A thunderstorm is not the best weather for flying a kite. That is, of course, unless you're Benjamin Franklin.
One summer afternoon in 1752, Franklin and his son, William, did just that. As thunderclouds developed in the distance, the two ran to an open field to fly a kite.
You see, Franklin had a theory about electricity. He thought electricity and lightning might be the same thing. But he wasn't sure. So despite the possible danger, Franklin tested his theory on that stormy day with a special kite designed to attract lightning.
After all, that's what scientists do: They imagine the unthinkable, take risks, and try new things.
Benjamin Franklin might be best known as a politician and a printer. But he was also a scientist and an inventor. He was always tinkering with things. He was always experimenting.
When lightning struck his kite that day, sending sparks to a key in his hand, Franklin proved his theory. He now knew that lightning was an electrical phenomenon.
That discovery proved to be the beginning of other experiments and inventions.
Franklin invented lightning rods, which help keep houses and buildings safe from lightning; bifocal eyeglasses (with one part for close focus and another for distance); swim flippers, so people could swim faster in water; and a stove to efficiently heat small rooms.
Franklin was also one of the first people in the 13 Colonies to establish a lending library, a volunteer fire department, and a public hospital.
All of these innovations and improvements were the result of taking risks, challenging old ways of thinking, and looking for new ways to make everyday life easier. That's what Franklin did best.
But his true love was reading and writing. As a child, that often got him into trouble when he would skip church to read books and newspapers. But as he got older, it paved the way for his success in publishing and politics.
Born 300 years ago Tuesday - on Jan. 17, 1706 - Franklin grew up in a large, poor family in Boston.
From the age of 10 until he was 12, Ben worked in his dad's shop, helping make candles and soap. But he was smart, although he had attended only two years of school. So he was apprenticed to his brother, James, who was the publisher of a newspaper.
It was at his brother's newspaper that Ben created "Silence Dogood," a fictional widow whose name he used when writing opinion articles for the newspaper.
The Silence Dogood letters marked a turning point in Ben's life. Through them he publically expressed his political opinions for the first time.
Those letters, 14 in all, are still famous today. (You may have even seen a reference to them in the recent Disney movie, "National Treasure.")
Five years later, when he was 17, Ben had the courage to move to Philadelphia, where he started his own newspaper, the Philadelphia Gazette. He also printed the popular "Poor Richard's Almanack." Published annually, the book contained information on many subjects.
Some of Franklin's most famous sayings first appeared in that almanac: "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," and "If you would be loved, love and be lovable."
Through publishing, Franklin was able to achieve financial freedom and reach new audiences. That helped him devote much of his later life to politics.
Franklin was a skillful and energetic politician. He proved time and again that he wasn't afraid to take risks.
Franklin's first job as a politician was as Philadelphia's city clerk. From there, he rose to become Philadelphia's postmaster general and then deputy postmaster general for North America.
In 1775, the Revolutionary War began. The Colonies fought England for their independence.
At that time, Franklin was named a member of the Second Continental Congress. Over the next 13 months, he joined Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, John Hancock, and others in drafting the Declaration of Independence.
At the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, Franklin signed the Treaty of Paris. It officially recognized the Colonies as independent of England. Four years later, Franklin helped draft the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution's governing principles are still followed today.
Franklin was the only person to sign all three documents so important to our history. And in doing so, he helped forge a new, independent United States.
These actions were typical of Franklin's fearless approach to life: He stood in a thunderstorm to fly a kite to prove his theory of electricity; he left Boston for Philadelphia while still a teenager to start his own business; he printed articles that sometimes challenged public opinion. All of those things took courage.
That's what made Benjamin Franklin such a good scientist and inventor. And that's what made him such a great politician and leader: He stood up for what he believed in. And he wasn't afraid to express his views and to help create a nation.
Franklin invented swim flippers in 1717, when he was only 11 years old.
Check a book out of the library.
In 1731 Franklin established the Library Company of Philadelphia, the oldest lending library in America.
Prevent money fraud.
In 1739, Franklin was asked by the Pennsylvania Land Bank to print its bank notes. He was one of the first printers to use security features such as special dyes on paper money to prevent counterfeiting of bills.
Laugh at your favorite politician.
Franklin created the first political cartoon in North America. It was published in 1747 in a pamphlet called "Plain Truth."
Protect your house from lightning.
Franklin invented the lightning rod in 1750.
Collect insurance after a fire.
Franklin founded America's first mutual insurance company in 1751.
Use batteries to power a flashlight.
Franklin's famous kite-and-key experiment led to more discoveries about electricity. He learned that an electric current has a positive and negative charge. (That's why batteries have both a positive and negative side.)
Mail your best friend a birthday card.
When he was appointed deputy postmaster general of North America in 1753, Franklin made delivery routes more efficient.
Listen to Mozart and Beethoven.
In 1761, Franklin invented a musical instrument called a glass armonica. Music came from spinning various-size glass bowls dampened by water. This instrument inspired compositions by some of the world's greatest composers.
Enjoy the Fourth of July.
On July 4, 1776, Franklin was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Sources: www.gophila.com/pressroom; www.benfranklin300.org.
Many exhibitions will celebrate the Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary in the United States this year. These two have numerous learning activities and hands-on programs geared to kids.
"Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World" contains more than 250 displays. It is at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia through April 30. It then travels to St. Louis, Houston, Denver, and Atlanta, before concluding in Paris in December 2007. For more information, visit www.constitution center.org.
"Benjamin Franklin: In his Own Words" presents a collection of about 75 items, including personal essays, books, and maps from his private library. It is a part of the "American Treasures" exhibition at the Library of Congress in Washington through June 17. For more information, visit www.loc.gov/today/pr/2005/05-244.html.