On this day in 1752, Benjamin Franklin flies a kite during a thunderstorm and collects a charge in a Leyden jar when the kite is struck by lightning, enabling him to demonstrate the electrical nature of lightning. Franklin became interested in electricity in the mid-1740s, a time when much was still unknown on the topic, and spent almost a decade conducting electrical experiments. He coined a number of terms used today, including battery, conductor and electrician. He also invented the lightning rod, used to protect buildings and ships.
Most significantly, Franklin was one of the founding fathers of the United States and had a career as a statesman that spanned four decades. He served as a legislator in Pennsylvania as well as a diplomat in England and France. He is the only politician to have signed all four documents fundamental to the creation of the U.S.: the Declaration of Independence (1776), the Treaty of Alliance with France (1778), the Treaty of Paris (1783), which established peace with Great Britain, and the U.S. Constitution (1787).
Brother Benjamin Franklin became a Master Mason at St. John’s Lodge in Philadelphia in 1731. He was a very active Freemason his entire life, eventually becoming Master of his Lodge and later, in 1734, the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. In 1749, he was appointed Provincial Grand Master of Massachusetts. He also visited the Grand Lodge in England and was accepted as a member of the influential Lodge of the Nine Sisters (or Nine Muses) in Paris, where he assisted with the initiation of Voltaire as a Master Mason and helped in the election of such influential members as John Paul Jones. It seems unusual that a man such as Benjamin Franklin would join Freemasonry. He was an innovator, an inventor—someone who was always at the forefront of new ideas and new philosophies, yet the organization he joined, and so faithfully served, was an organization all about tradition and ancient ritual.
Perhaps Franklin saw Freemasonry as a model of what a proper governing body should be; in fact, inferences about Freemasonry and the development of the ideals in the United States have been made before. Lodges have always elected their own leaders and practiced tolerance of all religious beliefs. Whatever it was that Franklin admired in the organization, he never tried to change it. In fact, Franklin worked hard to preserve it by helping to create the by-laws of the St. John’s Lodge in Philadelphia and by printing the American Constitutions for Freemasonry.
The epitaph he wrote for himself only very slightly disguises the Masonic theme of immortality which our legend attests and that he believed:
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Franklin died at age 84 on April 17, 1790, in Philadelphia. He remains one of the leading figures in U.S. history.