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Page 5

Benjamin Franklin

1706-1790

In the year 1749 he conceived the idea of explaining the phenomena of thunder gusts, and of the aurora borealis, upon electrical principles; he pointed out many particulars, in which lightning and electricity agreed, and he adduced many facts and reasonings in support of his positions. In the same year, he thought of ascertaining the truth of his doctrine by drawing down the forked lightning, by means of sharp pointed iron rods, raised into the region of the clouds. Admitting the identity of lightning and electricity, and knowing the power of points in conducting away silently the electric fluid, he suggested the idea of securing houses, ships, &c. from the damages to which they were liable from lightning, and hence he applied his discovery to the securing of buildings from the effects of lightning, by erecting pointed iron rods, which should rise some feet above the most elevated part, and descend some feet into the ground or the water. The effect of these, he concluded, would by either to prevent a stroke, by repelling the cloud beyond the striking distance, or by drawing off the electrical fluid, which it contained; or at least, conduct the stroke to the earth without any injury to the building. It was not till the summer of 1752, that Mr. Franklin was enabled to complete his grand experiment. The plan which he proposed was, to erect on some high tower, or elevated place, a sort of hut, from which should rise a pointed iron rod, insulated by being fixed in a cake of resin. Electrified clouds passing over this, would, he conceived, impart to it a portion or their electricity, which might be rendered evident to the senses by sparks being emitted, when the knuckle or other conductor was presented to it. While he was waiting or the erection of a spire, it occurred to him, that he might have a more ready access to the region of clouds by means of a common kite; he accordingly prepared one for the purpose, affixing to the upright stick an iron point. The string was as usual, of hemp, except the lower end, which was silk, and where the hempen part terminated, a key was fastened. With this simple apparatus, on the appearance of a thunderstorm approaching, he went into the fields, accompanied by his son, to whom alone he communicated his intentions, dreading probably the ridicule which frequently awaits unsuccessful attempts in experimental philosophy. For some time no sign of electricity appeared; he was beginning to despair of success, when he suddenly observed the loose fibers of the string to start forward in and erect position, he now presented his knuckle to the key, and received a strong spark. How exquisite must his sensations have been at this moment? On this experiment depended the fate of his theory; repeated sparks were drawn from the key, a phial was charged, a shock given, and all the experiments made, which are usually performed with electricity. He immediately fixed an insulated iron rod upon his house, which drew down the lightning, and gave him an opportunity of examining whether it were positive or negative, and hence he applied his discovery to the securing of buildings from the effects of lightning.

It will be impossible to enumerate all, or even a small part of the experiments which were made by Dr. Franklin, or to give an account of the treatises which he wrote on the branches of science. Justice requires us to say, that he seldom wrote, or discoursed on any subject, upon which he did not throw light. Few men possessed a more penetrating genius, or a happier faculty of discrimination. His investigations attracted the attention, and his discoveries called forth the admiration of the learned in all parts of the world. Jealousy was at length excited in Europe, and attempts were made, not only to detract from his well earned fame, but to rob him of the merit of originality. Others claimed the honor of having first made several of his most brilliant experiments, or attempted to invalidate the truth and reality of those, an account of which he had published to the world. The good sense of Dr. Franklin led him to oppose his adversaries only by silence, leaving the vindication of his merit to the slow, but sure operations of time.

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Last modified January 2, 2004