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

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.

Looking for more fabulous content like this? You’re in luck - The Mental Floss History of the United States hits bookshelves near you on October 5th! If you pre-order, you’ll get three free issues of mental_floss magazine. Get all of the details over here.

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Medicine
Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

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NASA // Public Domain
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History
On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.

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