Ben Franklin on Cooking Turkey... with Electricity

By Meredith Mann, Specialist II
November 24, 2014
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

On Thursday, households across America will gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, with turkey taking pride of place on our Thanksgiving tables.  Baste, brine, deep-fry?  (But not frozen, please!)  The options for cooking a turkey are seemingly endless, but leave it to founding father Benjamin Franklin to invent one more — electrocution.

Cigarette card from the George Arents Collection featuring Benjamin Franklin

Title page from  New Experiments and Observations on Electricity 

We here in the Rare Book Division are big fans of Franklin — as a printer, key American political figure, editor, and author — so we have a number of texts he wrote or printed, including the third edition of Experiments and Observations on Electricity, first published in 1751, a year before his famous kite-flying experiment.

Experiments and Observations on Electricity is a collection of papers, mostly letters written by Franklin and his colleagues reporting the results of electricity-related experiments they conducted (pun intended). One such letter, from Franklin to Peter Collinson of London dated April 29, 1749, includes an intriguing conclusion:

“A turkey is to be killed for our dinner by the 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, under the discharge of guns from the electrical battery.”

I must not have been the only one whose curiosity was piqued by this passage because our third edition copy includes an added appendix, where Collinson passes along additional details he received from Franklin.  Collinson reports that Franklin was successful in killing the turkey using Leyden jars, and that “the birds kill’d in this manner eat uncommonly tender.”  But Franklin made another, more painful, discovery, as “he found, that a man could, without great detriment, bear a much greater shock than he imagined: for he inadvertently received the stroke of two of these jars through his arms and body, when they were very near fully charged.”  Committed to the cause of scientific inquiry, Franklin goes on to gamely describe the effects and injuries resulting from his accidental brush with electricity.

Appendix listing in the table of contents to  New Experiments and Observations on Electricity 

Franklin recounts the event in another letter to his brother, which you can read on the Massachusetts Historical Society’s website.  “I have lately made an experiment in electricity,” he says, “that I desire never never to repeat.”  In other words, don’t try this at home.