Sunday, June 10, 2012

This Day in Scientific History (Franklin and Son’s Kite Experiment)

June 10, 1752—In the kite experiment with lightning that made him a transatlantic hero of Enlightenment science, Benjamin Franklin relied heavily on his son, a young man increasingly favored by his father despite the stigma associated with his illegitimate birth.  Two decades later, however, father and son received a shock worse than anything they encountered in their experiment when they found themselves on opposite sides in the colonies’ break with England.

No matter what your age, there’s a good chance that your image of Franklin comes from a painting or illustration showing him holding the kite aloft while William Franklin, a boy, watches in wonder. In fact, on that June afternoon in Philadelphia, William was the only witness to the event.

But much of the rest of the visual impression, like much of what we know about Benjamin Franklin, is enshrouded in myth. (That wouldn’t have surprised his jealous Continental Congress colleague John Adams, who, with time on his hands and frustration building as Vice-President, vented, in his often hilariously grouchy vein, to his friend Benjamin Rush: “The history of our Revolution will be one continued lie from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprang General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod – and thenceforward these two conducted all the policies, negotiations, legislatures, and war.”)

For starters, William wasn’t a young boy but a 22-year-old man who had already distinguished himself for bravery in the colony’s militia. And he wasn’t a mere observer:  According to biographer Willard Sterne Randall, he had designed the kite himself, then run around in the pasture three times holding the kite. (At 46, Ben was in little condition to carry out the experiment himself; he was already putting on the weight that would, in old age, leave him painfully gout-ridden.)

In fact, this was not his first involvement with his father’s thinking about all of this. In the past several years, as Benjamin segued from the printing business that had made him rich and famous into an equally busy retirement as an inventor and politician, he had assigned William the task of gathering in glass bottles electricity from thunderstorms passing overhead.

William was there when his impatient father didn’t want to wait around in the summer of 1752 for completion of the steeple of Christ Church in order to conduct an experiment with lightning. A kite flying high in a storm, he reasoned, would serve just as well.

Call William a mere lab assistant, if you want, but that particular experiment wouldn’t have been done if he hadn’t been willing to put himself in harm’s way so his father could observe how the whole thing turned out from the safety of a shepherd’s shed.

None of this is to take away what Benjamin accomplished, with what he considered his most important invention: a lightning rod that saved countless colonial buildings and lives from the longtime hazard of fire. Making an impact on the international scientific scene should have been daunting for someone so advanced in age, lacking in formal education, and an ocean away from the Royal Academy of Science. Yet Franklin proved more than equal to the task. His achievements are memorialized in Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute Science Museum.

When I visited the museum several years ago, the cries of delighted children reverberated throughout, in no small way because of a dozen interactive exhibits. Many of the permanent exhibits revolve around subjects that fascinated Franklin: meteorology, communications, even sports. But the heart of the museum is the Franklin National Memorial—America’s official tribute to the Founding Father.

James Earle Fraser’s 20-foot marble high statue of Franklin dominates the museum’s rotunda. Surprisingly for such an epitome of bourgeois ideals, Franklin here resembles a Greek or Roman god. But perhaps it’s not entirely a fanciful notion: as the man who first fully explained electricity, then invented a life-saving lightning rod, Franklin was sometimes regarded as the American Prometheus, the tamer of nature’s most mysterious and terrifying power.

In loving, and frequently surprising, detail, Memorial Hall not only displays items associated with Franklin but delights in true arcana about the man. Many of Franklin’s possessions have been collected here, notably an odometer he used in establishing postal routes, a sword and scabbard he wore at the court of France, his composing table, and many of his original publications.

The focus, however, is on Franklin’s scientific achievements. Everyone knows about Franklin’s experiments with lightning and electricity, but he achieved many other scientific and technological “firsts”— first American printer to make molten type; first to invent bifocals; first to propose daylight savings time; even first to eat a French fry!

Puckishness, combined with an ever-questing curiosity, produced Franklin’s triumphs. He loved to play parlor tricks to show off recent discoveries. (Not that these demonstrations couldn’t embarrass Franklin--once, in checking equipment, he accidentally shocked himself, then begged the recipient of his letter not to disclose this secret.)

The modern world continues to benefit from Franklin’s innovations in ways he never conceived. His “long-reach arm,” for instance, allowed him to reach books on top shelves in his study without stepping on a ladder. In the twenty-first century, the “long-reach” cuts branches and pulls down merchandise in grocery stores.

The least introspective of men, Franklin often showed more interest in the natural world than in his own psyche. As soon as he saw a problem, nothing could stop his relentless search for a practical solution. 

While sailing back and forth from England in 1753, he wondered why there was a difference in the general ocean current and that of the Caribbean. As a result, he became the first to explain the existence of the Gulf Stream, leading to voyages from England to America being shortened by several weeks. He developed bifocals because he tired of carrying two pairs of glasses around all the time. His swim fins and flotation vests originated in his love for swimming. His stove used heat and fuel far more efficiently than those built up to that time.

In science as in business, Franklin frequently attained the most by working through others rather than by himself, however. One Memorial Hall exhibit highlights his crucial role in publicizing the first organized American observation of the Transit of Venus in 1753. He acted as influence and example to Philadelphia’s other great colonial scientist, David Rittenhouse.

America’s first internationally acclaimed scientist had high hopes of working most productively through his own son. After the lightning experiment, William became an important ally of Benjamin’s in promoting a plan for a united colonial effort to defend against attacks in the French and Indian War, as well as in transferring control of Pennsylvania from the descendants of William Penn to the crown. Benjamin watched with pride as his son apprenticed himself to a prominent Pennsylvania lawyer, then won appointment as royal governor of New Jersey, where he impressed many with his administrative ability.

Then, when Benjamin fell out with the crown over his conduct as London agent for the colonies, he was shocked to find that William had become a Loyalist. William, seized by the patriots and thrown into prison for a few years, suffered so badly in body and mind (his wife died while he was incarcerated) that even George Washington was moved to write on his behalf. But Benjamin refused to intervene, the Continental Congress dropped any notion of intervention, and William continued to languish in prison.

A couple of years after the war ended, father and son met for one last time in London, but the atmosphere resembled a tense business meeting more than a family reunion.  A once-close partnership that produced one of the world’s great advances in science and safety was irretrievably shattered.  

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