Benjamin Franklin wasn't only a politician (and one of the “Founding Fathers of the United States”), he was a multi-talented man. Many people may be unaware of his various achievements beyond politics. We are going to focus on his inventions here and take a look at some of the interesting bits and pieces that he created. We will also discuss his famous kite experiment with lightning.
According to his own words, the glass armonica (sic) has given Franklin “the greatest personal satisfaction”. The armonica was created in 1761, when Franklin got an inspiration, after the concert of Handel's Water Music, whose parts were played on tuned wine glasses. His armonica did not require water tuning, it was smaller than the originals, and it used glasses that were blown in the proper thickness and size. Furthermore, these glasses did not require water and they created the proper pitch. The instrument itself was rather compact, as the glasses were nested. Finally, the armonica had a foot treadle, which was used to turn the spindle where the glasses were mounted.
The glass armonica was very popular in England; indeed Mozart and Beethoven even composed several pieces for the instrument.
In the 18th century, people mostly used a fireplace as the main source of heat. These places were rather inefficient, producing a lot of smoke and losing much of the generated heat. The sparks were also very dangerous, as they could cause a fire. In order to fix these problems, Ben Franklin invented a new type of stove. This invention had a hood-like enclosure in the front, while on the rear side, there was an airbox. This newly invented stove generated more heat and required less wood.
As Franklin was getting older, his vision was declining. Since he wasn't comfortable with switching between glasses for close-up and distance viewing, he developed bi-focal glasses in 1784.
In 1775, Franklin served as the Postmaster General for some time. In order to analyze the best routes for delivering the mail, Franklin invented an odometer, which helped him to measure his carriage route mileage.
Kite Experiment and Lightning Rod
In order to prove that lightning is electricity, Franklin conducted his famous (and dangerous) kite experiment. Franklin’s hypothesis was that the lightning is an electrical phenomenon and, as such, it would be possible to transfer the electrical effect of lightning into another object. This transfer would eventually cause an electricity effect.
In June 1752, with the help of his son, Franklin decided to fly a kite, which was attached to a silk string; while on the other end, there was an iron key. Furthermore, they took a Leyden jar, took the thin metal wire, and tied both the key and Leyden jar with it. As the thunderstorm was coming, they finally attached a silk ribbon to the key.
Franklin flew the kite, holding it by the silk ribbon, and once the kite was aloft, he went into a barn. Once the thunder storm cloud passed over the kite, the negative charges from the cloud passed into the kite, down the silk string, through the key and finally into the jar. Since he was holding the dry silk ribbon, Franklin remained unaffected, but once he moved his other hand towards the iron key, he received a shock, since the negative charges in the key, were attracted to the positive charges in his body. His experiments resulted in the following: first, he proved that lightning is a static electricity; second, he invented the lightning rod and conductor, in order to provide the lightning an alternative path to the earth.
Fortunately, Ben Franklin’s kite experiment ended in success, as some other scientists weren’t as lucky (or brilliant, perhaps), as he was. Although this article does not (and cannot) cover what did Ben Franklin invented throughout his entire scientific life, these inventions are some of his best known and some of them are still widely used today.
- Colleen Adams: Benjamin Franklin:American Inventor, The Rosen Publishing Group, 2002
- Gene Barretta: Now & Ben: the modern inventions of Benjamin Franklin, Henry Holt and Co., 2006
- Image Credit, http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonamel/2067474659/