History of the U.S.: A Ridiculously Long and Incomplete List of Things Ben Franklin Invented

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We all remember Ben Franklin as a pretty bright guy who discovered some pretty important stuff. The real question is, what didn’t this polymath genius invent?

1742: Observing the wasteful use of firewood in inefficient colonial fireplaces, he designed the Franklin Stove, which used its iron body to diffuse a much larger proportion of the heat. The stove enabled poor families to save money and be warmer in the winter.
1749: Noticing that lightning was attracted to metal and tall objects, Franklin hit on the idea of attaching vertical metal rods to the tops of tall buildings to attract the lightning, thus sparing the roof a direct hit.
1752: To prove that lightning was static electricity, Franklin carried out his famous kite experiment with the help of his young son William (nobody ever said he was a responsible parent). He conducted an electrical charge from a key along a wire into a primitive battery. Franklin and son were lucky to survive; in following years, a number of scientists who tried to replicate Franklin’s experiment were killed by lightning.

1752: To allow his brother to urinate while suffering from kidney stones, Franklin invented the first flexible urinary catheter used in North America.

1763: Franklin, who had been appointed postmaster of Philadelphia in 1737, came up with the odometer. The complicated device composed of three interlocking gears was attached to the wheel of postal carriages in order to figure out the distances traveled by postal officers.

1770: He named and described the “Gulf Stream”— the giant Atlantic current circulating between the Gulf of Mexico and the west coast of Ireland— and correctly identified it as the reason the voyage from Britain to America took longer along certain routes. British admirals ignored his findings and then came up with the same answer several de cades later.

1784: Troubled by being both near- and far- sighted at the age of 78, Franklin improved spectacles by inventing the “bifocal.”

1786: To reach merchandise on high shelves, he invented a pole with a claw at one end operated by handles at the other— a device still used at corner bodegas everywhere.

1787: Although he never actually built them, during one of his eight Atlantic crossings, Franklin came up with a design for watertight bulkheads that would help limit flooding below deck if a ship’s hull was breached.

Along the way, he also helped develop America’s first fire department, the first library, and the concept of daylight saving time. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Ben Franklin the inventor was his refusal to patent any of his ideas, so that the widest possible number of people could benefit from them.

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September 28, 2010 - 8:20am
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