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A Shocking Kiss

Anna Williams, claims to have been the first person to notice sparks from an electrically charged human body.

Anna Williams, born near Haverfordwest in 1706, was a remarkable woman. She was a friend of Samuel Johnson, well educated, and a poet in her own write. When she accompanied her father to London in 1727 she began to assist Stephen Gray, an enthusiast for things electrical, in his experiments with static electricity produced by friction. She claimed to have been the first person to notice and describe the emission of sparks from an electrically charged human body. In 1740 Anna lost her sight and, being left alone after her father was admitted to an institution, was accommodated by Johnson at his various residences from 1752.

In Science Magazine in 2002 two scientists from Graz and Chicago have described the development of experiments in static electricity by Gray, Williams and others during the 18th century. The authors state that Gray was the first to demonstrate human electrification by showing that a child suspended on silk lines from the ceiling and charged from a rubbed glass tube would attract fragments of gold-leaf. This was in 1732. Then, in 1734, Charles Dufay described his experiment on the same lines and confirmed Gray's findings.

But Dufay also noted that if he electrified his own body other phenomena occurred. If another person brought his hand within an inch of Dufay's body, "... there immediately issues from my Body one or more pricking Shoots, with a crackling Noise that causes to that Person as well as to myself a little Pain resembling the burning from a Spark of Fire." Gray gave Dufay full credit for this discovery.

Recognition of the work of Anna Williams was not as forthcoming. In a book called 'Miscellanies in prose and verse' (1766), Anna claimed: "The Publisher of this Miscellany, as she was assisting Mr Grey [sic] in his experiments, was the first that observed and notified the emission of the electrical spark from a human body." It is strange that Gray failed to acknowledge this. He is reputed to have had a difficult personality, and was unwilling to accept any opposition from others. On the other hand, Anna herself tended to overestimate her own achievements, on the evidence of an argument she had over whether some of her verse was original or had been modified by Johnson.

Whatever the truth about the sparking controversy, the technique of charging a body and drawing sparks and shocks from it became a popular amusement at fairs and public demonstrations in the 18th century, and static electricity generators were devised to support the craze, which continued into our own times.

We ought to remember the contribution made by Anna Williams to our science.


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