The Franklin Phenomenon
The name of Benjamin Franklin resonates with most Americans. Not only is Franklin prominently mentioned in high-school and college history texts, but many cities and towns also have a Franklin Avenue, Franklin Insurance Company, or Ben Franklin Crafts store. His face is familiar—on postage stamps, busts in museums, and, of course, $100 bills. And Franklin's seemingly timeless sayings still grace calendars, magazine articles, and advice columns. In the pantheon of great Americans, Franklin looms large as a patriot and tireless diplomat, the founding father who, had he not died during Washington's first term, might have succeeded him as president.
Behind today's memorials was a man who led a long and complicated life. Like a brilliant-cut diamond, Franklin had many facets: as printer and publisher, founder of countless public institutions from library to fire department, and even scientist. But did he really snatch lightning from the clouds? Was the famous kite experiment (Fig. 1) merely a myth that padded the already impressive résumé of America's “renaissance man”? In the history of electrical science and technology, did Franklin actually earn any more than a tiny footnote?
Franklin (1706–1790) lived during much of the first age of electricity, which lasted from around 1740 to 1800. Not only did important electrical principles receive their first formulation then, but many people outside science acquired some familiarity with electrical technology, from lightning conductors to medical devices. Franklin, working on electricity in the late 1740s and early 1750s, in fact contributed crucial theoretical insights, ingenious experiments, and new technologies; and, yes, he did fly the kite. By the mid-1750s, Franklin had become a famous scientist whose ideas propelled new experiments and set the agenda for theoretical discussions throughout the West.