Bowers Museum opens exhibit about Ben Franklin

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Susan Valot/KPCC

A life-like statue depicting Benjamin Franklin during a famous speech stands at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. The Franklin exhibit will be at the Bowers Museum until March.

The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana is surveying the life and inventions of Ben Franklin, at least for a while. The museum has opened a new temporary exhibit about the famous American printer, inventor and founder of our country. It is the exhibit’s first and only stop on the West Coast.

The music of a glass armonica – an instrument Ben Franklin invented in the 1700s – drifts through the air of the Bowers Museum from a corner where one of the instruments sits. It looks like a piano with a cylinder of glass bowls. The armonica sits next to Franklin’s chess set.

Dr. Alan Houston is a Ben Franklin scholar from UC San Diego. He says Franklin loved to play chess. And he says the game offers insights into the inventor’s personality.

"He wrote an essay about the morals of chess – about how you can learn life lessons from playing chess," Houston says. "Like foresight – you have to plan ahead. You can learn temperance, to control your emotions, so you don’t get carried away. And all of that is really charming and nice, except it turns out that he was a very competitive chess player. And sometimes, when the other person had to leave the room for a moment, he would move the pieces around."

Franklin moved around a lot of pieces, especially on a printing press, laying down every single letter for the pages and pages he printed, including his famous “Poor Richard’s Almanac.”

The ink balls that Franklin used to apply the ink are here, next to a replica press.

Down the way, we find more evidence of the way Franklin influences our lives today. There is an old leather bucket for fighting fires and a “lion’s mouth” box to drop suggestions for new books to get at the library.

That’s because Franklin founded the nation’s first public lending library, the first American charity hospital, the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia and even America’s paper currency. Houston says those ideas sprang from Franklin thoughtful side.

"But his ideas took shape through practical activities," Houston says. "So we see the end result – the creation of a library company. What we don’t see is the background to that, his thinking about the problem of how do we encourage people to read? How do we make available more books to people? What kind of institutions do you need? And one of the things he did throughout his life that was really important is that he brought people together to address common needs."

One of those needs, Houston says, had to do with something we deal with every day: electricity.

"One of the things he did was to study electricity and make some basic discoveries about its character – and that’s where you get his coining of terms like 'positive' and 'negative,'" Houston says. "The other thing that he did that was really crucial is he established that atmospheric clouds and lightning were electrical phenomena. Nobody had known that."

Franklin proved that to people by using something called a Leyden jar and bells. He would connect the contraption to a lightning rod on his home.

The exhibit includes the old stuff, plus a modern replica so you can try it out yourself.

Houston picks up a modern Leyden jar. It looks like a metal pill bottle with a metal rod. He begins to slowly crank a plastic wheel.

"This is just a little electrostatic generator, so you got the fur and the non-conducting plastic. So we just collect a little electricity," he says.

Houston then sets the jar down between two bells with small hanging balls. The balls start swinging back and forth, making the bells ring. The energy to move the balls is from the static electricity.

And that's how Franklin proved to people who would visit his home that lightning was electrical.

After that, people installed lightning rods on church steeples to prevent them from being destroyed by lightning. Franklin’s lightning rod idea paved the way for modern skyscrapers.

Houston says he hopes people walk away from the exhibit with a better idea of the many ways Franklin worked to unite people behind ideas, both scientific and political.

"His Pennsylvania was filled – it was the most religiously, economically and socially diverse colony in North America and he had to learn to navigate that world," Houston says. "At the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, one out of three Pennsylvanians were native speakers of German. That’s stunning. So he’s living in a world that is like ours – multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic. And he’s trying to figure out – if we want to make it a better place, we actually have to learn how to work together."

The exhibit “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World” will continue at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana until mid-March.

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