The Inventions of Benjamin Franklin

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Benjamin Franklin was a curious person whose many inventions came out of a need or a perceived need. He loved to ask questions and fight the answers to those questions in experiments.

Possibly his most famous invention is electricity. He published his first writings on the subject in 1747; four years later, he published the book Observations on Electricity. He performed his famous kite experiment the very next year. He thought that metal would act as a conductor for lightning in a storm. Not really having a laboratory that could contain lightning, he had to improvise. So he did the now famous act of tying a metal key to a kite and flying both high in the air during a lightning storm. Why did he choose the kite? Well, he didn’t want to wait for lightning to strike the ground because that type of experiment could take years to complete, since lightning strikes on the ground are few and far between. So he came up with the kite as a way of getting the metal key up into the air, where lightning was more likely to strike it. He was lucky, of course, that he wasn’t killed by the jolt. His experience led him to create the lightning rod (which he envisioned for use on ships, not so much on houses) and to write the basic rules of lightning and electricity safety that are still around today. In fact, scientists today still use many ideas that Benjamin Franklin advanced beginning with that famous kite flight in June 1752.

Many of his other inventions came from a personal need or observation:
  • He had bad eyesight and had to switch between eyeglasses of two different magnifications in order to read things up close or see things a little farther away. He got tired of all the eyeglasses switching, so he invented bifocals.
  • During his many voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, he noticed that the ships he was traveling on could use some help in keeping water out of the lower levels. He invented a sort of watertight bulkhead (“lower compartment”).
  • He noticed that many people burned wood in their fireplaces even though many houses were still made of wood. He also noticed that people used a lot of wood. He came up with an iron furnace stove that used less wood while producing more warmth. It was also a safer method of heating a building. This was the Franklin stove.
  • Another invention that came out of his personal observations was the odometer, a device that keeps track of how many miles a vehicle has gone. Franklin was postmaster of Philadelphia and was curious as to how many miles his postal carriage traveled on a typical day.
Although he retired from public life, Franklin still found time to invent things. Again drawing on his personal experience, he invented a long wooden pole with a metal claw on one end. He used this device to reach books on high shelves in his house.

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David White