FRANKLIN AS A SCIENTIST
 BY the time Benjamin Franklin had reached middle age he had become the best-known and most important
man in America; but what interests us at present is his connection with the scientific world.
We have to pass over the greater part of his later life, which was devoted to serving his country as
American Minister in London, and later at the Court of France. We must also pass over the important
part he played in the transition of America from being a British colony to a self-governing
country—the United States of America.
Franklin had been such a constant reader from childhood that he must have come to know something of
Science as then understood, but his first serious study of a scientific subject seems to have been
on the occasion of a visit paid to Boston by Dr. Spence, of Scotland. That was in the year 1746, at
which time Franklin would be about forty years of age. Dr. Spence showed Franklin some of his
electrical experiments, and it is supposed that Franklin bought the apparatus from the lecturer at
the close of his visit.
Not long afterwards Franklin wrote a paper on "The Sameness of Lightning with Electricity," and this
 communicated to the Royal Society of London by one of its members. It is generally stated that the
learned members laughed at the idea. But this cannot be quite correct, for the idea of lightning
being a huge electric spark was by no means new; it had been suggested a generation earlier, and the
sameness had been remarked upon by great men, such as Sir Isaac Newton. Franklin's paper does not
set forth the idea as new, but he was the first to propose a method of proving the idea. It was he
who suggested means of tapping the supposed electricity of storm-clouds, and bringing it quietly to
earth. There is no doubt that it was the boldness of this idea which amused the learned members of
the Royal Society, and we can sympathise with them; it would appear to be quite ridiculous.
The gentleman who had communicated Franklin's bold suggestion to the Royal Society had faith in the
American statesman's ideas, and he took steps to have it published. It appeared in The
Gentleman's Magazine, and also in pamphlet form. A copy of the pamphlet was received by some
French Scientists, who followed out the idea on the lines suggested by Franklin. By means of an iron
rod placed at a considerable height, they succeeded in drawing electricity from storm-clouds. Before
news of this successful experiment had time to reach Franklin, he had become impatient waiting for
the completion of a high spire from which he intended making his experiment. In the meantime it
occurred to him that a kite might serve to carry up the conductor even to a greater height.
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN AND HIS SON EXPERIMENTING WITH LIGHTNING.
When Franklin and his son went out to try this experiment they must have felt the importance of the
 it would either confirm or contradict a world-famous suggestion. There were thunder-clouds about,
but they passed without giving any sign of electricity at the metal key attached to the end of the
string tethering the kite. Franklin held this himself by means of a silk handkerchief which was to
act as a non-conductor. He tells us that he had almost despaired of success, when suddenly he
observed the loose fibre of the string to move towards an erect position. He then presented his
knuckle to the key, and received a strong shock accompanied by a bright spark. His bold idea was
proved to be possible. He repeated the experiment, charging a Leyden jar, and making other
well-known electrical experiments.
Other experimenters made similar experiments with kites, and with iron rods placed high in the air.
No one intended bringing a lightning discharge down the kite string, but it is apparent that they
were running some risk. One experimenter, who used a metal wire in place of the wetted kite string,
found that with this better conductor he got results which alarmed him; an enormous flash occurred,
accompanied with a deafening report, and producing a hole in the ground. The iron rod set up by a
Russian professor was struck by lightning, and he being near the free end of it at the moment
received a fatal shock.
Franklin suggested the idea of placing pointed conductors on high buildings, leading a wire direct
to earth, in order to protect the building against lightning. People were very slow to adopt this
novel suggestion, although many of them were very anxious to protect their houses against lightning,
some superstitious folk going the
 length of placing an innocent leek upon the roof as a protection. One of the early lightning
conductors had to be removed because the peasants in the neighbourhood insisted that its presence
had brought about such a dry summer that their crops had been wasted.
Many years later a Londoner tried to detract from Franklin's lightning conductors by declaring that
conductors placed low down were far more effective than if placed high in the air, and further that
round knobs were far superior to sharp points. The man who advanced this theory gave a demonstration
of some experiments with round knobs at the Pantheon in London. Many people supposed these
experiments to support the man's declaration, but some Fellows of the Royal Society came along and
showed the matter to be absurd. Had the experimenter been sincere we could owe him no grudge for
putting another theory in opposition to Franklin's suggestion, but it is quite evident that he was
not honest in the matter, for when three scientists made experiments in the Pantheon to decide the
matter, this man, although present, refused to look at them or to attempt any reply.
When word was sent to Franklin concerning this would-be detractor, along with the information that
at this man's request the King had got the pointed conductors taken down from his palace and round
knobs put up instead, Franklin replied in a very characteristic letter, from which the following is
a quotation: "I have never entered into any controversy in defence of my philosophical opinions; I
leave them to take their chance in the world. If they are right, truth and experience will support
them; if wrong, they ought to be refuted and
 rejected. Disputes are apt to sour one's temper, and disturb one's quiet. I have no private interest
in the reception of my inventions by the world, having never made, nor proposed to make, the least
profit by them. The King's changing his pointed conductors for blunt ones is therefore a matter of
small importance to me."
We saw in a preceding chapter how Sir Isaac Newton was worried by spending so much time in
supporting his philosophical opinions; he would certainly have had more peace of mind had he acted
in the same way as Benjamin Franklin, but such an attitude is very difficult to maintain, and Newton
felt it a duty to support his theories.
Franklin's great feat in "snatching the lightning from the skies" is the one thing which stands out
most prominently in his scientific career, but he did much valuable work to advance the then
youthful science of Electricity. He set forth improved theories of electricity; he dispensed with
the idea of two separate fluids and devised the single-fluid theory. It was he who applied the terms
positive and negative to electrical theory, and he made important discoveries in connection with the
Leyden jar. A generation ago we departed from the idea of a subtle fluid, and came to think of
electricity as a mere condition of things, but now we are quite convinced that the early idea was
correct; indeed, we have proved beyond doubt that electricity is a real, existing thing.
 At present we are interested in the man more than in his science; it is sufficient for our purpose
to know that he was a hero of Science. Witness the testimony of the illustrious Dr. Joseph
Priestley, whose life we shall consider in the succeeding chapter. In his History of
Electricity, Priestley wrote of Franklin's work: "Nothing was written upon the subject of
Electricity which was more generally read and admired in all parts of Europe."
When Franklin was resident in England as American Minister, he made an extensive tour on the
Continent, where he was warmly welcomed by all the men of science. In France he was introduced to
Louis XV, and was elected a member of the famous Academy of Science. Previous to this he had been
elected an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of London, and had received honorary degrees from
several Universities in Great Britain, as well as in America. In London he was made welcome in the
houses of all the great people. He had among his acquaintances such men as Adam Smith, the famous
political economist, David Hume, the great historian, and Dr. Joseph Priestley, already mentioned.
Franklin was an interested spectator at the Coronation of George III.
The later years of Franklin's life were spent in Paris as an American Minister to the Court of
France. It is difficult to realise how a man of his age could get through the work which he did. One
extract from his diary will give us some idea of the busy life he led outside of his political
duties. At the date of this entry our hero was over seventy-two years of age. "December 13th, 1778.
Paris. A man came to tell me he had invented a machine,
 which would go by itself, without the help of a spring, weight, air, water, or any of the elements,
or the labour of man or beast, and with force to work four machines for cutting tobacco; that he had
experienced it; would show it me if I would come to his house, and would sell the secret of it for
two hundred louis. I doubted it, but I promised to go to him in order to see it.
"A Mons. Coder came with a proposition in writing, to levy six hundred men, to be employed in
landing on the coast of England or Scotland to burn and ransom towns and villages, in order to put a
stop to the English proceedings in that way in America. I thanked him, and told him I could not
approve it, nor had I any money at command for such purposes; moreover, that it would not be
permitted by the Government here.
"A man came with a request that I would patronise and recommend to Government an invention he had,
whereby a hussar might so conceal his arms and habiliments, with provision for twenty-four hours, as
to appear a common traveller; by which means a considerable body might be admitted into a town, one
at a time, unsuspected, and afterwards assembling, surprise it. I told him I was not a military man,
of course no judge of such matters, and advised him to apply to the Bureau de la Guerre. He said he
had no friends, and so could procure no attention. The number of wild schemes proposed to me is so
great, and they have hitherto taken so much of my time, that I begin to reject all, though possibly
some of them may be worth notice."
Franklin says in another place: "It is amazing the
 number of legislators that kindly bring me new plans for governing the United States."
"Received a parcel from an unknown philosopher, who submits to my consideration a memoir on the
subject of elementary fire, containing experiments in a dark chamber. It seems to be well written,
and is in English, with a little tincture of French idiom. I wish to see the experiments, without
which I cannot well judge of it."
These were the interruptions in a single forenoon. In reading these extracts from Franklin's journal
one wishes he had told us what he found out about the wonderful machine mentioned in the first
paragraph. It certainly reads like a fraud. It is interesting to note in connection with the
paragraph last quoted, that the unknown philosopher turned out to be no less a personage than the
wicked Marat, one of the most infamous characters of the French Revolution, and who was in a great
measure responsible for the cruelties and massacres which took place some fourteen years later than
the date of Franklin's correspondence with him.
No matter how much one believes in every person having a distinct hobby, one would be willing to
allow that such a crowded life as that of Franklin left no room for a hobby. And yet we find that he
amused himself sometimes in composing light essays, and printing them himself by means of a small
set of types and a press which he kept in his house.
Sometimes Franklin wrote very amusing articles, such as the following, which was addressed to "The
Authors of the Journal of Paris," and was signed "A Subscriber." The title of this article, which is
given in full in his
 Memoirs, is "An Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light." In this racy article he
explains that he had recently seen a new lamp about which there had been some stir. He says that he
suspected that the cost of oil in the new lamp was still proportional to the amount of light given.
But he had gone to bed puzzled over the new lamp as he fell asleep. He was wakened by an accidental
noise at six o'clock in the morning, and he was surprised to find a flood of bright light in his
room. At first he thought that it must be due to some of those new lamps about which he had been
puzzling, but on getting up to seek the origin of the light he found that one of his domestics had
omitted to close the shutters on his windows and that the light came from the rising sun. He goes on
to pretend that he has made a great discovery, and that one scientist stoutly denies the possibility
of the light being due to the Sun at so early an hour, which was presumably spring or summer time.
This imaginary scientist declares that as there could be no light from the Sun and therefore no
light that could enter the room from without, it is evident that the open shutters had merely
allowed the darkness to escape. Franklin continues in apparently sincere fashion to dilate upon his
great discovery, the conclusion of which is that instead of burning tons of candles at a late hour
at night, a much cheaper light was to be got from the early morning sun; just the idea of the recent
Daylight Saving Bill. Franklin works out the annual saving per annum that would be possible by such
means in Paris. He says that if people find any difficulty in rising at so early an hour, the church
bells could all be tolled, and if any people should prove obstinate "let cannon be fired in every
 wake the sluggards effectually." Once more he proclaims his original discovery. "Possibly some may
say the Ancients knew that the sun rose at certain hours; I do not dispute it, but it does not
follow they knew he gave light as soon as he rose. This is what I claim as my discovery."
In looking over Franklin's correspondence I was surprised to come across the following diagram,
showing a pair of spectacles arranged for long distance and for reading. In his letter, Franklin
explains that he had found two different pairs of spectacles to be very inconvenient, so he had
taken them to an optician and got the lenses cut in two and fitted into one frame as shown above.
"By this means I wear my spectacles constantly, I have only to move my eyes up or down." We are all
familiar with a recent adaptation of the same idea, but it is of interest to find that the idea
originated with Benjamin Franklin about one hundred and fifty years ago.
Many eminent scientists were living at the same time
 as Benjamin Franklin, whose long life closed only ten years before the dawn of the nineteenth
century. At Sir Isaac Newton's death Franklin was twenty-one years of age, he was still a young man
when our next three heroes (Priestley, Cavendish, and Herschel) were born, and he lived for some
time after the births of the three heroes who succeed these in the following pages (Dalton, Young,
and Humphry Davy).
While Franklin was in Paris he was one of the scientists appointed by the King of France to
investigate the claims of Mesmer, the founder of Mesmerism, then known as Animal Magnetism. Mesmer
was a German physician, who claimed to work wonderful cures by means of his newly discovered animal
magnetism, a power which he professed to transmit to his patients. Mesmer had met with great
applause and profit in Germany, and was beginning to succeed equally well in France when the King
caused this scientific inquiry to be made.
The report drawn up by Franklin and the other members of this Commission was not to the liking of
Mesmer. It was his custom to use apparatus by which he professed to produce the animal magnetism.
One method was to place the patient beneath a mesmeric tree, whereupon he fell into the trance. The
report of the investigators stated that it seemed probably that about one person in every ten could
be mesmerised, but that the outward magnetism did not exist; it was entirely a case of working upon
the imagination of the patient.
Franklin's committee took some of the patients, and after blindfolding them pretended to place them
under the mesmeric tree, whereupon they fell into the mesmeric state although the tree was not near
them. Then they
 placed these blindfolded patients directly beneath the tree, but led them to believe that they were
not near the tree, and the result was that the tree had no effect. The conclusion of the report was
that Mesmer's cures were a fraud except in special cases where imagination was of assistance, and
that his declaration of having discovered animal magnetism was a complete fraud; it was simply a
reflex action of the mental upon the physical.
Mesmer ultimately fell into disrepute and was forced to retire, but he has had many imitators. The
subject reappeared at a later date in its proper form under the title of "Hypnotism."
In dealing with the later part of Franklin's life, chiefly from the Science side, we are apt to
overlook how extremely active he was up to the last. He was consulted on every political question
which was of importance to America. Science was therefore a hobby with him. Until middle age he was
a very active business man, a master-printer, and during the long remainder of his life he was a
very busy politician. But Science was more than an ordinary hobby with him; he was a born
philosopher, and he has made a lasting name for himself in the Science of Electricity. We have seen
how the old gentleman amused himself composing and printing breezy essays, and in addition to this
he was a keen chess-player. He tells us that one evening in France he sat at chess from 6 p.m. till
When Franklin was eighty years of age he retired from his duties at the Court of France and returned
to his native land. He had proposed doing this some years
 earlier, but those in authority urged him to remain. He has left us an interesting diary of his
journey and voyage. He set out from Paris in a litter suspended between two mules with the muleteer
riding another. Some days he was on the road so early as 5 a.m., and yet he speaks of the journey as
a comfortable one. It was a sort of triumphal march, for he was met at different points by the
nobility, military officers, and representatives of learned societies.
On arriving at Havre, after a six days' journey, he had ten days to wait before his ship was ready
to sail across the English Channel. After reaching Southampton he had another delay, but we must not
think of him as an impatient old man, for he tells us: "I went at noon to bathe in Martin's
salt-water hot bath, and floating on my back, fell asleep, and slept near an hour by my watch,
without sinking or turning, a thing I never did before, and should hardly have thought possible.
Water is the easiest bed that can be made."
At last he set sail for America during the end of July, to land on the other side of the Atlantic in
the middle of September, a very slow voyage as things go nowadays, but a whole month shorter than
one of his earlier crossings. During that earlier voyage he wrote in his diary: "For a week past we
have fed ourselves with the hopes that the change of the moon (which was yesterday) would bring us a
fair wind." Imagine being becalmed on the Atlantic for a whole fortnight! We may realise what sort
of passenger ships were in use in Franklin's day by an incident which he relates. On one occasion
the captain of the ship had been boasting, before leaving port, that his vessel could beat all
comers. But after
 putting out to sea his ship was overtaken by another vessel of similar size. The captain of
Franklin's ship, suspecting that the cargo had been placed too far forward, ordered the whole
passengers and crew, about forty persons in all, to stand down in the stern of the ship, whereupon
she, very quickly overtook her competitor.
Franklin was very silent about his religion, although we have glimpses of his ideas at times, such
as in a letter relating to the death of a friend: "Existing here is scarce to be called life; it is
rather an embryo state, a preparative to living; a man is not completely born till he is dead."
In a letter to a friend who wrote to Franklin inquiring about his creed, he replied: "It is the
first time I have been questioned upon it. I do not take it amiss. Here is my creed. I believe in
one God, the Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That He ought to be
worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to Him is doing good to His other children.
That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its
conduct in this."
Franklin lived for some years after his return to America, and passed away at the age of
eighty-four. The very great respect in which he was held is attested by the fact that Congress
ordered one month's general mourning throughout the United States, while France proclaimed three
days' special mourning. Needless to say the epitaph which the youth Benjamin Franklin had written
sixty years earlier (see page 145) was not used upon his tombstone, but the words quoted
 beneath the title of the preceding chapter are to be found upon the statue erected in his memory in
"He snatched the lightning from the skies and the sceptre from tyrants."
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