Benjamin Franklin Papers
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To Benjamin Franklin from Ezra Stiles, 30 March 1758

From Ezra Stiles

Draft:7 Yale University Library

Newport 30 Mar 1758

Dear Sir

Just before you sailed from New York, you was so kind as to inclose me a Copy of your philosophic Letter to Dr. Lining. I returned you Thanks and Reflexions upon it in a Letter July last8 too long to copy, by the Brig Prince of Orange Edward Jackson Captain taken on Passage from hence to London and carried into Bayonne.

It is thot that Air is absolutely necessary to Fire: a Candle is extinguished in an exhausted Receiver &c. The solar Rays or that fluid which by the solar Action is put in Motion and thence becomes luminous, is also hot. This Fluid subsists in Vacuo, may there be in Motion or accumulated, and I believe would burn in vacuo. If a Piece of dry Wood or combustible Matter was fixt under an exhausted Receiver, on which the Focus of a Beam of solar Rays collected by a Lens was injected: should the Wood take Fire, it would shew that the Air is not absolutely necessary. I do not know how the Experiment might suceed—perhaps it has been often made. But the Fire may be excited in some Matter (tho’ not in all) without Air, yet I question whether it can be propagated and continued without it. Air may be very necessary to imbibe, receive and carry off the Smoke and dissipable Matter; as fast as by the Action of Fire it is separated—for if this be not removed and carried off, it will soon entangle, obstruct the Action of common elementary Fire, which is a different Element from Electricity.

If the Globe (I write unconnected) was stript of Atmosphere nor Smoke, nor Flame, nor Vapor, nor Vegetables would ascend. May not the constant Ascent of the subtle Tails of Comets in Opposition from the Sun, imply an universal etherial Fluid surrounding the Sun like an Atmosphere to beyond the planetary Regions, even beyond the longest Tract of the Comets of our System? or is the universal Expanse of material Creation permeated by it? Yet as each Planet may be presumed furnished with its Atmosphere for Exhalation and Circulation of Vapor, animal Respiration &c: Analogy would lead us to think the same of every Sun or Center of each System.

A Morning without Dew, and the Pot’s boiling dry, are said to prognosticate Rain; and perhaps both may confirm Mr.   new Theory of Dew, that it is a nocturnal Exsudation of the whole Globe thro’ Vegetables &c.9 Perhaps if we had the curious Glass mentioned in Hermippus1 we shou’d see the Earth, at least Vegetables, in a Morning surrounded with a fine Fog, like that said to be visible by it around human and all animal Bodies from Perspiration. It may be objected to this nocturnal Perspiration of the Earth, that Mornings are clear, Morning Air is clear, not impregnated with Fog or any gross Vapor. To this—Perhaps tho’ it may rise to considerable Height in warm Evenings; yet the Chill induced by Morning, may condense and confine the Earth, while the superior purified Air receives its Morning Sweetness. When the Air is dry, like a Sponge, it may absorb all the transpiring rising Dew, and leave the Earth, and Vegetables dry: as the Water is plentifully absorbed from a boiling Pot. If the Dew arises from the Earth to no considerable Height—perhaps an Experiment on the Top of St. Pauls or some high Steeple might determine the Question. Near the Earth the upper and under Surfaces of Things, will be wet, unless by Accident, but at a given Distance, objects may remain dry, while Grass &c. is wet.

I feel impatient to see the Acts of the Council AD 304 found last Summer in the Stone Chest dug up at Granada in Spain. Tho’ I am no strong Believer in Councils. Would gladly know the Success in delineating, and defining the Alphabet of the Sinai Inscriptions.2

Pardon my using the Freedom to cover herewith a Letter to Mr. Samuel Chandler the Author of the History of Persecution and Translation of Limborch’s Inquistion.3 Let me beg the Favour you’ll be kind eno’ to deliver it. Should you happen in Acquaintance with any young Minister of the Independents of a generous and liberal Turn, forgive my Vanity in asking you to do me the Kindness to introduce me to his Correspondence. Mr. Chauncy Whittelsey Mar. 1, was ordained Colleague with Mr. Noyes, &c.4

I find the Lunar Eclipse 30th. July 1757 was observd at London, the End 31 D. I h. 5′ 42″ app. Time. It ended here by my Watch set by a Meridian the preceeding Noon 30 D. VIII h. 23′. Whence Difference of Meridian 4 h. 42 ¾′; which is 8 or 10 Minutes less than we used to allow. Lunar Eclipse 23d January last, Beginning observed about XI. 25′ P.M. I have compared several Obs[ervations] of the same Eclipses at London and here, and find they give different Numbers. Perhaps this is to be attributd to the inaccurate Measures of Time, and Want of Niceness in Observation. I reckon if we could ascertain the Longitude of Places to a Minute or so of Time, it would sufficiently answer the common uses of Geography and Navigation.5

I find an Account of the magnetism of erect Iron Rods I mean upper Ends, I formerly wrote you, mentioned in the philos. Transactions.6 I think the Comet of September last past unobserved in New England, its Course being direct and from a Northern Lat. to the Ecliptic, shew it not that of 1682.7 I am told there are antient Inscriptions engraved on Stone 150 or 200 Miles up Isequibe River, or away back from Surinam. An Acquaintance of mine here told me he was informed of them by one, who said he had seen them. Whether this is like Dr. Cotton Mather’s Inscription at Taunton?8 or any Thing more of Reality? With great Esteem and Respect, I am, Dear Sir, Your Obliged Friend And Obedient Servant

Ezra Stiles

To Benja. Franklin Esqr. Birchin Lane9 London.

This, with a Letter to Mr. Saml. Chandler London, sent by Capt. Galatly, who saild in the  from this Port for London Apr  1758

Capt. Gallatly was taken by the French.1

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

7This retained draft seems to be in part an outline; the letter actually sent to BF may have been somewhat longer.

8See above, pp. 184–90, for BF’s letter to Lining, and pp. 239–43, for Stiles’s letter to BF. Both letters deal with the nature and effects of heat, as do Stiles’s next three paragraphs here.

9This theory appeared in an article dated Sept. 26, 1757, and signed “A.B.” in Gent. Mag., XXVII (1757), 450–2.

1A German physician, Johann Heinrich Cohausen, printed an ingenious parody in Latin, Hermippus Redivivus (Frankfurt, 1742), which told of a microscope that made a variety of minute particles visible to the eye. John Campbell translated it into English in 1743, with the subtitle “The Sage’s Triumph over Old Age and the Grave.” In a Dublin edition of 1760, the microscope is described on pp. 55–7.

2Stiles’s interest in the Granada excavations and the Sinai inscriptions probably arose from Gent. Mag. notices; the excavations were reported in July 1757 (XXVII, 300); in 1753 (XXIII, 203), an account of Robert Clayton’s translation of A Journal from Grand Cairo to Mount Sinai, had told of a £500 reward for further exploration of the ancient Hebrew inscriptions said to be there.

3Rev. Samuel Chandler of London (1693–1766; see above, V, 204), author of History of Persecution (London, 1736) and translator (London, 1731) of Philipp van Limborch’s Historia Inquisitionis, published in 1692.

4Whittelsey (above, IV, 213 n) had been chosen co-minister of the First Church of New Haven, joining another friend of Stiles and BF, Rev. Joseph Noyes (above, III, 108 n), thus making the First Church an even firmer Old Light stronghold, a welcome circumstance to Stiles. Edmund S. Morgan, The Gentle Puritan: A Life of Ezra Stiles, 1727–1795 (New Haven, 1962), p. 198; Franklin B. Dexter, ed., Extracts from the Itineraries and Other Miscellanies of Ezra Stiles … (New Haven, 1916), pp. 571–3. Stiles’s letter sent to BF doubtless recounted the ordination at some length.

5Stiles could have read about the eclipses of June 30, 1757 and Jan. 23, 1758 in Gent. Mag., XXVII (1757), 352, and XXVIII (1758), 17. He was attempting to calculate the longitude of Newport by measuring the difference between the time of an observation of a celestial event (in this case the end of a lunar eclipse) in London and its observation at Newport, on clocks both set to Greenwich time. His difference, four hours, 42¾ minutes, converts to approximately 70°41′; ten minutes of time more than that would be 73°11′. The actual longitude of Newport is approximately 71°20′; thus Stiles’s new calculation was considerably more accurate than that formerly accepted. See above, pp. 208–10, on the determination of shipboard longitude in the eighteenth century.

6Stiles’s letter is lost, but see above, VI, 103, 177–8, for his interest in magnetism, several accounts of which had appeared in Phil. Trans. during the 1740s.

7The comet of September–October 1757, described in Gent. Mag., XXVII (1757), 392–3, 479, and in Phil. Trans., LI (1757), 408–15, was not a reappearance of Halley’s comet of 1682, which did not pass through its perihelion until March 1759, though predicted for 1757.

8Stiles maintained a life-long interest in mysterious inscriptions on stones, especially those that might be evidence of pre-Columbian discoveries of America. He may have inquired of his friend Capt. Simon Newton of Newport about the South American inscriptions. Those in Taunton, Mass. (the Dighton Rock) still puzzle scholars. Cotton Mather had written of them to the Royal Society in 1712. Morgan, Stiles, pp. 132, 137–8, 436–7; Phil. Trans., XXIX (1714–16), 70–1.

9At the Pennsylvania Coffee House, BF’s address for many of his American correspondents.

1Gent. Mag., XXVIII (October, 1758), 503, records that “The Diligence, Gately, from Rhode-Island for London, is taken” by a French privateer.

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