Benjamin Franklin: The Scientist
|Retiring early from the printing industry, Benjamin Franklin
was destined to achieve international fame through his experiments
Franklin, ever curious and inquisitive, became interested in the
natural phenomenon known as electricity after witnessing
demonstrations about static charge and the Leyden Jar.
Consequently, he contacted Peter Collinson, a friend from London,
and asked him to procure glass tubes and data on the procedure of
electrical experiments. Rubbing the glass tubes with silk, Benjamin
was able to generate a static charge that could be used in his many
Franklin was among the first to suggest that lightning was merely naturally-occurring electricity and that it could be drawn from the clouds. To prove this conjecture, he set up tall, pointed rods that provided an easy path for the electricity of lightning to follow. In France, these "Philadelphia experiments" were duplicated for the king and his court. Eventually, these pointed rods were modified to serve as lightning rods designed to protect people's dwellings. By channeling the electricity of lightning strikes through a safe route to the ground, lightning rods eliminated the threat of fires.
A scientist and his discovery
In 1752, Franklin performed his famous kite experiment with the aid of his twenty-one year old son, William. The kite was constructed with a sharp metallic wire situated on top, and at the end of the kite string, the scientist tied a silk ribbon to which a key was fastened. On a stormy day, lightning struck the kite, and electricity streamed down toward the key, presenting the final proof of lightning's electrical nature. Miraculously, the charge was not strong enough to be fatal to the observing father and son. Under normal circumstances, a lightning strike would have instantly killed the individuals bold enough to fly a kite during the heart of a thunderstorm. However, Benjamin seemed only dimly aware of the experiment's potential danger. In fact, there were numerous instances in which an experimenting Benjamin only narrowly escaped death. Once, he attempted to kill his Christmas turkey by administering an electrical shock. Accidentally, Franklin made contact with the current. The inventor's body immediately erupted into seizures but, after a while, Benjamin managed to recover.
The legendary kite experiment
In any event, Franklin's electrical experiments brought him instant fame and, by sheer good fortune, Benjamin managed to survive his own inquisitiveness. Crowds of gawkers began to gather around his Philadelphian residence, hoping to catch a glimpse of the wizard of electricity. Franklin had transformed electricity from a mere curiosity into a field of scientific study, exerting significant influence on both the theoretical and experimental aspects of the phenomenon. As a testament to his pioneering research, most of the electrical terms we use today, such as battery, positive/negative, and charge, were originally coined by Franklin. For his efforts, Benjamin received honorary degrees from Harvard College, Yale College, and the College of William & Mary. The prestigious Royal Society in London recognized Franklin with a gold medal in 1753 and inducted him as a member in 1756. Such an honor was rarely bestowed upon an individual from fledgling colonial America, where scientific research had not yet been fully developed. What made the achievement even more remarkable was the fact that Franklin had no formal education in the sciences, relying purely on his personal intellect and curiosity. Despite the accolades, Franklin remained modest. He even refused to patent the lightning rod or attempt to profit from it.
While electricity brought him international acclaim, the brilliant Franklin investigated a variety of other sciences as well. Throughout his life, Benjamin studied the weather and proposed models to describe the progression of storm systems across the continent of North America. He also examined medicine under his own initiative. In fact, Franklin invented the medical instrument known as a catheter in order to treat his ill brother and even formulated theories about human circulation. Not wanting to see valuable arable land wasted, the Philadelphia inventor sponsored experiments designed to improve agricultural techniques and insisted that agricultural sciences be included in the curriculum at his Academy of Pennsylvania.
In short, Franklin's genius mastered each and every endeavor that he put his mind to, and, as the imminent colonial conflicts would prove, this included politics.