Today’s Factismal: Benjamin Franklin is 307 years old today.
If you took American History, odds are that they told you that Benjamin Franklin was the author of Poor Richard’s Almanac, helped write the Declaration of Independence, and that he invented the Franklin Stove and bifocals. What they probably didn’t tell you is that he was also one of the most famous scientists in the world – and that the USA wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t been.
Franklin was curious about everything and spoke with everyone to learn what they knew. His work in the Maryland Assembly lead him to track the increase in population in America and England; he published his findings in a paper that would inspire Thomas Malthus and other scientists. His duties as postmaster led him to chart the Gulf Stream, which allowed sailors to shave two weeks off of their sailing time to America. Franklin also made measurements of how evaporation of water can cool an area and built a “swamp cooler” to refrigerate his home; anyone who has walked through a mister at a theme park has benefited from his discovery. He researched weather and published important papers on storm paths and on tornadoes. He was also the first scientist to link volcanic eruptions to cooler weather; when a volcano erupted in Iceland, Franklin suggested that it may have put enough ash into the atmosphere to cool the world.
Important as those contributions were, his fame as a scientist was based mostly on his discovery that lightning was just electricity. In Franklin’s time, not much was known about electricity. Indeed, it was Franklin himself who discovered that there were positive and negative charges; he also discovered that charges gathered near a sharp point (this is why static electricity is more likely to jump from your finger than your elbow). And even less was known about lightning. Some thought it was a brief flash of fire, and others thought that it was just light while still others thought that it was electricity.
Franklin proved that third group to be right by flying a kite in a thunderstorm; when sparks jumped off of a key tied to the string, he proved that lightning was just static electricity. Fortunately, Franklin’s earlier experiments where he used electricity to kill turkeys had also taught him how to use thick planks of cork to insulate himself so that all he got was a spark. Later scientists skipped that vital step and ended up killing themselves by attracting a little too much electricity.
His discovery and invention of the lightning rod to prevent lightning strikes on buildings and ships made him famous across the globe. He was invited to come to England and France to lecture and demonstrate his discoveries. That fame coupled with a native likability made him a favorite in France and gained him the ear of the Royal Court. The French then aided the US during the Revolutionary War and then helped to negotiate the Treaty of Paris in which England recognized the United States of America as an independent country for the first time.
Of course, today citizen scientists are as important as ever. If you’d like to see a short list of things that you can do to help science, then head over to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s Citizen Science Project Page: