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Historical Insights Benjamin Franklin and Electricity

Benjamin Franklin used a kite to prove that lightning was electricity because there were no hills or tall buildings in Philadelphia on which to perform the experiment. June 1752, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Credit: Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Benjamin Franklin and Electricity

Though Benjamin Franklin didn’t discover electricity, he brought new understanding to the concept that paved the way for today’s technology.

Benjamin Franklin’s interest in electricity began in the 1740s when he saw experiments being done in Boston. Since electricity was not understood at the time, Franklin’s letters to a fellow scientist in London containing his hypotheses and ideas about electricity—particularly his idea that lightning was a form of electricity—were revolutionary. The letters were published in a book in 1751, alerting the scientific community to his groundbreaking ideas. In 1752, Franklin performed his famous kite experiment, in which he tied a key to a kite and captured the electrical charge from lightning in a Leyden jar. Since he was working in a revolutionary field, Franklin had to invent all new terminology for the discoveries he was making. We still use these terms such as “battery,” “charge,” “positively” and “negatively” today. Franklin’s understanding of electricity led him to invent the lightning rod, which protects buildings from lightning.