Object of the Month

Benjamin Franklin Tries to Electrocute a Turkey

Franklin, Benjamin.
Letter to [John Franklin],
25 December 1750
Copy by James Bowdoin
Bowdoin and Temple Papers in
the Winthrop Family Papers, MHS.

In this letter, written on December 25, 1750, Boston native Benjamin Franklin described an interesting electrical experiment that did not go quite as he had planned:

"I have lately made an Experiment in Electricity that I desire never to repeat. 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."

Franklin began his investigations into electricity in 1745, after reading about German experiments with the Leyden jar, an early electrical condenser. Franklin and his friends designed their own experiments, which they performed before small audiences at Franklin's house in Philadelphia.

According to the December 1750 missive, apparently written to his brother John, Franklin had an audience for the ill-fated turkey experiment [read excerpt: "The Company present . . ."], and although self-electrocution had not been his intention, he still maintained a scientific interest in the results [read excerpt: "I then felt . . ."]. Nonetheless, he also felt some chagrin over the accident. "You may Communicate this to Mr. Bowdoin As A Caution to him," he cautioned, "but do not make it mor Publick, for I am Ashamed to have been Guilty of so Notorious A Blunder." James Bowdoin (1726-1790), a Boston friend of Franklin's who also experimented with electricity, not only saw the letter but made this copy. It is now a part of Winthrop Family Papers in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

At the time that he wrote this letter, in 1750, Franklin had retired from his professional work as a printer but remained active in both social and educational pursuits. He penned and published essays and newspaper articles, and he helped establish both the school that would become the University of Pennsylvania and a hospital in Philadelphia. Despite his impressive literary and political achievements, Franklin may have been best known by his contemporaries for his scientific discoveries; his book Experiments and Observations on Electricity, published in 1751, enjoyed a wide readership. His most famous electrical experiment — for which he flew a kite in a thunderstorm — took place in June 1752. The escapade demonstrated that electricity is a basic element of nature.

Read excerpts transcribed from the letter.


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