The Electric Dr. Franklin
Benjamin Franklin and his son William conduct the famous kite experiment to help prove that lightning is electrical.
From Tilton, The Life and Services of Benjamin Franklin, 1905.
You may know Benjamin Franklin as one of the United States’ founders or as the face on the $100 bill. But Franklin was also a first-rate scientist. From 1746 to 1752, he conducted experiments that changed people’s understanding of electricity. The discoveries he made, and the circumstances in which he made them, continue to affect us today. We invite you to journey with us to colonial Philadelphia to discover what inspired Franklin’s research, and how his experiments changed the way people thought about electricity.
Franklin was born into a large family of Boston craftspeople in 1706. He learned printing as an indentured servant working for his brother, but harsh treatment caused him to flee to Philadelphia at age seventeen. In the years that followed, he established himself as a printer, founded several civic-minded organizations, and became active in politics and scientific research. In the mid-1740s, he retired a wealthy man and began to focus on electrical research. You might have learned about his kite and key experiment, but Franklin’s work ranged beyond just investigating lightning. He proposed new theories about how electricity worked, designed new ways to store electric charges, and pushed research in new directions.
Benjamin Franklin, around 1750.
From Dibner, Benjamin Franklin, Electrician, 1976.
While the sparks of his inventive mind drove research and led to new inventions, they also crackle with the complications of his time. Missing from most accounts of Franklin’s electrical research are the people whose labor enabled that work: the women, indentured servants, and enslaved people who maintained his household, assisted him, or made or operated equipment. Enslaved people helped build his fortune. We still have much to learn about that part of his life and scientific work.
This website is based on the exhibition The Electric Dr. Franklin, that opened at the National Museum of American History on 19 November 2021. In addition to presenting the exhibition’s objects and graphics, there is expanded material about Franklin’s electrical research, what we know of the role of enslaved people in that work, and how his understanding of electricity differed from ours. A bibliography provides information sources on Franklin and electrical research in his era. A glossary gives basic definitions of technical terms and principles.