Einstein, Tesla, Feynman, Edison, Oppenheimer, Hubble -- the list of great American scientists is lengthy and reflects the great opportunities our nation gives citizens, and how those people respond. True, Einstein's greatest work was as a German, but we provided him refuge when the Germans were about to try to eliminate the world's Jewish population. From the atom to galaxies far, far away, and points in between, these great scientists shaped our world today. But I would argue that in the most influential of these greats is Franklin. His are the broad shoulders on which much of today's science stands. He is best known for going into the storm with a kite and a key. But his work in meteorology, optics, music, and heating and ventilation are important, and well worth reflection today.
Born on January 17, 1706, at a house on Milk Street in Boston, he was one of the 17 children fathered by Josiah Franklin, and one of Josiah's second wife, Abiah Folger Franklin. The family's means were modest. His father apprenticed Ben at age 12 to Ben's older brother, James, who taught him the printing trade. Franklin made his fortune in Philadelphia, publishing the Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard's Almanac. His wit and charm in print were matched in real life.
His first venture in science was in economics, when at 27 he published the pamphlet, "The Nature and Necessity of a Paper Currency." Proceeds from the sale of this publication led to his acquisition of the Pennsylvania Gazette. His almanac included some astronomy and weather. He was the first to discover weather tends to travel west to east. Later, he would map the gulfstream.
His success in publishing gave him time to pursue other interests while he was still in his 30s. In the summer of 1743, he visited Boston where he saw a lecture on static electricity by Dr. Archibald Spencer of Scotland. As entertaining as the performance was, Spence's lecture initiated Franklin's interest in electricity.
Franklin began experiments in electricity and published his work, which gained the attention of the Royal Society, which was the authority on science then.
His experiments nearly killed him as he did not know much about electricity, which was why he experimented. In a letter to his brother John, Franklin wrote of one such experiment on Christmas Day 1750.
"Two nights ago being about to kill a Turkey by the Shock from two large Glass Jarrs containing as much electrical fire as forty common Phials, I inadvertently took the whole thro' my own Arms and Body, The flash was very great and the crack as loud as a Pistol; I had a Numbness in my Arms and the back of my Neck, which Continued till the Next Morning but wore off. Nothing Remains now of this Shock but a Soreness in my breast Bone. I am Ashamed to have been Guilty of so Notorious A Blunder; A Match for that of the Irishman, who being About to Steal Powder, made a Hole in the Cask with a Hott Iron," he wrote.
But his work was important in advancing science. In November 1749, he wrote of 12 things that lighning and electricity share in common: giving light, color, crooked direction, swift motion, being conducted by metals, crack or noise in exploding, subsisting in water or ice, rending bodies it passes through, destroying animals, melting metals, firing inflammable substances, and sulfur smell. Why it was almost as if lightning were made up of electricity.
He decided there was only one way to find out. On June 10, 1752, he flew a kite with a key in a thunderstorm. He knew the risk, having earlier almost electrocuted himself. He did it for science. That was the moment when the Age of Electricity began and 263 years later, we still enjoy the benefits of his risk. Without Franklin, no Tesla or Edison, and most of the rest of the scientists and inventors might as well pack it in as well.
Franklin's immediate use of this knowledge was the invention of the lightning rod, which he gave the world pro bono. The number of lives, homes and other buildings saved by this invention rivals most other public health initiatives. He also linked the Aurora Borealis to electricity.
A few historians point out that the worldwide acclaim from that experiment propelled him into a celebrity stardom that he would use a quarter-century later to garner French support for the American Revolution, as would another venture: His invention of bifocal glasses. From observation, he knew that the best way to drum up French support was to wine and dine with them. His spectacles, as he called them, allowed him to see what he was eating while looking up to see what people were saying. His French was poor but facial expressions and other non-verbal communication better helped him understand the speaker.
"I understand French better by the help of my Spectacles," he wrote George Whately, an English merchant, sympathizer and friend.
The brilliance of that approach still amazes.
His lesser achievements include the Franklin stove, which used air flows to reduce the heat and danger of a heater while making the room warmer. His armonica allowed him to make music from glasses of water; Beethoven and Mozart wrote music specifically for that instrument. He also tackled the common cold, advising people to bathe, exercise, and consume food and drink in moderation.
His died at 84 on April 17, 1790, at his daughter's home in Philadelphia. Both the nation he helped found and the science he discovered live on.
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And here you can follow the progress of the sequel.