Benjamin Franklin: Inventor and Scientist

Benjamin Franklin had an insatiable curiosity and a love of learning that were the driving forces behind his many inventions and scientific inquiries, and several things he tinkered with in the 18th century are still a part of daily life today. Even so, he never sought a patent on any of his innovations, believing the good of the public to be more important than his personal financial gain.

What Did Benjamin Franklin Invent?

The future statesman began inventing useful items as a boy. One notable example is a pair of wooden paddles for swimming. He fitted the paddles, which he described as roughly the shape of painter's palettes, with thumb straps to hold them on his hands. They increased his stroke power so that he could swim faster. The reproductions of this invention look strikingly similar to the plastic hand paddles competitive swimmers train with today.

The Franklin stove was one of his earlier inventions as an adult. Designed to produce more heat while cutting down on smoke, it featured a baffle in the rear of the firebox for increasing the circulation of heat into the ambient air. It also had a curved flue that drew heated air down and sent the smoke up the chimney.

Franklin's inventive mind extended to medicine as well. His brother, John Franklin, had a kidney condition that required the daily use of a urinary catheter. The type available to him had a rigid tube that was quite painful. In the 1750s, Benjamin invented a hinged metal catheter that provided his brother with a measure of relief.

In 1761, the Philadelphian created one of his most original inventions: the glass armonica, also called a bowl organ. He commissioned a glass blower to create a set of crystal bowls in graduated sizes. He nested these from the smallest to the largest, using corks as spacers, and inserted a metal rod along the center to hold them all in place. Each bowl had a particular pitch, and the player ran a finger on their rims as the instrument spun to produce music. This was one of Franklin's favorite inventions.

The inventor's role as Postmaster General for the United States inspired a 1775 invention. He adapted the odometer to measure how far he traveled on inspection tours of post offices across the region. He affixed the device to the wheel of his carriage and it tracked the revolutions. Franklin's device was a prototype for the odometer in every vehicle on the road today.

As he aged, Franklin had need of spectacles, both for reading and for distance sight. In the 1780s, he came up with a concept for bifocals, which contained half of a reading lens and half of a distance lens in each frame. To switch views, he merely had to raise or lower his eyes. This is another invention that people rely upon still, although opticians have made many improvements to the original model.

What Did Benjamin Franklin Discover?

Franklin used the scientific method to investigate phenomena of the natural world. Although he made significant inroads in fields such as meteorology, demographics and sea currents, historians consider his most important discoveries to be in the field of electricity.

A lecture series by Archibald Spencer in 1746 had sparked Franklin's keen interest in electricity, and his early inquiries led to his identification of positive and negative charges. He also put forth the concept of conservation of charge, which says that the amount of charge is a constant in the natural world.

In 1748, Franklin constructed what he called a battery from wire, lead plates and panes of glass. The next year he put electric charge to practical use by killing a turkey with electric shock and then roasting it on an electric rotisserie.

In 1752, Benjamin Franklin conducted his famous kite experiment in a thunderstorm to prove that lighting was electricity. He took precautions to avoid injury from electrocution, such as staying dry and standing on an insulating material. When the kite drew sparks from a storm cloud, the charge traveled down the wet twine and collected in a metal key that Franklin had strung on the twine. He then transferred the charge to a Leyden jar to safely contain the electricity.

His discoveries led to his invention of the lighting rod. It was fitted with a ground wire, which diverted a lighting charge from the roof of a building to the ground where it would dissipate harmlessly. Subsequently, workers installed Franklin's lightning rods on such Philadelphia buildings as Independence Hall and the Academy of Pennsylvania.

His work was so important in his lifetime that he received a Copley Award from the Royal Society, which recognized great scientific achievements. Yale and Harvard Universities issued Franklin honorary Master of Arts degrees in honor of his research. The founding father's innovations continue to be important in nearly every aspect of civilization in the 21st century.