Today, a new look at Ben Franklin's old kite. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Few things loom larger in our
American myths than Ben Franklin and electricity.
The bare bones of the legend say that Franklin flew
a kite into the sky -- that he showed the world how
to harness the wild electric forces of nature.
Franklin began working on electricity after he
heard a lecture about it in Scotland in 1743. Five
years later he sent a letter on electricity to the
Royal Society. In 1751 he published his book of
electrical experiments in England.
The English reaction to the book was generally
favorable. It had a lot of important stuff in it.
Franklin talked about his kite. He showed how to
make lightning rods. He told us about negative and
Meanwhile two French scientists were quarreling
over other matters entirely. One had a student
who'd written on electricity. When his foe saw
Franklin's book, he arranged a French translation.
That was pure malice. In the preface, he claimed no
one but Franklin had done anything with
The book took Franklin to center stage in France.
Louis XV was fascinated. Lightning rods sprouted
Of course King George was gravely unhappy with
Franklin's politics. He angrily told his science
advisor to declare that Franklin's lightning rod
design was wrong. The advisor told him that laws of
nature could not be changed at royal pleasure. The
king fired him directly.
Franklin had troubles in America, too. After an
earthquake in 1755, a cleric claimed Franklin had
caused it by directing all that lightning into the
ground. "Oh! There is no getting out of the mighty Hand of God!" he screamed at Franklin.
The picture is clearer under history's lens. No
doubt Franklin's huge presence in other areas
helped his work. He was so visible as a
revolutionary, as a writer, as a designer of
America. When we look closely, we find that others
did some of his electrical work independently. A
Czech priest probably invented the lightning rod
first. A French lawyer certainly did the kite
experiment before Franklin did.
Yet Franklin organized ideas and drove them into
the world. He gave them so much context. If some of
his ideas weren't original, Franklin himself was
always an original. He moved straight to the center
of the entire 18th-century stage. He redefined the
stage while he was on it. And from that stage he
called down lightning bolts of change on the whole
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
See: https://www.bydiscountcodes.co.uk/translations/franklins-electricity/ for a translation of this episode into the Punjabi language.
I derive many ideas here from a term paper for my
course MECE 3301, Technology and Western
Culture: Social Determinants of Franklin's theory
of Electricity as a Paradigm, by Jack
Franklin, B., Experiments and Observations
Made in America at Philadelphia ... 4th ed.,
London: Printed for David Henry; and sold by
Francis Newbery, at the corner of St. Paul's
Church Yard: MDCCLXIX. The letter to Franklin's
brother appears on pp. 473-478, and a letter
describing the design of the glass armonica
appears on pp. 427-433.
For more on Benjamin Franklin use the SEARCH function.
See especially, Episodes 1377, 141, and 710.
From the 1832 Edinbourgh
Click on any of the thumbnails
below to see a full-size image
Left to right: title pageof Franklin's book on
electricity, and two nonelectrical images: a tornado
over water, the Franklin Stove
From left to right: three diagrams of electrical
apparatus from Franklin's book on electricity
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
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