the clergy helps science by electrocuting monks

If you’re a liberal SJW snowflake like me, you probably think of the Catholic church as a place of secrecy, oppression, and shame, where Nazis are ferreted to safety while Galileo is put under house arrest.

Then again, Catholic priests and nuns have been at the forefront of all kinds of amazing scientific discoveries, from genetics to the Big Bang Theory.

But did you know that the internet, the telephone, the telegraph, and the very concept of wires transmitting currents of electricity to better our world, all came about because of the one time a Catholic priest intentionally electrocuted 700 monks?

On an April day in 1746… it was a French monk, Jean-Antoine Nollet, who was man of the hour. Nollet was the abbot of the famous Carthusian monastery in Paris. And on that 18th century spring Parisian day, Nollet lined up all his monks, making each one grab hold of one end of a 10 meter length of wire in one hand and the end of another length of wire in the other hand. More than 200 monks, connected in series, wound through the fields on the grounds of the monastery in a line over a mile long…

Without telling his monks, the abbot took the final stretch of wire that was in his own hand and dropped it into the acid bath of a primitive battery. The whole line of monks suddenly got a tremendous shock.

Nollet was fascinated by all the shouts and cries and jumps, the contorted faces of pain. And, who knows, maybe even a few curse words that broke the monastic silence. Nollet was fascinated because he saw that the angry chorus of monks actually twitched and groaned at almost exactly the same time. The entire mile wincing and whining in unison. Quite surprising to him, the electrical current from his makeshift battery traveled almost simultaneously across 2000 burning fingers, two hundred brown cassocks and a mile of wire. It was the greatest distance anyone had known electricity to travel. And it happened in an instant … witnessing and measuring this speed and distance was one of the first insights that led to the invention of the telegraph 45 years later. Telegraph means “far” or “distant writer.” Those Carthusian monks standing hand-to-wire-to-hand were the predecessors of wifi, our ability to be connected instantly to friends and ideas, to experiment and debate.

Nollet was a colleague of Benjamin Franklin’s as well, which seems obvious, given the slightly tipsy smugness of this photo.

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Apparently they were more like frenemies than colleagues, with Franklin initially praising Nollet, and in response getting a series of letter published by Nollet in which he talked a bunch of shit about Franklin’s ideas, accused him of biting his theories about the connection between lightning and electricity, and in particular lambasted him for thinking that his invention of lightning rods could save cities by draining all the lightning right out of a storm.

History has made legend of Franklin’s famous kite experiment, relegating Nollet and his 700 monks to a footnote. But really, which experiment led to greater improvements in our lives? We are still incapable of harnessing the power of lightning to do our bidding and still die in electrical storms. And yet Nollet’s experiments with the speed and limitations of making electricity travel along a current not only made Franklin’s weathervanes possible, they also led to the currents of electricity that power the very laptop I’m typing this on.

More importantly, Nollet figured out a way to make everybody, from atheists to founding fathers to Popes, get enthusiastic over some serious monk torture.

D. M. Collins

D. M. Collins is a journalist and writer based in Los Angeles.

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