That time Benjamin Franklin tried (and failed) to electrocute a turkey

In December 1750, Benjamin Franklin theorized that electricity could be used to tenderize meat, and tried to electrocute a turkey to prove it.

Enlarge / In December 1750, Benjamin Franklin theorized that electricity could be used to tenderize meat, and tried to electrocute a turkey to prove it. (credit: YouTube/HistoryPod)

In households across the U.S. today, people are busily preparing the traditional turkey for their Thanksgiving feast—usually in an oven, although more adventurous souls might risk personal injury and opt for a deep-frying method. But when it comes to risky cooking methods, Benjamin Franklin has them beat. The Founding Father once infamously electrocuted himself while trying to kill a turkey with electricity.

Franklin’s explorations into electricity began as he was approaching 40, after he’d already had a thriving career as an entrepreneur in the printing business. His scientific interest was piqued in 1743, when he saw a demonstration by scientist/showman Archibald Spencer, known for performing a variety of amusing parlor tricks involving electricity. He soon struck up a correspondence with a British botanist named Peter Collinson, and began reproducing some of Spencer’s impressive parlor tricks in his own home. “I was never before engaged in any study that so totally engrossed my attention and my time,” he confessed to Collinson in one letter.

Guests at Franklin’s home were frequently recruited for his experiments and practical jokes. For instance, he would have guests rub a tube to create static and then had them kiss, producing an electrical shock. He designed a fake spider suspended by two electrified wires, so that it seemed to swing back and forth of its own accord. And he devised a game dubbed “Treason,” whereby he wired up a portrait of King George so that anyone who touched the monarch’s crown would receive a shock. (“If a ring of persons take a shock among them the experiment is called the Conspiracy,” he wrote.)

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