How often is it that we look at the ordinary $100 bill in our hand and recognize the old man printed on it? Almost always, we all know him as Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States. But do we know him as somebody other than a founding father? How many of us know that he was a great scientist and a musician other than being a politician and that he has many inventions and discoveries accounted to his name? Let me introduce you to the extra ordinary genius and his inventions and how they affected modern America.
Benjamin Franklin: A Multidimensional Personality
Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706 in Boston, Massachusetts and is a noted polymath, a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat.
At the age of 12 he became an apprentice to his brother James, a printer, who taught Ben the printing trade. When Ben was 15, James founded The New-England Courant- the first truly independent newspaper in the colonies. When denied the chance to write a letter to the paper for publication, Franklin adopted the pseudonym of “Mrs. Silence Dogood”, a middle-aged widow. “Mrs. Dogood”‘s letters were published, and became a subject of conversation around town.
Benjamin Franklin: As a Scientist
As a Scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. He invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the Franklin stove, a carriage odometer, the glass harmonica and the flexible urinary catheter. His discoveries resulted from his investigations of Electricity. Franklin proposed that “vitreous” and “resinous” electricity were not different types of “electrical fluid” (as electricity was called then), but the same electrical fluid under different pressures. He was the first to label them as positive and negative respectively and he was the first to discover the principle of conservation of charge. Franklin’s electrical experiments led to his invention of the lightning rod. He noted that conductors with a sharp rather than a smooth point were capable of discharging silently, and at a far greater distance. He surmised that this knowledge could be of use in protecting buildings from lightning by attaching “upright Rods of Iron, made sharp as a Needle and gilt to prevent Rusting, and from the Foot of those Rods a Wire down the outside of the Building into the Ground;…Would not these pointed Rods probably draw the Electrical Fire silently out of a Cloud before it came nigh enough to strike, and thereby secure us from that most sudden and terrible Mischief!”
Franklin noted a Principle of Refrigeration by continually wetting the ball of a mercury thermometer with ether and using bellows to evaporate the ether. With each subsequent evaporation, the thermometer read a lower temperature, eventually reaching 7 °F (−14 °C). Another thermometer showed the room temperature to be constant at 65 °F (18 °C). In his letter Cooling by Evaporation, Franklin noted that “one may see the possibility of freezing a man to death on a warm summer’s day.”
Franklin is known to have played the violin, the harp, and the guitar. He also composed music, notably a string quartet in early classical style. He developed a much-improved version of the glass harmonica, in which the glasses rotate on a shaft, with the player’s fingers held steady, instead of the other way around; this version soon found its way to Europe. He facilitated many civic organizations, including a fire department and a university.
He never patented his inventions; in his autobiography he wrote, “… as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.” He died on April 17, 1790 (aged 84).
Benjamin Franklin’s colorful life and legacy of scientific and political achievement earned him the status of one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers, and modern America will always be in debt to his scientific inventions and discoveries.