January 17, 2006 is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Ben Franklin. You can definitely say that this year, the Tercentenary of Benjamin Franklin's birth, will be "..all about Ben.."!
Although kite fliers celebrate his kiting prowess, evident long before it was cool to be known as a kite flyer, there is more to Ben than a couple of dramatic events with kites.
Sure, he was daring enough to dangle a key from a wet cotton kite line as the kite itself danced in the electrically charged thunderclouds overhead. Truly a shocking thing for a kite flyer to do even if it was an attempt to prove a scientific theory. Today, we all pull our kites in at the first sign of approaching heavy weather since we are well aware of the inherent dangers of hanging on to a line as we stand on 'the ground' while our kite is gathering positive electrons in the upper air.
We also applaud his dramatic use of a kite to pull him across a pond on a glorious summer day. To show his casual confidence and panache, Franklin attached the kite to his toe as the forces of kite traction were harnessed in an elegant manner. Surely reading this bit of history cannot be where Peter Lynn had his Eureka moment that led to kite boarding and his new "Kite-Cat"!
Yes, indeed, Benjamin Franklin does inspire we modern day kiters.
However, 2006 is all about Ben for more than the kite related escapades that we revere. This year Ben is celebrated because of his huge contributions to so many innovations and principles that we take for granted today.
To properly celebrate his genius, achievements, inspirational leadership and legacy a special foundation was created. The Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary is a private, non-profit alliance established to mark the three-hundred-year anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s birth (1706-2006) with a celebration dedicated to educating the public about Franklin’s enduring contributions and inspiring renewed appreciation of the values he embodied.
So, as much as we kite enthusiasts would like to celebrate him as a brilliant man who saw the virtues of being a kite flyer, we have to be realistic and acknowledge that his claim to fame and his impact on his times was founded on more than his kite adventures.
For a great review of Benjamin Franklin's life through the lens of a kite historian, visit Margaret Robinson's thorough article on his life and contributions. Entitled "Kites in the Age of Reason". The article was originally published in KITING, The Journal of the American Kitefliers Association, Spring 2002, Volume 24, Issue 1. Meg gives a detailed outline of his life and places due emphasis, for kite afficionados, on Franklin's use of the kite in pursuit of theories of electricity in an age when all of these concepts were just being explored.
Of particular interest to kiters is the web page entitled simply "Franklin's Kite" Here we can see in a laboratory setting how kites can attract electricity and the rather dramatic effects of the spark. In particular, it is worth downloading the video clip of a kite being struck by simulated lightning. If ever you doubted the safety reasons behind getting your kite out of a bad weather sky, this will 'charge' you to think again!
Now, just when we were pleased that such a notable person as Ben Franklin used a kite in the famous electricity experiment, I have to rudely tug on your kite line. Tom Tucker, in his 2003 book Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and His Fabulous Kite, strikes out at the notion that Franklin actually conducted his celebrated experiment with the kite and lightning. Dr. Tucker, a lecturer and historian at the Isothermal Technical College in North Carolina, first began to suspect the story while working for NASA. Tucker examined the original documents, and found that accounts by Franklin were vague about when and where the experiment was performed. He then went on to try to replicate the experiment, safely of course, using materials available in the mid-18th century.
Dr. Tucker finally concluded that it could not have been done. Tucker stated: "I followed the design of the kite and tried it several times - and it just wouldn't fly." ... "Even if it had, there was no way it could have reached the heights needed to draw electricity from thunderclouds." (See: "Benjamin Franklin 'faked kite experiment' - based on an interview with Dr. Tom Tucker by Robet Matthews, Science Correspondent, London Telegraph.)
Now that is something to contemplate. Tucker goes on to conclude that Franklin's scientific theories about electrical energy in the atmosphere were academically sound. Small comfort for kite fliers who see one of our iconic kite pioneers challenged in such a way.
It has been said that Benjamin Franklin is one of the most significant figures in history. Certainly, judging by the vast array of books about his life and accomplishments, it must be true. Many noted historical biographers have written fascinating and detailed accounts about him. During the Franklin Tercentenary it will be possible to learn a good deal more about his life. Major documentaries, travelling exhibitions, and numerous journal articles will be easily available for your enlightenment. Just reading all of the entries served up in a Google search could prevent a kite flyer from ever having time to attend a kite festival this year.
Those of you who are kite builders might want to build a kite just like the one that Ben supposedly used in 1752. PBS, in their web site devoted to Benjamin Franklin, show how to build a kite like Franklin's in detailed steps using materials similar to those available inthe era. Now that is a worthwhile tribute to one of our earliest kite pioneers in this year that is '... all about Ben!'
References and Resources:
Asimov, Isaac. The Kite That Won the Revolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1963.
Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin (1st Ed.). New York: The Viking Press, October 1938.
Eden, Maxwell. Kiteworks: Explorations in Kite Building and Flying (1st Ed.). New York: Sterling Publishing Inc., 1989.
Fay, Bernard. Franklin, The Apostle of Modern Times (1st Ed.). Boston: Little Brown & Co. November 1929.
Hart, Clive. Kites: An Historical Survey. New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, (c) 1967.
Larsen, Egon. Ideas and Invention. London: Spring Books, 1960.
Yolen, Jane. World on a String: The Story of Kites (1st Ed.). New York: World Publishing Co., 1968.
Ellis, Steven. "What Didn't Ben Franklin Do?" Web site of The Christian Science Monitor. Jan. 16, 1006.