It was the most spectacular of the Philadelphia sage’s experiments with electricity which earned him world-wide acclaim as a scientist. The adventure would also ultimately have world-wide political implications.
Born in Boston in 1707, Franklin’s amazing career is too rich and varied to recount here. Suffice it to say after Franklin arrived in Philadelphia as a 17 year old run-away apprentice in 1723 he was a printer, journalist, editor, and publisher; businessman; post master; local and colony official; militia officer; inventor and scientist; philanthropist; founder of the first insurance company, fire brigade, and hospital in the colonies; founder of the University of Pennsylvania and the American Philosophic Society; colonial agent in Britain; Delegate to the Continental Congress and member of the committee which drafted the Declaration of Independence; diplomat and Minister to France; President of Pennsylvania, and member of the Constitutional Convention. Whew! And that leaves out a lot.
Benjamin Franklin in 1759, seven years after flying his kite.
By 1752 Franklin was semi-retired from his successful printing businesses and focusing his attention on his electrical experiments. Franklin, experimenting with a Lyden Jar, a container for storing an electrical charge, had already proven the existence of positive and negative electrical charges and shown them to both be forms of the same “electrical fluid.” He had also described conservation of a charge. These were critical advances in scientific learning.
In 1750 he published a paper describing a proposed kite experiment to show conclusively that lighting was a form of electrical discharge. Adapting his experiment to an iron rod instead of a kite Frenchman Thomas-François Dalibard successfully proved Franklin’s hypothesis in May 1752.
Of course Franklin would have no way of knowing that when he took his son and faithful assistant William out to an open area near the edge of the city that day to finally execute the experiment himself. Under threatening skies he attached his kite to a silk string, tying an iron key at the other end. A thin wire was wound around the key and run into a Leyden jar. A silk ribbon was tied to the key for Franklin to hold.
He launched the kite as the storm approached and once it was aloft, moved under the cover of a barn so that he would not get wet. As the leading edge of thunder storm cloud passed over Franklin’s kite, negative charges in the cloud passed onto his kite, down the wet silk string, to the key, and into the jar. Franklin, standing on dry ground inside the barn and holding the dry ribbon was insulated from the negative charges on the key. When he moved his free hand near the iron key, a spark jumped from the key to his exposed knuckle because the negative charges in the key were so strongly attracted to the positive charges in his body.
He had successfully demonstrated that lightning was static electricity. Franklin was lucky to have survived the experiment. Others who tried to duplicate it later were electrocuted, including noted Russian scientist Georg Wilhelm Richmann. Franklin would have died too, had lightning actually struck the kite. He was aware of that danger. Which is why he flew his kite early in the storm close to the clouds where it picked up electrical discharges without actually being struck by lightning.
A supremely practical man, he quickly turned his discovery to use with the invention of the lighting rod which protected buildings from deadly lightning strikes that every year were responsible for many fires and deaths.
He reported his findings informally in letters to English scientists. His findings made him one of the most famous men in the world. The prestigious Royal Society awarded him its Copley Medal in 1753 and elected him a Fellow of the Society, an honor granted to few Colonials, in 1756. Franklin also did pioneering work on the wave theory of light, meteorology, cooling by evaporation, heat conductivity, and oceanography over his long life.
The adoration of aristocratic French society for Franklin as a scientist, philosopher, and exemplar of republican virtue paved the way for the vital alliance without which the American Revolution could not have been won.
Franklin’s fame as a scientist and as the author of pithy sayings in his famous Poor Richard’s Almanac, opened many important doors for him when he became agent for Pennsylvania and other colonies in London from 1757 to 1775. When he arrived in France as American Minister in 1776, he found himself the object of public adoration and private respect due in no small measure to his enormous scientific reputation. With an in to the great Salons of Paris he carefully exploited his fame and cultivated relationships that would pay off for the struggling new nation first with significant loans, then with official recognition of Independence, and finally with French troops on the ground and a fleet off shore that bottled up unfortunate Lord Cornwallis and the main British Army at Yorktown.
In America Franklin was just behind George Washington himself as an icon for founding the new nation. This painting by Benjamin West in 1816 showed the older Franklin that the painter knew in an apotheosis celebrating his famous kite experiment.
A good case can be made that it was those French doors opened by that dangerous experiment in 1752 and Franklin’s celebrity as a scientist to which George Washington owed his most famous battle field victory and ultimately the confirmation of American Independence.