Ben Franklin and the “Electric” Turkey

With the arrival of Thanksgiving, news outlets, blogs, and social media are once again abuzz with the perennial tale of how Benjamin Franklin opposed the choice of the bald eagle as an American symbol, preferring instead the wild turkey.

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly,” Franklin confided to his daughter in 1784.

“The Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America. … he is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage.” A dozen years earlier, Franklin had already evinced his dislike for the bald eagle, calling him “a tyrant.”

Yet, in a lessor known episode in his long, colorful life, Franklin was somewhat less charitable toward the turkey, even using the creatures for his experiments with the power of electrical charges stored in simple capacitors known as Leyden jars.

Discharging the Leyden jar

“My Respects to Mr. Watson. He desir’d you to enquire what Success we had in our Attempts to kill a Turkey by the Electrical Strokes,” Franklin wrote to one scientific correspondent in London.

“Please to acquaint him, that we made several Experiments on Fowls this Winter; That we found two large thin glass Jars … were sufficient to kill common Hens outright; but the Turkey tho’ thrown into violent Convulsions, and then lying as dead for some Minutes, would recover in less than a quarter of an Hour.”

Only by linking several Leyden jars together to substantially increase the charge did Franklin and his colleagues succeed. On one well-planned outing, Franklin led a celebratory picnic during which his friends toasted their fellow electricians worldwide with electrified gilt glasses and then slaughtered a turkey with an electrical charge and roasted it with electrical fire. “I conceit that the Birds killed in this Manner eat uncommonly tender,” he noted.

About usefuldrfranklin

Writer Jonathan Lyons explores the world of useful knowledge with Benjamin Franklin.
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One Response to Ben Franklin and the “Electric” Turkey

  1. amateur6 says:

    Sometimes his experiments didn’t go so well… as he wrote to his brother John, “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 containing as much electrical fire as forty common Phials, I inadvertently took the whole thro’ my own Arms and Body.” Oops.


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