The Electric Life of Ben Franklin

As you do your own investigations and projects with electricity, you might want to think about a STEMist from the past who was also interested in electricity: Benjamin Franklin.

The Electric Life of Ben Franklin

A Founding Father of America

While Franklin is best remembered as one of America’s founders, he was also a man of many interests.  During his life he was a writer and publisher, a scientist, a businessman, and a politician.

booktitlepageHe was also an avid reader who loved to learn about all sorts of things.  Franklin even wrote about how best to educate young people–both boys and girls.  Not only did he want both boys and girls to have an education; he also worked for the abolition of slavery in the United States, serving as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

Mrs. Silence Dogood

Though his father was a soap and candle maker, Ben was sent to be an apprentice to his brother James, a printer.  Ben learned to set the type (the letters that were inked and applied to paper to print pages) and publish newspapers and pamphlets.  When Ben showed James some of his own writing, James refused to print them.

Mrs. Silence DogoodTo get around this, Ben sent things to the paper using a pen name, Mrs. Silence Dogood.  James Franklin gladly published Mrs. Dogood’s writing until he learned “she” was really Ben, his little brother.  Ben then ran away to New York, then moved to Philadelphia, where he remained for most of his life.

The Kite, the Key and a Leyden Jar

Most STEMists know the story of Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with the kite and the key.  He did not discover electricity–people already knew it existed.  Franklin wanted to demonstrate that lightning was electricity.

Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with the kite and the key and a Leyden jar

While many illustrations show him holding the key as lightning strikes the kite, that is not exactly the way Franklin described it in a letter he wrote.  He likely used the key to capture an electrical charge in a Leyden jar (a jar used for storing static electricity.)

A Leyden jar is a device used for storing static electricity.

Holding the key in his hand would have been dangerous, and some who tried to repeat Franklin’s experiment were electrocuted.

Top portion of a lightning rod

Franklin used the results of his kite experiment to invent the lightning rod, saving many homes and barns from fires.

The physicist Michael Faraday mentioned Franklin’s experiments on ice and electricity.  Franklin observed that liquid water was a good conductor of electricity (like the wet kite string in his most famous experiment) but that ice was a poor conductor.  Franklin also noticed that heat could sometimes make poor conductors into better conductors of electricity.

STEMists can learn a lot from Benjamin Franklin, a man who was curious about the world around him and who never stopped learning new things.