ben franklin

in regards to your recent article about Ben Franklin, (

i read/heard recently that a group of scientists had actually attepmted Franklin’s famous kite experiment and proved that it didn’t work? is this true? adn if so doesnt this add weight to the argument that Franklin was nowt but a very good self marketer? (not saying that that is neccessarily a bad thing, indeed it takes rather alot of skill.) Also you said that Franklin was in a relatively rare profession (being a scientist) while Bill Bryson, in his book, A Short History of Nearly Everything reels off a substantial number of scientists (though by no means enough to consider it a popular activity.) that were active in Europe around the same time (again, don’t quote me on this as it has been a while since i read it.) or were you referring to American science?

your talk of the founding fathers also brought back to me some questions i had about a book i had read recently called The Scottish Enlgihtenment: The Scot’s Creation of the Modern World by Arthur Herman (i think, its been a while since i read it.) where he said that the back bone of George Washington’s army were Scottish (or essentially so, Ulster in Ireland was for a long time essentially a Scottish colony in Ireland), that nearly a third of those who signed the Decleration of Independence were Scottish and even (if memory serves) that it was in fact a ,scot who wrote the Star Spangled Banner! Now, even though i am Scottish, and as such, these allegations brought much comedy to nights out as i teased my American mates, i am wondering to what extent are these facts true and can i truly continue to undermine my pals’ patriotic tendancies? Or is he, as we say in Scotland, talking (pardon the language) shite?

in something almost entirely unimportant yet related, in the book the author says that (Scottish) settlers (in one of the Carolinas i think) named some sites in a rather crude (yet, in my opinion, rather funny) way, including, again pardon the language, Fucking Creek and (my favourite) Tickle Cunt Branch?

thanks for your time (should you have spent any reading this (im not too bothered :smiley: ))


I suspect you’ve read/heard something about Tom Tucker’s recent book Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and his Electric Kite Hoax (2003; in the UK, Sutton, 2004). It’s far from a new suggestion, even if it’s never gained significant acceptance, but Tucker argues anew that Franklin probably didn’t carry out the kite experiment. He’s mostly concerned with gaps in the available accounts, but part of his argument also involves, well, quibbling about the practicalities of the method as described. To his credit, part of Tucker’s research involved trying to test whether the kite could even have flown, though this doesn’t play a terribly prominent part in the book - see the comments by Shaun Carlson in this unconvinced review of it. Personally, these practical objections seem the sort of thing any intelligent experimenter might get round on the day.
They’re also slightly beside the point, since there are well documented instances of others repeating the experiment. It’s part of Tucker’s argument that the experiment as described is just far too dangerous for anybody sensible to have risked their life at, so the case he devotes an (interesting) entire chapter to is that of Rikhman in St. Petersburg, who got killed in the attempt. By contrast, he more-or-less skips over in a few sentences those cases where people flew electic kites, saw the spark and lived to report what they’d done.

I may as well note that Tucker’s broader argument about the chain of events doesn’t much convince me, though he makes plenty of interesting points.

It’s part of Tucker’s case that much of Franklin’s subsequent scientific reputation was PR. Though, in the context of the particular argument, most of what he alleges Franklin to have been doing would have been after-the-fact-spinning more than anything else.

The key word is professional/profession. There were relatively few positions available in 18th century science that would enable someone to live off the salary. Even if we include those who made their living through writing, the majority of prominent scientists in the period were still technically amateurs, in that it was other sources of wealth that were supporting their interest.
But Cecil’s phrasing is still murky, since Franklin was hardly a professional scientist either.