While researching my recent post on Benjamin Franklin’s electrical kite I read through much of Franklin’s scientific correspondence, and found quite a few gems! Though there is much of substance yet to be discussed in Franklin’s scientific experiments, I can’t resist sharing instead one of his more whimsical ideas: an electrical feast!
By 1748, Franklin had been performing experiments on electricity for several years, and had been corresponding with Peter Collinson, Fellow of the Royal Society, for a year. Franklin was hardly the only person working on electricity at the time; as he noted himself in his introductory letter to Collinson,
though possibly they may not be new to you, as among the numbers daily employed in those experiments on your side the water, it is probable some one or other has hit on the same observations.
It seems fair to say that electricity was a very trendy “fad” in Franklin’s time; it might be said to be the iPhone of its day. However, just like early iPhone adopters struggled to explain what exactly was revolutionary about the device, so did electrical enthusiasts struggle to justify their work.
Ben Franklin had a novel, if tongue-in-cheek, idea to resolve this: an “electrical feast”!¹
In a 1748 letter to Collinson, which primarily concerned itself with serious experiments on various topics, Franklin ends with the following suggestion:
Chagrined a little that we have been hitherto able to produce nothing in this way of use to mankind; and the hot weather coming on, when electrical experiments are not so agreeable, it is proposed to put an end to them for this season, somewhat humourously, in a party of pleasure, on the banks of Schuylkill. Spirits at the same time, are to be fired by a spark send from side to side through the river, without any other conductor than the water; an experiment which we some time since performed, to the amazement of many. A turkey is to be killed for our dinner by the electrical shock, and roasted by the electrical jack, before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle: when the healths of all the famous electricians in England, Holland, France, and Germany are to be drank in electrified bumpers, under the discharge of guns from the electrical battery.
There is so much awesome in this short paragraph! First, let us examine the technique for firing the “spirits”; in the Memoirs of Benjamin Franklin, volume 2, a footnote (presumably by Franklin himself) explains it in more detail:
As the possibility of this experiment has not been easily conceived, I shall here describe it. — Two iron rods, about three feet long, were planted just within the margin of the river on the opposite sides. A thick piece of wire, with a small round knob at its end, was fixed on the top of one of the rods, bending downwards, so as to deliver commodiously the spark upon the surface of the spirit. A small wire fastened by one end to the handle of the spoon, containing the spirit, was carried across the river, and supported in the air by the rope commonly used to hold by, in drawing the ferry-boats over. The other end of this wire was tied round the coating of the bottle; which being charged, the spark was delivered from the hook to the top of the rod standing in the water on that side. At the same instant the rod on the other side delivered a spark into the spoon, and fired the spirit; the electric fire returning to the coating of the bottle through the handle of the spoon and the supported wire connected with them.
An illustration of the experiment is provided below. A Leyden jar (a primitive battery) with charge within it is connected via hook to an iron rod. The charge flows through the water to the other rod, where it produces a spark at the end of the wire, igniting the spirit. The only way this current will flow, however, is if the circuit is completed; a wire across the river provides a path back to the outside of the Leyden jar.
Presumably the word “spirit” here means what one would expect — a highly flammable alcohol. Speaking of alcohol, another footnote describes the “electrified bumper”:
An Electrified bumper is a small thin glass tumbler, nearly filled with wine and electrified as the bottle. This when brought to the lips gives a shock, if the party be close shaved, and does not breath on the liquor.
The image of a Founding Father of the United States sitting around with his friends, doing electrically-charged shooters, brings a smile to my face!
So did Franklin and his friends actually carry out this party? I didn’t find any evidence in his letters that they did, and Franklin’s description does seem to be a joke. It is nevertheless a wonderful example of the very human side of Franklin.
It is also important to note that Franklin and colleagues had no idea how their experiments would benefit mankind at that time, practical applications or otherwise. Within a handful of years, however, those experiments would lead to the lightning rod, and eventually to all of modern technology. Whenever you hear someone argue that some sort of scientific research is “useless”, point them back here to Ben Franklin’s letter!
¹ As my second post of Ben Franklin, I had to resist titling it: “Franklin 2: electric boogaloo”.