Recalling The Life Of Benjamin Franklin, Scientist

19:26 minutes

Benjamin Franklin was a printer, politician, diplomat, and journalist. But despite only two years of schooling, he was also an ingenious scientist. In this conversation from 2010, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dudley Herschbach and Ben Franklin biographer Philip Dray discuss the achievements of the statesman-scientist.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Dudley Herschbach

Dudley Herschbach is Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (1986), and a professor emeritus of chemistry at Harvard University.

Philip Dray

Philip Dray is author of Stealing God’s Thunder: Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Heading into the Fourth of July weekend? Seems like a good time to talk about Benjamin Franklin. He might be best known as a statesman, of course. But he was also a scientist interested in all sorts of scientific fields. He’s known for his famous kite experiment, right?

But he dabbled in everything from medicine to entomology to the Gulf Stream, and he even invented a musical instrument. My interest in Franklin as a scientist goes way back. And in this interview from 2010, I chatted about his scientific site with two other Franklinophiles.

Joining me now to talk about some of Franklin’s scientific pursuits are my guest Dudley Herschbach is Professor Emeritus of chemistry at Harvard, and part time professor of physics at Texas A&M. He won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1986, and he’s a long time Franklinophile. Welcome back to Science Friday, Dr. Herschbach.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: Glad to be with you.

IRA FLATOW: I remember the first time I met you, you whipped out of your back pocket your a little Ben Franklin pamphlet. You wanted me to know more than about what your chemistry endeavors were.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: Well, I discovered you’re a longtime fan of Franklin as well.

IRA FLATOW: That’s true. Also with us is Philip Dray, he’s author of Stealing God’s Thunder, Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America, and a number of other books on American history. He’s here in our studios in New York. Welcome to Science Friday.

PHILIP DRAY: Thanks, Ira. Glad to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Dudley, one of his electrical experiments, which is less famous than the kite experiment, was something people don’t know a lot about was electrocuting turkeys.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: Oh, yes. He almost electrocuted himself, in fact, one time, trying to do that. He was distracted by his guests and grabbed the wrong thing.

IRA FLATOW: Is that right? Was that just out of the total experiment to see if he could electrocuted turkey?

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: Oh, yeah. It flattened him.



PHILIP DRAY: Well, as I remember it, he was trying to see he could make the turkeys taste better by electrocuting them, rather than some other means of sacrifice.

IRA FLATOW: Mm, fresh-killed killed turkey there. Philip, Franklin was not the first to do that experiment, was he? The kite experiment.

PHILIP DRAY: Well, he was the first to do the kite experiment. He had written, in a series of letters to a friend in London, a description of how one might test the electrification of the atmosphere by going up on a high– like a church steeple or something like that. And so a man in France named Dalibard performed that experiment a month prior to Franklin’s kite experiment.

Franklin had not heard of it when he himself, failing to have an appropriate church steeple at hand, went out with his son, William, and performed the kite experiment. So he was the first to do that particular inquiry.

IRA FLATOW: And he became a hero in France because of that experiment?

PHILIP DRAY: Absolutely. Franklin, overnight, became kind of legendary in France. And when he showed up, of course, he was greeted as a scientific celebrity.

IRA FLATOW: How controversial? We all know him for that experiment and the associated work with the lightning rod. How controversial, I understand, was the lightning rod in those days?

PHILIP DRAY: The lightning rod was kind of a major breakthrough, both culturally and scientifically. It sort of resolved a question, which had been on many people’s minds, about what thunder and lightning really were. Of course, people were scared to death of it, rightly so. It also kind of set off a reaction in the church.

Because, of course, for centuries, the idea that lightning and thunder were controlled by God were sent down even as a form of retribution. After Franklin invented the lightning rod, which showed that lightning was a natural phenomenon and even could be controlled and defended against by man, lightning and thunder became a weapon of the people.

As you see this in radical pamphlets in France. And there was thunder and lightning toppling monarchs from their thrones, this sort of thing. So Franklin had this effect.

IRA FLATOW: Dudley, you said before that Franklin’s type of science was curiosity-driven, not necessarily with any practical application in mind. Is that still true today? It doesn’t seem like you can get funding for just curiosity-driven science research.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: Well, what scientist do, they get funding, writing proposals and all that fulfill the current criteria. But then they sneak in the things that really get them excited, and often open up whole new possibilities that they wouldn’t have dared to put in a proposal. It wouldn’t have been favorably reviewed.

IRA FLATOW: Well, there are lots of great products and inventions we have that just came that we didn’t know what we were going to do with, did we?

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: That’s right. That’s quite right. Or they had in mind a different thing altogether.

IRA FLATOW: I mean, I remember when the laser beam was invented. They just cut razor blades with it.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: Well, in the earliest time, they thought it would be useful for communication because the waves were so precisely defined and all. You could modulate them and add a lot of information that way. And that is part, but no one imagined then that it’s used in surgery, it’s playing music, checking out groceries, all the myriad things that lasers do now in the world.

IRA FLATOW: All right, Philip, science is so complex today, do you think Franklin could exist if he were around today, doing what kinds of things he did?

PHILIP DRAY: I think he could, in a sense. I mean, obviously science has become much more specialized and much bigger than it was in his day. However, I think there is something universal and timeless about people having innovative ideas. I think a good example, recently, would be those young people who have introduced technical improvements and advances with the internet.

Things like YouTube and Facebook. Those are not coming out of huge science think tanks or universities. They’re coming from young grad students in their early 20s.

IRA FLATOW: Well, how is he free to do all these things? He studied medicine. He studied the Gulf Stream. He studied ants. He even looked at astronomy–

PHILIP DRAY: Invented a musical instrument.

IRA FLATOW: Was it the harmonia?

PHILIP DRAY: Armonica.

IRA FLATOW: Armonica.

PHILIP DRAY: Armonica, yes.

IRA FLATOW: And he was able to have the freedom to do these things. He was sort of the–

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: Well, many people don’t realize he retired at age 42 to devote himself entirely to experiments and the study of– what was it called– natural philosophy. And now, we call it science. And of course, within a few years, he was carried into so many social responsibilities that he couldn’t personally pursue it that much more.

But in the meantime, he had done much more than fly the kite. He’d done a whole series of experiments over a span of six or seven years, that were described in these letters Philip mentioned, to his friend in London, who read them before the Royal Society. And they greatly impressed the savants who had been so puzzled by the nature of electricity.

I mean, Franklin did very fine experiments, and he interpreted them. And in fact, he provided a lot of the vocabulary we still use in talking about electricity.

PHILIP DRAY: Sure, such as electricians.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: He was called the Newton of electricity in his day.

PHILIP DRAY: That’s right.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: He would have been buried next to Newton in the Westminster Abbey if he had remained a loyal British subject. His reputation was that large in science.

PHILIP DRAY: It’s worth mentioning, too, and I think Professor Herschbach would agree, that what was astounding about Franklin to the European scholars was that they weren’t used to important science coming from America, let alone from someone who was really a tradesman or a publisher of a newspaper.


PHILIP DRAY: And at first, they were inclined to almost disbelieve that there could be such a man. Of course, Franklin was always tickled by this. Not only Franklin, but the book he wrote, Experiments and Observation on Electricity, came as like a major breakthrough. One of the most important American books of the 18th century in Europe. It was translated–

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: Yes, it was a collection of letters.


DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: And Franklin was a fine writer. And it was revised repeatedly, I think. As you said, five or six editions. Three French editions alone, I know. And probably for more than 20 years, every literate person had to take a look at it. It was such a stunning, key thing in that time– key to the Enlightenment.

IRA FLATOW: I’m sorry. Paul in Tucson, Arizona. Hi, Paul.

PAUL: Hi, how are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

PAUL: Stimulating discussion. I think that one of the best things we can take away from this is that Ben Franklin’s very existence is an antidote to the punditocracy and overreliance on experts. I had a chance to write stuff down while I was waiting that defines contemporary culture.

And he’s running in line with Emerson, who said don’t read books, go out and take a walk in the woods. And so if all we need to do today is engage the natural world and we can make our own discoveries, make up our own minds, and dare to think, like Kant said. Well, that’s it.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a good way to begin. Phillip, you have a comment on that?

PHILIP DRAY: Well, it’s certainly true about someone like Franklin that he almost seemed to be unable to stop inventing things. When he’d be on a ship, he’d realized that they needed a different type of soup bowl that wouldn’t spill the broth. He also, of course, was one of the first to explain how the Gulf Stream functioned. At home, when he found he couldn’t reach the books on his top shelf, he invented that pinching device we all see that takes the books down, this sort of thing. So he was kind of relentless with it.

And even when he was engaged in international diplomacy and all these very tense political negotiations in France, if you look at his correspondence, he’s always– when he’s even not doing something himself– he’s corresponding with other scientists, encouraging them, reviewing their work. So it really was a kind of a obsession with him.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: It’s amazing what he did. The Franklin Papers at Yale have 15,000 documents in his handwriting, many of them very long, all handwritten.


DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: So that alone took a lot of effort.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Zach in Detroit. Hi, Zach.


IRA FLATOW: Hi there.

ZACH: I just don’t know if I heard you guys correctly, but did you say that he invented the harmonica?

PHILIP DRAY: No, the armonica.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll describe it now. Go ahead.

PHILIP DRAY: Well, the armonica is a instrument in which cups or glasses that are turned on their side are spun and rubbed by hand and emit a very kind of beautiful, ethereal sound. Franklin got the idea because he was living in London, and he went to a concert at which a man was rubbing the tops of wine glasses filled with different levels of liquid.

And, of course, Franklin with his practical bent thought, well, that looks like a lot of effort wasted. Why not just tip them on their side, put them on a spindle and then turn the whole thing with a foot treadle? And, of course, that made it much easier.

And the armonica caught on. It was a beautiful instrument. Mozart composed for it. And, of course, Franklin himself learned to play it and taught many other people how to play.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: As a graduate student in 1956, I heard a performance on what was intended to be an exact replica of the 18th century armonica as described in that literature. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission had the Corning glassworks to produce it. And they had a terrible time.

In fact, E. Power Biggs, a great organist, who performed first on musical glasses and then on this armonica, had trouble, too. Some of the bowls broke as he was playing. And you got the impression from the things they quoted of contemporary descriptions that they were aware they’re pulling posterity’s leg a bit on that.

IRA FLATOW: After the break, more from that 2010 conversation about the science and inventions of Benjamin Franklin with author Philip Dray and Nobel Prize winning chemist Dudley Herschbach. This is Science Friday. I am Ira Flatow.

In case you’re just joining us, we’re revisiting a conversation from 2010 about Benjamin Franklin, and all of this science he conducted that you may not have heard about. My guests were Dudley Herschbach, professor emeritus of chemistry at Harvard, and a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. And Philip Dray, author of Stealing God’s Thunder, Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America.

We jump back in the conversation with a question from a listener. Let’s go to Scott in Walled Lake, Michigan. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT: Hi. I was curious if Franklin did any other mathematics other than his magic squares? How involved he was with mathematics. I know it’s a science program, but music plays with mathematics too.


PHILIP DRAY: The other example I can think of his using mathematics– and I’m Professor Herschbach probably can talk about this too– is, Franklin, he loved to project figures into the future about population and demographics and that sort of thing. And he was incredibly accurate, actually, in predicting, for instance, the future population of the United States of America and that sort of thing.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: Yes. In fact, that was a strong element of his political philosophy, is that, in a time scale that he estimated, there would be more people of English birth in the colonies than in the mother country. And so he had hoped, originally, to avoid a revolution, saying that, in time, this will take care of things.

But he also used mathematics brilliantly in these magic squares. But he also used it in an interesting way once to estimate the number of people who could have heard a speech.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, yes.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: Very interesting paper. I mean, really, he could have been a gifted mathematician, I think, if he’d had an opportunity to really study it.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Dr. Dudley Herschbach and Phil Dray, who’s author of Stealing God’s Thunder, Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America. Years ago, the late Isaac Asimov wrote a book called The Kite That Won the Revolution, right? I think that’s what it was called.

And basically, the point that Franklin, being so famous and revered in France, was able to ask France to send Lafayette over and fight the American Revolution.

PHILIP DRAY: Well, I think it’s certainly true that Franklin was enormously popular in France. And he kind of played up– they loved him as a kind of a rustic. And he played that up by wearing this kind of silly beaver hat and dressing as a farmer. But yes, he was very charismatic, very beloved. And I’m sure that he had a very low key style of diplomacy that worked very well.

But, I think, probably what that title also referred to was, in a larger sense, the science– the Republic of science as they called it of the 18th century– and that Franklin was so much identified with sort of serve as a template almost for the political and social developments that included our Declaration of Independence, and our Constitution.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: It is amazing that he got from the French all the financial support, also for an enterprise-esque, ragtag colony– colonies– undertaking to free themselves from the greatest military power the world had ever seen. And a power that had defeated France in war after war for 20 years.

So it was really an amazing thing that Franklin got the French to support that effort. And it was crucial to, I think, a success of the revolution. People don’t realize, when Cornwall surrendered, there was one side, Washington’s army, and the other side, the French army. And very important, the French fleet blocking the way to the British fleet that had tallied too long in New York and didn’t arrive in time. The French had a huge role.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Jason in Naples, Florida. Hi, Jason.

JASON: Bifocals. He invented the bifocals that everybody wears, and glasses. I know because I’m an optometrist.


PHILIP DRAY: Yep, that’s right. And a lot of people– I mean, the one thing I would mention about it is that he wasn’t really versed in the science of optics, but he just basically crudely one day got sick and tired of switching his glasses and took up two pair and cut them in half, and glued them together and invented bifocals.

And it’s indicative to me of how Ben Franklin– even though he didn’t have a formal education in these areas, he just basically took, by the seat of the pants, and invented these things. He’d also worked with the capacitors a lot, too.


PHILIP DRAY: There’s a very funny story about that, actually, which I understood is that the idea for the bifocals came from his frustration that when he would go out to a diplomatic dinner or state dinner in France, he couldn’t both look at the food on his plate and also see the lips of the people talking to him. And because his knowledge of French was imperfect, it was very important that he see people’s lips moving.

And so he became so frustrated, as this gentleman just said, he went home one night and started tearing up his own sets of glasses and had this idea to combine them.


DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: It’s very typical of him.


IRA FLATOW: You have a problem, go out and fix it.

PHILIP DRAY: There you go. Yeah.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: But he did so many other things that are endearing. For example, the King became jealous of all the images of Franklin that was all over medallions and so on in France. They didn’t have t-shirts then, but it was the same thing. And so much so, that the King gave his favorite mistress a chamber pot with one the Franklin medallions on the bottom.

When Franklin heard of it, he was so delighted he ordered supply of the same chamber pot with medallions of George III. Many, many episodes like that. The guy was just marvelous.

IRA FLATOW: What would you ask him today? I got about a minute and a half left. If you could speak to him today, what would you ask him, Dudley?

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: Well, right now, I’d want to ask him how to take care of this BP oil.

PHILIP DRAY: Yes, that’s exactly right.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: He would have fine ideas.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think he’ll be able to figure out how to stop the oil?

PHILIP DRAY: I think so, because one thing about Franklin was he was very interested in what he called subtle fluids. Things like water currents, heat, electricity, et cetera. I think he’d also like to tackle global warming for us, too.


IRA FLATOW: OK. Well, we’ll see if we can channel.


IRA FLATOW: Let’s hope we get channel Ben Franklin. I want to thank you both very much for this holiday weekend. It’s a great weekend to talk about Ben Franklin– for being with us today.

DUDLEY HERSCHBACH: Well, Science Friday would delight Franklin, I’m sure.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s a great quote, Dudley. Thank you very much for that compliment. That was a conversation from 2010 with Dudley Herschbach, professor emeritus of chemistry at Harvard, and a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. And Philip Dray, author of Stealing God’s Thunder, Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America.

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