Big Ben 11/7/21

Science with Richard Bleil

No, not the clock.  This is actually about Benjamin Franklin, the famous inventor.  Although he often found himself at multiple state functions, he was reputed to be quite crass.  But, more than a politician, he was an inventor.  I thought maybe we would go through a few of these and clear up a few misconceptions.

First, let’s talk about today, the end of this year’s Daylight Savings Time.  It seems like every year (at the start rather than the end) there is a kerfuffle in the news about how it will be ending this year.  Every year, it will be ending this year.  I’ve never heard anybody who actually likes it, and yet somehow, we practice it.  In my humble opinion, it is the worst idea Benjamin Franklin ever had, even worse than naming the turkey as the national bird.  The idea is that since the sun comes up earlier in the summer, we should start the day earlier to give the farmers more time to work, as if the farmers couldn’t just make it a point to get up earlier of their own accord.  But, have no fear.  Next year is the next year we’ll bring it to an end. 

Ben Franklin is believed by many to have invented electricity.  This is very wrong indeed.  First of all, electricity wasn’t “invented” so much as it was discovered, and it was discovered by the first human to see lightening.  They may not have known what it was, but they discovered it.  What Franklin invented was actually a flexible electrical insulator.

If you look at drawings from around that era of the experiment, you will notice that he is not actually holding onto the string.  The key was tied to the end of the string, and another piece of what appears to be string is tied just above the dangling key which is what he was actually holding.  The experiment was to see if the insulator would hold up to lightening.  He touched the key, and when he felt the electricity in it, he knew that the kite and string was conducting.  However, he did not feel it in the piece he was holding, proof positive that his insulator worked.

Fire was a major problem back in Ben Franklin’s time.  He organized the worlds first fire brigade, a group of volunteers who kept buckets of water in their home, but their goal was not to put out the fire.  In fact, they were to rush into burning houses to grab and rescue what personal items they could.  The insulator as a critical piece to a key invention to help prevent fire, namely, the lightening rod.  Many fires would start when lightening struck buildings, so the lightening rod was a metal rod that stuck up higher than the house itself (it was attached to the apex of the house).  A grounding wire was connected to the rod and ran down the house where it would eventually be buried in the earth so the electricity could safely bypass the house.  To protect the house itself, however (since wood does conduct electricity), the insulator was used to keep the lightning rod insulated from the house, so the electricity had nowhere to run except down the grounding wire.  With a lightening rod, house fires caused by lightening strikes were significantly reduced.

One of my favorite Franklin inventions must be the Ben Franklin heat capture invention.  Homes then were heated by fire, but a lot of heat was lost in fireplaces up through the chimney.  I’ve seen a version of this that can be inserted into the chimney itself (replacing the wood holder), but his was actually built into the fireplace.  Basically, it was a series of pipes, open on the top and the bottom.  The bottom was where you would put the burning logs.  They then bent up behind the fire and bent over the top of it.  It’s a brilliant piece of engineering taking advantage of thermodynamics and density.

A lot of people think that “heat rises”.  In fact, heat decreases the density of the air, and it’s the less dense air that rises (like oil on water) bringing warmth with it.  Cooler and denser air, then, is allowed into the pipes at the bottom.  As it warms, it rises through the pipes in the back, pulling more cool air in the bottom.  It pushes its way out of the top of the pipes, and into the room (horizontally) rather than being lost vertically up the chimney.  No pumps are needed, no electricity at all, just the laws of Thermodynamics.  Honestly, if I had a fireplace, I would look for (or build) one of these.  I would love to see it in action.

But, today, let’s all curse his name for Daylight Savings Time.


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