David Colden (1733 - 1784)

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Death: Died in UK
Managed by: Douglas Kellner
Last Updated:

About David Colden

Crippled at age 14 due to a severe ailment, thought today to be scoliosis. He served as his father’s secretary and as weighmaster of New York. He married Ann Willet, daughter of his neighbor John Willet of Flushing. L.I on February 27, 1767. She died in 1785 at Coldengham. David’s father trained him in the medical field and he was considered the equivalent of a doctor. After his brother’s death, David became the Surveyor General until about 1775. He worked extensively with his father and Benjamin Franklin on matters of science, electricity and the natural world. David was interested in the ability of a snake to charm its prey, which he often wrote about. He became Internationally known and respected for his keen experiments defending Franklin’s theories on electrical polarity, working from the relative wilderness of early Coldengham. Franklin’s ability to conceive the flow of electricity was born upon his acceptance of Cadwallader Colden’s physics theories, which held that there were many forms of matter and that matter can behave in many ways. This enabled Franklin to view the electricity, or the ‘elastic fluid’ as they referred to it, as one form of matter (electrons) flowing in another form of matter, a conductor. One of Benjamin Franklin’s European scientific opponents was Abbe Jean Nollet, a member of the French Royal Society and a leader of a monastery, hence the title, Abbe. Nollet was revered throughout the world and he took particular joy in casting doubt on Franklin’s electrical theories, most notably Franklin’s theory of electrical polarity. Europeans, particularly the French, believed that knowledge flowed from east to west, or from Europe to America, not the other way. In 1752, Franklin wrote to Cadwallader Colden that he was no longer inclined to respond to the numerous assaults from Abbe Nollet and that he would not respond to the latest letters. David Colden had conducted numerous electrical experiments on his own and he also worked to validate the experiments of Franklin over a period of many years. Since Benjamin Franklin decided not to respond to the latest scientific assault from Abbe Nollet, David Colden decided to do so on Franklin’s behalf. David used a very clever drawing to define an experiment that validated Franklin’s theory on electrical polarity. That experiment could be easily repeated in Paris where David’s letter was sent. The leaders of the French Royal Society now had two Americans to deal with on the subject of electricity, Benjamin Franklin and David Colden. Franklin immediately sent David’s experiment and letter to Peter Collinson in London to be formally published to embarrass Nollet. In 1760, Abbe Jean Nollet sent two packages of his own electrical experiments to America, as the December 3, 1760 letter excerpt from Benjamin Franklin to Cadwallader Colden indicates (image here). One was for Franklin and one was for David Colden. The great Abbe thus gave significant recognition to David Colden and so did Benjamin Franklin by saying: “Respects to that ingenious young gentleman, whose valuable work on the same subject I am sorry has not yet been made public”. Franklin was not one to lavish praise where it was not deserved so this letter properly identifies David Colden among the few who contributed significantly to the science of electricity during the eighteenth century. In 1780, he was appointed Superintendent of Police on Long Island. He inherited his father’s Spring Hill estate but that was seized after the war. David was prohibited from reentry into New York after the war and he died in England in on July 10, 1784 while trying to secure compensation for his losses. He is buried the cemetery of St. Anne’s Church, Soho, England. Note: There was another David born to Cadwallader and Alice who died very young. Ann, upon hearing about her husband’s death, accepted the invitation of Cadwallader II and moved to Coldengham. The children of Ann and David are identified later in the next chapter.

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David Colden's Timeline

1733
November 23, 1733
1768
1768
Age 34
1769
April 4, 1769
Age 35
Flushing, Queens, NY, USA
1770
April 7, 1770
Age 36
1774
February 25, 1774
Age 40
New York
1775
November 20, 1775
Age 41
New York
1784
July 10, 1784
Age 50
UK
????
????
Westminster, Greater London, UK