Saturday, January 28, 2006

Volcanic discovery makes history!

Benjamin Franklin, whose 300th birthday occurred on Jan. 17, was probably America's first genius, and certainly our first great scientist. Besides all his remarkable accomplishments as a Founding Father he discovered, invented, worked on, wrote about, contributed to, and did research on many diverse topics in many different fields - including scientific ones such as chemistry, physics, geology, electricity, oceanography, weather, music, optometry, hydrology, water supply, and household heating.

Franklin's work in electricity goes far beyond his well-known flying a kite into a thundercloud. That dangerous experiment (which almost killed him) led to his discovery that lightning was an electrical phenomenon. This in turn led to his invention of the lightning rod - which has protected millions of buildings worldwide from destructive fires and myriad more people from being killed by fire or electric shock. He coined many electrical terms: battery, positive and negative terminals, conductor, etc. And another invention that benefited humans tremendously was bifocal eyeglasses.

In 1740, he invented a stove that heated better and used less fuel (called a Franklin stove in his honor). In 1743, he discovered that land storms usually come from the southwest, rather than from the northeast as was previously believed. In 1783 when he was in London, he correctly theorized that an unusual odor in one of London's famous fogs was caused by gas eruptions from a distant volcano.

Franklin also invented the armonica, a musical instrument consisting of 33 bowls filled with different amounts of water. When the rims are rubbed with a moist finger, each bowl produces a different musical note. The 33 bowls give the musician access to notes over a range of four octaves. He probably thought this up while fingering a wine glass after it had been refilled several times, enabling him to note that different volumes caused the glass to give off different notes.

His ever-present scientific curiosity enabled him to discover the Atlantic's warm Gulf Stream. He noticed that westbound ships from Europe to America usually took longer to cross the Atlantic than eastbound ships returning over the same route. Suspecting that a meandering east-flowing ocean current that ships might unknowingly encounter was responsible, he gave thermometers and ropes to captains of vessels crossing the Atlantic and asked them to record the water temperatures and the latitude-longitude positions periodically as they sailed.

These data enabled him to locate the current's shifting positions and to advise sea captains how to stay out of it while sailing westward.

Ben Franklin's legacy to Philadelphia was clean drinking water for 100 years. He purchased a pristine spring located far outside the city and the right-of-way for a pipe leading into the city's center. He estimated correctly that Philadelphia's urban expansion would take about a century before development would reach the spring and ruin it through contamination. He was right!

Franklin was a founder of a school that taught the first science courses in America. He also helped found the University of Pennsylvania and Franklin-Marshall College as well.
Benjamin Franklin was America's colonial Renaissance Man!

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