The Range of Benjamin Franklin Inventions Is Astounding
We'd recommend that you click directly on the photo, in order to fully appreciate its quality, by enlarging it. This is the first musical instrument invented in America, by Benjamin Franklin in 1762 (one of his many inventions). Franklin named it the "Glass Armonica", after the Italian word armonia, meaning "harmony". This is on display at the underground museum at Franklin Court, Market Street between 3rd and 4th Streets.
The full spectrum of Benjamin Franklin inventions is far greater, than what we can cover on this site. His innovations range from the lightning rod to the Glass Armonica to swimming fins - and many others, besides.
Here is more about the extraordinary figure of
his many innovations, inventions, and improvements, and his legacy for visitors to Philadelphia.
Let's start with the Glass Armonica, which you see pictured above, and which you can see at
The Glass Armonica - The First Musical Instrument Invented In America
We very rarely think of Franklin and music - surprisingly, given the fact that he was a "Renaissance man", so to speak, living in the Age of Enlightenment. He had many interests, and one of them was music. Despite his humble upbringing in Boston, he embraced music and musical instruments enthusiastically, and even composed music of his own. Which brings us to the Glass Armonica.
In 1761, Franklin was living in Britain, as agent for the colonies, a few years prior to the increase in tensions which eventually led to the American Revolution. During that year, he attended a performance, where a musician "played" a series of glasses, filled with varying amounts of water, to make the music.
Franklin was intrigued by the music, but decided that he had a better way of producing the same effect - but without the water. He commissioned a glassblower to create 37 different glasses, and then pass a metal rod through the top of each one, so that they could be grouped by size.
Along with a device to make the glasses rotate, by using his foot - Franklin had each one painted to identify the various notes. Hence, his own invention - which he dubbed the Glass Armonica.
Franklin taught himself how to play it, and performed on it for friends. It became so popular that it was widely manufactured, and thousands of people learned how to play it. The great composers Mozart and Beethoven even composed music specifically for the Glass Armonica! The French Queen Marie Antoinette took lessons on how to play it.
In an intriguing historical mystery, it was reported by frequent players of the Glass Armonica, that they felt emotionally troubled as a result of playing it. There is conjecture that since lead was commonly used in glass in the 18th century, the frequent touching of the glass hemisphere in the Glass Armonica may have caused lead poisoning in the performers, and the mental anguish was a direct result of the lead.
The Glass Armonica did not have the staying power of other Franklin inventions, described below, as it fell out of use early in the 19th century. But go see it at Franklin Court, before it closes for renovations.
PBS - Benjamin Franklin - Inquiring Mind - Glass Armonica
Technological Benjamin Franklin Inventions
Ironically, given his close association with Philadelphia, Franklin was actually born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. Like many New Englanders, he was an avid maritime enthusiast, and loved to swim in the Atlantic Ocean. Franklin also seriously considered becoming a sailor, and America and the world would be far poorer, had that maritime ambition been fulfilled.
At age 11, Franklin decided that he could increase the speed of his swimming stroke by adding "fins" - best described as flat pieces, similar to the palette you often see with artists - to each arm.
Library Chair and Extension Arm
Franklin was responsible for the founding of both the
American Philosophical Society
and the Library Company of Philadelphia - which were, respectively, the first learned society and the first nonprivate library in America.
Given that Franklin was a bibliophile, and spent a lot of time reading in libraries, he came up with two inventions to improve his reading experience.
The first was an improved library chair. He wanted to be able to use his library chair to serve multiple purposes - he figured out a way to reverse the seat, thus making it possible to use the chair as a stepping stool.
The second was motivated by the need to spend a lot of time in the stacks of books at these learned societies. Franklin came up with an arm extension, which permitted him to reach books on the higher shelves; it had two artificial fingers, as sort of a claw - and he could move the fingers by the cord he had attached to them. (Derivations of this concept are still used, today.)
The "Franklin Stove"
Ironically, it was a subsequent inventor who improved Franklin's original design, and which permitted it to come into wider use.
Franklin - much like the environmental movement today - decided that he wanted to create a stove that would generate greater heat for comfort, but consume less wood - a renewable resource, but the less used, the better.
He advertised what he termed the "Pennsylvania Fireplace", improving upon an existing stove design. Always cognizant of the power of the printed word, he promoted the Pennsylvania Fireplace with a pamphlet, and sold many of them.
However, they were not particularly effective in reaching Franklin's stated goals. The subsequent inventor was able to improve the flaws in Franklin's model - and the new and improved version, ironically, became known as the "Franklin stove".
The Lightning Rod
Without a doubt, this was Franklin's most well-known invention, and the one which helped to cement his reputation as one of the world's best known scientists (or "natural philosophers", as they were known in the 18th century), and unquestionably the best known one in America.
Franklin agreed with this assessment, and unequivocally believed that the lightning rod was his most significant invention.
Prior to the discovery of electricity - also made by Franklin - lightning frequently ravaged cities with fires, especially due to the prevalence of wooden structures.
Franklin's pioneering work with electricity gave him the following idea - if a metal rod were placed at the top of a building, the lightning might strike the rod before the building.
Accordingly, if a wire cable were placed within the rod, and run down all the way to the ground, the electricity in the lightning strike would be carried safely to the ground as well. Thus, the electricity could be rendered harmless, to the earth, without any - or minimal - damage to human life, or property.
He first came up with this concept in 1750, although it took him three years to improve upon it, and so it wasn't finished until 1753.
Improved street lamps
In the 18th century, street lamps were not especially efficient. One chronic problem was that the soot produced by their burning oil would begin to darken the glass globes protecting the light - meaning that they would need to be cleaned frequently.
In his Autobiography, Franklin offered a theory to remedy this problem:
"I therefore suggested composing them of four flat panes, with a long funnel above to draw up the smoke, and crevices admitting air below... by this means they were kept clean, and did not grow dark in a few hours... but continu'd bright till morning."
Franklin had been appointed by the British Crown as Postmaster for all 13 colonies, and was interested in improving efficiency of mail service.
He figured that a good place to start, would be by establishing a precise distance from New York to Philadelphia, for example, in order to create the most efficient postal routes. To make these measurements, he contrived a device that could be put on the wheel of his carriage. Thus, he could then use the number of times the wheel turned, as a benchmark for determining how far the carriage had traveled.
A Three-Wheel Clock
Surprisingly, most 18th-century clocks only had one hand, including Franklin's three-wheel clock. Ironically, though, Franklin's 24-hour, three-wheeler was less complicated than most contemporary clocks. Unlike most of his inventions, though, it was somewhat impractical. However, when a friend of Franklin's, a Scotsman named James Ferguson, improved the clock in 1756, Franklin was pleased to no end.
As he aged, Franklin's vision began to deteriorate. While in France, serving as an American diplomat, he had his Parisian lens grinder create two half-sets of lenses - the top half consisted of distance lenses, and the bottom half, reading lenses. Hence, bifocals came into being.
Daylight Savings Time
In 1784, while Franklin was still in Paris, he wrote a satirical letter to a local newspaper, the Journal of Paris. In it, he suggested that during the spring and summer months, it would be more efficient for Parisians to rise earlier and go to bed earlier, in order to maximize the amount of time lit by solar energy, rather than candles. (As the tenth son of a Boston candlemaker, he undoubtedly knew the value of candles, firsthand.) Franklin urged the city of Paris to enact legislation, stipulating this novelty for all its citizens.
Eventually, Franklin's idea for a nascent Daylight Savings Time was published in essay form, titled An Economical Project.
It wasn't clear whether Franklin was making a serious proposal, or if it was in jest - or perhaps, knowing Franklin, a mixture of both. Nonetheless, the idea of Daylight Savings Time eventually caught on, although many decades after Franklin's death in 1790.
PBS: Benjamin Franklin - Inquiring Mind - It's the Little Things
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