by Steve Graham • August 8, 1999

Ben FranklinWhile popularly known for his role as one of the United States’ founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin was also a renowned scientist who made a number of substantial contributions in the field of Earth science. Affectionately known as Dr. Franklin (even though he never received his Ph.D.), he published numerous scientific papers—mostly on electricity. Franklin became a scientist because he was insatiably curious about the world around him. He wanted to know how things worked and figure out ways to make them better.

In 1743, Franklin compared weather observations in letters he received from friends in other colonies. He was one of the first to observe that North American storms tend to move from west to east, and predicted that a storm's course could be plotted. He even made some of the first-recorded weather forecasts in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, a 25-year publication that Franklin first published in 1732 under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders.

Franklin and KiteIn 1752, Franklin, along with his son William, performed his famous kite-flying experiment which proved that lightning is a naturally-occurring electrical phenomenon. The kite was constructed with a sharp metallic wire situated on top and at the end of the kite string, and a key tied to the end of the string with a silk ribbon. When Franklin saw loose threads on the kite string stand up, he grounded the makeshift insulated conductor by touching his knuckle to the metal key on the string. Consequently, he observed a passing spark between his knuckle and the key, which presented the final proof of lightning's electrical nature. Miraculously, the charge was not strong enough to be fatal to Franklin or his son. (Under normal circumstances, a lightning strike can instantly kill any individuals bold enough to fly a kite during a thunderstorm.)

next: Franklin's Climate Studies


On the Shoulders of Giants
Benjamin Franklin
Franklin's Climate Studies
Links and References

Top: A portrait of Benjamin Franklin. By Roger Kammerer

Bottom: Franklin and his son, William, performing their legendary experiment in the midst of a thunderstorm. Courtesy Library of Congress