The Debunker: Did Benjamin Franklin Invent the Franklin Stove?

by Ken Jennings

Lord Almighty, I feel my temperature rising. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, July is the beginning of the “dog days” of summer, the hottest period of the year. But you know what’s cool on a hot day? Knowledge. Grab a tall glass of lemonade, settle down in a hammock under a shady tree, and let Jeopardy! wunderkind Ken Jennings set you straight on some shamefully persistent misinformation about hot stuff.

The Debunker: Did Benjamin Franklin Invent the Franklin Stove?

Benjamin Franklin was certainly one of the great inventors of his time, and his lively intellect led to a series of innovations we still benefit from today: bifocals, the lightning rod, the flexible urinary catheter. Yes, every time an old person is able to finish their Sudoku while not getting struck by lightning and/or peeing his hospital bed, we have Ben Franklin to thank.

healthy, wealthy, and warm

But strangely, the one invention that most famously bears the Philadelphia printer-diplomat’s name is not really a Ben Franklin joint. He did invent a metal-lined stove in 1741 that he called the Pennsylvania Fire-place, which he hoped would heat a room more efficiently and with less smoke than previous stoves. The only problem with the “Franklin stove” was that it sucked. Or rather, that it did not suck. Franklin’s design relied on an “inverted siphon”—a U-shaped duct connecting the stove to the flue—but the longer duct produced a poor draft. Franklin’s brother spent decades trying to get the stove to catch on, but sold only two.

Forty years later, a colleague of Ben’s named David Rittenhouse simplified Franklin stove into an improved design: angled sides to radiate more heat into the room, and an L-shaped exhaust pipe to vent out the smoke. He called his invention the Rittenhouse stove, and it became ubiquitous on both sides of the Atlantic. But do we call his brilliant gift to humanity the Rittenhouse stove? We do not. We still call it the Franklin stove. Even in colonial America, fame was a powerful currency.

Quick Quiz: What company, famous for its lanterns and camping stoves, was named for its founder, a businessman who was mayor of Wichita, Kansas in the 1920s?

Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.