This Day in Tech History

On This Day . . .

An Apple a Day and a Limey


April 17, 1790: Benjamin Franklin Dies

Ben Franklin was more than an inventor, his impact reached deeply into our modern society. A Founding Father, helping win our freedom by gaining the support of the French, a renaissance man, leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, diplomat. He facilitated the first fire department and helped develop America’s first library.

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

Portrait by Benjamin Wilson oil on canvas 1759

Portrait by Benjamin Wilson oil on canvas 1759

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

SwfinsSwim fins: Franklin loved the water and wanting to increase his speed in the water he devised fins that he wore on his hands.

Extension arm: Having helped found a library in Philadelphia he created an extension arm to help him reach books on upper shelves. Similar devices are still used today.

long arm

Franklin stove: Franklin invented a small stove that would use less wood and deliver more heat. 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.


Lightning rod: Before Franklin’s invention, lightning destroyed or damaged many buildings and harmed many lives. 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. 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.”

Odometer: As postmaster, he wanted to measure the distance between certain points so that he might establish more efficient postal routes. He devised an odometer that attached to his carriage. By counting the rotations of the wheels, it calculated the distance the carriage traveled.


Three-wheel clock: Franklin invented a 24-hour, three-wheel clock that was much simpler than most clock designs of the time.


Bifocal glasses: 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. Thus, bifocals were invented.


Map of the Gulf Stream: One of Franklin’s many roles was that of U.S. Deputy Post Master General. 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 were rigid and quite painful. Ben’s older brother John suffered from kidney stones so Ben devised a catheter with a flexible tube to ease some of his brother’s discomfort.

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.


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. 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.”

In 1795, years after Franklin’s recommendations, the British navy mandated a lime in the daily diet of British seamen. The decision reduced instances of scurvy among naval crews.  At that point, “limey” became a popular term for an Englishman.

Watertight bulkheads: Franklin as early as 1784, recommended using the Chinese method, which had existed for centuries. A bulkhead is an upright wall within the hull of a ship to increase the structural rigidity of a vessel and create watertight compartments.


Electric Words

Benjamin Franklin’s formulation of a general theory of electrical “action” won him an international reputation in pure science in his own day. In 1752 he conducts the famous kite experiment in which he proves that lightning is indeed electric.

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.

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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