Benjamin Franklin Papers

To Benjamin Franklin from Marsilio Landriani: Résumé, 9 November 1783

From Marsilio Landriani1

ALS:2 Historical Society of Pennsylvania

⟨Milan, November 9, 1783, in Italian: I would fail in the commission given to me by the Imperial Court of publishing a mémoire raisonné on the utility of conductors, in order to make their use more common among us, if before its publication I did not write to you, the illustrious and celebrated gentleman to whom we owe this great discovery. Not knowing you personally, I asked my dear friend Monsieur de Saussure to request from you all the information you have about the use of conductors and those that have been erected in the United States, because I seek to persuade a people for whom this carries more authority than all philosophical arguments. I will include at the end of my memoir a list of conductors that have been installed in different parts of Europe. To this end I have contacted friends in Germany, France, and England, etc. who have provided the relevant information.3

At present I am only lacking information regarding the United States, which I consider crucial because it is rumored that in America there have been many cases in which conductors proved dangerous. Any communication from you will be sufficient to remove this prejudice, which prevents the public from adopting conductors.4

Count di Wilzeck, who succeeded Count di Firmian as imperial commissioner and minister plenipotentiary in Austrian Lombardy,5 asked me to offer you his services and assure you of his highest esteem. I lent him the Constitutions of the United States, which M. de Saussure sent me, and he would like to have a copy in English. He would have asked this himself but did not dare, not being known to you. If you can grant him this favor, please send the book to the following address [which he provides].

P.S. I wrote to you in Italian because I know that you understand it very well. However, your reply can be in English, which I understand fairly well.⟩

1The Milanese professor of experimental physics whose project, the subject of the present letter, had been introduced to BF by Saussure on Oct. 10. Landriani was an early supporter of lightning rods and in 1780 published an article about the effects of a lightning strike at a monastery in Milan. Three years later the Austrian government commissioned him to oversee the protection of all public buildings in the region and produce a dissertation that would help dispel popular misconceptions about lightning rods and encourage their widespread use. The book, published by order of the government, was Dell’ Utilità dei conduttori elettrici (Milan, 1784). See Antonio Pace, Benjamin Franklin and Italy (Philadelphia, 1958), pp. 26, 39–41; Dizionario biografico degli Italiani (73 vols. to date, Rome, 1960–).

2The existence of a contemporary French translation, filed with the original at the Hist. Soc. of Pa., suggests that BF did not share Landriani’s confidence in his Italian reading skills (expressed in the postscript). The Italian original is printed in Pace, Benjamin Franklin and Italy, pp. 369–71.

3Landriani continued to receive replies for several months after writing this letter; they came from as far north as Copenhagen. He printed many of them, including those from Magellan, Saussure, Bertholon, Toaldo, and Buffon, and concluded with a catalogue listing the locations of more than 300 conductors. The main body of the book recounted the lightning rod’s development, provided additional information gleaned from correspondents, and instructed readers on how to construct and set up a conductor.

4On p. 170 of Dell’ Utilità dei conduttori elettrici, Landriani noted that he had written BF for information on the current usage of lightning rods in America and still hoped to receive a reply before the printing of the book was completed. If BF ever sent a reply, that letter has been lost. He did not receive a copy of Landriani’s book until long after he had returned to Philadelphia; at that time he thanked the author and reported on how a conductor on his own house had saved it from destruction while he had been away in France: BF to Landriani, Oct. 14, 1787 (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek).

5Johann Joseph Graf von Wilczek (1738–1819) succeeded Karl Gotthard Graf zu Firmian (1718–1782) as Austrian minister plenipotentiary in Lombardy in 1782: Constant von Wurzbach, ed., Biographisches Lexikon des Kaiserthums Oesterreich (60 vols., Vienna, 1856–91), under Wilczek; Rudolf Vierhaus, ed., Deutsche Biographische Enzyklopädie (2nd ed.; 12 vols., Munich, 2005–8), under Firmian; Repertorium der diplomatischen Vertreter, 111, 83.

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