A Founding Father of Weather

With Independence Day occurring at the end of this week, there is no better time to reflect back on one of the folks that helped to literally spark some life into the field of meteorology, Benjamin Franklin.  You’ve probably heard the story about how Franklin went about discovering if lightning was indeed electrical in nature by flying a kite with a key attached to a string.  However this jack of all trades made one of his first weather observations in October 1743 when he was hoping to see an eclipse of the moon in Philadelphia, PA.  But it was not to be as that evening featured a cloudy sky and storms that rolled through southeastern Pennsylvania , obscuring his view.  As the story goes, what intrigued him was that a few hundred miles away in Boston , people were able to see the eclipse without a problem.  That got the ball rolling, leading to Franklin taking more weather observations, eventually determining the movement of storms and that they can move in a direction different from that of the wind.  This helped to explain the track of nor’easters, which contrary to their names, actually track from south to north rather than moving in from the northeast.  From there, he gathered enough data over the weeks and months ahead to theorize about the existence of high and low pressure, which are the main centers of fair or stormy weather.

Of course his curiosity lead to not only developing such things as the lightning rod, which helped to save buildings and homes from being directly struck by lightning, but also to charting out the Gulf Stream along the eastern seaboard and including his first weather forecasts in his famous series of books called Poor Richard’s Almanac.  Later in life, Franklin conducted studies on the effects of volcano eruptions and its influence on weather patterns, cloud formation and cloud electrification.  He linked a volcanic eruption in Iceland in 1783 to a severe winter which took place in 1783-84 due to a reduction in solar radiation because of the ash and other pollutants catapulted into the air.  For a more recent link to weather and volcanoes in the modern era, we can look back on the effects of the Mount Pinatubo eruption in June 1991 and its influence on weather around the world in the year or so following. 


As mentioned, Benjamin Franklin was a jack of all trades, which not only included the creation of many inventions along the way, but also him being a guiding force in our country’s independence in 1776.  He was among the delegates that composed and signed the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776 and even designed the Great Seal of the United States 

I’m only scratching the surface when it comes to the great accomplishments by Benjamin Franklin.  But certainly without him, the science of meteorology would not have made as many strides as it did back in the mid to late 1700s to where we are today.  I was fortunate as a child to grow up just outside of Philadelphia and to make many visits to the Franklin Institute there in town, where science is a continuing learning experience.  And yes, they do take daily weather observations on the roof of the building and produce a daily five day forecast for the Philadelphia area as well.

For more information here are some links:
Ben Franklin-Weatherwise from PBS.org
Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia
Benjamin Franklin-Wikipedia
Benjamin Franklin-NASA Earth Observatory




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