Classes educate, shock

The Baltimore Sun

Robert Morse, a physics teacher, considers Ben Franklin his lab partner. And the result is shocking.

"Ooh hoo, yes, good day!" Morse shouted yesterday as a spark leapt to his hand from a primitive battery during a duplication of 18th-century electric experiments at the Johns Hopkins University. "This is just the right size of shock to give a student."

During a conference of the American Association of Physics Teachers, Morse used household materials to re-create the discoveries of Franklin, the founding father and scientific pioneer.

His hope is that the other teachers, from all over the country, would show the experiments to their high school and college students and help them understand the process of scientific discovery.

The demonstration helped explain the role that the eccentric Philadelphia printer - one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence - played in the harnessing the electricity that freed America from candles.

As an audience of 20 watched, Morse, a teacher at St. Albans School in Washington, wrapped tin foil around the inside and outside of a plastic film canister. Then he filled the container with water from a beer bottle. And he punched a paper clip through the lid, so that it stuck into the water and protruded.

Of course, Franklin didn't have paper clips or any of this other modern stuff - he used glass jars lined with metal leaf to create some of the first batteries to store electricity, called Leyden jars. Morse explained that he wanted to use cheap, everyday materials that any kid could understand.

"What's fun about this is that electrostatics is the one fundamental force you can play with fairly simply and fairly inexpensively," Morse tells his class. "Franklin introduced the term battery because he used a battery of Leyden jars, like a battery of artillery."

As his fellow teachers built their own homemade batteries, Morse took a foot-long white plastic pipe and repeatedly rubbed it with a swatch of fake fur. He explained this generates static electricity.

Then he scraped the pipe along the paper clip sticking out of the film canister. Touching his thumb to the outside of the tinfoil wrapping, and his knuckle to the paper clip, a crackle of electricity jumps across.

"You might suggest that anyone who wears a pacemaker or is averse to getting a shock not do this," said Morse, 62. "In this litigious society, it can be enough that it surprises someone and makes them trip."

Next, he shuts off the lights in the classroom and touches a tiny neon light bulb to the battery. It flickers with light, demonstrating again that the battery is holding electricity.

Morse is author of an online book about Franklin's role in science, called Ben Franklin as My Lab Partner. It's available online, free, at

He told some of the history yesterday as he performed a variety of Mr. Wizard-like experiments.

Franklin, born in 1706 in Boston, was the 13th child of a candlemaker. He only had two years of formal schooling and failed math.

At the age of 18, he moved to England to learn the printing trade. Then he returned to Philadelphia, started his own printing business and made so much money he could retire at age 40 and spend his time on his true love: experimentation.

In addition to puzzling out the basics of how electricity works and conducting famous experiments with lightning, Franklin also invented a type of stove and wrote about earthquakes, comets, the northern lights and the effects of color on heat absorption, among many other subjects.

Dennis Robbins, a physics teacher at Manhattan Community College who attended the class, said reproducing Franklin's experiments will help his students understand how simple observations of nature can help unravel how science works.

"This will help them learn how to reason," said Robbins as he worked with a primitive generator of a type Franklin used. "It's the simplest things you can do in your classroom or at home."

Jeff Trinh Sy, a teacher at the Blake School in Minneapolis, said his students are vaguely familiar with Franklin as some "crazy guy" who did experiments with kites and lightning.

But they don't really think about the history of science or electricity, and they don't know that electrical charges are called positive and negative in part because Franklin's observations.

"My students will be very interested in the history of these experiments and where this science came from," Sy said.

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