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Authenticity of Scientific Anecdotes


THERE are two famous anecdotes told concerning-Michael Faraday and the usefulness of scientific discoveries. They appear in various forms in the works of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers on scientific subjects. Both are told usually in relation to Faraday's discoveries in the field of electro-magnetism. The usual form of the stories is that some dignitary or public official, usually the Prime Minister himself, visited Faraday at the Royal Institution and, on being given a demonstration of the phenomenon of induced currents, inquired: “What good is it?” One of the stories has it that Faraday replied: “What good is a new-born baby?” The other has it that he replied: “Soon you will be able to tax it”1.

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  1. No personal references are necessary ; every year one or both of these anecdotes appears in books and articles.

  2. See Cohen, I. B., Benjamin Franklin and Aeronautics, J. Franklin Inst., 232, 101 (1941).

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  3. Smyth, A. H., (ed.), The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, 10 vols., 9, 79 (New York: The Macmillan Co., 190710).

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  4. Van Doren, Carl, Benjamin Franklin, Chap. 24 (New York: The Viking Press, 1938).

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  5. ibid., p. 700.

  6. Calendar of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin in the Library of the University of Pennsylvania, 468 (Philadelphia, 1908).

  7. Quoted in Bence Jones, Life and Letters of Faraday, 1, 218 (London, 1879). See also Tyndall, John, Faraday as a Discoverer, 43 (London, 1870).

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  8. See Findlay, Alexander, A Hundred Years of Chemistry, 19, 300 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937).

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  9. Quoted in Tyndall, op. cit., p. 43.

  10. Pelseneer, Jean, La pomme de Newton, Ciel et Terre, 1 4 (1937).

  11. White, A. Hastings, (ed.), Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life by William Stukeley, M.D., F.R.S., 1752, 19 (London: Taylor and Francis, 1936).

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COHEN, I. Authenticity of Scientific Anecdotes. Nature 157, 196–197 (1946).

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