History with Phil: Armonica was Franklin's most pleasing invention
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History with Phil: Armonica was Franklin's most pleasing invention

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Phil Connelly

Phil Connelly

Of the many inventions by Benjamin Franklin, the most curious has to be the Armonica (its name is based on the Italian word armonia which means harmony).

It’s a musical instrument made of blown-glass bowls mounted on a spindle which is rotated via a foot pedal. It is played with wet fingers to produce an eerie sound.

It belongs to a group of instruments called crystallophones, which trace their history back to the Middle east in the 14th century. Before Franklin’s invention, people produced a similar sound by running wet fingers around the rims of specifically shaped and sized glass bowls.

Over time, some disturbing incidents were reported regarding this instrument. Some Armonica players complained of muscle spasms, cramps, nervousness, and dizziness, forcing many to quit playing the instrument.

After an incident in Germany in which a child died during a performance, the Armonica was banned in some towns. Some thought the high-pitched, ghostly tones could rouse the spirits of the dead, drive listeners mad, or cause epileptic seizures. Composers Mozart and Beethoven actually composed music for this instrument. Of all of his inventions, Franklin stated this was his most pleasing.

Though widely believed, Franklin in fact did not prove that lightning was electricity, even though he was the first to posit the idea. What he did do was invent the lightning rod which is placed atop a building to protect it from a lightning strike. This was especially effective at protecting churches with their tall steeples.

Up until Franklin’s invention, churches had to rely on prayer to protect themselves, a relatively inconsistent method.

In the 1800s, lighting rods had become a decorative motif. Many were adorned with ornamental glass balls (also used in weather vanes and prized today by collectors). Interestingly, the main purpose of these balls is to provide evidence of a lightning strike by shattering or falling off. This alerts the property owner that a lightning strike has occurred, and he or she should then check the building, rod, and grounding wire for damage.

Although John Hawkins came up with the name of bifocals in 1827 when he invented trifocals, it was Benjamin Franklin who actually created them. Because he was both far and near sighted, Franklin set out to create glasses which would overcome both handicaps. After several years of experimentation, he succeeded in the early 1760s. However, because he believed inventions should serve others, he never patented his invention.

Franklin was just 11 years old when he invented swimming fins, which consisted of two oval pieces of wood that, when grasped in the hands, provided extra thrust through the water. He had this to say about his invention: “When I was a boy, I made two oval palettes, each about 10 inches long and six wide, with a hole for the thumb to retain it in the palm of my hand. While swimming, I pushed the edges of these forward and I struck the water with their flat surfaces as I drew them back. I swam faster, but the paddles fatigued my wrists.”

Franklin was motivated to come up with a better catheter after observing his brother enduring a kidney stone. Up to that time, catheters were rigid metal tubes. Franklin devised a flexible catheter made of hinged segments of tubes. After he had a silversmith construct his design, he promptly mailed it to his brother along with instructions.

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