Thankful for Franklin’s contributions

Published 3:12 am Saturday, September 2, 2017

Of all Americans who have had an impact on our lives, I find Benjamin Franklin is one of the most fascinating. Did you know there was a brief time when some women in France wore conductors on their fashionable hats to protect themselves from lightning? They did it because of scientific experiments they heard Franklin had conducted which convinced people lightning was electricity.

If we stretch our memories back to school days, we can recall learning about that piece of history. Franklin was a keen observer. He had noticed various ways the color of lightning bolts flashed, their quick jagged motion, the noise they made and how destructive they were. The flashes released sulfurous flames just like newly discovered electricity. He knew static discharges were attracted to sharp points. He reasoned that lightning might do the same, prompting him to prove his belief by flying a kite into a storm cloud. He thought that a metal spike attached to the kite would attract a lightning bolt. The wet control cord would conduct the lightning downward. He tied a key to the cord and attached it to a Leyden jar, a device that early experimenters used to help build and store electric energy. It was also referred to as a condenser.

His experiment occurred on July 4, 1752 and the effect was, as one source put it, “electrifying.” The Leyden jar was heavily charged. Franklin was lucky not to have been killed.

Later he demonstrated that a metal rod attached to the top of a high building with a cable of good conducting material with its end buried in the ground caused lightning to safely go to the ground. This meant that such a conductor could be used to protect tall buildings from lightning strikes. Not everybody was convinced enough to embrace the idea. Some churchmen saw it as a heretical interference with the will of God. One, a Massachusetts preacher, blamed conductors for an earthquake in 1755. He believed excess electricity was driven into the ground. Eventually people who saw the conductors at work were convinced.

I knew that Franklin had invented the Franklin stove. I understand he never patented it. He said he wanted people to enjoy it and I am sure they have through the years.

I have a piece of furniture somewhat similar to one of his inventions in my house. The Encyclopedia Americana described this invention as a chair that could be transformed into a ladder. Years ago, my husband and I came across a chair that transformed into a ladder by folding the back over. We were in the process of setting up our own home library at the time. I was so taken with it that I knew we couldn’t leave the store without it. Franklin also designed a fancy-looking chair with an arm extended into a writing surface.

And don’t forget—this fascinating statesman and inventor was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.



Nina Keenam is retired from the newspaper business. Her column appears on Saturdays.