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. 1

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

  2. 2

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

  3. 3

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

  4. 4

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

  5. 5

    ibid., p. 700.

  6. 6

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

  7. 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).

  8. 8

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

  9. 9

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

  10. 10

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

  11. 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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