Saluting The Father Of Invention

The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is opening a major exhibit to honor Ben Franklin whose 300th birthday comes next month.

One of Franklin's biographers says the father of invention changed the world in many ways, reports CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer.

Of all the founders, it was Ben Franklin – his wit, charm, and that practical side which produced so many of his inventions – who would have been most at home in modern America.

"He was such a practical person, an inventive person, an ingenious person, that he really was able to apply science and make our lives better," says Franklin biographer Walter Isaacson.

Isaacson says Franklin approached science as he did everything else: with gusto. The remarkable thing is he came up with so much that we are still using two centuries later.

"He would say, 'What's hard to do?' and he would say, 'Okay, let's make glasses better, let's make a Franklin stove so we can heat our houses better,'" says Isaacson. "He even invented a device that could take down books from a top shelf with a little hand on it because he was always looking for ways to make life more useful, practical and better."

In science, his greatest contribution was his groundbreaking work on electricity.

"The electricity experiments were awesomely important. They were to that century, the 1700s, what Newton and gravity was to the century before," Isaacson says.

Franklin proved that electricity came from mixing positive and negative forces, which he then harnessed in a layden jar – work that led to the modern-day battery, a word he actually coined.

"What it does is each one of these layden jars collects a bit of electricity," says Isaacson of the first battery. "They get it from the electrostatic machine and they sort of tie them all together and soon you have a very big charge."

It laid the groundwork for perhaps the most important find of Franklin's life – lightning was the most destructive force of his time. He designed the famous experiment using a kite and key and string to prove that lightning was not an act of God, as many believed, but actually pent-up electrical current. To this day, the lightning rod is a critical part of everyday life.

"It makes him not only a great hero in America, but all over Europe where they first did the lightning rod experiments," Isaacson says. "He's the most famous American, because he tamed lightning."

But for all his scientific work, to Americans his greatest work is what he did to help shape the American Constitution.

"He realized when he wrote the Constitution that compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies," Isaacson says. "It sure held together for centuries."
  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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