Thursday, December 22, 2011

Franklin on Electricity


Book, Franklin on Electricity 5th Edition

Ascension#: 1988.017

As members of the gentry, the Randolphs likely would have shown an interest in the scientific advancements of the day and owned copies of books that dealt with the subject.  This book by Benjamin Franklin, Experiments and Observations on Electricity, Made in Philadelphia in America, has a blue marbleized cover with Leather corners and spine. The edges of the book are also marbleized and on the front end sheet is a bookplate that reads “Buddle Atkinson presented 1898”. It is the fifth edition printed in 1774, which is actually a reprint of the fourth edition that was edited and footnoted by Franklin himself.

Benjamin Franklin was an apprentice to his older brother James in the printing business before going to work for William Bradford in New York and later Samuel Keimer in Philadelphia. Determined to start his own printing business, Franklin traveled to London where he secured employment sufficiently remunerative to set himself up back in Philadelphia by 1728. At the annual expense of approximately $80,000, he bought rags which he sold to paper mills which, in turn, produced the newsprint he required. By the end of Franklin's diplomatic service, some fifty-five years later, Pennslvania boasted a total of eighteen paper mills that had been established with Franklin's assistance, while his own press produced more than 850 titles of books and pamphlets. Nearly all of Franklin's work was done on an English Common Press, wherein each character was formed by an individual piece of type and produced by hand. Four to eight pages were usually printed on a single sheet of paper, which could be produced by two skilled workmen at a rate of four sheets per minute. By 1748 he retired from active participation in the printing business, turning management of the entreprise over to his partner, David Hall.

He concentrated his efforts on experiments conducted in his “electrical laboratory” where he built an electrical generator  and his electrical experiments drew ever growing crowds of curious spectators. He also wrote letters concerning this work to a number of correspondents including London merchant and naturalist, Peter Collinson, who collected them and subsequently had them published in three separate pamphlets in 1751, 1753, and 1754. By 1774, five editions had appeared, and by 1783 the work had been translated into French, Italian, and German. According to one historian, “Benjamin Franklin's Experiments and Observations is the most important scientific book of eighteenth century America and established Franklin as the first American scientist with an international reputation. In this famous treatise on electricity, Franklin outlined experiments which proved that lightning is an electrical phenomenon and deduced the positive and negative nature of electrical charges.”

In regards to when his papers on electricity were first published, Franklin remarked,

Obliged as we were to Mr. Collinson for the present of
the tube, etc., I thought it right he should be informed of our success in
using it, and wrote him several letters containing accounts of our
experiments.  He got them read in the Royal Society, where they were at first
not thought worth so much notice as to be printed in their Transactions.  One
paper, which I wrote to Mr. Kinnersley, on the sameness of lightning with
electricity, I sent to Mr. Mitchel, an acquaintance of mine, and one of the
members also of that society, who wrote me word that it had been read, but was
laughed at by the connoisseurs.  The papers, however, being shown to Dr.
Fothergill, he thought them of too much value to be stifled, and advised the
printing of them.  Mr. Collinson then gave them to Cave for publication in his
Gentleman's Magazine, but he chose to print them separately in a pamphlet, and
Dr. Fothergill wrote the preface.  Cave, it seemed, judged rightly for his
profession, for by the additions that arrived afterward they swelled to a
quarto volume, which has had five editions and cost him nothing for

Illustrations of devices used in his experiments with electricity were printed on the end sheet opposite the title page in the pamphlet published. Franklin was honored by the Royal Society of London with the Copley Medal for his experiments in electricity. The results of Franklin’s experiments led to the invention of the lightning rod which protects buildings and ships from lightning.

Printing press supposed to have been used by Ben Franklin in 1725-26


Bigelow, John“Benjamin Franklin Experiments with Electricity”. A project by History World      
            International. 21 Dec. 2011 <>.
Fish Durost, Bruce and Becky. Colonial Leaders: Benjamin Franklin: American Statesman,
Scientist, and Writer. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000.
Fleming, Candace. Ben Franklin’s Almanac: Being a True Account of the Good Gentleman’s
Life. New York: Athenuem Books For Young Readers: An Imprint of Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, 2003.
Gaustad, Edwin S. Benjamin Franklin: Inventing America. New York: Oxford University Press,
Krensky, Stephen. Benjamin Franklin. New York: DK Publishing, 2008.
 “18th Century Printing.” Crandall Historical Printing Museum. 21 Dec. 2011
“Ben Franklin Inventor.” Resources for Science Learning. 21 Dec. 2011
“Ben Franklin Facts: 27 Interesting Facts About Ben Franklin.” The Ben Franklin Busy Body. 21 Dec. 2011
“Benjamin Franklin-Scientist.” University of Delaware. 21 Dec. 2011

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Room for Guests


Birch Press Bed, c. 1810
Accession #: 1992.0002
Around this time of year the Randolphs would have been anticipating visitors for their Twelfth Night celebration which took place 12 nights after Christmas day. They prepared their house for the celebration not only by decorating, but also getting the bed chambers ready for guests who might stay the night. A press bed like this one might have been one of the pieces of furniture pulled out for use by the Randolphs’ guests. The family would have had this bed taken out from where it was stored to get ready for the guests who would stay at their house during the Twelfth Night celebration.
This one is a birch press bed, or folding bed, painted red with a shaped headboard. Press means “cupboard or cabinet”. The beds were called this because they could be easily folded and stored in these types of furniture when not in use. They became popular when carpenters designed beds to become part of the d├ęcor of the room. The beds could masquerade as wardrobes or sideboards, or be concealed behind bookcases or other furniture when not in use. Some folding beds were put behind curtains or had curtains hung on them when they were not being used as well. As one historian describes this, “The side rails had cleverly designed hinged joints very near the bedhead allowing the bed to be raised and hidden behind the curtains”. They were also ideal for houses with limited space. The Randolphs may have not had room for the number of regular beds necessary to accommodate their overnight guests.
The press bed would have solved this predicament for the Randolphs. It could be easily stored either in or behind a cabinet or clothes press or behind one until it was needed. Not made to impress the guests, the press bed nevertheless served as a comfortable place to sleep at night. It would remain against the wall until the visitor needed it. “Its hinged legs sit flat against the frame” waiting to be folded out while the rope, in the word of one writer, “pulled taut through holes in the frame [would] form a springlike netting”.  Beds which had ropes that had to be tied tight to support the mattress were thought to be where the expression “sleep tight” comes from. Roping could have been held by “small turned knobs” on the “better quality” beds which is like the one the Randolph's owned. Simpler ones just had holes through which the rope was strung. The straw, corn husks, or pine boughs stuffed mattress put on the birch press bed would have been a welcoming resting place for a guest of the Randolphs after a night of celebrating.
Come to Wilton to see how the Randolphs might have also decorated as they anticipated guests arriving for the Twelfth Night celebration. You can get a taste of what this night meant to the Randolphs by joining us for our Twelfth Night Ball, January 6th, 2012. Visit for more details.
Old and Interesting. “Box Beds, Bed Recesses, Press Beds, and Bedsteads”. 18 July 2007. 6             December 2011. <>.
Furniture Styles. “Early American Colonial Beds”. International Styles, 2011. 6 December 2011.             < >
Obbard, John W. Early American Furniture.  Kentucky: Collector Books, 2006.
"Projects from your workbench" Colonial Homes. July-August 1985.