Monday, May 20, 2024

Benjamin Franklin claimed that birds killed by electricity “eat uncommonly tender.” This turkey was spotted in Lincoln in 2015, (Photo: Jeanine Farley)

Although we think of Ben Franklin as being a Philadelphian, he was born in 1706 in Boston in a two-room house across from the Old South Meeting House. He was the 15th of 17 children. When Franklin was 6, the family moved to a small dwelling near the Union Oyster House. As Franklin later wrote about this period: “I remember 13 sitting at one time at [my father’s] table.”

Franklin made his way to Philadelphia and, in 1749, wrote a letter describing an upcoming feast:

A turkey is to be killed for our dinner by the electrical shock, and roasted by the electrical jack [a device Franklin invented that rotated a turkey as it roasted], before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle.

The guests at this event also drank from electrified glasses, which gave them a mild shock each time they sipped their wine.

Franklin had earlier experimented with killing chickens and turkeys with electricity using 6-gallon Leyden jars – glass jars lined with metal foil on the inside and the outside to become capable of holding a significant electric charge. Franklin concluded from these experiments that this manner of death made fowl extremely tender, and using a Leyden jar he could kill a chicken easily enough. But a turkey “though thrown into violent convulsions, and then lying as dead for some minutes, would recover in less than a quarter of an hour.”

A Leyden jar has foil inside and out. A nonconductive stopper (often cork) covers the mouth. A brass electrode passes through the stopper, ending in a chain that touches the inner foil. To charge the jar, a person touches the electrode to a source of high-voltage static electricity. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Never one to give up, Franklin rigged together several Leyden jars to kill a 10-pound turkey. On Dec. 23, 1750, while demonstrating his turkey-killing procedure, Franklin accidentally touched the electrified wire intended for the turkey. He described what happened in a letter two days later: 

I have lately made an Experiment in Electricity that I desire never to repeat. Two nights ago being about to kill a Turkey by the Shock from two large Glass Jarrs, . . . I inadvertently took the whole thro my own Arms & Body, by Receiving the fire from the united Top Wires with one hand, while the other held a Chain connected with the outsides of both Jars …

I then felt what I know not how well to describe; an universal Blow thro out my whole Body from head to foot which seem’d within as well as without; after which the first thing I took notice of was a violent quick Shaking of my body … that part of my hand & fingers which held the Chain was left white as tho the Blood had been Driven Out, and Remained so 8 or 10 Minutes After, feeling like Dead flesh, and I had a Numbness in my Arms and the back of my Neck … Nothing Remains now of this Shock but a Soreness in my breast bone, which feels As if it had been Bruised … the whole was Over in Less then a minute.

Witnesses to Franklin’s turkey calamity said “the flash was very great and the crack as loud as a pistol.” An embarrassed Franklin asked his brother not the make the information public.

Franklin learned from this escapade, however – there’s a reason he was the first to use several words related to electricity that we still use today, including “positive,” ‘negative,” “charge” and “discharge,” and “battery” – and he took extra precautions not to be shocked during the thunderstorm kite-flying experiment we all learned about in school (or was it from cartoons?). 

A wild turkey in Belmont in November 2020. The fleshy appendage over the beak is called a snood. Its purpose is to catch the attention of a mate. (Photo: Richard George)

When Franklin flew that famous kite, he rigged it with a wire at the top pointing up near a thundercloud. He figured that the static electricity in the cloud would be attracted to the wire and flow down the hemp kite string toward the ground. But Franklin had learned a lesson from his turkey mishap. He feared that if he held the kite string, he might be harmed when electricity passed through his body. To prevent this, he tied a silk ribbon to the hemp string. He knew that dry silk was a good insulator, so if he held the silk rather than the string, he hoped he would not be shocked. Of course, he didn’t know for certain, as no one had done this before, but he hoped he was correct. To keep the silk ribbon dry, Franklin flew the kite from the doorway of a shed. 

A male turkey displays its tailfeathers in Cambridge’s Coolidge Hill on May 1. Its beard, which looks like a horsetail, can be up to 10 inches long. (Photo: Richard George)

With the help of his son, Franklin got the kite airborne. After a long, long wait, loose threads on the hemp string began to stand erect. Franklin moved his knuckle near the key. The negative charges in the static electricity were attracted to the positive charges in his knuckle. He felt a static shock. Just as he had expected: Static electricity did move down the wet string to the metal key; it did not move down the silk ribbon to his hand. Franklin then maneuvered the key to the electrode at the top of a Leyden jar, where he “collected electric fire very copiously.” Franklin had captured his electric charge.

A wild turkey peeks through the grass in Boston’s Forest Hills in July 2021. (Photo: Richard George)

Franklin wrote instructions for recreating the experiment: 

As soon as any of the Thunder Clouds come over the Kite, the pointed Wire will draw the Electric Fire from them, and the Kite, with all the Twine, will be electrified, and the loose Filaments of the Twine will stand out every Way, and be attracted by an approaching Finger. And when the Rain has wet the Kite and Twine, so that it can conduct the Electric Fire freely, you will find it stream out plentifully from the Key on the Approach of your Knuckle. At this Key the Phial [Leyden jar] may be charg’d; and from Electric Fire thus obtain’d, Spirits may be kindled, and all the other Electric Experiments be perform’d.

Contrary to popular belief, Franklin’s kite was not hit by lightning. If this had occurred, the silk ribbon would have been of little use, and Franklin could have been killed.

The moral of the story: Roast your Thanksgiving turkey in your oven, or fry it in a fryer if you want, but stay away from Leyden jars.


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Jeanine Farley is an educational writer who has lived in the Boston area for more than 30 years. She enjoys taking photos of our urban wild things.