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when Benjamin Franklin was shocked by attempting to electrocute a turkey | Story

Franklin believed that an electrically killed turkey would be tastier than a turkey shipped by conventional means: beheading.
Illustration photo by Meilan Solly / Photos via Wikimedia Commons, Unsplash

Almost everyone knows that Benjamin Franklin was not only a famous statesman, but also a great inventor and scientist, especially in the field of electricity. It actually introduced much of the electrical terminology still in use today, including battery, conductor, positive charge, negative charge, current, and discharge.

Among his many electrical experiments, the one for which Franklin is most famous is his successful attempt to capture electricity from storm clouds in a jar. But this victory might never have happened without a painful lesson he had learned from one of his lesser-known tests, an experiment performed two years earlier, in December 1750. During this unsuccessful attempt , Franklin was traumatized and humiliated by an unexpected event. enemy: a turkey.

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Franklin’s strategy for the June 1752 experiment – inspired, perhaps, by this bird accident – was to fly a kite with a wire pointing upward near a passing storm cloud. He estimated that the static electricity in the cloud would be attracted to the wire and flow along the wet rope of the kite on its way to the ground. But he feared that if he held the end of the kite string directly, he could very well be killed as the electricity passed through him. So, he decided to take precautions by tying the end of the kite string to a metal key and connecting the key to a silk ribbon. He controlled the kite by holding the silk ribbon rather than the string.

When Benjamin Franklin was shocked by trying to electrocute a turkey

Bureau of Engraving and Printing Engraved Vignette titled Franklin and electricity

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Because dry silk is an excellent electrical insulator, Franklin believed that it would provide it with the necessary protection against electricity. To make sure the silk ribbon stayed dry, he flew the kite while standing in a small shelter from the rain. Sure enough, when the kite was in the sky, the static electricity was moving along the wet rope to the key, but not through the silk ribbon to its body. Franklin then touched the metal key of an electrode protruding from the top of a Leyden jar (a glass jar for storing electricity recently invented by Dutch physicist Pieter van Musschenbroek). He had captured the electricity from the storm cloud in a glass jar, making history. And, just as important, he would live to talk about it.

Given the magnitude of the electricity Franklin manipulated, his precautions may seem insufficient to modern observers; nonetheless, he recognized the dangers and planned to protect his life accordingly. Precisely because he survived, his kite-flying experience is now world famous.

The reason Franklin took such detailed precautions may very well be due to his earlier encounter with a turkey. Besides electricity, Franklin had a vested interest in birds. Popular tradition suggests that he wanted the wild turkey rather than the bald eagle, two animals native to North America, to be named the national bird of the United States. But the Franklin Institute, a Philadelphia-based science museum and education center named after the politician, considers this story a myth. In truth, writes the organization on its website, Franklin simply criticized the original Great Seal eagle design for looking too much like a turkey, which he called a “much more respectable bird.” .. a little vain and silly, [but] a bird of courage.

Franklin’s love for turkeys stemmed primarily from his gastronomic interests. He was very fond of food and turkey was one of his favorite dishes. For some reason, he thought that an electrically killed turkey would be tastier than a turkey shipped by conventional means: beheading. As his fellow scientist William Watson wrote in 1751, Franklin claimed that “birds killed in this manner eat unusually tenderly.”

When Benjamin Franklin was shocked by trying to electrocute a turkey

Benjamin West, Benjamin Franklin draws the electricity of the sky, circa 1816

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The statesman set out to develop a standard procedure for preparing turkeys with static electricity collected in Leyden jars. One day, while demonstrating the correct way to electrocute a turkey, he mistakenly touched the electrified wire intended for the turkey while his other hand was grounded, deflecting the weight of the load. turkey killer in her own body. Writing to his brother John two days later, on Christmas Day 1750, Franklin detailed what happened next:

The company present … said the lightning was very strong and the crackle as loud as a pistol; yet my senses having instantly disappeared, I neither saw one nor heard the other; I also did not feel the blow on my hand, although I later found [that] it raised a round bump into which the fire entered as big as a half-bullet from a pistol, by which you can judge the rapidity of the electric fire, which by this case seems to be greater than the sonorous, luminous, or animal sensation.

Recognizing the forgetfulness that led to this shock (“I could have done it safely if I hadn’t held the chain in the other hand,” he wrote), Franklin attempted to describe the severe pain that he had felt:

I then felt what I don’t know how to describe well, a universal blow through my entire body from head to toe, which seemed inside and out; after which the first thing I noticed was a violent and rapid shaking of my body, which gradually my senses gradually returned, and then I thought that the bottles should be unloaded, but I could not conceive how, until finally I saw the chain in my hand, and remembered what I was about to do. The part of my hand and fingers that held the chain remained white, as if the blood had been flushed out, and remained so eight or ten minutes later, feeling like dead flesh; and I had numbness in my arms and neck, which lasted until the next morning, but went away. All that remains of this shock is pain in my breastbone, which gives the impression of having been bruised. I didn’t fall but I guess I should have been knocked down if I had received the blow in my head. It was all over in less than a minute.

Franklin seems to have been very embarrassed by his insane behavior with the turkey. In the letter to his brother, he ended by saying, “You can communicate this to Mr. Bowdoin. [a friend who was also experimenting with electricity] as a warning to him, but do not make it more public, for I am ashamed of having been guilty of such a notorious blunder.

It’s probably safe to say that all the turkey lovers who witnessed Franklin’s crash that day decided that beheading was still the best way to get turkeys ready for the table. After all, the kite experiment would never have happened if Franklin’s turkey experiment had killed him first.

Adapted from Spark: The life of electricity and the electricity of life by Timothy J. Jorgensen. Copyright © 2021 by Timothy J. Jorgensen. Reprinted with permission from Princeton University Press.


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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.