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10 False History 'Facts' Everyone Knows

10

Ben Franklin Discovered Electricity Flying a Kite

Though he didn’t discover electricity, Benjamin Franklin coined most of the words we use today to describe it, including battery, conductor, and positive and negative charges. © Bettmann/CORBIS

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American statesman and Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin was a compulsive problem-solver. Among his many inventions were rudimentary "swim fins" — glove-like pads worn on the hands to increase speed. And then there are his famous bifocals, a simple solution to carrying around two pairs of glasses [source: PBS].

But one thing that he definitely didn't discover was electricity. Electricity was a known phenomenon in Franklin's day, although not completely understood. Franklin believed that electric current was a "fluid" that went from one body to another and that lightning was simply a more dramatic form of static electricity [source: Avril].

Did Franklin actually test his theories by flying a kite in a thunderstorm? No one is sure. We know that he published his groundbreaking diagrams for a lightning rod in May 1752, a month before his alleged kite escapade [source: Avril]. The main source for the kite story is Franklin's friend, scientist Joseph Priestley, who wrote about it 15 years later [source: USHistory.org].

From there, the tale took on its own life, depicted in paintings and sealed in American lore. In no version of the story, however, was Franklin's kite actually struck by lightning. That would have resulted in chicken-fried Franklin [source: MythBusters]. Instead, when a storm approached, Franklin noticed the hairs on the kite string standing up, indicating the presence of electricity in the air. When he touched the key tied to the string, it released a nice spark, sealing the deal [source: USHistory.org].

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