Fact or Fable? Ben Franklin Discovered Electricity

FactOrFableThis is fable. Electricity was known to science long before Franklin began his famous experiments. Franklin was, however, a pioneer in the study of electricity and made many important contributions to the science.

Early studies in electricity

Experiments with electricity and magnetism were first conducted in ancient times. However, the founder of the modern science of electricity was William Gilbert, a 17th century English physician. Gilbert was the first to introduce the term electricity.

The first electric generator was built in 1663 by Otto von Guericke, a German engineer. In 1729, British chemist Stephen Gray first demonstrated that electricity flows and that some materials conduct it, while others do not.

The first electric storage device, known as the Leyden jar, was developed in 1745 by Dutch physicist Pieter van Musschenbroek. The Leyden jar was a glass vial containing water and a conducting wire that protruded through the seal. The jar was charged by bringing the exposed wire into contact with a device that generated static electricity. The Leyden jar revolutionized the study of electricity. It was used in experiments throughout Europe that included killing animals with an electric shock and sending an electrical charge across a river.

Source: www.nps.gov

Source: www.nps.gov

Ben Franklin’s Contributions

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) was one of America’s founding fathers; a successful writer, businessman, inventor, and statesman. He made his fortune as a printer and publisher, then sold many of his business enterprises to focus on his scientific experiments and inventions.

Franklin’s interest in electricity began after witnessing a demonstration of its effects in 1743. His experiments ultimately led to a substantial amount of progress in the study of electricity and its practical application.

Until Franklin’s time, electricity experiments were confined to static electricity and scientists assumed that electric charge was created by friction. Through a series of experiments, Franklin concluded that all matter contains electricity and that rubbing two objects together merely transfers electric charge from one to the other. To describe this phenomenon he coined the terms positive and negative charge, which are still in use. Franklin also built and named the first electric battery.

The kite flying experiment

While Franklin’s laboratory experiments brought him renown among scientists, it was his interest in lightning that made him world famous. Others had noted the similarities between lightning and electricity produced in a laboratory, but no one had been able to provide proof. Franklin believed that clouds (like all matter) contained electricity and lightning was merely an electrical discharge. In a series of letters, he proposed an experiment involving a tall metal rod attached to a box with a man standing on it. If the rod came into contact with a low cloud and the man received a spark, it would demonstrate that the cloud contained an electrical charge. The letters were widely published and his experiment was performed successfully in France, making Franklin a sensation.

Before receiving word of the events in France, Franklin conceived and performed his famous kite flying experiment in the summer of 1752. With the help of his son, Franklin flew a kite with a wire protruding from the top and a key hanging from the bottom of a wet string. When the key drew sparks, he collected some of the charge in a Leyden jar and found that it performed similarly to electricity produced in a laboratory. “Thereby the sameness of electrical matter with that of lightning,” he reported in a letter, “was completely demonstrated.”

Franklin’s experiments led to his invention of the lightning rod. In 1752 Franklin installed a grounded metal rod to protect his home from lightning strikes. Later that fall, Franklin published instructions for installing a lightning rod in Poor Richard’s Almanac, and lightning rods soon began appearing all over Europe and America.

While Franklin did not discover electricity, he did much to increase our understanding of it. As Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson put it, “he found electricity a curiosity and left it a science.”

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