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Newton’s apple, Franklin’s handkerchief?

May 19, 2009

Silk handkerchiefs! The perfect insouciant touch to a pocket.

And also essential equipment for the man of science. 

In 1750, Benjamin Franklin published a proposal for an experiment to prove that lightning is, in fact, electricity. This experiment involved flying a kite in a storm. Newton had his apple, but Benjamin Franklin had his silk handkerchief, without which this experiment would not have taken place (and without which the lightning rod would never have been invented):

TO PETER COLLINSON LONDON
Electrical Kite 

…Make a small cross of two light strips of cedar the arms  so long as to reach to the four corners of a large thin silk handkerchief; when extended tie the corners of the handkerchief to the extremities of the cross so you have the body of a kite, which being properly accommodated with a tail loop and string will rise in the air like those made of paper, but this being of silk is fitter to bear the wet and wind of a thunder gust without tearing. To the top of the upright stick of the cross is to be fixed a very sharp pointed wire rising a foot or more above the wood. To the end of the twine next the hand is to be tied a silk ribbon and where the silk and twine join a key may be fastened. This kite is to be raised when a thunder gust appears to be coming on and the person who holds the string must stand within a door or window or under some cover so that the silk ribbon may not be wet and care must be taken that the twine does not touch the frame of the door or window. As soon as any of the thunder clouds come over the kite the pointed wire will draw the electric fire from them and the kite with all the twine will be electrified and the loose filaments of the twine will stand out every way and be atrtracted by an approaching finger…

Memoirs of the life and writings of Benjamin Franklin
by Benjamin Franklin, William Temple Franklin, 1809

Pimpernel does not recommend that you try this at home as it sounds darn dangerous. As well as being ruinous to your silk handkerchief.

In 1788 the humble silk handkerchief was being used to make advances in the field of optics:

An optical problem proposed by Mr Hopkinson and Solved by Mr Rittenhoule:

The problem stated in this paper is founded on the following observation: Mr Hopkinson sitting at his door one evening in the Summer took a Silk handkerchief out of his pocket and stretching a portion of it tight between his two hands held it up before his face and viewed through the handkerchief one of the Street lamps which was about a hundred yards distant, expecting to See the threads of the handkerchief much magnified. Agreeably to his expection he observed the silk threads magnified to the Size of very course wires but was much Surprised to find that though he moved the handkerchief to the right and left before his eyes the dark bars did not Seem to move at all but remained permanent before the eye. This however apparently trifling is a curious phenomenon in optics and Mr Rittenhouse accounts for it scientifically upon the principle of the inflexion of light in passing near the Surfaces of bodies…

The English review, or, An abstract of English and foreign literature, 1788

Every gentleman, scientist and scholar appreciates the worth of a good silk handkerchief. (Unfortunately so does every pocket-picking scamp- keep a sharp eye out!)

Silk handkerchief pictures from the V&A museum

 

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