Ewald Georg von Kleist, 1740 -1748: Shock of the New

The recent death of Ewald von Kleist, last of the July 20 conspirators,  who but for bad scheduling would have assassinated Adolf Hitler in the spring of 1944, set me to wonder  about the rest of the family.

There are the usual suspects, a long line of more or less prominent military men, the writer Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist  (who started out as a solider), minor professionals who left no particular marks behind them.   And then there was Ewald Georg, jurist and cleric and Bishop of Pomerania.  

It was the age of the gentleman scholar, and electricity was the fascination of that age.  It was dramatic, and people enjoy diversion.   Static generators – basically a ball of sulfur or glass spun around while rubbing a hand or a woolen cloth – were the stuff of party tricks, quack medicine,  and some genuine scientific stumbling about.

Von Kleist’s interest was in finding  a way to store electricity.  He reasoned that since glass was non-conductive, it would be the perfect container for holding a charge.  The charge itself – that was a bit of a puzzler.  Perhaps it could be held inside liquid.

With this in mind, he filled a jar with water, dipped a spike into it, connected the spike to the static generator, spun the generator  and filled the jar with electricity.

So far, so good.  When he had finished the generating, he tried to take a closer look at the electricity in the bottle.  By chance he touched the spike, received a shock, and so discovered the principle of grounding.   Alarming stuff, and he wrote to friends who shared his interest in these matters, but he was a bit fuzzy on the details.  None was able to replicate the phenomenon. (Looking at the pictures, one wonders how hard could it have been.)

Independently, however,  the more professional Pieter van Musschenbroek (1692-1761) did more or less the same thing.  Van Musschenbroek worked not out of a provincial church, but out of Leyden University and was better published.

So – the Leyden jar, and only infrequently the Kleistian Jar.

In science, as in assassination, timing is everything.

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