Jean-Antoine Nollet (19 November 1700–25 April, 1770) was a Catholic clergyman and a physicist who did groundbreaking work in the field of electricity.
In 1745 he developed a theory of electrical attraction and repulsion that supposed the existence of a continuous flow of electrical matter between charged bodies. Nollet’s theory at first gained wide acceptance, but met its nemesis in 1752 with the publication of the French translation of Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity. Franklin and Nollet found themselves on opposite sides of current debate about the nature of electricity, with Franklin supporting action at a distance and two qualitatively opposing types of electricity, and Nollet advocating mechanical action and a single type of electric fluid. Franklin’s argument eventually won and Nollet’s theory was abandoned.
Nollet is said to be responsible for one of the most impressive and spectacular demonstrations of electricity up to that time. As the story goes, Abbe Nollet first sent a discharge from a Leyden jar through a company of 180 soldiers holding hands. This demonstration was before King Louis XV at Versailles. The King was both impressed and amused as the soldiers all jumped simultaneously when the circuit was completed. The King requested that the experiment be repeated in Paris. In the second demonstration, 700 monks in a line received the same treatment. Nollet is reputed to be the man who first applied the name “Leyden jar” – invented by Pieter van Musschenbroek – to the first device for storing electricity.
Abbé Nollet was the first to recognize the importance of sharp points on the conductors in the discharge of electricity. This was later applied practically in the construction of the lightning-rod. He also studied the conduction of electricity in tubes, in smoke, vapours, steam, the influence of electric charges on evaporation, vegetation, and animal life. His discovery of the osmosis of water through a bladder into alcohol was the starting-point of that branch of physics.
In 1734 Nollet went to London and was admitted into the Royal Society. In 1735 he started in Paris, at his own expense, a course in experimental physics which he continued until 1760. In 1738 Cardinal Fleury created a public chair of experimental physics for Nollet. In 1739 he entered the Academy of Sciences, becoming associate member in 1742, and pensionary in 1758. In April, 1739 the King of Sardinia called him to Turin to instruct the Duke of Savoy, and to furnish the instruments needed for the new chair of physics at the university. After lecturing a short time at Bordeaux, he was called to Versailles to instruct the dauphin in experimental science. He was appointed professor of experimental physics at the Royal College of Navarre, in 1753. In 1761 he taught at the school of artillery at Mézières. Nollet was also a member of the Institute of Bologna and of the Academy of Sciences of Erfurt. He was calm and simple in manner, and his letters and papers showed that he had been devoted and generous to his family and his native village. Nollet contributed to the Recueil de l’Académie des Sciences (1740-67) and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society; his larger works include among others: – Programme d’un cours de physique expérimentale (Paris, 1738); Leçons de physique expérimentale (Paris, 1743); Recherches sur les causes particulières des phénomenes électriques (Paris, 1749); L’art des expériences (Paris, 1770).
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—A Foil for Franklin and the Promoter of the Leyden Jar – 1753; L’abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet (1700 – 1770).
—Grandjean de Fouchy, Eloge de J.-A. Nollet; Histoire de l’Academie Royale des Sciences (Paris, 1773), 121-36.