Stephen Gray, astronomer, instrument maker and electrical experimenter, lived in England from 1666 to 1736. Despite challenges of ill health and intermittent poverty, his systematic investigation of electrical conduction laid the groundwork for telegraphy, which about a century later, changed the world.
A problem in the life of this amiable seeker of knowledge was being caught on the wrong side of a dispute between factions in the Royal Society, a staid but immensely powerful organization that dominated eighteenth century scientific discourse in England.
Stephen Gray ground lenses, built a telescope, and got the Society to publish some of his important discoveries concerning sunspots. The First English Royal Astronomer, John Flamsteed, read Gray’s account and was greatly impressed. But this was actually the start of Gray’s problems, because Flamsteed was locked in battle with the brilliant but disputatious Isaac Newton, who dominated the Royal Society. The unfortunate situation had the effect of freezing Gray out of the scientific mainstream, depriving him throughout much of his professional career of a viable livelihood.
Gray has a place in history because his inquisitive nature and creative drive prompted him to perform a series of experiments that altered the eighteenth century scientific landscape and made possible long distance communication and power distribution.
Gray’s experiments concerned electrical conduction. He first discovered that static charges within a glass tube were transmitted out into wooden stoppers intended only to keep out dust and debris. Gray extended the effect of the charge by adding first a small stick and eventually lengths of thread. Thus the first “wiring” was, in fact, thread. He strung the thread through rooms and out windows of houses belonging to wealthy friends who had taken him in. (Most of his life he was homeless, living either with acquaintances or in institutions for the destitute.)
A big problem was that hangers holding up his non-metallic wires tended to bleed out and diminish the charge, to a great extent grounding out the thread/conductors. Looking into this situation, Gray came to formulate a theory of electrical conductance and insulation. Then he turned his attention to the phenomenon of polarity.
After Newton’s death, Hans Sloane became president of the Royal Society, and at last Gray received recognition for his work. Finally in 1732, Gray became a member of the Royal Society, too late to alter his unfortunate life trajectory. In ill health and destitute, he left the world he had radically changed, dying in 1736, the same year as Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit.