Benjamin Franklin on killing and cooking a turkey with electricity (1748)

Benjamin Franklin

The polymath Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was not only a key figure in the founding of the American republic but an inveterate inventor. He was fascinated by the new science of electricity and spent much time trying to discover its properties. In 1748 he planned a series of “experiments” to amuse himself and some friends at a picnic on the banks of the Skuylkill river. This included killing and cooking a turkey for dinner:

Chagrined a little that we have been hitherto able to produce nothing in this way of use to mankind; and the hot weather coming on, when the electrical experiments are not so agreeable, it is proposed to put an end to them for this season, somewhat humorously, in a party of pleasure on the banks of the Skuylkill. Spirits, at the same time, are to be fired by a spark sent from side to side through the river, without any other conductor than the water; an experiment which we some time since performed to the amazement of many. A turkey is to be killed for our dinner by electrical shock, and roasted by the electrical jack, before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle; when the healths of all the famous electricians in England, Holland, France, and Germany are to be drank in electrified bumpers [toasting glasses], under the discharge of guns from the electrical battery.

In order to acknowledge Thanksgiving here in the United States we have a curious anecdote about Benjamin Franklin’s efforts to kill and cook a turkey using electricity. There was a playful side to Benjamin Franklin which is not as well appreciated as his activities on behalf of American independence. In an amusing letter to his friend Peter Collinson of Philadelphia in 1748 Franklin tells us about a picnic he was planning to hold on the banks of the Skuylkill river near Philadelphia. His aim was to entertain his friends by using electricity to set fire to flammable liquids, to kill a turkey with an electric shock and then cook it with electricity for their evening meal, to drink a toast to other experimenters with electricity in an electrically heated toasting glass (a “bumper”), and then to round off the evening with a series of explosions set off by yet more electricity. Amongst the playful, though sometimes dangerous fun, lies a very curious scientific mind who is here developing the concept for one of the most common appliances of the modern world, the electric oven.