Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston. His father, Josiah Franklin, a tallow chandler by trade, had 17 children; Benjamin was the 15th child and the 10th son. His mother, Abiah Folger, was his father’s second wife. The Franklin family was in modest circumstances, like most New Englanders of the time. After his attendance at grammar school from age eight to ten, Benjamin was taken into his father’s business. Finding the work unpleasant, however, he entered the employ of a cutler. At age 13 he was apprenticed to his brother James, who had recently returned from England with a new printing press. Benjamin learned the printing trade, devoting his spare time to the advancement of his education. His reading included Pilgrim’s Progress by the British preacher John Bunyan, Parallel Lives, the work of the Greek essayist and biographer Plutarch, Essay on Projects by the English journalist and novelist Daniel Defoe, and the Essays to Do Good by Cotton Mather, the American Congregational clergyman. When he acquired a copy of the third volume of the Spectator by the British statesmen and essayists Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, he set himself the goal of mastering its prose style.
In 1747 Franklin began his electrical experiments with a simple apparatus that he received from Peter Collinson in England. He advanced a theory of the Leyden jar, supported the hypothesis that lightning is an electrical phenomenon, and proposed an effective method of demonstrating this fact. His plan was published in London and carried out in England and France before he himself performed his celebrated experiment with the kite in 1752. He invented the lightning rod and offered what is called the “one-fluid” theory in explanation of the two kinds of electricity, positive and negative. In recognition of his impressive scientific accomplishments, Franklin received honorary degrees from the University of Saint Andrews and the University of Oxford. He also became a fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge and, in 1753, was awarded its Copley Medal for distinguished contributions to experimental science. Franklin also exerted a great influence on education in Pennsylvania. In 1749 he wrote Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania; its publication led to the establishment in 1751 of the Academy of Philadelphia, later to become the University of Pennsylvania. The curriculum he suggested was a considerable departure from the program of classical studies then in vogue. English and modern foreign languages were to be emphasized as well as mathematics and science.
Franklin was very intrigued by lightning and its powers and his high interest in electricity was not just limited to lightning. He received an electricity tube from a friend of his Peter Collinson and began to conduct different types of experiments. However, it is Ben’s interest in lightning that we best remember.
Ben suspected that lightning was an electrical current in nature, and he wanted to see if he was right. One way to test his idea would be to see if the lightning would pass through metal. He decided to use a metal key and looked around for a way to get the key up near the lightning. As you probably already know, he used a child’s toy, a kite, to prove that lightning is really a stream of electrified air, known today as plasma. His famous stormy kite flight in June of 1752 led him to develop many of the terms that we still use today when we talk about electricity: battery, conductor, condenser, charge, discharge, uncharged, negative, minus, plus, electric shock, and electrician.
Franklin understood that lightning was very powerful, and he also knew that it was very dangerous. That’s why Franklin invented the lightning rod. The lightning rod is used to attract lightning and protects buildings, ships, and people from it.
Ben was always looking for new ideas about electricity, since it was one of his favorite pastimes. Franklin also developed another device to help him understand electricity. He called them “lightning bells,” the bells would jingle when lightning was in the air. Following are two descriptions of lightning bells taken from “The papers of Benjamin Franklin.”
In September 1752, I erected an Iron Rod to draw the Lightning down into my House, in order to make some Experiments on it, with two Bells to give Notice when the Rod should be electrified. A contrivance obvious to every Electrician.
I found the Bells rang sometimes when there was no Lightning or Thunder, but only a dark Cloud over the Rod; that sometimes after a Flash of Lightning they would suddenly stop; and at other times, when they had not rang before, they would, after a Flash, suddenly begin to ring; that the Electricity was sometimes very faint, so that when a small Spark was obtained, another could not be got for sometime after; at other times the Sparks would follow extremely quick, and once I had a continual Stream from Bell to Bell, the size of a Crow-Quill. Even during the same Gust there were considerable variations.2
What quantity of lightning a high, pointed rod, well communicating with the earth, may be expected to discharge from the clouds silently in a short time, is yet unknown; but I reason from a particular fact to think it may at some times be very great. In Philadelphia I had such a rod fixed to the top of my chimney, and extending about nine feet above it. From the foot of this rod, a wire (the thickness of a goose-quill) came through a covered glass tube in the roof, and down through the well of the staircase; the lower end connected with the iron spear of a pump. On the staircase opposite too my chamber door, the wire was divided; the ends separated about six inches, a little bell on each end; and between the bells a little brass ball, suspended by a silk thread, to play between and strike the bells when clouds passed with electricity in them. After having frequently drawn sparks and charged bottles from the bell of the upper wire, I was one night awaked by loud cracks on the staircase. Starting up and opening the door, I perceived that the brass ball, instead of vibrating as usual between the bells, was repelled and kept at a distance from both; while the fire passed, sometimes in very large, quick cracks from bell to bell, and sometimes in a continued, dense, white stream, seemingly as large as my finger, whereby the whole staircase was inlightened (sic) as with sunshine, so that one might see to pick up a pin. And from the apparent quantity thus discharged, I cannot but conceive that a number of such conductors must considerably lessen that of any approaching cloud, before it comes so near as to deliver its contents in a general stroke; an effect not to be expected from bars unpointed, if the above experiment with the blunt end of the wire is deemed pertinent to the case.3
I sit and wonder sometimes how things would be if Franklin never conducted experiments with electricity. I’m not very sure that there would have been many other men smart enough to come up with these theories and ideas. Although electricity was just a hobby for Franklin, he made many important contributions. Later scientists, like Michael Faraday and Thomas Edison, continued to study electricity using many of Franklin’s ideas. Even today, scientists are still studying electricity and learning more about it.