When I was about fifteen years old, we had retired to our house
near Belrive, when we witnessed a most violent and terrible
thunder-storm. It advanced from behind the mountains of Jura;
and the thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from
various quarters of the heavens. I remained, while the storm
lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I
stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue
from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards
from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the
oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump.
When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered
in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but
entirely reduced to thin ribbands of wood. I never beheld
anything so utterly destroyed.
The catastrophe of this tree excited my extreme astonishment;
and I eagerly inquired of my father the nature and origin of
thunder and lightning. He replied, "Electricity;" describing
at the same time the various effects of that power. He
constructed a small electrical machine, and exhibited a few
experiments; he made also a kite, with a wire and string, which
drew down that fluid from the clouds.
This last stroke completed the overthrow of Cornelius Agrippa,
Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus, who had so long reigned the
lords of my imagination. But by some fatality I did not feel
inclined to commence the study of any modern system; and this
disinclination was influenced by the following circumstance.