10 Things You Might Not Know Are at the Franklin Institute

The first-ever movies! Ben Franklin's sword! A really creepy automaton! And more wonders of the scientific world.

Philadelphia, USA - April 26, 2014. Facade of the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is the largest city in the State of Pennsylvania. The city attracts tourists with historic landmarks like Independence Hall and Fairmount Water Works.

The Franklin Institute | Photo by iStock.com/aimintang

All this week, the city has been celebrating its long love affair with science via the Philadelphia Science Festival, organized by the Franklin Institute. The event, now in its sixth year, has gotten so big — in 2015, 95,000 of us attended — that its signature Science Carnival has moved from the Institute to the Great Plaza at Penn’s Landing. It’s this Saturday, April 30th, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and it’s FREE!!! You’ll find more than 175 exhibitors presenting hands-on, family-friendly experiments and activities concerning everything scientific, from robotics to live animals to slime-making to helicopter tours. (They’re promising an “explosive grand finale moment” that we happen to know involves trash cans.) As a windup to the carnival, here’s a collection of oddities (not all are on public display) you might not have realized are housed at the Institute — testaments, all, to the enormous breadth of human curiosity and invention.

1. The Wright Brothers’ 1911 Model B Flyer. This model, the most-intact Wright Brothers airplane remaining in the world, was one of the first mass-produced aircraft. It was also the first to fly nonstop(!) from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. The Institute has an entire Wright Aeronautical Engineering Collection of artifacts that includes the detailed and exhaustive notebooks Orville and Wilbur used to record their wind-tunnel tests.

2. A Burroughs Adding Machine. Its inventor, William Seward Burroughs, was awarded the Institute’s Scott Medal in 1897 for this combined calculator/printer, which he created to alleviate the frustration he experienced as a young bank clerk trying to add long series of numbers. It “revolutionized the way entire industries and governments dealt with number sets,” the Institute says, even though it could perform only one mathematical function: addition.

3. Ben Franklin’s Glass Armonica. What, you might ask, is a glass armonica? Why, it’s a musical instrument invented by our own Ben Franklin (see and hear one here) that’s an improvement — a considerable one — on the old “Wet your finger and play the wineglasses” trick your weird uncle pulls out every Christmas Eve. Franklin originally dubbed his invention the “glassychord,” a marvelously suitable but, alas, now abandoned name. He debuted it in 1762 in London, in a performance by popular musician Marianne Davies. It was a hit — Mozart composed for armonica — but posed a problem: It was so quiet that it could barely be heard, and amplification hadn’t yet been invented. (There were other problems, too, including musicians who went mad and a child who died during a performance; more here.) That polymath Franklin wrote, “Of all my inventions, the glass armonica has given me the greatest satisfaction.”

4. Maillardet’s Automaton. This one’s a little weird. In the 1700s, the world was swept by a mania for mechanisms that mimicked human behavior. This automaton, built by 18th-century Swiss clockmaker Henri Maillardet, was programmed to write out three poems and draw four sketches via mechanical means. (A motor hidden in the base controls brass disks that cause a pen held by the figure to move from side to side and up and down via a series of levers and rods.) When donated to the Institute in 1928, the figure was clad in tatters, and its legs were missing. Once the machine was repaired and its workings were restored, it produced the programmed sketches and poems and added, in the margin of the last one, in French, “Written by the Automaton of Maillardet.” It has the largest memory of any such machine ever built.

5. Photographs of the first automobile in the world. According to the Institute, in the waning years of the 19th century, a third of all applications to the U.S. Patent Office were related to bicycles. The first automobile, in fact, was a bike — a tricycle built in Camden, New Jersey, in 1887 by the Northrup Manufacturing Co., equipped with a 2600 RPM steam engine and a boiler and fueled by kerosene. It must have been terrifying to ride.

6. Thomas Edison’s electric lamp. It was in his lab in Newark, New Jersey, that Thomas Alva Edison finally figured out how to create an efficient incandescent lamp, by heating a filament with electricity until it became so hot that it glowed. Edison stuck his filament inside a glass vacuum bulb — his lab included a glassblowing shed — so it wouldn’t melt or burn up too quickly. (He tested more than 6,000 different materials for the filament before settling on carbonized cotton.) The “electric lamp” in the Institute’s collection is dated January 27, 1880, and is instantly recognizable. Early in his experiments, Edison declared, “We are striking it big in the electric light, better than my vivid imagination first conceived. Where this thing is going to stop Lord only knows.” Indeed.

7. A moon rock. Well, do you have one? Do you? The Institute’s was picked up on the moon by astronaut Dave Scott during the Apollo 15 flight — the fourth mission to land men on the moon — in 1971.

8. The first motion pictures. We owe all our movies to a horse — or, rather, to the owner of a horse, Californian Leland Stanford (some school is named after him), who believed that at one point in its trot,  his favored racehorse, Occidental, had all four hooves on the ground at the same time. Stanford hired an Englishman, Eadweard Muybridge, who had been experimenting with photography, to take a series of pictures to try to prove this point. In June of 1878, Muybridge took the first successful fast-motion serial photographs, of a running horse and a trotting horse, at Stanford’s horse farm. He then went on a world tour to demonstrate his work. In August of 1883, the University of Pennsylvania stepped forward to sponsor Muybridge’s further experiments in the techniques and formed a university commission to supervise his work, considering which it’s amazing anything more ever got done. The Institute houses a vast collection of Muybridge’s photographic studies of humans and animals in motion.

9. Ben Franklin’s sword and scabbard. Sure, Ben was a lover, not a fighter. But he did have this fine silver rapier for when he needed a ceremonial specimen while serving at the court of France’s King Louis XVI (whose wife may or may not have said, “Let them eat cake”). The scabbard is engraved with Franklin’s name and the names of its subsequent owners, including Ben’s grandson.

10. A theremin. Another musical instrument, this one invented by a Russian, Leon Theremin, who patented it in 1928. A prototype synthesizer, it’s controlled by movements of the player’s hands without any actual physical contact with the machine; two antennae that sense the motion control oscillators, one for pitch and one for volume. The music it produces is really creepy and is sometimes used in movie soundtracks. (A critic once described it as a “cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it does not know how to get home.”) Only 500 of these were ever built, and only a handful are still in working order.

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