Letter from Benjamin Franklin to [John Franklin] (copy), 25 December 1750
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[ This description is from the project: Witness to America's Past ]
Franklin's scientific interest in electricity began in 1743 in Boston, when he was introduced to Dr. Archibald Spencer, who displayed and lectured on electricity here. Even before he retired from his successful printing business in 1748, which gave him leisure time to devote to his wide-ranging interests, Franklin conducted electrical experiments with a glass tube used to generate charges, and which his friend Peter Collinson of the Royal Society of London had donated to the Library Company at Philadelphia. Franklin's work, described in a series of letters to Collinson, was first published anonymously in The Gentleman's Magazine and later as a series of separate publications.1
This letter, written on Christmas Day 1750, is addressed to an unidentified family member, probably Franklin's brother John, who resided in Boston. It tells of a misadventure while attempting to experiment with electricity on a turkey. Franklin had several times electrocuted various fowl with his apparatus, but this time the experiment did not go exactly as planned:
Two nights ago being about to kill a Turkey by the Shock from two large Glass Jarrs containing as much electrical fire as forty common Phials, I inadvertently took the whole thro' my own Arms and Body, . . . the flash was very great and the crack as loud as a Pistol; . . . I had a Numbness in my Arms and the back of my Neck, which Continued till the Next Morning but wore off. Nothing Remains now of this Shock but a Soreness in my breast Bone . . . . I am Ashamed to have been Guilty of so Notorious A Blunder; A Match for that of the Irishman, ... who being About to Steal Powder, made a Hole in the Cask with a Hott Iron.
Franklin's embarrassment did not stop his scientific research. He had conducted his most famous, and far more dangerous, experiment—flying a key from a kite during a lightning storm—only a few months before his Christmastime "Blunder." Reports of his experiments, finally published under his own name, were greeted with great interest in England and almost immediately translated into French. Publication of his work on electricity earned Franklin the reputation as America's most important scientist of the colonial and early national period. In 1753, the Royal Society of London awarded him the Copley Medal, the most prestigious scientific prize of the day. The same year, he received honorary degrees from both Harvard and Yale and three years later was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.2