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Benjamin Franklin's Science Stands Test of Time


Pick up any U.S. 100 dollar bill, and you will see the face of Benjamin Franklin, one of the best-known of the 18th century colonial revolutionaries who engineered America's break with Great Britain. He's the only one to have signed all five of America's historic founding documents.

In his day, Franklin was respected not only as a political leader and diplomat but also as a scientist and inventor. Franklin's adopted home city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is celebrating his three hundredth birthday this year.

Indeed, the variety and dazzle of Benjamin Franklin's accomplishments as a scientist-inventor put him in the first tier of American historical figures. He invented, for example, a catheter to treat his brother's kidney stones, and he outlined a theory of the surface physics of oil and water that stands today.

Franklin was extremely well-versed in botany, geology, and astronomy, and he developed several insightful hypotheses regarding world weather patterns, climate change, tornado formation, and the relationship between winds and the Earth's rotation. He also invented clever arithmetic charts called "Magic Squares" that, in his own playful words, "are the most magically magical of any magic square ever made by any magician."

Page Talbot, the curator of "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World," a large traveling exhibition sponsored by Philadelphia's Franklin Tercentenary, says that Franklin's genius was not derived only, or even mainly, from books. "He wasn't a theoretician, she says, he was interested in the practical application of knowledge."

One of the better-known examples of that interest, says Ms. Talbot, is his the wood-burning cast-iron furnace-box which he called the "Pennsylvanian Stove" -- later dubbed the "Franklin Stove. It was a safer, more efficient way to heat homes than the open fireplaces then commonly in use.

"It was his idea of drawing cold air and running it through a series of chambers -- during which place it was going to get hotter -- and then projecting it back out into the room," she explains.

Franklin never patented his inventions, wishing instead to share them, free, for the common good. But most of them sprang from a desire to improve his own quality of life. For instance, he invented bifocal lenses because it annoyed him to switch glasses depending on what he wanted to see.

"Like most of us, says Ms. Talbot, he was getting older and he was having a harder time reading. And he said 'Hmm! How am I going to figure this one out?' So he took the pieces from one pair of glasses and put it to another and put them in a frame and 'Ta Da!' he came up with bifocals!'

Some of Franklin's most impressive scientific achievements occurred as a byproduct of his other duties. For example, while acting as Deputy Postmaster General for North America, he was often asked why it took longer to sail from England to North America than the reverse. He correctly surmised that the waters of the Gulf Stream - a massive current which flows across the Atlantic from the Americas to Europe, was helping to speed the east-bound ships. Later, while a diplomat, he published an uncannily accurate map of the Gulf Stream, which resulted in far more efficient international shipping and trade.

And he was personable. According to Rosalind Remer, executive director of the Franklin Tercentenary "Franklin is probably, of all the American historical figures, the person you'd most want to meet."

Benjamin Franklin's temperament and his love of experimentation were ideally suited to his time, which historians call the Age of Enlightenment. It was an era where reason, not religious faith alone, was gaining ground as a way to understand the natural world.

Ms. Remer explains that its underlying idea was that you could test something by hypotheses and doing experiments and determining whether your hypothesis holds true or not. Before the Enlightenment, she says, a natural disaster would have been assumed to be an act of God. But during the Enlightenment, thinkers began to try to understand exactly what caused things to happen. So it has to do with the increased agency of man, as opposed to the agency of God."

Benjamin Franklin was the first to establish that lightning is electricity, and that it jumps between points with opposite electrical charges. He invented the lightning rod, which helped to prevent house fires by attracting the so-called "electrical fire," then conveying it harmlessly by wire into the ground.

But Franklin did not work in isolation. As his nearly 47 volumes of personal papers attest, he corresponded with most of the great scientific thinkers of his day, and his own research was published and translated into several languages, just as scientific papers are today. Rosalind Remer says the spirit of international scientific cooperation that Franklin encouraged continues today. She is sure Franklin would have loved the Internet.

"He did opine that he was born too early, she says. He said he wished he could have been born two hundred years later 'to see what was happening in the world.' He was interested in everything. So he took the time to find out more to experiment whenever possible and to tell the world about it!"

The Franklin Tercentenary's major exhibition Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World, will be on view in his adopted home city until April, when it will go on tour to Saint Louis, Houston, Denver, Atlanta and Paris.

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