 172–184; and Josef Smolka, “Příspěvky k bádáni o Prokopu Divišovi” (“Contribution to the Investigation of Prokop Diviš”), in Sbornik pro dějiny přirodnich věd a techniky, 3 (1957), 122–152; “Divišova korespondence s L. Eulerem a Petrohradskou akademii ved” (“Diviš’ Correspondence With L. Euler and the Petersburg Academy of Sciences”), ibid., 8 (1963), 139–162; “B. Franklin, P. Diviš et la découverte du paratonnerre,” in Actes du dixième congrès international d’histoire des sciences (Paris, 1964), pp. 763–767; and “Prokop Diviš and His Place in the History of Atmospheric Electricity,” in Acta historiae rerum naturalium necnon technicarum (Prague), spec. iss. 1 (1965), 149–169.

Josef Smolka