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Benjamin Franklin's Contribution to Building

By Frank G. Ross


One of seventeen children born in Boston to a soap and candle maker, Benjamin Franklin became the most famous American of his time.  Although he only had two years of formal education, his spirit of life-long learning drove him to study a wide variety of topics including fire safety, public sanitation, improved heating methods, and of course, electricity.  He played many roles in his 84 years of life such as writer, inventor, diplomat, businessman, musician, humorist, civic leader and scientist.

Franklin was constantly trying to find ways to improve himself intellectually, morally and physically.  He was mindful of the “greater good” and made major contributions to modern building codes and the discipline of building inspection. 

Building codes exist to safeguard persons and property.  The strict fire, plumbing, electrical and building codes of today were unknown in Franklin’s time.  Much of what was believed about nature was based in superstition and folklore.  Benjamin Franklin’s work challenged these beliefs. 

For example, the link between health problems and exposure to lead was first observed by Franklin.  As a young man he obtained a position in a printing office in London.  While there he found that working with the lead type caused his hands to stiffen limiting his use of them.  When he asked others in the profession he found that they experienced the same thing.  And those printers who warmed the type before setting it sometimes lost complete use of their hands.  Ever afterward he worked only with cold type and encouraged others to do likewise.  This finding by Franklin and others is the basis of our modern day codes and safety guidelines regarding lead paint in homes.

As a practical inventor, Benjamin Franklin built devices designed to solve every-day problems.  In the spirit of sharing and improving conditions for all mankind, he never patented his inventions.  Because of his love for swimming and a desire to swim faster, he invented swim fins.  An avid reader, he also invented a more comfortable reading chair and a mechanical arm for retrieving books from high shelves.  Among his other developments were street lighting, the odometer, and bifocal glasses.  He is also credited with the idea of Daylight Saving time although he presented the suggestion in a humorous article to the Journal of Paris and probably did not intend for it to be taken seriously.

Franklin’s famous experiment with the kite and the key led to his invention of the lightning rod which remains largely unchanged in its design and is still in use today.  Many aspects of what he discovered about the nature of electricity can be found underlying modern practices.  More on this topic will be found in a future article.

The design of the Pennsylvania Fireplace (later called the Franklin Stove which is also still in use) arose from a concern for the disappearing supply of wood in the Philadelphia area and a desire to make a more efficient heating device.  Along the way Franklin learned much about fire safety which has also been passed down to us and will be addressed further in a separate article.

Benjamin Franklin was one of the most extraordinary human beings the world has ever known. His contributions are still alive in today’s building codes and are perpetuated by the various organizations that maintain them and the people who enforce those codes.  As a home inspector I am influenced by his legacy with each home I inspect, evaluating its various components and noting safety concerns.  I like to think he would have been pleased with how those who lived after him built on his ideas and improved our homes and buildings for the greater good.

Frank Ross is a Certified Utah Home Inspector for Pillar to Post Professional Home Inspection and a full member of the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors and a member in good standing with the Utah Better Business Bureau.  Readers may contact Mr. Ross at (435) 867-6400 or frank.ross@pillartopost.com

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