Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Right to the Source

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Right to the Source

Article excerpt

Benjamin Franklin Probes the Heavens

What are the best tools for gathering information about the natural world? Today's scientists might say electronic probes or other advanced instruments. For Benjamin Franklin, the best tools were a few metal objects, a silk handkerchief, and a length of string.

Like many scientists of his era, Franklin did not work in a purpose-built laboratory. When not occupied working as an author, printer, and public official, he often devised his own equipment from materials found at hand.

Franklin's best-known experiment took place on a rainy afternoon in 1752, when he used a kite made from a handkerchief, two strips of wood, and a length of wire to probe the skies over Philadelphia for confirmation of his theory that thunderclouds are electrified. He found that, when the clouds passed over the kite, electricity was drawn to the wire, and what he later described as "electric fire" passed down the wet kite string to a metal key tied near his hand. There, it streamed out "plentifully" at the approach of his knuckle.

The tireless polymath also brought experiments into his own home. To study electrical conductivity, Franklin affixed a pointed metal rod to his chimney and ran a wire into the house through a glass tube. On the stairs opposite his bedroom, he split the wire and attached its ends to little bells that would chime when clouds containing electricity passed by. …

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