Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin
Joseph-Siffred Duplessis, French, circa 1779
(oil on canvas)
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

Let’s meet a man who studied the forces of nature and worked to uncover its laws.

Do you recognize the man in this painting? I will give you a clue. He is one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. He is Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). Franklin was a statesman, diplomat, author, scientist and inventor. Look carefully. Describe how Franklin is portrayed. He is shown from the waist up, he has eyes that are clear and penetrating, he is wearing informal clothes, and his hair is in a more natural state instead of being underneath a powdered wig as was the fashion of the day. Do these details tell us anything about Franklin’s personality? Yes, they show us a man who is down-to-earth, who is curious about the world, and who speaks his mind. Does Benjamin Franklin’s personality represent anything about our country? I will give you a clue. Franklin was one of the leaders of the American War of Independence (1775-1783). As we learned in previous entries, the American War of Independence was a time when the original thirteen colonies in America joined together to break free from the British Empire and its king and create a democracy in its place. It may be just me, but Franklin’s personality seems to show us the values of a government led by the people for the people based on individual freedom.

During the American War of Independence, Benjamin Franklin was sent to France to promote the American cause as ambassador. From the get-go, he worked to obtain economic and military assistance from France. His efforts were successful. First, he obtained economic assistance and secured a critical military alliance with France (1778), both of which were crucial to the winning outcome of the war. Second, he negotiated the Treaty of Paris (1783), which ended the war between Great Britain and the United States and its allies. Under the terms of the treaty, the United States greatly expanded its boundaries and enlarged its territories. Benjamin Franklin was greatly admired in France for his down-to-earth nature, his inquisitive mind, and his learning. Many aristocrats sought out his company. His landlord even paid for the French artist Duplessis to make a portrait of him. This painting is a later version of that portrait. He remained as ambassador to France until 1785. When he returned home to the United States, he occupied a position only second to that of George Washington as the champion of American independence.

What stories have you heard about Benjamin Franklin? According to lore, Franklin tried to prove lightening was electrical in nature when he attached a metal key to the bottom of a dampened kite string and flew the kite in a storm. Some say sparks jumped from the key to the back of Franklin’s hand, proving lightening was electrical in nature. Most people doubt Franklin held a kite in his hands, as this would have been very dangerous. Perhaps Franklin positioned his kite in such a way that he was able to detect the electrical charge from the storm clouds without the risk of being struck by lightning. What are some precautions you should take when you are in a lightning storm?

What is electricity? There are many definitions of electricity, and they all seem to contradict on another. One definition is that electricity occurs when there is a presence and flow of electric charge. Lightning is one example of the flow of electric charge. Specifically, lightning occurs when there is a flow of electric charge and there is a sudden discharge. Think of it this way. Warm air rises above cold air. When cold air and warm air meet, they make thunderstorm clouds. The cold air has ice crystals, while the warm air has water droplets. During the storm, the ice crystals and water droplets bump into each other and mover apart in the air. All of these collisions create electrical charges. After a while, the whole cloud fills up with electrical charges. Some of these charges are positive (protons) and some are negative (electrons). Its not clear how it happens, but charges separate in the cloud. The positive charges form at the top of the cloud, while the negative charges form at the bottom of the cloud. During a lightning storm, a discharge occurs between the electrically charged regions within that cloud, between that cloud and another cloud, or between that cloud and the ground. When this happens, the charged regions temporarily equalize themselves. The result? A sudden flash of light, a potential strike on the ground, and a loud thunderclap! Do you know that lightning bolts follow a zigzag path as they move? No one knows why. Perhaps someday you will become a scientist and will discover the reason why.

Diagram of Incandescent Light Bulb

Diagram of Incandescent Light Bulb

Name an early application of electricity. The incandescent light bulb is an early application of electricity. Do you know the parts of a light bulb? Can you name them? A light bulb has a glass bulb that is filled with an inert gas, a filament inside the bulb (through which the electric current is passed), contact wires and a base with two or more conductors (that provide electrical connections to the filament), a stem anchored to the base (that allows the electrical current to run through the bulb without leaks), and a cap (to keep the wires in contact with the supply of current). What do we use incandescent light bulbs for? We use incandescent light bulbs for light in lamps, flashlights, and car headlights and for heat in incubators. Unfortunately, incandescent light bulbs have limiting factors. Do you know what these limiting factors are? Incandescent light bulbs are not very efficient. They have short lifetimes and convert very little energy into visible light. Because of this, they are gradually being replaced by other types of electric lights.

What about Benjamin Franklin’s experiment with the kite? Will we ever know the truth? We may never know the truth about Franklin’s experiment with the kite, but we do know his experiments on electricity led him to invent the lightning rod. What is a lightning rod? A lightning rod is a metal rod that protects a building from lightning. How so? A metal rod is mounted on top of a building and is connected to the ground through a wire. In the event that lightning strikes the building, instead of passing through the building where it could start a fire, lightning will strike the rod and be conducted harmlessly to the ground through the wire. We should all be thankful to Benjamin Franklin for his many inventions and discoveries. Older people, in particular, should be very thankful, for Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals!


Would you like to see Benjamin Franklin in person? All you have to do is visit the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, North Carolina. Benjamin Franklin is in the American galleries at the museum. Or perhaps you would like a tour. Tours of the collection are given daily, except for Monday when the museum is closed to the public. If you prefer, you can contact the museum ahead of time and arrange for you and your friends to have a private tour. I’m sure a docent at the museum would be happy to show you and your friends Benjamin Franklin and many other works of art. Whether you visit the museum on your own or have a tour with a docent, it will be well worth your time!