The Time Benjamin Franklin Tried (And Failed) to Electrocute a Turkey

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Comstock

Benjamin Franklin loved electricity. He also loved the turkey. One day, he put the two together.

It all started as a party trick. Franklin had been dabbling with electricity for years, and he wanted to show off his newest electrical toys. On April 29, 1749, Franklin told scientist Peter Collinson about his dream to host the world’s first electric barbeque:

“A turkey,” Franklin wrote, “is to be killed for our dinners by the electrical shock; and roasted by the electrical jack, before a fire kindled by the electrified bottle.”

In the following months, Franklin spent his spare time electrocuting chickens and turkeys in his backyard with Leyden jars, primitive batteries that store static electricity. Toasting turkey, however, was hard. Most shocks knocked the birds unconscious, which freaked Franklin out, since they kept appearing to rise from the dead. But in the winter of 1750, Franklin finally fried a turkey, making him the first person to slaughter a living thing with electricity.

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On December 23, 1750, Franklin got a chance to show off his bird-obliterating death ray. A crowd gathered, the turkey was contained, and Franklin readied the lethal charge. Suddenly, a bright flash of light engulfed Franklin, shocking him senseless. The turkey gobbled away, and Franklin was numb for the rest of the evening. Although his chest was painfully sore, Franklin’s worst injury was a badly bruised ego.

He later wrote to his brother, “I have lately made an experiment in electricity that I desire never to repeat. Two nights ago, being about to kill a turkey by the shock from two large glass jars…I inadvertently took the whole through my own arms and body…Do not make [this] more public, for I am ashamed to have been guilty of so notorious a blunder."

But it did become “more public,” and it forever changed the way we eat.

In 1751, Franklin released his book Experiments and Observations on Electricity. In the Appendix, someone added all the embarrassing details of Franklin’s party-fail. The book fell into the hands of some savvy French chefs, who realized Franklin had accidentally discovered a way to tenderize meat: a strong electrical charge inhibits the effects of rigor mortis, making meat softer. Electricity has been used to preserve and tenderize meat products ever since.

And with that, Ben chalked up another feat for his “Yep, I invented that” list.

The Tumultuous History of Tinsel

PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images
PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images

When December rolls around, we find ourselves asking the same questions: What’s in figgy pudding? Why do I need to make the Yuletide gay? And what is tinsel exactly?

That last question is only slightly less mystifying than the first two. Many of us have seen tinsel—if not in person, then in one of the countless holiday movies and television specials that air this time of year. It’s the stringy, shiny, silvery stuff that’s hung up as decoration, primarily on Christmas trees. But what is it made of? And why is it associated with the holiday season? This is where the seemingly simple decoration gets complicated.

Tinsel is one of the cheaper items used to trim trees today, but that wasn’t always the case. In 17th century Germany, the first Christmas trees were embellished with tinsel made from real silver pressed into strips. These early Christmas trees were also decorated with real, lit candles, and the silver combined with the flickering firelight created a twinkly effect that worked as a precursor to modern-day string lights.

Silver tinsel did have its drawbacks. It was expensive, so only the wealthiest families had access to it. And those who did have enough money to own tinsel had a limited window to use it, as the metal often tarnished before December 25.

By the early 1900s, the Christmas traditions imported by German immigrants had become mainstream in the U.S. Americans were looking for affordable ways to beautify the evergreens in their living rooms, so manufacturers started making tinsel out of aluminum and copper. The updated decorations produced the same festive sparkle as the silver versions, but for a fraction of the price; also, they could be reused year after year. But they weren’t perfect: The aluminum paper in tinsel was extremely flammable, making it a disastrous choice for dry trees decorated with lights. When World War I began, copper production was funneled toward the war effort and tinsel disappeared from holiday displays.

Its absence turned out to be temporary. Despite centuries of hiccups, makers of holiday decor still believed tinsel deserved a place in modern Christmas celebrations. They just needed to come up with the right material to use, something that could be hung in every home without any backlash. In the early 20th century, the clear choice was lead.

Lead revived tinsel from obscurity, and soon it was embraced as a standard Christmas component along with ornaments and electric lights. It became so popular in the 1950s and ‘60s that tinsel is often thought of as a mid-century fad rather than a tradition that’s been around as long as Christmas trees themselves.

With so many synthetic decorations becoming available around Christmastime, tinsel made from metal was considered one of the safer items to have in the home. A 1959 newspaper article on holiday safety reads: “Tinsel is fairly safe, because even if kiddies decide to swallow it, it will not cause poisoning.”

As we know today, tinsel made from lead isn’t “fairly safe.” Lead that gets ingested or absorbed through the skin can cause headaches, vomiting, constipation, and in extreme cases, brain and kidney damage. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government started setting limits on how much lead can be in consumer products, and in 1972, the FDA came to an agreement with tinsel manufacturers that production of the lead product would cease.

It may not be as en vogue as it was 60 years ago, but tinsel still resurfaces every holiday season. So if the tinsel we use today isn’t made from silver, copper, aluminum, or lead, what is it? The answer is polyvinyl chloride. Industrial machines shred shiny ribbons of the plastic to make the wispy strands that add a bit of glamour to Christmas trees. Plastic tinsel isn’t as elegant as the kind made from real metal, and it’s lightweight, so it’s less likely to stay put after it’s hung over a pine branch. For these reasons, PVC tinsel never caught on to the degree of its predecessor, but it still succeeds in bringing vintage bling to the holidays without poisoning your family.

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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