Lightning tour

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Carolyn O'Grady follows pupils on a visit to Benjamin Franklin's London house, where he mixed diplomacy with science

Pupils from Sir William Burrough Primary School in Tower Hamlets are waiting in the basement of 36 Craven Street in central London. Suddenly the door opens and in wafts a stately woman in 18th-century costume: a long, apricot-coloured dress and a tall wig. Jaws drop as she introduces herself as Mrs Polly Hewson, daughter of the owner of the house and wife of William Hewson, pioneering surgeon and anatomist.

She has come to take them on a tour of the house and to tell them about an American lodger who stayed there between 1757 and 1775. He was, says the actor, Dr Benjamin Franklin, scientist, inventor, philosopher, diplomat, writer, deputy postmaster general for the colonies, and later signatory of the American Declaration of Independence. During that time this narrow, wood-panelled house became the de facto American embassy in Britain.

The house belonged to Polly's mother, Margaret Stevenson, and is the world's only remaining home of the American founding father. Restored by the Friends of Benjamin Franklin House, it was opened as a museum on January 17, Franklin's 300th birthday. The William Burrough pupils are at the house for a two-hour workshop, targeted at key stage 2.

Here, while mediating between Britain and America during a turbulent time, Franklin pursued his love of science and other subjects. He invented bi-focal lenses and explored the effects of lightning. Having watched people play notes on wine glasses, he created the glass harmonica, an example of which is kept at the house. He also had letters and articles for his Craven Street Gazette and led a full social life, forging friendships with leading figures of the day.

"Polly Hewson" is a lively commentator, and curious about the 21st-century visitors from Sir William Burrough: "Does America still belong to England?", "Have you adopted Franklin's ideas for a revised alphabet?", "Do you still have to store candles?" She plays games to test their observation and illustrate Franklin's work on the Gulf Stream.

Split into groups, they take part in three activities. Apart from Polly's tour, there is a visit to the discovery room, mainly devoted to William Hewson, who ran a school for anatomists in the house; basement excavations in 1998 revealed more than 1,200 bones, apparently discarded after dissection. Children play games at the computers, dress up as skeletons, arrange "bones" and relate them to a model showing lungs, heart and other organs. Education officer Ana Doria Buchan gives a demonstration of Franklin's experiment which led to the invention of the lightning rod. She then introduces the Tesla coil (apparatus that converts electricity into a high frequency, high voltage form and pumps it out into the air with the same effect as lightning).

Using this and a model of Franklin with his kite, preceded by a "don't try this at home" warning, she shows what happened when Franklin flew his kite during a lightning storm, and then illustrates why it is metal rather than other materials that conducts electricity. Pupils jump as electricity flashes and crackles. The session ends with the children practicing a bottom-in-the-air posture which could best protect vital organs against lightning if they had no way of avoiding it. Elsewhere, Polly Hewson is saying farewell to her group: "It's good to have visitors; it can be lonely in this house," she laments, before wafting away.

lSchool visits to Benjamin Franklin House are free. Teachers have a choice of three demonstrations: the lightning rod; the glass harmonica and canals

On the map

Benjamin Franklin House 36 Craven Street, London WC2N 5NF Tel: 020 7930 9121 www.benjaminfranklinhouse.org

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