More than only the creator of the lightning rod, Benjamin Franklin was also a highly accomplished scientist, creative inventor, and critical thinker. He was interested in social, intellectual, and political topics as well as unsolved scientific puzzles, all of which he enthusiastically discussed. As a result, Franklin was a key person in his day and was famous even while he was alive.
Franklin, who lived by the maxim “Well done is better than well said,” looked for practical answers to the social, political, or technological issues of his day. He created useful instruments for daily living, looked into mysterious natural occurrences, and wasn’t hesitant to propose ground-breaking, ostensibly “impossible” concepts. Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, even referred to Franklin as a “Prometheus of modern times.”
Printer to journalist to business owner
The independent man
The person you would get if you combined Nikola Tesla, Steve Jobs, Willi Brandt, and Albert Schweizer would probably be a multi-talented individual like Benjamin Franklin. 1706, Boston-born son of a soapmaker, Franklin was not only a great inventor and inquisitive researcher during the course of his life, but also a journalist, philanthropist, diplomat, businessman, and politician.
Franklin, in contrast to many misunderstood geniuses, was a genuine celebrity in his own time. The bright jack-of-all-trades was well-known and adored not just in the United States but also in Europe. John Adams, a co-founding father and second president of the United States, said that “his reputation is greater than that of Newton, Frederick the Great or Voltaire; his character is more praised than all three put together.” There aren’t many cooks or waiters who don’t see him as a friend to all people.
Despite his reputation, Benjamin Franklin came from modest beginnings: Being the 15th child of an English immigrant, his chances for school and employment seem to be somewhat constrained. Actually, Josiah Franklin, his father, did not enroll him in school until he was eight years old. The boy’s time in school only lasts two years, despite the fact that he is smart and has a high capacity for learning. Franklin subsequently works in his father’s business and, at the age of twelve, starts an apprenticeship as a printer alongside his elder brother James instead of memorizing arithmetic, Latin, and English.
But Franklin wants more, so although he is still an apprentice, he seizes the chance presented by the abundance of books and newspapers at the print shop. He read practically everything he could get his hands on and started teaching himself how to write at the same time. He writes articles in the fashion of well-known authors, but he also tries his hand at writing original pieces. He gives his brother these under a pseudonym, who publishes them unknowingly in his newspaper.
The ideal self-made individual
Franklin believes it to be obvious that the only people who can succeed in life are those who continue to educate themselves. At the age of 21, he establishes the Junto Club, a debate and learning group, to extend his views. Discussions on social, scientific, and philosophical problems are combined with practical assistance from the participants. The first public library, a volunteer fire department, and subsequently the American Philosophical Society—an organization that is still in operation today—were all established by Franklin and his fellow club members. Franklin also starts a push to raise money and build North America’s first public hospital.
Founder of modern journalism
Franklin’s career as a writer and business take off simultaneously. He established his own printing company in Philadelphia in 1728. He took over his own publication a year later. It launches his publishing and journalism career, as well as his meteoric ascent to stardom. Franklin quickly grew his printing company into a vast network of locations. His “Poor Richard’s Almanack” magazine and “Pennsylvania Gazette” newspaper both prosper.
Franklin, a writer, and publisher, continuously pushed for a belief that is today regarded as the cornerstone of contemporary journalism: “When people disagree, all sides should have an equal advantage of being heard by the public,” he stated in an essay. Franklin therefore continuously promoted impartial reporting, which was a somewhat novel idea at the time.
A talent for fashion
Franklin also gained knowledge on the benefits of marketing and having a positive reputation throughout his work as a writer and editor. He understood that people tend to value appearances above truth, and he skillfully took advantage of this. He promotes ideas and goods that he believes to be significant and admirable in his publications by making persuasive arguments. This marketing prowess would later serve him well in his political endeavors.
Franklin isn’t averse to little image tactics either; he purposely arrives at the print shop early in the morning and late at night to project the image of a hard-working businessman. Thus, he “sells” himself as a relentless worker even when he takes breaks or goes home. Franklin is a true workhorse and jack of all crafts, so this isn’t just a front. His interest in science is now growing, in addition to his activities as a publisher, journalist, printer, and philanthropist.
Franklin and the electrical enigma
The phenomena of electricity aroused excitement and a true surge in scientific studies in the middle of the 18th century, with sparks flying, hair standing on end as if by magic, and a weird tingling feeling. Numerous scientists conducted static electricity experiments and investigated the consequences of this undetectable force.
Jars, sparks, and the battery
It is understandable that Benjamin Franklin struggled to resist the allure of this emerging area of study. During a trip to Boston in 1746, he learned about the recently created Leyden jar, which was an early kind of capacitor. Franklin places an order for a sample and starts a series of electrical tests at home. He creates the idea for a battery and investigates the phenomena of charges and their transfer via conductive materials. Franklin was the first to use the phrases battery, charge, and positive and negative in his writings on the topic; these terminologies are still widely used today.
During an experiment, Franklin unintentionally shocked himself, experiencing the physical reverberations of electricity on his own flesh. He describes the sensation as “going through my whole body from head to toe.” “After that, the first thing I felt was my body trembling wildly.”
A spark or lightning?
The curious researcher begins to wonder if the natural occurrence of lightning is actually nothing more than a kind of electricity, the jumping of a powerful spark from the cloud to the ground, as a result of this experience and the sparks he constantly saw throughout his studies.
Franklin said in a letter in 1749 that when electrified clouds travel over a region, towering mountains, massive trees, tall towers, steeples, ship masts, chimneys, and other such structures draw the electric fire and cause the whole cloud to discharge there. Franklin’s thesis receives only jeers and ridicule when it is presented to the illustrious London Royal Society by the letter’s recipient. This concept is too strange and risky. People are unwilling to accept such a notion in the absence of evidence.
The sentry-box experiment
But how can one demonstrate that electricity and lightning are essentially the same things? Franklin muses on an idea before coming up with the “sentry-box experiment.” “Place a type of sentry box atop a tall tower that is big enough to fit one person and a conductive stand plate. An iron rod with a sharp point emerges from this plate and climbs roughly 10 feet into the air,” Franklin explains the arrangement.
Now that thunderclouds are passing over the rod, the rod must draw an electrical charge, electrifying both the person and the stand plate. Franklin adds, “Sparks might also be created because the rod attracts fire from the skies. While the Royal Society members are not persuaded by this experimental idea, the French monarch is. He hires scientists to validate and put Franklin’s account into practice. Thomas-François Dalibard and Delor did manage to generate energy from the thundercloud in May 1752.
Franklin also gets his turn shortly thereafter.
The kite experiment
The way Franklin controlled lightning
In his hometown of Philadelphia, where there aren’t many higher structures and the terrain is brutally flat, Benjamin Franklin has a dilemma. How is he meant to approach the thunderclouds close enough? But only by doing so will he be able to conclusively demonstrate that lightning is nothing more than an electrical discharge’s spark.
A kite as storm bait
So what do you do? Franklin comes up with a backup plan right away: In the absence of a tower, one must use a kite to lift the lightning bait closer to the clouds. He took advantage of the chance to test this out one afternoon in June 1752. He takes his kid outside to fly a kite as lightning flares on the horizon and ominous rumblings indicate a thunderstorm.
He poses like a kite using a silk fabric draped over two tiny sticks. The kite’s top is secured by an upright iron wire, and the line is made of hemp rope, which conducts electricity when wet. Franklin explains the idea by saying, “Now, as soon as thunderclouds pass over the kite, the pointed wire will take the electric fire from them, and the kite, along with the string, will be electrified.” The string’s frayed ends then protrude in all directions and are drawn to an oncoming finger.
Lightning is electricity
Franklin doesn’t hold his hemp kite line in his hand, however, for fear of getting hit by lightning. Instead, he tied a silk thread to the end of it and covered it with rain to keep it dry. The silk thread serves as an insulator in this manner, preventing the direct transmission of the electricity generated by the cloud. Franklin suspends a key from the hemp string’s end to demonstrate the presence of a current. This charges up and may now ignite an approaching hand or charge a Leyden jar.
Franklin doesn’t mention anything to the contrary, therefore the experiment seems to be successful. Despite the absence of any other eyewitnesses save his kid, a coworker and a contemporaneous subsequent witness recount the events based on Franklin’s comments. Franklin therefore finally had success in proving that lightning is nothing more than electricity. The researcher writes in an essay, “The equivalence of electric matter with that of lightning is thus clearly proven.”
A rod to prevent lightning
However, Franklin’s practical inference from lightning’s electrical nature is far more significant: Couldn’t an iron wire act as a lightning rod if it can dissipate energy from a thundercloud? This would have to take the form of an insulated wire with one free end driven into the ground and the other protruding upward from the building’s top.
“This kind of lightning protection will prevent lightning damage to a home. Because of the tips’ attraction, it passes through the metal and into the ground without damaging anything,” Franklin explains the idea in his statement. He installed a lightning rod like this in his residence as early as 1752, and Philadelphia’s earliest public buildings also had similar lightning protection.
Lightning rod’s victory
Franklin improved the idea further, and the technique was soon adopted. Lightning rods were in high demand not only in Europe but also in the surrounding areas. “To congratulate Mr. Franklin of Philadelphia for his beneficial discoveries in the realm of electricity and the usage of the pointed rods to avert the horrible consequences of thunderstorms,” the French monarch said in a letter.
Though Franklin’s lightning rods specifically feature pointed rods or wires as the end parts, the English King George III finds this peculiar. Only blunt lightning rods will be installed in his castle, a decision that quickly gains popularity among the king’s devoted people. Franklin’s models, on the other hand, are demonstratively employed in the colonies on the other side of the Atlantic, also as a declaration of the rising yearning for independence in North America.
Benjamin Franklin’s scientific career
With his electrical and lightning studies, Benjamin Franklin has not yet reached the limits of his curiosity. He studied, experimented, and conducted the study in a variety of subjects, including astronomy, medicine, meteorology, and oceanography.
Hail, winds, and clouds
Franklin is the first to identify that clouds may also travel in the opposite direction to the predominant wind direction on the ground. This discovery is made even before his research on the nature of lightning. The inspiration for this originated from a celestial event: On October 21, 1743, Franklin was getting ready to see a lunar eclipse when he lost sight of the Earth’s satellite due to advancing storm clouds. However, he discovers a few days later that Boston residents had been able to view the moon eclipse; in their case, the storm struck considerably later.
The odd thing, however, is that Boston lies about 100 miles northeast of Philadelphia, and there was a northeast breeze at the time of the moon eclipse. The storm clouds should have moved toward the west as a result. The clouds, though, were moving against the breeze. Therefore, other factors may also have a role in how large-scale weather events move. Franklin makes a valid premise that the air pressure that results in high and low pressure zones must be the primary force behind the storm vortices.
The researcher also wonders why it might hail even in the middle of summer. In reality, it is considered too warm at that time for frozen clumps to develop. Franklin’s deduction: It must be considerably colder up in the sky, where hail forms, than it is close to the earth. The rain must thus turn to hail while it is still in the cloud. This is another area where Franklin is correct, as subsequent measurements show.
Along the Gulf Stream’s route
Benjamin Franklin never passes up the chance to observe strange natural occurrences and unsolved mysteries when on the road. For instance, he observed that the duration of the voyage varies depending on the direction when sailing across the Atlantic. Franklin becomes suspicious that the Gulf Stream is involved significantly in this. During one of the ship’s voyages, he makes his first systematic measurements to chart this ocean current.
Franklin was able to recreate the route and depth of the Gulf Stream based on the water temperature by lowering a thermometer to different water depths at predetermined intervals. His data led to the creation of the Gulf Stream’s most precise map to date and a suggestion for streamlining ship routes to reduce the length of Atlantic journeys.
Aurora Borealis – an “electric” phenomenon
During the ship’s voyages, Franklin became curious about another phenomenon: the aurora borealis. What creates these odd lighting veils in the sky is still a mystery today. Franklin, though, comes up with a novel theory as a result of his electrical tests. In a technical paper on it, he speculates, “Couldn’t the vast quantity of power transported to the polar areas by the clouds burst through the lower atmosphere like an overloaded bottle…?” Franklin hypothesizes that the surplus electrical energy in the polar zone would subsequently cause the light phenomenon.
The fact that aurora borealis are more frequent at the poles may also be explained by the fact that, according to Franklin, “the electricity thins out as latitudes rise, becoming vividly visible where it is densest and less apparent when it diverges.” Thus, even if he is still mistaken regarding the source of the charges and energy, he is among the first to understand that auroras are electromagnetic phenomena.
Common cold: infection rather than cooling down
Benjamin Franklin was also interested in a number of medical occurrences. He was the first, for instance, to challenge the widely held belief that the common cold can only be brought on by cold and moisture. He reasoned that if such were the case, sailors who regularly wear wet clothing would have to have colds more frequently. But Franklin says that’s not the case.
As opposed to that, he believes that colds are spread from person to person: “People infect one other when they are trapped together in tiny restricted places, trains, or the like,” he writes. Additionally, they breathe in each other’s sweat while they are seated near one another and converse. Thus, Franklin was aware of the spread of the common cold even before the discovery of viruses and bacteria.
Benjamin Franklin’s inventions beyond the lightning rod
Working for the common good
The lightning rod is not the sole creation of Benjamin Franklin. He experimented with various gadgets, equipment, and procedures during his life. Some of them he entirely reinvents, while others he improves and further develops.
Franklin is an inventive guy, yet despite this, he doesn’t patent any of his numerous creations. Since they should, in his opinion, serve the greater good and be freely accessible to all, he writes in an article, “Just as we ourselves derive great benefits from the inventions of others, we should be happy for the chance to serve others through our inventions – and we should do so freely and generously.”
A urine catheter, bifocals, and swimming fins
The forerunners of swim fins were created by Benjamin Franklin when he was only eleven years old: He sawed two circular planks into shape, held them in his hands while swimming, and swam faster. In an article he wrote as a teen, he describes how he “pushed the edges of the boards forward and pushed the water away with their flat side as I drew them back.” I can recall using these pallets to swim more quickly, but they made my wrists sore.
Franklin creates something in his latter years that is unquestionably more suited for daily usage. As he ages, his eyesight deteriorates, and he develops nearsightedness and farsightedness, necessitating regular eyeglass replacement. He splits the lenses of both glasses in half and merges them into bifocals, using the top for distant vision and the bottom for reading, saving himself the inconvenience of switching.
Franklin also makes adjustments to the urine catheter. Because of his severe bladder stone problems, Franklin’s brother often has to utilize catheters in order to pee. They are still currently composed of a stiff metal tube, which makes insertion difficult. Franklin created the first flexible urine catheter, a catheter comprised of flexible links joined by joints, to relieve his brother’s discomfort.
The oven, clock, and gripper arm
The majority of Franklin’s other creations are similarly more useful and appropriate for daily usage. He built a gripper arm, for instance, that could be used to grasp books from higher shelves. It is made up of a stick with two moveable grippers at the tip that may be opened or closed by drawing a thread. This idea is still the basis for grippers today.
Franklin seized the chance to improve the rangefinder in use at the time when he was appointed postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737 and of all the English foreign colonies in 1753. In addition, he created a 24-hour clock with three wheels that was more straightforward in form than the prevalent timepieces of the period.
Franklin even discusses furnace design, maybe as a result of Pennsylvania’s chilly winters. His “Pennsylvania Fireplace” was created to effectively distribute the heat from burning wood into space. The stoves draw badly, though, and the design needs work. Later, a different stove manufacturer improves the design and makes the stoves well-known.
The glass harmonica
Franklin’s favorite creation, however, is a musical instrument, which is neither practical nor beneficial. According to Franklin, “of all my inventions, the glass harmonica has brought me the most personal delight.” While working as an ambassador to the American colonies in Paris, he finds the inspiration for it. He hears a demonstration of the musical glasses while at a performance. The water-filled cups’ rims are touched by the musicians’ fingertips. This generates a delicate, high-pitched sound depending on the fill level.
Franklin is mesmerized by the circular beauty of these sounds and chooses to build a musical instrument on the basis of this idea. In 1761, he developed his concept and created the glass harp using a glassblower. It is made up of various-sized glass bowls that are lined up partly within one another and separated by cork spacers and an axis. Now, by pressing a foot pedal to spin the axle, you may rotate the glass bowls and play sounds by pressing your finger on the glass.
The glass harmonica immediately gained popularity and was purchased and used by both musicians and non-musicians. On this instrument, even famous composers like Mozart and Beethoven have written music. By the end of the 18th century, thousands of glass harmonicas were in use in both Europe and America. Later on, however, interest in the instrument dwindled, and Franklin’s glass harmonica was forgotten.
Politician and diplomat
The Founding Father of the United States
More than simply an inventor and scientist, Benjamin Franklin had a unique impact on American history. Franklin, one of the country’s founding fathers, was instrumental in the English colonies’ attempts to achieve independence as well as the drafting of the American Constitution.
Franklin’s interest in and engagement in the affairs of his birthplace of Philadelphia sparked a career in politics and diplomacy. He joined the city council, rose through the ranks to become postmaster, and judge of the peace, and finally represented Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania Assembly. As a result of his participation in this Assembly, Franklin was dispatched to London in 1754 as Pennsylvania’s official envoy, beginning his first career as a diplomat.
Franklin first acted as a devoted subject of the British king, attempting to improve relations between England and the colonies. He also takes up the representation of interests for three more North American colonies throughout the course of his roughly 20 years in London. But as time goes on, his resentment at what he perceives as the Crown’s oppressive treatment of the colonies intensifies.
The declaration of Independence
A controversy breaks up in 1772 when Franklin receives letters from the British governor of Massachusetts requesting that the Crown send troops to Boston. They were tasked with quelling popular uprisings against the colonial authorities. Franklin makes sure that these letters are made public since he views this as a violation of his countrymen’s civil rights. This gives him the motivation to eventually break away from Great Britain and aid the American colonies’ independence movements.
Franklin rejoins Philadelphia in 1776 and joins the group of five individuals tasked with drafting the colonies’ Declaration of Independence. He is tasked with editing Thomas Jefferson’s first manuscript. The first words of the famous second clause, “We consider these truths to be self-obvious, that all men are created equal,” are attributed to Benjamin Franklin. The Declaration of Independence was ratified by Congress on July 4, 1776, and Benjamin Franklin and 55 other delegates from the 13 American colonies signed it in August.
The Treaty of Paris
Shortly after, Franklin begins his second career as a diplomat. He goes to Paris to seek an alliance between France and the newly independent colonies. It was helpful that he was known for being a genius and innovator throughout Europe. Franklin writes to his daughter, “My portrait is everywhere, on the lids of snuff boxes, on rings and sculptures.” There are several prints, copies of prints, and copies of copies of my picture since it is a top seller. Your father’s visage is now just as well-known as the moon man’s.”
Franklin, working in London with John Jay and John Adams, is able to play a significant part in establishing a trilateral pact with France and Great Britain in 1782 because of his talent as a diplomat. The Treaty of Paris puts an end to the conflict between the two European powers and declares the American colonies to be sovereign states. This makes it possible for the United States to be founded.
But how should the new country be shaped? The 13 colonies have only ever united as a loose union of separate states up to this point. As a result, in 1787, a constitutional convention is convened, at which representatives from the 13 states discussed the future legal and political framework of the nation. Also participating is 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin. He contends, among other things, that a multi-member governing council, rather than a president, should rule over the nation, but he is unable to prevail.
However, Franklin is once again able to employ his diplomatic abilities in a critical circumstance: Franklin and George Washington came up with the compromise option that is still in use today when the delegates can’t agree on how many members the states should be permitted to send to the two houses of Parliament: Each state has two delegates in the Senate, however, in the House of Representatives, the number of representatives is determined by the population of the states.
The Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris, and the Constitution were all signed by Benjamin Franklin, who is the only politician to have done so. His deeds have permanently altered the fortunes and appearance of the United States.
Franklin, however, continued to fail in one area: his fight against slavery. Despite his return from England, he began to advocate for the freedom of slaves and the outlawing of the slave trade after having previously owned two slaves himself. Franklin, however, does not survive to see this objective accomplished. Long before the American Civil War and the USA’s abolition of slavery, he passed away in 1790.
Benjamin Franklin’s early life
Benjamin Franklin was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He was one of 17 brothers, and his parents could only send him to school for two years. Franklin, an avid and insatiable reader, began to work as an apprentice in his brother’s printing shop at the age of 12. Five years later, after having a dispute with him, he fled to Philadelphia to start a new life. As a broke young man, he started to work as an apprentice in a printing company, and soon he founded his own printing house.
In the 1740s, Franklin, who then owned a publishing company and a newspaper, began to focus more on scientific research. Benjamin Franklin thought that science and technology could be used to advance society. For this purpose, in 1743, he founded the American Philosophical Society. This was the first institution established by intellectuals in the country. In the same year, he developed the so-called Franklin Stove, which offered an efficient and cleaner way of heating homes. He did not apply for a patent for this device because he wanted the public to make use of it.
In 1749, Benjamin Franklin withdrew from business to devote more time to his research. As a result of his work in the field of optics, he developed bifocal glasses. Some other scientists probably made the same invention too. Bifocal glasses were based on two discrete lens configurations that appeared to combine two glasses into one. This invention was very useful for people who had to use different spectacles for distance and close work and therefore had to switch them constantly.
At that time, the structures were usually made of wood, and the precautions to be taken against fire were very important. In 1736, Benjamin Franklin formed one of the first volunteer fire brigades in the United States. Franklin founded the country’s fire insurance company in 1752 and made his most famous invention, a lightning rod that prevents fires caused by lightning.
The first hospital, and university
Lightning rods were pointed metal rods attached to the ground. Lightning rods discharged electricity from the clouds into the ground, greatly reducing the risk of lightning strikes. When lightning struck the lightning rod on the structure, the electricity was sent to the ground while protecting the structure. The lightning rod may seem like a simple, insignificant invention today, but it caused a complete “shock” at that time. The invention also supported the notion that fully understanding the forces of nature can produce significant practical results.
Benjamin Franklin’s work on electricity and lightning rods led him to do the famous kite experiments in 1752. During a storm, Franklin sent a kite into an electrically charged cloud and transferred the electric charge down along the wet rope of the kite. Thus, lightning proved to be an electrical event for the first time. This experiment brought him worldwide fame.
Between 1757 and 1775, Franklin spent much of his time traveling between the United States and Europe. During these turbulent years, which would result in America’s independence, he played a role in negotiations between British, French, and American statesmen. During this period, he was the first to make a detailed examination of the dangerous warm ocean current in the Gulf Stream, which starts from the Gulf of Mexico and reaches Europe via the Atlantic Ocean. The map facilitated cross-ocean travel and postal services.
Apart from his scientific research, Benjamin Franklin founded the first US lending library (The Library Company, 1731); the country’s first hospital (Pennsylvania, 1751); and the university. He led various campaigns to curtail the dumping of waste and acted as a spokesperson for the abolition of slavery. Franklin was also the first US Postmaster General. The country’s first postage stamp was issued in 1847 with his picture.
His research in the field of electricity
Soon after inventing the lightning rod as a result of his study in the field of electricity, Benjamin Franklin installed one in his own house and set up a laboratory in 1747. In the mid-1740s, scientists from Germany and the Netherlands managed to store large amounts of electricity in a device called a Leyden jar. Franklin put a few of these jars together to create a stronger effect.
In his five letters to the Royal Society, he laid down the basic principles for the studies to be done in the field of electricity. He used the terms “charge” and “discharge” for the first time. He was the first to use the electricity terms “positive” and “negative” in a scientific paper and revealed for the first time that the electric charge was “not created,” only transmitted from one place to another.
“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”
“He that can have patience can have what he will.”
“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”
“We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”
“I didn’t fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong.”
- “Inventor”. The Franklin Institute.
- Burt, Nathaniel (1999). The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 142. ISBN 978-0-8122-1693-6.
- H.W. Brands, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (2000)
- “Benjamin Franklin, Postmaster General” (PDF). United States Postal Service.
- Mulford, Carla, ed. (2009). The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Franklin. Cambridge University Press. p. xiv. ISBN 9781139828123.
- Gordon S. Wood (2005). The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin. Penguin Press. p. 17. ISBN 9780143035282.