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Thumbs-up for hands-on museum

The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia has exhibits from planes to trains and all scientific gadgets in-between. The best thing is, you can touch them.

The gigantic human heart that children love to race through . . . The gold pendulum that swings in the staircase to prove the Earth rotates . . . The massive locomotive that occasionally rolls several feet along its track . . . the huge marble statue of Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin Institute was largely interactive long before "hands-on" became a buzzword in museum promotion. Its philosophy is that people learn best by doing.

With its neoclassical exterior, the museum is a grand place filled with exceptional exhibits on four levels. On a recent return visit, I was determined to see the museum at a leisurely pace. Even after six hours, I still didn't see and do everything.

Franklin Institute is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, but it has not been a museum all that time. It began as a school to teach science and technology in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. It became a museum 65 years ago. Now it teaches science and technology to many more people, in a less formal and more entertaining fashion.

The institute is the third most popular attraction in Philadelphia, after Independence National Historical Park and Philadelphia Zoo, said Tony Sorrentino, the institute's public relations director.

About two-thirds of the museum's 875,000 annual visitors are in school groups, Sorrentino said.

"This institute spans from the industrial age to the digital age," he said. "Science and technology are still critical, if not even more critical, to our future. We want to make sure our kids are literate in it."

He added that children love exhibits such as the train and the heart. Children also love climbing into the cockpit of a real T-33 Air Force jet trainer and hanging on ropes that allow them to move and even lift up to 500 pounds.

Sorrentino said children especially enjoy the weather and astronomy exhibits because "you don't have to be a scientist to go outside and look up."

He said the museum added the giant-screen IMAX movie theater and planetarium laser shows choreographed to rock music to attract teenagers and young adults.

Franklin Institute claims the East Coast's largest public observatory, which has two telescopes, and the second-oldest planetarium in the United States.

The institute's pendulum, a 900-pound steel sphere on the end of an 85-foot-long wire, hangs through three floors. The swinging ball knocks down pegs on the first floor compass dial every 20 to 25 minutes.

At the top of the pendulum stairs on the third floor is what looks like a Rube Goldberg roller coaster for golf balls. The intricate contraption seems to symbolize the museum, because you have to slow down to really enjoy it. The balls meander down different paths, clinging, clanging and clunking as they go.

The exhibit is called "Newton's Dream," Sorrentino said. "Sometimes we call it Newton's Nightmare, because when we try to close at 5 o'clock, people just stop and stare at it. They become entranced. It's hard to get them to move."

The museum's fourth floor, smaller than the rest, has the observatory, math and astronomy exhibits and a ham radio station staffed by volunteers.

On some sunny days, visitors can look through the observatory's telescopes to see filtered views of the sun, and possibly see sun spots and solar flares.

Nearby, visitors can touch a meteorite and see a moon rock.

Also on display are a 19th century mechanical man, an 1890 typewriter, a prototype model of a pedal-powered overhead railway and a 1947 7-inch TV, one of the first portables.

Sorrentino said mechanics hall, where you can move weights, may be the most interactive part of the museum. "It's more than hands-on. It's bodies-on. It teaches the laws of physics so simply."

Franklin Institute's main floor, the second floor, has enough exhibits to create a museum by itself.

Part of a new exhibit devoted to Franklin tells the story of the Institute and the history of scientific progress in the United States. Artifacts include Thomas Edison's light bulbs, a movie projector from 1896 and a mechanical TV set from 1931. Franklin Institute has some of the earliest TVs built. The first electronic television demonstration was done here in August 1934.

The popular walk-through heart exhibit is 220 times larger than a human heart. Near the heart are real human hearts and lungs, preserved in plastic. You also can look in a screen to see how you might look in 20 years.

In the aviation hall is a Wright Model B, the first airplane manufactured in quantity by the Wright brothers. It is one of 40 built between 1909 and 1911.

In addition to the Wright plane and jet trainer, the hall displays a helicopter, a glider and an experimental aircraft. Outside the museum is Pioneer, the first stainless steel airplane, built in 1931 by Budd Manufacturing Co. of Philadelphia.

On the first floor, the 101-foot-long Baldwin locomotive goes 12 feet forward and 12 feet back four times a day. It is "powered" by electricity, not steam. Smaller, older locomotives in Railroad Hall include the Rocket, built in London in 1838 and used by Reading Railroad between Reading and Pottstown.