Franklins Experiments is the most important scientific
book produced in colonial America. Along with the many editions
of Poor Richards Almanac and the posthumously published Autobiography,
it is the essential text in which Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) has embodied
his legacy, combining an irresistible empiricism with a flair for catchy
precept. Here Franklin publishes his legendary experiment of the key,
the kite, and the thunderstorm, providing proof clouds are electrified;
here too he documents his invention of the lightning rod and analyzes
the action of the first electrical condenser, the Leyden jar.
Franklin originated the still-current nomenclature of plus
and minus to distinguish positive and negative charges,
and proved the identity of atmospheric and frictional electricity. As
one of the more important Founding Fathers of the American nation, Franklins
direct and forthright expression served as moral example to generations.
Franklin in the original edition provides a refreshing view of scientific
creativity and the nobility of diligence from a foundational period
of the modern scientific and political era.
The original book imaged for this digital edition:
9 x 7 1/4 inches (229 x 184 mm)
When Lightning Strikes
The full significance of Benjamin Franklin’s lightning experiments in the early 1700s (Experiments and Observations on Electricity) and his invention of the lightning rod is not generally understood. The use of a kite in one of his most celebrated experiments was actually more of an afterthought – an easier way to get a pointed conductor up into the air than by erecting a special structure. The lightning experiments were lauded by Franklin’s contemporaries for showing that work in the laboratory merely demonstrated smaller versions of natural phenomena – practical outcomes of pure or basic science. Perhaps most important from the point of view of the eighteenth century, Franklin’s study of electricity and the invention of the lightning rod dealt a major blow to superstition. No longer need it be believed that lightning was an explosion of the forces of darkness or that lightning was a warning to sinners from an angry god. In those days it was customary to ring church bells during lightning storms; the bells actually had inscribed on them the phrase fulgura frango (I free the air of lightning). We may understand why Franklin took delight when he found out that clouds (or the lower parts of clouds) were often negatively charged and not always positively charged. Hence, it would follow that lightning was not exclusively a set of thunderbolts sent from the heavens to the earth but could also be a set of thunderbolts from the earth sent into the clouds. He also found records of a high rate of mortality among bell ringers, killed by lightning strokes while ringing the church bells during thunderstorms. It is hoped that the lightning rods resulting from his experiments helped saved the lives of subsequent belfry occupants.
The copy of Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity that Octavo has reproduced was previously owned by John William Ward, the first Earl of Dudley (1781-1833). Ward was an eccentric and often talked to himself in dialogue, one voice low and gruff, the other piercingly shrill. Contemporaries amused themselves by pretending that this merely reflected the split personality of a binomial, observing that “It is only Dudley talking to Ward.” Ward was a scholar and a wit, no doubt enjoying Franklin’s famous humor. The eminent Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart was Ward’s sometimes private tutor, from whom he is said to have contracted his unsettling habit of soliloquizing.
Zapping the Turkey
Benjamin Franklin’s obsession with the turkey did not end with his recommendation that it represent the fledgling United States as its national bird. In 1749, he showed that he could kill and roast a turkey with electricity, the result being an “uncommonly tender” meal. He writes: “A turkey is to be killed for our dinner by the electrical shock, and roasted by the electrical jack, before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle…” You can read more about the experiment on page 35 (view 22) in Octavo’s Edition of his Experiments and Observations on Electricity, which was published in 1751.