Waters run deep

Two and a half centuries ago American polymath Benjamin Franklin was trying to calm a fraught diplomatic situation with the UK – while also trying to calm the waters of the Lake District

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The Lake District has lots of curious American connections. From Tom Cruise to Taylor Swift, a number of notable Yankees have visited the region. Still, you might be surprised to learn that Benjamin Franklin, one of the US’s founding fathers, came to the Lakes just a few years before the Revolutionary War. I promise I’m not pulling your leg. This year marks the 250th anniversary of his visit.

Franklin came to the Lakes in 1772, and it’s a pity his visit hasn’t attracted more attention. Being a man of irrepressible curiosity, he was hardly an idle tourist. He explored the wonders of the region in the company of Sir John Pringle, a future president of the Royal Society, and Dr William Brownrigg, an eminent local chemist and physician.

These men of science clearly got on famously, despite the trouble then brewing between Britain and its American colonies. The three of them even found time to conduct an influential experiment that involved pouring oil into Derwentwater. Strange as it might sound, the story of that experiment is one well worth telling.

Franklin was a Philadelphian and it was in that city in eastern Pennsylvania that he made his name. Between 1757 and 1775, though, Franklin mainly lived in London, where he worked as a political representative near Whitehall. You can still visit his home at 36 Craven Street. It’s now the Benjamin Franklin House museum.

London, at the time, was one of the world’s great centres of scientific research. It was a place where inquisitive individuals and learned groups, like the Royal Society, were shedding new light on the forces of nature.

Franklin fit in naturally with such natural philosophers, as scientists were called back then. He was already a distinguished researcher in his own right, not least for his studies of electricity. He performed his famous kite experiment in 1752 and received the Royal Society’s most prestigious award, the Copley Medal, the following year.

Franklin was industrious during his London years. He seems to have been the sort of person who could find more hours than most in every day. Still, he also knew the value of taking time away from work, and he often took summer holidays.

Even when he was on vacation though, Franklin was rarely idle. His summer breaks were like sabbaticals. He used them to catch up on research and to visit remarkable places and people. It was just this sort of trip that brought him to the Lake District, where he stayed at Ormathwaite Hall, near Keswick, the home of Dr Brownrigg.

Dr Brownrigg may not be a household name today, but he was one of the most ingenious and influential Cumbrians of his age. He was born near Aspatria in the Allerdale district in 1711, and he studied medicine in London and Leiden. On returning to England, he moved to Whitehaven, where he opened a medical practice and conducted experiments to improve working conditions in the town’s coal mines.

By the time Dr Brownrigg settled at Ormathwaite Hall, his experiments had earned him a considerable reputation. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1742 and received the Copley Medal in 1765.

It was Pringle who arranged Franklin’s visit with this eminent man of science in 1772. Pringle wrote to Brownrigg early that summer to tell him of Franklin’s interest in coming north, and Dr Brownrigg seized the opportunity to invite both men to be his guests.

Franklin and Pringle stayed with Dr Brownrigg between late June and early July, and the three busied themselves exploring the region. They climbed up Skiddaw and they plumbed the depths of the Saltom Pit, Whitehaven’s undersea mine. Franklin was wowed by these adventures. Writing home to his wife Deborah, he exclaimed: “I have been nearer both the upper and lower regions than ever in my life before.”

But it was more than just a shared interest in mines and mountains that brought Franklin and Dr Brownrigg together. At the time, they were also both researching the physical properties of fluids. That’s what inspired Franklin to conduct an innovative experiment using oil to still the surface of Derwentwater.

People have long known that oil can calm water. Ancient Greek and Roman writers remarked on the phenomenon, so did the medieval monk and historian, Saint Bede. Even a thousand years after Bede though, the interaction of oil and water wasn’t fully understood.

Franklin got interested in the subject on his voyage to England in 1757. He was travelling in a fleet and he noticed that the water around two ships was much calmer than around the others. When he asked his captain why, he was told that the ships’ cooks had just tipped the “greasy water” out of their pots and pans.

Franklin was intrigued by this explanation, and he set out to study the phenomenon himself. He was keen to determine why oil should spread when dropped in water but not when dropped on smooth surfaces like mirrors and polished stone. He also wanted to determine whether pouring out oil could help ships make their way through rough seas.

With these problems in mind, he concocted an experiment that he first attempted on a pond on Clapham Common. On that occasion, he was astounded to observe how “not more than a teaspoonful” of oil “produced an instant calm” that spread over half an acre of the water.

I hasten to add Franklin wasn’t using petroleum. He was likely using olive oil.

In any case, Franklin’s investigation on Clapham Common allowed him to observe the behaviour of oil on a small body of water. His trip to Keswick presented the perfect opportunity to test his experiment on a proper lake and in the company of one of the nation’s most distinguished chemists.

So, one afternoon, Franklin, Dr Brownrigg and Pringle rowed out onto Derwentwater and tested the experiment. The lake, we’re told, was “in great agitation” but “was instantly calmed” to a “great distance about the boat” at the application of “only a very small quantity of oil”. The three men were, no doubt, pleased with this success, but they could only conjecture about the cause of the spectacle they had witnessed.

We wouldn’t know about this incident if it weren’t for the Reverend James Farish of Carlisle. He caught wind of the three men’s doings, and he begged Dr Brownrigg to send him a detailed account of what he called “the Keswick experiment”. At Dr Brownrigg’s request, Franklin provided an explanation in a letter that was subsequently published in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions in 1774.

Franklin repeated his experiment on three other occasions. The results in each case were inconclusive, but they helped him form a theory that went on to make waves of its own. His ideas about the interaction of oil and water helped pave the way for the modern study of intermolecular forces and fluid mechanics.

Since the publication of Franklin’s letter, moreover, the expression “to pour oil on troubled waters” has become a common figure of speech. Some of Franklin’s biographers have remarked that this is hardly coincidental. Franklin was, after all, also trying to calm a fraught political situation at the time.

In any case, Franklin’s experiment is important for other reasons. In terms of the Lake District’s history, it reminds us that the people who came to the region in the 1700s were not only drawn by the promise of beautiful scenery. They also came to see man-made wonders, like Whitehaven’s mines, and to meet eminent scientists, like Dr Brownrigg. Some of them evidently saw the Lakes less as a playground than as a laboratory: as a place to study the forces of the natural world.

This aspect of the Lake District’s history is the focus of an upcoming workshop and online exhibition, Benjamin Franklin’s Scientific Adventures in the English Lakes, which is being run as part of the 2022 Being Human Festival. Being Human is the UK’s national festival of the humanities, the study of human society and culture.

When viewed in the light of such projects, Franklin’s visit to the Lake District seems like much more than a curious episode in our local history. Rather, it serves as a reminder of the region’s longstanding reputation as a place of exploration, experimentation and discovery.

Dive in for lakes experiments

Benjamin Franklin’s Scientific Adventures in the English Lakes is being run by researchers at Lancaster University as part of Being Human 2022, with the support of the Royal Society, the Beacon Museum, Keswick Museum and the Benjamin Franklin House.

A free workshop suited to families is at Keswick Museum on 19 November. Participants will learn about the breakthrough experiments Franklin and his friends were conducting in the Lakes two and a half centuries ago.

Bookable sessions will run hourly from 11am to 3pm on the day. Drop-ins are welcome but the space for each session is limited. To reserve a space visit scientific_adventures.eventbrite.co.uk. 

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