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When Benjamin Franklin Tried To Electrocute A Turkey (And Failed Miserably)

There are a couple of ways to cook turkey. There is the safe way where you cook the turkey in the oven. But if you don’t want to cook the turkey the safe way, there is a dangerous way of cooking it, and that is by deep-frying it. High risk, high return, so they say. But if you’re not satisfied with the deep-frying method, then you can opt to a more dangerous method, and that is by killing the turkey by electrocution, which the Founding Father Benjamin Franklin did.

Franklin began to study electricity as he was approaching 40. His scientific interest on the subject was piqued when he saw a show by Archibald Spencer, a scientist/showman known for performing various parlor tricks involving electricity. Franklin was so fascinated by electricity that he tried to reproduce Spencer’s parlor tricks in his own home.

Through his experiments, Franklin was able to demonstrate that electricity consisted of a common element he called "electric fire," arguing that it flowed like a liquid, passing from one body to another. He studied how sparks jumped between charged objects, correctly concluding that lightning was merely a massive electric spark. And he coined several electricity-related terms we still use today: "charging," "discharging," "conductor," and "battery," for instance.

But the Founding Father did not yet find a practical application of his study, and this irked him greatly.

To that end, he conceived of throwing an electricity-themed dinner party. "A turkey is to be killed for our dinner by the electric shock, and roasted by the electrical jack, before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle," Franklin wrote to Collinson. Guests would drink their wine from electrically charged glasses so they would receive a subtle shock with every sip.

It was not clear if Franklin really did host such an elaborate dinner party, but at the very least we have knowledge that he experimented with electrocuting various fowl through the use of six-gallon Leyden jars.

A Leyden jar is basically a glass jar partially filled with water, with a conducting wire sticking out of its cork. The jar was charged by exposing the end of the wire to an electric spark generated by friction—created by, say, rotating a glass plate so that it rubbed against leather pads. There were no standard units of electricity back then, but modern estimates indicate that a pint-sized Leyden jar would have had the energy of about 1 joule.

While the electric shock produced was enough to kill chickens, Franklin was still frustrated as he found out that the turkeys recovered from the shock after several minutes. He had to combine several Leyden jars to successfully kill a ten-pound turkey.

But on December 1750, he would learn a lesson he wouldn’t forget.

Find out more about this story over at Ars Technica.

(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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