Ben Franklin’s success really grew with his publication Poor Richard’s Almanack. The book full of witticisms and advice, both original and borrowed, was so popular that he soon had time to branch out to other ventures. He continued to publish, producing early American magazines and other essays. Throughout his life he would often sign his correspondence, B. Franklin, Printer, to show his roots in the printing industry.
He was so successful with his publishing endeavors that he had become a “gentleman of leisure” by his forties, which gave him plenty of time to dabble in music, art, the sciences, and politics. Many of his inventions are used in various forms even today. Trying to find more practical ways of doing things was at the heart of a lot of Ben’s experiments and inventions.
Taking charge, changing his life circumstances with groundbreaking inventions
Ben’s interest in philosophy and science stemmed from his self-education from his youth. Since he only had a few years of formal schooling he read as much as he could. An extremely curious person, he engaged in a lot of different types of inquiry throughout his life. He made many contributions to science, merely by observing the world around him and looking for ways to understand or make use of it.
Ben Franklin is the personification of pro-activity.
For example, the invention of the bifocal came from trying to work through an affliction he suffered from himself. The need for spectacles that could work for both up close and far away were revolutionary at the time. In a writing to a friend he expressed that his invention “…make[s] my eyes as useful to me as they ever were.” There is some evidence that Ben may not have been the first to invent the bifocal, but he did create his version independently and was among the first to wear them.
While in England, he was working on a hot day in 1758 trying to figure out a method of cooling using evaporation. Along with John Hadley, a British chemist, they continuously wetted the ball of a mercury thermometer with ether. Every time the ether evaporated by use of a bellows, the temperature was lowered, finally reaching a temperature of 7°F (-13° Celsius!) .
Writing up his discovery, Ben noted that it was possible to freeze on a summer’s day using the methods of evaporation. While he has been credited with inventing the concept of air conditioning, the experiment of whether cooling via evaporation was the extent of it.
That is not to say, though, that Ben did not find an interesting way of keeping cool on hot days. He was fond of “air bathing” which meant opening all of the windows in the house and walking around in the nude. This may have actually kept him healthier as stale air was often a problem in colonial households.
While his “air baths” were more of a manner of living, he also sought to improve the interior conditions of the households by designing the Franklin stove. It was invented in 1741 and was essentially a metal-lined fireplace. It provided more heat and less smoke than other stoves at the time by using an inverted siphon to draw more heat from the flames.
The use of cast iron in the walls of the device would allow it to maintain warmth even as a fire got low, warming a room with less fuel. In the days when acquiring and chopping wood was a necessary part of life, efficiency made a world of difference.
His “discovery” of electricity is one of the things he is most famous for, even during his own time.
(It is a popular misconception though. He didn’t discover electricity. As you will find out below, his actual discoveries are just as impressive.)
He began inventing and trying different experiments. Electricity began to interest him in 1746, when he learned of Archibald Spencer’s use of static electricity in illustrations. At the time electricity was referred to as “electrical fluid” and the idea was that they were different kinds of “fluid” that was responsible for different electrical phenomenons. As Ben began working and experimenting, he worked from the thesis that there were not different types of electricity, but that it was instead the same “fluid” under different environmental pressures.
In 1748, he developed a kind of battery using glass and lead plates suspended with silk string and wires. During his experiments with his “electrical battery”, he was the first scientist to speak of positive and negative charges, and subsequently discovered the concept of charge conservation. This principle is that electric charge can be neither created nor destroyed, while its properties can be reversed the net amount of electricity is always the same.
During this time he also sought to prove that lightning was electricity. In 1750, he proposed an experiment that involved flying a kite with a key during a lightning storm. However, he is credited with performing the experiment in 1752, where he was successful in extracting electric sparks from the cloud. It was said that to avoid the an electrical shock he stood on an insulator and under a dry roof.
While the popular image of Ben flying a kite in a thunderstorm is romantic, it is highly unlikely he performed the experiment with that method. When he wrote about his experiments he spoke about the danger from lightning. This helped him develop the concept of “grounding” where the electricity can be safely diverted into the ground. All of this research eventually paved the way for the lightning rod that Ben developed.
He experimented with the rods first on his own house, but later installed them also on the Academy of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania State House. His work with electricity made him one of the few Americans of his time to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. He earned the Royal Society’s Copley Medal in 1753. This also earned him his first honorary degrees from Harvard and Yale.
Although his work with kites was most famously attached to his lightning experiments, he also worked to use kite form and function for pulling people and ships across waterways. He inspired others to continue this research. His interest in ships would also lead to work in oceanography later in life.
Jack of all trades
Physics was not the only science that Ben was interested in either. In the 1730’s and 1740’s one of Ben’s projects was to look at the population of the American colonies.
The apparent rapid growth of America intrigued him.
He took notes and began to notice that the American colonies had one of the fastest population growth rates.
Ben linked this phenomenon with the availability of food and farmland. In 1755, he published Observation on the Increase of Mankind, to describe his observations over the two decades. He hypothesized that America’s population could potentially double every two years, which meant that it would exceed England’s population within a century. The first draft of this work had been published in 1751, and had circulated to other prominent thinkers looking at populations. Thomas Malthus, contemporary political economists, would later use Ben’s work as a jumping off point to further improve the study of demographics.
Over his life, Ben Franklin’s works show a dedication and work ethic that created an astounding body of work. Many of these discoveries came simultaneously with works of invention in other areas such as music and philosophy. Every day he set out to make a discovery and with a seemingly indefatigable spirit he was able to make progress in the world where he could. He went looking for questions and then sought the answers.
Sources and further reading:
Benjamin Franklin’s letters about Cooling and Evaporation
Benjamin Franklin’s Bifocals