Most everyone knows that Benjamin Franklin was not only a famous statesman but also a great inventor and scientist, particularly in the field of electricity. He actually introduced much of the electrical terminology still in use today, including battery, conductor, positive charge, negative charge, current and discharge.
Among his many electrical experiments, the one for which Franklin is most celebrated is his successful attempt to capture the electricity of thunderclouds in a jar. But this victory might never have happened if not for a painful lesson he’d learned from one of his lesser-known tests, an experiment performed two years earlier, in December 1750. During that failed endeavor, Franklin was traumatized and humbled by an unexpected foe: a turkey.
Franklin’s strategy for the June 1752 experiment—inspired, perhaps, by that avian accident—was to fly a kite with a wire pointing up from its top near a passing thundercloud. He reasoned that static electricity in the cloud would be attracted to the wire and flow down the wet kite string on its way to the ground. But he was concerned that if he were to hold the end of the kite string directly, he might very well be killed as the electricity passed through him. So, he decided to take precautions by tying the end of the kite string to a metal key and connecting the key to a silk ribbon. He would control the kite by holding the silk ribbon rather than the string.
Because dry silk is an excellent electrical insulator, Franklin felt it would provide him the needed protection against the electricity. To ensure the silk ribbon remained dry, he flew the kite while standing in a small rain shelter. Sure enough, when the kite was in the sky, static electricity moved down the wet string as far as the key—but not through the silk ribbon to his body. Franklin then touched the metal key to an electrode protruding from the top of a Leyden jar (an electricity-storing glass jar recently invented by Dutch physicist Pieter van Musschenbroek). He’d captured the thundercloud’s electricity in a glass jar, making history in the process. And, just as importantly, he’d live to tell about it.
Given the magnitude of electricity that Franklin was handling, his precautions may seem insufficient to modern observers; nevertheless, he did consider the dangers and had planned accordingly to protect his life. Precisely because he survived, his kite experiment is now world famous.
The reason why Franklin took such detailed precautions may very well have been due to his earlier encounter with a turkey. Besides electricity, Franklin had a vested interest in the birds. Popular lore suggests he wanted the wild turkey rather than the bald eagle—both animals native to North America—to be named the national bird of the United States. But the Franklin Institute, a Philadelphia-based science museum and education center that bears the politician’s name, deems this story a myth. In truth, the organization writes on its website, Franklin simply criticized the Great Seal’s original eagle design for too closely resembling a turkey, which he called “a much more respectable Bird, … a little vain & silly, [but] a Bird of Courage.”
Franklin’s love of turkeys stemmed primarily from his gastronomic interests. He was very fond of food, and turkey was one of his favorite dishes. For some reason, he believed a turkey killed with electricity would be tastier than one dispatched by conventional means: decapitation. As fellow scientist William Watson wrote in 1751, Franklin claimed that “birds kill’d in this manner eat uncommonly tender.”
The statesman set out to develop a standard procedure for preparing turkeys with static electricity collected in Leyden jars. One day, while performing a demonstration of the proper way to electrocute a turkey, he mistakenly touched the electrified wire intended for the turkey while his other hand was grounded, thereby diverting the full brunt of the turkey-killing charge into his own body. Writing to his brother John two days later, on Christmas Day in 1750, Franklin detailed what happened next:
The company present … say that the flash was very great and the crack as loud as a pistol; yet my senses being instantly gone, I neither saw the one nor heard the other; nor did I feel the stroke on my hand, though I afterward found [that] it raised a round swelling where the fire entered as big as half a pistol bullet, by which you may judge of the quickness of the electrical fire, which by this instance seems to be greater than the sound, light or animal sensation.
Acknowledging the oversight that led to this shock (“I might safely enough had done if I had not held the chain in the other hand,” he wrote), Franklin attempted to describe the intense pain he’d experienced:
I then felt what I know not how well to describe—a universal blow through my whole body from head to foot, which seemed within as well as without; after which the first thing I took notice of was a violent, quick shaking of my body, which, gradually remitting, my sense as gradually returned, and I then thought the bottles must be discharged, but could not conceive how, till at last I perceived the chain in my hand, and recollected what I had been about to do. That part of my hand and fingers which held the chain was left white, as though the blood had been driven out, and remained so eight or ten minutes after, feeling like dead flesh; and I had a numbness in my arms and the back of my neck, which continued till the next morning, but wore off. Nothing remains now of this shock but a soreness in my breast bone, which feels as if I had been bruised. I did not fall but suppose I should have been knocked down if I had received the stroke in my head. The whole was over in less than a minute.
Franklin appears to have been very embarrassed by his foolish behavior with the turkey. In the letter to his brother, he ended by saying, “You may communicate this to Mr. Bowdoin [a friend who was also experimenting with electricity] as a caution to him, but do not make it more public, for I am ashamed to have been guilty of so notorious a blunder.”
It’s probably safe to say that all the turkey-eating enthusiasts who witnessed Franklin’s accident that day decided decapitation was still the best way to prepare turkeys for the table. After all, the kite experiment never would have happened if Franklin’s turkey experiment had killed him first.
Adapted from Spark: The Life of Electricity and the Electricity of Life by Timothy J. Jorgensen. Copyright © 2021 by Timothy J. Jorgensen. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.