Ben Franklin Invented the Stun Gun ...sort of
by Kirk Lawson
Driven in large part by the Supreme Court decision that the Second Amendment does encompass these tools, more and more cities nation wide are reversing their bans on electric self defense devices known as "Stun Guns." Washington D.C., Tacoma, New Orleans, Baltimore, and others are all jettisoning their bans on this common self-defense tool.
While this development is generally cheered in the self-defense community, not everyone is happy to see the bans fall. There are many anti-self-defense people who loudly assert first, that this is a very bad thing, and second, that the Second Amendment couldn't possibly cover electric stun guns because, they didn't exist at the time of the founding. "The Founding Fathers," so the argument goes, "couldn't have imagined electric stun guns, and they certainly didn't exist, so the Second Amendment couldn't possibly cover them." In fact, in arguing before the Supreme Court, the State of Massachusetts asserted that electric stun guns are "a thoroughly modern invention." That's a compelling argument, except for the fact that it is demonstrably WRONG.
Maybe these anti-self-defense advocates just slept through their class on American History, or perhaps it wasn't a unit in their class (they did have an American History class, right?), but the Founders did, in fact, know about early forms of the technology.
The truth is that humans have been noodling around with electricity for untold ages, perhaps dating back to hundreds of years B.C., as evidenced by the "Baghdad Battery." By the time of the American Revolution, there had been many years of "let's make electricity" research and experimentation which had promoted it to a true field of study for academics and inventors, of which Benjamin Franklin was assuredly one. You remember the famous lighting storm and kite story, don't you? Right.
[Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-30750]
In 1744 a german named von Kleist invented a kind of capacitor using a glass jar containing roughly one gallon of water or alcohol, a cork and a nail. Supposedly he and his colleagues learned the hard way to treat his invention with respect because, if mishandled, it could "throw them across the room." These early capacitors are generally known as a Leyden Jar. It is important to note that, while not the size of a cell phone, a gallon jar is still very portable.
[Inventor Andreas Cunaeus charges Leyden jar]
By 1751, Franklin was experimenting with Leyden Jars to electrocute Turkeys and hens for dinner. While some of the birds were killed by one shock, some were only stunned, "The turkeys, though thrown into violent convulsions and then lying as dead for some minutes, would recover in less than a quarter of an hour," according to William Watson who reported the event.
But that was just Turkeys, right, not people? Well, if you want to ignore the earlier reports of von Kleist... still no. In 1750, Franklin himself wrote a letter in which he reported stunning himself accidentally with Leyden Jar experiments: "The Company present (whose talking to me, and to one another I suppose occasioned my Inattention to what I was about) Say that the flash was very great and the crack as loud as a Pistol; yet my Senses being instantly gone, I neither Saw the one nor heard the other [...] I then felt what I know not how well to describe; an universal Blow thro'out my whole Body from head to foot [...] that part of my hand and fingers which held the Chain was left white as tho' the Blood had been Driven Out, and Remained so 8 or 10 Minutes After, feeling like Dead flesh..." Apparently he was sore for a week.
Even the term "battery" itself, as now applied to electric storage devices, has a distinctly military origin. It is commonly believed that Franklin applied the term to a chain of Leyden Jars connected in series to increase their output because their organization reminded him of a battery of cannons.
So did Franklin invent the stun gun? Well, maybe. Maybe it was von Kleist or perhaps some other inventor. In any case it pays lie to the claim that stun guns are "a thoroughly modern invention" or that the Founders couldn't possibly have imagined using portable electric devices to stun people. Couldn't imagine it? Heck, they EXPERIENCED it!