Benjamin Wilson was born on June 21st, 1721, the fourteenth and final child of Major Wilson and Elizabeth Wilson (née Yates). The biography of his own son General Sir Robert Wilson [1] states that art and painting first came into his father’s life through the works of Jacques Parmentier. This is supported by the Annals of York, Leeds, Bradford, […] and other places in the County of York [2], which notes that Parmentier decorated a staircase in Leeds in 1711. It is therefore very possible that Benjamin Wilson saw Parmentier’s artwork as a child.  

First going to London to practice his art, and having found a clerk position to maintain himself, Wilson became interested in electricity. An essay towards an explication of the phaenomena of electricity was Wilson’s first scientific publication, born from his experimentations on isolation and electricity, as well as his meeting with Irish academic Dr. Bryan Robinson (author of A dissertation on the aether of Sir Isaac Newton) during a first visit to Ireland.

Wilson left London for Dublin between 1748 and 1750 on the recommendation of Martin Folkes, then President of the Royal Society. There, he continued to paint, experiment, and wrote A treatise on electricity, which he published in London upon his return; a second edition came out in 1752, a year after Wilson had become a Fellow of the Royal Society.

To Martin Folkes, Esq; President of the Royal-Society. This endeavour to promote useful Knowledge, is Inscribed by his Most obliged, and obedient Humble servant, Benjamin Wilson.
STORE 65:28

 We know from a 1753 letter sent to the Royal Society and its President [3] that Wilson spent some time in Paris to work on some experiments with ‘Dr. le Monnier’ (possibly Louis Guillaume Le Monnier), still concerned by the source of electricity. His next book, Observations on a series of electrical experiments (1756), continued to explore this question.  

CR 1:4

Our copy comes specifically from the original Whipple Collection, and the non-contemporary binding dates from 1935 according to Whipple’s card catalogue. It also seems to have been signed by Wilson or his co-author for the ‘Hon.ble J. Vaughan Esq.’, which could match two different men: The Honourable Lieutenant-General Sir John Vaughan, MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed from 1774 to 1795, or John Vaughan, of Golden Grove, MP for Carmarthenshire. The author believes that it would be more likely to be the latter – there is very little to link the Lieutenant-General to Wilson, while the Vaughan of Golden Grove was a friend of John Campbell, 1st Baron Cawdor, himself a Fellow of the Royal Society and great amateur of art. [4]  

CR 1:4

Thanks to his experiments on the conductivity of tourmaline (a semi-precious gemstone), Wilson received the gold Copley medal in 1760. His first paper on the subject (‘Experiments on the Tourmaline’ [5]) showed that tourmalines are naturally electrically polarised, and that ‘electric fluid’ can ‘pass through any substance in nature which we are acquainted with’ (Wilson, 1759). He then experimented on different chrysolites (an old name for green or yellow and green gemstone, such as tourmalines and topazes) [6]. 

Although appointed Painter to the Board of Ordnance in 1773, Wilson seems to have spent most of his time continuing to work on electricity, conductivity, and the protection of buildings from lightning – in particular, the protection of the Purfleet Powder Magazines, which remained in use until 1962 [7]. Despite the installation of rods, the stores suffered a lightning-related incident in 1778, and Wilson was called back to aid – but so was Benjamin Franklin, who resided in Europe at the time. 

Wilson advocated for the use of rounded, blunt lightning rods, while Franklin believed that pointed ones would work best [8]. This culminated in a large-scale experiment in London, at the end of which King George III eventually opted for Wilson’s model [9]. One story goes as far as saying that the King instructed Sir John Pringle, then President of the Royal Society, that all lightning rods in the United Kingdom end in knobs from there on. Sir Pringle, a great friend of Franklin, is said to have answered that ‘the prerogatives of the president of the Royal Society do not extend to altering the laws of nature’ and resigned on the spot [10]. Although a great story, it is likely untrue. 

The letters and reports related to Purfleet were amongst Wilson’s last published works [11]. He died on June 6, 1788, aged 66.  

Post written, researched and produced by Raphaëlle Goyeau, Library Assistant.

Pictured

STORE 65:28. Benjamin Wilson. An essay towards an explication of the phaenomena of electricity, deduced from the aether of Sir Isaac Newton contained in three papers which were read before the Royal-Society. London: C. Davis. 1746.

CR 1:4. Benjamin Wilson & Benjamin Hoadly. Observations on a series of electrical experiments. London: T. Payne. 1756. Also available online through the Wellcome Collection.

References

[1] Robert T. Wilson, Sir, & Herbert Randolph (Ed.). Life of General Sir Robert Wilson; From autobiographical memoirs, journals, narratives, correspondence, &c. London: John Murray. 1862.

[2] John Mayhall. Annals of York, Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Doncaster, Barnsley, Wakefield, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, Keighley, and other places in the County of York From the Earliest Period to the Present Time. Leeds: Joseph Johnson. 1860.

[3] Benjamin Wilson. A letter to the right honourable the Earl of Macclesfield, President of the Royal Society, from Mr. Benjamin Wilson, F.R.S. concerning some electrical experiments made at Paris. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, vol. 48, 1753. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstl.1753.0052 

[4] Lewis Namier & J. Brooke. VAUGHAN, John (c. 1752-1804), of Golden Grove, Carm. In The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790. London: Boydell & Brewer.

[5] Benjamin Wilson. Experiments on the Tourmalin: by Mr. Benjamin Wilson, F.R.S. In a letter to Dr. William Heberden, F.R.S. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, vol. 51, 1759. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstl.1759.0037

[6] Benjamin Wilson. Observation upon some gems similar to the tourmaline. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, vol.52, 1761. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstl.1761.0069

[7] Benjamin Wilson. Observations upon Lightning, and the Method of Securing Buildings from Its Effects: In a Letter to Sir Charles Frederick, Surveyor-General of His Majesty’s Ordnance, and F.R.S. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, vol. 63, 1772. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstl.1773.0009

[8] Benjamin Franklin. Experiments, observations, and facts relative to the utility of long pointed rods, for securing buildings from damage by strokes of lightning. In Memoirs of the life and writings of Benjamin Franklin. London: Henry Colburn. 1819. 

[9] Benjamin Wilson & the Royal Collection Trust. Observations upon Lightning. Retrieved from https://www.rct.uk/collection/1090180/observations-upon-lightning

[10] J.L. Heilbron. Elements of Early Modern Physics. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1982.

[11] Royal Society of London. Sundry Papers Relatives to an Accident from Lightning at Purfleet, May 15, 1777. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, vol.68, 1778. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstl.1778.0015