January 17, 2010

Happy Birthday, Ben Franklin!

Born 15th
of 17 kids (!!!), Benjamin Franklin was born on this day in 1706. He only had two years of formal schooling but became one of the best-educated people of his time. He was what's known as a polymath (someone who is good at a lot of things): a printer, scientist, inventor, newspaper publisher, writer, statesman, the first US Postmaster General and (at age 70) U.S. Minister to France...and lots more! Some of the things he invented are bifocals, the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, the glass “armonica,” and an odometer.


Franklin set up the first public library in the Americas and the first fire department in Pennsylvania, too.

There are loa
ds of fun Ben Franklin activities to be found on the internet. Here is one site with interesting stuff to read and do, and links to other sites, including this internet scavenger hunt.

Franklin's Legacy

Of course, Americans honor Franklin's memory by having his image on the $100 bill and his name on countless cities, streets, and institutions, but did you know this:

Benjamin Franklin go
t the idea of leaving a small amount of money in a trust fund to gather interest for a long period of time from the French mathematician Charles-Joseph Mathon de la Cour (who used the idea as a plot point in a friendly parody about Franklin). Inspired, Franklin left 1,000 pounds (about $4,400 at the time) each to the cities of Boston (where he was born) and Philadelphia (where he lived most of his life), with the instructions that they gather interest for 200 years before being used to fund public projects of some sort. Franklin's Philadelphia trust had loaned the money to local residents, by and large for mortgage loans, for decades, and when the trust came due, the fund had grown to more than 2 million dollars; city leaders decided to use the money for scholarships for city youth. Boston had used some of the money at the 100-year mark to fund a trade school; later the entire fund, which had grown to almost 5 million dollars, was used to support the institute.

When Ben Franklin died, people in many countries mourne
d him, and about 20,000 people attended his funeral. According to the website Garden of Praise, people visiting his grave throw pennies on his headstone, and every year $6,000 worth of pennies are collected and given in Franklin's honor to charity.

Science and controversy

Franklin did a lot of thinking about, and some experimentation with, electricity and lightning. He got the idea of trying to draw the lightning out of the clouds to a sharp-ended metal rod that draws the electrical charge harmlessly down into the ground. He proposed his lightning rod, with sharp ends, in 1749. (Between 1750 and 1754, a Czech man named Prokop Divis made an independent invention of a lightning protection device similar to Franklin's.)

Apparently there was a controversy about whether lightning rods should have sharp ends, as suggested by Franklin, or blunt ends. It became a bit of a political issue as King George and other Brits favored blunt-ended lightning rods. Of course, the colonies favored Franklin's design, a move that was reportedly seen by the British as just another way of being disobedient to the crown.

According to Wikipedia, the controversy over sharp or blunt ends is still not completely resolved! Doing controlled exp
eriments with lightning is difficult, but in 2000 Moore, et al, published findings that blunt-tipped lightning rods are marginally better.

Another controversy over the lightning rods was the question of whether or not it was really right to use lightning rods; some people thought that lightning was an instrument of God's judgment. However, since churches tended to be the tallest buildings in any given town, and lightning thus struck churches far more often than, say, saloons, most religious people soon came to favor using the protective device.

It's interesting to note that, although some Christian clergy railed against the new invention, Prokop Divis, European inventor of the lightning rod, was a Catholic priest as well as a scientist.

music a la Franklin

Benjamin Franklin invente
d a musical instrument based on the wet-finger-on-the-drinking-glass. In Franklin's time, musicians sometimes performed on sets of carefully tuned glasses; Franklin created what he called a “more convenient” arrangement. He first called it a glassychord, but then decided on armonica, based on the word harmony.

Mozart, Beethoven, and hundreds of others composed
musical pieces for the instrument, but the invention was largely abandoned when music performances moved to larger and larger venues—and music critics of the time bemoaned the fact that there was no way to make the armonica's sound louder.

Now we have microphones, but there are still only a dozen or so armonica players in the world.
The 2007 movie Across the Universe featured the song "Girl," written by the Beatles, played on a glass harmonica (yet another name for this instrument!).

Create your own version of this instrument!

More fun

There are more experiments and some word puzzles about Franklin here.

This statue of Bejamin Franklin, called "Keys to Community" by James Peniston, is largely covered by keys--->

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