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BENJAMIN FRANKLIN (1706-1790)
The Franklin Stove
Benjamin Franklin was probably the most significant "founding
father" of the United States of America who never served as
its President. But he was much more than a statesman: he was
a man of letters, a publisher, a philosopher, a scientist,
and the first major American inventor.
Franklin was born in Boston in 1706. At age 12, he was apprenticed
to his older brother James, a printer; but Franklin resented
being ordered about, and so five years later he virtually
ran away from home. He moved to Philadelphia, then London,
then back to Philadelphia, where he established his own printing
office (1728). Like his contemporary inventor Benjamin Banneker,
Franklin used his polymathic knowledge to publish an almanac
("Poor Richard: An Almanack" - 1732-58).
In 1748, Franklin retired from printing, in order to devote
himself fully to various aspects of biology and physics that
had captivated him for some time. His most famous experiment,
of course, was flying a kite with a key attached to its string,
proving that lightning carries an electrical charge (1752).
Franklin had by then already invented the lightning rod, which
he primarily intended for use atop ships, not houses.
After he reached 40 years old, Franklin needed to wear glasses
for reading as well as for everyday nearsightedness. In order
to save himself the trouble of constantly switching between
them, he cut the lenses in half horizontally, and joined the
tops of his everyday lenses to the bottoms of his reading
glasses, thereby inventing the world's first bifocal glasses.
Franklin also conceived the mid-room furnace, the "Franklin
Stove." In those days rooms could only be heated with a fire
in a fireplace, which by definition was set into a wall. Franklin
knew that, since heat radiates from a fire in all directions,
a fireplace was inefficient. So he built a cast-iron furnace
that could be placed in the middle of a room. The heat it
generated spread out in all directions, and was also absorbed
by the furnace's iron walls, so that the stove provided warmth
even after the fire went out.
However, Franklin's design was flawed, in that his furnace
vented the smoke from its base: because the furnace lacked
a chimney to "draw" fresh air up through the central chamber,
the fire would soon go out. It took David R. Rittenhouse,
another hero of early Philadelphia, to improve Franklin's
design by adding an L-shaped exhaust pipe that drew air through
the furnace and vented its smoke up and along the ceiling,
then into an intramural chimney and out of the house.
Franklin's other inventions include an odometer and first
known medical catheter. In addition, he first conceived a
number of institutions, including the American Philosophical
Society (1728), first American Fire Department (1736), and
what became the University of Pennsylvania (1742). He was
Philadelphia's first Postmaster General (1736), and of course
played a major role in the formation of the United States
of America. One of the last roles he played before his death
at age 84 in 1790 was President of the Pennsylvania Society
for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.
Benjamin Franklin was a true philosopher in the earliest
sense of the word: interested in all aspects of the natural
world, including mankind's place in it, he learned through
his own experimentation and his conversation with those who
shared his interests; and he showed little interest in patenting
or profiting from the things he invented and discovered. Scientifically
speaking, he may be the best role model that 21st-century
American inventors could find.