The famous kite experiment by which Franklin proved that lightning was a form of electricity took place June 15, 1752. He made the experiment under shelter of an old shed in Philadelphia. His son, William, was his only companion. The success of the experiment was widely publicized and won him the Copley Medal.
The long-lived and widely accomplished Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is the subject for the month of April’s illustration. Surprisingly, the scene is not of Franklin signing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Treaty of Paris (which he helped negotiate) ending the Revolutionary War and granting American independence from England. His political career is not depicted here, nor is his career as a printer, writer, or a man of public affairs. It is Franklin’s accomplishments as a scientist and inventor that Wyeth champions for his calendar page. In a series known as America in the Making, this choice would seem to be less significant than, for example, Washington’s victory at Yorktown or Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the West. Perhaps the Franklin experiment was chosen to demonstrate the American regard for scientific investigation and its practical applications, attitudes that were important in building the nation. In paintings and sculptures that symbolize the United States, such as the frieze on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., a figure representing a mechanic is nearly always found, intended to illustrate America’s curiosity about science and its pragmatic use of such discoveries.1
Franklin was born in Boston and apprenticed as a printer at an early age to an older brother who ran a newspaper. Because of disagreements between the two brothers, Franklin ran away in 1723 to Philadelphia where he practiced his trade, eventually publishing his own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette. There he published his own writings, notably Poor Richard’s Almanack which contained practical aphorisms that reflected Franklin’s good humored, but unvarnished observations on human character.2 He devoted much energy to the public good for the city of Philadelphia, organizing the first free library, founding the American Philosophical Society (which encouraged and recognized scholarly learning), helping to establish a hospital, bolstering the fire department, and starting a school that would become the University of Pennsylvania. By 1750, Franklin retired from running his newspaper and began to concentrate on his scientific pursuits. In the decade before, he had become well known for his invention of the Franklin stove, a safer and smokeless heater for homes. Advised to get a patent on his stove, Franklin declined, stating his belief in the principle that “as we enjoy great advantages from the Inventions of others, we should be glad of an Opportunity to serve others by any Invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.”3 His most famous contribution to science was the demonstration that lightning was a form of electricity, carried out with a kite as a thunderstorm passed over the city of Philadelphia. Franklin at first had thought of working with a spire on a building to attract lightning, but “it occurred to him, that, by means of a common kite, he could have a readier and better access to the regions of thunder than by any spire whatever.”4 He attached a metal wire to a silk kite supported by wooden crossbars, from which he strung a length of twine. At the end to be held, he attached another length of silk to which he tied a metal key; nearby was a Leyden jar, a glass vessel coated with foil. “He took the opportunity of the first approaching thunder storm to take a walk into a field, in which there was a shed convenient for his purpose. But dreading the ridicule which too commonly attends unsuccessful attempts in science, he communicated his intended experiment to no body [sic] but his son, who assisted him in raising the kite.”5 As Franklin watched, he noticed that the threads of the twine were starting to stand up. “Struck with this promising appearance, he immediately presented his knuckle to the key, and (let the reader judge of the exquisite pleasure he must have felt at that moment) the discovery was complete.”6 The shock that Franklin received confirmed his hypothesis about lightning, electricity, and conductivity. He then introduced the key into the glass Leyden jar and “from electrical fire thus obtained, he kindled spirits”7, or electricity, within the jar.
Franklin reported the success of his experiment in the Philadelphia Gazette and, recognizing the interest beyond America in his discovery, he also sent his statement as a letter to the Royal Society in London in 1752. “As frequent mention is made in...Europe of the success of the Philadelphia experiment for drawing the electric fire from clouds by means of pointed rods of iron erected on high buildings, it may be agreeable to the curious to be informed, that the famed experiment has succeeded in Philadelphia, tho’[sic] made in a different and more easy manner, which any one [sic] may try.” Franklin concluded that his experiment proved “thereby the Sameness of the Electric Matter with that of Lightning is compleatly [sic] demonstrated.”8 The following year, the Royal Society awarded its 1753 Copley Medal to Franklin “On account of his curious Experiments and Observations on Electricity.”9 Since 1731, this medal has been awarded yearly for the most significant achievement in science.
Wyeth’s painting shows Franklin and his son, William, through the open door of a wooden shed, while lightning is flashing outside the back window. It was necessary for the experimenters to stay dry inside the shed to reduce the conductivity of the electricity charging down from the wet kite and its string. The kite is resting against the door, the key has been attached to the string, and the silk handkerchief to be kept dry is held by the elder Franklin. On the floor beside Franklin’s bench is the Leyden jar in which he would “kindle spirits” through conducting the electricity down from the lightning. The kite has not yet been sent aloft into the thunderstorm, so the atmosphere of scientific inquiry and risk is emphasized.
Wyeth had painted other images of Franklin. His first depicted the young printer’s arrival in Philadelphia, based on a vignette from his Autobiography describing how, on his first day in the city, he met his future wife as he walked along the street eating a roll of bread.10 One of Wyeth’s largest and most ambitious commissions was a mural for the Franklin Savings Bank in New York in 1926. Called The Apotheosis of Franklin, the mural depicts Franklin standing on a pedestal, surrounded by nineteen other men prominent in Revolutionary history, including Jefferson, Washington, and John Paul Jones, all of whom would be subjects in the 1940 calendar. Franklin and his contemporaries are arranged in a shallow space against a tall background image of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Wyeth characterized his interpretation of Franklin here as “benign and mature,” a man who won the “respect and affection of his associates.” “Hence,” Wyeth explained, “it seemed fitting to present him surrounded by those with whom he labored in the making of a republic.”11 Perhaps, having already celebrated Franklin’s role in American political history, he chose to focus on his scientific accomplishments for his 1940 calendar.12
Wyeth’s records show that he used models for his 1940 Morrell calendar (at a cost of $22.75), paid $18.00 for costume rental, and took taxis to Philadelphia and Wilmington, probably to do research in museums or libraries. An unusual item is a $12.00 charge for books. As often noted, Wyeth was recognized for the authenticity of his illustrations, and he consulted major libraries as well as his own substantial personal library. In the case of this painting, however, his needs went beyond these sources. Perhaps he sought to expand his understanding of Franklin’s equipment and procedures for this picture, the only one that dealt with a scientific discovery rather than a geographical one.13
1 This frieze, Progress of Civilization, was designed by Thomas Crawford (1814-1857) in 1854 and installed on the pediment of the Senate entrance on the Capitol in 1863. Among the figures who align themselves outward from the female figure representing America are a soldier, merchant, schoolmaster, hunter, woodsman, and Indian chief.
2 Sayings from Poor Richard’s Almanack include: “A penny saved is a penny earned.” “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” John Paul Jones, the subject for the August calendar page, named his ship Bonhomme Richard in honor of Franklin and his Poor Richard’s Almanack.
3 Poor Richard’s Almanack (part 13); this book and all of Franklin’s writings can be accessed at Yale University’s website for the Franklin Papers: http://franklinpapers.org.
4 Franklin wrote a description of his experiment and published it in the Philadelphia Gazette for October 19, 1752. A widely-read account of the experiment was written by the British scientist, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804; Priestley was the first to isolate oxygen and discover it as the main component of air) in his The History and Present Status of Electricity, with Original Experiments, (London, 1767), 179-81. Both documents can be accessed at http://franklinpapers.org. Franklin’s account is located at 4:360 and Priestley’s Account at 4:367.
5 “Priestley’s Account.”
6 “Priestley’s Account.”
7 “Priestley’s Account.”
8 Franklin, Benjamin, “A Letter of Benjamin Franklin, Esq., to Mr. Peter Collinson, F.R.S., concerning an electrical Kite,” Philosophical Transactions, 1752 (XCV), 565-567. Franklin’s letter is dated October 1, 1752 and was read at the Royal Society in London on December 21, 1752. http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/47/565.
9 The Copley Medal was named for Sir Godfrey Copley. http://royalsociety.org/Copley-Medal/.
10 Franklin’s Arrival in Philadelphia, c.1923 is in the collection of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. It was commissioned as a frontispiece for the book, The Pictorial Life of Benjamin Franklin by Bradford Stephens, Philadelphia, 1923.
11 Wyeth, N.C., “An Apotheosis of Franklin; A Mural Decoration,” Ladies Home Journal, July 1926, quoted in Podmaniczky, 613. The painting was removed from the New York bank and is now in the University of Pennsylvania Art Collection in Philadelphia. Wyeth also completed a study, or presentation painting, in 1925.
12 Wyeth also painted Franklin in his 1944 Drafting the Declaration of Independence —1776, which depicted Franklin as the only person with a quill in his hand at a table with five other men. One figure, apparently Jefferson, reads from a sheet of paper as Franklin looks on pleasantly. The painting was used to illustrate the 1947 calendar of another Iowa business, the Thomas D. Murphy Company of Red Oak.
13 The author thanks Christine Podmaniczky of the Brandywine River Museum for her helpful comments on the itemization for the Franklin painting.