Jean-Antoine Nollet was a French clergyman (known as Abbé Nollet) and a physicist. He was particularly interested in the ‘new science of electricity’, which he explored with the help of Du Fey and Reaumur. He joined the Royal Society of London in 1734 and later became the first professor of experimental physics at the University of Paris. He is reputed to have given the name to the Leyden jar, the first capacitor, after it was invented by Pieter van Musschenbroek in 1746. The Leyden jar, which ‘stores’ static electricity, is shown in the above illustration which comes from an article written by Nollet in 1755.
Nollet is also known as the father of experimental electrospray (see paper by Dumont and Cole in Mass Spectrometry Reviews, vol.33, no.6, 2014). The name electrospray is used for an apparatus that uses electricity to disperse a liquid or for the fine aerosol resulting from this process. The first ‘true’ electrospray experiments investigating the electrospray phenomenon were performed by Nollet in the middle of the 18th century, a phenomenon which today has led to electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (ESI-MS). Nollet also discovered the phenomenon of osmosis in natural membranes in 1748.
Nollet and Benjamin Franklin – Opposing Views!
In 1745 Nollet developed a theory of electrical attraction and repulsion that was based on the premise that there was a continuous flow of electrical matter between charged bodies. This theory gained wide acceptance at first but met its challenge with the publication in 1852 of the French translation of Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity (images from the 1851 edition printed in London, from the IET’s rare books collections, are shown below). Franklin and Nollet were on opposite sides of the debate about the nature of electricity with Franklin supporting the belief of action at a distance and two qualitatively opposing types of electricity, and Nollet supporting the belief of mechanical action and a ‘single type of electric fluid’. Franklin’s ideas won out and Nollet’s theory was discarded (this debate is mentioned on the sparkmuseum website).
One of many static electricity experiments carried out by Nollet was the ‘electric boy’, in which a young man was suspended from the ceiling using insulating cords, electrified, causing his body to act as a magnet. Objects were attracted to him, and close proximity of another person could lead to sparks (not to be attempted at home!).
In an experiment in 1746, Nollet gathered 200 monks into a circle measuring almost a mile, with rods held between them. He then discharged Leyden jars through the human chain and observed that each man reacted at substantially the same time to the electric shock, showing that the speed of electricity’s propagation was very high. Hearing of this performance King Louis XV demanded a repeat at Versailles and a company of 180 soldiers holding hands leapt simultaneously (this story is recounted in the 2012 book, The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body, by Frances M Ashcroft).
Other Nollet experiments, described in his publications, are discussed on a Museum of the History of Science website which reproduces some of the illustrations from these publications.
Nollet Material in IET Rare Books and Pamphlets Collections
We have in our collections 3 printed articles, one in 3 parts, written in French and authored by Abbé Nollet. These articles were published in various issues of the journal, Histoire de L’Academie Royale des Sciences: avec les Memoires de Mathematique & de Physique pour la Meme Année, covering the years 1753, 1755 and 1862. Plates from these articles are shown below.
These Abbé Nollet articles, many of his publications, and the many works of Benjamin Franklin that we have within the rare books collections can all be consulted by appointment at the IET Archives.