This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

Prolific Inventor Passes

inventorApril 17, 1790:

Benjamin Franklin Dies

Of course he was more than an inventor.  Benjamin Franklin’s impact reaches deeply into our modern society.  He was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. A noted polymath, Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. He facilitated many civic organizations, including a fire department a university and helped develop America’s first library.

Portrate by Benjamin Wilson oil on canvas 1759

Portrate by Benjamin Wilson oil on canvas 1759

As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity.

From a tech perspective following are a few of his inventions:

Swim fins: Ben Franklin loved the water. Growing up in Boston, he was drawn to the sea and often dreamed of becoming a sailor. Ben learned to swim and became an expert swimmer. Wanting to increase his speed in the water, Franklin devised fins that he wore on his hands. The fins were shaped like lily pads or an artist’s paint pallet and helped the swimmer attain greater speed with each stroke.


Extension arm: Having helped found a library in Philadelphia, Franklin spent a lot of time in the stacks. To help him reach books on upper shelves that were out of his reach, he created an extension arm. The device had two “fingers” that were attached to the end of a long piece of wood or pipe. The fingers could be opened or closed by pulling on a cord that manipulated them. Similar devices are still used today.

long armFranklin stove: Franklin wanted to build a fireplace or small stove that would use less wood and deliver more heat. With the help of an acquaintance, Franklin modified and built a stove that he claimed would be more efficient. He marketed the stove by printingpamphlets that described the “Pennsylvania Fireplace” and its many benefits. He sold a number of the stoves, but, ironically, they didn’t work very well. A later inventor modified Franklin’s design to create a truly efficient model, which became known as the Franklin stove. Franklin’s stove became so popular in England and Europe that this essay was frequently reprinted and translated into several foreign languages.

Lightning rod: Before Franklin’s invention, lightning destroyed or damaged many buildings. Franklin’s understanding of electricity allowed him to design the lightning rod, which was a metal rod attached to the high point of a building. A metal wire or cable ran from the rod, down the side of the building, and into the ground. When lighting struck, the electricity ran down the rod and cable and into the ground, preventing damage to the building. Franklin came up with the idea for the lightning rod in 1750, however it was 1753 before he perfected the invention. Franklin believed that the lightning rod was his most important invention.

Street lighting: The street lamps in Franklin’s day were not very efficient and the glass globes tended to become dark with soot from the oil burned inside, requiring almost daily cleaning. Franklin determined that the problem had to do with a lack of airflow within the globe. In his Autobiography, Franklin describes an improvement he made to street lights: “I therefore suggested composing them of four flat panes, with a long funnel above to draw up the smoke, and crevices admitting air below, to facilitate the ascent of the smoke; by this means they were kept clean, and did not grow dark in a few hours, as the London lamps do, but continu’d bright till morning.”

Odometer: As postmaster, Franklin was concerned with providing fast and efficient service. He wanted to measure the distance between certain points so that he might establish more efficient postal routes. For this purpose, he devised an odometer that attached to his carriage. By counting the rotations of the wheels, it calculated the distance the carriage traveled.

odometerThree-wheel clock: Franklin invented a 24-hour, three-wheel clock that was much simpler than most clock designs of the time. Franklin’s clock, like others from that period, only had one hand. Minute hands were not added to clocks until later. Franklin biographer Carl Van Doren describes this invention as “a curious clock, economical but not quite practical.” In 1758, Franklin’s friend, James Ferguson, improved the clock, much to Franklin’s pleasure.


Bifocal glasses: Anyone who has had to switch back and forth between reading glasses and distance glasses knows why Franklininvented his “double spectacles.” Franklin had his optician take the lenses from his two sets of glasses, cut the lenses in two horizontally, and then mount them back into spectacle frames, with the lens for close work at the bottom and the lens for distance at the top. Thus, bifocals were invented.


Map of the Gulf Stream:  One of Franklin’s many roles, at some point in his awesome life, was that of U.S. Deputy Post Master General, and at one point he received a complaint that letters sent from Europe to America took several weeks longer to arrive than ones sent from the New World to the Old. After consulting with a Nantucket whaling captain, Franklin made the first map of the Gulf Stream, a quick current of warm water running north from the West Indies and east across the Atlantic. His suggestions for British sea captains were summarily ignored for years, but when they did eventually factor the Gulf Stream into their routes they managed to shave up to two weeks off their transit times.


Flexible Urinary Catheter:  In Franklin’s day, catheters (tubes inserted through the urethra into the bladder to drain urine from the body) were rigid and quite painful. Franklin devised a catheter with a flexible tube. John, Ben’s older brother, suffered from kidney stones, and so Ben found a way to ease some of the discomfort for his brother.


Electrical battery of Leyden jars:  The individual Leyden jar, the early form of what is now called a capacitor, gathers an electrical charge and stores it until it is discharged. Franklin grouped a number of jars into what he described as a “battery” (using the military term for weapons functioning together). By multiplying the number of holding vessels, a stronger charge could be stored, and more power would be available on discharge.


In 1752 he conducts the famous kite experiment in which he proves that lightning is indeed electric.

Benjamin Franklin’s formulation of a general theory of electrical “action” won him an international reputation in pure science in his own day. Writing to Dutch physician and scientist Jan Ingenhousz, Franklin responds to a number of his friend’s questions about electricity and the Leyden jar, an early form of electrical condenser.

Words:  In the course of his studies of electricity, Franklin found that the English language did not yet contain the words to describe the phenomena he observed. He coined words pertaining to studies of electricity and conductivity still used today; among them are battery, charge, condenser, conductor, plus, minus, positively, negatively and armature.

Aurora Borealis (for dtm):  Benjamin Franklin’s interest in the mystery of the “Northern Lights” is said to have begun on his voyages across the North Atlantic to England. He ascribed the shifting lights to a concentration of electrical charges in the polar regions intensified by the snow and other moisture. He reasoned that this overcharging caused a release of electrical illumination into the air. In this essay, which he wrote in English and French, Franklin analyzed the causes of the Aurora Borealis. It was read at the French Académie des Sciences on April 14, 1779.

107303623_640 aurora-borealis fond-ecran-espace-aurores-boreales-016 fotos_de_aurora-boreal

Fire Department: In 1736, Benjamin Franklin started the first fire department ever. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it was called the Union Fire Company.

Fire Insurance Company: In 1752, Franklin was responsible for setting up America’s first fire insurance company.

Political Cartoon: Benjamin Franklin is credited with creating the first political cartoon. By combining both his wit and political convictions, he portrayed his own reflections on issues affecting society. Since then, the political cartoon has become a staple of modern culture and thought. The following picture, titled “Join or Die”, is the first political cartoon ever. Appearing in Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, it concerns the Albany Plan of Union and the author’s stance on the matter.


Vitamin C: Before this nutrient had even been discovered, Franklin encouraged the eating of citrus fruits, including oranges, limes, and grapefruits. Recognizing the healthy advantages of fruit, wise Benjamin coined the phrase “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”  Only in 1795, years after Franklin’s recommendations, did the British navy mandate a lime in the daily diet of British seamen. Interestingly, at that point, “limey” became a popular term for an Englishman. The decision to use the lime was instrumental in reducing instances of scurvy among naval crews.

Watertight bulkheads:  Franklin as early as 1784, recommended using the Chinese method, which had existed for centuries (“Garden of Strange Things,” written in the 5th century, by Liu Jingshu, makes a reference to it). A bulkhead is an upright wall within the hull (body or frame) of a ship to increase the structural rigidity of the vessel and to create watertight compartments, in the case of an accident.

528px-Franklin1877 BenFranklinDuplessis imagesCAWBKCT0

A few Franklin quotes

A countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats.

A learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one.

A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle.

A penny saved is a penny earned.

A place for everything, everything in its place.

All wars are follies, very expensive and very mischievous ones.

Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.

God helps those who help themselves.

Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.

Half a truth is often a great lie.

He that speaks much, is much mistaken.

He who falls in love with himself will have no rivals.

Honesty is the best policy.

I guess I don’t so much mind being old, as I mind being fat and old.

I wake up every morning at nine and grab for the morning paper. Then I look at the obituary page. If my name is not on it, I get up. .

Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.

There was never a good war, or a bad peace.

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.

We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.


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