Benjamin Franklin’s Discovery of Electricity:
His Life ; His Experiments’ Influence on America
U.S. History Honors
Benjamin Franklin has influenced American technology, and indirectly, lifestyles by using his proficiencies and intelligence to conduct numerous experiments, arrive at theories, and produce several inventions. Franklin’s scientific and analytical mind enabled him to generate many long lasting achievements, which contributed to the development and refinement of modern technology.
Few national heroes, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, played a more significant role in shaping the American way of life than Franklin. According to Fowler, “He personified the ideal of the self-made man, and his rise from obscurity to eminence exemplified the American dream” (32). Looby adds, “The study of Franklin’s image for the past two centuries shows that his legacy had a distinctive place in American culture” (85). It has been felt by many people over the years that there was no United States inventor as great as Franklin until the time of Thomas A. Edison (Blow 24).
Franklin’s words to a friend in Pennsylvania, Joseph Huey, best explain his attitude not only toward what he considered his civic duties, but also his investigations as a scientist or philosopher. He made some of the most famous and certainly the most practical discoveries of his time.
“For my own part, when I am employed in serving others, I do not look upon myself as conferring favours, but as paying debts. In my travels, and since my settlement, I have received much kindness from men, to whom I shall never have any opportunity of making the least direct return . . . I can therefore only return on their fellow men; and I can only show my gratitude for these mercies from God, by a readiness to help his other children and my Brethren” (Dineen 6).
Wright quotes Franklin as saying, “As we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others,” and, “we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours” (19).
Franklin summarizes his attitude toward his inventions by asking the question, “What signifies Philosophy that does not apply to some use?” (Fleming 21). Another time Franklin is quoted as saying, “Utility is in my opinion the test of value in matters of invention, and that a discovery which can be applied to no use, or is not good for something is good for nothing” (Burlingame 39). Franklin never claimed a penny for any of his inventions, devices or experiments. He even distributed detailed plans of some of his inventions so that anyone could own them. The Pennsylvania fireplace, sometimes called the Franklin stove, acquired its name from Franklin, its inventor. This device, he said, “made my living room twice as warm as it used to be with a quarter of the wood I formerly consumed . . . ” (Donovan 55). The heating of houses was growing more expensive, the wood was being used extremely inefficiently, and much of the heat was lost up the chimney. Franklin’s fireplace solved these problems by using a number of passages and vents so that the cold air was drawn in from outside the building, warmed in the air passages, and then blown into the room. He said “your whole room is equally warmed, so that the people need not crowd so close round the fire, but may sit near the window, and have the benefit of the light for reading, writing, and needlework. They may sit with comfort in any part of the room, which is a very considerable advantage in a large family, where there must often be two fires kept, because all cannot conveniently come at one” (Seeger 166). Several people considered the fireplace a luxury for the wealthy.
One of the most important features of Franklin’s fireplace was the flue. Meltzer points out that the flue spread heat by circulating it into the room rather than simply sending it up the chimney and out (110). The fireplace also featured a damper that can close the chimney off and keep out the cold. The fireplace soon became widely used, as it was efficient and available to anyone who could build one.
One of Franklin’s most famous and notable experiments was his kite experiment. He first set out to establish if lightning was a form of electricity. With his kite, Franklin drew lightning down to the ground, thus determining that it was a form of electricity. What Franklin was investigating was whether or not lightning was an electric phenomenon. This seems fairly obvious to most of us today, but we must remember that in Franklin’s day the largest sparks they could make were under an inch long! Since lightning is several miles long it is not so obvious that they can be the same.
The question often arises whether or not Franklin actually did this experiment, and the answer is we do not know for sure. One thing, however, is certain: if he did do an experiment like this, he did not do it the way it is often shown. That is, he didn’t tie a key to the kite string, fly it in a thunderstorm, and wait for it to be struck by lightning! Such an experiment would be very dramatic, and quite fatal.
There are safe ways to do similar things, however, and Franklin, in his various writings, shows that he was quite aware of both the dangers and the alternatives. Franklin realized that if lightning was electricity, then it must be an awful lot of the stuff, and that it must take a long time to amass in the storm. Therefore, he suggested, fly the kite early in the storm before the lightning comes near you.
He had several variations on how to show electricity was present; one could draw sparks from a key tied to the string, or one could attach the string to a Leyden Jar, which is a device for collecting electricity (a capacitor). If the jar was empty before flying the kite and full afterwards then that is good evidence that thunderclouds contain electricity.
The most important concepts of his experiments were the existence of positive and negative electricity, the fluidity of electrified particles and the identity of lightning and electricity (Cohen 48). The experiment with the kite is taught in school to nearly every American child. It sparked the birth of lightning rods. The rods kept people’s homes from getting hit by lightning and catching fire. House fires caused by lightning were one of the most dangerous problems colonists had to face. “Soon after the rods were invented, all of Philadelphia, Boston, London, and Paris began using them” (Fleming 17).
Some of the new electricity related words conceived by Franklin included the condenser, conductor, electric shock, positive and negative electricity, and plus and minus charges. He wrote Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1732 to explain the practical application of electricity. Both Harvard and Yale gave Franklin honorary degrees of Master of Arts even though his formal education ended in the second grade. After French and English scientists successfully performed Franklin’s experiments, the King of France sent Franklin his personal congratulations. The Royal Society elected Franklin as a member by unanimous vote. They later awarded him the Society’s highest honor, the Copley Medal, after learning of some of his other talents and distinguished accomplishments.
Some of Franklin’s other inventions were the copying press, a musical instrument called the armonica, a rocking chair that fanned itself as it rocked, a long arm device for moving books on high library shelves, a combination footstool-ladder, a clock with internal workings, the odometer to calculate mileage, a combination chair-table which is now used as a school chair, bifocals, a rubber catheter, and a candle made of whale oil that gave a clean white light. All of these inventions became solutions to ordinary, everyday problems and needs.
Franklin was not only an inventor he was a great improver. He analyzed the spoken part of the English language and produced a phonetic alphabet based on the different sounds in the language (Potter 121).
In letters to other scientists, Franklin wrote about his observations of everyday phenomena. Clark states about Franklin, “One sign of the scientific mind was Franklin’s determination to question, to seek explanations of natural phenomena that could be checked by experiment of documentation” (54). Clark also believes that the processes of the natural world intrigued Franklin and he tried to interpret them. Franklin used his vast knowledge of geology, meteorology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics, aeronautics, navigation, agriculture, medicine, hygiene, seismology, hydrograph, ethnology, oceanography, and paleontology to come up with the theories about phenomena in these fields.
One of Franklin’s theories in the field of meteorology was based on his observation of weather patterns. He concluded that northeast storms that move across the Eastern Seaboard in the summer begin first in the southwest. He proposed daylight-saving time, noted lunar rainbows and lunar and solar eclipses. Franklin also observed animals such as dolphins, sharks, shellfish, pilot fish, tropical birds and herons. He even examined fog and conceived several theories about it.
In addition to his research, Franklin was a prolific writer of scientific observations. He wrote about his observations on the effect of oil on water, the cause of the Aurora Borealis, water spouts, whirlwinds and thunderstorms, the direction of rivers and tides, salt and seawater, sunspots, heat absorption by the color of an object, magnetism and the theory of the earth, earthquakes, sound traveling in fluid like waves, prehistoric fossils, causes of colds, the tonic effects of cold air and ventilation, cooling by evaporation, and the course of the Gulf Stream and its effects on shipping.
As a complement to his work, Franklin studied the sources of lead poisoning, causes and cures of smokey chimneys, relationship of tobacco to hand tremors, effects of diet and activity on general health, and the depth of water and speed of boats. He wrote copiously on gout, temperature of the blood, and physiology of sleep, deafness, nyctalopia, and infection from dead bodies, infant mortality, and medical education.
Franklin bought a farm and experimented with grass culture. He advised the cultivation of native Indian corn and silkworms and introduced rhubarb to the colonies. His curiosity touched on nearly every part of eighteenth century intellectual pursuit. The University of St. Andrews awarded Franklin an honorary doctor’s degree in 1759 and Oxford University matched it in 1762.
According to Clark, Franklin did much work to improve cities. He focused his improvements mainly on Philadelphia. In Clark’s words, “Franklin was public spirited and worked constantly to make Philadelphia a better city” (26). Scholars in the colonies had no organization, so Franklin helped to establish the American Philosophical Society with headquarters in Philadelphia, making it the most advanced city in the colonies. The streets needed to be paved, cleaned, and lighted. Franklin started a program to improve and take care of them. Franklin redesigned the streetlights to, as he said, have “four flat panes and a funnel on top to draw up the smoke” (Fleming 16). The globe-shaped lamps were replaced with Franklin’s new ones so they stayed bright until morning.
When Franklin noticed that criminals were getting away without punishment, he sought to reform the city police. He then formed the Union Fire Company in 1736. He helped to organize fire companies into the “Philadelphia Contibutionship”, which is deemed the first insurance company in America. He set up premiums and payments as president of the company.
Shortly after Franklin became clerk of the Pennsylvania Assembly, he persuaded it to pass the first militia law in Pennsylvania’s history, allocate money for defense and appoint officers to conduct full-scale war. Franklin founded the Academy for the Education of Youth, which later became the University of Pennsylvania. The university’s athletic field is named in Franklin’s honor. He also founded a city hospital, the Pennsylvania Hospital, in 1751.
Franklin left five thousand dollars each to Boston and Philadelphia before he died. The money was to be used for public works, part after one hundred years and the rest after two hundred years. The money was used to establish the Franklin Technical Institute in Boston and the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.
Therefore, Benjamin Franklin’s influence on the American way of life is still felt today; especially through electricity. His great mind enabled him to produce many long lasting achievements, which contributed to the development and refinement of modern technology.
Endnotes & Bibliography
Blow, Michael. Men of Science and Invention. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc., 1960.
Burlingame, Roger. Benjamin Franklin: Envoy Extraordinary. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1967.
Clark, Ronald W. A Biography: Benjamin Franklin. New York: Random House, 1983.
Cohen, I. Bernard. Benjamin Franklin: Scientist and Statesman. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975.
Dineen, Michael P. The Most Amazing American: Benjamin Franklin. Waukesha, Wisconsin: Country Beautiful, 1973.
Donovan, Frank R. The Many Worlds of Benjamin Franklin. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1963.
Fleming, Thomas. The Man Who Dared The Lightning: A New Look At Benjamin Franklin. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1971.
Fowler, Mary J. Great Americans. Grand Rapids, Michigan: The Fideler Company, 1960
Looby, Christopher. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1990.
Meltzer, Milton. Benjamin Franklin: The New American. New York: Franklin Watts, 1988.
Potter, Robert R. Benjamin Franklin. New Jersey: Silver Burdett Publishers, 1991.
Seeger, Raymond J. Benjamin Franklin: New World Physicist. New York: Pergamon Press, 1973.
Wright, Esmond. Franklin of Philadelphia. Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986.
Other books used
Ryan, Charles W. Basic Electricity. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1986.
Freeman, Ira M. All About Electricity. New York: Random House, 1957