The h2g2 Literary Corner: Ben Franklin Talks to Other Mad Scientists

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Some observations of scientific value. We're not sure, but Ben Franklin could probably have patented the microwave oven after he fried those turkeys.

An Account of Mr. Benjamin Franklin's Treatise, intituled 'Experiments and Observations on Electricity, made at Philadelphia in America', by William Watson, F.R.S.

The following article was published in the Philosophical Transactions of January, 1753 by the Royal Society. Most of the footnotes belong to this editor, who feels that snark indemnifies the workman for having to transcribe all those long esses.

Read June 6, 1751.

Benjamin Franklin, mad scientist and electrical genius.

Mr. Franklin's treatise, lately presented to the Royal Society, consists of four letters to his correspondent in England, and of another part intituled1 'Opinions and conjectures concerning the properties and effects of the electrical matter arising from experiments and observations.'

The four letters, the last of which contains a new hypothesis for explaining the several phaenomena of thunder-gusts2, have either in the whole or in part been before communicated to the Royal Society....

This ingenious author3, from a great variety of curious and well-adapted experiments, is of opinion, that the electrical matter consists of particles extremely subtil4; since it can permeate common matters, even the densest metals5, with such ease and freedom, as not to receive any perceptible resistance: and that if any one should doubt, whether the electrical matter passes through the substance of bodies, or only over and along their surfaces, a shock from an electrised6 large glass jar, taken through his own body, will probably convince him7.

Electrical matter, according to our author, differs from common matter in this, that the parts of the latter mutually attract8, and those of the former mutually repel, each other9; hence the divergency in a stream of electrified effluvia10: but that, tho' the particles of electrical matter do repel each other, they are strongly attracted by all other matter11.

From these three things, viz. the extreme subtilty of the electrical matter, the mutual repulsion of its parts, and the strong attraction between them and other matter, arises this effect, that when a quantity of electrical matter is applied to a mass of common matter of any bigness12 or length within our observation (which has not already got its quantity) it is immediately and equally diffused thro' the whole13.

Thus common matter is a kind of sponge to the electrical fluid...

There follows a discussion of experiments carried out to show how electricity flows, and continuing the sponge analogy, and whether things get 'full' of electricity, etc. We refer readers to the original text, where they can sort out all the long esses and strange analogies for themselves. We're going to go on to the animal-bothering part, which is of more general interest to the historically morbid.

The effects of lightning, and those of electricity, appear very similar14. Lightning has often been known to strike people blind. A pigeon, struck dead to appearance by the electrical shock, recovering life, drooped several days, eat nothing, tho' crumbs were thrown to it, but declined and died. Mr. Franklin did not think of its being deprived of sight; but afterwards a pullet15, struck dead in like manner, being recovered by repeatedly blowing into its lungs16, when set down on the floor, ran headlong against the wall, and on examination appeared perfectly blind: hence he concluded, that the pigeon also had been absolutely blinded by the shock17. From this observation we should be extremely cautious, how in electrising18 we draw the strokes, especially in making the experiment of Leyden, from the eyes, or even from the parts near them19.

The next part is more technical discussion of experiments in passing 'electrical fluid' through different things, and seeing what happened. Burning and bad smells were involved. You can read this for yourselves. We'll get on to more poultry torture.

As Mr. Franklin, in a letter to Mr. Collinson some time since, mentioned his intending to try the power of a very strong electrical shock upon a turkey, I desired Mr. Collinson to let Mr. Franklin know, that I should be glad to be acquainted with the result of that experiment. He accordingly has been so very obliging as to send an account of it, which is to the following purpose. He made first several experiments on fowls, and found, that two large thing glass jars gilt, holding each about 6 gallons, and such as I mentioned I had employed in the last paper I laid before you upon this subject, were sufficient, when fully charged, to kill common hens outright20; but the turkeys, though thrown into violent convulsions, and then, lying as dead for some minutes, would recover in less than a quarter of an hour. However, having added three other such to the former two, though not fully charged, he killed a turkey of about ten pounds weight, and believes that they would have killed a much larger. He conceited21, as himself says, that the birds kill'd in this manner eat uncommonly tender22.

Thereafter, Franklin took to experimenting on himself and other humans. He concluded that he could probably electrocute a person if he had enough Leyden jars. Fortunately, Franklin didn't suggest the procedure to the governor as a means of execution. Dr. Watson concludes with praise for Franklin.

Upon the whole, Mr. Franklin appears in the work before us to be a very able and ingenious man; that he has a head to conceive, and a hand to carry into execution, whatever he thinks may conduce to enlighten the subject-matter, of which he is treating: and altho' there are in this work some few opinions, in which I cannot perfectly agree with him, I think scarce any body is better acquainted with the subject of electricity than himself.

This was probably true. And they apparently hadn't got the report on his 1752 kite-and-key experiment yet. If you want to read the book this report is based on, Gutenberg offers it here. They refuse to remove all those long esses, because they are lazier than I am.

A cross turkey that has heard about Ben Franklin.
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Dmitri Gheorgheni

07.09.15 Front Page

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1I will get rid of all the long esses and such, but I will leave the hinky spelling. Geeks never could spell, could they?2We think he means thunderstorms, but isn't that a great word? 'There will be scattered thundergusts in the region this evening. Weather details at eleven.'3Meaning Franklin. They weren't mad at him yet. Remember, in 1753, he was still an Englishman, and on the side of the angels. Besides, this was the Royal Society. They were all mad scientists who would have loved Doc Brown and his Delorean.4They get all the jokes on the intellectual BBC shows.5Dense metals, on the other hand, tend to watch Top Gear reruns.6We're pretty sure that's a long ess.7Har, har. Suggesting to the Royal Society members that they subject themselves to electroshock is only the beginning of Franklin's Fun with Electricity. Read on.8Which is why your body doesn't end up in several corners of the room, pouting.9Electrons don't want to join a club that would have them as a member.10This is William Watson's boring footnote: As the electric stream is observed to diverge very little, when the experiment is made in vacuo, this appearance is more owing to the resistance of the atmosphere, than to any natural tendency in the electricity itself.11'Hello, I think I love you. Can we chat on the internet?'12You mean size?13I think Franklin's saying that current flows. Is that how you read it?14Because they're the same thing, but hey: that was a really cool observation back in 1751. Give the man his props. Although standing out in the rain to prove it? Not the best move.15This is a chicken, pay close attention.16Please note: Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founders of the United States, here admits to having applied mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a chicken. Of such heroic deeds is history made.17And probably decided to put a lightning rod (his invention) on his henhouse.18I am not making up this word. They are.19You mean applying a battery to your eyes might not be a good idea? Wow.20Electrocution was not the usual means of slaughtering chickens at this time. Most cooks preferred a hatchet.21Felt.22Note to head chef at City Tavern, Philadelphia: have found a new way to tenderise turkeys. And it's even period-accurate!

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