The Electrical Franklin

My favorite historical figure is Benjamin Franklin. His enthusiasm for science, his great sense of humor, his writing skills, and his desire to benefit mankind in so many ways with his inventions, often not profiting in any way himself, makes me wish I could travel through time and meet him. I am sure I’d be fascinated by just about anything he had to say.

Yes, he was a womanizer who treated his family horribly. He was a product of his time, and a product of his fame. Not that that’s any excuse. None of us are perfect, but I do wish he could have been a little less imperfect. Still, I’m captivated by all things Franklin.

I learned a great deal about Franklin by reading this article on the Franklin Institute web page. (It’s in Philadelphia, and I long to go there.)

This was a man who took scientific inquiry to the point of obsession. He was so enamored of lightning that he could often be seen on horseback, chasing storms. (Poor horse.)

He started doing electrical experiments in 1746, making his home ground zero for his antics. He once shocked himself so badly that he shook from head to toe and his arms and the back of his neck were numb for a time. That didn’t seem to slow him down, though.

He conducted so many experiments that, by 1749, he had come up with the concept of an electrical battery, but never took the step of figuring out what one could be used for.

It’s hard to believe in this day and age that people didn’t know that lightning was composed of a form of electricity, but Franklin took several years to prove it. While pursuing that goal, he began to think about ways to protect people from lightning, and thus came up with the lightning rod.

I love how I keep learning something new about Franklin, even after all these years. For example, he advocated sharp, pointy lightning rods, whereas in England they preferred blunt ones, theorizing that they would scrape the electrical charge out of the sky without actually getting struck. King George III favored this theory and soon set up his palace accordingly. But in the colonies, Franklin’s design prevailed, and sort of became a political statement. One more way to reject the king.

Two years after coming up with the lightning rod, he did his famous kite and key experiment. Another fun fact is that he never wrote about it himself, and the only witness was his 21 year old son William. Another thing I never knew is that he resorted to a kite simply because he had planned to conduct the experiment by using the steeple on Christ Church, but they were taking too long to finish building it. Franklin became impatient, so he went and flew a kite. When he saw that the key got an electrical charge, he knew that lightning was a form of electricity and, unbeknownst to him, his reputation amongst elementary school students was forever secured.

One tragic footnote to Franklin’s electrical fame that one rarely hears about is the story of Georg Wilhelm Richmann. His life started as tragically as it ended, as his father died of the plague before he was born. Still, Richmann became an Estonian scientist who was also studying electricity.

One stormy day in 1753 he was conducting an experiment using insulated rods, to quantify their response to said storm. He was following Franklin’s published instructions. He was struck in the head by ball lightning, receiving a red spot on his forehead, and was instantly killed, as his clothing singed and his shoes blew apart. An explosion immediately followed, and his assistant was blown across the room, as the door frame split apart and the door was torn off its hinges.

Fortunately, the assistant survived to tell the tale. Richmann was apparently the first person to die while conducting electrical experiments. He was 42 years old.

I wonder if Franklin knew of this tragedy, and if he knew that Richmann had been following his instructions. If so, I wonder what he thought. I wonder if he felt any remorse. That information seems to have been lost to history.

benjamin-franklin-kite-experiment-bernard-hoffman

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