Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Alexander Small, 13 April 1772

From [Alexander Small8]

AL (incomplete): American Philosophical Society

New York April 13th 1772

Dear Sir

Having soon dispatched all I could do in Jamaica, and having no Opportunity of returning soon to Britain from thence, I was tempted by a very ingenious Gentleman Mr. Shariff9 to accompany him hither. As he purposes being in England some time this Summer, I shall give him a Letter of introduction to you.

As I gave you from Jamaica an Account of what occurred during our Passage thither, I shall now continue a Journal of our Voyage hither, which was a most disagreable one of forty six days, during which many cross Accidents happened.

As we came down from Kingston to Port Royal our Commander Mr. Tunis de la Fountanye informed us that being in Kingston harbour in the year 1764, he saw a Stream of fire descending from a small black Cloud upon Muskita Fort, which was succeeded by a Clap of Thunder, and by the Explosion of a large Magazine of Gun powder then lodged in the fort.1 Mr. Shariff, who is much conversant in Electrical Experiments, said that when an electrical Machine is highly charged, and a Shock is then given with it, he had observed that the electrical fire proceeded in a streight line; and from thence concluded that when Lightning did any Mischief, it constantly proceeded in a streight line. I confirmed this Opinion by the instance of St Bride’s Steeple.2

When we were in the Latitude of 34 proceeding to the stormy Cape Haterass, a very fine Morning began at Noon to be over cast. While we were at Dinner, our Capt. started up and run upon deck to give the proper Orders. He had scarcely stept when we heard two Claps of thunder resembling two Cannons fired off quickly very near us, and then ceased instantly without that repetition of Sounds which is usual in thunder. This was succeeded by rain, and then a clear Sky. When the Capt. returned to make an end of his Dinner, we asked him the reason of his so suddenly starting up. He answered that he saw a flash of Lightning exactly similar to that which fell on Muskita fort. In the Evening Mr. Shariff and I being upon deck, observed a very black Cloud to the northward, and saw a great deal of Lightening in it, but were at too great a distance to hear the Thunder. We could evidently distinguish three different kinds of Lightning, viz: the common flash, which diffuses much Light, and is instantly gone. The next was the Zig-Zag kind which generally reached a considerable way along the Cloud. We observed one flash which darted along at least one quarter of the Sky. Does this account for the noise of the Thunders being heard for a considerable time, and lessening as it goes to a greater distance; as well as it does for our Cannon Shot the flash being then in a Spot? The third kind is that Stream of fire which our Capt. Saw. We saw a faint one in the evening, extended from the Sea to the Cloud; and in about a quarter of an hour, we saw another Stream of clear fire, reaching in the same manner; in a continuous fire. We did not see from which it took its rise.3 From this dark Cloud, other Clouds extended themselves over the whole Sky, tho’ on one Side, directly against the wind, with that mixture of light and darkness peculiar to thunder Clouds; and soon produced a total darkness especially as Night was approaching; but a darkness which was at times abundantly enlightened by almost continued flashes of Lightning. About eight O’Clock the Mate, who had the Watch on deck, called out with astonishment that a Stream of fire descended from the Sky to the Sea, as large he thought as his wrist. What between the Lightning, thunder, and luminous appearance in the Waves which broke every where around us, I assure you the Night had a most tremenduous Appearance.

A few Nights after this Storm another, so violent, came on, that we could bear no Sail, but as the Sailers express it lay a Hull. This was not attended with thunder; but the Sea was in the most luminous state I ever Saw it, which our Capt. imputed to our approach to the Shore. The whole surface of the Sea being covered with breakers, appeared as if all on fire: and as the Sea broke over us every minute, and the Spray ascended on the Masts and Rigging, both Deck and rigging seemed to be constantly on fire, which gave so clear a light that a pin might have been picked up on the Deck. The Vessel and we appeared like Salamanders living in the midst of Flame.4

In these violent Storms there frequently appears a Phenomenon which the Sailors call a Comet, this is a ball or balls of fire or of some luminous Substance, which play up and down the Masts, and Sometimes remain Stationary at the Mast head. The Sailors observe that when they descend and disappear the Storm is on the decline. Our Capt. relyed so fully on this Circumstance that so soon as he saw the Comet descend and appear no more, he went to Sleep, being fully satisfied that no farther mischief would happen. Mr. Shariff and I differed in Opinion as to the Cause of this Phenomenon. There are in the Sea many gelatinous Substances which seem to be animals by their change of posture at pleasure. They have a peculiar luminous appearance in the Night, as several other fish have. He was of Opinion that the balls were some Animals of that kind which were thrown up by waves, and preserved their luminous appearance for some time. I alledged that if so, their Appearance would not cease but with the Storm; nor could it be the common luminous Substance, for its Shining ceases the Moment the Agitation of the Sea water ceases. Sub Judice Lis est.5

I do not know that the perpendicular height of the Waves of the Sea has been yet ascertained by any Accurate Experiments. Our Capt. relates the following facts. On the Bar of Canso Bay6 there are four fathoms Water in calm Weather. Passing over the bar in a great Storm, he kept the lead going constantly, and found that when on the top of a Wave, he had five fathoms; and in the hollow between the Waves, he had only three. When we approached the Coast of your Country, and were got within Sounding, a Storm came on, which brought us to our bare poles. In this Condition a Vessel has little progressive Motion, and on that account, our Capt. had a fair Opportunity of ascertaining exactly the difference of depth between the top of a wave and the hollow between two. He took the lead line in his own hand, and found that when on the top of the Waves, he had forty four fathoms of water, and when in the hollows, scarcely forty. The Sea did not at this time run so high as in the former Storms, for it was not of so long continuance.

I was once in a gale of wind in the Bay of Biscay, and there [?] I keep greatly within truth when I say that the waves were at least a third higher than any waves I had seen during this passage and the distance between the Waves in a much greater proportion. The reason may be that the Waves on your Coast had a much less space to run, the Strongest Winds being generally off Shore. When in the Bay of Biscay, we met a Ship and when both were on the tops of the Waves, we could easily speak to one another. I cannot now be positive how many waves we were asunder, I think not above two, or three at most, but when both descended into the hollows at the same time, neither of us could see the tops of one another’s Masts.7

You See your Country gave us a very unkind Welcome, for we were Sixteen days from Cape Haterass to New York, and in almost continual Storms.8 Your World is formed on a grander Scale than ours. Your Mountains are more lofty, your Lakes more extensive, your Rivers larger, and your Storms more violent than with us. The Truth of the latter we have abundantly experienced. Here we are cast a Shore in Wintery weather, the Snow lying on the ground, and no Signs of Vegetation yet appearing.

In Order to give the whole that related to Lightning together, I passed over a considerable part of our Voyage, during which, two remarkable circumstances occurred. When we had got to the West end of Cuba, we were Sensible that the Current carried us to the Northward, and, as we supposed, into the Gulph of Florida. When in the Latitude of 23, the Current made a difference in a day of twenty miles between our Log and Observation; and next day, a difference of 40, when we got beyond the lat: of Cape Florida tho’ we steered both day to the S:E: against a strong Easterly wind, endeavouring to make the Island of Cuba. From thence we judged that [the] Current of the Gulph Stream had carried us into the Gulph without seeing the Island of Cuba. The next day we found we were carried still to the Northward more than our log gave. Next day our Observation and Log agreed; but the two following days we found by our Observations at Noon that we had rather lost of our Northing. This allarmed us, but we accounted for it by Supposing that we had got too near the American Shore, and so into an Edie formed by the Gulph Stream.9 Luckily for us, we next day saw a Ship the Master of which informed us, that he had left Pensacola the day before and [remainder missing]

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

8Identified by the handwriting. For the Scottish army surgeon, chemist, and F.R.S. see above, IX, 110 n. He had recently been appointed co-chairman of the committee on chemistry of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce: The Royal Kalendar … (London, [1772]), p. 220. He had left England for Jamaica at the beginning of the year, was in New York in mid-April and then briefly in Philadelphia, and was back in London by early August: above, BF to Bond, Feb. 5, and DF to BF, May 14–16; BF to Evans below, Aug. 22.

9The only man of the name we have encountered is an implausible candidate: William Sheriff, of the 47th Foot, served in America from the beginning of the French and Indian War and eventually rose to be deputy quartermaster general and a lieutenant colonel: Worthington C. Ford, comp., British Officers Serving in America, 1754–1774 (Boston, 1894), p. 92; William B. Willcox, ed., The American Rebellion: Sir Henry Clinton’s Narrative of His Campaigns, 1775–1782 … (New Haven, 1954), p. 557. Why he should be referred to as “Mr.,” or be knowing about electrical machines, we have no idea.

1Small’s informant was undoubtedly Teunis la Mountanye, or Mountaine, master of the Dispatch, which cleared New York for Tobago in December, 1771, returned by way of Jamaica, and arrived the following April: N.-Y. Gaz., and the Weekly Mercury, Dec. 9, 1771; April 20, 1772. He had witnessed the explosion of the magazine in Fort Augusta on Mosquito Point, Sept. 14, 1763, which caused extensive damage and loss of life: The Annual Register … for 1763 (1764), p. 113; Benjamin Wilson, Observations upon Lightning … (London, 1773), pp. 65–8. The “Stream of fire” appears to have been either ball lightning, a rare and mysterious phenomenon, or a stroke that hit and exploded the ball.

2For the damage to St. Bride’s in 1764 see Small’s letter to BF above, XI, 544–5. Electrical experimenters had long been interested in whether lightning moved in a straight or crooked line, and from cloud to earth or vice versa; see above, IV, 256, 510.

3The three forms of discharge that Small is describing are now known as sheet, air discharge, and streak lightning. For BF’s earlier speculations about lightning over the ocean see above, III, 367–71; IV, 257–8.

4Small’s vivid description of phosphorescence touched on a subject about which scientists had been speculating for more than a century. BF had put forward a theory and then disproved it himself; he had subsequently adopted James Bowdoin’s explanation, which turned out to be the correct one, that luminous microscopic animals in the water caused the “sea light.” See above, III, 367; V, 68, 113–15, 155.

5Horace, Ars poetica, 78, which may be freely rendered as “the matter is still in dispute.” Small had reason to disagree with Sheriff, who was confusing phosphorescence with St. Elmo’s Fire. BF had done the same thing years before, but had soon come to an explanation that was, like Small’s, much nearer the truth: above, III, 473; IV, 143. The luminescence is produced by electric discharge from points on the ship, such as the masthead, in the presence of an electrified cloud, particularly when it is directly overhead. The phenomenon is in essence the same as that demonstrated by Henly in his experiment above, XVIII, 19–20. By the time the cloud is above the ship the wind and seas have moderated, and the worst of the storm is over; hence the appearance of St. Elmo’s Fire has been regarded since ancient times as a good omen. See Sir Basil Schonland, The Flight of Thunderbolts (2nd ed., Oxford, 1964), pp. 47–50.

6Canso, Nova Scotia, is on Chedabucto Bay, and the bar was presumably at the entrance.

7BF, as Small may well have known, had long been interested in the physics of waves and wind. See above, IX, 212–16; X, 93–4.

8They were lucky to get through unscathed, for numerous ships did not. The papers were full of reports of those lost or damaged; see for example the N.- Y. Gaz., and the Weekly Mercury, May 4.

9Small undoubtedly knew that details of his voyage would be welcome because of BF’s long-standing curiosity about the effects of the Gulf Stream upon navigation, for which see above, III, 67–8; X, 94; XV, 246–8.

Index Entries